When asked who the man in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation was, many people will reply with Abberline. Whilst Abberline was certainly dealing with on-the-ground enquiries, his investigations were being overseen and directed by senior officers at Scotland Yard. For much of the autumn of terror, this man was Chief Inspector (CID), Donald Swanson.
Donald Swanson was born in 1848 in Thurso, Scotland to a brewer. Growing up, he was described as a “brilliant student”, and perhaps that influenced his initial choice of career, as he spent a brief stint working as a teacher. However, he reconsidered this career choice, as he felt it left him with little prospects. Around 1867, he left Thurso and relocated to London, where he worked as a clerk for Mr John Meikle, who, although recommended Swanson as a worker, was giving up his business.
Whilst working for Meikle, he responded to an advert in the Daily Telegraph and applied to join the Metropolitan Police in March 1868.
Swanson proved to be a capable officer, receiving many commendations between 1877 and the date of his retirement. However, he could also be labelled a rebel, and received several disciplines for minor misdemeanours, which resulted in fines or cautions, but never a loss of rank.
For example, in 1869, he received a caution and was ordered to refund a shilling given to him from King Street Station by a prisoner for procuring him bail. A year later, in 1870, he was fined two shillings and received a caution when he attempted to avoid detection upon being late for roll call, by climbing over the railings of Number 1 Section House at Kind Street Station.
Finally, in 1874, he was fined five shillings for being outside the Lion in Carlton Square with his armband off. Until 1869, police were required to wear their uniforms at all times, so wore a band to indicate if they were on or off duty – this band continued to be part of the uniform quite a way into the 20th century.
Swanson kept a notebook during the 1870s and early 1880s, where he recorded some of the interesting cases he was involved in. These included the recovery of a countess’ jewels, recovering a stolen painting, tracking down a confidence trickster and a crackdown on ‘rent boys’. It is perhaps this practice of recording details of several cases that would inspire some notable habits in later life.
By the early 1880s, he had been promoted to Inspector and, in November 1887, as a Chief Inspector by this point, he was transferred to Central Office (Scotland Yard). It was during this appointment that he was placed in charge of the Ripper investigation on 15th September 1888, taken off all other duties.
His primary task was to be the ‘eyes and ears of the Commissioner’, an early information powerhouse if you will. Every single paper, document, report and telegram connected to the case was to be overlooked by him, and he was consulted on every subject. In matters of extreme urgency, he was to consult one of his superiors, but otherwise was given carte blanche.
This was an arduous and gruelling task, and he was isolated in a room by himself. Swanson himself described it the following year, when giving committee evidence:
“I had to be at the office at half past eight in the morning, then I had to read through all the papers that had come in, which took me until 11pm, sometimes 1 or 2 in the morning. Then I had to go to Whitechapel and see the officers, generally getting home between 2 and 3am.”
Following the Ripper investigation, Swanson continued to be an exemplary officer, and was highly thought of by various contemporary officers, including Sir Melville Macnaughten who described him as a “very capable officer with a synthetical turn of mind.” John Sweeney said he was “one of the best class of officers” whilst Patrick McIntyre grouped him as “one of five outstanding detectives.”
In 1896, Swanson was promoted to Superintendent, and would later resign from the police force in 1903. Get on board our Jack the Ripper walks and tours by clicking right here! No booking needed!
He spent his retirement in his greenhouse (or potting shed), having summer fishing holidays and reading and annotating books. He also retained a close friendship with Sir Robert Anderson, and it is this final hobby and this friendship that is Swanson’s legacy in relation to the case.
Anderson had presented a copy of his 1910 book of reminisces, “The Lighter Side of My Official Life” to Swanson, and he made extensive margin notes in his copy. On page 138, where Anderson discusses his favoured suspect for Jack the Ripper but does not give explicit details or a name, Swanson writes:
“…because the suspect was also a Jew and also because his evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of the murderer being hanged, which he did not wish to be left on his mind…And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London…after the suspect had been identified at the Seaside Home, where he had been sent by us with great difficulty in order to subject him to identification and he knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel, he was watched by police (City CID) by day & night. In a very short time, the suspect, with his hands tied behind his back, was sent to Stepney workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect – DSS.”
This document, known as the Swanson Marginalia, confirmed for researchers new details regarding Kosminski (a suspect originally named in the Macnaughten Memoranda) and opened new paths for research and debate.
Adam Wood, Executive Editor of Ripperologist magazine, is currently writing a book on Donald Swanson, a biography looking at a 35-year police career, which included railway murderers, grave robbers, fraudulent mediums, Jack the Ripper, and the Philosopher’s Stone. This isn’t all though, as his extensive career also involved shocking revelations about the aristocracy and a crazed sea captain with sea serpents in a bottle. Set against the backdrop of the developing Metropolitan Police Force, the book is scheduled for publication in August.