A psychopath reveals himself
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.
Alan Gold’s latest novel is The Pirate Queen.