Who was he?

Charles Nicholl

  • The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath by Charles van Onselen
    Cape, 672 pp, £20.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 07929 7

They found Mary Jane Kelly lying on her bed, in the dingy room she rented in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was about 25 years old, a colleen from County Limerick, ‘possessed of considerable attractions’. Widowed young, she had turned, like thousands of others in late Victorian London, to prostitution. One of her clients had taken her for a spree to Paris, and she had started to call herself Marie Jeanette. She was also nicknamed Ginger. She lay with her head ‘turned on the left cheek’. One arm was across her stomach, the other turned outwards ‘& rested on the mattress’. She was naked and ‘the legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk’. These are the words of the police doctor summoned to the scene, Thomas Bond. It was the morning of Friday, 9 November 1888, and Kelly had just become – at a conservative estimate – the fifth and final victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

The positioning of the victim’s body is consistent with the other murders, the splayed legs an immediately readable pornographic cliché: the prostitute in a pose of erotic availability. It is one of the Ripper’s ‘signatures’. It introduces a theme of retribution: this was her crime, and this is her punishment. Dr Bond does not venture these opinions, of course. His job was to observe, and to record as succinctly and scientifically as possible what he saw. His report continues: ‘The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds, & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features.’ The eviscerated body parts were scattered – or worse, arranged – about her body, ‘viz. the uterus & kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side’, and so on. The heart was missing, however: ‘the pericardium was open below & the heart absent.’ It may have been burned in the fireplace, which bore evidence of a ‘fire so large as to melt the spout off the kettle’. More probably it was taken away by the killer. This is another of Jack’s signatures: what is known in the lexicons of Ripperology as the ‘harvesting’ of body parts.

This murder scene is the most gruesome even by the Ripper’s standards. Kelly was the only one of the five certain (or ‘canonical’) victims to have been murdered indoors. He had time to do what he wanted to her. The scene will echo on through innumerable retellings of the Ripper legend, in that capacious subsection of popular mythology reserved for serial killers and their atrocities, but is somehow more chilling in the clipped, forensic, almost laconic tones of the police doctor. These are unadorned, scene of crime observations: no fog licking at the windowpane; no mention of the blood, which must have been everywhere; no description of the smell in the room. The bare facts are enough to convey the shock of being there, of having this glimpse, as Charles van Onselen puts it, into ‘the Angel of Death’s laboratory’.

Van Onselen’s long, disturbing and magnificently dogged book, The Fox and the Flies, takes us through a grim terrain spread across three continents, a world of squalor and violence, of prostitutes and pimps, of tenements and penitentiaries – the world of the ‘white slave trade’ – but it is to here that the trail keeps winding back, to London’s East End in 1888, to the scene in that bedroom in Miller’s Court, and to the unanswered question which is at least part of the Ripper’s enduring fascination: who was he?

A leading South African historian, van Onselen has pursued this trail for nearly thirty years, though it was a good while before he realised where it was leading. He first caught a glimpse of his prey, as it were, out of the corner of his eye, on a day in the late 1970s at the Johannesburg Public Library. Researching Johannesburg’s immigrant underworld at the end of the 19th century, he was leafing through an old newspaper, the Standard & Digger News of 1898, when he came upon an item about the American Club. A dodgy establishment on Johannesburg’s Sauer Street, the club’s chief business was procurement and prostitution, both locally and internationally – a ‘trade union’ of pimps in ‘coded, telegraphic and postal communication’ as far afield as Russia, Argentina and the United States. There was nothing extraordinary about this, in a gold-mining boom town awash with money and commercial sex. What caught the researcher’s eye was a small anomaly: the president of the club’s casual claim or boast that he had previously worked as a ‘special agent’ with the Society for the Prevention of Crime in New York City. Van Onselen was then ‘more interested in processes than personalities’, but was sufficiently intrigued to jot down the name of this racketeer-cum-detective: Joseph Silver.

A few weeks later – the serendipity of the archives – the name jumped out at him again. In 1903, Silver was in a court in Bloemfontein giving evidence about a break-in at a jewellery store. Certain details of the story suggested once more his ambiguous connections with the police. Still not knowing quite what he was looking for, van Onselen began to search more purposefully for Silver. He was difficult to follow because of his numerous aliases, of which Joseph Silver, first used in about 1891, was his most habitual. His real name was Joseph Lis. He was born in Kielce, Poland, in 1868, one of the nine children of a Jewish tailor and petty criminal, Ansel Lis. The name Lis means ‘fox’, and gives van Onselen half of his title, and many overtones of pursuit, cunning and predation. The Silver alias was a reference to his mother, whose maiden name was Kweksylber (‘quicksilver’). He was at various times Joe Liss, Joe Eligmann, James Smith, Joseph Schmidt, Charlie Silver, Charles Greenbaum, Abraham Ramer, Ludwig; these are just a few of his ghost-names.

Silver had indeed been in New York City in the early 1890s, a low-grade thief, thug, jailbird and police informer. Convicted of stealing a couple of dollars and a silk shawl on the Lower East Side, he did two years in Sing Sing. The receiving clerk described him as 5 foot 8½ inches tall, 140 pounds in weight, with grey eyes, brown hair and a sallow complexion. (However, in a passport application in 1914 he is an inch shorter, and his eyes are blue.) His face was ‘full of pimples’ and ‘pitted’ with small scars – the facial lesions associated with secondary syphilis, according to van Onselen, who perhaps makes too much of this conjectural infection and of the behavioural abnormalities which it might have entailed.

After New York he is documented in London, c.1895-98, where he ran a brothel near Waterloo Station, was acquitted of a rape charge on a technicality, and served time for petty larceny in both Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs. Thereafter his operations expanded, mainly but not exclusively in the sex trade, first into Southern Africa, and then to France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and across to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Santiago (where he was known as José Silva or Silves, or J. Cosman). He ‘cruised the Atlantic searching out microclimates capable of sustaining his frightening physical and psychological needs’. The last record of him is in a military prison in Jaroslaw, Poland, close to the Eastern front, in the last months of the Great War; he had been found guilty of theft and espionage, and was probably executed in mid-1918. The subtitle of the book summarises him as a ‘racketeer and psychopath’, but a more extensive curriculum vitae assembled by van Onselen lists the following accomplishments: ‘arsonist, bank robber, barber, bigamist, brothel-owner, burglar, confidence trickster, detective’s agent, gangster, horse-trader, hotelier, informer, jewel thief, merchant, pickpocket, pimp, policeman, rapist, restaurateur, safe-cracker, smuggler, sodomist, special agent, spy, storekeeper, trader, thief, widower, wigmaker and white slave trafficker’.

The late 19th-century ‘white slave trade’ – an overworked phrase vaguely suggestive of English roses in Middle Eastern harems – is here given a grisly reality: abductions, rapes, intimidations, transportations. Silver epitomised the burgeoning internationalism of commercial sex at this time. Those transatlantic steamers and long-distance trains hymned by the early Modernist poets were also the vehicles that carried thousands of desperate and duped young women – many of them, like Silver, Jews from Eastern Europe – to their distant points of sale.

Four surviving photographs chart the racketeer’s progress. In the earliest, undated, perhaps around the age of twenty, he has a jaunty, almost dandyish look, with a flower in his buttonhole. Two from police records in Paris (1909) and Santiago (1912) show him in criminal mode, a cold-eyed hoodlum with bad skin and a faint smirk. The last was taken in New York in about 1914, when he was 46. It is rather stiffly posed (it is a passport photograph, but it shows him nearly down to the knees). There is the simulacrum of substance and success – the waxed moustache, the rounded collar, the tie-pin, the smart but rather dowdy jacket and waistcoat – but the glassy stare and the parted lips give him a sinister, zombie-like look.

Increasingly, van Onselen caught the acrid personal scent of the man – his ‘pathological misogyny’, his need to ‘exploit and humiliate’. He ‘routinely assaulted’ the women who worked for him. There are traces of at least three wives, all of whom worked for him as prostitutes: his ‘whore wives’, held in physical and psychological thrall. Two of them – Hannah Opticer, whom he married in London, and Hannah Vygenbaum alias Annie Alford – disappear from the record. A third, Rachel Laskin, born in Poland in about 1880, was raped and subjugated by Silver in London, and brought with him by ship to South Africa. She died there in 1945, having spent the last forty years of her life in mental hospitals, known only by the name he had given her, Lizzie Silver. Silver’s violence was the coercive thuggery of the pimp laced with psychopathic tendencies. On one occasion he plotted with others to punish a prostitute by chloroforming her and inserting ‘blue vitriol’ (hydrated copper sulphate) into her vagina. But the episode van Onselen finds most resonant was in Johannesburg in 1899, when Silver threatened another prostitute, Lillie Bloom, who was going to give evidence against him. There were policemen there, but Silver managed to get her aside, and hiss a word of warning. He spoke in Yiddish. He told her that if she betrayed him to the court he would ‘open up her belly’.

So we come to the book’s central assertion: that Joseph Lis or Silver was himself that notorious opener-up of women’s bellies, Jack the Ripper. It has to be said that the evidence is often tenuous, and the links speculative, but perhaps tenuous and speculative are as good as we are going to get in a 120-year-old case that from the outset generated so many conflicting accounts and theories.

The first problem is that while there is good documentation of Lis-Silver in London in the later 1890s, after his first spell in New York, very little is known of his movements back in 1888, when the murders occurred. What we do know, thanks to van Onselen’s tenacious ferreting, is that on 14 August 1884, in Kielce, the 15-year-old Lis obtained a passport to travel to England. The typical route for emigrants from northern Europe was by ship from Hamburg to Hull, thence either by train across to Liverpool for a passage to America, or south to London to disappear into the ghettoes of the East End, which in the 1880s housed an estimated 30,000-40,000 Russo-Polish Jews. By this route, van Onselen believes, Lis arrived in London in 1885.

There is no documentary record of a Joseph Lis in London at this time – which may not be surprising given his fondness for aliases – but there is another Lis there. Some time after 1881, Lewis Lis set up business as a ‘general dealer’ in Plumber’s Row, just south of the Whitechapel Road, and close to the zone of the Ripper murders. It is an unusual name, and he may be a relative. He was still in business there in early 1888, when his daughter married his clerk, Moses Gourvitch. Around the same time, one Haskel Brietstein alias Adolph Goldberg, a ‘chronically unsuccessful actor and burglar’, was involved in a break-in at a warehouse directly opposite the Lis family’s store on Plumber’s Row. This Goldberg was later a close associate of Joseph Lis in New York, and is the only actual source – a not very trustworthy one – for Lis’s presence in London. He stated in a New York courtroom that he had known Lis in London in the early months of 1889.

These shreds of evidence make it possible, even plausible, that Joseph Lis was in the Whitechapel area in 1888, though none of them proves it. They are enough, at least, to make the pursuit of other links between Lis and the Ripper worthwhile. Lis’s subsequent career – the career of Joseph Silver, with its catalogue of misogynist violence and cruelty – is one such link: a retrospective psychological profile. Another is Lis’s Jewishness. It was widely believed at the time that the Ripper was a Jew, which can certainly be seen as anti-semitic scapegoating, but which may nonetheless be true. Van Onselen spends a lot of rather rhetorical energy showing how ancient Jewish notions of sexual pollution might conceivably get warped into the ritual butchery of prostitutes practised by the Ripper. The savage precepts of the Book of Ezekiel are seen as a particular blueprint; the ‘filthiness’ of a woman who has ‘committed whoredoms’, and the vengeance to be visited on her: ‘They shall deal furiously with thee. They shall take away thy nose and thine ears; and thy remnant shall fall by the sword … Thus will I make thy lewdness to cease from thee.’ Sir Robert Anderson, in charge of the investigation in its early stages, later wrote in his memoir that his chief suspect was a ‘low-class Jew’. But this man, whom he does not name, was almost certainly Aaron Kosminski, who was incarcerated in an asylum though never charged with the murders. Other Jewish suspects were John Pizer, a shoemaker known as ‘Leather Apron’; Severin Klosowski alias George Chapman; Michael Ostrog, described by a police investigator as ‘a mad Russian doctor and convict, and unquestionably a homicidal maniac’; and Joseph Isaacs.

A few brief sightings of the Ripper, of varying reliability, concur in certain aspects: a man of middling height with dark hair and a moustache. One of the witnesses said he ‘looked like a foreigner’, another that he was of ‘Jewish appearance’. His physique was ‘broad-shouldered’ or ‘stout’, and his style was ‘shabby genteel’. Lis could fit well enough with this, though not with the general estimate of the suspect’s age, which was a decade or so older than Lis’s 20 years. The most detailed description was given by a labourer, George Hutchinson, an acquaintance and possibly a client of Mary Jane Kelly. He saw a man go into Miller’s Court with her shortly after 2 a.m. on the night she was murdered. He infers from their demeanour that the man was already known to her. He wore a long dark coat with the collar and cuffs ‘trimmed astracan’, and a dark felt hat, and his moustache was ‘curled up each end’. Though of ‘respectable appearance’ he was ‘very surly looking’. He ‘walked very sharp’. The description is tantalising but problematic. Hutchinson’s long account has more visual and dramatic detail than could reasonably be expected in the circumstances: it is often dismissed as a fabrication, indeed out in the further reaches of Ripperology it is mooted that Hutchinson was himself the Ripper, and his statement a decoy.

It is around the murder of Kelly that the ghost of Joseph Lis seems almost visible. One of her neighbours, a German charwoman named Julia Venturney, told police that Kelly had spoken to her about a ‘man named Joe’, whom she was ‘very fond of’. He sometimes gave her money, but had ‘often ill-used her’. Over in Little Paternoster Row, meanwhile, a woman came forward to say that a lodger in her house had acted suspiciously around the time of the murder, upstairs pacing around in his room all night, and had disappeared immediately after it. This man was also called Joe. He was Joseph Isaacs, who was shortly afterwards arrested: according to newspaper reports, he precisely matched the description given by George Hutchinson, even down to the astrakhan coat. Nothing much is known about Isaacs, except that he had been imprisoned as a petty thief. Like all the suspects brought in for questioning, he was never charged. Van Onselen believes that the Joe whom Mary Jane Kelly knew was indeed the agitated lodger Joseph Isaacs; that Isaacs was none other than Joseph Lis, employing one of his aliases; and that all these Joes, when properly arranged, lead us to Jack.

And then there are the curious claims of Jabez Spencer Balfour – disgraced Liberal MP, convicted fraudster and journalist – which are mere unattributed third-hand rumours, but arrive at an eerie exactitude. In an article published in 1906, Balfour claimed that the Whitechapel murderer was ‘living still’ in a ‘remote British colony’ in Southern Africa, and that his identity was known to some people there. One man was said to have conversed with him ‘on the night train between the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony in about 1903’. Van Onselen shows that these statements correspond precisely with Silver’s known movements in South Africa at this time.

‘It all fits!’ is the axiomatic cry of the conspiracy-theorist, but of course it only does so after a stringent process of selection, in which convenient pieces of the evidential jigsaw are accounted significant and many others less convenient are discarded. Inevitably, van Onselen’s argument proceeds in this way, but it feels cogent and compelling even when there is little more than self-belief holding it up. This is certainly a more meaningful kind of inquiry than the more fashionable sub-genre of the celebrity suspect. Over the years these have included Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence; a celebrated doctor, Sir William Gull; a Liverpool merchant, James Maybrick, supposed author of the manuscript known as the Ripper’s ‘Diary’; and the artist Walter Sickert. Sickert’s candidacy has been energetically championed by the thriller-writer Patricia Cornwell, though she did not originate the theory. Sickert had a louche interest in the London underworld, and in the Ripper in particular, and he did a series of paintings, the ‘Camden Town Nudes’, loosely inspired by the murder of a prostitute in 1907. But Cornwell seems to have missed an early and major fork in the biographical highway, where one road leads off to the painting of pictures on disturbing sexual themes and the other to the actual perpetration of sex crimes. That one might be seen as actual evidence of the other is psychologically implausible (do we suspect the author of Titus Andronicus of cooking up children in a pie?) and logistically absurd (being rather a giveaway after he had concealed his identity so well at the time). Cornwell’s book is now mainly memorable for its enormous research bill – she reportedly spent $6 million acquiring Sickert works and memorabilia – and for her alleged folie de grandeur in destroying a painting in the hope of finding traces of the artist’s DNA, to match with traces on one of the letters purportedly (but almost certainly not) written by Jack.

Van Onselen hopes that he has shown ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Joseph Lis-Silver was the Ripper; most readers will probably conclude that he has not, or at least not yet. What he has done, triumphantly, is to probe deeply and incisively, and in a sense courageously, into that underworld of late 19th-century sex and violence. If not the Ripper himself, one sees in that last, sinister photograph of Silver a true denizen of the Ripper’s world. And if one shivers a little – those vacant eyes, those lips parted below the moustache, those powerful, spatulate, thick-fingered hands resting on the thighs – that is undoubtedly a compliment to the author of this engrossing book.