Efforts to link the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 to Freemasonry are nothing new. A four-part "docutainment" on British television in the early 1970s first floated the notion, which was then turned into a sensationalist book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, by author Stephen Knight in 1976. This was followed by the 1978 movie, Murder by Decree, starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, where Masonic connections to the killings were also alleged.
Now a new movie in the genre is upon us. It is from a major Hollywood studio and is being released nationally in mid-October 2001. Titled From Hell, it features Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, both popular stars, so the film is sure to gain a wide audience. "Coming Attraction" trailers have already appeared in many theaters, and they raise concerns among Masons. The film may already be at your local theater.
In this short article, I hope to provide sufficient information for Brethren to put the movie in context and to address questions that may be raised by worried friends or relatives.
As unlikely as it may seem, From Hell is not simply a product of Hollywood greed or opportunism. It is based on a remarkable "graphic novel," of the same name, by writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell. Graphic novels, a fairly new phenomenon, are pricey novel-length comics, most often published in quality paperback format and usually aimed at a teen or adult audience. From Hell, an engrossing retelling of the Jack the Ripper chronology, is possibly the most prominent graphic novel yet published. It weighs in at over 500 pages of a detailed story, with an additional 42 pages of notes and annotations, where Moore explains some of the more obscure details of Ripper history and gives reasons for choosing among the dozens of competing theories of who did what when.
This is important to note because, despite the reputation of comic books for shallow plots and characters, From Hell, the graphic novel, is a multi-layered story that is more akin to the complex novels of Thomas Pynchon than to the simple comics of Walt Disney. Moore conducted exhaustive research on the Ripper mystery, as the annotations indicate, and then proceeded to construct a dramatic and fantastic tale, which he is careful to distinguish as speculative fiction.
Unfortunately, the Ripper theory Moore found most inspiring, for dramatic purposes, was that put forth in Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. In brief, Knight alleges that the Ripper killings were performed by one William Gull, ordinary physician to Queen Victoria, and supposedly a Mason. Victoria's dissolute son, Prince Edward Albert (or "Eddie") supposedly fell in love with a prostitute from London's White Chapel slum, secretly married her, and sired a daughter. In order to avoid royal scandal and political turmoil, Gull was dispatched to quiet the mother and eliminate any leaks. The Ripper killings, supposedly, were directed at a small circle of prostitutes who knew of the Prince's doings and engaged in petty blackmail over the fact.
But where, one might ask, does Masonry come into this? Connections are suggested by the nature of the killings, which at first glance bear some resemblance to certain traditional Masonic penalties every Mason should know are entirely symbolic. Dr. Gull, so the theory goes, went off the "deep end" in the course of his tasks and enacted them as a mad, drawn-out, Masonic ritual. Highly placed Masons in the government and police, in order to avoid their own scandal, engaged in a cover-up of the killer's identity.
Moore and Campbell took this theory and embellished it further with meditations on London architecture, magical rituals, and British class conflicts. The result is a gripping historical fantasy, which, in due course, found its way to Hollywood, as gripping fantasies sometimes do. Which brings us back to the present and the challenge presented by From Hell, the movie.
The last decade has seen British Freemasonry increasingly under accusations of favoritism among Masons in the courts and police. Calls for the registration, public listing, and even banning of Masons from certain positions, have caused the United Grand Lodge of England to reverse its decades-old policy of meeting all attacks with silence. A greater openness and efforts at better helping the public understand what the Craft stands for have begun to turn the tide. But given this context of widespread suspicion and Masonic defensiveness, From Hell may pack a bigger punch than would otherwise be the case.
American and Canadian Masons, who pride themselves on a relatively classless society, may have trouble grasping the position that Masonry occupied in 19th century Britain, where a largely upper-middleclass membership and Royal patronage contributed to a perception of Masonic elitism—a perception that is still evident in current attacks. Whitechapel, the London slum where the Ripper killings took place, was mere blocks from London's corridors of perceived power, but the social gulf between a respectable Mason and the Ripper's victims was vast. Unsolved murders breed suspicions of cover-ups, and who better to blame cover-ups on than those with the power to order them?
Still, the fact remains that the Knight theory of Masonic involvement hangs on the allegations of one man, Joseph Sickert, who claimed he had learned the "truth" from his father, Walter Sickert, a well-known painter of the late Victorian era. Joseph Sickert later recanted his allegations, but a good conspiracy theory is hard to kill. Almost all serious Ripper researchers have repudiated or disproved the Knight theory, yet it remains the most beguiling because it purports to tie together motive, means, perpetrators, and victims in a neat package. Actual history is rarely so tidy.
What is the best response to the movie From Hell? Alas, some early suggestions, such as an organized boycott of the film, might well be counter-productive and merely play into the hands of those who already believe that Masonry is throwing undue weight around. Authors and artists have the right to fashion fantasies, even out of flawed premises, and film directors have the right to turn such fantasies into movies. A better response is for Masons to establish at least some familiarity with the Ripper story, however unsavory, and, if faced with suspicions from acquaintances, to speak honestly from one's own experience of the benign effects of Masonry in the world. Not everyone has the time or capacity to become an expert on the intricacies of Ripper history, but every Mason has the resource of his own familiarity with Masonic reality.
Perhaps the single best resource on the various Ripper theories (including ones that posit Masonic involvement) is easily available on the web at www.casebook.org. This excellent site surveys all of the major theories on the murders, profiles the victims and alleged criminals, and maintains an admirable objectivity throughout. The graphic novel, From Hell (published by Top Shelf Productions) is inevitably far more detailed than a movie, and many of the story's picture panels specifically indict Masons as villains. But the copious annotations help clarify fact from fantasy. Finally, as reluctant as I am to encourage seeing a movie that may present offensive allegations, one needs to know what is being said in order to make a judicious response.
This essay originally appeared in Scottish Rite Journal, ©2001.
Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.