22 January 2019

Who was the real Jack the Ripper: 1888?

I will reprint three theories from The Ripper of our night mares: theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, by Professors Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash. Then I will add a fourth theory that appealed to me.

1. Outcast/foreign rippers Between Aug-Nov 1888, five women were murdered and mutilated in the Whitechapel streets in London’s East End, some with their throats cut, faces slashed and organs removed.  Even today, the bare facts of the Jack the Ripper killings are unsettling. But for Victorian Londoners, the case was far more visceral. In their midst was a criminal cap­able of committing these most gruesome crimes. Who was responsible?

Given the Ripper’s sheer brutality, it was perhaps inevitable that many Britons concluded that they must be the work of an evil that had entered Victorian society from the outside. This meant that marginal figures from London’s ethnic minorities could find themselves in the frame.

The police keep finding women who had been killed 
in the streets of Whitechapel, 1888

Daily newspaper front pages, 1888, Yale Centre for British Art
Newspapers played a vital role in creating the Jack the Ripper horror.  In the papers, Whitechapel came to symbolise London's criminal underworld.

Russian Jew Michael Ostrog and Polish Jew Aaron Kosminski were cited as suspects in a contemporary memorandum penned by the Metropolitan Police chief constable. Ostrog had lived as a thief and confidence trickster before winding up in the south of England in 1888, where his latest app­earance in court was notable for him displaying signs of insanity. Aaron Kosminski was also seen as insane and as a misogynist, and had been confined to an asylum. He strongly resembled a man seen near Mitre Square, the scene of one of the murders in Sept 1888.

Jacob Levy was another foreigner placed by witnesses at Mitre Square and was apparently seen with Catherine Eddowes on the night she died. When it was revealed that Levy was a Spital­fields but­ch­er, skilled in the ritual slaughter of animals, he was marked! And David Cohen long aroused suspicion, for regular displays of violent tendencies towards women and because his incarceration in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum coincided with the cessation of the murders.

There’s little doubt that Ostrog, Kosminski, Levy and Cohen were victims of a wave of prejudice that had been precipitated by the influx of thousands of Eastern Europeans into London in the early 1880s, fleeing persecution at home. Their arrival brought to the surface widespread fears of the predatory outsider, a stereo­type that the police and government officials found hard to resist.

2. The royal Ripper What if Jack the Ripper wasn’t a predatory and solitary killer, but that he was part of a collective conspiracy? Such fears often surface at times when the Estab­lish­ment’s reput­at­ion is being called into question. So of course a number of theor­ies emerged during this period, linking Jack the Ripper’s kill­ings to some of the most powerful figures of the late Victorian era.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale, had long been a suspect. One theory has it that in the later 1888, the famously dissolute prince was seized by a syphilis-induced psychosis that led him to murder the five Ripper victims. Or that Eddy’s crimes precipitated an elaborate cover-up. The Duke ran away to the East End, he married a Catholic woman Annie Crook and fathered a child with her. Faced with a scandal that could potentially bring down the monarchy, shadowy establishment figures split up the couple and masterminded the elimination of the five female acquaintances who “knew the truth”.

Queen Victoria’s grandson, Eddy Duke of Clarence and Avondale

As it would have required the involvement of stealthy agents of clandestine power, the theory that the establishment engineered a cover-up revived popular prejudices about secretive organisations eg the Freemasons. The theory would also have required macabre ritualised activities!

3. The medical Ripper. Doctors moved freely about the urban underworld. Their need for corpses for dissection stimulated a vibrant clandestine market in corpses. And their callous treatment of defenceless female patients – especially the forced examination of prostitutes – had made them popular folk devils. In the 1880s, many Britons believed accusations that the Ripper was drawn from their ranks.

One of the first medics to come under suspicion was Dr Robert Donston Stephenson. He was believed to have contracted venereal disease from prostitutes and to be a Satanist – giving him the perfect motive for removing his victims’ internal organs. Stephenson was also a magician, which explained his regular escape from detection.

The American quack-doctor Francis Tumblety was a suspect because he was a violent misogynist with an unstable personality and a penchant for collecting body parts.

Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir William Gull, who had been close to the monarchy for a decade, has also been cited as a Ripper suspect, either as a lone assailant or as part of a wider conspiracy. In the years since the Ripper case, the healer-turned-murderer narrative has been culturally reinforced in the popular mind by eg Dr Harold Shipman.

4. My favourite theory concerns an artist. Walter Sickert created Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1907, a painting that now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery. Sickert was an eccentric man and his work was often difficult to understand and macabre; he often focused on painting shadowy interiors and lower class and suburban Victorian scenes. But it was the scenes that suggested violence against women that were most alarming.

Of course Sickert said he was only creating works that portrayed the unglamorous nature of everyday life in seedy, London’s working class East London. At the time, his personality and eerie paintings simply defined the cutting-edge modernist artist he was.

Sickert, Camden Town Murder, 1908

But what if Sickert was Jack the Ripper? According to American novelist Patricia Cornwell's theory, Walter Sickert had been made impotent by a series of painful childhood operations for a penile fistula. Or anal fistulas that caused pain in adulthood. In either case, impotency/pain had scarred him emotionally and had left him with a pathological hatred of women. This led him to carry out a series of murders, especially of prostitutes.

Walter Sickert was indeed born in Germany and I wonder if his "foreignness" made contemporaries somewhat suspicious. In any case Sickert certainly knew about their suspicions – he referred to the crimes frequently in his work.

Before and after Jack the Ripper, crime in general was rampant in Whitechapel, carried out by street gangs or in the form of domestic violence. Crimes referred to as “ripping”, back then, consisted of robberies and random violence to keep the public in fear.

19 January 2019

Syria's Dr Bashar al-Assad: life saver or mass killer? Guest post

Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus in 1965, the second oldest son of Hafez al-Assad. Father Hafez was born to a poor rural family of Shiite Alawite back­ground who rose through the Ba'ath Party ranks to take control of the Syrian branch of the Party in the 1970 Corr­ective Revolution. This culminated in his rise to the Syrian presid­ency! In Sunni-dominated Syria (74% of the nat­ion), Shiite (12% of the nation) Hafez promoted his supporters with­in the Shiite Ba'ath Party, many of whom were also of Alawite back­ground.

Bashar a-Assad had 5 siblings, 3 of whom died early. He received his primary and secondary education in the Arab-French al-Hurriya School in Damascus. In 1982, he graduated from high school and then studied medicine at Damascus University. In 1988, Assad began working as an army doctor at the Tishrin Military Hospital in outer Damascus.
Dr Bashar al-Assad working

Four years later, he moved to the UK to begin post graduate train­ing in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in Marylebone Rd, London. While living alone in his London flat for two years, Bashar had few political aspirations, planning only to practise medicine and involve himself in technology. His eventual London practice, his fellow students believed, would offer dependable, everyday medicine that relieved the suffering of sick Britons.

Dr al-Assad and I didn’t meet each other. I did my medical years in the UK in a different decade, a different hospital and a different medical specialty. But we may well have known the same consultants, att­ended the same medical conferences and read the same medical jour­nals. And undoubtedly Bashar and I both worked overly-long hours and earned miserable wages.

However his older brother Bassel al-Assad died in a car accident in 1994 and Bashar was re­called to the Syrian Army at Homs very quickly. Over the next 6.5 years, until his death in 2000, father Hafez prepared Bashar for taking over power; support was built up for the young doctor in the military and security sectors. Bashar rocketed up the ranks to become a colonel of the elite Alawite Syrian Repub­lican Guard.

Parallel to his military career, Bashar was granted wide political powers - many of Bashar's potential rivals for president were put on trial for corruption. But Syria was already facing rebellion - Sunni fighting Shiite against a backdrop of agitations across the Middle East.

After the death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000, the Constitution of Syria was amended so that Bashar Assad could stand for President. In the first contested presidential election in Ba'athist Syria's history, Bashar al-Assad was then confirmed President in July 2000, with 99.7% support for his leadership. And as President of Syria, he was also appointed commander-in-chief of the Syrian Armed Forces and Regional Secret­ary of the Ba'ath Party.

Three progressive events occurred. Firstly Bashar became the President of the Syrian Computer Society and helped to introduce technological modernity in Syria. Secondly a reform movement made cautious advances during the Damascus Spring of 2000. Amnes­ties released hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood affiliated political pris­oners and the most brutal prisons were closed. Finally Assad briefly allied his country with the West.

But despite hopes for democratic change, the Damascus Spring didn’t last. Within months, Assad’s regime used arrests to stamp out pro-reform activism; economic changes had to precede political reforms. Assad streng­th­ened Syria's link with Hez­bol­lah, its patrons in Iran and later Russia. Meantime the USA, the European Union and most of the Arab League called for Assad's resignation, particularly after he ordered military sieges on Damascus Spring protest­ers.

In the long run this led to the Syrian Civil War which started in 2011. Since then, Assad The Loved Doctor morphed into Assad The Mass Murderer. This blog has carefully noted degenerate killer-doctors before eg Dr William Palmer, Dr HH Holmes and Dr Harold Shipman etc. But these men killed dozens or perhaps hundreds of civilians.

Assad’s killing sprees emerged on an industrial scale! More than 400,000 Syrians dead, six million citizens internally displaced and five million refugees fled abroad. And to add to the unspeak­able tragedy, it was at the hands of a president who used to be a proper doctor.

Destruction of MSF Hospital in Aleppo Syria, 2016

Destruction of a MSF ward in Aleppo Syria, 2016

As well as bombing civilian populations, Assad also targeted hospitals, the exact atrocity that started the Geneva Conventions 150+ years ago and led to the creation of the Red Cross. It was the original war crime! c800 medical pers­onnel have been killed and many others detained and tortured. Since 2011, there have been 450 attacks on Syrian hospitals which now lie in ruins. What a nightmare!

The United Nations said that no previous war has witnessed such deliberate, systematic targeting of medical facil­ities and health professionals, all ordered by a doctor president!! Bombing anonymous civilians may not have upset Assad, but I assume that system­atically killing his medical colleagues and their patients would have distressed even the hardest of medical hearts. In any case, why would a doctor president specifically target hospitals, of all facilities, for his kills?

Unsurprisingly an inquiry by the United Nations reported the evidence which implicated Assad in war crimes. In June 2014, Assad was finally included in a list of war crimes indict­ments of government officials and rebels handed to the Inter­nat­ional Criminal Court. One month later, in July 2014, Assad was sworn in for another 7-year term!

Doctors Without Borders/MSF
 is supporting ten hospitals and thirteen other medical facilities in Aleppo now. These facilities were required so they could cope with the extra number of wounded, given that a] the original MSF hospital was destroyed and b] because there were MANY wounded people being bombed in other states. The doctors working in Aleppo were the real heroes because they risked their lives at every moment. 95% of the doctors who were living in eastern Aleppo before the war either fled or were killed, so there are few medicos still working in the city. 

Dr Joe

15 January 2019

Did Trump pervert "The American Dream"?

James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) was a wealthy Am­erican who decided to leave banking and go into writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his series on New England history 1921–26. And his Epic of America 1931 was an international best seller. He was also the editor of a scholarly multi-volume Dic­tionary of Am­erican History and co-editor of The Album of Amer­ican History 1944. It is to Adams that the term The American Dream must be credited.

In The Epic of America, Adams wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and full­er for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest st­at­­ure of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by ot­h­ers for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstan­ces of birth or position.”

Adams felt the American Dream had been in peril since WW1 ended. He complained that money making and material imp­rovements had become goals in themselves, mimicking moral virt­ues. But the original American Dream, that lured tens of millions of foreigners to the USA, had not been a dream of merely material plenty.

The Epic of America was Adam’s attempt save a priceless heritage, and sustain the distinctly American under­st­anding of progress in humane and moral terms. The true American Dream was of a genuine, individ­ual search and striving for the abiding values of life, and for the common man to rise to the top in the free realms of communal, spiritual and intellectual life.

Adams remembered that in the 1916 presid­ent­ial election, the rival candidates presented similar formulae to the voters: the Republican Charles Evans Hughes advocated "America First And America Efficient", while Democrat Woodrow Wilson promoted "America First". But beneath the banality of phrase, early C20th America was a country haunted by anxiety about the purity of its ethnic stock; a land of public lynchings where white families watched blacks hanged.

In May 1927 there were violent, racist fights at New York’s Mem­or­ial Day parades when protesters confronted Ku Klux Klan marchers. In Queens there were seven arrests: 5 avowed Klansmen and 1 person arrested by mistake and immediately released. The 7th man was arraigned and discharged, not notable except for his name: Fred Trump, President Donald Trump’s father.

By the 1930s there were local imitations of European Fascism eg the Crus­ader White Shirts and the German-American Bund, but in many res­p­ects American Fascism was the bitter fruit of the obsession with America First.

"Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream", 
by Sarah Churchwell.
A new understanding of The American Dream

Now a new book. Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream, written by Sarah Churchwell (2018) shows that the version of American values espoused by Fred Trump’s son Donald and the hate-filled racism of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottes­ville were not aberrant blips. Rather, racism, nativism and the neo-Fascistic call of America First were part of the changing modern American experience. Far from being an ephemeral spasm of protest against globalisation, Trump-style American nationalism has long been integ­ral to American political life, though usually marginalised by both parties’ leaders.

Donald Trump used both these phrases (America First; The American Dream) in his campaign and presid­ential inauguration. Church­well reminds the reader that neo-Fascism, white supremacy and economic and political exploit­at­ion have long supported the dark underbelly of American society. We can rel­at­e these Trumpian values to wider social, polit­ical and cultural developments.

So how did it happen that American Dream, an expression conceived in terms of social and economic equality, now refers to the opport­unities ONLY open to fortunate individuals who are born rich or rise from rags to riches? The Guardian said the original phrase functioned as a “corrective, not as an incentive”, trans­mitting “moral disquiet” about the dangers of runaway capitalist excess. Originally the rise of a plutocrat class founded on vast concentrations of wealth was deemed to be un-American, because it threatened the cherished American dream of equality and social justice. But in time, the notion was turned inside out, becoming instead the anaesthetising fantasy which doused equalitarian aspirations in the underclasses.

Despite the fact that he was born into immeasurable wealth, Trump positioned himself as a self-made man, the epitome of the American dream. In fact this “modest”, “self made” man now occupies the White House, meaning he is personally living out the American dream! The easy equation of white, mega wealthy and American seems lud­icrously outdated, but since Trump’s election and the Charlottes­ville disaster, it has become sinister and permanent.

So.. the expression American Dream was conceived as a warning against rampant capitalism, meant as a moral appeal for Americans to protect opportunity for all, rather than facilitate the ascendance of a few. That such a central notion to the American sense of self has since morphed so dramatically is frightening. In tracing the origins of these terms, and charting their evolving twists, Churchwell reflects modern American history itself.

As an Australian, I recognise that the American Dream was always specifically the dream of one part­icular land, the USA. Adams wanted a life that would be better and richer and fuller for every individual, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. But British and other liberal democracies would have said “accord­ing to the needs of each individual”, not according to the indiv­idual’s ability or achievements. Universal health care, for example, would not have been guaranteed in Adam’s American Dream.

12 January 2019

Russian Tea Room, New York

I loved the Russian Tea Room in New York. But knew nothing of its origins until I read Daytonian in Manhattan. Young John Pupke left his native Germany in 1845 and worked in a coffee firm in New York. Later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company, Pupke & Thurber. In 1873 Pupke purchased two adjoining lots on 57th St where the then weal­thy merchant erected two new buildings. Then John Pupke needed a two-storey brick extension to the house. This was next to Carnegie Hall which opened for live music presentations in 1891.

John Pupke became president of a tea and coffee importing firm. While his family kept ownership of 150 West 57th St, they hired an architect in 1913 to make extensive renovations, including a storefront and studios. This arts-soaked neighbourhood had living spaces and studios for visual and performing artists.

Russian Tea Room, c1929
photo from the Museum of the City of New York

A large wave of Russians emigrated from 1905 on, following the first Revolution; at least 30,000 of them immigrated to the USA, mostly to the NE corner. Coffee houses run by Russian immigrants had already starting appearing before WW1. Their owners were largely pro-revolutionary ex-pats who were living on NYC’s lower East Side. But after WWI and the 1917 Russian Revol­ut­ion, a very diff­erent wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, and explicitly Russian-themed restaurants opened for business.

Alas anxiety about foreigners peaked in the USA and the immigrants' loyalties were doubt­ed. The 1924 Immigration Act restricted im­mig­rants from South­ern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and Slavs.

Dining room (above) and bar (below)
The bar has all drinks, but I concentrated on the vodka cocktails.

So it was even more important for the newest Russian arrivals to gather in the White Russian restaurants for warmth, familiar food and social life. The restaurants offered blini with caviar, salmon and mushrooms wrapped in flaky pastry, beef stroganoff and nouveau-Russian specialties. For my parents in Australia, the most import­ant food item was borscht, the Uk­rainian beet soup that was brought by Russians who emigrated here (and everywhere?)

Russian eating places soon opened: The Russian Inn, The Eagle, The Russian Swan, Kavkaz, Casino Russe and The Maisonette Russe. On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the Russian Bear etc. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists, balalaika music and entertainment by Cossack performers added to the atmosphere.

The Russian Tea Room was opened in New York in 1927, by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, as a gathering place for Russian expats. Established on West 57th St, vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors, making it famous as a gathering place for those in the entertainment ind­ust­ry. Included on the top two floors were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm. This solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.

In 1929, the business moved across the street, to its present locat­ion. As we saw above, it was an Italianate brownstone built in 1875 by German immigrant John Pupke, the tea and coffee merchant. By 1933, the Siberian émigré Alexander Sasha Maeef was running the Russian Tea Room. The design of the bar area was modern, re­placing the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

During WW2, its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the up­scale patrons coming in from Carn­eg­ie Hall concerts. After running the Tea Room since 1933, Maeef sold it in 1946.

The next owner Sidney Kaye, son of Russian emigres, became a celebrity in his own right. In 1955, Kaye turned the tea room into a full blown restaurant, and gave the interiors a bolder person­al­ity. When Sidney Kaye died at 53, he left the restaurant to his widow, Faith Stewart-Gordon.

Next to the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall was threat­ened with demolition in 1955. The restaurant became the planning meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall. Again in 1981 Harry B Macklowe, developer of the Metropolitan Tow­er, planned a large office tower that would have included his own site at the Metrop­olitan Tower AND also the restaurant's and the lot on which Carn­egie Hall Tower was erected. There was an agreement with Carnegie Hall about their lot, but during the planning of the Carnegie Hall Tow­er, on the other side of the Russian Tea Room, Stewart-Gordon dec­lined to sell its site or its air rights. The result is the nar­row 20’ gap, separating the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall towers.

Front entrance of the Russian Tea Room
with the dancing Russian bear
Daytonian in Manhattan

The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel for the first thirty years was the famous Moscovian Anatole E. Voinoff (1895-1965). To opera-goers, ballet and classical music fans, as well as the performers, he was very well known. The Russian character of the Tea Room faded somewhat as beloved Russian-speaking waiters and waitresses retired, as did the last Russian chef George Lohen, and Anatole Voinoff.

In Sept 1977 The Russian Tea Room closed for renovations, although some of the old decor survived. The renovations extended the re­staurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was instal­led. Interestingly, the architect­ural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors eg the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork.

Patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balan­ch­ine, Nat­alia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and Hollywood person­al­ities. The business required a huge staff, and there was a separate bakery on the premises. Later Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their socialising.

Expressionist paintings covering the walls, leather banquettes and samovars

In 2006 the Russian Tea Room opened again, after a $19+ million makeover. The new owner was real estate developer Gerald Lieblich who, with investors, reopened the old downstairs room, adding imperial eagles on the walls, golden sam­ovars, lavish leath­er banquettes, crimson carpet and expressionist paintings. The facade was completely resurfaced, with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.