“You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!”
These were the words supposedly said by former Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, the man in charge of the Ripper case, to his former colleague Inspector Godley on the arrest of Seweryn Klosowski (aka George Chapman) in 1902. But who was this despicable murderer whom Abberline felt was Jack? And was there any evidence?
Chapman was born Seweryn Antonowicz Klosowski in Poland, where as a teenager he apprenticed to a surgeon (where he would assist with routine procedures such as using leeches for blood letting). Later he would enroll on a brief practical surgery course in Warsaw and would serve as a Doctor’s assistant. This training would not have prepared him to practice medicine as we think of it today, but would have trained him to be a feldsher – who would engage in such medical practices as lancing boils or changing bandages. They were for all intents and purposes, male nurses. At some time in the late 1880’s he emigrated to London, from evidence given at his trial it could have been anywhere between May 1887 and October 1888. In London he did not setup shop as a feldsher (either because he failed his exams or possibly did not like the lowly status of this profession in the Polish medical system) so instead he became a hairdresser. Over the next few years he would frequently move from shop to shop in the East End. In late September 1889 he made the acquaintance of Lucy Baderska, a teenage girl who had recently immigrated from Poland, and within just over a month the couple had married. The reason for this rushed engagement is not known, but as in later life Klosowski proved he could be a seductive womaniser, it is certainly possible to hazard a guess.
Despite the claims of the White Hart pub on Whitechapel High Street, Klosowski did not work as a barber in the cellar there during the Autumn of Terror in 1888, but instead started working there sometime prior to the summer of 1890, taking over as proprietor of the shop at some point until moving on in mid 1891. It is likely that the Klosowski’s also lived in the pub at some point (likely in a room upstairs) as it was there that Lucy gave birth to a son, Wladyslaw, in September 1890 but sadly the baby died in March 1891 (at the time, around half of children born in the East End would not survive infancy). After leaving the White Hart, the Klosowski’s travelled to America, with Lucy returning five months pregnant in January in 1891. According to British Parliamentary Papers following his trial, the reason for Lucy’s return was his violence and womanising, but the source for this was unknown. Klosowski would return to England about two weeks after the birthday of the baby (named Cecilia) in May 1892. Sometime between June and Autumn 1892, Lucy left Klosowski, again, the reason for this is not known.
In Autumn 1893, Klosowski met a woman in her early twenties named Sarah Ann Chapman (known as Annie – but with no known relation to the Ripper victim) and shortly she moved in as his housekeeper (which is generally believed to have been a Victorian euphemism for a cohabiting, but unmarried couple). In a strange turn of events, in Autumn 1894 Klosowski met Lucy again and also convinced her to move in, and Annie and Lucy both lived with him for a period of six weeks. Finally Annie moved out (she was at this time a month pregnant) and shortly after so did Lucy. In 1895, about the time that his child with Annie was due, Klosowski moved to Leytonstone and began using the name George Chapman.
At his lodgings he caused a scandal when he was caught kissing fellow resident, Mary Spink (a married woman – though estranged from her husband – with two children, the youngest of whom, William lived at the same house). Chapman calmed the situation by saying that he has asked Mary to marry him, and in late October 1895 the couple underwent a fake wedding ceremony concocted by Chapman (it was believed that Mary thought this ceremony was genuine, but then she would have knowingly committed bigamy). The following year Chapman, his new “wife” and stepson moved to the seaside town of Hastings on the Sussex coast. Here, Chapman set up a barber shop and the family lodged in various houses around the town. It was in one of these residences that Chapmans eye was caught by a young domestic servant named Alice Penfold. She rejected his advances, but he clearly by this time had had enough of his “marriage” to Mary. He became violent to her and purchased enough tartar emeric (a yellowish white powder containing antimony) to kill forty people. Tartar emeric poisoning is a lethal poison. A single grain is toxic, but would act as its own antidote as it would cause the victim to vomit the lethal dose up before it could take effect. A dose of six to ten grains was usually needed to guarantee death. Chapman however did not just give his victims a quick (though painful death). He would exhibit an exceptionally sadistic pattern of behaviour – he would slowly poison them with sub-lethal doses, causing excruciating stomach pains, constant vomiting, straining and purging. The deaths would be slow, caused by a combination of the poison, dehydration, starvation and heart failure.
In 1897, Chapman and family moved back to London where he became licensee of a beerhouse, The Prince of Wales, and began taking money from Mary and transferring it into his own account. In total, he took from her just under £500, which today would be the equivalent of £50,000. Theft cannot have been his primary motivation however, as why would he choose such a cruel way of dispatching Mary if it had been?
He then began to slowly poison Mary. Unable and unwilling to deal with the unpleasant side effects of his poisoning, Chapman had neighbours sit with Mary. Even though their suspicions were raised by his giving of medicines to her and her reaction to him, they did nothing. A Doctor was called at the urging of the neighbours, but could not find the cause of her illness. A nurse was hired to attend to her (at the urging of the doctor), but she knew that her job was to help keep Mary comfortable, not help her recovery. Within three months of moving from Hastings back to London, on Christmas Day 1897, Mary Spink died. Chapman weeped for a few minutes, and then went to open the pub as if nothing had happened. The cause of death on her death certificate was phthisis (meaning any disease that caused wasting of the body).
From Chapman’s blasé attitude to Mary’s death, we can see he did not waste any time feigning grief. No more so demonstrated that by Easter 1898, 38 year old Bessie Taylor moved in to the Prince of Wales. By July the pair had construed a fake wedding and began taking money from her. In August, Chapman sold the lease on the Prince of Wales and moved to Bishop’s Storford, becoming landlord of the Grapes. In March 1899, Chapman dumped his stepson at a workhouse and purchased the lease of The Monument in Southwark. At the end of 1900, Bessie began experiencing the same mysterious illness that had killed Mary. Chapman had obviously once again tired of his wife and once again doctors were mystified. Less than three months later she was dead, the cause of death being “intestinal obstruction, vomiting and exhaustion”. Again, Chapman did not grieve – just over 6 weeks later, when the 1901 census was taken, Chapman claimed to be a bachelor (he also claimed to be an American).
In August 1901 he engaged a 19 year old girl, Maud Marsh, to work as a barmaid. Within a month he had proposed to her, and pressured her for sexual favours. On October 13th, Chapman underwent another fake marriage. A week later, Chapman began moving his personal effects out of the Monument and moved in expensive looking furniture. On the 24th October he left the pub, leaving Maud a note instructing her to empty the tills when shutting up. Maud left the pub at 10.15pm and caught a train to Croydon. Later that night, Chapman snuck into the pub and set fire to it. A newspaper suggested that the circumstances behind the fire were suspicious and he tried to threaten them for libel damages, which he withdrew when presented by evidence by the police. The insurance company cancelled his policy and paid out little to no damages. Despite these circumstances, Chapman took control of another public house – The Crown in Southwark.
Here, both Maud and Chapman became involved in the Shares Scam of 1902, where they both committed perjury. It was here that Chapman would first encounter Detective Inspector George Godley (who had also investigated the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888). Despite their perjury, the Chapmans won the case.
At the end of July 1902 Maud was struck ill, yet would strangely recover when removed from Chapman’s care. Strangely, Chapman decided to consult the same doctor (Dr Stoker) that had treated Bessie. Was this risk taking behaviour? Did he think he could out smart the medical men? Or did he perhaps secretly want to be caught? For the next several months, Dr Stoker and Maud’s family and friends would fight a constant battle of wits to save Maud’s life, while Chapman continued to secretly poison her. On the 22nd October, Maud finally died. Stoker sought permission from Chapman and Maud’s mother to conduct a post mortem and eventually discovered the presence of antimony in her body. On the 25th October, Chapman was arrested by Inspector George Godley. On the 18th March 1903 he was convicted of the murder of Maud Marsh. He was executed by hanging at Wandsworth on 7th April 1903.
Before the execution even took place theories that Chapman may have been Jack the Ripper began to surface. The theory was given extra credence by an interview given by former Chief Inspector Abberline to the Pall Mall Gazette:
“I have been so struck with the remarkable coincidences in the two series of murders that I have not been able to think of anything else for several days past — not, in fact, since the Attorney-General made his opening statement at the recent trial, and traced the antecedents of Chapman before he came to this country in 1888. Since then the idea has taken full possession of me, and everything fits in and dovetails so well that I cannot help feeling that this is the man we struggled so hard to capture fifteen years ago…
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.”
So was Abberline correct? Was Chapman the Ripper? While he is correct in saying that Chapman’s arrival in London roughly coincides with the start of the murders, there are also many vagaries and inaccuracies in the theory. There is also the fact that would a killer who brutally murders, mutilates and displays prostitutes would then change their modus operandi and slowly and sadistically poisons their wives? Unlikely perhaps.
For more information on the murders of Seweryn Klosowski/George Chapman and an in-depth analysis as to whether he was Jack the Ripper, the definitive work must be “Jack the Ripper at last? The Mysterious Murders of George Chapman” by Helena Wojtczak.