211 : Jack the Ripper – a Black connection

The slaughter/mutilation of at least five women in London in 1888 attracted considerable attention and there are numerous publications, websites, articles, books and films about these murders, by ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The steady accumulation of details about African descent people in Britain has exposed a black strand in British social life despite a traditional emphasis on entertainers, students and political activists. Sometimes it is difficult to balance the radical stress of some histories with the simpler biographic account of black men, women and children who moved among the British at every level — Robert Branford, Metropolitan police officer (died 1869) [see this website page 173], professor J. S. Risien Russell (died 1939) [website page 010], barrister in a murder trial Edward Nelson (died 1940) [page 188], Christian pioneer in the Salvation Army Agnes Foster (died 1910) [page 156], a troupe of Zulus in Worcester in 1851 [page 087] and the children of the Earl of Stamford in 1892 [page 099].

That there was a black connection to Jack the Ripper is somewhat tenuous but as with other details of individuals, it supports the view that black participation in British life was widespread and far from ghetto, segregation, racist, and other negatives.

Seweryn Klosowski was born in Poland, and is in the British records as Severin and Severing, becoming George Chapman and being tried for the poisoning of his wife Maud Eliza Marsh in March 1903. The police exhumed his two earlier wives/partners, and all three women were found to have been poisoned. He was tried on a charge of murdering Maud on 22 October 1902. The Old Bailey trial is detailed on http://www.oldbaileyonline.org under reference t19030309-318, of March 1903. The jury took eleven minutes to bring in their verdict of guilty, and Klosowski/Chapman was hanged at Wandsworth prison on 7 April 1903.

Observing the trial on behalf of the Marsh family (the mother Eliza Marsh lived at 14 Longfellow Road in West Croydon) was Trinidad-educated barrister Henry Sylvester Williams, who has considerable fame these days for his role in Pan-Africanism, notably the 1900 London Pan-African Conference.

Those who are fascinated by Jack the Ripper (nobody has been officially identified as the murderer) sometimes claim George Chapman as a suspect — although the violence exhibited by the murderer was quite different to the almost passive deaths caused by Chapman/Klosowski’s poisons.

That Williams, one of the several black barristers in Edwardian England had a connection to the Ripper supports the view that the black presence in pre-1945 Britain was widespread albeit small, was found in all manner of activities, and apart from the colour of their skins, was neither exotic or restricted.

The evidence of Williams and the 1903 murder trial is found on page 135 of Marika Sherwood’s Origins of Pan-Africanism (Routledge, 2011).


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