Could SA have a Jack the Ripper?
By Celean Jacobson
An eminent South African historian believes he has stumbled on Jack the Ripper.
Charles van Onselen said at first he wasn't sure he wanted to publicise the conclusions he drew when he noticed parallels in the century-old, unsolved Jack the Ripper case and the background of Joseph Silver, a feared international criminal who terrorised women as "King of the Pimps" in Johannesburg.
He expected resistance, especially from the United Kingdom where, he said, there is a "whole cottage industry" devoted to the 1888 murders of streetwalkers in London's Whitechapel.
|'These were horrific sexual attacks'|
Indeed, the publicity around van Onselen's "The Fox and The Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath", published in April, has made much of Silver being Jack the Ripper. But van Onselen, who took nearly three decades to research the book, only makes his Ripper case in the final 25th chapter, written in the last 36 months.
And while the book has been well-received as a great work of "historical detection," reaction from "Ripperologists" has been sceptical.
"Skip the Ripper," said one British reviewer. A reader on a Web site dedicated to the elusive Jack found that the book "from the Ripperological perspective is fairly weak" and that there were probably dozens of men who could have fitted the profile of the crazed killer that van Onselen describes.
To his doubters the author said: "It is infuriating because no one of these things is definitive. I haven't got a knife with blood on it, nor will you ever get that. But my question then is: How many coincidences do you want to mount up in your mind simultaneously until you start saying this is a real possibility? It is in fact not a possibility, it's a probability."
|'Johannesburg was spectacularly unlawful'|
Van Onselen, an acclaimed biographer, started out, though, exploring South Africa's criminal history, one of his areas of speciality. He was researching the white slave trade when he encountered Silver, the head of Johannesburg's pimps and "the most dangerous man" in the country.
Detailed and fast-paced, the book paints a vivid "Gangs of New York"-like picture of Johannesburg as a young mining town, which the author describes as "hell's playground."
"Johannesburg was spectacularly unlawful. It was my exploring Johannesburg with its madness that first drew him (Silver) to my attention," the author said, sitting in his tree-filled garden, about five kilometers (three miles) from where Silver reigned, in a city still regarded as one of the most crime-ridden in the world.
Silver, born in Kielce, Poland in 1868, arrived in Johannesburg in 1898 fresh from a stint in Sing Sing for burglary and a stay in London a decade earlier, which he spent the rest of his life trying to conceal.
The evidence that Silver was in Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper murders includes the birth of his daughter there, van Onselen said.
Scores of people have been accused of the Ripper murders, but no one has ever been proven guilty and London police put the number of most likely suspects at just four, among them a poor Whitechapel resident named Kosminski who, like Silver, was a Polish Jew. At the time, Londoners speculated the killer was Jewish, leading to fears of an anti-Jewish backlash.
Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg, Silver set up a string of cafes, cigar shops and police-protected brothels. He was backed by a gang of Russo-Polish Jews from New York.
Silver was litigious, wrote bold letters to newspapers and had an array of mocking aliases. Jack the Ripper is believed to have taunted police with brazen letters to the papers, including one signed by the name by which he has come to be known.
While incarcerated in Johannesburg's Fort prison, Silver, who served as pimp and police informer, perpetrated a sexual assault that has left its chilling imprint on South African prison slang.
Informers, especially hated during the years of the repressive apartheid regime, are to this day known as "impimpi," while one prison gang designates those responsible for procuring their 'boy-wives' as AmaSilva.
Van Onselen, the son of a detective, tracked Silver across four continents.
"I was staggered by how mobile this guy was," the author says.
Aided by cheap steamship travel, Silver made his way among the demimonde of the Atlantic world from South Africa to Buenos Aires, Santiago, Paris and Brussels before being executed as a spy in Poland in 1918.
Van Onselen points to similarities between the subject of his book and the Whitechapel murderer, both psychopaths with a deep hatred of women. Silver had bitter, violent relationships with women all his life.
"In terms of a template for this person, in terms of age, personality, mental illness, pattern for rest of life, this is the best fit there has ever been," he says.
Van Onselen also believes, with a touch of pride, that he has made an important connection.
The Ripper murderer carved up women's bodies, removed their cheap rings and cut off their noses and ears. In one case, a heart was reportedly missing, possibly thrown into a fire.
Van Onselen believes the Ripper drew his inspiration from the Book of Ezekiel, which calls for the purging of whores:
"And I will set my jealously against thee, and they shall deal furiously with thee: they shall take away thy nose and thine ears... thy residue shall be devoured by fire.
"They shall also strip thee out of thy clothes, and take away thy fair jewels.... Thus will I make thy lewdness to cease from thee...."
Most people at the time were more familiar with the Bible than they are today. But van Onselen believes that specific text would have been of interest to the syphilitic Silver, who was obsessed with Jewish ritual cleansing and saw women as "vendors of sexual pollution."
On the Net:
Scotland Yard: http://www.met.police.uk/history/ripper.htm
Published on the Web by IOL on 2007-05-02 11:38:43