As Managing Director of Random House South Africa, it gives me great pleasure to announce our association with a work of monumental achievement; I’m honoured to be the first to reveal that renowned South African historian and University of Pretoria professor, Charles van Onselen, has unmasked the world’s most notorious serial killer, London’s Jack the Ripper – after more than a hundred years of speculation about the murders.
In his book The Fox & the Flies – the World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath, published today, van Onselen produces compelling evidence that points to the killer being a man who went by the name Joseph Silver – a trader in “white slavery” who fled from Poland during the anti-Jewish pogroms of the late 19th century.
Silver spent years running brothels in London, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and was part of a white slave network that spanned the Atlantic World.
Van Onselen, who devoted almost three decades to tracking Silver’s life, formed an early suspicion that he might have been responsible for the gruesome murders of at least five women – possibly more – in London’s East End in 1888. But it was only towards the end of his research that he made the connections which established Silver as Jack the Ripper – connections that are revealed in his book’s explosive 25th chapter.
It all began when van Onselen was trawling through an 1898 edition of the Standard & Digger News in the Johannesburg public library, and happened upon the name “Joseph Silver”. This man was the leader of Johannesburg’s “American Club”, a syndicate of Russo-Polish Jews from New York which apparently controlled the police and organised vice in the city. But it was only two decades later that van Onselen tracked Silver to a brothel in London’s Whitechapel, where some of the Ripper murders occurred.
It is presumed that Silver, although clearly psychotic, also had an economic motive for killing the women – all of them prostitutes. For a brothel-keeper, the murders were an effective means of controlling his workers. The brutality and viciousness of the executions were a warning to “streetwalkers” who chose to operate independently in the East End.
Silver stayed in southern Africa from 1898 to 1905, and also kept brothels in Bloemfontein and Kimberley. During the Anglo-Boer War, he was involved in a string of robberies – targeting Jewish-owned jewelley stores – while at the same time acting as a police informer. He left the country for South West Africa (now Namibia), where he spent three years in jail for procuring prostitutes for German troops; and was involved in gun-running there during the Herero Rebellion.
Silver’s criminal empire relied on inexpensive ocean travel, made possible by the steamship companies of the day – a situation comparable to current low-cost air travel, which some researchers have blamed for increases in latter-day human trafficking. (At one stage toward the close of the 19th century, a person could cross the Atlantic by steamship – England to the USA – for just $8.) His life and exploits make for a fascinating, if chilling, historical and psychological profile, which van Onselen renders in gripping style.
We anticipate that the revelations contained in The Fox & the Flies will attract an enormous amount of international attention. It is a work of scholarship and biography of the highest order, and we at Random House congratulate Professor van Onselen on his achievement.
- Stephen Johnson, Managing Director, Random House South Africa