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James Kenneth Stehen in 1887
James Kenneth Stephen

Aliases: None.

Born: 1859.

Died: 1892.

Biography: From Lapsus Calami and Other Verses, edited by Herbert Stephen (Macmillan & Bowes, 1896):

JAMES KENNETH STEPHEN was born in London on the 25th of February, 1859. He was the second son of his father, who afterwards became Mr. Justice Stephen. In 1868 he went to a school at South-borough, near Tunbridge Wells, kept by the Rev. W. C. Wheeler, and in the following year to the Rev. W. T. Browrnng's school at Thorpe Mandeville, Banbury, which then had a great reputation as a preparatory school for College at Eton. In 1871 he was elected a Colleger at Eton, being placed second on the list, and he remained at Eton until Easter 1878, being the pupil first of Mr Oscar Browning, and afterwards of Mr F. W. Cornish, now Vice-Provost. While he was at school he worked hard at such of his studies as particularly interested him, and as hard as he thought practically necessary at those that did not. The consequence was that he distinguished himself greatly as an essay-writer, and a student of history, and did not especially distinguish himself either in classics or mathematics. He always did well enough to obtain promotion in the School on the earliest opportunity, and he obtained an Eton Scholarship at King's, which had always been the object he set before himself, in 1878, when he had attained the usual age for leaving school.

In athletic pursuits his fortune was not dissimilar. Being big, heavy, and very strong, be took naturally to the "Wall game" of football, in which, I think from the first, he always occupied the position of "Wall," and for summer diversion became a "wet-bob." He got his "College Wall" colours, if I remember right, in 1874, and was Captain, or "Keeper of the Wall" in 1876 and 1877. In the former of those years his team terminated a long series of successive drawn matches with the "Oppidans," beating them by four "shies" to nothing and the following year the Collegers won by ten "shies" to nothing. I believe he was one of the best "Walls" who ever played at the game, and for at least ten years - that is, nearly the rest of his life - he took a great interest in it, and seldom failed to take an eleven to play the College team of the year. In rowing he was not eminent, a certain stiffness of joints, and perhaps some disinclination to take the pains about various small things necessary to proficiency in that art, preventing his rowing in any of the "Upper Boats" except the "Monarch," to which he belonged in 1877. He could, however, for a short time, get an astonishing amount of work out of an oar, and I have heard an accomplished oarsman bitterly deplore his inability or unwillingness to learn to "get forward."

Two of the poems at the beginning of Quo Musa Tendis?, now printed at pp. 123-127 of this volume, show the strength and duration of his affection for Eton. Since the original appearance of The Old School List a melancholy interest has been added to the concluding stanza:

There were two good fellows I used to know,
  --How distant it all appears!
We played together in football weather,
  And messed together for years:
Now one of them's wed, and the other's dead
  So long that he's hardly missed
Save by us, who messed with him years ago
  But we're all in the old School List.

The "one of them" first-mentioned in the fifth line was Harry Chester Goodhart, late Professor of Latin at Edinburgh University. He died in April 1895, at the age of thirty-seven, the last survivor of the mess of three.

In October 1878 James went into residence at King's, and speedily became one of the best-known undergraduates of his time. He read at Cambridge in much the same way as he had done his lessons at Eton. His University distinctions were that he obtained the "Members' Prize" for an English Essay the first "Winchester Reading Prize" for reading aloud - a curious competition that many Cambridge men will remember, and the first Whewell Scholarship in International Law. He was also bracketed first in the first class in the History Tripos in 1881, a success which was patticularly satisfactory because no candidate had been placed in the first class in either of the two preceding years, owing, as contemporary tradition declared, to the peculiar merit of the first class in 1878 when Mr Bernard Holland was "senior." At the "Union" he held the offices usually held by the most successful speakers, being President in the first (October) term of his third year. He was elected a Fellow of King's in 1885. While at Cambridge he learnt to play tennis, and became exceedingly fond of the game. The verses called "Parker's Piece, May 19, 1891" truthfully represent his sentiments on the subject.

In the summer of 1883 he was selected to read history with Prince Edward of Wales, afterwards Duke of Clarence, when the Prince had returned from his cruise in the Bacchante, and was going up to Trinity in the following October. For this purpose he lived for three months at Sandringham, where his life was as agreeable to him as his task was profoundly interesting. The lamented death of his illustrious pupil, nine years later, happened barely a week before his own. In 1885 James was called to the Bar, having been a pupil in the chambers of Mr Fletcher Moulton, and subsequently of Mr R. B. Haldane and the late Mr Northmore Lawrence. His intention was to practise at the Chancery Bar, and after completing his term of pupilage with Mr Lawrence he took chambers in Stone Buildings. During this time, however, he adopted the practice of journalism, and in the latter part of i886 he became, and continued for a year or rather more, a constant contributor to the St James's Gazette which was then edited by his father's old friend Mr Frederick Greenwood, who had founded it in the summer of the preceding year. He was an extremely facile, forcible, and original writer, and this part of his life contributed also frequently to the Saturday Review, and occasionally to the Pall Mall Gazette and other organs. It was in the last-named journal that he published two of his most successful parodies.

In the winter of 1886-7, while paying a visit at Felixstowe, he accidentally received a very severe blow on the head. He did not lose consciousness but was badly cut. The wound healed, but I do not thinkhe ever enjoyed perfect health again.

At the beginning of 1888 he founded a weekly newspaper called the Reflector. The paper was conducted in open defiance of many of the rules usually observed by practical journalists. My brother's intention was that the paper should not contain more than one or two articles, that its contents should be political or literary as occasion offered, and that no attempt should be made to affect that universal knowledge which is the ideal of most weekly productions; the paper and printing were to be of the best possible quality and the Reflector was to be its own advertisement. He that hoped good writing alone would procure the comparatively modest circulation which would make the undertaking self-supporting. He edited, managed and published it himself; and wrote I should think nearly half of it. Among his contributors were Mr George Meredith, Mr Gosse, the late Mr Locker-Lampson, Mrs Richmond Ritchie, Miss Mary Cholmondeley, and Messrs Augustine Birrell, Bernard Holland, Rennell Rodd and "F. Anstey." A great quantity of excellent writing was to be found in its columns; but the journal increased in bulk with a rapidity out of all proportion to the growth of its circulation, and after seventeen numbers had appeared my brother's resources were exhausted, and the Reflector ceased to appear. I do not think the circulation had ever exceeded 250, but in my opinion distinct traces of its influence may be observed in at least one important newspaper of to-day, and to some extent in the current style of metropolitan journalism generally. Its failure was a great disappointment to my brother, who had throughout taken an inexplicably sanguine view of the pecuniary side of the enterprise.

James had for the time abandoned all professional work, but in the summer of 1888 his father appointed him Clerk of Assize for the South Wales Circuit, in the hope that in the intervals between circuits, when the official work of that post is comparatively light, he would be able either to resume his contributions to newspapers, or to acquire some practice at the bar. Of this, however, his health did not at any time permit. After vicissitudes of illness, and one period of leave of absence from his official duties, he resigned his Clerkship of Assize in 1890, and in the spring of 1891 returned to Cambridge, where for two terms he took pupils and gave lectures in constitutional history. During this period he revived his fame as a speaker the Union. He could do many things well, but in my opinion he excelled his contemporaries more decidedly as a public speaker - whether on a platform or in a debating society - than in any other capacity. I think he was the best public speaker I ever heard, and a similar opinion has been expressed by men of much greater experience than mine.

He also took a conspicuous part in other branches of University life, making friends among a new and younger generation of undergraduates as quickly and easily as he had done among his own contempoaries ten years before. It was after his return to Cambridge that he conceived the idea of re-publishing the little poems the composition of which had been of one his constant amusements. The success of the venture exceeded any expectations which had been entertained by himself or his friends, but it may be worth while to remind those who know of him only as the author of Lapsus Calami and Quo Musa Tendis? that those works represent only a small and comparatively trivial part of his talents, and give no indication of the features of his character best remembered by those who knew him with any degree of intimacy.

In the autumn of 1891 James seemed to be in better health than he had been for some years, and on his return to Cambridge after the long vacation he took an active part in the controversy then proceeding as to whether some knowledge of Greek should continue to be a necessary qualification for a degree. He vigorously opposed the suggested innovation, and published under the title "The Living Languages" (Cambridge: Macmillan and Bowes, I89I) a pamphlet expounding his opinions on the subject with great cogency and clearness. To his great gratification the Senate, by a signal majority, gave effect to the views he had supported. His second volume of verse was prepared for publication, and for the most part written, during the summer and autumn of this year. The apparent improvement in his health proved to have been illusory. He was taken seriously ill, and had to give up his work and leave Cambridge, in November, and he died on the 3rd of February, 1892.

The original edition of Lapsus Calami was published in April 1891, and a second followed in May. The third, "with considerable omissions and additions," appeared in June, a fourth in August, and a fifth in March 1892. Quo Musa Tendis? was published in November, a day or two after the author's last illness had declared itself. The present edition is intended as a complete and final edition of all my brother's poems. It will be observed that I have included several pieces which the author advisedly omitted from the third edition. I do so, in the first place, because the publishers tell me that they are asked for, and are out of print. I think, however, that there is some further justification for their republication. It continually happens that where good work in short pieces - whether prose or verse - is under consideration, readers of more or less importnence will be found choosing widely different pieces as the best. If everybody agrees that one or two poems, or one or two stories, in a volume, are of surpassing merit, I think it is a reasonable conclusion that the merit of the collection is not high. From printed and spoken criticisms, and from what my brother told me about the reception of Lapsus Calami, I believe that many different people especially liked different pieces, and that their average merit was in fact higher than it would perhaps appear to any single reader to be. Therefore I have made this edition practically complete, omitting only a few short pieces for more or less special reasons. Quo Musa Tendis? is republished without alteration. Two sets of verses are now printed for the first time. I think it likely that they were originally omitted only because my brother happened not to have copies of them. The lines from the Visitors' Book at the Pen-y-gwryd Hotel were written in 1880, and were seen there by the author some years later, but on a subsequent visit were found to have been cut out and stolen. The lines from the book in a friend's house at Lyndhurst had been demanded, but not written, before my brother's departure. They were written, I think, in the train, being artfully made to subserve a useful purpose in the recovery of an umbrella which had been left behind, and were posted at Waterloo.

The portrait which forms the frontispiece is a photogravure by Messrs Walker and Boutall from a chalk drawing made by Mr F. Miller in 1887.

May, 1896.

First suspected: 1972, Michael Harrison suggested J.K. Stephen as the Ripper in his biography of Prince Albert Victor, Clarence.

Reasons for suspicion: Known misogynist and lunatic. Connections with Prince Albert Victor, also suspected.

Problems with candidacy: Not known to have been criminally violent, no connections with the East End.

Related pages:
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