By Edward Stow
Ah – the Whitechapel Society Conference – much talked about before and after. There’s never a dull moment in the world of Jack the Ripper – with intrigue and drama aplenty, where the dark side comes alive and life recreates history!
Attendees started gathering in the picturesque Wiltshire cathedral city of Salisbury several days before. Messages started appearing in the social media of visits to local hostelries as delegates re-acquainted themselves with old friends – perhaps not seen since the last conference.
The first official event was a ghost walk. In the early evening of Friday 7th November we gathered from our various hotels in the lobby of the White Hart Hotel (which was where the swells were staying).
As the turn-out was large, we split into two teams to be taken around this beautiful historic townscape with our expert blue badge guides competing with the fireworks (real fireworks I hasten to add, not figurative ones) that lit up the night sky. It was only two days after Bonfire Night after all.
Salisbury is a most interesting town, laid out on a grid pattern in the Middle Ages. There is a large religious precinct around the Cathedral, which looked very dramatic in the twilight. There are Medieval and Tudor buildings on every corner with many-a scary tale to tell. If you believe such things – which of course I don’t! Ha! No fear – not me!
The number of historic pubs is truly amazing and it is all quite unspoilt. We ended up at Conran’s, an Irish bar just north of the town centre where we were treated to a massive buffet. A fine way to round off the evening!
The next morning the bleary eyed delegates reassembled at the White Hart – our base camp for the weekend. On arrival we were given our delegate packs which included a well-designed brochure by Andrew Firth. We had a large room at our disposal and a smaller adjoining room used as a book and gift shop. Alongside the usual Jack the Ripper lip balm was the most extensive selection of books that I have seen at a conference, with pride of place going to Frogg Moody’s newly released graphic novel ‘The Autumn of Terror’, which he and the artist (Perry Harris) were signing.
At 10.15 our host and Master of Ceremonies for the weekend, the ever popular Neil Storey, opened proceedings. Neil is a clever and witty speaker with a marvellous ‘stage presence’ and his introductions were almost as good as the main presentations!
First up was Robert Anderson, one of our American cousins who will be known to many of you, with a talk entitled ‘Opening Pandora’s Box – Syphilis in Whitechapel 1888’. Now I don’t think I am being irregular in suggesting that many attendees did not have high hopes for this talk. It seemed possibly to be a gratuitous attempt to shock. Played for inappropriate laughs. Robert Anderson’s initial appearance seemed to confirm this impression – donning a surgical face mask as he flourished various shocking looking implements. But actually what followed was a very interesting paper on the prevalence of syphilis in the London of 1888, which included a lot of original research material.
The talk was profusely illustrated to show the effects that untreated syphilis can have on the human body. Luckily this session was not immediately before lunch. Robert went through the various primitive treatments that were available at the time, most of which merely treated the symptoms. Mercury, Potassium Iodate, Arsenic and Strychnine predominated.
Robert also looked at hospital records to try and determine how many patients suffered from syphilis. He pointed out that while some were registered as suffering from the disease others would certainly have either been misdiagnosed or prudity would have meant that code words were used instead. Two common ways used to describe a syphilitic without explicitly mentioning the dreaded term were ‘enfeebled constitution’ and ‘debauched personal habits’.
Robert sought to show that most prostitutes would have had syphilis and indeed ‘beauty spots’ were used to cover up give-away syphilitic facial scars. While I thought his data may have slightly exaggerated the percentage of the population suffering from syphilis, I have no doubt that his figures were correct in pointing to the overwhelming likelihood that all of the victims of the Whitechapel Murders would have been syphilitic. Indeed he brought into stark relief that it would have been almost impossible for them not to be.
Following on from that we had Alan Hicken. Alan had an interesting story to tell, which some may already know about but with which I was unfamiliar.
Some years back Alan opened a TV, Radio and Toy Museum in the Somerset village of Montacute. In that capacity he was offered some papers belonging to the creator of ‘Larry the Lamb’, Sydney George Hulme Beaman. Among these papers was a manuscript purporting to be the Autobiography of Jack the Ripper.
The mere suggestion that the man responsible for ‘Toytown’ might also have had in his possession the autobiography of the most notorious serial killer in history seems absurd. Yet Alan’s tale was intriguing.
The story that accompanies the book is that in the early 1930s a man named James Carnac died, but before he did he wrote his autobiography confessing to being Jack the Ripper. It should be stated at the outset that Carnac has never been traced in any records. Beaman was Carnac’s executor and was told that there was an important manuscript among Carnac’s papers that he should take to a publisher. Beaman inspected the manuscript and was shocked to discover the contents. It seems that Beaman was getting it ready for publication and possibly re-typeset it (with he said the most disgusting bits cut out) but before any progress could be made, in 1932 Beaman himself died.
With it in his possession Alan Hickman contacted Paul Begg (who accompanied him on stage) and then Robert Smith (the main Ripper related literary agent) and arranged publication.
The provenance of the manuscript is mysterious. The way it is paginated is odd. Everything about it invites questions- even the dust cover.
Is it a work of fiction dreamt up by the creator of ‘Larry the Lamb’ out of some inner frustration? Who knows, but research into this ‘Autobiography of Jack the Ripper’ continues.
After a buffet lunch we reconvened to hear a talk by Dr Jari Louhelainen. This was one of the controversial pre-conference talking points.
The shawl of course is the key evidence in the claim by Russell Edwards that he has solved the Jack the Ripper case in his book ‘Naming Jack the Ripper’, via examination of stains on the material which are said to relate to the victim Catherine Eddowes and the suspect Aaron Kosminski.
Jari is the one who will not be blamed for nothing to do with the ‘shawl’. That double negative means he has been blamed for controversy surrounding the Kosminski-Eddowes-Simpson shawl scientific testing. Unless you are a employing the famous Cockney double negative in which case it means that he is innocent of all blame and there is no controversy!
That is probably as clear as Jari’s talk was to most attendees. This is no reflection on the good Doctor. His was an incredibly technical subject to bring before a lay audience, for he set out to explain the forensic DNA analysis of the shawl which has apparently been in the possession of the family of former Metropolitan Policeman Amos Simpson.
After putting up a slide that listed his qualifications – MsC, PhD, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Helsinki and Senior Lecturer of Molecular Biology at Liverpool John Moores University – and another detailing where he has studied over the years – from Stockholm to Oxford – Jari went through previous attempts to use DNA evidence to solve this case. He focussed on the efforts made by Patricia Cornwell with respect to Walter Sickert (mostly on a postage stamp) and an earlier examination of the Simpson shawl as part of an Australian TV documentary about Frederick Deeming.
There was no information available about the approach used in the Cornwell investigation, while in the Deeming investigation some hurried wet swabs were taken from the surface of the shawl which proved inconclusive.
Jari made the point that he had to get ethical approval from Liverpool John Moores University before he conducted the tests on the shawl on behalf of its owner Russell Edwards, under regulations contained in the Human Tissues Act, which also governed how samples should be stored and disposed of. After all they were examining the shawl to see if it contained human samples relating to real people.
Jari described the special sterile laboratories used to conduct the tests and showed slides of the expensive equipment housed in them.
Jari used infrared and UV lighting to identify the stains that were to be used for samples, and to extract the DNA Jari pioneered a special vacuuming method (that owed something to the American M-Vac System) that went into the fibres of the shawl to eliminate much of the contamination risk inherent in the surface swab collection of material.
Once a blood sample from the shawl was collected he used polymerase chain reaction to amplify it for testing, although some samples were not amplifiable.
All humans share 99.5% of their DNA with their fellow man. It is the 0.5% that makes us individuals. All DNA is made up of sequences or nucleotides – given the letters AGCT. Good quality sequences will be 800 letters long. Poor, heavily degraded and fragmented sequences may only have 100. Heat can degrade sequences as can age. Jari defined ancient DNA as being over 15 years old, which didn’t strike me as particularly ancient. But ancient DNA no longer seeming so old is perhaps a sign of my own aging.
In the sequences, markers are needed to identify individuals – to establish the unique 0.5%. In court cases it is established that a match of 13 markers is enough to legally identify an individual.
Different types of DNA degenerate at different rates. Genomic DNA (gDNA) can fully degenerate after 10 years. This is the best type to precisely identify individuals.
However Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA or mDNA) does not degenerate nearly so rapidly. It is passed down the female line. It was mtDNA samples that were found and tested.
Jari said that he found a match of 13 markers from the blood against a sample from a descendent of Catherine Eddowes.
At this stage Jari made the point that most scientific data was left out ‘Naming Jack the Ripper’ as the publisher felt it as getting too scientific for the reader.
Next up were the semen stains, allegedly emanating from Aaron Kosminski. Jari said these stains were mapped on the shawl showing a certain pattern which were indicative that they were indeed semen stains. Jari said he believed that he had identified gDNA in the sample obtained – not just mDNA.
He said the cells used to extract the sample were not in good condition but under genomic amplification it should be possible to establish that the sample can be pinpointed to one individual, and these should be able to indicate such traits as hair and eye colour. Tests were continuing in this area.
I hope the reader has been patient with me during this review as it is clearly a very technical subject and it was delivered quite quickly, and English is not Jari’s first language! Nevertheless I believe this is a fair summary of his talk.
After a short break Russell Edwards and Dr Jari Louhelainen faced a Question and Answer session, with Neil Storey asking the questions.
This is the part of the conference which attracted most controversy – before, during and after.
It was advertised that questions had to be submitted by e-mail to Sue Parry of the Whitechapel Society by 28th October. This was so that Russell Edwards and Dr Louhelainen could prepare any technical answers beforehand and not be ambushed with aggressive or grandstanding questions. It has to be remembered that their appearance was accompanied by much acrimony in the wider ‘Ripperological’ community, and even in some instances threats to disrupt the proceedings which may not have been uttered in all seriousness.
Nevertheless whatever the rights and wrongs of pre-submitted questions over off-the-cuff questions from the floor, which in an ideal world we might have preferred – the terms were known by all attendees well in advance and all had ample opportunity to submit a question in the requisite manner.
The question that was on everyone’s lips concerned a story that broke in the ‘Independent on Sunday’ newspaper (based on investigations by a group of posters on the Casebook internet forum) a few weeks before which called into doubt the DNA testing. This report suggested that the mDNA sample mentioned in ‘Naming Jack the Ripper’ did not uniquely point to Catherine Eddowes, but was commonplace in the population. In other words it was suggested that the identification of the blood with Catherine Eddowes was unsound.
Five questions were submitted and as follows. I will make no comment on whether I agree with the answers.
1. The killer seemed to have anatomical knowledge – how does that fit with Aaron Kosminski?
Answer – Russell Edwards said he was a hairdresser or barber and in that period barbers often performed minor medical procedures.
2. There was no record that a shawl belonged to Eddowes so how do you account for it?
Answer – Russell Edwards said it belonged to the murderer Kosminski, rather than Eddowes and was of Russian manufacture.
3. Has a scientific paper been presented to back up the findings?
Answer – Dr Jari Louhelainen said that there were still avenues to explore (as indicated above) and he would not publish a paper until these further tests had been concluded as otherwise it would be an interim report. However he intended to publish a report on his methodology first in Science UK as that did not await any outcomes.
4. Did they envisage the social media storm that resulted from publication and how has it affected their lives?
Answer – Both said it had a dramatic impact – Jari (being from Finland) was more surprised by it than Russell and both had been travelling around so much that they had not seen much of their families. Under Neil Storey’s very sympathetic questioning, Russell Edwards became very emotional at the impact the whole event had upon him.
5. Even if Kosminski’s DNA was on the shawl, what proof is there that he killed Catherine Eddowes?
Answer – Russell Edwards said that with a victim and a main suspect’s DNA found on the same piece of material it stretched credibility for him not to be the culprit. The blood showed an arterial spray pattern consistent with her injuries.
Neil Storey also used his position as ‘Question Master’ to pose a bonus question of his own.
Would they allow the samples to be matched against another suspect to compare the DNA tests?
Russell Edwards sort of agreed to this so long as the person who wanted the testing done came up with a female descendent from the female line, related to the suspect. The reason for this was that finding the relevant descendent testees – the Catherine Eddowes descendent Karen Miller and the Kosminski descendent only known as M – was exceptionally time consuming.
Russell Edwards said they did not want to be bombarded with frivolous suspects, to which Neil Storey suggested they limit themselves to the ‘official’ police suspects, namely Druitt, Ostrog and also Neil’s favourite Tumblety.
The Q and A then closed.
There was no question about the doubts expressed over the DNA testing. This undoubtedly dumbfounded many in the audience who were expecting the question to pass from Neil Storey’s lips as each moment passed. But no!
Investigation revealed that not one single person had submitted the relevant question in the right manner. Everyone expected that someone else would have done it. One attendee realised that this had happened and a minute or two before the Q and A started hastily scribbled the question on a sheet of paper, but he was not surprised when this did not go forward. A series of other questions of a similar vein were apparently brought to the conference by another attendee but these were also submitted far too late for inclusion.
In an ideal world as I said, questions would have been eligible for submission right up to the last minute or even during the Q and A. But the ground rules had been laid out well in advance.
Although some interesting information came out of the conference with respect to the shawl saga, this was an opportunity lost. It is invidious to apportion blame when no one submitted the right question in the right manner.
The conference broke up for the evening with much wagging of fingers. We then enjoyed a handsome meal accompanied by an auction were a number of lots were offer up for charity, chief among which was a fish knife that had been in the possession of the McCarthy family of Dorset Street fame and which supposedly had belonged to Mary Kelly.
We then marched down the dark streets of Salisbury to the Chapel Nightclub (a nightclub in an atmospheric converted Victorian Chapel). There we were treated to a performance of the rock musical ‘Yours Truly Jack the Ripper’ brilliantly performed by an ensemble under the guidance of Frogg Moody.
Sunday dawned. Back to the White Hart and Neil Storey introduced us to Paul Begg – who we had briefly met the day before. Paul is one of the most well respected Ripper historians and authorities. He entertained us with stories of his involvement in this field (particularly a detailed account of how the famous A-Z came about) and revealed that if he could go back in time to 1888 the named person he would choose to meet would be Donald Swanson.
At the close of this session Paul called Mark Galloway – the founder of the Whitechapel Society (formerly the Cloak and Dagger Club) – up to the stage to award him with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.
After a minutes silence for Remembrance Day, Trevor Bond took to the podium for his much anticipated talk on John McCarthy. Trevor traced the McCarthy family from Skibbereen in Ireland, from where they emigrated in the late 1840s to France as a result of the potato famine. John McCathy was born in Dieppe in 1848 – the same year that violence broke out in Ireland that caused many to flee. This is recounted in a song called ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’.
However Trevor traced John McCarthy’s record in the 1871 census and that listed him as having been born at sea. Perhaps in a boat off Dieppe. Trevor’s research has not provided the least evidence to suggest that John McCarthy was some sort of gangland figure, although he may have transgressed the law on occasion. The McCarthy’s also intermarried seemingly harmoniously with the Crossingham family – also of Dorset Street fame (or infamy) – which undermines any theory that the two families were ever at odds or engaged in a turf war, as has sometimes been suggested.
Trevor also covered the musical hall connections to McCarthy – particularly his son Stephen McCarthy who married a famous musical artiste Marie Kendall. McCathy’s great granddaughter Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy performed under the name Kay Kendall (starring in ‘Genevieve’) and married the famous actor Rex Harrison.
Hopefully Trevor will publish the results of his original research into this interesting family which looms so large in the Ripper story.
After the raffle and carvery lunch it was the turn of the renowned historian Sarah Wise to take the stage. I had the fortune to be able to discuss the social fabric of the East End circa 1888 with her while on the way to the Chapel the night before and she signed my copy of her excellent book ‘The Blackest Streets’. These conferences are useful for such things! Her talk was on tales from the Victorian Lunatic Asylum.
She pointed out that malicious asylum incarceration – which became a feminist issue towards the end of the 19th century when female heiresses were send to an asylum so wicked men could get their hands on their fortunes or so inconvenient wives could be disposed of – more commonly had men as the victims than women. Particularly before the 1870s when women’s rights to property were severely limited and so there was no incentive to dispose of a woman in an asylum. Even after the 1870s men were more likely to be the victims of malicious asylum incarceration – being certified as mad when they were not – but their stories were less poignant and so tended to go unrecorded.
The bulk of Sarah Wise’s talk however was quite original and was devoted to L Forbes Winslow, who as many know involved himself in the Jack the Ripper investigation. Forbes Winslow came from a family of psychiatrists who ran private mental asylums and became embroiled in a famous case of malicious asylum incarceration. It was this aspect of his life that Sarah Wise focussed on.
After this excellent talk we decamped for the Old Oak Court Room in Salisbury Guildhall. Here, in these suitable surroundings, which were enough to draw a lump in the throat of any miscreant, we were treated to the Trial of James Maybrick.
We the audience, were in effect the jury. The case was based on the presumption that the notorious Maybrick Diary was genuine. On that presumption was there enough to convict James Maybrick of being guilty of the Jack the Ripper Murders? The performance was put on in costume by the ‘History at Large’ group under the direction of George Fleming who played the part of the Barrister for the defence.
Witnesses were called and cross examined. It was superb entertainment and I kept forgetting they were not actually barristers. It were the wigs wot dunnit.
Oh – he was innocent – 35 to 11. Who can gainsay that you Maybrickites! Strike him from the list I say!
Upon the verdict those hardy souls who had survived the conference thus far departed whence they came. Oh some lingered in Sarum longer, reluctant to leave, there last actions being played out on the social media. It ended as it began. Would it really be another whole year before the drama can be played out again, in different surroundings but with many of the same cast?
Or will you also be there next time…
The Whitechapel Society, everyone involved in the proceedings, all the speakers and Frogg Moody in particular must be congratulated for putting on this excellent event.