By Tony Williams, with Humphrey Price. Trade paperback edition published 2006, by Orion Publishers LTD. 227 pgs., ISBN: 0-7528-7698-8.
A more recent contribution to the vast media trove (print, film, TV) clustered around the infamous case of Jack the Ripper (JtR). The author is a descendent of John Williams, who is one of many suspected of being JtR. To set the stage, so to speak, I’ll quote from the book’s back cover “Jack the Ripper, who murdered five women in London’s East End in 1888, has never before been identified.”
The obvious theme of the book is to put forth the author’s ancestor as the perpetrator. The major suspects (about 6-10 are the number most often mentioned) usually have enough ties to the case to merit attention. That is to say, to be a suspect one has to have, at the very least, been in London in the fall of 1888, had some familiarity with the East End, and, not surprisingly, must’ve been able-bodied, or at least, living.
What we get here is a well-written and nicely-paced biography of John Williams. Of obvious interest is his medical career; this sheds plenty of light both on his personality and presents us with the bag of tricks, we might say, to clue us in about Williams’ possible identity as JtR.
Like most of the JtR suspects he seems to have been a cold narcissist. This trait served to distance him from his colleages; though, as the author points out, a degree of jealousy probably contributed to frequent snubbings. Likewise, he seems to have treated his wife as more of an occasionary interesting object of curiosity rather than a spouse. Even by the standards of the time, Lizzie was neglected.
Plus she proved to be infertile; this inability to produce an heir vexed Willians so much that he thought he might be able to ‘fix’ her. That would require study–of he uterus, that is. Exactly the prized object of JtR’s murders, it seems. There, in a nutshell, lies Williams’ connection with JtR.
Once we sidle up to the Fall of ’88 in chapter 9, we focus on the London scene; specifically, the goings-on in the Whitechapel area of the East End. Then, there’s a quick, but concise narrative of the murders (the so-called ‘canonical five’–Catherine Eddowes, Mary Anne Nichols, Mary Jane Kelly, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride–the five women most often attributed as JtR’s victims). A possible connection with Williams, some pills found on the second victim, Annie Chapman, raises the question “could these have come from the [nearby] clinic where John Williams told his friend he was working?” (p. 102).
Well, it’s like saying that the coin I pickup in the street might’ve been tossed there by the Yeti, who, someone said, had been seen in these parts. That’s not the only chancy reference–admittedly, however, it is a possibility. But Williams/Price are on much firmer ground establishing Dr. Williams’ whereabouts at the Dispensary (in effect a sort of ER for the less fortunate); intriguingly, John never actually appears as an employee, but spelled/substituted for another doctor there. This murky status would give him access to a facility with all the accoutrement of surgery, not to mention a backdoor into malefeasence of all sorts.
It is known, that by 1890, Williams was “to be ‘relieved of the duty of performing ovariotomy.’ He was relinquishing *exactly* the operation carried out by the Ripper.” (p.120). That too is a peripheral minefield. The plot thickens yet again; the doc also practiced in a workhouse infirmary in Whitechapel, also off the books.
His secrecy made sense, as he didn’t want better-classed patients to know he was among the lower orders. Of course, this situation gave John another venue to skulk about as someone up to no good, like JtR.
Fittingly, there’s more emphasis on Mary Kelly (the topic of chapter 12), the last, and the most enigmatic of the ‘canonical’ victims. We learn plenty about Mary, the men in her life, and, more to the point, possible connections with Williams. But that raises the stakes, so to speak. Mary lived only a small distance from Williams at one point (when she was better off); or he might’ve been on duty when she needed to check into the infimary, etc.
Well, nobody can say that they didn’t meet, or even have a passing familiarity with each other; as either of them would’ve had similar encounters with other people in their lives. That sounds like a non-statement. But, no, these circumstantial tidbits are puzzle pieces in Williams’ already partly filled-in JtR profile. His ‘stature’ as a JtR suspect rises as a result.
Whether all that is very convincing is the larger question. There’s more, of course. It happens that, coincidentally, both families were from the same part of Wales. In fact, relations worked together at a tin plate works in Swansea “that if Mary Kelly’s father worked there, he would be well know to John Williams’s father-in-law” (p.152). More pertinent to John and Mary, it’s possible (p. 156) that they met in Wales c. 1881 when she ended up in an infirmary there.
Then, at some points between 1881 and 1885, “Maybe the doctor saw her in Denbeigh [in Wales]; found her again in Cardiff, older, distressed, and available?” (P. 156). To sum it up “we could place both of them together in the same area of the country; then in the same town or even hospital building, where they might’ve had the opportunity to meet; then in the same area of a large city [London]. ” (p. 158). Again, my outlier opinion is–so, what?
What’s obviously missing in this admittedly large array of coincidence is a purpose; what difference would it make if Mary and John saw each other every day of their lives? They would say ‘hi’ a million times, and then–he kills her? Well, maybe not so fast with the sarcasm. There is something here; and the Welsh background plays into this. Mary was possibly more than a familiar face, she was a physical reminder of John’s first love (who, to twist the knife (!) had married John’s best friend).
Extrapolating from this emotional and psychological premise–as opposed to merely logistical connections–John may have avenged himself on a surrogate…by violating and murdering Mary. On the surface, however, John wanted to make his mark as an innovative surgeon “His gift to obstetrics, wrote one of his biographers, was the use of the abdominal surgery to cure certain gynaecologcal ptoblems” (p. 165).
But, paradoxically, that fine intention contained the seed of a more vexing issue. Experimental surgery takes practice; that is, time, as in years, maybe decades. To speed up the process, John would need a surplus of patients willing to risk what may well have been a good opportunity for both parties.
By this time (1884), Mary had been reduced to prostitution, and, as mentioned, had been a patient in the workhouse infirmary. The author gives a clear example of this nexus between need and want “his [Dr. Williams’s] friend Dr. Herman of the London Hospital gave a paper to the Obstetrical Society in October 1881… [in which] he had used as a base of 110 women as his evidence; of these, 68 were East End prostitutes” (p.165).
Again the question “How easy was it to assume enough authority [at the infirmary] to enter the buildings freely, and would it be right to expect that no record of their time within the walls at all?” (p. 174). With more qualifiers, we’re put on notice (p.175) that that’s where Williams might’ve met the first JtR victim, Elizabeth Stride.
Looping back to Mary Kelly in Chapter 13, “At some point then, Mary Kelly travelled up to London, perhaps in the company of John Williams ” (p.180). The surmise is–that she was his ‘kept woman.’ That is, from their assumed mutual acquaintance in Wales (possibly for medical reasons, or, for “assignations”). Also interesting is William’s association with Dr. Andrew Davies, both in Wales and in London. Davies is usually associated in JtR studies with Robert D’Onston Stevenson. D’Onston, an American, and a patient of Davies in the fall of 1888, figures as a JtR suspect of some stature.
Back to Dr. John.”If he believed that his wife’s apparent infertility came from her having suffered from one of those diseases [of the uterus] in the past, maybe his increasing scientific interest coupled with a private desire to seek a cure for her ” (p. 182). Again we plunge deep into the JtR victim list, this time turning up Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman, and Mary Ann Nichols, after setting aside Mary Kelly for a bit.
In short, all five victims had stayed at or passed through the infirmary at various times in the ’80s (all possibly were met and/or treated by Williams). The crux of the matter, though, as mentioned, is not mere proximity, but motive: “maybe he even wanted to go as far as to transplant these fertile organs [uteruses from the victims] into his sterile wife.” (p. 189).
To put it another way “we are not suggesting that John Williams had planned the murder of these women over many years; merely that the women…made the mistake of being the wrong patients, in the wrong place, at the wrong time” (p. 195).
What follows is a quick narrative of John’s alleged JtR scenario (pgs. 196-197). This is well-imagined “A kind of mania overtook him” (p. 198). One inference, needed I suppose, to sustain the author’s thesis, is that Williams was not the ‘JtR’ of legend, because he didn’t kill for sexual gratification (also p. 198). The fact that the mutilations occurred after the stragulations doesn’t negate the sexual aspect.
One doesn’t have go too far afield in the serial-killer pantheon to find the likes of Ed Gein, and his ilk, for a killer who actually got his disgusting thrill by mutilating women who were already dead. (In his case, Gein usually evades the classic serial killer badge because he only killed a few of those whom he mutilated). The state of the victim doesn’t necessarily correspond to the sexual mutilation/gratification m.o.
This leaves us with some tangible physical evidence–the knife that Tony Williams discovered in the boxes of his ancestor’s documents. “What made it [the knife] so special, considering it was so battered and well used?” (p. 203). And, “This is the knife [used by JtR] that I held in my hand of the reading room of the National Library in Aberystwyth. I am sure of it.” (p. 202).
Why? It’s a knife. Also there’s some microscope slides that we’re to suppose have blood; the blood of one the victims. Again why? As for the knife, it’s very commonality and condition suggest…nothing specific. Maybe it was used to open envelopes. The slides, unexamined, are even less incriminating; wouldn’t a doctor accumulate such stuff over the years? Both items are mere banalities without some specific tie-in to one or more of the victims.
This is one of the problems of this sort of inquiry. Having set forth a specific premise: that Dr. John Williams was JtR–then it must therefore follow that everything noted and mentioned supports that premise. In this case, a supposition (that John was in Wales or London, specifically in a certain workhouse infirmary, when/where victim x was) has more creedence than a physical fact. That’s because we can’t show that such a meeting or acquaintance could not have existed or happened.
Let’s just accept for a moment that the authors are correct when they propose that all five victims were known to Williams at some point prior to their murders in the Fall of 1888. Given the scrutiny that their whereabouts have undergone in this work, this is much more than mere assertion–it’s quite possible. Could other doctors, policemen, neighbors, etc., have also known them? That’s possible too, especially in the person of Dr. Davies.
But, we have to admit, it’s more than coincidence that may well have brought these five women and Dr. Williams together. A completely different set of of rules applies in the matter of a six-inch a knife and some slides. Murders by knife involve–a blade of some sort, and, by the way, blood.
The authors prefer to speculate only that the slides contain “human material” (p. 203). Or frog material. The slides are a dead end, and the knife is a toss in the dark. Both things fit countless harmless scenarios of no interest to the historian, least of all, the criminologist.
There is a pyramid of JtR books available. Among those that seek to ‘promote’ a certain suspect, this is one of the better ones. Tony Williams’ personal interest in the case, along with the actual material he has rediscovered, gives us a more authentic and tighter-knit story. The most engaging thing of all is that Williams has a good style; the book has that just right mix of information, accessibility, and narrative flow.
Uncle Jack is a good read and a significant addition to the JtR historical record. 8.5/10.