by Helena Wojtczak


7 APRIL 2016

292 pages, 156mm x 234mm
ISBN 978-1904-109-310
Publisher: Hastings Press

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Review in Ripperologist No.134, October 2013

We have had to wait more than a century for the first reliable and fully accurate account of George Chapman’s life. Helena Wojtczak’s long-awaited study of George Chapman is a major work of biography. Her research has been extensive and painstaking, not just into Chapman’s life and criminal career but the lives of his victims and their families. It offers a gripping narrative on perhaps the most sensational case of criminal poisoning from the late Victorian and early Edwardian age, and sheds new light on these dreadful murders and the man who committed them.

Between 1897 and 1902, George Chapman worked as a publican in Bishop’s Stortford and London. With him was a succession of women who appear to have been content to masquerade as his wife in feigned marriages. He liked his ladies slightly on the plump side, otherwise glowing with teenage high spirits and vitality - all the better to malnourish and waste away. Chapman’s poison was tartar emetic, a yellowish-white powder containing the toxic substance antimony. His three victims died slowly and horribly, and in excruciating, lingering distress. Ms Wojtczak does not spare us the queasy details - the sickroom stench of vomit and diarrhoea is never too far away. Chapman was also an abortionist, using his favourite green rubber syringe to force chemicals into the womb of nineteen-year-old Maud Marsh, who more than anything wished to become a mother. There is a goosebumps moment – the book is full of them – when we catch sight of Chapman washing his syringe and steeping it in a half-pint tumbler of water on the kitchen windowsill, demonstrating far more concern for the servicing of his poison equipment than he ever showed for the well-being and sexual health of the women in his life.

The fact that Chapman managed to evade suspicion for so long attests to the failure of the medical profession not only to detect his criminal acts but to even consider the possibility of malefaction in the first place. In his summing-up at Chapman’s trial, Mr Justice Grantham rightly castigated a procession of local practitioners and the staff at Guy’s Hospital for their abominable dereliction of care. And yet, as the doctors themselves protested, what were they expected to do? Chapman was a consummate gameplayer, devious, calculating, charming and always plausible, who acted the role of distraught, grieving husband to perfection. He succeeded in fooling not only the professionals and the live-in carers but the families of the victims as well, who could only watch in despair as their loved ones died slowly and painfully in front of them.

Accordingly, the fascination of this case lies as much with the individual psychopathology of Chapman as with the insights it gives us into the care and treatment of female patients at the turn of the nineteenth century. While the author accepts that we may never truly understand the motives for Chapman’s murders, I found her analysis and interpretation of events to be startlingly original and very convincing. We only have to compare Ms Wojtczak’s careful arguments with the nonsense from previous commentators about three-in-a-bed romps and dismembered human remains beneath floorboards, to realise there is an altogether sharper intellect at work here. The author traces the course of Chapman’s life from his humble origins in rural Poland through to the beer cellars of fin de siècle Southwark. Almost every page contains new research or a fresh idea, a correction to the historical record or a debunking of a trusted and respected authority who has failed to check his or her facts. The author comments: “I have yet to read an account of [Chapman’s] life, no matter how brief – and no matter how eminent the writer – that is correct in every detail.” She shows how misinformation about Chapman began at his trial with unreliable witness evidence and racist counsel, and how it has been sustained ever since through wild press conjecture and the outpourings of memoirists and true crime writers who have unquestioningly passed on lies and errors. Several contemporary authors are singled out for especial censure.

She discusses at length the theory that George Chapman was Jack the Ripper. Inspector Frederick Abberline was the first person of note to espouse this theory in a series of interviews with the Pall Mall Gazette in 1903. But afterwards he fell quiet on the subject and never mentioned it again. One imagines he was simply embarrassed by his earlier advocacy. After reading Jack the Ripper At Last?, surely the definitive biography, I suspect there are going to be many more pundits similarly embarrassed by their published pronouncements on Chapman. It is a real delight to come across a work of such unarguably superior merit and significance.

Review by David Green; Ripperologist No.134, October 2013