April 7th, 2012 Meaghan
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1903, the wife-poisoner George Chapman was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in the United Kingdom.
He had at least three deaths on his record … and, if you fancy, possibly quite a few more.
Chapman was born Severin Antoniovich Klosowski in the village of Nargornak, Poland on December 14, 1865, the son of a carpenter. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and five years later he ended his medical studies in Warsaw. Just how much medical training he actually had is hard to determine, but the fact is that after he moved to the UK in 1887 or 1888, he worked not in the medical field but as a hairdresser’s assistant and later in his own barbershop.
In 1890, Chapman (still going by his birth name) married Lucy Baderski, having conveniently forgotten all about the wife he’d left back in Poland. His Polish wife found out about Lucy, however, and went to Britain to settle things. Bizarrely, for a short time the three of them all lived together, before Klosowski’s first wife threw up her hands and returned to Poland.
Klosowski’s relationship with Lucy Baderski was very troubled, and Klosowski was abusive. In one incident, he attacked her with a knife and threatened to cut her head off. Lucy was saved only because a customer suddenly came into the barbershop and Klosowski had to tend to him.
In 1892 she left him, although she was pregnant; they had emigrated to New Jersey by this time, and the beleaguered wife returned to England, where she had his daughter in May of that year.
Klosowski followed her back to England a few weeks later, but they separated for a final time not long afterward.
The following year, Klosowski took up with an Englishwoman named Annie Chapman. This, too, ran aground on Kloslowski’s violence and unfaithfulness, but he left her with daughter (whom he refused to support) and she left him with a surname (probably to assimilate and to escape his previous relationship entanglements).
From here on in, he goes by George Chapman.
Sometime after Annie left him, Chapman took up with Mary Isabella Spink, a woman who lived in the same boardinghouse. She was married and had a son, but her husband had deserted her.
They entered into a false marriage, like Chapman had done before with Lucy, and set up a successful barbershop with “musical shaves.” Mary would play the piano while Chapman did the barbering. For awhile they got a lot of money from the shop, but that didn’t stop Chapman from brutally beating Mary on a regular basis and even trying to strangle her. Eventually their barbershop failed and Chapman became a pub manager, living in the apartment upstairs.
Late in the year in 1897, Mary began suffering nausea and crippling stomach pains. Her husband stayed at her side constantly, tending to her needs and paying for a doctor, but Mary just got worse and worse and wasted to a skeleton. She finally died on Christmas Day. That morning Chapman found her dead, cried a little and went downstairs to open the pub.
The cause of death was listed as phthisis, or pulmonary tuberculosis. A few months later, Chapman sent Mary’s orphaned son to the workhouse.
Chapman needed help with the pub, so he hired Bessie Taylor, a former restaurant manager. What follows is familiar: a love affair, a fake marriage, and domestic violence. Then Bessie became sick, showing the same symptoms Mary Spink had. To avoid curious stares, Chapman moved them into London and leased another pub. Bessie was operated on but her condition didn’t improve.
Like Mary, she died on a holiday: Valentine’s Day in 1901. The cause of death was exhaustion from diarrhea and vomiting, secondary to an intestinal obstruction. Chapman made Bessie’s family pay for the funeral.
In August 1901, he hired the teenage Maud Eliza Marsh for a barmaid. They had another bogus marriage, but Chapman quickly grew tired of her. Maud got sick the same way his previous two wives had. Chapman got a doctor for her and mixed her medication himself. Her parents insisted that she be hospitalized.
Maud showed great improvement there and was released after a few weeks, only to become sick again once back at home with Chapman.
Her father, who had gotten suspicious, called in another doctor for a second opinion, but then Maud died quite suddenly. The doctor insisted on an autopsy, and found 693 milligrams of antimony in her body. The doctor determined that the final dose of poison had been more than 600 milligrams, an enormous amount — evidently Chapman had panicked when he realized Maud’s family suspected him.
Chapman was arrested and charged with murder.
Antimony is an almost perfect poison: odorless, colorless and nearly tasteless. However, it also acts as a preservative. When the authorities exhumed Mary Spink and Bessie Taylor, they saw both bodies were in much better condition than they ought to have been.
Mary had been in the ground five years, but one witness said her face was “perfect” and it looked like she’d been dead for less than a year. Bessie looked positively fresh.
Chapman was convicted of Maud Marsh’s murder in March 1903; the jury deliberated only eleven minutes.
He died without ever admitting his guilt. He never even admitted to being Severin Klosowski, although Lucy Baderski visited him after the trial.
He liked money as much as anyone else, it’s true, and would stoop to crime to get it. (Once he torched his pub for the insurance money, but the police became suspicious when they found out all the furniture had been removed from the premises before the fire started. The insurance company refused to pay, and Chapman had to move, but for some reason he was not prosecuted.)
Still, he really didn’t gain financially from his wives’ deaths. Mary Spink gave him £500, but he let her live for a few years after that. Maud Marsh and Bessie Taylor left him nothing.
Chapman may simply have wanted the women out of the way so he could take up with someone else.
But in that case, he could have chosen better for a quick, clean murder. When a person is given antimony in a single large dose, they usually to expel it by vomiting, and are left relatively unharmed.
The way to murder someone using antimony is give it to them slowly and patiently in small doses over a period of weeks or months. It is a lingering, painful death — but it also taxes the discipline of the poisoner. Chapman wasn’t the slow-and-steady type.
Public interest in Chapman didn’t die with him and remains alive and well, because of the Jack the Ripper case.
This infamous and never-identified killer strangled and mutilated five prostitutes in London’s East End during 1888, and many hobbyists think Chapman and the Ripper may have been the same man.
Frederick George Abberline, who headed the Ripper investigation, had strong suspicions against him, summarized in an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette:
As I say, there are a score of things which make one believe that Chapman is the man; and you must understand that we have never believed all those stories about Jack the Ripper being dead, or that he was a lunatic, or anything of that kind. For instance, the date of the arrival in England coincides with the beginning of the series of murders in Whitechapel; there is a coincidence also in the fact that the murders ceased in London when Chapman went to America, while similar murders began to be perpetrated in America after he landed there.* The fact that he studied medicine and surgery in Russia before he came over here is well established, and it is curious to note that the first series of murders was the work of an expert surgeon, while the recent poisoning cases were proved to be done by a man with more than an elementary knowledge of medicine. The story told by Chapman’s wife of the attempt to murder her with a long knife while in America is not to be ignored.
Philip Sugden, author of The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, noted, “An impressive array of circumstantial factors can be alleged against Chapman.”
Chapman was definitely living in London during the time of the Ripper killings, which cannot be said of other suspects such as Frederick Deeming or Michael Ostrog.
Chapman’s youthful medical apprenticeship would seem to supply him with the grisly surgical expertise the Ripper displayed.
Chapman approximately matched witness descriptions of the Whitechapel fiend.
Also, curiously enough, one of the Ripper victims was named Annie Chapman — the same name as his estranged lover.
Perhaps most importantly, Sugden points out, Chapman was not only violent and a misogynist but also a known killer: “There must have been few men, even in late Victorian London, capable of multiple murder. The Ripper was one. Chapman was another.”
Sugden thought Chapman was a much better Ripper candidate than any of the other suspects he discussed in his book, but that didn’t mean he was definitely or even probably the real Ripper: “That Chapman committed crimes of which we have no present knowledge I can well believe. That he was Jack the Ripper is another matter.”
The main problem with the Chapman-Ripper theory is the fact that he poisoned his wives, rather than use some more demonstratively violent method of homicide.
Serial killers’ methods do evolve and adapt, but rarely change that drastically. “To exchange knife for hammer, gun or rope, weapons of violence all, is one thing,” Sugden observes. “To forsake violence in favor of subterfuge, as is alleged of Chapman, is quite another.”
Whether Chapman was Jack the Ripper or not, he certainly was an evil, vicious bastard in his own right.
R. Michael Gordon has written a book about his crimes, titled The Poison Murders of Jack the Ripper: His Final Crimes, Trial and Execution.
* This is not strictly accurate. There was one Ripper-type murder, of a prostitute named Carrie Brown, in a New Jersey hotel in 1891. Whether the Ripper actually committed the crime is open to speculation.
Also on this date
- 1979: Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, Iranian Prime Minister
- 1933: The "killers" of Pavlik Morozov
- 1590: Anne Pedersdotter, Norwegian witch
- 1520: Gaspar Quesada, Magellan's expedition mutineer
- 1739: Dick Turpin, outlaw legend
- 2007: Du'a Khalil Aswad, honor killing victim