W T Stead






Like rock and roll and hamburgers, the British imported spiritualism from the Americans. In 1848 the Fox sisters set the ball rolling except the ball was an apple. They tied one to a piece of string and faked knockings on walls. The Fox sisters called the knockings on the wall rapping. The three sisters were white Americans from New York but rapping had to start somewhere. In 1888, Jack the Ripper committed what is believed to be his final murder.  In the same year and after a decent career as mediums the Fox sisters admitted that the calls from the spirits were phoney. British mediums also endured accusations of fraud. It did not help that the more successful practitioners were those that were more likely to be exposed. Evidence against spiritualism accumulated, and communicating with the dead became less fashionable amongst the educated.   It may be just a coincidence but at the end of the 19th Century and, as interest waned in spiritualism, beards on Victorian men became shorter.

Robert James Lees remains known because of an exaggerated connection to Jack the Ripper. He has been recreated as a character in at least three Jack the Ripper movies. Actors play him as a bohemian non-conformist outsider but Lees worked for four years as a journalist. He spent two years on the Manchester Guardian before moving to London where he met W T Stead the hard headed campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. The two men had an interest in social reform and spiritualism.  They became friends.  The desire to communicate with the dead has attracted sincere enthusiasts, cynical charlatans, the misguided, the deluded and those who have a gift for clairvoyance that is beyond explanation.  In the Victorian age spiritualism became an industry. It could only be sustained through fakery.


There were more women spiritualists than men but the blokes earned more money and were able to cultivate celebrity.  Audiences were likely to regard women as more sincere and spiritual but both genders felt the need to add show business tricks. Victorian spiritualism allowed the convincing female mediums to establish independent and well-remunerated careers.  The popular mediums would hold séances and charge a guinea a person.  Discount rates were available for block bookings of ten or more. In response to the Jack the Ripper murders some mediums held séances to seek advice from the spirits. Nothing of worth came from the séances but it filled a couple of theatres.

Not all the objections to spiritualism were scientific. Powerful men objected to women becoming economically independent and famous. Insecure and indulged Victorian males were not ready for women with psychological powers that gave them influence and confidence. There also existed rivalries, which meant that mediums were content for their rivals to be exposed or rubbished. The market provided affluent customers. Money being spent meant that there was always competition for business. Confessions and retractions like the one made by the Fox sisters in 1888 weakened the industry and confirmed the doubts of not just the critics but also disillusioned many of the devotees.


If spiritualism today is obliged to convince and suggest the authentic, in the Victorian age customers wanted the spectacular. Listening to knocking on the table somehow lacked long lasting appeal. Mediums forgot about the apples of the Fox sisters and added other effects to their armoury. They became possessed by spirits and spoke in voices that sounded different from their own. Levitation, movement of furniture, chemical explosions and the appearance of supposed spirits were popular tricks. The performances were enhanced by the skills of conjurers and magicians.   How and why fairground deceits invaded respectable and affluent homes is not so mysterious.

Today young people take drugs. Some stay the course but most relent. Others are changed by the discovery of something hidden and let it change their lives. The drugs change but the belief amongst many that they should be tried persists through generations. Cocaine replaced LSD after the sixties, and the Ouija board progressed from a pen and paper to a designer object. The Ouija board has had as many versions as the Apple smart phone. Since their introduction in the 15th Century the design of Tarot cards has been consistent but it was in the Victorian age that they became popular. The Victorians enjoyed the benefits of technology, and imperial conquest gave them Captain Kirk confidence to seek other frontiers.  Aldous Huxley would have approved.


The doubters wanted the spectacular tricks to be performed in controlled conditions. The mediums were affronted and claimed they needed a sympathetic environment. Purists assumed that this meant a dark sitting room but the real entertainers took their shows on the road. Sympathetic environments apparently included a theatre and paying audience, and that weakened both the argument and the product. The same thing happened later in rock and roll. Audiences like big spectacular shows but the critics and the sniffy want small-scale authenticity.

Even before she became controversial, Florence Cooke had a gift for entertainment. In her séances she would disappear into a cabinet and reappear as the ghost Katie King. Sometimes she would use an accomplice. Katie was a lively spirit. In one séance she levitated above her guests, and her clothes fell to the floor. In others she would flirt with the male guests and let them kiss and fondle her. Séances could be sexy. For the pious a dark room, teasing behaviour and a women in charge meant immorality. Florence Cook agreed to perform séances in the home of eminent physicist and chemist Sir William Crookes. The spiritualist convinced Crookes that Katie King was a genuine spirit but later other mediums revealed how she had tricked Crookes. It did not help that Crookes was short sighted and reluctant to wear glasses. The defenders of Cook insisted that they had seen two women in séances but her reputation suffered. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the exposure of Florence Cook caused irreparable damage to the practice of spiritualism.   His arguments in favour of the mediums became less passionate. Charles Dickens also attended séances but he was not as persuaded as Conan Doyle, and his interest in spiritualism waned. He tried it because that was what people who had money and curiosity did in the Victorian age. Spiritualists were invited to both Buckingham Palace and the White House.   In Russia the mystic and holy man Rasputin thumbed a lift on a cart and took his spiritual powers to St Petersburg. What happened next is well known. Interestingly, he had a really long beard.



Robert James Lees was born in 1849 and in the small Leicestershire town of Hinckley. The locals are unpretentious, friendly, support the Leicester football team and voted in large numbers for Brexit. Not a lot happens in small town Hinckley. This may be why a blue plaque has been attached to the home where Robert James Lees was born. Historical plaques are normally restricted to eminent Victorians or dead rock stars from the sixties. In 1888, Lees was living in London. His diaries record that he contacted policemen in both the City Police and Scotland Yard and suggested that his skills as a clairvoyant might be useful in locating and identifying Jack the Ripper.   The offer did not attract interest from within the two police forces.   And that is the extent of the involvement of Robert James Lees into the investigation of Jack the Ripper.


The rest is made up nonsense. Again, like rock and roll and hamburgers, it was imported from the USA. A reporter for the Sunday Times Herald in Chicago claimed that Lees had seen a man board an omnibus in Notting Hill and disembark at Marble Arch. Lees had a vision that the man was Jack the Ripper. At some point Lees managed to convince the police that his vision had merit. Lees led the police to the fashionable home of the man from the omnibus. The police discovered Sir William Gull the physician to the Royal Family and, presumably after a confession, put him inside a lunatic asylum.  This invention has supported other conspiracy theories. It has provided added detail for allegations against the freemasons and allowed some to claim that Jack the Ripper was the Duke of Clarence. Even by Ripper standards the inventions are thin. Gull was infirm and too weak to kill anyone. The Duke of Clarence liked to spend his wealth abroad and is disappointingly absent around important events like murders and a marriage he was supposedly anxious to conceal. The report from American journalists that Lees left London because he was unable to endure terrible visions of the Ripper victims being slaughtered is also an invention.


Robert James Lees died in Leicester. He was 81 years old. It is tempting to imagine an old radical with clairvoyant gifts dying peacefully in his sleep.   His name rather than his spirit lives on in Ripper novels and movies. This may be fitting for a man who was able to see into the future or, because his character was reinvented, nothing more than an irony.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.







Sir Charles Warren earned early fame by leading an archaeological expedition in Palestine. He explored the tunnels below Temple Mount and discovered a water shaft that either he or someone named the Warren Shaft. His surname somehow fitted something underground. Whatever else happened down there amongst the tunnels did his back and spine no harm.  In the photographs we have of Warren the posture is always rigid and upright, and most of the time he looks straight at the camera.   The gaze dares us to blink.  He has the eyes of a man whose curiosity yearns for conviction. Sir Charles Warren was a freemason of senior rank. Rather than a burden the weight of his uniform and medals appear to confirm for him a belief in masculine worth. This is a man who spent all his life endeavouring to offer a legacy. The eyes and posture demand both admiration and acknowledgement.   Most of the time it happened for Sir Charles Warren. He liked to serve and to be served.

His life contained enough adventure to inspire several movies.  Warren was 27 years old when he led the dig in Palestine. The title of his account refers to his exploration as ‘the recovery of Jerusalem’. Before that Sir Charles spent four years surveying Gibraltar.   In less than careful hands those two movies of his adventures could possibly be a little dull. The next adventure, though, was a cracker. In 1880 Warren was posted to Sinai to investigate what had happened to the archaeological expedition of Professor Edward Henry Palmer. After discovering that Palmer and the rest of the expedition had been murdered Warren located the dead bodies and captured the killers.   Four years later he also led the successful Bechuanaland Expedition.  The main objective was to establish British sovereignty but Warren also settled local conflict and in his favour he did it without killing people.


The glory did not last. In 1885 he failed to be elected as a Liberal MP in the Sheffield Hallam constituency.   Twelve months later he was appointed Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis. The initial consensus was that he ‘was the right man for the job’. The right wing press relished his success as an imperial adventurer. The left welcomed a man whose campaign to be a Liberal MP had advocated radical reforms. Because of the subsequent failure to identify or capture Jack the Ripper, Warren lasted for just two years as head of the Metropolitan Police.   After this less than successful attempt at law enforcement Warren had a long career and one more military escapade in the Second Boer War. At this point the reputation of Warren really did go down hill although it did involve him and a lot of other men going uphill but perhaps not as far as they thought.

The Battle of Spion Kop Hill took place on the 23rd and 24th of January 1890.   A simple account proclaims that he took the Hill but was obliged to yield when the Boers attacked on the second day.   The fastidious object that the position he occupied on the Hill was not the summit and that enemy troops occupied parts of the Hill above the British. The same British troops were also in the firing line of Boer artillery.   What happened during those two days has been debated. If what happened was a military misjudgement, there were others besides Warren who were culpable.   Historians have been reluctant to suggest that the British were suckered into a trap but simple cynics do wonder.


Opinion is also divided about the performance of the Metropolitan Police during the two years Sir Charles Warren was Commissioner.   Warren had obvious skills. He had the technical eye that helped him survey Gibraltar and lead archaeological digs but also a capacity for adventure. In the bureaucratic role of Commissioner, though, these skills may have been redundant. Reports about the man depend on a number of people and are inconsistent, yet all are agreed that Sir Charles Warren was an early riser and had a capacity for hard work. He was supposed to have been a disciplinarian. Those who liked him claim he had a sense of humour and cared about his men. His difficulties were with his peers or rivals and with those to whom he reported.   The ambitious pragmatists, the other bureaucrats, described him as prickly.   His relationship with Henry Matthews the Home Secretary was difficult and produced more than one threat of resignation from Warren.   The resignation that eventually ended his role as Commissioner supposedly happened because he had written about his lack of control of the CID.  By expressing this opinion in public Warren had breached protocol.   Bruce Robinson in They All Love Jack claims that this explanation is bogus and that Warren was fired because of his inability to capture Jack the Ripper. This may or may not be true but the official reason for the resignation is not without credibility. What happened to Warren feels like the consequence of a power play within a bureaucracy where there was conflict between departments.


Warren became a Knights Templar in 1863. His enthusiasm for masonic history led him to dig below Temple Mount and find the foundations that he believed had been built by the masons employed by King Solomon. His life had the symmetry of a game of billiards. He was born in quiet Bangor in North Wales and died at the age of 87 in select Weston-super-Mare. In between he bounced around the world. He was married to one woman for over 50 years and he abstained from alcohol. His allegiance to freemasonry has done no harm to the conspiracy theories that exist about whether Jack the Ripper was an assassin acting on behalf of the establishment.


In the Ripper investigation, Warren made five significant decisions. None enhanced his reputation. He used bloodhounds on the busy streets of London and somehow imagined that the dogs would be able to ignore the confusing scents from busy streets and trace the escape route of the killer. He authorised a house-to-house search that discovered nothing but at least was well received by the residents of the East End. His offer of a pardon to any accomplice of the Ripper was ridiculed. Finally, he allowed a reward to be paid for information about the crimes.   This decision like the arrival of extra police on the streets followed prevarication and did little to affect the outcome of the investigation.

None of these initiatives appear to have been inspired by the thinking of Warren. He was responding to pressure from concerned citizens.   Before the end of his tenure as Commissioner he was regarded as a martinet bereft of ideas. If the weaknesses exist, Warren has to be given credit for his loyalty to those in his police force who were also culpable and ineffectual. He did not search for scapegoats or attempt to deflect blame. The conflict with James Munro about who managed the CID was an argument about the organisation of police. Warren was not making excuses for the failure to catch the Ripper.   His decision to wipe away the famous writing left in Goulston Street, though, was not his finest moment.


In the year before the Ripper began his crimes Warren had already lost the support of the left wing press. Bloody Sunday happened on the 13th of November 1887.   The Metropolitan Radical Association with the help of other socialists and radicals organised a mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square against about just everything that the poor, unemployed and homeless had to endure. The crowd in Trafalgar Square has been estimated as somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people.   W T Stead the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette described the behaviour of the police as brutal and unprecedented.   Two men died during the demonstration, and around a hundred people were sent to hospital with injuries. Compared to what happened at Peterloo almost 70 years earlier the casualties were modest. In that demonstration 15 people were killed and 400 injured. This time there was no cavalry charge but witnesses claimed that only good fortune prevented mass slaughter.   Warren may have been a Liberal but he was not sympathetic to anarchists. The violence on Bloody Sunday, though, did not happen because Warren had a wilful desire for order and lacked sympathy for the plight of the demonstrators. Unlike his successor as Commissioner, James Monro, Sir Charles Warren did permit demonstrations by the poor, the oppressed and the disenchanted.


Warren was educated at Cheltenham College and Sandhurst.  As a young man, he entered the Royal Engineers and acquired the nickname Placid Sapper. At some point he grew a full moustache. He never stopped being an enthusiast. In retirement he helped Baden Powell to form the boy scouts movement.  We neither know what happened to the conscience of Sir Charles Warren nor what he thought about the lives that were lost in London and elsewhere.  He remembered his work as an archaeologist and cartographer and left some of his memories behind in seven books.  He is buried alongside his wife in the churchyard at Westbere, Kent. While Fanny Margaretta Haydon was alive she gave birth to four children. The pub in Westbere was opened in 1348. Today it has real ale and a decent menu.


Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.