A psy­chopath re­veals him­self

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Gold The Fox & the Flies: The World of Joseph Sil­ver, Rack­e­teer & Psy­chopath By Charles van Onse­len Jonathan Cape, 646pp, $ 35

THE Vic­to­rian era was a time of smoke­filled streets, dark satanic mills and an ex­ag­ger­ated moral­ity un­der­mined by the harsh re­pres­sion of sex­u­al­ity and fe­male em­pow­er­ment. It was a time when Chris­tian­ity and pornog­ra­phy co­ex­isted un­easily, a time of the bru­tal­ity of hu­man­ity in the ser­vice of in­dus­try and when scoundrels could be found on both sides of the di­vide be­tween good and evil. And it was a world ideally suited to Joseph Sil­ver, a 19th- cen­tury rack­e­teer, psy­chopath, misog­y­nist and white slaver.

The Fox & The Flies by Charles van Onse­len is a mas­terly dis­sec­tion of the life and times of the Pol­ish- born Sil­ver. But much more than the record of an evil man’s deeds, it is a painstak­ing anal­y­sis of a world of be­trayal, rape and cru­elty, of the ex­port of women to sat­isfy the in­sa­tiable de­mands of men, and of me­dieval and bib­li­cal driv­ing forces try­ing to co­habit with a world lust­ing af­ter the re­wards of moder­nity.

Van Onse­len, a South African his­to­rian and bi­og­ra­pher, first dis­cov­ered flimsy de­tails of the ex­is­tence of Sil­ver 30 years ago when he was re­search­ing an 1898 ar­ti­cle in Jo­han­nes­burg’s Stan­dard & Dig­ger’s News. In this news­pa­per, Sil­ver was iden­ti­fied as the leader of South Africa’s no­to­ri­ous Amer­i­can Club, a syn­di­cate of Rus­sian and Pol­ish Jews from New York that con­trolled the po­lice, or­gan­ised vice and much of the crime in South Africa’s goldmining cap­i­tal.

Van Onse­len’s dis­cov­ery and decades of metic­u­lous re­search led the his­to­rian to the star­tling con­clu­sion that the sub­ject of his bi­og­ra­phy was none other than the no­to­ri­ous Jack the Rip­per. His claim is based on co­in­ci­dences van Onse­len un­earthed be­tween Sil­ver’s life in Whitechapel, Lon­don, and the mur­ders and dis­mem­ber­ment of at least five pros­ti­tutes by the no­to­ri­ous Rip­per.

In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be rea­son­able to be highly scep­ti­cal of such for­tu­itous dis­cov­er­ies. But van Onse­len is an ac­claimed bi­og­ra­pher and a ded­i­cated his­to­rian. He holds visit­ing fel­low­ships at the univer­si­ties of Cam­bridge, Ox­ford and Yale, and is re­search pro­fes­sor in the fac­ulty of hu­man­i­ties at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria in South Africa.

So who was Sil­ver and why should the in­ti­mate events in the life of a crim­i­nal psy­chopath and preda­tor mat­ter to us to­day? It is sim­ply be­cause van Onse­len has writ­ten a mag­is­te­rial vol­ume that speaks to us about the world of our grand­par­ents. Sil­ver strad­dled the an­cient and morally claus­tro­pho­bic world of the east Euro­pean Jewish ghetto and the so­phis­ti­cated West­ern world of plenty. But it was also a world of im­moral­ity and crime, and th­ese were al­most the only ways for so­ci­ety to sur­vive.

Through his painstak­ing re­pro­duc­tion of Sil­ver’s life and trav­els, van Onse­len has shone a re­veal­ing light on late 19th- cen­tury so­ci­ety. For all the vi­brancy and achieve­ment of its wealth­ier mem­bers, its traders and ad­ven­tur­ers, the re­al­ity was of a so­ci­ety in which the sick and the weak suf­fered. De­ter­mined not to be one of its vic­tims, Sil­ver led a life of misog­yny, crime, bar­bar­ity and un­ut­ter­able evil.

Brothel owner, fraud­ster and traf­ficker of women across four con­ti­nents, Sil­ver was a man of ex­tra­or­di­nary com­plex­ity and du­plic­ity, one who was just as ca­pa­ble of tor­tur­ing a wo­man as he was of work­ing as a spe­cial agent for the New York po­lice.

Like other crim­i­nal psy­chopaths, he was in­ca­pable of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween work­ing with the forces of author­ity and build­ing up net­works of gangs that ab­ducted women and cre­ated an en­tire slave trade. The Fox and the Flies is a nar­ra­tive of global ma­nip­u­la­tion by an arch crim­i­nal.

Yet no mat­ter how hideous were the crimes Sil­ver com­mit­ted, van Onse­len has writ­ten a mag­nif­i­cent bi­og­ra­phy of an evil man. The cal­lous­ness of his deeds may of­ten be sick­en­ing, but The Fox and the Flies makes Sil­ver into an ut­terly un­for­get­table char­ac­ter.

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Alan Gold’s latest novel is The Pi­rate Queen.

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