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The Life and Possible Deaths of Sir William Gull
Andrew L Morrison

William Withey Gull was born on December 31st 1816 aboard the barge "The Dove" which was moored at St Osyth Mill in the parish of St Leonard, Colchester. He was the youngest of eight children and his father John Gull was a barge owner who died of cholera in London in 1827.

In 1837 Gull was accepted as a pupil at Guy's Hospital and this began a association with that establishment which was to continue for the rest of his life. In 1841 he graduated with a BA from the University of London, became a lecturer in Natural Philosophy in 1843 and received his MD in 1846. He was a medical tutor and lecturer at Guy's Hospital and Fullerian Professor of Physiology in 1847-1849. He married Susan Anne Dacre Lacy in 1848 and they had two children Cameron and Caroline.

Gull was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1869 and in 1871 he achieved national prominence when he treated the Prince of Wales for typhus. He was rewarded by being made a Baronet in 1872 and also became Physician Extraordinary and subsequently Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria. He became even more widely known due to his peripheral involvement with the Bravo poisoning case in 1896. This was probably not welcomed by Gull because a Dr Gully was much more deeply involved and the similarity of names may have given Gull an undeserved notoriety.

Gull died on January 29th 1890. His death certificate was signed by his son-in-law Theodore Dyke Ackland. This was rather unusual because relatives were not really supposed to sign death certificates as it was possible the could benefit from the death. What Dr Ackland did was not illegal but a bit improper especially as he was not the only doctor in attendance.

In April 1895 a story appeared in the Chicago "Sunday Times-Herald" saying that Jack the Ripper had been tracked down by the medium Robert James Lees. The killer had turned out to be a distinguished West End physician who was certified insane by a tribunal of doctors and he put in an asylum under the name of Thomas Mason. It was announced that the physician had died and a fake funeral was held.

When Stephen Knight was researching "Jack the Ripper : The Final Solution" he visited Gull's grave at Thorpe-Le-Soken. Mr Downes the verger said to him "This is a large grave, about twelve feet by nine, too large for two people [Gull and his wife]. Some say more than two are buried there. It is big enough for three that grave." He added that "Burial places for two just aren't normally that big" and "of course, it's possible somebody else is buried there, without anyone knowing who".

Knight was also able to discover a pauper named Thomas Mason who was born in 1817 and would have been just a little younger than Gull. Mason died in 1902 and not in 1896 as Knight believed.

Sue and Andy Parlour while researching "The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders" uncovered a strong oral tradition at Thorpe-Le-Soken that Gull did not die when it was stated that he had, the funeral which was held was a sham and that he was buried in the grave, at night, several years later.

Gull's will was probated in 1890 as would be expected but it was also probated again in 1897 even though nothing had apparently changed.

So did William Gull really die in 1890 as his death certificate stated or did he live on until 1897 or beyond? If his death was faked was it because this brilliant medical man had become the the insane killer Jack the Ripper or could there have been other reasons for the pretence?

Michael Harrison (who suggested J K Stephen as the killer) remembered hearing a story that the Ripper was a royal surgeon avenging his son who had died from venereal disease. Thomas Stowell (who suspected the Duke of Clarence) wrote that he saw in Gull's notes that he informed --- that his son was dying from syphilis of the brain. It is pure speculation but what if these are distortions of the truth and it was Gull that had contracted syphilis? His son-in-law could have signed the death certificate either to hide the fact that Gull had actually died from syphilis or to fake Gull's death and have him spirited away to some institution where he remained until his real death. The moral climate in the late Victorian period was such that had it become known that Gull had contracted syphilis there may have been a scandal and his family could have been excluded from polite society.

So it is perhaps just within the bounds of probability that Gull could have died in 1890 from syphilis or he could have died several years later from syphilis or from other causes. However, the most likely explanation is that he died from stroke in 1890 as his death certificate says. Later the rumours surrounding him became linked with the myth of Jack the Ripper but whatever else Gull may have done during the Autumn of Terror it is almost certainly did not include killing prostitutes in Whitechapel. If any conspiracy did surround his death it would have been for reasons which were in no way connected to Jack the Ripper.

William Withey Gull (1816-1890) Requiescant in Pace


While writing this article I was struck by what is probably just a coincidence but which I found interesting never the less. Gull was involved with the Bravo poisoning case. In this a young wife, Florence Bravo, was suspected by some of poisoning her husband. In the 1970's Gull is caught up in the Jack the Ripper story and then in the early 1990's the "Maybrick" diary appears. In the Maybrick case a young wife called Florence was suspected, and in this case, found guilty of poisoning her husband. As I said just a coincidence...


Begg, Paul & Fido, Martin & Skinner, Keith "The Jack the Ripper A-Z" (London : Headline, 1991)

Harris, Melvin "The True Face of Jack the Ripper" (London : Michael O'Mara, 1994)

Knight, Stephen "Jack the Ripper : The Final Solution" (London : Grafton, 1985)

O'Donnell, Kevin "The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders" (St Osyth : Ten Bells, 1997)

Rumbelow, Donald "The Complete Jack the Ripper" (London : Penguin, 1988)

Taylor, Bernard & Clarke, Kate "Murder at the Priory" (London : Grafton, 1988)

Related pages:
  Andrew Morrison
       Dissertations: A Mystery Play : Police Opinions on Jack the Ripper 
       Dissertations: Stephen White, Amos Simpson and Eddowes' Shawl 
       Dissertations: The Life and Possible Deaths of Sir William Gull 
       Dissertations: Whodunit? : Choosing a Ripper Suspect 
       Police Officials: An Introduction to the Metropolitan Police 
       Police Officials: James Monro 
  William Gull
       Message Boards: William Gull 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 21 March 1890 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 29 January 1890 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 3 February 1890 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 30 January 1890 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 31 January 1890 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide - Dr. William Withey Gul... 
       Ripper Media: Prince Jack: The True Story of Jack the Ripper 
       Ripper Media: The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders 
       Ripper Media: William Withey Gull - A Biographical Sketch (1896) 

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