Window into Criminal Demi-Monde

Cape Times (South Africa), May 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

Window into Criminal Demi-Monde


"Clio gave me a Fox to chase and, for me, the trail will always end with Joseph Lis, alias Joseph Silver, alias Joseph Isaacs, alias Jack the Ripper."

With these words, Charles van Onselen concludes his biography of Joseph Silver, a Polish-born Jew he first identified 30 years ago in a snippet of news in Johannesburg's Standard & Digger's News.

"It was", writes Van Onselen, "a report on a court case, quoting minutes of a meeting of an 'American Club' held in 1898 and presided over by Silver."

The American Club was only one of Silver's many criminal initiatives, developed and honed over decades across four continents.

A psychopath, increasingly damaged by neurosyphilis, Silver weaved his way in and out of trouble, zigzagging through the Atlantic underworld. Pimping, extortion, trafficking in white slavery and robbery were his forte.

Significantly, Van Onselen never set out to identify the notorious serial murderer of Whitechapel. After decades of research and deep reflection, Jack the Ripper presented himself. But at the time of their initial encounter, Silver was only one among many gangsters monitored by Van Onselen in his studies of the early Witwatersrand.

In Randlords and rotgut, 1886-1903 and Prostitutes and proletarians, 1886-1914 - two masterly essays published in his seminal Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914 - Van Onselen provided a glimpse into the world of Peruvians, illicit liquor dealers and Joe Silver. Silver whetted his appetite. Who was he? What drove him?

The search for answers straddled Europe, North America, Africa and South America. Van Onselen traced Joseph Lis back to Kielce, Poland - the victim of poverty and a dysfunctional family.

Lis went to London as a teenager in the mid-1880s.

By the age of 45, he had spent eight and a half years in prisons, including two years in Sing Sing, nine months in Pentonville, three months in Wormwood Scrubs, just over two years in Neumunster, and a spell shortened by the outbreak of the South African War in the Johannesburg Fort.

His travels across the Atlantic world amounted to the "equivalent of circumnavigating the globe three times".

This is a story of double crossing, perverted kinships and exploitative violence.

Impulsive, violent and rash, Silver finally ended his life journey in Przemysl, about 160km from the town of his birth. He had been charged with spying and smuggling amid the chaos of war on the Eastern Front.

Why was the boy from Kielce obsessed with whores?

Why had he hidden his East End years - at the very time Londoners were fixated on the Whitechapel serial murders?

These and other questions intrigued the intrepid Van Onselen.

The penny dropped. After assiduous detective work and an exploration of "the archaeology of Joseph Silver's thinking and behaviour", Van Onselen arrived at an astounding but compelling conclusion.

Silver was none other than Jack the Ripper. It was, he tells us, "an arduous and difficult journey that takes us down through various layers of the mind, including those of the anti-social personality, the psychopath, the serial killer and then, of necessity, the world of the neurosyphilitic".

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