The Eroticism of Fat Men
After stumbling across a new lead, Bruce Robinson became obsessed by a mystery that has confounded criminologists for a century. Here, GQ reveals how the film-maker’s dark odyssey ended with the unmasking of history’s most diabolical serial killer
One of the more curious effects of the passage of time, I suggest to Bruce Robinson, is its capacity to transform even the most twisted of homicidal maniacs into a kind of pantomime rogue. No serial killer has benefited more dramatically from this process than Jack the Ripper. A murderer and butcher of vulnerable women (and at least one young boy), his name now evokes the kind of playful unease inspired by mention of Bluebeard or Captain Hook. “It’s even worse than that,” says Robinson, who talks to me in the sitting room of his large 16th century farmhouse in the Welsh borders, an idyllic property he shares with his wife, Sophie.
Across the courtyard is the writing room where, for more than 12 years, he has been researching the most sadistic and prolific murderer known to have evaded British justice in the modern era. “In the popular imagination,” says the author of They All Love Jack: Busting The Ripper, “this psychopath has acquired an almost heroic status. But Jack the Ripper was not a hero. He was a disgusting lowlife piece of shit. He was as big a prick as Hitler. I hadn’t been researching him long before I started wanting to murder him. I wanted to kill him off forever myself.”
In this last aim, metaphorically at least, Robinson could be said to have succeeded. The Whitechapel murderer’s cosy immortality has derived, to some degree, from his anonymity. That privilege is now denied him. Into a field of crime study that has been dominated (with the odd exception) by historians of orthodox instinct and limited ability, Robinson has erupted like the Ripper’s worst nightmare: a writer of great perception, ferociously articulate on and off the page, well versed in the art of inhabiting dysfunctional characters and – most crucially – a man who, in archives across the world, was prepared to put in the hours. Last time I stayed here, four years ago, he was on page 806 of his manuscript and he swore to me he was already certain he had his man. Back then, in the absence of a name, I was inclined to doubt him. I’m not any more. He has, to use his own phrase, “nailed the f***er”.
In Robinson’s conversation, the f-word occurs with such frequency that, were you an extra-terrestrial seeking to decode the English language, you might assume it was the verb “to be”. Over a cup of tea, the writer, an elegantly preserved 69, embarks on a narrative previously undisclosed to anybody besides his researcher, publisher, immediate family and one or two close confidants, including Johnny Depp. It’s a hallucinatory story of such intensity that we’re only ten minutes in when I tell Robinson that I know – absurd as this may sound – that I will remember this afternoon forever. “Well,” he replies, “it is the tale of tales. For 40-odd years I have earned my living as a writer. I have never come across a story as bizarre as this.”
Robinson is best known for three projects: his screenplay for 1984’s The Killing Fields (directed by Roland Joffé) and two movies that he wrote and directed: the 1987 comedy Withnail& I – a film occasionally described as a “cult” classic (has an adjective ever been more patronising or redundant?) – and his 2011 collaboration with Depp, The Rum Diary, based on the Hunter S Thompson novel. This last was an ambitious project that, as Robinson candidly puts it, “bombed”. His greatest work of prose is the 1998 novella The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman, which draws on his traumatic upbringing in Broadstairs, Kent.
Robinson, once tirelessly sociable at any hour of the night or day, has moderated his consumption of red wine but remains a tremendous host who – unlike most interviewees – actively enjoys having journalists stay the night. A note on the bathroom mirror reads, “Writing is horrible.”
Few authors would quibble with that. But They All Love Jack must have presented an altogether different variety of torment. “The idea took me by surprise,” he says. “I was in Los Angeles in 1993, pondering the idea of writing a thriller. I’d been reading a book called Raymond Chandler Speaking, in which he mentions the Maybrick case.”
Florence Maybrick, whose name will recur in this story, was a young American framed for the murder of her husband, who died at his home, Battlecrease House, Aigburth, Liverpool, in 1889. James Maybrick, a wealthy cotton merchant, is believed by some to be Jack the Ripper on the evidence of a document purporting to be his confession – the so-called “Ripper Diary” – unearthed by builders renovating his former home in 1992.
Seeking court transcripts related to the Chandler book, Robinson was advised by police to call Keith Skinner, a leading crime researcher who, by coincidence, had appeared with him in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film Romeo & Juliet, when both were aspiring actors. “Keith,” Robinson says, “told me that Jack the Ripper was the one conundrum that nobody would ever solve. I bet him a fiver I could. That was around 2000.”
There’s an old Chinese proverb, he adds, “which says that when a finger points at the moon the imbecile looks at the finger. I thought Ripperologists had always been looking at the finger. I wanted to look at the moon. How is it that, in 1889, Florence Maybrick is accused of murder and then, in 1992, the man she was supposed to have killed is accused, in this rediscovered document, of being Jack the Ripper? It seemed so strange. And that,” he says, “was what started me off.”
Robinson’s research into the Ripper’s atrocities gathered pace once he examined the murder of Catherine Eddowes, the second of two murders (known as the “double event”) on the night of 30 September 1888. “He killed and mutilated her, then wrote this message on the wall: ‘The Juwes are / The men that / Will not / Be blamed for nothing.’ Sir Charles Warren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is informed of this message by telegraph. He leaps out of bed at 4am and gets into a hansom cab, not in order to preserve the writing on the wall but to wipe it out. And erase it he did, even though fellow officers were urging him to have this evidence photographed. Right there you have the fulcrum on which the so-called mystery of Jack the Ripper lies.”
The word “Juwes”, Robinson argues, is a reference to Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum, assassins central to Masonic legend. (Their full history and mythical significance is explained at some length in They All Love Jack.) “Once I started researching Commissioner Warren, what emerged was that he was a very senior Freemason. He knew the message about
‘Juwes’ had to have been written by a Mason. Warren got his stupid arse out of bed that night to fulfil the spirit of the oath sworn by a senior Freemason, ie, ‘I will protect any other Mason [from the consequences of their actions], murder and treason not excluded.'”
Robinson re-examined the forensic detail of other known Ripper murders. “Freemasonry has denied any connection with the Ripper for 130 years,” he says. “But these women were all murdered according to Masonic ritual. Throats cut across, abdomens ripped open, guts slung over their shoulders, every piece of metal
taken off them and placed nearby. The whole affair is glaringly Masonic. That much I realised within a week.”
Of course, the notion that Jack the Ripper was a Freemason is hardly innovative. Dozens of Ripperologists have examined the murders in this context. That said, it’s hard to describe the experience of embarking on the unbound manuscript of Robinson’s
They All Love Jack after having spent hours, as I had, ploughing through the acres of turgid prose on the subject that clog the vaults of the British Library. It’s like being a jaded art teacher at an evening class, accustomed to predictable banality, when in walks Picasso who produces a canvas – in this case a picture of institutionalised Victorian corruption – so hideous it makes “Guernica” look like a Peanuts cartoon. “The majority of the London constabulary,” Robinson argues, “were good for nothing but lying. They were a kind of tea-brewing Cosa Nostra, as corrupt as anything in the slums of Naples.” One senior detective, he writes, “couldn’t look at a bottle of ink without fishing it for lies”. This was London in the late 1880s when, as the author puts it, “you could f*** a child for five shillings but you couldn’t read Zola”.
Robinson meticulously establishes the Masonic ties that linked the Victorian hierarchy: judges, cabinet ministers, barristers, senior police officers and royalty. He minutely examines the history of Charles Warren who, as a young man, had led a calamitous Masonic expedition to the Holy Land. Robinson presents a scenario of endemic hypocrisy, under which protection of fellow Masons, rather than the defence of the innocent under the law, was the establishment’s guiding priority. “A journalist at the New York Times,” he says, “writing of one victim – Mary Jane Kelly – observed in 1888, ‘This [crime scene] is like the strictures of Ezekiel.’ Who is the boss man in Freemasonry? Ezekiel. Examine what Ezekiel’s instructions are concerning what you do to whores. Every abomination inflicted on Kelly was like an illustration from that book, including taking her guts out and burning them. This f***er Ezekiel,” he adds, “would have been sectioned today. Every case I looked at replicated Masonic practice. It would take 12 years of my life to prove why.”
One of the great differences between They All Love Jack and most existing Ripper studies – and there are many – is that the dozens of taunting letters sent to “Bro[ther] Warren” by an individual claiming to be the perpetrator are conventionally disregarded as forgeries. Robinson scrutinises the handwriting, which, although frequently -disguised, has many similarities, such as using an “f” for an “s” (anachronistic by the late 19th century). Compiling the letters’ Masonic references, uncanny knowledge of unreleased detail of crime scenes, their taunting of the police (Warren, mocked for his botched trip to Palestine, is usually addressed by the Americanism “Dear Boss”) and trademark flourishes, such as the word “Ha!” scrawled on the envelopes, he constructs a powerful case for these letters having come from the same person and for that individual being the murderer.
The letters, some signed “JTR”, others with different coded aliases, “were coming from all over England. From Huddersfield, Leeds and Penzance. Imagine this happening today. What métier could the writer have?”
Truck driver? “Perhaps. Or airline pilot. Or how about…” Robinson pauses, “rock star?”
For a moment I assume that he’s joking. He isn’t. “My candidate was an extremely famous singer, frequently on tour. I started looking at the Ripper letters and comparing them with his concert dates. And bingo. They match up.”
And his name? “His name was Michael Maybrick. He was from Liverpool, brother of James Maybrick, whose murder Raymond Chandler wrote about.
Michael was a huge star, as a singer and composer, also working under the name of Stephen Adams.”
To the less charitably minded of my fellow Mancunians it will come as little surprise to learn that Jack the Ripper was a Scouser. But an eminent musician? I, for one, had never heard of him.
“Hardly anybody has. Even though Michael Maybrick wrote the most successful single popular song of the 19th century: ‘The Holy City’. It sold a million copies in sheet music. At that time he was outselling his friend [Bro] Arthur Sullivan.”
Maybrick, Robinson tells me, was a prodigy who studied at Leipzig and Milan. “He was a wizard on the organ, so you can almost imagine him as an ogre at the keyboard, but I’ve tried to avoid all of that clichéd Gothic bullshit.”
Maybrick was appointed grand organist at the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge. “He appears on the same Masonic lists as the Prince of Wales and king-to-be Edward VII,” says Robinson. “He was at the epicentre of the establishment. Sharing drinks with Oscar Wilde…”
Who was also a Mason. “Who was also a Mason. Sharing cocktails with Wilde at the Café
Royal, below which was a lodge to which both men belonged. And then,” he adds, “at the apogee of his fame, Michael Maybrick vanished. It was almost as if Paul McCartney disappeared after releasing ‘Hey Jude’.”
It’s Robinson’s contention that Michael Maybrick, who is known to have loathed Florence, his American sister-in-law (she publicly referred to him as “brute”), was engaged in a vindictive campaign to frame his brother James for the murders. “There’s one letter to the police saying, ‘Tomorrow is my birthday and I am off to Bromley.’ This was written on 23 October 1888. The next day was James Maybrick’s birthday. Who could he possibly be seeking to implicate? Then there are the Americanisms, like “Dear Boss”, in the letters. James had many contacts, besides his wife, in the United States, where he spent a lot of time. And where was Michael Maybrick on 24 October? He was in Bromley.
Gradually, says Robinson, “I snapped into his mind-set. Jack the Ripper writes a letter from Manchester, announcing who he is going to kill next. Where was my candidate on that date? Manchester Free Trade Hall. I built up a picture of this f***ing insane psychopath with a sort of homicidal wit. The letters frequently refer to the Isle of Wight, where Michael Maybrick had a house.”
How is it that so few people have identified him as the Ripper? “I don’t want to sound facetious, but you might equally ask why nobody had previously invented the light bulb or discovered penicillin.”
The book demonstrates a pattern in the London Ripper inquests that is shockingly predictable: vital evidence withheld or destroyed, police lying under oath, crucial eyewitnesses identified but never summoned.
Matthew Packer, a greengrocer, sold grapes to the Ripper and his victim Elizabeth Stride just before she was killed near London’s Commercial Road. She was the first victim of the “double event”; only an hour or so later the Ripper killed and eviscerated Catherine Eddowes. The Daily Telegraph interviewed Packer and published a drawing based on his description of the tall, well-spoken man in a black felt hat. The portrait bears little resemblance to the skulking Poles and hook-nosed Semites the authorities were touting as candidates, but its features are not dissimilar to those of Michael Maybrick. Why was Packer not summoned to the inquest?
“Because the judges, detectives and barristers were Masons and they knew the killer was a Mason,” Robinson says. But not which Mason? “Doesn’t matter. They were protecting their own.”There’s a point in They All Love Jack where Robinson writes, “I don’t care what fancy-dress oath you swore, Warren.
You belong with your monster in hell.”
If there is one emotion that dominates the book it is rage: rage at the obscenities perpetrated by the Ripper; rage at the indifference of the authorities; rage at the system that enabled the killings.
Earlier, when Robinson remarked that he wanted to kill the Ripper, I suspect he may have been thinking of one homicide in particular: that of a victim hitherto unconnected with the Whitechapel murderer, Johnnie Gill, a seven-year-old butchered in Bradford, in December 1888. Three weeks earlier the Ripper had boasted in a letter that he would kill an infant. Robinson’s research into Maybrick’s movements places him in Bradford, sheltered by senior Masons, no later than Boxing Day 1888.
Gill was murdered on 27 December – St John the Evangelist’s Day, the most important date in the Masonic calendar.
An innocent milkman called William Barrett, who had befriended the boy, was almost hanged on the sole evidence that his wife had recently bought a new knife. “This kid,” Robinson tells me, “was killed according to a Masonic ritual called the fifth libation. Every aspect of the killing is symbolic. He cut his legs off and put them on the torso to replicate the Knights Templar skull and crossbones. The Bradford police, who would have recognised this symbolism immediately, did everything to conceal what had happened, then tried to hang this milkman who used to let this poor boy ride with him on his round.”
Why would Maybrick – a Mason – bother with such ritual? “Because he knew that if the police saw signs of Freemasonry at the scene he was immune. He scattered Masonic symbolism around his victims like confetti. He held Freemasons in contempt, though he was one.”
Throughout his epic work, Robinson abandons the tone of emotional detachment traditional in analysis of such historic crimes. Take this paragraph on the killing of Gill. “F*** justice, f*** the law, f*** Johnnie Gill’s devastated family, f*** his mother who took flowers to her child’s grave every Sunday for the next 37 years, f*** the milkman, his wife and their baby; we’re talking about a threat to the entire establishment here.”
There’s a lot of anger, I say, in this book. “If there was one thing that kept me going as I immersed myself in the filthy f***ing miasma that was British politics in the Victorian era, it was rage. I was inflamed by what they did with that little boy.”
Some authors are drawn to sexual crime out of a kind of voyeuristic fascination. Robinson is not among them. The dominant themes in his work, from The Killing Fields onwards, have been fury at injustice and a passionate empathy with the underdog. When conversation turns to his own childhood, it’s not hard to understand why.
His stepfather, Rob Robinson, was a newspaper seller who owned riding crops but no horse. Robinson once told me that he was beaten by his stepfather on a regular basis. Was “beaten” another word for slapped? “No. It was another word for punched in the face.”
Rob Robinson was an RAF navigator “when my mother was in the land army. He f***s off to bomb Tripoli. This US serviceman meets my mother. When my stepfather returns she has to tell him, ‘Here’s the baby.’ As it says in Thomas Penman, I was a ‘walking affirmation of my mother’s guilt’. The stepfather was in a state of permanent fury. I used to lie awake at night, fantasising about having a rifle, I think because I was genuinely terrified that he would kill me.”
Last time I stayed with Robinson he had no idea of the identity of his birth father. Now he has a photograph of the American and says he’s just discovered two half-sisters living in the US.
Didn’t you once tell me Hemingway said the only thing a writer needs is an unhappy childhood? “My early life gave me a great deal to draw on. But would I have swapped a happy childhood for the writing? Yes.”
Robinson’s stepfather, educated at Rugby, “was constantly telling me I was stupid. I thought it was normal to hear my mother scream ‘Stop it, you’ll kill him’ while I was being bashed. I was sent to the worst secondary modern available. I had chronic asthma.
I was a really f***ed up kid.”
His older sister, Elly, went to grammar school; Bruce was “so jealous because she did French. I was desperate to learn French. I used to make her teach me what she was learning. That way, I managed to learn it myself.”
Robinson’s facility with words was a quality no system could extinguish. He speaks pretty good French now. One thing his new book demonstrates is that he is not the average autodidact. So many of the self-taught grab at any theory with the undiscriminating haste of a starving man looting a supermarket, but Robinson is rigorous, methodical, endlessly questioning.
In They All Love Jack (the title is borrowed from one of Michael Maybrick’s compositions, written before the murders) the proposition that he was killing prostitutes out of displaced rage against Florence, which admittedly sounds fanciful when Robinson first mentions it, becomes more plausible with every page. “I said to Keith Skinner,” Robinson tells me, “the day I find this theory doesn’t work is the day I junk it. I will not bend so much as a comma. But once I was on to him, everything supported the proposition. I was looking at stuff aghast.”
The most flagrant example of the spiteful criminality of Michael Maybrick, and the connivance of the state, relates to the death of his brother James, poisoned in May 1889. James, as revealed by documents Skinner unearthed in Liverpool was, like Michael, a master Mason, even though, Robinson tells me, “as far as the records at Freemasons’ Hall [central London] are concerned, James wasn’t even a Freemason. To prove that he was took six months’ f***ing work.”
James was a hypochondriac whose drug of choice was arsenic, although he also took strychnine. He was 41 when he met Florence Chandler, an 18 year old from Mobile, Alabama, on an Atlantic crossing. They married in 1881. James had five children with one -mistress. In her own battle to maintain monogamy, Florence suffered multiple reverses. One of several affairs that became public was with Edwin, James and Michael’s brother. It seems probable that Michael, though homosexual, had been rejected as a lover by Florence. “Michael hated her arse from day one,” says Robinson. “She married James. She slighted him. She called him a brute. The worst thing you can do to a psychopath is to slight them. He sees her as a slut you could f*** for fourpence in the East End. He starts murdering these women as surrogates for her. When it comes to killing her, the state offers to perform his murder for him.”
If the above statement involves a degree of informed supposition, Robinson leaves no room for doubt in demonstrating Michael Maybrick’s orchestration of the murder of his brother.
In what is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt trials ever held in England or anywhere else, Florence was sentenced to death following an original charge of killing her husband with arsenic obtained by soaking fly-papers in water. The quantity of poison in such papers, then commonly used by women for cosmetic purposes, was minimal and near-impossible to extract.
Tests on the body for arsenic, both before and after exhumation, were either negative or insignificant.
The judicial malpractice Robinson reveals is staggering even by the standards of the Ripper trials that preceded it.
Both the judge, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, and chief counsel for the crown, John Addison, were Masons. Sir Charles Russell QC, another bro, who was theoretically defending Florence, was an intimate associate of Michael Maybrick’s. A week before his death, James Maybrick had been in London, consulting Dr Fuller, Michael’s doctor, who wrote out an anodyne prescription. James subsequently took delivery of a package known as the “London medicine”, which appears to have been despatched not by Fuller but by another, more musical, visitor to the post office. Once James tasted it, he fell violently ill. Florence, observing the effects of this pick-me-up, threw away the bottle.
At one point the court in Liverpool was cleared, leaving only the judge, barristers and, astoundingly, Michael Maybrick. It was decided not to admit the evidence of a letter which James had ostensibly written to Michael, addressed by his nickname of “Blucher”.
In it, James states his belief that it was “Dr Fuller’s medicine” that was killing him. Robinson offers conclusive evidence to demonstrate that James was killed by laudanum administered by Edwin Maybrick (now jilted by Florence) assisted by at least one of the female servants in the house, the entire scenario at Battlecrease House being orchestrated by Michael. “I believe the Blucher letter was forged by Michael Maybrick as insurance, should suspicion ever fall on him,” Robinson says. “Had Bro Russell waved that paper in the face of the jury, Florence would have walked in five minutes.”
In They All Love Jack, the conspiracy to silence Florence is proved long before we hear from Robert Reeves, who gave a statement to police saying that, while on the run as a deserter, he had overheard Michael and his brother Edwin plotting to murder James with the help of a “servant girl” and to blame it on his wife. Reeves’ statement would remain classified in Home Office files for the next 100 years. “They would have hanged Florence,” says Robinson, “though all they wanted to do was shut her up.”
For what reason? “I believe Michael had dropped the word on James to the Freemasons’ hierarchy: ‘I hate to tell you this, but I think my brother is the Ripper. And his wife knows.’ At which point they shat themselves.”
Florence, once it was accepted that arsenic had not killed her husband, had her death sentence commuted, but remained imprisoned for 14 years. She died in a shack in Connecticut in 1941 aged 79.
One extraordinary section of Robinson’s book examines a letter received by the journalist WT Stead. It was posted from Krugersdorp near Johannesburg in July 1892 by a Dutchman who signed himself Moreau Masina Berthrad Neuberg. Mr Neuberg claimed that he had just buried a friend, Mr Wilson, near the Limpopo, and that Wilson had confessed that he, in conspiracy with a woman servant, poisoned James Maybrick. Wilson, Neuberg said, had instructed him to send the document “to Sir Charles Russell, barrister-at-law”.
The letter bears many of the hallmarks of the Ripper’s previous communications.
Robinson spent “more time than I care to remember” searching South African records for the Dutchman. “Then I asked myself, why would someone with a name that long sign it in full in a letter? It looked like an anagram. I started moving Scrabble tiles around, and a phrase emerged. I gave the letters to my late mother, a crossword enthusiast. She produced the same single phrase: ‘I began a brute Mason murderer. Ha.’ Maybrick, as you know, used to write ‘Ha!’ on his envelopes.”
How about the “Ripper diary” found at James’ house by the workmen? “Ask Scotland Yard about the provenance of this document,” he says, “and they will release no information. It’s protected under the Official Secrets Act. I know exactly what the provenance is. I would be in breach of the law if I told you. What I can say is that the ‘diary of Jack the Ripper’ is not a diary at all. It’s a document scrawled by this same psychopath implicating his brother.
It includes the caveat that his wife knew.”
Why will the authorities not release it? “If they do,” he says, “I am totally proved.”
Do you have a copy of the original?
At this point Robinson, a naturally open and forthright person, gives me a guarded look that I interpret, perhaps wrongly, as a definite yes. “I… it exists. And I know exactly what the f*** it says.”
People say it’s a modern forgery. “Oh, it’s a forgery all right. It was forged by Michael Maybrick.”
They All Love Jack is a vast book. When I was travelling in possession of an early draft of Robinson’s original manuscript I discovered it weighed in at over four kilos. It would be extraordinary if his thesis were accurate in every particular.
But a personal view is that the central case against Maybrick is proved. Even were it not, They All Love Jack is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. It’s one of those rare works – others that come to mind are Robert Hughes’ The Shock Of The New, George Plimpton’s Fireworks and Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Men – that deal with a specialist subject but are so insightful and well written that you don’t require the slightest interest in that topic to be seduced by the text.
They All Love Jack drags you into its world. And I hope that explains why I am writing these last paragraphs on the Isle of Wight, where Michael Maybrick spent his last years and where he is buried.
How does Robinson explain the disappearance of Maybrick who, in 1893, decamped here to Ryde? When did the authorities become aware that he might be a problem? “I think in 1892. They get this other trademark Ripper murder of Alice McKenzie in Whitechapel, July 1889. James is dead, so even the police must have started asking themselves who the f*** it could be. Earlier in 1892 Michael Maybrick was in Johannesburg.
There are 115 days unaccounted for, during which he could have been there to mail the ‘Dutch’ letter. He would have travelled incognito – he said in a newspaper interview that he always did – but I am totally convinced the f***er was there. I think somebody pieced all of this together. They told him to marry this ugly bitch who was his housekeeper and get the hell out.”
Who are “they”? “He was a senior Freemason. If he went down, the whole establishment went with him. You might equally ask who was ultimately responsible for the protection of Jimmy Savile and his friends. It wasn’t that they were protecting Michael Maybrick. They were protecting themselves. The so-called Ripper mystery was a stick of dynamite right up the establishment’s arse. They would do everything and anything necessary to defuse it.”
If there is one major criticism of this work – and it’s an odd one to make of a book 800 pages long in its final A4 proof – it is that it isn’t long enough.
Robinson is more than thorough on the background to Michael Maybrick’s disappearance in 1893 and works tirelessly to demonstrate the way in which his name appears to have been expunged from every available archive.
Maybrick’s friends, as Robinson is not slow to point out, appear to have erased him from their history. A close associate was conductor and composer Wilhelm Ganz, but, as Robinson says, “Bro Ganz’s 1913 memoir relegates their association to a line.” Friend, fellow Liverpudlian and distinguished baritone Charles Santley “wrote two autobiographies that don’t mention him at all”. The archive of collaborator Frederic Weatherly, who wrote the lyrics for many of Maybrick’s songs, including “The Holy City”, consists of 38 folios “and there is not a letter, not a card, not a scribble in the margin” that relates to Maybrick.
But once Maybrick leaves London in 1893, the book’s narrative accelerates. It’s like watching a film on a digital box that has somehow set itself to fast forward. There’s barely a mention of Maybrick’s life once he bolted to the Isle of Wight or of his death in Buxton, Derbyshire.
There are so many unanswered questions concerning these last years, I suggest to Robinson. Where’s the description of his unhappy marriage? Who was at his funeral? There’s a whole second book there. “I’d planned to write about what happened to him,” he replies, “but the publishers felt they couldn’t cope with more pages. And this work had already cost me so much.”
So much what? “Energy, money and anxiety.”
As a writer, surely you’re familiar with elevated levels of stress. “The thing with this book was that it was like doing 12 screenplays simultaneously. Holding such an enormous study in my head was an absolute nightmare. I used to go to bed at night feeling bilious from having this awful person in my head, and the awful people who protected him.”
I hate to ask this, but what if you turned out to be wrong? “If I am wrong, then 12 years of research and documents dating back over 100 years are also wrong. Of course, it’s possible. Look at the people who designed the [first] de Havilland Comet aircraft
[which was a disaster and was withdrawn]. They thought that would work…”
So what happened to Michael Maybrick? “After he went to the Isle of Wight in March 1893 little was heard from him until 1900 when, in a magazine called The New Era, he expressed a desire to return to the mainland. And then, within three months, with no election, he was appointed mayor of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. He was also a justice of the peace.”
Jack the Ripper: a magistrate? That sounds worth following up. (Maybrick also became head of the Isle of Wight Conservative Association. His obituary in the Isle Of Wight County Press describes him as “kind, chivalrous and noble… a perfect example of one of nature’s gentlemen”. His portrait still hangs in the council offices.)
There is, Robinson concedes, always more you can do. “I hope that what I’ve written will stimulate others. For instance, I can place Maybrick in Houston, Texas in 1894, when there were six Ripper-like murders. But I had to stop somewhere, or I’d have been 81 and working on page 3,007.”
A couple of years ago Robinson gave me his script for The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman: a tremendous piece of work whose superb opening scene contains the line: “Ethel has just found something horrible in the clock.”
They All Love Jack is a unique and remarkable work. But how many films has it cost you? Where’s the movie of Thomas Penman?
That’s a project, Robinson says, he urgently hopes to proceed with. There’s also talk of a stage version of Withnail &I. In the meantime he is braced for the recoil from Ripperologists, tetchy historians and Freemasons. The last group’s contemporary members are not criticised in the book. “That,” says Robinson, “would be like blaming the modern army for General Haig’s blunders in the First World War.” But it’s an unavoidable truth that, historically, English Freemasonry has not always responded kindly to criticism. It will, Robinson hopes, not be too interesting an autumn.
Meanwhile, here in Ryde cemetery, the imposing monument to Michael Maybrick stands tranquil and neatly maintained. The current owner of James Maybrick’s Liverpool mansion, Battlecrease House, recently complained of being visited by “three coach-loads of tourists a week”. The chances are that They All Love Jack may attract similar numbers of peculiar pilgrims to this site on the Isle of Wight. But today, I’m the only visitor, on a fine late summer morning, present to read his epitaph. It’s a quotation from the Book of Revelation which concludes, appropriately enough, “There Shall Be No More Death.”
When he acting career stalled, Bruce Robinson turned to writing and first made his mark with the Oscar-winning screenplay for
The Killing Fields in 1984. He went on to gain cult status with his directorial debut, Withnail & I, in 1987, based on his own experience of an out-of-work actor living in Camden. Other films followed – including How To Get Ahead In Advertising – but without the same success. He returned to directing after a 19-year gap in 2011 with The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp.
They All Love Jack (HarperCollins, £19.99) is out now.