FROM MY LIBRARY CHAIR.
(By "John Lester.")
An Unsolved Mystery.
The popularity of books about malefactors and their misdeeds may be gauged from the surprising fact that the latest writer to succumb to the lure of the criminal is none other than G.A. Birmingham (Canon Hannay), who has previously been known more especially by his engaging books of humorous stories. Now, however, he has published a work under the grim and suggestive title of "Murder Most Foul," being studies of eminent assassins.
Another not uninteresting book dealing with the same gruesome subject is Mr. Guy Logan's "Masters of Crime," in which he gravely considers the preposterous deeds of persons who have gone in for murder on a wholesale scale; and one of his chapters is concerned with the unsolved mystery of what were known, forty years ago, as the "Ripper" murders.
In this connection a well-known London librarian has recently related how in the public library he administers he one day approached a young man who seemed at a loose end, and, with the kindest intentions, inquired if he could find him a book, and what kind of literature was he interested in. The young man hesitated for a moment, and then confessed that what he would really appreciate would be a full and reliable "Life" of "Jack the Ripper." But as no biography of this elusive gentleman is known to exist, the librarian was unable to oblige.
I have a personal interest in the "Ripper" crimes - (no; I am not on the point of making a belated confession) - in that at the time of their commission, towards the end of 1888, I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy at a school near London, and after the perpetration of what was known as the Mitre-square murder - (I believe a second crime was committed by the same accomplished hand on the same night) - I and a schoolfellow of mine, an equally morbid-minded little beast, managed to get "exents" under false pretences, and together we made the short journey to town and visited the scene of the latest atrocity - a dingy square of offices and warehouses, if I recollect right, entered from Leadenhall-street, and, I think, from Aldgate. We saw nothing but the usual crowds which assemble on such occasions, being diligently "moved on" by majestic city policemen. Afterwards we had tea at an A.B.C., and I am pleased beyond measure to record that when we got back to school we were both soundly flogged for the incorrigible young rogues and vagabonds we undoubtedly were.
Skipping a little matter of thirty years, about a decade ago, when I was editing a police paper, I remember seeing in one of our exchanges - a London police journal - a short article, in which the writer stated that immediately after the last of the "Ripper" murders the body of a man which answered to the description of the supposed criminal was found floating in the river off Wapping Old Stairs, not far from the Whitechapel district where the crimes were committed; and it was tacitly assumed that, after the commission of his last murder, the assassin, moved to a pitch of intolerable frenzy, flung himself into the Thames. It might well have been so. Mr. Logan says that the doctor who was the first of his profession to enter the miserable garret in Miller's Court where the woman Kelly had been done to death, "was struck dumb with horror at the sight the corpse presented, and the policemen were sickened to actual nausea by the spectacle. It seemed to be the work of a demon let loose. Nothing like it had ever been known in the records of crime."
What Packer Saw.
Was "Jack the Ripper" ever seen and actually spoken to? Mr. Logan has no hesitation in answering this question in the affirmative. In Berner-street, Whitechapel, there was a small fruiterer's shop kept by one Matthew Packer, who used to serve his customers through a window. "At 11:30 on the night of Saturday, September 30, 1888, there came to this window a man and a woman, whom Packer knew by sight. The woman, indeed, he was well acquainted with, for Elizabeth Stride - "Long Liz," as they called her - was a familiar figure in that vicinity. Of the man he knew nothing, other than he had seen him two or three times, and had remembered his face. He was..........aged about 30, in height 5ft. 7in., or just on that, square-built, dark-complexioned, clean shaven, and alert-looking. He wore a long black overcoat, and soft felt hat, and spoke in a quick, sharp manner."
The man purchased some cheap grapes, which he gave to the woman, and the two went off arm in arm. Less than twenty minutes later the body of the woman, horribly mutilated, was found in a yard a stone's throw from Packer's shop. Near her was a paper bag and a quantity of grape skins and stalks.
Two or three days elapsed, and Packer saw the man again. In his own words: "I knew him instantly, and he remembered me. He gave me a dark, menacing look, but I should have had him "nabbed" if it had not been that I was taken by surprise, and that I had no one at the moment to leave in charge of my stall. I told a shoeblack to follow him, but when the man saw me whispering these instructions, he suddenly darted off and jumped on the first passing train. I can positively swear to its being the same man."
The Amazing Troppmann.
In his memories of Oscar Wilde, Mr. Robert Shepard recalls an occasion in Paris when Wilde gave a dinner party at the Hotel Voltaire, at which the guest of honour was the decadent poet. Maurice Rollinat, at that time nearing his unhappy end through the immoderate use of drugs. It is pleasant to think that just when that end seemed inevitable, the poet got a grip of himself, and, in the depths of the country, whither he had fled from Paris, succeeded in overcoming his infirmity, so far, that is, as such an infirmity is ever subdued.
But this was before the dinner at the Hotel Voltaire, when Rollinat, at the request of his host, recited some of his own verses. Mr. Sherard says: "Rollinat gave us his terrible "Ballad of Troppmann," a gruesome and terrifying poem, to which the nervous excitement of its author, as he repeated it with wild gestures, lent additional horror. It was a very revel of the morbid. Poe would have crossed the ocean to be present. Oscar Wilde expressed a supreme satisfaction."
The hero of this terrifying ballad was Jean Baptiste Troppmann, a native of Alsace, "a slim, dark, effeminate-looking young man, with large, soft, brown eyes, a yellow, bilious complexion, and a tiny moustache," who, in 1869, did away with a family of eight persons. The body of Jean Kinck, the father of this family, was discovered buried beneath a heap of stones in a field near Guebviller, a small town in Alsace. The horribly mangled remains of his wife and six children were found buried in a clover field at Pantin, an eastern suburb of Paris, whither they had been lured by night and struck down one by one by the infamous Troppmann.
The murderer was apprehended at Havre, the first stage of his projected flight to America, and it was soon established that the motive for these multiple crimes was greed - an unavailing greed, one is pleased to know, since the sum of five thousand francs posted by Madame Kinck to Jean Kinck, her husband, at the Post Office, Guebviller, which Troppmann (a friend of Jean Kinck) had schemed to obtain possession of, remained in the custody of the postmaster.
At the trial, Troppmann's advocate "made much of the prisoner's youth, slender build, and delicate appearance, but the real fact was that Troppmann possessed amazing strength and agility, and had large, coarse, brutal hands, the hands of a strangler." The plea of insanity advanced by Maitre Lachand was rejected, and Troppmann was duly guillotined. "Two minor disasters followed on this terrible tragedy. Madame Kinck's sister, on learning the whole story, went raving mad, and Troppmann's brother, a soldier in the artillery, unable to face the shame and disgrace, killed himself in barracks."
The Highway Artist.
De Quincey, in his essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," one of the greatest pieces of descriptive writing in the English language, wrote of "the immortal Williams' murders of 1812." John Williams, who was in all probability a homicidal lunatic, massacred six persons belonging to the families of the Marrs and Williamsons, in Ratcliffe Highway, now St. George's-street, a throughfare leading east from Tower Hill. After his apprehension on suspicion of having been concerned in the murders, Williams was remanded from Shadwell police office to Coldbath Fields Prison, where he cheated the gallows by hanging himself from an iron bar with his _____.
Williams' case in unique in that he is the only murderer whose portrait has been painted after death by a Royal Academician, Sir Thomas Lawrence's water-colour sketch, made immediately subsequent to the discovery of the suicide, showing the profile of a well-featured, rather handsome young man, with yellow curling hair and pale blue eyes. This, combined with the fact that at all events, his crimes - inspired a masterpiece of prose, should insure for him that immortality, or bad eminence, which De Quincey did not hesitate to predict. It is not uninteresting to know that the Williams crimes led to the introduction of those chains on front doors which enabled a person to take stock of a caller before admitting him to the premises. As some of the older among us will remember, until comparatively recent years, very few houses were without this safeguard of a chain, which worked in a sort of iron groove on the inside of the front door.
An Abridged Bible.
A book of more than ordinary interest that has just been issued by the University Press, Cambridge, at 7/6, is "The Cambridge Shorter Bible," arranged by A. Nairne, T.R. Glover, and Sir A. Quiller-Couch. The plan of the book is simple: it is printed in single column, chapter and verse divisions have been discarded for paragraphs, and the passages of poetry are printed as poetry.
Very little has been retained of the legislative books. Of the books given to narrative, the editors have tried to keep everything suitable for general reading (omitting pedigrees and so forth), but where there was overlapping they have been content with one version. The Gospels and Acts, however, are unabridged.
The third group, where the spiritual and deflective aspects of life predominate called for another treatment. It will be widely recognised that to most readers large parts of the prophetic writings are extremely difficult. The editors have endeavoured to secure their end by omitting all that to readers without technical knowledge is too obscure to be of much direct value, at the same time retaining every passage that has a special appeal to the scholarly or devout student of the Bible or of English letters. The text is, in the main, that of the Authorised Version.
Here, then, we have a Bible that, as Mr. J.B. Priestley has succinctly observed, "looks like a sensible book and not like a railway timetable."
Source: Western Mail, Thursday 20 June 1929, page 12