by Shirley Harrison
Reproduced by permission of Paul Begg from "Ripperologist"
Reading through the first chapters of “The Ripper Diary the Inside Story” has been a curious experience. Sometimes I felt I was drowning, my life passing before my eyes. All that turmoil. That anger. The accusations. But I was not drowning - even in those days. I did not go under, I survived and, almost alone, of those originally involved with the diary I have felt largely enriched and stimulated by the experience despite everything that has happened since 1992. When the smartly-suited Michael Barrett handed me that now infamous diary I acted on a hunch that it could be genuine. Then, on publication of the first edition of the resultant book “The Diary of Jack the Ripper”, The Sunday Times banner headlines yelled FAKE and the world of true crime enthusiasts was overnight divided. Those, who like me, believed it could be genuine, those like Melvin Harris who declared it was without a shadow of doubt a modern forgery and that we were all charlatans conspiring to deceive the public. And there those, like Keith Skinner who preferred the notion that the diary was written long ago but not by James Maybrick. A handful sat wobbling on the fence and in no time we were all were drawn into a uniquely bloody literary battle. The question of who wrote Shakespeare or who created the Turin shroud has never been so angrily contested.
On the other hand the diary has undoubtedly been an instrument for a great deal of good it has taught us much we didn’t know has made many new friendships.resulting in lively and entertaining debate.
This “shabby hoax”, as it has been frequently called, has inspired several documentary films, a television trial of James Maybrick which judged “our man guilty”, an opera, several university courses, and a Hollywood epic still in the pipeline. And now, apart from Paul Feldman and Anne Graham’s own Maybrick-inspired books, comes “The Inside Story” and three chapters in David Canter’s “Mapping Murder.” which, at last, gives a different and totally independent slant on the importance of the diary from an outsider of international standing.
Oddest of all, is the phenomenal success of the Jack the Ripper Casebook and the Message Boards. These were started by Stephen Ryder as a direct result of reading the first edition of my book. He then visited Florence’s grave in New Milford, Conneticut, and was inspired to create the web site which has now become such an invaluable resource to serious crime historians worldwide. Yet it is on the same message Boards that the Diary has taken its most ferocious battering and those who dare to remain objective been subjected to the most bitter and personal attacks.
The arguments rage, strong and unbalanced as ever, on and on and on. Twice the site has been suspended. Few of us with most knowledge of the diary and those connected to it now post on the Boards. Caroline Morris, who does not believe the diary is a modern forgery but is honestly uncertain about it origins, has played devil’s advocate bravely and tried to counter some of the more uninformed and hysterical attacks with reason and insight.. But even she has become embroiled in highly coloured, petty, argument which resulted in Stephen Ryder banning some contributors and sending them off, dunce’s hat in hand to stand in the corner.
People who have never seen the diary, have never met any of its researchers and, unlike us, know nothing of the personalities and places in the drama, pontificate with inordinately long messages ad infinitum on “certainties” of which they can’t possibly be certain. Professor David Canter has called this “affirmation bias” – presenting evidence as a historical conclusion. It is a common complaint among enthusiasts and one of which I know I have, on occasion, been guilty unlike the meticulous Keith Skinner.. To paraphrase an earlier, rueful and much quoted observation from Keith, they base a theory upon a hypothesis, sink it deep in speculation and confound it with mystery.
It could be interesting were Professor Canter now to make a study of the reasons for the profoundly emotional and often irrational passions aroused by the diary. What is its power that it mesmerises so many, presumably, previously rational people?
For me it concerns the challenge of an unanswered puzzle. I have been privileged to tip-toe hesitantly and even be welcomed into the previously unknown worlds of forensic science, of criminal psychology, Scotland Yard and the archive departments of libraries and museums around the world. I have been to America and to Liverpool.
It is true that mistakes, were made by us all in those early days.
So far as the fast growing “modern forgery” brigade was concerned my biggest mistake it seems was to be a professional writer working for money and for this reason nothing I have ever said can be believed.
My previous books had been free from confrontation and I did not enjoy my first experience of the well-established need for any mass-market publisher to push an author off the fence, in order to give an exciting, press-worthy spin to their text and so stimulate sales. Perhaps I did not always fight my corner as strongly as I should. Financially, it is true as a result, I probably earned more in the early days than most Ripper authors dream of, but equally the diary generated income for a great many others as well….journalists, film producers , authors and now academics alike. Set against legal fees `and expenses (divided in two between Mike and me and now by Anne), over ten years, my share of the alleged fortune accrued by “the diary camp” was hardly in the Patricia Cornwell league and is openly detailed, for the curious, in “The Inside Story”. My most recent royalty cheque, received after publication of that book, was £100!
Some of those around me, especially my agent, Doreen Montgomery suffered unbelievable stress for little reward and we were both delighted to hand over our files to Seth Linder, Keith Skinner and Caroline when they were investigating , in the belief that they would view the facts behind this incredible story with fairness. . We had nothing to hide.
Is it significant that the chief orchestrators of the “Modern Forgery” Campaign did not feel the same or even agree to grant the authors an interview?
One of the crosses we have all had to bear over the years, while trying to unravel the truth, has been the chameleon character of Mr Barrett himself. He is extremely plausible, however contradictory his stories. Keith, Caroline and Seth had the same problem when working on their book. There is always a hope he will produce the nugget that will give us the final solution to the puzzle, so we listen patiently knowing in our hearts his evidence is unsound.. This is not trickery nor is he skillfully baiting the dimwits in London. He simply does not recall what he has said.
“The Inside Story” ends with the delightful picture of Michael Barrett striding out of our lives into the sunset, to tend the garden he loves. “I want to walk away from it all” he told the authors. But by the time of publication they were already out of date. Michael Barrett was back. Doreen Montgomery, Keith and my publisher Blake arrived at work one morning in September, to find their answer-phones brimming with messages in that familiar Liverpool accent..
“I’ve found Mrs Hammersmith. Ring me back.” Sadly, I was able to cool their excitement. Several years ago, at the time when when Michael believed that HE had forged the diary, he reported to me a visit he had had by a descendent of Mrs Hammersmith. He even gave me her name. But she didn’t exist. Michael Barrett’s unpredictable imagination has tied many a knicker in a twist and wasted hours and hours of time
So what now?
Last year I read a contribution to the Message Boards from R.J Palmer in America. It concerned some serial killings in Austin, Texas USA in 1885. This caught my attention. Roger told, how subsequent press stories in 1888 linked the Whitechapel killings with those earlier murders in Austin. I knew I was courting trouble from those who had already decided I belonged to a bunch of desire driven geeks but I was curious and decided to take the risk..
I had read Stewart Evan’s investigations into the American quack Doctor Tumbelty and I knew of Scotland Yard’s visits to The States on the trail of the Ripper. But what of Maybrick – the cotton merchant - with business London, Liverpool and Norfolk, Virginia. What was HE doing in 1885?
I was fortunate to make contact with Otto Gross a American businessman with a serious interest in history and, in particular, the Maybrick case. .Otto offered to help and, over the course of the next two years threw himself, gratis, into research among the American archives. He travelled to to the key locations and spent hours in the principal academic institutions holding likely records. His regular Emails – detailed and meticulously careful - were a joy and a huge encouragement although the American aspect of the Maybrick saga proved as enigmatic and elusive as had my investigations in Britain. Always Otto urged me not to let my imagination run riot and not to succumb to the enthusiasm of my publishers.
From newspapers and libraries in St Louis, New Orleans, New York, Mobile, Dallas, Wyoming we learned that a Maybrick from Whitechapel had been exiled to America as a convict in 1775, that during James Maybrick’s sojourn in Virginia from 1875, we learned that he had made frequent visits down south on the Cotton Line both for business and pleasure and that he had many friends in the southern States. These included General J.G Hazard (who probably introduced him to Florie) and John Aunspagh, from nearby Dallas whose eight year old daughter Florence, stayed at Battlecrease House in 1888.. According to the press Maybrick also had a hitherto unknown office at Galveston, a major cotton port, miles from Austin.
Most interesting of all, I felt, was the opening on December 23 1884, of an International Cotton Exposition in New Orleans. This was a vast spectacular, launched with a remote control switch by the President in Washington. The British stand was said to be “much ahead of other foreign sections.”
Early in 1884, from Liverpool, Maybrick had posted a letter of resignation as a director from the Norfolk Cotton Exchange But significantly he had asked to remain a foreign member – obviously intending to return from time to time. Brother Edwin took on the Norfolk office.
Did James use the opportunity to mix business and pleasure? it seems unlikely that he was not in New Orleans, enjoying the illuminated fountains and the bands set among 249 acres of gardens along the banks of the Mississipi. He had left Florie over Christmas on a previous occasion.. But so far, I have found no sighting of him on the crucial dates.The first Austin killing took place on Dec 30 1884.
The period of 1884/5 in Liverpool was superfically content for the Maybricks and their two young children. But behind the scenes, with an economic downturn in Britain, Maybrick was becoming more and more drug-dependent and Florie was often left alone. We have only one diary date recording his movements – he was present – alone – at the funeral of Florie’s brother Holbrook on April 17. On May 23rd – during the closing celebrations of the Exposition Eliza Shelley was murdered in Austin. Maybrick could easily have made the journey from Paris to America.
The Austin killings continued sporadically through 1885 and then on December 24 came the “double event” two killings which echoed, strangely, the murders of Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes in 1888.
The press continued to speculate at possible links but the final connection was never made.
The anniversary edition, now titled “The Diary of Jack the Ripper The American Connection” and based on this speculation. is about to stir it all up again. My publisher, with a keen tabloid approach, has an understandable eye on the cash till. The book has a somewhat embarrassing, lurid and stars and stripes jacket and a newsworthy, if imaginative, flyer.
So here am I again, standing waiting; like Chicken Licken for the sky to fall.
One thing is clear. The Maybrick diary will not go away. Is it not time, at least to acknowledge that? It may not stay in the headlines and its fame is measured to a large extent by the ferocity of the fire it has drawn though sadly often not always by the quality of the debate. Its deceptively simple content and power to tease is unique and it is at last attracting the attention of serious historians and academics. Its existence has alone generated the discovery of an immense amount of valuable and useful 19th century information and been responsible directly and indirectly the launching of some first class international resources and magazines – not least being Ripperologist. Let’s appreciate the positive. One day it may even resolve the problem of Jack the Ripper?