Was Joseph Silver Jack the Ripper?

2008-10-02 08:05

THE Fox and the Flies has many strands. It is a biography of a pimp, white slaver, thief, police informer and violent psychopath, born Joseph Lis and later calling himself Joseph Silver, maybe Joseph Isaacs, and a host of other pseudonyms, and is also a fascinating social history of what happens within societies in flux. But it is more than that - Charles van Onselen's revelation that his subject is a front runner to have been Jack the Ripper changes the whole complexion of the book.

Movements of people - Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in particular - had an enormous effect on the places where they ended up as well as the ones they left. Once he had escaped his native Poland as a 16-year-old, Silver plied his vicious trades all around the Atlantic, from Western Europe and England to America, South and South West Africa and South America, working with pimps, human traffickers and corrupt police. In this country, he brought two words into the language - impimpi, which still describes informers and comes from his dual roles as pimp and nark, and amasilva, prison slang for men who procure younger inmates for sexual favours.

The Fox and the Flies is a meticulously researched piece of history that shines a spotlight on a world that has been hidden in police and court records in all the countries where Silver operated, a sordid world of tragedy and violence. Research into South African files has brought to light Silver's battle with the wily and determined Jan Smuts who had been appointed State Attorney of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek by Paul Kruger in time to go to head to head with Silver. And Van Onselen has also uncovered the records of Silver's committal of his “wife”, Rachel Laskin, or Lizzie Silver as she was known, to Valkenberg mental hospital in the Cape in 1901. She would remain incarcerated in this country until her death in 1945, long after Silver had left South Africa, and died, back in Poland in 1919.

But it is still the Jack the Ripper angle that most people are going to pick up on and is the thing that will take the book out of the field of academic history and into the popular realms of true crime.

Ripperologists like sensation, and it seems to me that a good many will find this book not to their taste. It is sober, careful and for most of its length, looks at other aspects of Silver's life besides his Ripper credentials. To concentrate purely on the final chapter where Van Onselen pulls all the threads together and identifies the Ripper as Silver will be to do The Fox and the Flies a disservice. The book is much more than the stuff of screaming headlines. And therein lies its plausibility.

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