Is this man Jack the Ripper?: Certainly a lot of money is being spent trying to tell you so. Phillip Knightley, a veteran of publishing hoaxes, untangles the evidence - and feels he has been here before

Phillip Knightley
Saturday 28 August 1993 23:02

IT HAS been described as the publishing triumph of the decade: the final solution of the Jack the Ripper mystery. Since the grisly murder and dissection of five prostitutes in London's East End 105 years ago, the suspects have included the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria's grandson and heir presumptive to the throne; the painter, Walter Sickert; and the playwright, Oscar Wilde.

Now, an unlikely alliance of reputable publishers, a video distribution company, a documentary film producer, an obscure author and a scrap metal dealer claims it can reveal the Ripper's true identity. He was, they say, a wealthy Liverpool cotton broker, James Maybrick. Their proof is Maybrick's diary, said to have been found recently under the floorboards of the Victorian mansion he occupied in Aigburth, opposite Liverpool Cricket Club.

The story of the murder will be told, with diary extracts and a facsimile of the original, in The Diary of Jack the Ripper by Shirley Harrison, a Mitcham grandmother whose only other work listed in booksellers' guides is Colourful Characters from Dover's Past.

A British publisher, Smith Gryphon, and an American, Warner Books, plan an initial print-run of 250,000 hardback copies with simultaneous publication in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Japan. MIA Productions, of London, are making a three-hour drama- documentary based on the diary. Serial rights have been offered to newspapers and Hollywood has shown interest in making a film about the diary's discovery. A huge sales promotion is planned and will have the slogan: '7 October 1993 - the day the world's greatest murder mystery will

be solved.'

There is just one problem. Is the diary a fake?

PARTS of the diary are emotional and graphic. Maybrick confesses: 'Oh, what deeds shall I commit. For how could one suspect that I could be capable of such things.' There are hints of cannibalism: 'I will boil it and eat it with freshly pickled carrots.' He concludes by saying that he will leave the diary in a place where it will be found, and signs off: 'I do give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.'

If Maybrick was indeed the Ripper - and he is known to have frequented brothels - one aspect of the mystery is immediately explained. The murders lasted only three months and ceased abruptly in November 1888. The explanation is one that the police never considered at the time: that Jack the Ripper was himself murdered, poisoned with arsenic by his American wife, Florence, who was having an affair with another cotton broker.

The Ripper diary alliance says that historical research, image enhancement, laser technology and extensive analysis of ink, paper and handwriting, 'have shown beyond all reasonable doubt that this document was written at the time of the Whitechapel murders by the man responsible.' The alliance quotes seven experts, including a forensic scientist, a handwriting analyst, a psychiatrist and a criminologist as agreeing with this.

But where did the diary come from and how did it become a multi-media publishing venture? The story is complicated and, because of the secrecy surrounding publication, difficult to confirm. But it seems to run as follows.

In the early summer of 1992, Mike Barrett, a former scrap metal dealer from Liverpool in his late forties and now on invalidity benefit, a nervous, volatile man who enjoys an occasional whisky, walked into the offices of Rupert Crew Ltd, a London literary agency.

Barrett produced a scuffed, black-and-gilt leather-bound volume containing 64 or 65 pages (accounts differ) handwritten in ink, and signed 'Jack the Ripper'. Barrett said he had been given the diary at the Saddle public house by a drinking friend, Tony Devereux, a former printer on the Liverpool Post. He had telephoned Pan Books and been told to get an agent. He wondered whether Rupert Crew could handle the diary and how much would it be worth?

Devereux died in August 1991, but his family insist he never mentioned the diary to them. As a printer Devereux presumably knew a good story when he saw one, but he did not take the diary to any of his reporter colleagues. Barrett is a businessman and knows that London newspapers pay large sums for exclusive crime stories, but he went instead to a small London literary agency.

This agency had among its clients an author, Shirley Harrison, who said she had been considering writing a book about the Maybrick murder trial. There were clues in the diary that pointed to it having been written by Maybrick, including a mention of Maybrick's house. So suddenly the agency had on its hands not only a diary revealing the Ripper's innermost thoughts, but also - at last - the true identity of the Ripper.

The Rupert Crew agency held an auction for the publishing rights. The book was snapped up by Robert Smith, of Smith Gryphon, a small publishers specialising in books on antiques and collecting, biography and autobiography, business, cinema, wines and, way down its list, crime. When Smith was publishing director at Sidgwick and Jackson the company had a hit with The Ripper Legacy by Martin Howells and Keith Skinner. This looked like another bestseller.

Meanwhile Paul Feldman, of MIA Productions, a former record importer who had gone into the video distribution business and a tough, shrewd entrepreneur, had been considering making a film about the Ripper murders. When he heard about the Harrison book he did a deal with Smith Gryphon for the film rights and threw himself enthusiastically into the project.

TO VETERANS of previous publishing hoaxes - such as myself - the story is beginning to sound familiar: a chance find of old diaries, brought out of the blue to a publishing organisation. Then a media machine goes into overdrive. And, at first, the experts believe that the diaries are genuine.

In 1967, an Italian businessman, Ettore Fumagalli, offered 'Mussolini's diaries' to the Thomson Organisation, then owners of The Sunday Times, for pounds 250,000. A small army of experts checked the diaries for content, handwriting, paper, binding and ink. None of them would say definitely that the diaries were fakes. But on 29 October, Italian police raided a house occupied by Amalia Panvini, 84, and her daughter Rosa, 54, and found several 'Mussolini diaries' there.

A week later - I was then working for the Sunday Times - I visited the Panvinis, who were happy to tell me how they had forged the diaries. They had bought blank diaries from the wartime stock of a local printer. Rosa Panvini demonstrated how, by gripping a fountain pen oddly between her first and second fingers, she had been able to imitate Mussolini's handwriting and fool the experts. Her mother, Amalia, said that the ink was modern, but they had found that by baking the diaries in the kitchen oven for half an hour at low heat, the ink aged so perfectly that no scientific test could fault it.

Yet in 1983 The Sunday Times - which had been bought by Rupert Murdoch - negotiated to buy Hitler's

'diaries'. The 58 volumes had been unearthed by Gerd Heidemann, a senior reporter on the German news magazine Stern. Murdoch went ahead and outbid Newsweek with an offer of dollars 3 million. Although I pointed out the similarities to the Mussolini diaries scam, and posed the crunch question of where the diaries had been since 1945, The Sunday Times went ahead with serialisation and published the first instalment of the diaries on 24 April 1983. The following week, after an outcry and widespread charges that the diaries were fakes, I took one diary to Dr Julius Grant, a world expert on paper, who quickly reported that its paper contained a whitening ingredient not invented until well after Hitler's death. The diary had to be a fake.

The forger, Konrad Kujau, was jailed for four-and-a-half years and Heidemann for four years and eight months. But Murdoch got his money back because of a clause in his contract with Stern providing for its return if the diaries were fakes. The single instalment of the fake diaries put on 60,000 sales for The Sunday Times, and even after it confessed it had been fooled, it retained 20,000 of them.

As in the Mussolini and Hitler cases, the principals in the Ripper venture have surrounded their activities with a wall

of secrecy. No one has been allowed to examine the diary without signing a legally-binding agreement of confidentiality. My inquiries to Smith Gryphon were referred to their public relations advisers, who said there would be no publicity until the book came out but that the publishers were 'totally satisfied that the document is genuine'.

The diary has been shown to the manuscripts department at the British Library, which concluded that it is 'of Victorian age'. But other experts point out that this means nothing because it is easy to buy old Victorian diaries, ledgers, and notebooks in London. The consortium has also quoted ink tests but, as we have seen in the Mussolini case, it is not difficult to age ink artificially.

One of the biggest problems is the diary's provenance. It stops short at Tony Devereux and raises the same question as the Hitler case: where has the diary been all these years? The present owner of Maybrick's mansion, Battlecrease House, is Paul Dodd, a schoolteacher. He has revealed that the house was extensively re-wired in 1990. Could the electricians have found the diary when lifting the floorboards? They have vigorously denied to Liverpool journalists having done so.

Then there is the entry in the diary where Maybrick says that he confessed all to his wife. This is puzzling because it would have been logical for her to have used this knowledge as part of her defence at her sensational trial in July 1889 for having poisoned Maybrick, on the lines of 'my husband was Jack the Ripper and I feared for my own life.' But she did not. Nor did she mention it when she was released after 15 years, returned to the United States and wrote her memoirs. Even in those days a book entitled 'I Was Jack the Ripper's Wife' would have had an enormous sale.

But the one fact most difficult to explain is this: the diary consists of 64 or 65 pages of the same handwriting which, to make the link with Jack the Ripper, must be that of James Maybrick. Fortunately, there is at least one surviving example of Maybrick's handwriting, that of his will dated 25 April 1889. It is two pages long, both signed by Maybrick. The signature is the same as that on his marriage certificate dated 27 July 1881 and the handwriting in the will - witnessed by two men - is the same as that used in the signatures. This handwriting is strikingly different from the diary's handwriting (see illustration). It seems impossible that the same man could have written both. Therefore, whoever wrote the diaries, it was not James Maybrick and, therefore, there is no proof that Maybrick was Jack the Ripper. At least three distinguished experts agree. Melvin Harris, author of two books on Jack the Ripper, a special investigator for Yorkshire Television's Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers series, and who has exposed many Ripper hoaxes, says: 'Elementary research to verify the diary does not seem to have been attempted. Innocuous extracts from different sections of the diary should have been photocopied and published in the Liverpool Post under the heading 'Do you recognise this handwriting?' Next, innocuous diary extracts should have been photocopied along with Maybrick's will and random letters and wills from the 1880s. These should have been submitted to a handwriting examiner and the examiner asked to match up any two. This would have been a reasonable starting point before the publishing hype began. In short, the whole thing seems crap.'

Nick Warren, editor of Ripperana, a quarterly journal for those interested in the Ripper murders, commented: 'I think the diary is an obvious hoax. The Ripper is clearly meant to be Maybrick but the diary is not in his handwriting. There is nothing in the content of the diary that was not already known. There are references that are not historically correct. There is no proper provenance. And there has been no ESDA (Electrostatic Deposition Apparatus) test. This shows the electrical impression carried from one page to the one underneath. This would not last 105 years, so if there is an impression, this would mean that the diary is, as I believe, a modern forgery.' John Ross, curator of Scotland Yard's Black Museum of crime, said: 'The whole thing is preposterous.'

Who is behind it? Unless someone confesses we may never know. But there are a few clues. There is nothing in the diaries that was not publicly known by 1987, so this suggests that, if it was a fake, it was created after that date. The writer would be someone who had detailed knowledge of both the Maybrick case and the Ripper murders - he would have chosen Maybrick because he had sufficient characteristics to make him a plausible candidate for Jack.

But even if a faker were identified, it is probably now too late to stop the presses and the hype.

As one envious British publisher said when I told him that the Jack the Ripper diary might be a fake: 'Does it really matter? It's such a good story.'

(Photograph omitted)

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