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. Continue reading