Yesterday I found myself wandering through Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane, a beautiful place located only a few kilometres from the city. The cemetery contains lots of trees and grassy hills that roll handsomely into shaded pathways. The place is also home to the quintessential graveyard inhabitant, the black crow, which, at least on this day, lurched, cawed and jeered on the tips of tombstones. Toowong Cemetery is a place with plenty of atmosphere.
Why was I here? I was searching for the grave of a man who many believe was Jack The Ripper, the killer held accountable for at least five murders in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. All five victims were female prostitutes, and all but one victim had been horribly mutilated, their throats deeply cut, typically to the spine, while their innards had been removed.
Jack The Ripper was never caught. And after the year 1888, it’s believed he never murdered again.
Not surprisingly, the chilling nature of the crimes and mystery surrounding them has continued to horrify and fascinate, giving rise to multiple theories as to whodunit. Well, in 2008, Jack The Ripper once again grabbed world headlines after keen Ripperologists made the claim that he was a man known by the name of Walter Thomas Porriott, a man who made his way to Australia and is now buried in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery.
While the claim is based on a lot of supposition, there are a few factors which cannot rule out the possibility that he was indeed Jack The Ripper. These are:
- Walter Thomas Porriott lived in London at the time of the murders. He was believed to have set sail for Brisbane on November 9, 1888, the same day the fifth prostitute was murdered.
- Although now desecrated, Porriott’s headstone contained a grainy image of a caped-man raising a dagger.
- Porriott was a known misogynist who particularly hated prostitutes. He was also a fraudster who assumed many identities, marrying at least 20 women only to fleece them of their assets.
- Porriott was also a convicted murderer, having spent 10 years in jail for killing a woman while posing as a gynaecologist.
- In 1997, Porriott’s great-grandson, Steve Wilson, publicly stated that he believed his great-grandfather was Jack The Ripper.
Possessing this knowledge, that it was a possibility, however slight, I lived not far from the grave of Jack The Ripper, I decided to take a look.
I enjoyed the experience on all accounts. Firstly, Toowong Cemetery is surprisingly beautiful, the most alluring cemetery I have ever visited. There’s also something fascinating about cemeteries. They’re the ultimate traveller’s depository, the final (physical) destination towards which we are all inevitably bound. They also contain many stories of the way the world was, is and could be, with each and every step.
Furthermore, I was ill-prepared to find the grave of Walter Thomas Porriott. I had forgotten his surname and my iPhone wasn’t connecting to the internet. I had just the words engraved on his tombstone and my dogged sense of adventure to go by, which made the afternoon that bit more interesting.
Luckily, I found two tombstone engravers on a hill, who soon located the surname on the internet, gave me a map of the cemetery and a rough location of the plot. I admit to feeling greatly relieved at this point, as I was a three-hour drive from home and Toowong Cemetery is 44 hectares in size and contains over 120,000 graves.
Even still, with the location fairly certain, it took me another hour and a half to find the grave. It’s a curious one at that, a humble, unsurprisingly desecrated headstone, marked only by the words:
DIED 25TH JUNE 1957
AND HER HUSBAND
I had wandered up and down a grassy hill numerous times, past the forlorn, splintered graves of 18-year-old men, babies and old souls marked with the sweet words that only the torment of swift departure can bring, just to find the grave of this fraudster. And, like many destinations, the journey had been the most enjoyable part. Not a skerrick of the image depicting a caped-man raising a dagger now remains on his headstone.
Just three vague words mark the memory of Walter Thomas Porriott. They trail his wife’s headstone like a shameful afterthought, a dim reminder that she remained faithfully by his side to the last.
As for Jack The Ripper, perhaps we’ll never know.
Only a shadow remains.