Always worth a second look

This week I recorded the second part of my podcast on the Rees/Hopkins family. This all began with John Rees, the only contemporary who supported the claim that the Jack the Ripper victim Mary Kelly lived in Wales. He identified her as the daughter of a marine store dealer from Llanelly who once worked for him before going to Swansea and Cardiff. She drank in the Unity.  Jane Williams, landlady at the Unity, said it was Abigael Kelly who married a man called Muir and lived in Kansas City with two children. There was a marine store dealer in Llanelly, Dennis Kelly (c.1824-66), who had three daughters including Alice known as Abby who married William Muir in 1881 and moved to America where her second child was born in 1884.

It seems to be a case of mistaken identity but looking at the evidence again I made two new observations. The first is that Jane Williams received information from Abigael Kelly in 1884 or later. It might have been a letter, a personal visit, or via a third party.  John Rees claimed to have met Kelly in London in early 1888.

Secondly my original reading was that Kelly drank in the Unity Inn, Swansea after moving to the city.  I now realise that the Unity Inn, Swansea was actually in Pontardulais and closer to Llanelly than the centre of Swansea. It was also less than half-a-mile from the brickworks which John Rees was said to own. If Kelly was living in Llanelly when she drank at the Unity then potentially this brings forward the chronology.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects. His article in Ripperologist 160 discusses the Rees story in more detail and you can hear part one of the podcast here.


Understanding past thoughts

This week I’ve been researching a couple of pieces with a historical setting, one fiction and one non-fiction. In an attempt to understand how people felt at the time I used contemporary sources. Many voices from the nineteenth century, a period of particular interest to me, survive. Often the texts are available in digital format and some are free, being out of copyright.

Newspapers with their stories of crime and social conditions provide background detail. They are supplemented by reference works such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People (1889). These provide valuable information on the condition of the poor who generally didn’t write their own stories or find someone to do it for them. The autobiography of Ned Wright (1877) is one exception. You can also find biographies and memories of more famous characters, allowing you to compare views from different ends of the social spectrum.

The most important rule about this type of research is to avoid judgements and preconceptions based on our modern values. We cannot learn about the past if we view it through the eyes of the present.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.


Halloween Horror


Halloween is a good time for horror writers. Tales involving ghosts, graveyards and strangers offering candy to children have inspired us for generations and hopefully terrified readers. Over the years traditions from different cultures have merged into the customs we know today.

This year I’m pleased to be one of the contributors to Halloween Horror Vol. 1, an anthology from DBND. My 60th published story, “The Dancing Skeletons” derives from the belief that the dead used to return for one night each year. In parts of Europe they were said to dance. People started recreating this spectacle, dressed as the dead, and now we have costume parties at Halloween.

In Britain and Ireland some children went from house to house in costume asking for food. In medieval times people delivered soul cakes, accompanied by singing and prayers for the dead. They sometimes carried lanterns. In an Irish folktale Jack tricked the Devil into promising him immunity from hell. After a bad life Jack died and was refused access to heaven. He now wanders around with a light in a turnip. This became a pumpkin, like the shattered one found by the hat of Ichabod Crane.

Some people feel intimidated by the practice of trick or treat. It was refreshing to read of a variant where kids gather in a car park and wander around collecting goodies from car boots. Safer for them, whilst allowing householders time to read a good book.

Encyclopedia or Wikipedia?

At a recent garage sale, I found some volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nobody wanted it because they get information online.  First published in 1768 it was the premier reference work, before giving up print in 2010. The online version competes with the larger and more popular Wikipedia, which is generally considered less reliable.

The key difference is that the entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica are written by acknowledged experts in their fields with a professional editor.  The author is noted on each article. Wikipedia is written and edited by anyone. Wikipedia states that it cannot guarantee the validity of the information, whilst noting that other encyclopaedias also carry disclaimers. It also attempts to remove inaccurate data, as I can vouch for.

I once had an entry on Wikipedia, following a contribution to a Doctor Who anthology. The link directed to a very different Paul Williams. I therefore set myself up as an editor and wrote an accurate introduction to myself. A short while later I was informed that this was a conflict of interest. The article was deleted, and the incorrect link not reinstated.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his encyclopedia of the Jack the Ripper suspects. If anyone wants to write his entry on Wikipedia, he will credit them in his next blog.


Too many coincidences?

This week a post on the Jack the Ripper Forums asked if people thought there were too many coincidences in the case. I don’t, but it got me thinking about coincidences in writing. Some fiction and television shows use coincidence as a plot device and are considered unrealistic. Yet coincidences do happen in real life.

On my 22nd birthday I had a meeting with my tutor about my MA in Mediaeval Studies. Before this I went to the university library looking for a rare book. The computer told me there were only two copies in the country, and one was in the library of the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT), on the same campus. I had never heard of it but went along, found the book, and chatted to a man who I thought was the librarian.

My tutor asked me, over a glass of wine, what I intended to do next. I explained my vague idea of writing a PhD about the folklore of wolves but doubted there was a university department willing to sponsor such a topic. He told me there were two in the world, and one was at NATCECT. I went back there, discovered that the librarian was Professor John Widdowson, and he agreed to accept the proposal.

This was serendipity rather than coincidence. The final word must go to Goldfinger who memorably said, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, third time is enemy action.”

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. You can read his PhD thesis on wolves in folklore here or buy the abridged version here.

Talent over experience

The latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine contains several features on John Nathan-Turner, producer of the show between 1979 and 1989. One interesting fact is that only three of the writers used in his tenure had written for Doctor Who before and, at least ten had never written for television before. Usually you would expect an established series to introduce new writers gradually, under the guidance of an experienced script-editor or team. Every other era of Doctor Who did this, except the first and the TV Movie in 1996.

Some people may argue that the inexperience of the writers shows and put extra pressure on the script-editors, who also came to the series without having written for it previously.  Others see a freshness and diversity of ideas. In 1987 the BBC lost interest in Doctor Who, placing it in a graveyard slot with minimum support. In this time of turmoil, it would have been easy to fall back on experience. Instead only the first of the last fourteen stories was written by someone with prior Doctor Who experience. A poll in Doctor Who Magazine voted this the third worst story in the entire series.

The choice between new talent and experience is often difficult. Nathan-Turner deserves credit for encouraging different voices, many of whom have gone on to successful writing careers.

Dear Boss, written 131 years ago

On 27 September 1888 the Central News Agency received a letter signed by Jack the Ripper. Addressed Dear Boss and dated two days earlier it was not the first letter to claim responsibility for the series of murders in the East End but was the first to give the unidentified killer the name by which he is known to history.

On 1 October a postcard was received, which referred to the letter and the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on 30 September. Both communications were made public in the belief that they were written by the killer.

Following this, hundreds of letters were sent to the press and the police, claiming responsibility or taunting the authorities. The general consensus is that none were written by the killer, with the Dear Boss letter and postcard being hoaxed by journalists. At least one confessed and another was named by Chief Inspector Littlechild in private correspondence to the journalist George Sims, an advocate of the hoaxer theory.

The researchers who claim that Jack the Ripper did not exist are partly right. Without the name it is unlikely that his crimes would be remembered.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.