Tag Archives: murder

Who was Jack the Ripper?

Not so long ago I was browsing through Facebook (as you do) and came across a post about famous crime author, Patricia Cornwell’s, new book about Jack the Ripper. I’ve long had an interest in the case, probably like most people who read crime fiction. It’s intriguing how this serial killer who committed his crimes starting in 1888, still holds the public imagination. I hasten to add I’ve not researched it, and I didn’t know the details of the murders – just that they occurred in London’s East End, the victims were all prostitutes, their bodies were mutilated, and the killer was never caught. I also knew that many people had raised theories about Jack’s identity. I remember a two-part mini-series in the eighties (I think) dramatising the events, and nominating Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, as the murderer. Then there was the story the police were covering up for the Queen’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence.

And so it goes. I was certainly interested in Patricia Cornwell’s take on events. She’s well known for her series of books starring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. She apparently isn’t the first to point the finger at Walter Sickert, who is a famous Victorian painter (who knew?). She released a book in 2002 entitled Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. She might have thought the case was closed, but, as she says in the article, her hypothesis was ripped to pieces. She learned from at least some of the critics, realised she’d left holes in her argument, and had another go. Her reasoning is explained in Chasing the Ripper, which I downloaded from Amazon for free. It’s short, and well worth your time. Her new book Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert is available in print, but not yet as an ebook. I’ll read it when it is.

Discussing the Cornwell article, one of my FB friends asked if I’d read They all Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. I hadn’t, but I have now. Bruce Robinson has gone to extraordinary lengths to re-examine primary evidence – what’s left of it – and built a compelling case. He has a very poor opinion of Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, most especially of the ‘ruling’ class clustered around the widowed queen and her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales. He makes particular reference to the influence of Freemasonry across all important roles in Government. The Prince of Wales was the Grand Master of the order. Reading the book, I enjoyed the insights into Victorian society, especially because of Robinson’s delivery. This is no dry history book, despite the facts it brims with facts and black and white photos. Robinson builds a case that the Metropolitan police, under the guidance of Sir Charles Warren ( who broke up protesters in Trafalgar square with cavalry), didn’t catch Jack because he was a fellow Freemason, a gentleman whose arrest would have rocked the core of London’s elite. He maintains that all the Ripper’s murders were based on Freemason rituals.

Reading about the Freemasons was fascinating, not least because, as I read about their hierarchies and rituals, my mind was drawn to the secret society in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful book, Guards, Guards! It was clearly written as a send-up of the Freemasons. Ahem. I digress.

If you’re at all interested in true crime and corruption, or even simply Victorian history, this is a great read. It’s a fat book, and not cheap as ebooks go, but I’m happy to have foregone the cost of a cheapish bottle of wine. I have no doubt I’ll read it again. Robinson builds a meticulous case which is hard to refute. In proper academic style, he provides footnotes and references for all quotes, and in cases such as the Ripper’s mocking letters, the documents are reproduced as images.

I’ll admit in the early chapters as the author delves into the history of Warren and of Kitchener, I wondered what all this had to do with Jack the Ripper. A lot, as it happens. It’s backstory, detailing the setting in which Jack played his monstrous game. We’re not talking about gaslight and shadows, more the society, the people, the expectations. A tiny fraction of wealthy aristocrats governed, and owned, just about everything, and nobody else mattered. Especially not middle-aged whores in the East End of London.

And by the way, the author doesn’t stop at the usual five whores murdered in London. Robinson believes Jack continued murdering. After I’d read about the killing of a child in Bradford, for which an innocent man was  very nearly hanged, I needed a break. The author’s contempt and loathing of a corrupt system which orchestrated this train of events is understandable. Jack should have been caught before he left London. And the system contrived a case against an innocent milkman because they would not admit that Jack was back, Fortunately, the accused had a decent lawyer to help him, and the case petered out, as had the London investigations into the Ripper murders, into official bafflement.

Be warned, the writer’s style is acerbic. He doesn’t miss anybody, least of all the many, many people he thinks have deliberately obfuscated what happened at the time of the murders, and the many people over the years who have clearly not examined the known facts to reveal obvious deceit. He also frequently uses big words like feasance and egregious, as well as the occasional, well-placed ‘fuck’.

Here’s a random quote

“As an addendum to the above, in reference to MacDonald’s law-breaking haste, we read in The News From Whitechapel that ‘Later writers have tended to view his actions with suspicion, but this shows a misunderstanding of Victorian inquests, which typically ran for only one or two sessions.’ [reference provided]

A critic of less generosity than myself might dismiss this as bollocks. Wynne Baxter [the coroner] held a total of fourteen sessions for his three victims – four for Nichols, five for Chapman and five for Stride. On that form MacDonald might have pushed his enquiries somewhat beyond the recollections of a drowsy woman with a kitten on her tit. A nobbled coroner and a mute press are hardly the handmaidens of justice. The Ripper made a mockery of a court, silenced Fleet Street, and brought about the dismissal of the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police.

Not bad going for a serial murderer.”

For me, this book is a resounding five stars. Of course, after 130 years, there is no certainty, and there never will be. Of course there are questions I would ask the author. And while I think he has constructed a case which seems to me has elements for which I can see no other reasonable explanation, I’ll still read Cornwell’s book. She, too, believes Jack didn’t stop murdering after Mary Kelly was slaughtered.  I’d like to do a comparison. And after I’ve done that, I’ll share my opinion.

It’s the least I can do.

 

Batavia’s Graveyard is being excavated at last #history

TDADD-ebook-webIt’s been a while since I wrote a Batavia post. It has also been a while since Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard) has been vacated and the fishing shacks removed. With those impediments to a proper investigation out of the way, teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are getting down and dirty, excavating the island for more skeletal remains from 1629, in the aftermath of the ordeal faced by the survivors from the wreck of the Batavia. If you’re not familiar with the story, please check out my historical fiction page, or make a note to do it later.

Here are three articles from the team working on the island.

Fragments point to more skeletons being discovered on island after Batavia shipwreck

Unearthed grave sheds light on Batavia shipwreck mass murder

Batavia mutiny: More human remains uncovered by archaeologists at Beacon Island

I’m hoping the searchers find the remains of the predikant’s family. (Predikant is the Dutch word for pastor) In one horrifying night the predikant’s wife, six of their seven children, and their maid, were slaughtered by men acting on the orders of Jeronimus Cornelisz, leader of the gang controlling the island. The predikant and his oldest daughter were spared – the daughter because she was desired by Cornelisz’s lieutenant and the predikant because he might prove to be useful. Pelsaert’s journal records that the bodies were dumped in a mass grave on the island.

It seems 13 bodies have been found so far. When you consider that many of the victims – numbering around one hundred – were drowned, or their bodies thrown into the sea – that’s a good start.

Here’s a short excerpt from my book To Die a Dry Death. The predikant (Batiaensz) and his daughter Judyck are dining with Cornelisz, his lieutenenant (van Huyssen) and Lucretia. Cornelisz and van Hussen have been talking about hunting with hawks, back in Holland.

________________________________________

Lucretia sipped her wine. Hunting. The animals they chased with hawks were almost as defenceless as the poor people on this island. She heard noises, muffled voices in the night. The cold of dread froze her hand. A woman’s cry, abruptly ended. Then a high-pitched scream that curdled the blood, as quickly silenced.

Judyck jerked to her feet, lips parted, eyes staring. “Roelant.”

Van Huyssen pulled her down. “It’s nothing, dearest. Not your concern.”

“That was Roelant. I’d know his voice anywhere.” Judyck pulled away from van Huyssen, but he held her fast.

“Not your concern,” he said again, the words sharp, commanding.

Lucretia caught the girl’s eye. Hopeless terror. Not fear for herself, but for the child. She wondered if Bastiaensz would say anything but he sat rigid, watery eyes fixed on Cornelisz.

Cornelisz ignored him, ignored Judyck and continued the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. “Did you catch hares, rabbits?”

Chuckles from outside, voices muttered. Lucretia was sure she’d heard Mayken’s name. The knot in her stomach twisted, tightened. Silent, appalled, she signalled to Judyck with the barest shake of her head. Say nothing, stay still.

“With snares.” Van Huyssen kept his hand tight on Judyck’s arm. “Although sometimes we let the dogs loose and let them run. Often, there isn’t much left when they bring the prey back, all battered and bloody.”

Somewhere in the settlement, a scream swiftly ended in a gurgle.

Murder most foul

picture of map of Abrolhos islandsIn a couple of previous posts, I’ve described how Jeronimus Cornelisz gradually built up his power base in the Abrolhos Islands, before starting his reign of terror in earnest. First, he took control of the ship’s council, which governed the survivors. Then, he divided his flock, sending those most likely to dispute his rule to the most remote islands, where he hoped they would die of hunger and thirst. Honey-tongued as ever, he asked their leader, a soldier named Wiebbe Hayes, to light three signal fires if they found water, well aware that the islands to which he sent the soldiers had already been searched for water twice without success.

Meanwhile, Cornelisz ordered his men to kill people surreptitiously.

The first broad daylight murders occurred on the 9th July, when the people who had settled on Traitor’s Island suddenly launched their rafts and headed off into the channel. Cornelisz flew into a rage and had his men intercept them. Some were brought back to Batavia’s Graveyard, where Cornelisz ordered them put to death – for defying the Council’s authority. Several men and two children were put to the sword. One man was killed with a pike through the throat. The Undermerchant’s thugs then took the three remaining women into the channel and threw them overboard, where they drowned. All this took place in front of the other survivors. Those on the Seal’s Island would also have been witness to events.

The question is why? What happened to cause Cornelisz such consternation, and why did the people on Traitor’s Island launch their rafts?

Pelsaert’s journal doesn’t say, but Mike Dash, doing what historians should always do, examined other events at the same time, and came up with a compelling argument. It seems the folk on Traitor’s Island moved at much the same time as smoke from three signal fires was seen, coming from the High Islands. The soldiers had found water, a good reason for the people on the miserable hillock that was Traitor’s Island to put to sea. This should have been a cause for celebration for all the survivors, but it threw Cornelisz’s plans into disarray. If the soldiers had water, and more survivors joined them, his rule was in jeopardy. He could not allow his ‘subjects’ to escape.

Like many tyrants before him, and after him, his behaviour moved to murderous tyranny. From this time on, no-one who was not aligned with Cornelisz’s bunch of thugs, was safe.

Full marks for deviousness and cunning

picture of map of Abrolhos islandsJeroniumus Cornelisz has gone down in history as a mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of around one hundred people who had survived the horror of the wreck of the Batavia in 1629. To give him his due, you’d have to give the man full marks for deviousness and cunning. As Under-merchant on the Batavia, he was nominally third in command – after Upper-merchant Pelsaert and Captain Jacobsz. In a society where rank and status was all-important, although he joined the rest of the ship-wrecked folk late in the piece, he quickly took over control of the island by becoming head of the council. It would seem that almost immediately, he decided that there was insufficient supplies to sustain everyone until help came. You might say what happened next was a very early example of ‘survival of the fittest’.

Mind you, despite his status, Cornelisz wouldn’t automatically have been respected. He was a merchant, after all, not a sailor or a soldier. He would have to win over his supporters, and here, his skill at negotiation and salesmanship would stand him in excellent stead.

His first move was to divide the survivors. Divide and conquer, after all. Indeed, in hindsight it was a smart move if it is seen in a more innocent light. There were far too many people crammed onto one tiny island (Batavia’s Graveyard on this map is the tiny grey shape after the last letter of the name). Spreading the folk across other places meant better chances of finding food and collecting water. Cornelisz sent pretty well all the soldiers to the most distant islands (Wiebbe’s Island and the High Island on this map), promising to keep them supplied with food and water while they searched. Even that move might be seen as innocent. Soldiers and sailors didn’t get along, and it’s easy to imagine fights in cramped, straitened circumstances. Looking back, it was more likely to have been a callous move to remove the group most likely to resent and oppose Cornelisz’s reign. The soldiers never received any supplies from Batavia’s Graveyard. Cornelisz no doubt hoped they would starve to death.

Other groups of people – men, women and children, also moved to two islands much closer to Batavia’s Graveyard. Traitor’s Island,(nothing more than a speck on this map, around where the name ends) from where Pelsaert, Jacobsz and most of the ship’s officers set sail for Batavia, and Seal’s Island, a long, narrow piece of land across a deep, fast-flowing channel from Batavia’s Graveyard.

Having divided his flock, Cornelisz could now recruit likely lads and set about reducing the number of people relying on the limited food supplies.

Dan Holloway – The Company of Fellows

Picture of Cover company-of-fellowsDan Holloway’s Oxford-based thriller ‘The Company of Fellows’ is a bit more than just a murder mystery. It delves into the psychology not only of the principal players in the drama but into the psyche of the city of Oxford itself.

The main character, Tommy West, lost his opportunity to become an academic because of his unstable mental health. When he is drawn into investigating the circumstances of the death of his mentor, Professor Shaw, he is forced to open old wounds not just for himself but for others which threatens the precarious balance of his own personality.

The stories of the various characters in this book are revealed slowly as they deal with this crisis in their lives. There’s Emily, Tommy’s long-lost love who is now a cop; Professor Shaw’s daughter Becky, who draws Tommy into his quest; Professor Shaw’s enigmatic wife and a number of erstwhile colleagues. As Tommy follows a murky trail the situation becomes darker and more dangerous. Some of what he learns about the people he has known for years is shocking and it’s all Tommy can do to keep his head from unravelling.

One of the things that really drew me into this book is the detail. Oxford itself is a character in this story. You can tell the author knows the place, knows its nuances, its airs and graces and its seamier side. Then there’s the meticulous description of cooking a grouse, stories about wine (posh wine, as the author has averred) which is bound up into Tommy’s personality as he concentrates on the task at hand to keep the hounds of insanity at bay.

The reader is kept guessing through a series of twists and turns throughout the book. The tension builds inexorably so you have to keep reading to find out what happens next.

I really enjoyed the book. I expect I’ll read it again. The book is available on Amazon.