Donald Swanson

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Donald Sutherland Swanson (1848-1924).

Photograph of Donald Sutherland Swanson (courtesy of the Swanson family).

Chief Inspector, Metropolitan CID (later Superintendent), in overall charge of the investigation of Whitechapel Murders from 15 September 1888.

He was described by Sir Melville Macnaghten as "a very capable officer with a synthetical turn of mind" [1] and by a contemporary, John Sweeney, as "One of the best class of officers". [2] In his memoirs, another contemporary, Patrick McIntyre, named five outstanding detectives, of whom Swanson was one.[3]

The Whitechapel Murders

In the absence of the newly appointed Assistant Commissioner CID, Dr Robert Anderson, the Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, wrote to the Acting Assistant Commissioner CID, Alexander Carmichael Bruce, on 15 September 1888, to notify him that he was putting Swanson in charge of the case. Swanson was to act as the "eyes and ears of the Commissioner" for the time being, and to have no other responsibilities to concern himself with. He was to have a room to himself, and every paper, document, report and telegram connected with the case was to pass through his hands. He was to be consulted on every subject, and to be given the whole responsibility, though unless there was some extreme urgency he was to consult either Warren, Bruce or the Chief Constable of the CID, Adolphus Williamson, about important particulars. [4]

The following year, when giving evidence before a Department Committee, he described his working day between September and December 1888: "I had to be at the office at half-past 8 in the morning; then I had to read through all the papers that had come in, which took me till 11 pm., and sometimes 1 and 2 in the morning; then I had to go to Whitechapel and see the officers — generally getting home between 2 and 3 am."[5]

He was the author of a series of detailed reports on the investigations of the murders of 1888:

  • Martha Tabram. Report dated September 1888.[6]
  • Mary Ann Nichols. Report dated 19 October 1888.[7]
  • Annie Chapman. Report dated 19 October 1888.[8]
  • Elizabeth Stride. Report dated 19 October 1888.[9]
  • Catherine Eddowes. Report dated 6 November 1888.[10]

A tabular comparison of the descriptions of men seen near the scenes of the murders of Chapman, Stride and Eddowes also survives in his personal file. [11]

In late December 1888, Swanson was deputed to assist the local police inquiry into the death of Rose Mylett in Poplar, and was later reported by the press to be "working energetically" with other CID officers to elucidate the mystery. The records relating to the case include a short report by him dated 18 January 1889 on Thomas Bond's activities in the earlier investigations. [12]

He wrote a detailed report, dated 10 September 1889, on the investigation into the Pinchin Street Murder, and additional reports, dated 12 September 1889, on a report in the New York Herald that a man calling himself John Cleary had earlier given information about a murder in the area. [13]

In the investigation into the murder of Frances Coles in February 1891 he took the statement of the suspect James Sadler on 14 February, and wrote a detailed report on Sadler's personal history, dated 21 February. Ten months later, on 11 December, he interviewed Sadler's wife, who had complained that her husband had assaulted her. [14]

The official files also record his activities in the investigation of various theories and suspects: the contemporary cattle-boat theory of Edward Larkins,[15] accusations made in December 1888 by and about Robert Donston Stephenson,[16] a claim in the press in September 1889 that Dr Lyttleton Forbes Winslow had identified the killer,[17] a fanciful accusation in October 1889 against a doctor in Kensington[18] and a report in November 1889 of a conversation overheard in Genoa two years earlier.[19] It's perhaps appropriate that the last document in the official files, a report dated 18 October 1896 on an anonymous letter signed 'Jack the Ripper', concludes with a comment on the letter by Superintendent Swanson.[20]

Swanson is said to have disapproved of police memoirs[21], and is not known to have made any public statement of his views on the identity of Jack the Ripper. But according to a report published by the Pall Mall Gazette on 7 May 1895, he had developed a theory by that time: "The theory entitled to most respect, because it was presumably based upon the best knowledge, was that of Chief Inspector Swanson, the officer who was associated with the investigation of all the murders, and Mr. Swanson believed the crimes to have been the work of a man who is now dead."

More detailed comments are to be found in the annotations, known as the Swanson Marginalia, in his copy of Sir Robert Anderson's memoirs, The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910).

Photograph of Donald Sutherland Swanson with his parents, c. 1870 (courtesy of the Swanson family).


Donald Swanson was born in August 1848 in Thurso, Caithness, Scotland, the son of John Swanson, a brewer and distiller, and his wife Mary Thomson. [22] His middle name, 'Sutherland', appears to have been the maiden name of his maternal grandmother. [23]

According to Begg[24], he was educated at the Miller Institution on Sinclair Street in Thurso, studied Greek and Latin, was described as "a brilliant student" and afterwards taught for a brief time. (In his police Medical History his former occupation is given as "School Master".[11])

He probably left Thurso for London in 1867, as his testimonials from two Thurso men stated that they had known him until that year (see below).

He wrote a letter of application to join the Metropolitan Police on 20 March 1868, in response to an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph. At the time he had been working as a clerk for several months for John Meikle of 8 Catherine Court, Seething Lane, from where his letter of application was addressed; his own address was given as 39 King Street, Regent Street. Meikle had "known of him for many years" and recommended him highly, but was due to give up business in a few weeks. Swanson's letter concluded, "I am 19 years of age and do not so much desire a large salary as a good opening at a moderate one". [11] [24] [25]

His decision to pursue a career in the police force may have owed something to family connections. Not only was his cousin John McDonald a London police officer (see below), but there was also a Thurso-born Inspector Donald Swanson in the Metropolitan Police's A Division at the time. He was surely related somehow to the younger Donald, and it was he who authenticated the signatures of the men who provided testimonials when he applied to join the force. [26]

On 8 April Swanson provided testimonials from George Gunn and James McLeod, both of Thurso, who stated that he was known to them between 1862 and 1867. At this time he was described as 5 feet, 8 and a half inches tall, with a dark complexion, hazel eyes and dark brown hair. [11] [24] He joined the force on 27 April 1868, with warrant number 50282. He started in A Division, moved to Y Division on 9 September 1870, to K Division on 12 December 1871 and back to A division on 15 September 1876. [11]

In the 1871 census he is recorded as a cousin in the household of John McDonald, a police officer aged 29 and born in Scotland, and his family at 1 New Willingham Terrace, St Pancras.[27]

He received numerous commendations between 1877 and his retirement in 1903. He was also disciplined several times - for example in 1869 for receiving a shilling from a prisoner at King Street Station for procuring him bail (for which he was ordered to refund the money and cautioned), in 1870 for being late for roll call and climbing over the railings of Number 1 Section House at King Street Station to avoid detection (for which he was fined 2 shillings and cautioned) and in 1874 for being outside the Lion in Carlton Square with his armband off (for which he was fined 5 shillings). [11][24]

Swanson recorded details of many of the interesting cases he had investigated in the 1870s and early 1880s in a small notebook, now in the Crime Museum at Scotland Yard. Unfortunately the Whitechapel Murders are not included. Begg et al. summarise the cases in which Swanson took most pride, based on family papers and notebooks, as follows: "the recovery of the Countess of Dysart's jewels; of a stolen Gainsborough painting; the tracking and arrest of a now-forgotten confidence trickster; and a crackdown on 'rent boys' (blackmailing homosexual prostitutes) in 1897." [21] He gave evidence at the Old Bailey on a number of occasions between 1878 and 1895 [28], and was mentioned in several other trials. [29]

On 23 May 1878 he married Julia Ann Nevill at West Ham. She had been born in 1854 at Hoxton, and was the daughter of James Nevill, a licensed victualler, and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Turney). [30]

Donald and his wife Julia had six children, one of whom appears to have died in infancy.[31] The others were[32]:

  • Donald Nevill (1879-1966)
  • James John (b. 1881)
  • Ada Mary (1883-1976)
  • Douglas Sutherland (1887-1930)
  • Alice Julia (1889-1980)

He was an Inspector by the date of the 1881 census, in which the family is recorded at 1 Grove Cottages, Lambeth.[33]

In 1881 he arrested George Drevor, a merchant navy captain who had sent threatening letters to the wreck commissioner after his certificate was suspended. Drevor suffered from the curious delusion that he had been chosen by God to discover the sea serpent. He showed Swanson the serpent, preserved in a bottle of spirits, "about 4ft or 5ft long, and somewhat peculiar formation." [34]

In July 1881 he was involved in a much more serious case - he was rewarded for his "energy and zeal" in the arrest of Percy Lefroy Mapleton, who had murdered Isaac Gold in a railway carriage.[35]

On 19 November 1887 he moved to Central Office (Scotland Yard). At this time he was a Chief Inspector. [11][21]

In September 1889, he met two French newspaper reporters - one of whom described him as "un véritable gentleman" - and arranged to meet them the following day at Leman Street Police Station. [36]

In July 1890 a strange complaint was made by one William Billings, in a semi-literate letter addressed from the Scotch Store, Whitefriars, Fleet Street, that Swanson, in the presence of Moore, had told Billings he would kick him "with his foot". [11]

In the 1891 census the family is recorded at 5 Camden Villas, Lambeth.[37]

In 1891 he was involved in the investigation of a bizarre fraud attempt by a man named Edward Pinter, who tried to obtain £40,000 in gold from a jeweller by pretending that he had discovered the philosopher's stone and could make one sovereign into three. Swanson concealed himself in the jeweller's workshop in Clerkenwell while Pinter demonstrated the technique. [38]

In 1895 he travelled to Jersey to bring back to London Leonard Harper, who was accused of fraud in New Zealand. [39]

In 1896 he was involved in the recovery of jewellery valued at £20,000, which had been stolen from the home of I. Townsend Burden, a New York millionaire, by his valet and footman. He was initially expected to receive a £500 share of the total reward of £2000, but a series of law suits followed, and the matter was still under dispute more than two years later. [40]

In 1896 he was promoted to Superintendent.[21]

In 1897 a New York Times reporter, on a sightseeing tour of London, visited Swanson in his "private den". He regretted that he was unable to show the reporter the Rogues' Gallery, as that would be unfair to reformed criminals, but he arranged for him to be taken to see Bow Street Police Court the next day. [41]

In the 1901 census the family is recorded at 1 Stockwell Park Walk, Lambeth.[42]

In 1901, in collaboration with Pinkerton's Detective Agency, he arranged for the return of Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which had been stolen from Bond Street by Adam Worth 25 years earlier. [43]

He resigned from the force on 1 July 1903, having been awarded a pension of £280 a year.[11][21]

According to Begg et al. in retirement he remained in correspondence with Sir Robert Anderson, whom he described as his "old master", until the latter's death, and was a witness of his will. He retained all his faculties, and spent a great deal of his time in a greenhouse or potting shed tying flies for his summer fishing holidays and reading and annotating books, especially on philosophy. [21][44] He is said to have returned year after year to his native Scotland for his holidays, and to have enjoyed fishing on sea, loch or river.[45]

In the 1911 census the family is again recorded at 1 Stockwell Park Walk, Lambeth.[46]

By the end of 1912 they had moved to 3 Presburg Road, New Malden, Surrey.[47]

Donald Swanson died at that address on 25 November 1924. [48] By his will, dated 20 December 1909, he named his wife as his sole executrix and legatee.[49]

His widow, Julia, died in 1935.[50]


  1. Days of My Years, p. 273 (1914).
  2. At Scotland Yard (1903), cited by Begg, Fido and Skinner, The Jack the Ripper A-Z, p. 440 (1996).
  3. Reynolds's Newspaper, 17 February 1895. McIntyre's other examples were John Littlechild, Jerome Caminada, of Manchester, James Black, of Birmingham, and John Mallon, of Dublin.
  4. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 123-4 (2000), citing a document in the possession of Swanson's family. See also Evans and Rumbelow, Scotland Yard Investigates, p. 84-86 (2006), where a photograph of the document is reproduced.
  5. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Departmental Committee upon Metropolitan Police Superannuation, 29 November 1889. Posted by Simon Wood on Casebook.
  6. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 17-19 (2000), citing MEPO 3/140, ff. 36-42.
  7. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 30-33 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 129-134.
  8. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 73-7 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 137-145.
  9. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 135-40 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 148-159.
  10. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 206-10 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 184-194.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 11.8 Transcripts and images from MEPO 3/2890 posted by tnb on Casebook.
  12. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 471, 473, 176 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301H, ff. 7-14, Daily Chronicle, 28 December 1888, and MEPO 3/143, f. B.
  13. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 531-533, 535, 550-552, 556-557 (2000), citing MEPO 3/140, ff. 134-140, 153-157, 160-161.
  14. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 612-616, 619-622, 631-632 (2000), citing MEPO 3/140, ff. 65-74, 89-90, 97-108.
  15. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 446, 447 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 239-245.
  16. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, p. 673 (2000), citing a copy of document now missing.
  17. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 595-598 (2000), citing a photocopy of a document now missing.
  18. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 602, 603 (2000), citing HO 144/220/A49301, ff. 44-45.
  19. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, p. 604 (2000), citing HO 144/221/A49301D, f. 1.
  20. Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 721, 723 (2000), citing MEPO 3/142, ff. 157-159, 211.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 Begg, Fido and Skinner, The Jack the Ripper A-Z, pp. 439-441 (1996).
  22. His place of birth is given as Thurso in the 1881 and 1911 censuses, and his marriage certificate describes his father as John Swanson, a brewer and distiller. The register of Thurso contains two entries relating to Donald: one recording his birth at Geise on 12 August and his baptism on 2 October, and another registered on 29 December 1855, according to which he was born on 5 August. His parents had been married on 25 December 1828 at Thurso, when John was described as a mashman at John O'Groats distillery in the parish of Canisbay. Thereafter he is described as a distiller or distillery man in the 1840s and a brewer in the 1850s and later. In the 1841 census the family was at the distillery at Geise. In 1851, it was at 30 Durness Street, Thurso, where John and Mary remained for the rest of their lives. Mary died in 1873, and John in 1879.
  23. His mother seems to have been baptised as Marrion Thomson at Thurso on 23 April 1807, the daughter of John Thomson and his wife Margaret, née Sutherland. John and Margaret had been married at Thurso on 5 November 1796.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Begg, Jack the Ripper: The Facts, p. 126, 127 (2004).
  25. Meikle's forename is given as James in some secondary sources, but in MEPO 3/2890 it is written three times as "Jno Meikle".
  26. The elder Donald Swanson is recorded at Wellington Arch Police Station in the 1861, 1871 and 1881 censuses. He was unmarried, had joined the force in 1843, and had been promoted to sergeant in 1852 and inspector in 1859. He resigned on 13 December 1881, apparently following a stroke (MEPO 21/16, no 5509). His death was registered in the fourth quarter of 1882 at Kensington (reference 1a 19). According to his pension record, he had been born at Thurso on 2 February 1814, the son of William and Ellen Swanson - though the ages given in the census returns would imply he was born several years later. He may have been the Donald Swanson baptised in the neighbouring parish of Reay on 20 March 1813, the son of William Swanson and Helen (née Swanson), who had been married at Reay on 28 December 1810, and who later lived in Thurso. If so, he may have been related to Donald Sutherland Swanson through either his father or his mother (or both).
  27. Census return, 1871 (RG 10/249, f. 94v; p. 38). In 1881 John McDonald was living at Banquetting Hall, Alexandra Palace, described as "Police Officer in Charge of Building"; in the same household was his brother Alexander, aged 30 (RG 11/1386, f. 134v; p. 60).
  28. At the trials of Edward Farrier, for housebreaking, 14 January 1878, Charles Wang, for larceny, 27 May 1878, George Franklin Anderson, for fraud, 28 February 1887, James Cocks and others, for murder, 27 June 1887, and Walter Arthur Pleydell and others, for forgery, 22 July 1895 (links to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913).
  29. Those of Walter Selwyn, for forgery, 2 May 1881, Edward O'Connor and others, for fraud, 28 May 1883, Charles Thomas and others, for forgery, 17 November 1884, James George Gilbert and others, for treason, 20 April 1885, and William Gray and others, for forgery, 25 May 1891 (links to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913).
  30. Marriage certificate (reference 4a 39). Julia's place of birth is given as Hoxton in the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses, but as Surrey in 1911. Her birth was registered at Shoreditch in the first quarter of 1854 (reference 1c 161), and her parents' marriage was registered at Leighton Buzzard in the fourth quarter of 1852 (reference 3b 922). In 1871 the family was at the Marsh Gate, 66 West Ham High Street, and in 1881 at the British Lion, 46 West Ham Lane.
  31. 1911 census.
  32. Census and civil registration records
  33. Census return, 1881 (RG 11/602, f. 25v; p. 44).
  34. Marlborough Express, 20 July 1881 (Scan of article at Papers Past). Drevor was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for libel on 2 May (Transcript at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913).
  35. Begg, Jack the Ripper: the Facts, p. 127 (2004).
  36. Le Gaulois, 2 March 1891 (Transcript posted by DVV at Casebook).
  37. Census return, 1891 (RG 12/403, f. 26; p. 49). The household also included one female servant, and Annie Burrenger, aged 25 and born at Stratford, described as a cousin.
  38. Timaru Herald, 27 June 1891 (Scan of article at Papers Past).
  39. Tuapeka Times, 10 July 1895 (Scan of article at Papers Past).
  40. Mataura Ensign, 25 June 1896 (Scan of article at Papers Past); Grey River Argus, 3 June 1897 (Scan of article at Papers Past); New York Times, 11 December 1898.
  41. New York Times, 17 July 1897.
  42. Census return, 1901 (RG 13/424, f. 52v ; p. 44).
  43. Deseret News, 18 May 1901; [New Zealand] Star, 11 October 1902 (Scan of article at Papers Past).
  44. Post by Martin Fido on Casebook, 17 January 2006 (reposted 18 February 2008).
  45. Post by Grey Hunter on Casebook, 23 January 2006 (reposted 18 February 2008).
  46. Census return, 1911 (RG 14/2037, registration district 25, sub-district 3, enumeration district 31, no 91).
  47. Kelly's Directory of Surrey, 1913.
  48. This is the date given by his death certificate (reference 2a 491), though some secondary sources give 24 November. The cause of death was (1) Arterio Sclerosis (2) Heart Failure Asthenia.
  49. Probate of will, 23 February 1925.
  50. Index entry for the death of Julia A Swanson (June quarter 1935, Surrey North Eastern, 2a 32).