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Dr Leonard Thornton 1860-1935

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  • Dr Leonard Thornton 1860-1935

    Dr Leonard Thornton is listed in the new A-Z and brief details given. I though it might be interesting for people to see the relevant part of the original 2006 article by his grand-daughter in which the family suspicions about him and the details of his life are gone into
    The "documentary" mentioned was a TV program as a result of seeing which this article was writtne:-

    Some of the content in the documentary startled me and forced me to confront an alarming possibility that I had rejected and pushed to the back of my mind for almost 30 years. Could Jack the Ripper have been a member of my own family?
    I was 37 and living in a flat opposite the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace Road in 1978, when I first heard this astonishing story from my half-sister, Doreen Gillham, who was 25 years my senior, and the child of my father's first marriage.
    She told me: 'Grandpa was a rather funny man - funny peculiar. Very peculiar in fact. Grandpa was a man who had secrets.
    'When I was 16, I remember Granny telling me once: "Len has a dark side to his life." And for a long time she would never tell me what she meant.
    'Then, one day, not long before she died, it all came out. They had married for love, but the first years of their marriage were really difficult.
    'There were differences between them - sexual differences, also religious differences. Then, three years after they got married, Grandpa was investigated by the police, who thought he was Jack the Ripper.' 'He was never charged, but Granny suspected it was true, and I am convinced of it.
    Doreen was sometimes given to bold statements, but this time I thought she had lost the plot.' I asked incredulously: 'You think our grandfather was Jack the Ripper?' She looked back at me with a calm, unblinking stare. 'Yes,' she said.
    Doreen was 63 at that time and I attributed this pronouncement to the ageing process.
    My sister, Jean Wheeler, the last surviving member of the family who knew my grandparents, says: 'I don't believe this story, but no one knew them as well as she did.' Before last week's documentary, I had not realised the police tracked down 13 eyewitnesses in 1888, all of whom probably saw the Ripper as he went about his murderous onslaughts.
    To my astonishment, the physical details described - in terms of age, height, colouring and appearance - matched my grandfather with uncanny precision. This caused me to look more deeply into his life.
    Leonard Booker Thornton ('Len' to his family) was born on September 24, 1859, at 24 London Terrace, Bethnal Green, a short walk away from the dark Whitechapel streets where the Ripper went about his gruesome work.
    Len's ancestors had been rectors of Birkin, Yorkshire. One branch of the family became extremely rich and influential, producing a banker, an MP, and the celebrated novelist, E.M. Forster, of whom his cousin, my grandfather, disapproved deeply on account of his homosexuality.
    THE other branch, by comparison, was poor. My grandfather was the son of a well-to- do master linen draper, Tom Thornton. He owned several shops, but when he discovered his son did not intend to follow him into the business, planning to study medicine instead, he told him he must earn the money to pay for his tuition.
    Accordingly, Len, at 18, went to work for a Bethnal Green blacksmith, transporting lame, sick and elderly horses to the slaughterhouse in Whitechapel, where he learned the grim task of dismembering the carcasses.
    In time, he earned enough money to train at the London Hospital in Whitechapel Road, the merest stone's throw from the scene of the Ripper gruesome murders.
    There, he studied anatomy, performed amputations and other surgical procedures, and found himself deeply affected by the poverty and disease in the area.
    In his diary, now in my possession, he wrote of 'the terrible bacilli of consumption. There, under the specialist's eyes was the minute life more vicious than a hungry beast, more deadly than a sword'.
    Late at night, invariably short of money, he would walk home alone through the darkened streets, sometimes bloodstained from his work, ignoring the blandishments of the prostitutes, and carrying his surgical tools in a little black Gladstone bag, an accessory that has become an indispensable part of Ripper folklore.
    By the age of 25, he had qualified as a chemist and druggist, and on July 26, 1885, he married Hannah O'Sullivan, an Irish Catholic and a member of the famous O'Sullivan clan of County Cork.
    Her family felt she was marrying beneath her, and they were aghast when she abandoned her Catholicism to marry in a Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Lambeth.
    Their first child, Mabel, was born the following year, but was to be sickly all her life, dying unmarried at the age of 23.
    It was during Hannah's second pregnancy, which began in December 1887, that the Ripper murders commenced. By that time, there was already trouble in the marriage on both religious and sexual grounds. Len, an atheist, wrote in his diary: 'Religion is the opium of the poor,' and added: 'I consider religion to be a mania when it interferes with the legitimate development of human nature.' According to Hannah's later revelations to her granddaughter, Len, deprived by the pregnancy of sexual relations, became moody and began coming home in the middle of the night.
    'I could not help noticing that his clothes were often bloodstained,' she said, 'but he told me that this was from his hospital work'.
    Two Whitechapel prostitutes, Mary Ann Nichols - 'Polly', and 'Dark' Annie Chapman, had been killed and mutilated, the latter on September 8, 1888, only two days before the birth of Len and Hannah's son, my father, Reginald Leonard Thornton.
    There was a respite of almost three weeks before two more prostitutes, Elizabeth ('Long Liz') Stride and Catherine Eddowes, were butchered on the same night.
    The last and most terrible of the Ripper murders, that of Mary Jane Kelly, followed on November 9. She had been horribly mutilated, with her sexual organs and other body parts distributed around her room.
    Dennis Halsted, a doctor at the London Hospital, observed that these mutilations had been performed with 'great surgical skill'.
    It was shortly after the Kelly murder that the police descended on my grandfather. He owned two houses, with servants, and two chemist's shops in Lambeth, but his outward respectability did not prevent him from becoming a suspect.
    The eyewitness accounts of the Ripper all described a man aged between 25 and 30. My grandfather was 29. The killer was said to stand between 5ft 5in and 5ft 7in. My grandfather was 5ft 7in. The murderer was said to have a brown moustache, 'carroty in colour'. My sister, Jean, who sat on his knee aged six, remembers my grandfather's moustache as 'gingery'.
    DOREEN, was told by our grandmother that Len was not arrested by the police - but they were clearly very suspicious of him, even though they had no evidence. He was asked some searching questions, and for a time was followed by plain clothes officers.
    Len's diary entries of the time, scrawled in black ink, often seemed to reveal a man deeply troubled.
    On one page he wrote: 'The devil will lead you down into hell.' On another: 'The mainspring of human actions is human passions. For good or evil, passions rule this poor humanity of ours.' My grandfather's name does not appear in any surviving records of the Ripper investigation, nor in the list of more than 200 potential suspects.
    Many of the names proposed, like that of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria's grandson, have long been discredited by serious Ripperologists on the grounds that they have alibis for the dates of the murders.
    Other preposterous non-starters are the Queen's physician, Sir William Gull, author Lewis Carroll, painter Walter Sickert and poet Francis Thompson.
    One ingenious theory presents the murders as part of an organised conspiracy by Freemasons, but there is no proof to support it.
    Virtually every other Ripper suspect has been discredited over the years.
    Christabel, Lady Aberconway told me in 1972 that her father, Sir Melville MacNaghten, formerly an assistant chief constable with the CID, was 'convinced' the Ripper was Montague John Druitt, a 31-year- old barrister who drowned himself in the Thames soon after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly.
    'He was sexually insane,' wrote MacNaghten. But Inspector Frederick Abberline, who led the Ripper investigation, disagreed, believing there was no real evidence against Druitt.
    In the years following the Ripper killings, my grandfather became a respected analytical pharmacist who frequently gave evidence in murder cases, especially those involving poison.
    In 1910, he assisted pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury to analyse human tissue found in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, which led to Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen being hanged for the murder of his wife.
    My father, who was 22 at the time, commented that Crippen had 'got what he deserved'. My grandfather replied: 'You should feel pity for him. Men can be driven by provocation into all manner of extremism.' My grandfather became increasingly distant from my father, who, when the Irish 'troubles' began in 1916, took to calling himself 'Pat', and went around London with a gun in his belt, announcing himself as 'a founder member of the IRA'.
    When my father's first wife, Mary, died in 1926 at the age of 41, leaving three young children, my grandfather was deeply sympathetic, but his Victorian sense of propriety was scandalised when my father married again, only 16 months later, his new wife my mother, Anne Roberts, a young Welsh nurse.
    After the death of his wife on March 21, 1932, at the age of 72, my grandfather appeared a haunted and broken man. He was distressed by the activities of his convent-educated elder granddaughter, Irene, who went on the stage as the blonde assistant of a magician.
    She married a chorus boy from Ivor Novello's musicals, and outraged my grandfather by appearing on stage at the Windmill Theatre, wearing no clothes. Later, her glamorous looks won her a small role in the film The Mill On The Floss, but she was to die at only 32 from pulmonary tuberculosis.
    In old age, Len became increasingly preoccupied by the plight of fallen women. 'Poverty of pay is a crime,' he wrote in his diary, ' particularly in the case of a girl, because it can make a girl desperate, and all the teashop girls suffer from poverty of pay'.
    When Len developed cancer, and was nursed by my half-sister, he said to her: 'Thank you for looking after me, but if you knew what I have done in my life, you would not even come near me.' He died on September 23, 1935, at the age of 75.
    Just the other day, I stood by his grave, which I am planning to restore.
    The memorial stone has blackened with age, so that the name Thornton is almost indistinguishable. It looks as if time is trying to shroud our family mystery in secrecy.
    Was my grandfather Jack the Ripper? The truthful answer is I don't know. But while I cannot prove my half-sister's belief that he was, I equally cannot prove that he wasn't.
    There are too many coincidences to dismiss.
    And just how many of us are fully acquainted with all the skeletons in our family cupboards, or get to know the innermost secrets of the generations that went before us?

    Thornton's death is listed in the register as follows:-
    Name: Leonard B Thornton
    Birth Date: abt 1860
    Date of Registration: Jul-Aug-Sep 1935
    Age at Death: 75
    Registration district: Lambeth
    Inferred County: Greater London
    Volume: 1d
    Page: 257

  • #2
    Leonard B Thornton

    401 Coldharbour lane, Lambeth
    Drapers Shop
    Head: Thomas Thornton aged 63 born Bristol - Draper
    Mary A aged 33 born Bethnal Green - Draper's assistant
    Charles J aged 30 born Bethnal Green - Draper's assistant
    Leonard B aged 21 born Bethnal Green - Manufacturing druggist (Chemist)

    1 Devonshire Terrace, Lambeth
    Head: Leonard B Thornton aged 31 born hackney Road - Chemist, Druggist and Postmaster
    Wife: Hannah Thornton aged 31 born Portland Place, Clapham - Postmistress
    Mabel aged 4 born Stockwell
    Reginald L aged 2 born Stockwell
    Sister in Law:
    Jane Sullivan aged 46 born Clapham - Help in the house

    113-115 London Road, Lambeth
    Head: Leonard B Thornton aged 41 born Hackney - Drug chemist and Sub Postmaster
    Wife: Hannah Thornton aged 41 born Clapham
    Mabel aged 14 born Clapham
    Reginal L aged 12 born Clapham
    Aunt: Jane Sullivan aged 56 born Clapham - Domestic
    Ernest A J Heal aged 23 born Bristol - Chemist's assistant

    113-115 Landor Road, Clapham
    Head: Leonard Booker Thornton aged 52 born Hackney - Chemist and druggist
    Wife: Hannah Thornton aged 52 born Clapham
    Son: Reginald Leonard aged 23 born Clapham - Electrician
    Sister: Jane Sullivan aged 68 born Clapham - Housekeeper
    Thomas Jones aged 33 born Oswestry - Chemist's assistant

    Name: Leonard B Thornton
    Birth: About 1860
    Date of registration: July-Sept 1935
    Age at death: 75
    District: Lambeth
    Inferred County: Great London


    • #3
      Attached Files


      • #4
        Baptism Record - St Peter's, Bethnal Green
        Attached Files


        • #5
          There is an archived recovered Casebook thread about this at


          • #6
            Those census returns are a good example of the vagaries of "relation to Head" - Jane Sullivan has every conceivable relationship depending on whether she's related to the children (aunt) or the Head (sister-in-law) or the Head's wife (sister).


            • #7
              One heck of a job there, Chris ! Thanks for cranking this thread together.
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