Perhaps and maybe are words that Tony Williams and his co-author, Humphrey Price, use frequently in discussing `Uncle Jack`, their candidate for Jack the Ripper. Indeed, these words occur eight times in a single page of their book, suggesting a lack of conviction in their own theorising. Making accusations that erode the good name and reputation of long-dead eminent Victorians has become something of a cult in the vast literature that has grown up around Ripperology. Sir William Gull suffered at the hands of Stephen Knight and others and, now, Sir John Williams receives similar treatment from a family descendant. It is a pity that the reputation of such a distinguished man has been tainted by accusations of criminality based on weak circumstantial evidence.
Sir John Williams, the `Uncle Jack` in the title of the book by Tony Williams and Humphrey Price (2005), was a highly respected Victorian doctor whose contribution to the cultural life of the country of his birth lay in his patronage of the National Library of Wales. His memory had been without blemish until now, when he is accused of being a serial murderer.
Suspicion lies in the chance discovery by Tony Williams of a letter which he believed links his eminent ancestor to the unsolved Ripper murders. The note, handwritten by Dr Williams to a person called Morgan, explains that he could not meet him as arranged on 8 September 1888 because he would be attending a clinic in Whitechapel. This being the date on which Annie Chapman, the second Ripper victim, was murdered in Hanbury Street. Morgan, it turns out, was probably Dr Morgan Davies, a physician at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, whose graphic demonstration of how the Ripper victims died was memorably recorded by Dr Robert D`Onston Stephenson.
The authors sought to establish that Dr Williams used the infirmary at the Whitechapel Workhouse as a base for his murderous exploits. Their researches turned up references to a `J.Williams` in the infirmary’s records for 1885. They acknowledged, though, that the entry did not necessarily identify their John Williams. More interestingly, in a handwritten note among the doctor’s papers is a record of an abortion performed on Mary Anne Nichols in 1885. This is taken to refer to Mary Ann Nichols (without the `e`) who was the Ripper’s first victim. In this way, the authors seek to show that Dr Williams was acquainted with some of the murder victims through his work as a doctor at the infirmary.
Sir John Williams, as he became in recognition of his eminence in Victorian medical circles, was the great great uncle of Tony Williams, co-author of `Uncle Jack`. Sir John was a gynaecologist with a private practice in London who attended numerous hospitals in the capital and, in due course, became President of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and was appointed physician to Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter.
Dr John was born in rural Wales in 1840 and undertook his medical training in London. After qualification, he worked as a general practitioner in Swansea. He married the daughter of a Welsh industrialist in 1872 and returned to London where he practised obstetrics. He quickly rose to prominence in his chosen field and built up a highly remunerative private practice. His work proved sufficiently rewarding that he willed £100,000 to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. This was a small fortune at the time and represents several million pounds at today’s values. Dr Williams’s claim to fame in Wales is that he set up the National Library and donated 25,000 books from his personal collection. After retiring in the 1890s, he dedicated his life to the Library. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1902 and died in 1926 at the age of eighty-six.
The doctor’s early retirement was probably due to the overwork which enabled him to amass the considerable fortune which he left to posterity. The authors of `Uncle Jack` contend that Sir John suffered a breakdown as a result of his alleged murderous activities in Whitechapel. The suggested motive for his criminal activities lies in his childless marriage. Mrs. Lizzie Williams was unable to produce any offspring which inspired her husband to set his mind on finding a cure for infertility. This certainly related to his known professional interests which lay in a study of the function of the female reproductive system and diseases of the womb and ovaries.
Williams and Price suggest that the doctor had a personal interest in carrying out research in this field and possibly used the bodies of the women who died in the infirmary for this purpose. With material so readily at hand, they wondered why he needed to kill women on the streets and what could he have learned from them that he could not glean at the infirmary. Their answer was that he wanted “to see if he could perhaps use the organs he removed from the women to complete his research” and “Maybe he even wanted to go so far as to transplant these fertile organs into his sterile wife”.
This is a totally bizarre notion. No self-respecting doctor would deliberately target women who were so ill-nourished and disease-ridden as the East End’s prostitutes to secure organs which he could easily acquire by other, less risky means. Least of all can it be imagined that he would think of endangering his wife’s health by subjecting her to such dangerous procedures. Significantly, while the uteri were removed by Jack the Ripper from two of his five victims, this organ remained intact in the other three, including Mary Kelly, where the circumstances of her death provided the greatest opportunity for her murderer to secure any body part he desired. It might also be noted that Annie Chapman, whose uterus was removed, was a forty-five year old alcoholic and decidedly past her fertile prime. It is suggested that the doctor was in the grip of some kind of mania, yet he appeared to have enjoyed a long and blameless retirement of over thirty years.
The authors of `Uncle Jack` suggest that several of the Ripper victims attended the Whitechapel Workhouse infirmary at one time or another and that Dr Williams may have met them there. Both propositions may be true; after all the women had to go somewhere for medical treatment when the need arose and the workhouse infirmary was the logical place. They might well have encountered Dr Williams there and other doctors too. There is nothing exceptional about that. The women would have known and be known to the infirmary staff as they were by the lodging-house keepers, rent-collectors and pub landlords in the area.
While there were tenuous links with some of the murder victims, it is suggested that Dr Williams may have met Mary Kelly in Wales and that she became his lover. Beyond the coincidence that there was a Welsh connection, this cannot be substantiated. The authors also suggest that the man seen by George Hutchinson at the entrance to Millers` Court on the night Kelly was murdered, resembled Dr Williams. Reference is made to a “red stone on the man’s coat” allegedly mentioned by Hutchinson, which matched up with a description of Dr Williams who favoured wearing a “dark silk tie held by a pin set with a red stone”. Anyone familiar with the text of Hutchinson’s statement made to the police on 12 November 1888 will know that he made no such reference.
In the publicity surrounding publication of `Uncle Jack`, much was made of a surgeon’s knife found in a box among the doctor’s possessions. There was talk of conducting DNA tests on the instrument which might provide links to the victims. That makes two Ripper knives. Don Rumbelow has the other one. This book is high on sensationalism but rather short on corroborating evidence for the claims made. It adds nothing to a serious study of the Ripper murders beyond describing the professional environment in which a Victorian doctor worked. This is where the value of the book lies and it is a pity that the authors did not confine their efforts to writing a biography of a very worthy individual instead of allowing themselves to be led down a blind alley on the Ripper trail.
Author: by Robin Odell
`Uncle Jack` by Tony Williams and Humphrey Price is published by Orion Books Ltd.