1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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1896: Carl Feigenbaum, the Ripper abroad?

Add comment April 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896, New York City electrocuted Carl Feigenbaum.

He’d been convicted of slaying the widow from whom he rented a room at eight cents per day … but many at the time suspected his homicidal exploits might also have traced to Whitechapel, under the dread sobriquet Jack.

We can only really be sure of the one murder: on September 1, 1894, he attacked 56-year-old Julianna Hoffman in her room on East Sixth Street, for the possible reason of robbing her. One ferocious slash with his long bread knife nearly decapitated the landlady; the disturbance roused Hoffman’s 16-year-old son who burst in on the assailant — reportedly just as Feigenbaum had his blade poised to begin horribly gouging the corpse. Both killer and witness grappled briefly and then fled from each other; Feigenbaum was arrested before the day was out.

Today you’d call the part of town East Village but back in the 1890s it was Klein Deutschland, with one of the world’s largest concentrations of Germans abroad.

Probing his client for material to use for an insanity defense,* Feigenbaum’s attorney elicited his client’s self-diagnosis that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” That seems interesting.

It emerged that Feigenbaum had left Germany as a merchant mariner, and that profession had possibly seen his boats tied up in the Thames during the pivotal months when the Whitechapel murders took place.

In the Big Apple, the idea of modern crime’s great bogeyman throwing his demonic shadow across their very own dungeons appealed irresistibly, to nobody moreso than Fiegenbaum’s own attorney William Lawton, who reveled in his hypothesis of proximity to evil and made a silly bid for celebrity on that basis. Lawton claimed to have hit upon the Ripper idea as he pondered the meaning of Feigenbaum’s professed impulse to mutilate women.


From the St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, April 28, 1896.

The very day after his client’s electrocution, Lawton explicated the suspected connection to the press, “stak[ing] my professional reputation that if the police will trace this man’s movements carefully for the last few years their investigations will lead them to Whitechapel.” (Lawton is also the sole source of Feigenbaum’s alleged self-incrimination, quoted above: to everybody else Feigenbaum insisted on his innocence far past any possible stretch of plausibility, and even carried that insistence to the electric chair.)

Regrettably, Feigenbaum’s pre-Hoffman movements are obscure to the point where Lawton’s theory is essentially immune to corroboration (or refutation). Even when Lawton dropped his intended bombshell did his hypothesis come in for some public ribbing; the New York Tribune scoffed on April 29 of that year that Feigenbaum now being indisposed to object, all the city’s most troublesome unresolved homicides ought to be attributed to this empty cipher.

Despite the surface similarities of his aborted disemboweling to the infamous London crime spree, Feigenbaum’s case for Ripper immortality doesn’t enjoy much of a constituency today. (Trevor Marriott’s 2005 Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation is a notable exception to the skepticism.)

* Feigenbaum, who had been literally caught red-handed, ultimately did not pursue the insanity defense that was probably his only hope of avoiding the chair because he did not have enough money to hire the expert alienists who would be required to present such a case to the jury. But for a guy supposedly resource-constrained, Lawton does seem to have gone to some trouble to research the possible Ripper connection.

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1889: William Henry Bury, Jack the Ripper suspect

4 comments April 24th, 2016 Headsman

The last execution in Dundee, Scotland occurred on this date in 1889 — and some folk suspect that the fellow that fell through the gallows-trap might have been the great bogeyman of a different place: Whitechapel.

Orphaned son to a fishmonger who was broken when he fell under the wheels of his own laden cart and a mother who expired in a lunatic asylum, William Henry Bury just so happened to be resident of Whitechapel’s adjacent East End neighborhood of Bow when the former experienced a notorious spate of murders in 1888. Bury marked his time as an unsuccessful sawdust merchant vending to Whitechapel taverns, and as a downright atrocious husband drinking and whoring away the modest inheritance of his wife Ellen, then returning home to thrash her for it.

Proximity and misogyny begin the case for William Bury as a possible Jack the Ripper candidate, but it was a host of more specific circumstances that really interested posterity and contemporaries alike.

The Ripper killings abated in the autumn of 1888; nobody really knows why, though in making the case for Bury as the murderer, William Beadle has suggested that heavy fog that season complicated Bury’s post-slaughter escape routes back to Bow. By January, Bury had moved away to Dundee dragging along his reluctant, and now penniless, wife. Other Whitechapel homicides extending up to 1891 might be copycat crimes or coincidences, but all of the so-called “canonical five” consensus victims of Jack the Ripper were in their graves by the time Bury left town. Ripper or no, Bury is known to have committed knife attacks on at least two women (and threatened his wife with same); he’s also a likely suspect for the December 1888 strangulation murder (sans mutilation) of Rose Mylett, one of the several possible Ripper crimes outside the canonical five.

Days after moving to Dundee, Bury strangled his wife with a rope … and gashed open her abdomen, eerily mirroring the Whitechapel killer’s horrific attacks. (Although Bury’s slashes of Ellen were not as deep or ferocious as those associated with the Whitechapel killer.)

Finding he could not get the body out of the apartment, and recollecting that people were bound to notice that his wife had vanished, Bury eventually went to police with a preposterous story that he had awoken to find his wife a suicide several days before and then — strange topic to bring up — hid the body for fear that this Whitechapel emigre would be taken for Jack. Someone clearly did so, for when police investigated they found strange chalk graffiti: “Jack Ripper is at the back of this door”, “Jack Ripper is in this seller”. The operative assumption is that Bury himself scratched them but these creepy notices at a crime scene have a whiff of street vigilantes tagging the murderer as in Fritz Lang’s M. Then again, the Burys were strangers who had just arrived from the epicenter of a notorious crime spree, and Dundee probably had prankster schoolboys in abundance.

London police and Scotland Yard sniffed around Bury and didn’t find enough whiff of the Ripper to charge him up as the Whitechapel murderer, but not all were persuaded. Executioner James Berry was reportedly convinced that in Bury he had noosed England’s legendary monster, and a Scotland Yard detective — despite failing to get anything but denials out of his interrogations — allegedly agreed, telling the hangman, “We are quite satisfied that you have hanged Jack the Ripper. There will be no more Whitechapel crimes.” We have suggestive — nothing is dispositive with Jack, much to the profit of amateur sleuths down the years — hints that Ellen too believed this, as she is said to have remarked to Dundee acquaintances who quizzed her about the killings in her former neighborhood things like “Jack the Ripper is taking a rest.” Meaningless conversational nicety, or clue from the bedmate of the monster?

There are of course dozens of Jack the Ripper suspects from then and now; Bury isn’t even the only one who ultimately got executed. And there are reasons to doubt Bury beginning most obviously with his clumsy performance for the Dundee police: seemingly very far from the cool and shrewd sociopath we commonly suppose for the Whitechapel Ripper.

But there’s a lot that fits, too, and even though Bury always denied the charge, some part of him — be it a confessional mode, or a starfucking one — couldn’t resist hinting. When that hangman Berry implied in the last moments that Bury should unburden himself of the Whitechapel crimes, his mark repelled the attempt with tantalizing non-denials, e.g. “I suppose you think you are clever to hang me … but because you are going to hang me you are not going to get anything out of me.”

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1887: Israel Lipski

4 comments August 21st, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1887, 22-year-old Israel Lipski was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of Miriam Angel.

His trial and execution were well-publicized in their day, and were the subject of a 1984 book, The Trials of Israel Lipski: A True Story of a Victorian Murder in the East End of London by Martin L. Friedland.

But Lipski has been largely forgotten now … except as a footnote in a much more famous unsolved murder.

Lipski was of Polish-Jewish origin. His real name was Israel Lobulsk; he changed it when he moved to the UK.

He lived in a boardinghouse and worked as an umbrella and walking-stick salesman. Miriam, who was also Jewish, lodged at the same address, 16 Batty Street.

Miriam was found dead in her bed June 28 of that year. She’d been killed in an unusual way: she was forced to consume nitric acid, also known as aquafortis, a strong corrosive chemical now used in rocket fuel. She was six months pregnant at the time of her death.

Lipski was found hiding under her bed. He too had consumed nitric acid and the inside of his mouth was burned. Investigators later determined he’d purchased an ounce of the chemical that very morning. They theorized he had killed Miriam during a rape attempt.

Lipski, for this part, insisted he was innocent of any crime and told an extraordinary story: he stumbled across two co-workers in Miriam’s room rifling through her things. Miriam was already dead at this point. The two men attacked and robbed him, poured the nitric acid down his throat and threw him under the bed, where he fainted.

The judge’s summing-up to the jury, described by one news account as “lucid and temperate,” went with the rape theory:

… that the murderer of Miriam Angel entered her room under the influence of unlawful passion; that, balked in this design, his passion turned to homicidal fury; and that in a reaction of shame and terror he had taken a dose of the same poison that he had given to his victim. If that theory was probable, continued the judge, the murder was much more likely to have been the work of one man than two.

The climate of pervasive anti-Semitism in East London during this time sealed Lipski’s fate. London’s Jewish population, largely impoverished Polish and Russian refugees, was ever liable to blame for a wide variety of social problems. On top of everything else, Lipski’s legal defense was abysmal and the judge clearly biased. He might have been guilty, but the fairness of his trial is questionable.

Following Lipski’s conviction and death sentence there was worried speculation that he might, after all, be innocent. Several prominent people, including members of Parliament and investigative journalist William Stead, petitioned the Home Secretary for a reprieve or commutation. (Stead referred to Lipski as “the young martyr” and the “much injured young exile.”) The wind went out of their sails, however, after Lipski’s confession was published:

I, Israel Lipski, before I appear before God in judgment, desire to speak the whole truth concerning the crime of which I am accused. I will not die with a lie on my lips. I will not let others suffer even in suspicion for my sin. I alone was guilty of the murder of Miriam Angel.

I thought the woman had money in her room, so I entered, the door being unlocked and the woman asleep. I had no thought of violating her, and I swear I never approached her with that object, nor did I wrong her in this way. Miriam Angel awoke before I could search about for money, and cried out, but very softly. Thereupon I struck her on the head and seized her by the neck, and closed her mouth with my hand, so that she should not arouse the attention of those who were about the house.

I had long been tired of my life, and had bought a pennyworth of aquafortis that morning for the purpose of putting an end to myself. Suddenly I thought of the bottle I had in my pocket, and drew it out and poured some of the contents down her throat. She fainted and, recognizing my desperate condition, I took the rest. The bottle was an old one which I had formerly used … The quantity of aquafortis I took had no effect on me.

Hearing the voices of people coming upstairs, I crawled under the bed. The woman seemed already dead. There was only a very short time from the moment of my entering the room until I was taken away.

Even before his execution, “Lipski” became a part of Londoners’ vocabulary. It was used as both a slur against Jews and as a verb, the way a certain kind of suffocation murder still known as “burking” was named after William Burke of “Burke and Hare” fame.

A year after Israel Lipski’s execution, the name “Lipski” once again came under scrutiny after a murder suspect yelled it out in front of a witness, leaving scholars and true-crime buffs to speculate about its meaning for the next 120 years and counting.

The victim in that case was a prostitute named Elizabeth Stride. The suspect is known only by his trade name, Jack the Ripper.

But that’s another story.

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1892: Frederick Bailey Deeming, Bluebeard

6 comments May 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1892, Frederick Bailey Deeming was hanged in Melbourne, Australia for the murder of his second wife, Emily Mather. She was not his only victim; he’d also murdered his first wife, son and three daughters.

Deeming was born and raised in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the UK. One of seven children, he was reportedly a “difficult” child. He later claimed he’d spent years in mental hospitals as a youth, something his brother disputed.

Deeming ran away to sea at sixteen and began committing crimes, mostly thefts. Wherever he went, he swindled and stole from people.

Deeming married Marie James in 1881 (his brother married Marie’s sister) and they moved to Australia. They went on to have four children.

In 1888, Deeming and his family moved to South Africa. His movements around that time are unclear, but he was definitely back in England by November 1889, and separated from his wife and children, who lived in another city.

Deeming bigamously married Helen Matheson in 1890, and deserted her shortly after the honeymoon. He visited his wife, gave her some money and told he was going to South America and would send for her and the children once he’d settled. Before he left he conned some jewelers in Hull; as a result, he was arrested upon his arrival in Montevideo, Uruguay and sent back to England to serve nine months in the clink.

In 1891, after his release from prison, Deeming took the name “Albert Williams” and leased a house in the village of Rainhill. A woman and several children were seen visiting him; he claimed they were his sister and her children.

The woman and children disappeared — off to an extended holiday, Deeming said. A short time later, complaining that the drains were defective, Deeming had the floor of his house re-concreted.

In fact, the “sister” was his first wife Marie and the “nieces” and “nephews” his own children — Bertha, 9, Marie, 7, Sidney, 5, and Leala, 18 months. And in fact, they were “vacationing” permanently, under the concrete floor. Authorities believe he killed them on or about July 26, 1891.

By that time, Deeming was already courting Emily Lydia Mather. They married on September 22 and by December 1891 had up and moved to Melbourne.

Emily didn’t make it past Christmas before Deeming had her entombed under the fireplace.

In January 1892, Deeming moved to Sydney. On the way he met a delightful young lady named Kate Rousenfell. He gave her several expensive gifts, including jewelry he’d stolen while he was in Melbourne, and proposed marriage. She agreed and said she would join him in Western Australia when he moved there.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Miss Rousenfell was cheated of her bridegroom by Deeming’s March 11 arrest for Emily’s murder.

Emily’s body had been discovered on March 3, after the house’s owner, investigating his new tenant’s complaints of a strange smell, raised the hearthstone. Her throat had been cut and her skull was fractured. When Deeming was taken into custody, he had some of her things with him, including her prayer book.

The murder case received extensive publicity and when those back in England heard of it, they decided to have a look at Deeming’s former home in Rainhill. There they dug up the bodies of Marie and the four children.

At his trial, Deeming claimed insanity and brain damage from epilepsy and tertiary syphilis, and said his dead mother’s spirit had ordered him to commit the murders.

He told the jury that Marie wasn’t dead and had, in fact, left him for another man. In the three weeks between the verdict and the hanging he penned his biography and some bad poetry. English publishers offered him £1,000 for the rights to his writings, but the Australian government had them all destroyed.

There have been suggestions, in Deeming’s time and ours, that he was the serial killer Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered and mutilated a handful of London prostitutes in 1888. The fact that evidence indicates Deeming was in South Africa at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders hasn’t stopped the speculation. He allegedly told his cellmates he was the Ripper, but when asked directly by the authorities, he refused to answer yes or no.

Deeming’s skull and death mask are still on display in the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum.

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1903: George Chapman, Ripper suspect

14 comments 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.

There have been many poisoners, but most of the time the murderer has some tangible gain in mind, such as an inheritance or insurance policy. This doesn’t appear to have been the case with Chapman.

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.”

It is for that reason that John Douglas, when he talks about the Ripper murders in his book The Cases That Haunt Us, rules out Chapman as a suspect.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers

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1898: Joseph Vacher

2 comments December 31st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Serial Killers

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1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen

7 comments November 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1910, the notorious wife-murdering doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

The sensational trial, which saw the American-born homeopath convicted for dismembering his shrewish and unfaithful wife Cora in an attempt to take up with his young mistress, fitted Crippen for both a noose and a likeness at Madame Tussaud’s. (More trial background here.) It has also made his case twice a landmark in the history of crime and technology: once at the time of his arrest, and again just last month as of this writing.

The core of a case a jury found so open-and-shut as to require just 27 minutes to convict was the poorly explained disappearance of Crippen’s wife, followed by the discovery of a considerably mutilated female corpse under the Crippens’ home.

Although much of the crown’s evidence was speculative and circumstantial — to say nothing of the bodice-ripping gossip of nymphomania and infidelity — a corpse under the floorboards tends to be a compelling circumstance to a jury.

Presumably that anticipation prompted Crippen to flee the Scotland Yard investigation with his mistress Ethel le Neve under assumed names on an ocean liner bound for Canada. The case made criminological history as the first use of wireless communication to apprehend a suspect when the ship’s alert captain telegraphed Crippen’s presence to land as the ship steamed away — enabling a policeman to board a faster boat and arrest the pair as they docked in Quebec.

In the century since Crippen went to the gallows still maintaining his innocence, the case has endured in popular notoriety. The killer’s life has been novelized, meditated upon and borrowed for fiction, offering a draught of inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock along the way.

Books inspired by the Crippen case …

Given his suspicious behavior, scant had been the credence given Crippen’s protestation of innocence.

Until now.

In a meeting of Edwardian crime and cutting-edge technology, two scientists from Crippen’s home state of Michigan stunningly announced in October that DNA testing proves the body was not Cora Crippen after all.

If true, it would appear to void Crippen’s conviction in its particulars without quite exonerating the hanged man from the natural question: whose was the corpse? The manufacture of clothes on the body dated it to the Crippens’ occupancy of the house.

One of Crippen’s modern sleuths, in a wholly speculative vein, thinks it might harken to an altogether different sort of crime: a botched back-alley abortion, just the sort of thing a financially struggling physician might have been involved in.

Maybe.

But if the test invites a modern investigator to look 97 years backwards, it also suggests a posture of epistemological humility. It’s just possible that the light this test casts on our own time is as searching as that it shines on 1910.

The Prejudice of Science

The Crippen case was a classic 19th century-style detective job — the inspector who made the arrest cut his teeth as a younger man on a Jack the Ripper murder — but it took place on the brink of a revolution in forensic science.

Just a few years before, fingerprinting had been embraced by British and American law enforcement and begun its march towards total institutionalization. On the heels of fingerprinting came a multiplicity of biometric approaches to crime scenes — hair and fiber analysis, blood typology, and most recently and dramatically, DNA.

And they, in turn, have brought a rising faith in science to adjudicate the law.

While the “CSI Effect” — jurors’ expectation of case-breaking scientific evidence — conventionally plays as a hindrance for prosecutors who usually have no such thing, the excess deference given to less-than-conclusive forensic evidence can likewise cut against the defense. Evidence mishandled at crime labs, even cooked outright, factors into numerous recent post-conviction exonerations. The once ironclad credibility of fingerprint evidence has itself been undermined by subsequent forensic advances.

In short, for all its undoubted contributions to criminal justice, forensic science packs along its own set of pitfalls, caveats and blinders reflexively privileging evidence of the laboratory.

This is not a reflex to indulge uncritically. History grants the benefit of hindsight, but rarely the luxury of certitude.

A waxwork Dr. Crippen at Madame Tussaud’s. Image used with permission.

So if the prospect of Crippen’s innocence intrigues, that unexplained body — that sudden flight for Canada — that (permanent) failure of Cora Crippen to resurface — nevertheless remain. They might lead us to question our implicit faith in the finality of DNA’s verdict on history rather than the other way around.

Are we certain that an unbroken line of blood relations really connects Cora Crippen to the modern DNA donors of her “family”?

Are we certain that a reliable chain of custody has preserved the original tissue samples unsullied across a century?

And if we are certain, what do we make of that body after all?

It is humans who must ultimately interpret and contextualize even the firmest forensic science. Whatever we might believe of Dr. Crippen we retain the burden of that belief, with all its intrinsic potential for grievous wrong.

The tales Hawley Crippen has yet to unfold from the grave might or might not shed still another different light on our understanding of what happened at 39 Hilldrop Crescent a century ago.

The gentleman’s place as a continuing attraction at Madame Tussaud’s, however, seems assured.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Doctors,England,Hanged,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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