Lord of the flies

The roots of Charles van Onselen’s new book The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath (Jonathan Cape) go back to his New Babylon of 1982, where, studying ”everyday life on the Witwatersrand 1886 to 1914”, he takes a chapter to look into the business of prostitution in the Johannesburg of that period. Being a newly established mining town, Jo’burg had many more men than women, making it a perfect location for much prostitution, with about 95 brothels there. Policing and the vice law were slack, though the situation did lead to the first ”immorality” legislation, designed especially to keep black men off white prostitutes.

Giving a bizarre linguistic sense of the melting pot that Johannesburg then was, the brothel area was called ”Frenchfontein” (it is now in the middle of the city), and the prominent crime lords were called the ”American Club”. Many had American connections, but most were East-European Jews; such people were referred to as ”Peruvians” by the more respectable. (Don’t miss Van Onselen’s note on this term in The Fox and the Flies.)

In New Babylon, a photograph of a pimp and a prostitute is misidentified as being a picture of Joseph Silver, ”Johannesburg’s most notorious pimp of the late 1890s”; in fact, as is made clear in The Fox and the Flies, the image shows Silver’s sometime associate and rival, David Krakower. Silver appears in New Babylon because of state attorney Jan Smuts’s attempts to crack down on crime and corruption in Jo’burg — but it’s almost as if the slippery subject of Van Onselen’s new book was trying to evade him even as the author’s interest in him was first piqued.

Over the next 25 years, Van Onselen kept returning to Silver. He began to track this man’s amazing peregrinations from Europe to the United States, into southern Africa, back to Europe and over to South America, back and forth across the Atlantic as he graduated from crimes such as theft to the bigger business of trafficking in prostitutes — a business that, as Van Onselen points out, was comparable in extent to the illegal drug trade today. That is, it was huge. Women were abducted, raped, abused, enslaved, and shipped around the world.

The part of The Fox and the Flies that has made headlines in South Africa is the assertion that Silver was Jack the Ripper, history’s most famously unapprehended serial killer. Van Onselen writes that he did not set out to find the Ripper; his conviction that Silver was the killer came upon him gradually as he investigated his life. Van Onselen keeps his case for this identification to a concluding chapter, which makes sense because by then we have come to know something of the inner and outer worlds of the clearly psychopathic Silver, as uncovered and delineated by Van Onselen’s meticulous research.

Silver was a pseudonym, one among many. He was born Joseph Lis — the word means fox, hence Van Onselen’s title. (The ”flies” are either cops or prostitutes.) From a traumatic family life, and as part of a marginalised and persecuted minority in Russian Poland, Lis/Silver escaped to London. There he lived in the prostitute-ridden slum of Whitechapel, the area in which the Ripper operated, and at precisely the time of the Ripper’s reign of terror.

Just after the Ripper murders, Silver made for the United States, where he was soon jailed for theft, before finding his way to the rich pickings of Southern Africa. In Johannesburg, Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Swakopmund and Windhoek, he ran prostitution networks, often indulging in the kind of misogynistic violence that would fit with a Ripper’s profile, and also working as a police informer, playing off his criminal associates and the corrupt police force against one another (a role, too, that may have got him off the hook when arrested as part of the Ripper investigations). He was jailed in the then Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, but was released on the eve of the South African Anglo Boer War as the Boers emptied their jails and sent prisoners in the direction of the invading British.

Van Onselen traces Silver’s progress from Africa back to Europe, then to South America, and finally as he returned to the area of his birth and disappeared in the disorder of World War I. It is a fascinating journey, documented in police files and fugitive paperwork; through Silver’s story, Van Onselen provides an extraordinary portrait of a world of international criminality at the dawn of the 20th century.

The book is densely packed, though never less than readable as the picture of the repellent Silver and his complex times emerges. Van Onselen gives useful and interesting historical context at each stage, but this is history from a vantage point other than that of the Great Men and the big events such as wars and so on — history from below, specifically the ”below” that was the criminal underworld.

The writing is a little purple at times for my taste, particularly in some of the descriptive passages, and I found the chapter arguing for Silver’s identification as Jack the Ripper somewhat overstated, as if Van Onselen’s publishers had requested maximum insistence there. Then again, in this area Van Onselen is competing with the likes of Patricia Cornwell and her claim to have nailed the painter Walter Sickert as being the Ripper.

I am no Ripperologist, but I found Van Onselen’s case convincing: the clinching factor, for me, was the way he shows how the violence against the ”whore of Babylon” as expressed so virulently in the Book of Ezekiel practically wrote the script (including disembowelment) for a murderous young refugee Jew with nasty misogynistic tendencies already in place. Even if you don’t buy the Ripper identification, though, The Fox and the Flies is a compelling piece of historical detective work.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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