Theosophical History Conference 2003

The Many Lives of Mabel Collins

Kim Farnell

Jack the Ripper

    In 1888, when Mabel was still active at theosophical headquarters, the discussions of Jack the Ripper and his activities were grabbing as much attention there as anywhere else. The Ripper was never found, and to this day there is no certainty about who he was, although numerous theories abound. I’m not going to even attempt to try and unravel this riddle here. What matters is that Mabel was soon to believe that she was sharing her home with the Ripper himself.

    In 1888 an article in the Pall Mall Gazette appeared, suggesting that the Ripper was a black magician. In January 1889, two articles appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette about Rider Hagar’s incredibly popular novel She. Numerous readers had written in requesting more. ”RD” obliged by happily launching into an account of devil worship, horror, blasphemy and obscenity and signed himself Roslyn D’Onston.

Stephenson had been at the London Hospital in 1888 and admitted again in 1889, suffering from “chloralism”, brought on by the use of chloral hydrate. It was during his second stay that he received a letter from Mabel. After a few weeks she received a reply – Dr Roslyn D’Onston wrote to say that he was ill in hospital but as soon as he recovered he would arrange to meet Mabel. He did so and Mabel began her association with a man she believed to be a great magician.

    Robert Donston Stephenson was the son of a Yorkshire seed mill owner who had studied chemistry in Munich and medicine in Paris. He fought for Garibaldi in the 1860’s, working as a battlefield medic, and studied the occult under Bulwer Lytton. Married in 1876 he was separated from his wife – it is unknown what happened to her. He was a heavy drinker and reputed to use other drugs. By the time Mabel was to make contact with him, Stephenson had already begun to build a mythology around himself.

Stephenson had a nervous breakdown and after going to Brighton for a cure was transferred to the London Hospital in July of 1888, diagnosed with neurasthenia. He was a patient there again in 1888 and became convinced that Dr Morgan Davies was the Ripper, after he saw what he believed to be a re enactment. Stephenson was in fact a patient in the London Hospital for 134 days from July 1888 through December 1888 covering the whole time span of the murders. He had told his Davies story to an unemployed ironmongery assistant called George March, and the two of them passed themselves off as private detectives, investigating Dr Davies. On Christmas Eve 1888 March went to Scotland Yard and told them about Stephenson. Stephenson was investigated by the police.

    Vittoria Cremers arrived back in England and almost immediately called at Mabel’s home to be told that Mabel was away in Southsea. The next day Vittoria took a train to visit her. She found Mabel lodging in a shabby, dingy house. Here she met Stephenson and heard from Mabel what a great magician he was. Mabel explained that she was caring for him and planned to return to London where the three of them would be able to set up in business. Two weeks later Mabel and Stephenson joined Vittoria in London. Vittoria arranged for Stephenson to take lodgings where she was staying.

Mabel followed up on her suggestion that the three of them should go in business together and they began discussing the project. Together they set up the Pompadour Cosmetique Company and took premises in Baker Street on the site where Baker Street tube station now stands. Vittoria and Stephenson lived on the premises. Vittoria and Mabel commissioned for Lucifer an article from Stephenson that appeared in November 1890, African Magic by Tau-Triadelta, which was later attributed to Blavatsky. (3)

Vittoria doesn't appear to have thought highly of Stephenson but it is difficult to ascertain whether that was due to jealousy of his relationship with Mabel. Vittoria said that Mabel would talk of little else but Stephenson and that he was a regular visitor to her flat that was only a few minutes walk away. Vittoria initially found Stephenson inoffensive. They worked closely together and in retrospect she said that she became more and more uncomfortable in his company. On one occasion Vittoria saw Stephenson drawing an upside down triangle on his door. He told her that he’d done so to keep out an evil presence. Stephenson delighted in telling Vittoria numerous colourful stories.

Mabel was happy to care for Stephenson; she had provided him with a home and supplied him with money. Mabel and Vittoria's attentions were diverted for some time by the outcome of the libel case Mabel had brought against Blavatsky. Any credibility Mabel may have retained amongst theosophists was finally ended.

About a month after the case was thrown out of court, Mabel entered the office in Baker Street looking nervous and questioned Vittoria as to the whereabouts of Stephenson. Once she found he wasn’t there Mabel told Vittoria that something Stephenson had shown her convinced her that he was Jack the Ripper. It was clear that Mabel was afraid. Vittoria, who had shown little interest in the murders, was rather taken aback at this sudden declaration. She refused to say why she had come to the conclusion that he was the Ripper. Mabel had become more and more frightened of Stephenson but was afraid to leave him. She credited him with great powers and was clearly worried that they would be turned against her. More than anything she wanted to be free of him.

    Mabel visited Vittoria at her flat. She had been weeping and told Vittoria that she was so afraid that was going to stay in Scarborough for a few months. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going to be and swore Vittoria to secrecy. Mabel left and sent the occasional letter to Vittoria. Stephenson seemed to be remarkably unbothered by her departure. The Pompadour Cosmetique Company was floundering. Vittoria decided that it would be a good idea to wind the business up. She told Stephenson of her plans and he launched into an account of the intimate details of the relationship between Vittoria and Mabel as told to him by Mabel. Vittoria immediately wrote to Mabel demanding an explanation and threatening to cease their relationship if that wasn’t satisfactory. Mabel simply said that she understood.

Vittoria now despised Stephenson and one day when he had gone out let herself into his room to see what she could find. She found a number of bloodstained ties. Stephenson claimed to Vittoria that he knew the Ripper, she thought his knowledge of the case meant he was the Ripper.

    Vittoria and Mabel were to meet for the last time in the summer of 1891. Mabel needed a favour from Vittoria. Stephenson held a collection of letters from her, which were explicit enough for her to be worried about the possibility of blackmail. Vittoria retrieved them and Mabel wrote to Stephenson ordering him out of his room. She returned to London and Stephenson took out a summons against Mabel asking for the return of the letters. When it came to the crunch Stephenson was unable to substantiate his allegations.

Whether Mabel was simultaneously the lover of Vittoria and Stephenson is also open to question. But she certainly had an intimate relationship with both of them. And the theory goes a long way towards explaining Vittoria’s antagonism towards Stephenson.

A new stage in life

Whatever the truth of the matter Mabel had felt it wise to retreat.  After investing her money in supporting a doomed business venture and Stephenson she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy in 1892. Another episode over, Mabel had little time to lick her wounds before the next stage in her life was to begin.

A new stage had also begun for the Theosophical Society in 1891 with Blavatsky’s death.

Things became quiet in Mabel’s life. She spent much of her time writing but had severe financial difficulties and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1892; much of her time had been spent in Ostend in this period. This year Morial the Mahatma was published. This was a fictionalised account of activities in and around the Theosophical Society and created a small scandal.

Mabel did not emerge again in public life until 1899 when there was record of her living in Hartlepool and working as secretary of the Northern England Branch British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Throughout the 1890's Mabel wrote, and had published a number of books.

I haven’t managed to find out when she moved to Hartlepool but the 1901 census shows her to be living with her mother in law and to be the widow of a Mr Taak. Who Mr Taak was and when Mabel married him I have been unable to find out. No marriage certificate exists in this country. His family were from Lancashire. I have been unable to trace the family further through records.

Abolition of Vivisection

By 1899 she had become the Honorary secretary of North England branch of British Union for Abolition of Vivisection. She was on a number of committees with a variety of political and aristocratic figures fighting the anti vivisection cause. She wrote an abolitionist pamphlet and letters were published occasionally in the press promoting the cause. She also campaigned against vaccinations after the scandal of troops during the Boer war being vaccinated compulsorily.

In the late 1890’s Mabel was still spending time in London at her lodgings in Wandsworth. It was while she was there that she came across the Brown laboratory. Scandalised by the treatment of the animals there Mabel published a pamphlet and distributed 1000 copies locally with the help of friends. She sought the help of the suffragette and activist Charlotte Despard in her campaigning and established a friendship that was to lead Mabel to write a book with Despard about her experiences in Holloway in 1908. Mabel fictionalised this part of her life in her novel The Star Sapphire. The campaign was huge and went on for years. Mabel’s petition travelled the country as she spoke passionately and was to gain 50 000 signatures against vivisection.

    One of the more successful campaigns run by the BUAV was that of taking over shops on a short lease and stocking it with leaflets, pamphlets and posters to elicit support from passers by. This idea of Mabel’s was highly successful and she travelled around the country overseeing similar schemes in many major cities and ran the first of these shops in Wrexham, Bangor and Bournemouth.  Mabel became an extremely well known anti vivisectionist and was interviewed in the press on a number of occasions.

    Throughout her campaigning years Mabel was known as Mrs Cook. Few knew her as the novelist Mabel Collins, her theosophical past was completely buried and Mrs Taak never publicly answered to that name. Mabel’s involvement continued for many years, and in 1909 she was parliamentary secretary to the BUAV and a major figure at their congress. Newer blood had arrived in the movement however, and Mabel was no longer as powerful as she had been.

Final Years

Mabel had always suffered from stress and her eczema worsened in her later years.

By 1912 Mabel had begun to write regularly for the Occult review. And in 1913 she was to experience on of the greatest disasters of her life. The Charing Cross Bank in which her savings were invested went into liquidation. By this time Mabel had moved south again and was living in Southall. As she was no longer writing she was desperately short of money. She wrote to her American publishers and explained how difficult things were for her. Royalties were not being paid on her theosophical texts and she had already had to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for financial help. She was clearly involved in theosophy again as one of her letters recalls a meeting with Annie Besant and arranging for the TS to fund turning her novel Idyll of the White Lotus into a play. Friends in America tried to raise funds for her and she was obliged to apply again to the Literary fund for help.

Her letters continued in the Occult Review throughout 1913. She came out in support of WH Edwards, who had helped her in dealing with her previous nervous breakdown. Catherine Metcalfe and Mabel were clearly close friends by this time as they wrote in support of one another’s letters. Catherine was a committed vegetarian and in responding in the letters column Mabel pointed out that she too was a vegetarian. In fact she also refused to wear leather, would not use an eiderdown and preferred to avoid eating eggs. She pointed out that she had been following such a lifestyle for thirty years at this time, since about 1883/4 and her initial involvement with theosophy.

    The onset of the First World War saw Mabel deeply depressed as she wrote in her book The Crucible. Although many believed it would be over in a matter of weeks, Mabel was unconvinced.

    Mabel had been attracted to Steiner’s work for some time but with the onset of the war the British TS sought to dissociate itself from all things German. In previous arguments about Steiner’s conduct within theosophy Mabel had taken his side. She was now forced to follow Annie Besant’s line.

During the war years Mabel visited soldiers and took an interest in military displays. Throughout 1913/4 she spent more and more time with Catherine Metcalfe. In 1915 she went to stay with Catherine Metcalfe and wrote Our Glorious Future at Metcalfe's home. Catherine Metcalfe had contacted Mabel after returning to England from Vancouver. They were to spend the last twelve years of Mabel’s life together. Mabel never talked of her early life and experiences. She was approached write a history of the rise of The TS but refused. She warned Catherine that if she ever attempted a biography she would appear in wrath.  She lived and worked under the guidance of the master and often joined him and watched the world masters weaving the karmic threads on her deathbed.  Ilarion told her she must not think she was coming to rest, as she would have to join him in the Workshop

Mabel died of angina on 31st March 1927 at the age of 76. In her will she left a little over 100.

Footnotes

(3) Lucifer, November, 1890. In theosophical circles this article has been treated as if written by Blavatsky. See http://www.blavatsky.net/blavatsky/arts/AfricanMagic.htm and http://theosophy.org/tlodocs/hpb/AfricanMagic.htm and it also appears in the H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings. Melvyn Harris and Andy Aliffe, the Ripper researchers have traced this article to be from the pen of Stephenson based on Vittoria Cremers memoirs amongst other sources.