William Shakespeare

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

41 THE MAYBRICKS OF LIVERPOOL

 

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There is a myth amongst some on Merseyside that Liverpool is unique in having two cathedrals. It is not. Manchester has three cathedrals, and Glasgow has four. Neither is Liverpool the only city in the UK that has supplied more than one Ripper suspect. It must be, though, the only place that has two Ripper suspects in the same family. When suspect James Maybrick died, his wife was convicted for causing his death through poisoning.   Today most people believe that the wife Florence Maybrick was innocent.   What happened between the members of the Maybrick family was complicated.

James Maybrick was born in 1838 and he died in 1889. He was a successful cotton merchant. Maybrick and Company was based in Liverpool but also had a branch office in Virginia. Florence was born in Mobile, Alabama. Florence and James met while travelling across the Atlantic.   At her trial Florence was convicted of adding arsenic to the diet of her husband James and sentenced to hang. There was widespread doubt about the conviction. James was addicted to arsenic and, after years of dependency, fast becoming a wreck before he died. It may have been the attempts of James to kick the arsenic habit that killed him.  Author Paul Begg suggests this in Jack the Ripper The Facts.   Only a small amount of arsenic was found in the corpse of James Maybrick but the judge had little interest in the anomaly.  Florence was sentenced to hang but, because of the doubts about the conviction and what happened in the trial, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  She served fifteen years in an English prison before returning to south of the Mason Dixon line and home.

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Almost akin to the six stages of separation, Liverpool scrap dealer Mike Barrett claimed in 1992 that he had a connection to the Maybrick family.  Barrett had in his possession an elegant black and gilt calf bound Victorian book designed to record notes and to hold postcards and photographs. At this point Mike Barrett felt the need of an alter ego. Using the name Michael Williams, he contacted Doreen Montgomery a literary agent and revealed that inside his Victorian book there was a confession of 63 pages written by James Maybrick. The confession concluded with an extended signature. ‘I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper. Dated this third day of May 1889.’

The first 64 pages of the book had been removed, and the final seventeen pages were blank. Barrett explained to Doreen Montgomery that he used to visit his 67 years old friend Tony Devereux in hospital.  During one of these visits Devereux handed Barrett a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Something similar happened to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.  In 1991 Devereux died in Walton Hospital.  Down in London the confession, which was now being described as a diary, was referred for scientific tests by the people at the literary agency. The tests were inconclusive. The book itself was regarded as a genuine article. The concerns, though, were about the ink, the missing pages, some discrepancies in the account of the murders, and the handwriting of the author. Proving the age of ink is difficult. The difference in ink used by the Victorians and that used at the end of the last century is slight. It is also relatively simple to age ink prematurely.   Although probably sinister the missing pages may have been the result of nothing more than a change of ownership between members of the Maybrick family. The discrepancies that existed in the detail could be attributed to the normal limitations of human memory. The handwriting, though, was a poor match for what existed on the will and marriage certificate of James Maybrick.

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Meanwhile both Mike Barrett and his alter ego Michael Williams were having problems.   His marriage collapsed, and his heavy drinking increased.  Assuming that the diary was perhaps responsible for the change in his fortune, or so Barrett said, he decided to abandon his interest in the diary.  In 1994 Barrett contacted Liverpool journalist, Harold Brough, and confessed that he had written the diary.  Brough was unconvinced because Barrett was unable to explain how he bought the book and ink. Later, Barrett contacted Brough again.   He now remembered that he had bought the book in an auction held by Outhwaite and Litherland and the ink from an art dealer in the Bluecoat Chambers. A director of Outhwaite and Litherland stated that there was no record of the sale and neither would they sell such an item in the way Barrett described. Believing that ducking and diving were key components in survival,  Barrett retracted his confession. This process of confession and subsequent retraction was repeated in the years that followed.  Alternative storylines appeared. The identity of the forger alternated between being Barrett, his wife Ann, Barrett and others, and his wife and others.

The estranged wife of Barrett reverted to what her name had been before marriage, Ann Graham.  Determined to create a plot almost as complicated as that in The Maltese Falcon, Graham claimed that the diary had been left to her father by her grandfather. Graham said she had given the diary to her husband because he aspired to be a writer. She hoped it would help him to write and find an alternative to heavy drinking.   If only someone had told this Liverpool woman about the alcohol problems of Faulkner, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. The father of Ann Graham insisted that she was telling the truth.  Not much, though, made sense. Interest in both the diary and Mike Barrett faded.

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But, instead of a line being drawn under the affair, something odd happened on the other side of the River Mersey.  Albert Johnson lived in Birkenhead. He decided to buy a gold antique watch as an investment. In 1993 he reported that the watch had markings on the inside case. These markings consisted of the initials of the canonical five Ripper victims, the signature of James Maybrick and the words, ‘I am Jack’.   The watch was referred for expert analysis of the etchings on the inside case. The experts were not in agreement but at least two credible analysts thought that the markings could have been made around 1889. There is agreement, though, about the integrity of owner Albert Johnson.  He paid for the watch to be tested and never sought to use the watch to make money.  The existence of the watch and admittedly dubious diary constitute a mystery.

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For most this would be mystery enough but in 1997 author Paul H Feldman in Jack The Ripper The Final Chapter affirmed the Ripper belonged to the Maybrick family but added that the assassin was not James but his brother Michael.  Since then Feldman has not been a lone voice. Two more books have identified Michael Maybrick as the Ripper.   These are The Diary Of Jack The Ripper Another Chapter by James Stettler and They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson.   All three assume that the diary of James Maybrick has Victorian authenticity but the three authors argue that it was drafted by brother Michael. Yet the diary did not appear until well after both brothers had died and it achieved little for brother Michael. It is possible that Michael found recalling his crimes in print cathartic but thought it prudent to sign a name other than his own.   Few, though, will be convinced by this assumption, especially as doubts already exist about whether the diary is genuine.

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Like the plays of Shakespeare, letters are important to the Ripper plot described by Bruce Robinson in They All Love Jack.  Matthew Packer claimed that he sold grapes to a man and Liz Stride on the night that Stride was murdered by Jack the Ripper.   Robinson not only regards Packer as an honest witness he believes that Packer received a threatening letter from Jack the Ripper. Robinson notes the similarity of the handwriting in the letter sent to Packer to that in the ‘Dear Boss’ letter sent to the Central News Agency.  Once Robinson thinks he has a discernable letter writer he links some of the letters to the travels of Michael Maybrick, who was a popular singer and songwriter.   Two letters were sent from locations where Maybrick was appearing on the stage. These were Glasgow and Manchester. A small child in Bradford was murdered in a ritualistic fashion after Maybrick had arrived there to perform on stage.

210 letters were sent to the police and newspapers by people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. The theory of Robinson requires a belief in an ability to identify which of those letters were genuine and which shared the same hand.   Robinson also argues that the Ripper had the ability to disguise his handwriting. This means that the identification depends on recognising the disguises. A casual attitude to the possibility of coincidence in the timing of events is also beneficial.   They All Love Jack may be an entertaining and essential read but its achievement consists of an unforgiving exposure of Victorian hypocrisy and the ability of the author to raise doubts about what others regarded as fact. The identity of Jack the Ripper remains elusive, and needs something more than a scrapbook handed in by a Liverpool scrap dealer struggling with an alcohol problem.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

FORCE OF EVIL

USA, 1946

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Joe Morse talks a lot, and his words are fancy.  There is a reason. The movie Force Of Evil was based on the novel Tucker’s People. Ira Wolfert wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Force Of Evil and the original novel. His book Married Men is a whopping 800 pages filled with small print. The thriller Tucker’s People is not quite as ambitious but it needs a hefty 400 pages. Republic Pictures Corporation provided the finance and distribution for Force Of Evil. The unkind called Republic a ‘poverty row’ company. Their budgets were tight, and most of their films finished as the second feature in cinemas. Force Of Evil lasts for 78 minutes because Republic was not prepared to pay for any more celluloid and minutes. This meant that Polonsky and Wolfort had a problem. Tucker’s People is important because of its ambition and message. The gangsters are a metaphor for the limitations of modern capitalism and high finance.   Joe talks a lot because there is much to explain, how the numbers racket works, how a monetised social system corrupts the soul, how the 1% do what they can to rig the market and how the blurred distinction between capitalists and the not so rich businessmen and merchants causes confusion in those who are loyal to the system.  But Joe is obliged also to be personal. Realising his ambition has been manipulated by the powerful, Joe talks of disillusionment and the change in his feelings. He is loyal to his brother Leo, and there are conversations between the two of them. And, when he is not doing that, Joe has to persuade Doris to fall in love with him.

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Force Of Evil is packed tight with exposition and conversation.   When the film first appeared in the States, the critics were sniffy.  None of them noticed that much of the dialogue was in blank verse. The film had to arrive in Europe for critics to be alerted but even then nobody attempted to explain why.  This is my theory.  Polonsky and Wolfert had to do something with all that talk. Most B movies have simple plots and basic themes. Rather than simplify the script, Polonsky and Wolfert wallowed in the exposition and used the trick made famous by Shakespeare.  Blank verse not only added poetry to Force Of Evil, it squeezed two sharp writers out of a tight corner. If talky Joe had done nothing but explain the plot, we might not have been seduced by the glorious language but Joe is a smart guy.   He has a corrupt society, the temptations of capitalism and his emotional frustration to discuss. ‘I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.’   Most of the time, when the fighting starts and supposed victory is experienced, the memory of the earlier and more important failure is obliterated. But Joe has more than a memory.  He has brother Leo to protect, and Tucker, the man who will help Joe become rich after they rig the lottery result, wants to bankrupt the small time operators including brother Leo. Joe realises that he is not the wise guy he thought. ‘I feel like midnight and I don’t know what the morning will be.’ Even without the metre of the verse that sounds impressive.

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Force Of Evil may not capture all the misgivings that we have about the way we live in the modern world but it feels as if it does. Joe sums up the desire of the capitalists for profit and their contempt for ordinary people. ‘Money is something that goes to waste in other people’s pockets.’ Ira Wolfert described the capitalists as ‘the bosses that I hate’. Force Of Evil is sympathetic to those who work in the market. It is the 1% who call the shots that are the villains. Robber barons, and not perfect competition or the free market, define capitalism. Joe is a lawyer for one of them, Tucker, but Leo his brother worked hard to give Joe opportunities.  Joe responded to the jungle around him and fought and used his brains but he had privileges denied others. Privilege has a habit of attracting compound interest. After the sacrifices his brother made, Joe met Tucker. ‘He opened his wallet, and I jumped in headfirst. I sat there and measured my strength.’ The relentless competition affects everyone. Even the big boss Tucker feels insecure.  ‘Of course, I trust you, Joe. I just want you to know how worried I am.’

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Most film noirs hide the cheap sets in shadow and low light. In Force Of Evil there are two suspense scenes shot in shadow but the rest is in bright black and white. The décor is plain but classical, and, because the characters operate in their own psychological worlds, they have physical space around them. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, characters move away from one another and reappear.   It is theatrical but dramatic and marvellous. The two memorable shots involve a staircase. Competition and rivalry reign, and the characters are not only in ascent or descent they have no idea what is up or down. Staircases confuse them. When the movie does go outside, there are impressive views of empty New York streets and a never to be forgotten final scene when Joe wanders down to the bay to find his dead brother. The daylight changes into sunshine, and people disappear. We realise that Joe is leaving the trappings of a crooked and twisted world. The music also has some fine moments. Its heavy chords we associate with religious ceremony, and they are a reminder that the spiritual battles that Joe is fighting have existed for some time. Ira Wolfert thought it was because the bosses have always run the show. The less political look for religious themes and note the biblical references in the script. Others resign themselves to believing it is how human beings are constructed.

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Although the main concern of Force Of Evil is the need for defiance and its importance to the human spirit there is also detached protest about a flawed economic and social system. There is even optimism.   Joe Morse walks away from his brother and understands why a system based on greed has to be rejected. Leo lies dead at the side of the river, washed up like garbage because he was no longer useful to the bosses. The pun is both visual and literary.   Joe takes a final look at his dead brother before leading Doris away and towards the struggle that waits. ‘Something was wrong, and I decided to help.’ Compared to the previous eloquence these are simple words. There is a reason. Doing the right thing does not require complicated argument.  The obvious comparison is with the great radical novel, The Iron Heel by Jack London. In that novel there is also a rugged masculine American hero determined to challenge the oppression of the bosses.

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Force Of Evil, though, is much more than dull agitprop polemic. The script is sharp, witty, cynical, romantic and playful. Force Of Evil is the kind of knowing movie that Billy Wilder would have made if he were a socialist. Many years ago I read a review that was approving about the film but superior about the performance of Thomas Gomez as brother Leo. He has a different style from the naturalism of John Garfield who dominates the film as the complicated and tortured Joe but Gomez is believable as the powerless and desperate head of a small time operation. He sweats because he is overweight, scared and exasperated. Sultry Marie Windsor has three brief scenes. Windsor plays the bored wife of Tucker, and that is all we know about her but she adds sex to the other compromises that have corroded the soul of Joe Morse. Beatrice Person only made two movies, and the reason why remains a mystery because she is perfect as Doris the decent woman who will somehow love her man too much yet stand firm against his weakness and self-indulgence.

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Above them all, though, is John Garfield. Not only does his voice caress the blank verse and hint at how his thoughts surprise even him, he adds complexity and meaning to what is already a rich brew.   When he says to Doris, ‘You wanted the ruby after all’, he adds baritone strength, and Joe becomes seducer, fighter and thinker.  In Body And Soul John Garfield was a boxer, and his performance was physical.  He keeps his body tight in Force Of Evil.  Joe Morse is a man shaped by a calculating mind. The drama happens between his shoulders, and the clues are the words that come out of his mouth.

The relationship between the two brothers is fundamental to what happens in the film but Joe has other reasons to resist the plans of Tucker.  He realises he will be betrayed because the success and money he has is wanted by others. Joe may have ambition and cynicism but he is unlike the gangsters. Joe wants the approval of Leo that is denied him but he is also indebted. The absence of any sense of debt and obligation is what makes the gangsters sinister. It is what happens to the rich and powerful and reduces them. The clash between materialism and having personal worth is teased out of the relationship between Joe and Doris. Joe does not understand people who do not want to take what is there, help themselves to the money that is around them. He regards this as failure. Doris wants more. She is aware that the obsession with money destroys life. She tells Joe that it is ‘being rich in death’. This is the argument against capitalism and it is more than political, it is personal.  In a rather pompous introduction to the movie Martin Scorcese describes Force Of Evil as both existential and political. He misses the point. As Sartre understood, the political is existential. It is why some of us persist in hoping for change and progress whatever our natures.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.