Melville Macnaghten

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Sir Melville Macnaghten
Macnaghten caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1908

Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten CB KPM (16 June 1853, Woodford, London –12 May 1921) was Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of the London Metropolitan Police from 1903 to 1913.

He is known for a major report in 1894 on the Jack the Ripper case, naming three possible Jack the Ripper suspects.

Early career[edit]

The youngest of fifteen children of Elliot Macnaghten, the last Chairman of the British East India Company, Macnaghten was educated at Eton. After leaving school in 1872, he went to India to run his father's tea estates in Bengal and remained there until 1888, albeit with occasional visits back home. In 1881 he was assaulted by Indian land rioters and as a result, became friends with James Monro, who was District Judge[disambiguation needed] and Inspector-General in the Bombay Presidency at the time.

On 3 October 1878 he married Dora Emily Sanderson, the daughter of a canon from Chichester; they eventually had two sons and two daughters.

Career in the Criminal Investigation Department[edit]

Upon his return to England, Macnaghten was offered the post of first Assistant Chief Constable (CID) in the Metropolitan Police by Monro, who by that time had become the first Assistant Commissioner (Crime); however this appointment was opposed by Charles Warren, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, allegedly due to the beating he took by "the Hindoos" back in Bengal; but the real reason seemed to be that Warren and Monro did not get along well from the beginning. Warren's rejection of Macnaghten widened the rift between the two men, resulting in Monro's resignation and his transfer to Special Branch by the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews.

However, due to the continuous disagreements with Home Secretary Matthews, Commissioner Warren chose to resign on 9 November 1888. Monro was brought in to succeed him as Commissioner. With this turn of events, Macnaghten was brought in with the position of Assistant Chief Constable in June 1889; he was later promoted to Chief Constable in 1890, following the unexpected death of the first incumbent, Adolphus Williamson.

Macnaghten's report on Jack the Ripper[edit]

A page from the Macnaghten memorandum of 1894, in which he names three suspects

Even though he was not directly involved with the investigation of the Ripper killings, Macnaghten, like most members of the Metropolitan Police, took an active interest in the case. As Chief Constable he had access to police records on the case; as a result of his own investigation he wrote a confidential report dated February 23, 1894; however, the report was not publicly available until 1959. This report proved influential for Ripper research, for it popularized the idea that the Ripper only had five true victims and also named three possible suspects.

Although some information about the suspect he believed most likely to have been the murderer had been available before the turn of the century, the name of the suspect was not made public until 1959. Macnaghten's favored suspect was Montague John Druitt, a barrister turned teacher who allegedly committed suicide sometime in December 1888. Unfortunately, Macnaghten, in writing from memory, committed many factual errors in his report regarding Druitt. There is no evidence of contemporary police suspicion against him at the time of the murders and no evidence linking him to the murders. Frederick Abberline, the detective who led the investigation, did not believe that Druitt was the Ripper. In his published memoirs, Days of My Years, Macnaghten does not mention a suspect by name although he devotes a chapter to the Ripper Murders in which he implies that the identity of the killer is known. The description in the chapter points to Druitt. Curiously, Douglas G. Browne in his The Rise of Scotland Yard, states that Macnaghten "appears to identify the Ripper with the leader of a plot to assassinate Mr Balfour at the Irish Office."[1] This reference is puzzling because, although there were Fenian plots to assassinate Balfour, Druitt is not known to have had any such connections and it is extremely unlikely that he did.

The second of Macnaghten's three suspects was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who lived in Whitechapel and was committed to an insane asylum in 1891. While not on the top of the list as Druitt, he was certainly suspected by Robert Anderson, the man who succeeded Monro as Assistant Commissioner, with apparent confirmation by Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, Anderson's desk officer. As with Druitt, there is no concrete evidence to support this allegation, and it is suggested that naming Kosminski as a suspect seemed to reflect anti-semitism rather than a genuine connection to the case.

The third suspect in Macnaghten's report was a man named Michael Ostrog, a Russian-born thief and con man who affected several aliases and disguises and was detained in asylums in several occasions. Again there is little to support this suspicion against Ostrog: records indicated that he was imprisoned in France during the murders. The fact that Ostrog was arrested and imprisoned before the report was written raises the question of why Ostrog was included at all as a viable suspect.

Later career, including as Assistant Commissioner[edit]

In 1900 Macnaghten served in the Belper Committee to inquire about "the working of the method of Identification of Criminals by Measurement and Fingerprints". As the committee recommended the use of fingerprints as a means of identification over bertillonage, largely due to the testimony of Edward Henry on their respective merits.

When Henry was appointed Commissioner in 1903, succeeding Sir Edward Bradford, Macnaghten was appointed Assistant Commissioner (Crime) and became involved in many of the most famous cases in the history of the Metropolitan Police, including the Hawley Harvey Crippen case and the Farrow double murder case, which resulted in the conviction and hanging of the Albert and Alfred Stratton largely on the basis on fingerprint evidence. He also claimed in his memoirs to have found the critical female witness who exonerated the falsely convicted Adolf Beck, a notorious mis-carriage of justice which led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Macnaghten was knighted in the 1907 Birthday Honours.[2] In the 1912 New Year Honours, he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).[3] He was awarded the King's Police Medal (KPM) in the 1913 New Year Honours.[4] He was also a Knight Commander of the White Military Order of Spain and a Commander of the Order of the Dannebrog.

Retirement and later life[edit]

However, in 1911 Macnaghten was experiencing the first signs of ill-health; even a trip to Australia the following year failed to improve matters. He was forced to retire from his job in 1913. Macnaghten's successor at Scotland Yard was Basil Thomson who had attended New College, Oxford at the same time as Montague John Druitt, Macnaghten's preferred Ripper suspect.

In 1914 he published his memoirs Days of My Years. He also made a translation of Horace's Ars Poetica into English verse, an effort to which he devoted the last ten years of his life.

Macnaghten died on 12 May 1921 at Queen Anne's Mansions, Westminster.

Macnaghten in fiction[edit]

Macnaghten appears as a character in The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade (1985), ISBN 0-333-38447-4, the first of the Inspector Lestrade novels by M. J. Trow. The book deals with the aftermath of the Ripper case and with Macnaghten's report. Trow misspells Macnaghten's name as "McNaghten" in his book and presents a fictional version of Macnaghten's daughter.

Macnaghten also features prominently in the later chapters of Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel From Hell.

Police appointments
Preceded by
Adolphus Williamson
Chief Constable (CID), Metropolitan Police
Succeeded by
Trevor Bigham
Preceded by
Edward Henry
Assistant Commissioner (Crime), Metropolitan Police
Succeeded by
Basil Thomson


  1. ^ Douglas G. Browne, The Rise of Scotland Yard, London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1956, p. 208.
  2. ^ "Birthday Honours", The Times, 28 June 1907
  3. ^ "The Official Lists", The Times, 1 January 1912
  4. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 28677. p. 4. 31 December 1912.

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