In June 1888 a tall, moustached man arrived at the Cricketers Inn, Black Lion Street, Brighton suffering from neurasthenia (intense fatigue). A holiday in the popular Sussex seaside resort must have seemed like the perfect antidote to his ailments. A student of the occult sciences, Roslyn Donston may well have occupied his convalescence in Brighton by furthering his knowledge of black magic and esoteric doctrines. Or, according to some, he may have been planning a series of murders in Whitechapel.
Roslyn Donston, otherwise known as Robert Donston Stephenson, was a ripper suspect for many years. Hospitalised near Whitechapel at the time of Mary Ann Nicholl’s death, his proximity to the crime scene kept him high on the list of suspects until it was proved that he could not have left the hospital during at least one of the murders.
Nevertheless, he pushed himself into the investigation at any opportunity, often through his articles in the Pall Mall Gazette. Later, he collaborated with an amateur detective, George Marsh, discussing the Whitechapel murders at length. Donston’s knowledge of the crimes was sufficiently compelling to prompt Marsh to report him to Scotland Yard.
In the early 1890s, Donston joined Vittoria Cremers and Mabel Collins to set up the Pompadour Cosmetique company in London. The venture failed, and the company was dissolved in the mid-1890s, perhaps with some ill-feeling between the two women and Donston. Years later, Vittoria Cremers accused him of keeping blood-stained ties in a trunk and both women harboured strong suspicions that Donston was Jack the Ripper.
A retired army doctor, custom’s officer and author, Donston’s health and fortunes began to decline during middle age. On 30th November 1890, he was admitted to Thavies Inn Infirmary aged 50 where his occupation was noted as a journalist. He was immediately transferred to Bow Road infirmary suffering from paralysis agitans – a Victorian term for Parkinson’s Disease. Donston was discharged on 26 Jan 1891 and was recorded as a resident of The Triangle Hotel on the 1891 census. By the time of the 1901 census, he was back in the workhouse infirmary – this time in Islington. Over the next ten years, he was repeatedly admitted and discharged from Islington Infirmary and was still there at the time of the 1911 census, where he was recorded as a 71-year-old author from Sculcoates, Yorkshire. His last recorded discharge was from St John’s Road workhouse in Islington where he was sent to the infirmary on 28th September 1916. He died of cancer of the throat on 9th October the same year.
Was Donston Jack the Ripper? Well, if the recent DNA testing of Catherine Eddowes’ shawl is correct, then clearly not. However, several leading geneticists have cast doubt over the provenance and contamination of the shawl, and there are issues (which I don’t pretend to understand) regarding mitochondrial DNA. The identity of the Ripper is by no means solved, and probably never will be.
Roslyn Donston was hospitalised during at least one of the murders, so his direct involvement is unlikely. But did he know something? Was there another reason he was so keen to ingratiate himself into the Ripper investigation? And was it just a coincidence that he was in Brighton at the same time that Edmund Gurney died?
The Ripper Deception is a work of fiction based on real characters and events. Why did Edmund Gurney die and what did Donston know…?