Why do today's writers try to associate Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper with Masonry?

C. DeForrest Trexler

"I say, Holmes, what is this mumbo jumbo?"

This line spoken by an incredulous Dr. John Watson (played by the actor James Mason) as Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) gives Masonic signs and proceeds to engage London's Police Commissioner (Anthony Quayle) in a mysterious hand grip, which Holmes explains to be the secret mode of recognition among Masons of the 33 degree.

The scene, even more startling to real life Masons than to the play actor Dr. Watson, appears in the 1978 motion picture Murder by Decree.

It piques curiosity. What connection did the world's most famous, albeit fictional, detective have with Freemasonry?

In a later scene the question is answered for us, at least insofar as the screen drama is concerned. Holmes admits that he is not a member of the Society of Freemasons, but that he has made a study of its secret rituals as he has of many other arcane subjects, ranging from varieties of poisons to blends of tobacco.

The film progresses to a climatic scene in London's Freemason's Hall, where Holmes confronts three leading figures of the British government, who also are identified as prominent Freemasons. (The spokesman for the three, the Prime Minster, played by John Gielgud, in real life never was a Mason.) Holmes accuses the three of conspiracy in obstruction of justice. The case in point is the grisly murder of five prostitutes, crimes which actually were committed in London's ghetto-like East End during the autumn of 1888 by an assailant known to contemporaries and posterity only by the ghoulish sobriquet "Jack the Ripper."

The theory advanced by Holmes on the cinema scene is that the infamous Jack was not simply a psychotic, as generally supposed at the time and since. He charges that the notorious killer was a confidante of the Royal Family whose motive was to prevent disclosure of a scandal which he believed would endanger the British monarchy. More to the point, the killer was a Freemason. Therefore, his fellow Masons among the police and the highest levels of government "were sworn to protect him in his criminal intent." Masonic affiliation is the explanation given in Murder by Decree as to why the killer, called "Jack the Ripper," never was apprehended and why his identity has remained a mystery for more than a century.

A possible Masonic connection was one of many theories explored in a six-part series, The Ripper File, which aired on BBC television in 1974. The BBC script was published in book form under the same title and is listed among the credits of Murder by Decree. As the television producer has pointed out, however, the series gave little more than a passing mention to the possibility of a Masonic conspiracy and discounted the theory for lack of evidence.

There are three purported bases for the Masonic connection theory, all of them circumstantial and all of them contrived.

First, it is alleged that the Ripper's victims were killed and mutilated in such a way as to imitate the ancient penalties of the symbolic degrees. True, the throats of the victims had been cut. But this is a common and expedient method for murder, slaughter, or ritual sacrifice. Beyond that, the indescribable butchery inflicted upon the Ripper's victims reflects a bestially having no resemblance to the symbolic penalties of Masonic ritual.

Moreover, the purpose of the penalties in Masonic ritual is to bind the initiate to his obligation. The initiate affirms the seriousness of his fraternal commitments by invoking a symbolic penalty upon his own head should he betray his trust. Nowhere does the ritual of Freemasonry suggest the infliction of penalties or retribution upon non-Masons, whatever their offenses might be. Thus, the study which the Sherlock Holmes of the film claimed to have made of Masonic ritual seems to have been as superficial as his supposition of the Prime Minister's Masonic affliction was erroneous.

Secondly, a cryptic message concerning the "Juwes" was found scrawled in chalk on a wall near the scene of one of the Ripper's murders. Proponents of a Masonic connection argue that this was not an antisemitic slogan as commonly supposed, but a reference to the three assassins of the Hiramic legend. On the other hand, if a Mason committed the crimes, why would he leave such a clue incriminating the fraternity and why at the scene of only one of the five murders?

Thirdly, the police officials responsible for the inconclusive investigation of the Ripper murders were known to be active Freemasons. Can it be inferred from the mere fact of their Masonic association that they were unsuccessful in apprehending the murderer because they were shielding one of their own? Can a criminal conspiracy be inferred simply from a common interest and association? These questions should be rhetorical. Unfortunately, controversy in recent years over the extent of Masonic influence among the Masonic influence among the British police has led some to give credence to the possibility.

"The insidious effect of Freemasonry among the police" was a theme articulated by Stephen Knight in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, published in 1976. Knight began with the slender strands of supposition which The Ripper File had unravelled, but then discarded, weaving them into a conclusion that a Masonic conspiracy was not just an unsubstantiated theory, but incontrovertible fact. Fortunately, Knight's credibility is compromised by his rabid anti-Masonry. Among the "facts" to which Knight alludes gratuitously are the Masonic murders of William Morgan and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Subsequently, the very individual who had proposed the Masonic connection to BBC researchers confessed that the implication of Freemasonry in the Ripper murders had been a hoax. That should have ended the matter. Unfortunately, the story that the television producers had nibbled upon with a grain of salt, Knight had swallowed whole. He persisted in the delusion until 1985, when a brain tumour took him to an early grave, a victim, some said, of still another Masonic conspiracy.

Very probably the reason why Stephen Knight and others like him have seized upon the notion of Masonic conspiracy as an explanation for the crimes of Jack the Ripper is for purpose of effect. What really concerns them is not the solution of that mystery, not what may have happen today if the power of government, especially law enforcement, is concentrated in the hands of men whose personal allegiance to the bonds of a secret society may take precedence over their public duty. It was much the same apprehension, rather than the disappearance of William Morgan, which fanned the flames of anti-Masonry in America during the last century.

But why bring Sherlock Holmes into all of this?

It is perhaps an irresistible temptation to set the most famous sleuth of all time on the trail of the most infamous criminal to have eluded justice, especially since both (one in real life, the other in fiction) frequented the streets of London during the same space in time. Murder by Decree is not the only medium to have attempted this. Nevertheless, it is significant that the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, never succumbed to this temptation. In none of Doyle's four novels and 56 short stories which recount the adventures of Sherlock Homes, including encounters with the likes of the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan, do we find the formidable talents of the master detective applied to solve the Ripper mystery which had baffled Scotland Yard. Although the Ripper murders coincided with the earliest Holmes stories, Doyle made no attempt to use the Ripper's notoriety to gain public acceptance when the success of his venture into detective fiction was far from assured.

Moreover, there is no basis in the works of Conan Doyle for recruiting his immortal character, as did the screenwriters of Murder by Decree, to provide a vehicle for a baseless expose and diatribe against Freemasonry. To be sure, many authors, playwrights, and screenwriters over the years have taken license in exploiting to their own ends the fame of Doyle's creation, one of the most universally recognized names in fiction, by placing him in new and different circumstances which Doyle never intended or cold have imagined. Consider, for example, the popular film series of the 1940's starring Basil Rathbone, which saw Sherlock Holmes combating Nazi spies and saboteurs.

Conan Doyle was born in 1859 into a devoutly Roman Catholic family and was educated in a Jesuit school. Entering the medical profession, he turned to writing as a means of supplementing the uncertain income of his fledgling practice. In 1887 he published A Study in Scarlet, which introduced Sherlock Holmes and his inseparable companion, John Watson, like Doyle himself, a struggling physician. A second Holmes novel appeared in 1890. It was not until the following year, however, when Doyle began to write a series of Holmes adventures for The Strand magazine, illustrated by the drawings of Sidney Paget, that his creation became a success. Indeed, he became a sensation.

Almost overnight, the tall, gaunt figure in the deerstalker cap and caped overcoat, never without pipe and magnifying glass, became a household word. (The admiring public appeared to overlook Holmes' cocaine habit.) Eccentric as Doyle created him, many readers were convinced that Holmes was a real person and the storied flat at 221B Baker Street actually existed.

Doyle, however, did not share the enthusiasm of the reading public. He tired of Holmes, wishing to devote his literary talents to historical adventures. Thus, at the end of 1893, he rid himself of Holmes, sending him to his apparent death in the Swiss Alps at the hands of his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarity. Holmes' demise brought a public outcry. Readers vented their disapproval by cancelling subscriptions to The Strand.

In time Doyle relented. The best known adventure of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, appeared in 1901. Then, late in 1903, Holmes was resurrected in the pages of The Strand.

Despite his Catholic upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Doyle early in life rejected organized religion. He was repelled by what he saw as rigid dogmatism and divisiveness. He professed belief in a universal and beneficent God, who revealed himself to man through nature rather than through the church. Perhaps it was these beliefs and a desire to redefine his religious faith which led to Conan Doyle to become a Freemason. He was initiated in Phoenix Lodge No. 257 at Portsmouth in 1893. The Masonic experience does not seem entirely to have answered the need. Later in life he described himself as a "respectful agnostic" and experimented with spiritualism.

Five of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works contain Masonic references. In no instance, however, is the fraternity a subject of the plot.

A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of the Holes stories to be published in The Strand, is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's The Purloined Letter, just as Poe's detective hero, Dupin, often has been considered the literary precursor of Doyle's character. (Holmes typically, referred to Dupin as a "very inferior fellow.") Disguising himself as a groom to obtain information, Holmes explains to Watson that there is a "freemasonry among horsy men." The reference is not to Masonry as an organization, but employs the name as a common noun meaning fellowship, a recognized characteristic of the fraternity.

There are four occasions on which Holmes takes notice of an item of jewellery which identifies the wearer as a Freemason. Once noted, no further mention is made of the fact. This does not mean, however, that the Masonic reference is trivial and of no account. Doyle invariably devoted much attention to Holmes' initial observations of a person's physical appearance, the detective is able to make an assessment of background, character, motivation, and veracity, which carries him a long way toward solution of t he mystery before he stirs from 221B Baker Street.

Enoch Drebber, the murder victim in A Study in Scarlet, is described as having a "low forehead, blunt nose, and prognathous jaw ... a singularly sinuous and ape-like appearance." He also is wearing a ring with a Masonic device. As the story unfolds, we find that Drebber was killed in revenge, meeting his just deserts for past misdeeds which matched his sinister appearance. Much of A Study in Scarlet consists of a narrative of events during the early days of the Mormon settlement of Utah. Doyle obviously was using the excesses of Mormon theocracy to paint a melodramatic indictment of religious dogmatism. Writing six years before he became a Mason, was Doyle equating Freemasonry with the evils he perceived to exist in organized religion or with Drebber's clandestine villainies?

In The Red-Headed League, the second Holmes story to appear in The Strand, Jabez Wilson has been duped by a transparent scheme to leave his pawnshop each day so that criminals are free to use the premises to stage a robbery of a nearby bank. Wilson is described as being "obese, pompous, and slow," his clothing as frayed, ill-fitting, and "not over clean." He also is identified as a Freemason by a gaudy square and compasses pin. Again writing before his initiation into the craft, Doyle does not leave us with a very high opinion of the fraternity.

Quite a different image of Freemasonry is projected in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. A young lawyer of modest circumstances, John Hector McFarlane, is charged with the murder of a wealthy client. Holmes finds his deductive powers taxed to the limit.

Ultimately, however, he discloses an ingenious scheme whereby the supposed victim has staged his own death and implicated McFarlane as an act of revenge against the lawyer's mother, who many years before had rejected him as a suitor. What made Holmes so convinced of McFarlane's innocence when the evidence seemed to convict him? Could it have been the fact that at their first meeting Holmes had noticed the young man's Masonic watch fob?

Lastly, in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman Holmes pays rare, if not unique, tribute to another detective by the name of Barker, going so far as to acknowledge him as a rival. Just incidentally, Barker's tie pin identifies him as a Freemason.

Doyle never tells the reader whether his detective hero is a Freemason. Nor are we told whether Holmes has made a study of Masonic ritual as is alleged somewhat unconvincingly in Murder by Decree. A Mason himself, Doyle may have been reluctant to reveal secrets of the Order or use his knowledge of Masonry for personal pecuniary gain. Nevertheless, by application of Holmes' own technique of deductive reasoning we can be reasonably certain that the master detective was not a member of the Masonic fraternity. Doyle did not intend for his creation to be the admirable image which most people associate with Sherlock Holmes. He thought Paget's drawings were too idealized. The public reaction always perplexed him. Holmes' life-style was reclusive, his habits eccentric, his manner brusque and often patronizing, his attitude haughty and conceited, if not supercilious, and his interests obsessively preoccupied with but one field of endeavour — criminal investigation. No, it is unlikely that a man who shuns society, the day-to-day concerns of his fellows, and the wider interests of mankind will be found upon the rolls of a Masonic lodge.

When, in the predawn hours, the timeless and tireless Sherlock Holmes routs the hapless Watson from his sleep and on to the fogbound streets of London with the familiar cry "The game's afoot," every widow's son can remain at heart's rest with the assurance that there is no Masonic connection.

From THE NORTHERN LIGHT — August 1991