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.




Market listings for writers

Writing is the easy part. Finding a home for your work is more difficult. That’s why I, like many other writers of short fiction, are indebted to those who find and list the markets for those. There are three sources that I frequently use.

The first is Submission Grinder. As of today, it has details of 2784 open markets. You can search by a range of criteria and the best part is a database that allows you to log submissions. It then uses this data to provide an average response time for each market, prompting you to chase anything outstanding.

The next is Ralan, a long established and easy to search site. I especially like the way it is divided into categories so that you can easily distinguish between professional and non-paying markets. Like the Submission Grinder it encourages writers to send in updates so that you can help keep listings up-to-date.

Finally there is the Horror Tree. I subscribe to the free weekly newsletter which almost always has a market that I haven’t seen before and helpfully copies the guidelines. There’s also some original fiction and other interesting features.

All three are not-for-profit sites run by writers who are interested in helping others. Their efforts are much appreciated.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His study of the Jack the Ripper suspects is available now.

The Carmarthen Mystery revisited

Recently I narrated a podcast for the first time in Rippercast’s Cast of Thousands series.  In the first of two parts I expand on my article about Doctor John Morgan Hopkins and his son-in-law John Rees. In 1888 whilst his wife, the illegitimate daughter of Dr. Hopkins was awaiting trial for murder, Rees claimed that he knew one of the Whitechapel victims, Mary Kelly. He is the only person in Wales to support Mary’s story that she lived there.

By that time Morgan Hopkins was dead, having been acquitted of murder in 1884 after Emily Cope died in his house. It is usually assumed that Emily visited for an illegal abortion, encouraged by the father of the child Andrew Bayntun who was originally charged alongside Hopkins. In the podcast I give some reasons to doubt this assumption.

Most important is a letter that Emily wrote a letter to her sister, saying that the child had been born alive. Secondly is the realisation that Emily’s visit was funded not by Bayntun but her father George who claimed not to know why she was travelling from Chippenham to Carmarthen. In the 1861 census he is listed as a neighbour of Hopkins and, given his trade as an agricultural labourer, probably worked on Hopkins’ farm.

So now we have a missing child and a victim’s father who withheld information. In the second part of the podcast I will talk more about the mysterious Mary Rees.

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

RIP Terrance Dicks

This week I was shocked and saddened to hear that Terrance Dicks had died at the age of 84 . Terrance was a beyond prolific writer, best known for his work on Doctor Who. He contributed scripts between 1969 and 1983, was script-editor through the Jon Pertwee era, adapted over sixty stories into books, and wrote original novels.

Before the invention of video, the Target books were the only record of Doctor Who’s past adventures. Terrance skilfully compressed ninety minutes of action, sometimes more, into less than 150 pages. These engaging reads were often superior to the original version.

For me the highlights of his many achievements were The War Games, the second video I ever brought, followed by The Five Doctors which superbly commemorated the twentieth anniversary and then Exodus, a book which showed that Doctor Who could continue without television. I should also mention one of the finest opening lines to any book. His novelisation of the Dalek Invasion of Earth begins, “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”

A generation discovered Doctor Who’s history through Terrance Dicks. Children learnt to read because of Terrance Dicks and many, including myself, were inspired to write by Terrance Dicks.

On the day of his death I received the latest Doctor Who Magazine, which contains the opinions of modern writers on their predecessors. They rated Terrance in the same high class as his friend and colleague, Robert Holmes. That accolade from fellow professionals is perhaps the finest tribute.

RIP Terrance Dicks. A cosmos without you is scarcely worth thinking about.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper Suspects. He has contributed Doctor Who short stories to anthologies and fanzines and is currently watching the entire show in chronological order, one episode per week.

Still looking for Mary Jane

This week I had another minor victory in my research into the identity of Jack the Ripper’s final victim, who called herself Mary Jane Kelly. Over several years I have compiled a list of over 663 possible candidates from historical records. Gradually I am trying to trace each individual after 1888, the year that Mary died. To date only 44 have been eliminated, either because they survived 1888 or died before it. It is a mammoth project with plenty of cross-referencing and checking for duplication because the same person may appear several times in different sources.

The most important source, where it exists, is the official birth record. The General Registry office (GRO) contains a list for England and Wales, which also gives the mother’s maiden name. If necessary, you can then purchase a copy of the full certificate, containing actual birth date, address and full names of the parents. Matching this to other records sometimes enables an identification. You have to be wary because information is often incorrect or wrongly transcribed.

A case in point is that of Mary David Kelly who appears in the 1881 census as the daughter of Nicholas Kelly and Ann Park nee Jamieson born c. 1864. She married in 1888 so was not the murder victim but, for a long time, I was unable to find a record of her birth. Then I discovered that Nicholas and Ann didn’t marry until 1876, suggesting perhaps that there was a different father. Further checks that Ann’s previous marriage was to a man called Mulrone. Mary David’s birth was registered under the surname, Mulrue and her mother’s maiden name cited by the GRO as Jemmerson.

This means that of the 467 women on the list, said to have been born in England or Wales, I have located the birth registration record for 256. Plenty of work still to go but every small success brings hope that, one day, we may be able to properly identify the murdered woman.

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