Uncle Jack, The Bestselling True Story of John Williams, aka, Jack the Ripper.

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.

Sinister Forces [6/10]

A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft. Book One: The Nine. By Peter Lavender. Hardcover edition published 2005 by TrineDay, 371 pgs. ISBN:0-9752906-2-2.

Just the thing for conspiracy-theory junkies. Not to mention the occult, witchcraft, Satanism, UFOs, the CIA, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe, Nazism, etc. We get the picture. Or do we? That’s a lot of territory to cover.

In fact, a very wild ride: Salem MA to West Virginia, Rome, Celtic this and that, Egypt, ancient you name it. Joseph Smith, incredibly enough, is linked to almost all of these people and places. Mostly because of the interesting theory of the “diffusionist” historians (as opposed to the traditional “independent inventionists”) who posit that the Native Americans were not the first ‘natives’ in the Americas.

That would be the Adena and Hopewell peoples. These guys were Pre-Columbian migrants from Europe and the Middle East, pretty much in Biblical times. They were the mound builders in North America–not our Native Americans. It seems that Joseph Smith had divined (literally) all of this; giving some backdrop for the Genesis of the Mormon religion.

The golden tablets and the angel Moroni–a myth derived somewhat from the Biblical one–gains authenticity with these ancient links (specifically to the Adena). Fascinating stuff, and decently documented. The author isn’t trying to sell us on this “diffusionist” stuff, either.

Well, this nugget is just an icecube in this ponderous iceberg of information. In a sort of new-agey version of ‘six degrees of separation,’ there’s hardly an urban myth that isn’t connected to a cult, that wasn’t founded by a serial killer.

The narrative engages us with a relentless pursuit of…some primordial cause. But that’s also the problem. Just why are we on this journey? Perhaps to show that West Virginia is the Pandora’s Box of the world. Or is it Kentucky? Some of the comparisons are brilliant: Charles Manson as a latter-day Joseph Smith? I might throw John Brown on that stack. Sounds outlandish; but here I feel I understand the author’s intent. Reality is outlandish. And the more you think (and research it), the more nutty reality gets–absurd yet tangible as rock.

But do we really need a detailed biography of the father of one of Manson’s possible victims? And two theories on why this Hungarian guy changed his name from Berkessy to Hube? I’ve even got a problem with the premise of the first theory: how is the original name more ‘American’ or easier to pronounce than the new one? More importantly, who cares?

But at least that’s tangentially related to the subject(s). In fact, the research (I suppose that includes the weather, the author’s mood, the birth sign of the motel owner, the color of the author’s rental car) is part of the story. Indeed, he treats research as a character or force: it “threatens” to…I guess, cause nightmares?

With the amount of research, which involved enough travel to keep the Star Trek crew busy for a while–it must’ve been quite an adventure. Maybe that’s material for another book: about the process of writing. It’s the finished product that we pay for, not the raw material.

I think if the author had kept the narrative to a more limited number of subjects: i.e., Joseph Smith, Oswald, L. Ron Hubbard, Charles Manson…maybe a couple more, then this would be more focused, have greater impact, and be more entertaining. What we have is essentially a blend of these biographies (plus dozens more) with a thematic sequence: Pre-Columbian culture, new religious movements, the occult, UFOs, mind-altering experiments, etc.

Thus the logjam of old-fashioned new-age and….modern new-age. This ambitious slate of subject matter would go down more smoothly in a book twice as long: with bottom-of-page footnotes for increasingly obscure cross-currents and tidbits.

Sirhan Sirhan as a an Oswald-like fall guy? That’s interesting all right. But does that mean that 1692 Salem touches on 1968 Los Angeles? Or Scientology? LSD? the CIA? The most confusing spot, and, with my impressionable mind, also one of the most intriguing–for the level of absurdity–is pro-Castro Oswald sharing office space in New Orleans with the anti-Castro Guy Bannister. And this isn’t meant to be a trivia quest, bearing as it does, of course, on the JFK assassination.

The tone in these passages is spot-on: bemused, but objective. For the most part, though, it’s the content that wanders down a disappearing path. Generally, in non-fiction works, it’s up to the reader to sift through the material; I just don’t want to have to mentally revise and annotate the text myself. A fun, but exasperating read. 6/10.

Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery. 9.5/10

By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank of the Hartford Courant. Published by Ballantine Books (trade paperback edition), 2005. 269 pgs. ISBN: 0-345-46783-3.

The authors set up this narrative completely and succinctly:

“…[T]he North’s story is thought to be heroic…Northerners were the good guys in the Civil War. They freed the slaves.

“Not all of this is exactly mythology, but it is a convenient and white-washed shorthand “

“The truth is that slavery was a national phenomena. The North shared in the wealth it created, and in the oppression it required” (Introduction, xxv).

This book is an eye-opener. I was aware of the complicity of New England’s insurance companies, some of which are still prominent, in providing ‘coverage’ for southern slave owners ‘property.’ Also, it’s widely known that, at the time of the Revolution, most northern states had slavery. That ‘institution’ very gradually disappeared over the early decades of the 19th century, surviving only south of the Ohio River and Mason-Dixon boundary.

That the Civil War was fought over the legality of secession, and not slavery per se, is difficult to dispute. Of course, without slavery, secession would’ve been a moot point. All of this is to say that regional, philisophic, and religious antipathy to slavery in the North did not imply much more than an abstract sympathy for black Americans, free or slave. White people may have thought that the lot of slaves was unjust, but equality between black and white wasn’t envisioned or desired by more than a handful of whites.

So, the author breaks down this pattern of outright complicity in slavery in every corner of the North. Particularly in New England. Shipbuilding, along with the textile and ivory industries, central to the industrial bloom in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts (and New York), were dependent on the need for slaveships, cotton, and ivory.

In other words, the ships were needed to bring slaves from Africa, the cotton from the South (conveyed on other Yankee vessels) for cloth woven into garments in the North, the ivory, also from Africa, for Northern factories to churn out piano keys and billiard balls. The ships, crews, and slaves themselves (as the cargo, or later, simply property) were financed, paid, or insured by Northern banks and insurance companies.

In a sense, it’s hard to see how the North and South drifted apart politically, given this lucrative and symbiotic partnership based on slavery. The authors find complicity is such arcane fields as apprehension of fugitive slaves, the manufacture of the very manacles of bondage, not to mention clothes and food for the slaves.

The links between North American, Carribean, and South American slavery is instructive. Rum, food went from Northern ports to support slavery in other parts of the world. Another well-known fact, the end of the domestic slave trade in 1808, proved to be worth little more than the paper it was written on.

The illicit slave trade (as if slave trade had legitimacy) continued even during the Civil War. All of which was possible with the indifference, acquiescence, tolerance, and outright participation of Northerners. The western states, bordering the Great Lakes, had less culpability in slavery; especially after the region’s gradual emancipation.

Nonetheless, lynchings and race riots were not uncommon across the North, particularly in border areas. Illinois’s proximity to Missouri led to a racial incident from a slave state to re-ignite (literally) in the so-called free state.

If the book has a flaw, it’s something inherent in the topic; there’s simply too much ground to cover. Might have been a bit tighter read to stick to the New England states’ complicity. Even so, including the arc of New Englander John Brown’s mission, as well as that of several other prominent abolitionists, adds a lot of background to the central story.

But to focus on New England’s role in slavery, we have to go back over two centuries before the Civil War. The African situation has to figure in, although juggling with the South itself, border state issues (i.e., Nat Turner’s Rebellion), the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act), and/or other countries with a hand in slavery lead us all over the map from one chapter to the next.

Maybe a more significant quibble with the authors is a hypothetical situation. In the afterword the question is posed–suppose there had been no slavery? “It is obvious that, at the very least, America’s extraordinary ascent into the world arena [without slavery] would have taken far longer than it did” (p.215). Why? I think that conclusion rests on a faulty premise.

The introduction of slavery into North America roughly paralleled the sequence of white colonization; there is no counterexample that could show a different outcome. Is it unrealistic to posit that settlers all up and down the colonies couldn’t have thrived on family farms, pastures, and livestock?

Particularly in the South, with its better soil and climate, I think that the historical version is the unlikeliest. It begs the question: why did people emigrate (first from England, and other countries later)? For religious, economic, and political reasons, as has always been the case when people move on.

Due to some unique convergence of ideas, some people felt a need for slaves. I would say, there was an opportunity to recreate the vassal system with lords and peasants that had just began to break down in Europe by the 17th century. What is more medieval than a major house, surrounded by a vast acreage, worked by subject people for the lord’s benefit, both in wealth and status?

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he suggested–with tongue-in-cheek–that the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s tales of chivalry brought about our Civil War. Unlike Europe, of course, here there was no ready supply of hapless laborers. So, slaves were the answer to an invented problem.

I’d go further and say: we might have come along even more rapidly without slavery (which would’ve also meant no Civil War). What’s remarkable isn’t that the U.S. became a major player on the world stage, but that we accomplished this despite the handicap of an the essentially anti-capitalist and inefficient slavery system.

Yes, cotton and tobacco made a lot of money for some people. But instead of a coterie of extreme wealth, surround by a mass of abject poverty, we might have had a broader class of self-sufficient farmers, with, hopefully, a surplus for cash or investment. That is,the system such as existed throughout most parts of the North.

To look at the North/South dichotomy another way, the Southern states functioned like so many colonies of the North. And, as in colonial experiences elsewhere, the South served as a cash cow for the North–along with its collaborators, the plantation owners–for the benefit of a clique in both areas.

In this case, uniquely, there were two sets of natives to deal with, the actual Native Americans, and the ‘imported’ native Africans. The first group was gradually, but decisively marginalized, the second was forced to make itself useful.

Against the relatively weak position of the South, which weakened increasingly as the 19th century neared its midpoint, the North was literally steaming ahead economically. It’s no wonder that Southern whites, top to bottom, were suspicious and defensive towards the North. They were motivated to fight the North because they feared that their society was endangered.

It was. What I can’t quite figure (as mentioned above) was what motivated the Union soldier in the war. As we saw in the New York Draft Riot of 1863, even compulsion didn’t work. Those guys fought against fighting. Of course, in ’61, neither side had much trouble getting recruits–for 90 day enlistments, that is. The South eventually had to resort to conscription too.

But to win the war, the Union armies had to conquer the South. No easy task, given that the Confederate states comprised an area about as large as western Europe. It would be interesting to know what the generals and the rank-and-file thought about their mission. It took Lincoln a few years to announce Emancipation; had the war ended quickly, there wouldn’t have been the need for that humanitarian policy–that was nonetheless a strategic necessity for Union victory.

I’ve gone well beyond the scope of this book. That’s because it’s so powerful and thought-provoking that the reader comes away with an alarming glimpse at our troubled past. In fact, we will never get away from slavery’s legacy.

An excellent book: 9.5 out of 10.