Longwinded, heavily researched biography of a really bad man who may or may not have been a mass murderer.
Born to a wanton mother in a Polish village in 1868, Joe Lis (usually aka Joe Silver) died unmourned around 1918. During his brutish lifetime, the peripatetic Jewish gangster was a bigamist and police agent, a burglar, pickpocket, pimp and whoremaster on wholesale basis. Van Onselen (Humanities/Univ. of Pretoria; The Seed is Mine, 1996, etc.) details Silver’s mercurial history in stupefying detail. Sexually confused and “neurosyphilitic,” he was a classic psychopath who did time in jails from Poland to London, New York City to Pittsburgh, South Africa, West Africa, Paris, South America and back to Europe—the Atlantic World, as the author calls it. Minutiae are given about police corruption, population shifts, the weather in Cape Town and the Yiddish theatre in Buenos Aires. Social history and extraneous fact threaten to engulf the story of Joe Silver until, following a few hints, the final fifth of this earnest text gets to the lurid point. After working on the case for a generation, Van Onselen asserts that Silver was Jack the Ripper, Victorian London’s most notorious serial killer, previously identified as a famous artist, a member of the royal family and a host of others. The author bases his assertion on descriptions, names, access, personality, coincidence and other circumstantial evidence. “I never did find,” the author concedes, “the one piece of incontrovertible evidence that could convince everyone.”
A vast canvas painted in florid detail, but the climactic indictment certainly is not documented enough to persuade a jury or even an especially skeptical reader.