Irreparably Damaged: The Madness Of James Kenneth Stephen

James Kenneth Stephen is just one of the many individuals, whose lives have been pored over in the hope of discovering the true identity of the Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The most detailed account of Stephen’s life is Deborah McDonald’s, The Prince, His Tutor and the Ripper: The Evidence Linking James Kenneth Stephen to the Whitechapel Murders. But whilst portraying him as a popular and gifted individual, the book’s sensationalist title highlights how interest in Stephen’s life is indelibly linked to the murders; sullying the reputation of a man whose legacy should be radically different, were it not for his brush with mental illness and the comparative ignorance of the psychiatry of his time.

Stephen was first named as a suspect in the Whitechapel murders in 1972, by Michael Harrison in The Listener. Harrison elaborated this allegation further in his book Clarence: Was he Jack the Ripper? Twenty years later, Dr David Abrahamson not only suggested that Stephen was involved in the murders, but that he and Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, (whose tutor Stephen was at Cambridge) had committed them together. With no substantial evidence linking him to the murders, it is the mental instability that plagued Stephen that has been used to lend credence to this accusation. His allegedly misogynistic poetry has also been seen as supporting the possibility of his involvement, particularly the poem; ‘Men and Women’. The lines, ‘I did not like her: and I should not mind, If she were done away with killed or ploughed,’have been cited as proof of his hatred of women. Despite these words, which were more likely written in jest than malice, Stephen had several love affairs and hoped to eventually marry.

Known as ‘Jem’, James Kenneth Stephen was born in 1859, the son of the prominent Judge and writer, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen; a man who, as Hermione Lee has noted, unfalteringly refused to acknowledge his son’s mental illness and died only two years after him. He was also the nephew of Sir Leslie Stephen and a first-cousin of Virginia Woolf, who was herself afflicted by lifelong bouts of madness until her suicide in 1941. Attending Eton as a King’s Scholar before going up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1880, Stephen became an Apostle and President of the Cambridge Union Society. The writer and education reformer, Oscar Browning was his tutor at King’s, and remained a lifelong confidante and friend.

His intellectual prowess and academic success led to Stephen being appointed tutor to Prince Albert Victor in 1883, (rumours that they were also lovers have never been substantiated) and becoming a fellow of King’s two years later. However, in 1886, tragedy struck when Stephen sustained a head injury, the exact cause of which has never been determined. As Karen Lawrence has discovered, accounts varied wildly, from a stone being thrown from a moving train hitting him on the head and causing him to him fall from his horse, to his riding into a windmill.

Following this accident, Stephen’s behaviour became erratic and unpredictable; as Virginia Woolf later recalled. Thomas Caramagno has argued that although he displayed signs of mania and depression, Stephen showed no neurological symptoms and so speculation centres on the likelihood that the blow to his head triggered mental illness by activating a genetic predisposition to mood disorders. Stephen’s increasingly aggressive behaviour even resulted in him being forced to resign from The Savile Club, where he had been a member since 1880. Evidently distressed by the incident, he accused the club’s members of being, ‘mean, treacherous and disingenuous, as well as tyrannical, narrow-minded and brutal.

In 1890 Stephen was treated by Dr George Savage, who would later treat Virginia Woolf. Savage was Chief Medical Officer at the Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1878 until 1888. Dated May 1891, a document found amongst Oscar Browning’s papers details Stephen’s treatment by Savage. Harrison and McDonald have suggested that Stephen himself may have been its author. Alternatively, the document may have been written by Browning, which, as Deborah McDonald has suggested, would explain its place amongst his papers. Stephen was advised by Dr Savage to intentionally experience a period of depression and exhaustion for six months, and to facilitate this he should necessarily buy useless things, borrow money, dress unconventionally, and purposely get into debt.

Stephen ignored Savage’s advice and instead, ‘rose early, worked hard, and earned a fair income. He never made any discovery of debts which he could not pay.’ He also spoke at public debates and political meetings and ‘contributed to newspapers, [began] two books and published a third,’ these being Lapsus Calami and Quo Musa Tendis his collections of poems, and The Living Languages: a Defence of the Compulsory Study of Greek at Cambridge. All three were published in 1891. The same year, Stephen founded the Walpole Society at King’s which met to discuss political, literary and social matters. Such achievements are a testament to his strength of character and suggest that he remained sociable, intellectually composed and creatively active. Rudyard Kipling when later referencing Stephen’s chiding of his own work in Lapsus Calami, nevertheless referred to him as, ‘that genius’­.

In February 1891, Dr Savage interviewed Stephen again and decided, ‘he was much better if not entirely recovered.’ Yet in April, after Stephen claimed he had, ‘never suffered from excitement or exaltation, or done anything he had cause to regret,’ Savage concluded, ‘this belief was a symptom of dormant disease, and a proof that the recovery was not perfect.’ Savage’s official diagnosis was, ‘morbid excitement or cerebral exaltation;’ however, Stephen was never subject to medical examination by Savage and was instead looked at by Sir Andrew Clark, Dr Hughleys Jackson and Dr Hack Tuke in October, November and December 1890, respectively.

Clark, for one, believed Stephen was in perfect physical health and that if he followed regulations regarding his diet and clothing, would remain so. Likewise, Hughleys Jackson agreed his nervous system was, ‘in perfect order’ but declined to give his opinion ‘as to his brain.’ Finally, Hack Tuke ‘could find no trace of brain disease,’ but believed that, ‘Dr Savage was unlikely to go wrong with such a matter.’ Two French doctors in Paris also certified in writing that, ‘he was free from brain disease.’

What was to happen in just over a year is a testament to the infancy of the diagnostic tools available to these medical practitioners.

McDonald has rightly noted that Dr Savage displayed a remarkable lack of sensitivity. Certainly, his recommendations were unsuitable for a highly intelligent and socially gregarious man like Stephen. Twenty years later Leonard Woolf also found himself doubting Savage during his treatment of Virginia; and contemporary psychiatrists, like Professor Peter Tyrer and Dr Derek Steinberg have stated that Savage was a ‘limited physician.’

The Browning document concludes that Savage’s opinion was ‘worthless.’ Furthermore, there were no substantial grounds to, ‘suppose that the person referred to ever suffered from morbid excitement or exaltation.’ In fact, as a consequence of such a diagnosis, Stephen had been, ‘gravely prejudiced, if not irreparably damaged.’ If Stephen was its author, the document sheds light on how he felt Savage’s diagnosis had permanently marred his reputation amongst his contemporaries; which makes the subsequent maligning of his name by those seeking to link him to the Whitechapel Murders all the more poignant.

Stephen died on February 3rd 1892 at St. Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, having been a resident at that asylum since November 1891. His death was unexpected, with his obituary in The Times stating that, ‘until quite recently it was thought that he would recover.’ The official cause  of death was given as mania and exhaustion, although Stephen had refused food for some time and attempts to give him water were simply met with the anguished cry, ‘it is too late.’ Had Stephen been alive today, his case would be approached very differently and his death aged 32, if a latent consequence of the severe head injury, may have been preventable.

In 1888, Stephen had founded The Reflector, which was intended to discuss politics, literature and current affairs, but the paper only ran for four months before lack of funds resulted in its closure. “The Age We Live In,” The Reflector’s first editorial which was written by Stephen declared, ‘the great body of quiet and earnest men and women know that they live at a great epoch of the world’s history, and will be contented if they can, in their various spheres, show themselves worthy of the age they live in.’ The five prostitutes brutally slain in Whitechapel were not only victims of Jack the Ripper, but also the mores of the Victorian age they lived in.  So too, was James Kenneth Stephen.

Selected Sources:

The Papers of James Kenneth Stephen, King’s College Archive Centre, Cambridge.

Virginia Woolf – Hermione Lee (1996)

Models for Mental Disorder: Conceptual Models in Psychiatry – Peter Tyrer and Derek Steinberg (2005)

The Prince,His Tutor and The Ripper: The Evidence Linking James Kenneth Stephen to the Whitechapel Murders – Deborah McDonald (2007)