FIFTY-SEVEN-year-old historian Helena Wojtczak has a problem. Through a series of bizarre coincidences, Helena finds herself inseparably attached to one of Southwark’s, possibly the world’s, most famous criminals.
At the turn of the 1897 the intelligent, handsome and above all cunning George Chapman lived in the Finsbury area of London.
The Polish migrant had just burnt down his own pub, The Prince of Wales, purely for the insurance pay-out. He had lived there with Mary Spink, 37, the first of three women Chapman went on to murder in the most sadistic of ways.
Rather than take up blades or arms, his game was to sneak small doses of a tasteless toxin called Tar Tar Emeti into his mistresses’ food and drink.
Helena says Chapman lived with Spink “in sin”, something “virtually unheard of in their time”, and that after her death in 1899, her gormless doctor’s verdict was that she had simple died of “natural causes”.
Next he moved to Union Street in Borough, and used his payout to buy the Monument pub. A young barmaid, Bessie Taylor, became his next victim after offering her a job and digs at his upstairs flat.
“He started poisoning her as well,” Helena said. “The poison made his victims sick with severe diarrhea, but it took weeks to kill them, and they would eventually succumb to exhaustion and dehydration.
“With each of his victims he would play the loving, concerned husband, and would call on doctors and nurses to come and stay. But none of them could understand what was causing it.”
Poor Bessie died on Valentine’s Day in 1901. Still the ever-popular and unsuspecting landlord of the Monument; Chapman put up another advert for the barmaid job, and along came nineteen-year-old Maud Marsh, who was sixteen years his junior.
Within weeks Chapman was up to his old tricks. But he took another reckless gamble that year and decided to set fire to the Monument, only this time the plan backfired and his suspicious insurers refused to pay him. The old Monument building was later demolished and lost forever.
So in January 1902, Chapman and Marsh took their business to The Crown in Borough High Street. Chapman soon resumed his sinister games, and as Maud grew sicker he even pushed his luck by inviting her parents to come and comfort her, while he poisoned her under their noses.
“They took Maud to Guys’ Hospital,” Helena said. “For a month she stayed there and actually started to get better, and no one knew why.
“Then as soon as she was discharged and went back – guess what – he started poisoning her again.” Maud died on October 22, 1902, and this is how all came to an end. Maud’s parents wanted to know how Chapman’s last “wife” died. That was enough to make everyone suddenly suspicious.
Chapman was arrested on October 25 and charged with Maud’s murder. The police ordered Spink and Bessie’s bodies to be exhumed so they could be examined further. Eventually they had enough evidence to prosecute, and he was sent for trial at the Old Bailey in March 1903.
Crowds packed out the court room and every paper in the Britain and the colonies covered it. One round of feverish headlines quoted a police chief inspector Abberline, who had said on the record he suspected Chapman may have been the missing Jack the Ripper.
Chapman spoke only to say the words “not guilty” and was convicted for three counts of murder on March 19.
He was hanged at 9am on April 7 in Wandsworth Prison. Helena released her second biography ‘Jack the Ripper at Last?’ on April 7, having discovered a flood of new information about his childhood from Polish public records.
Helena said: “I came across him because of my connection with Hastings. It was in Hastings that he bought the poison, and it’s where I live now.
“But I also lived in the East End where Chapman lived with Spink, and I also lived in Southwark for a long time. So it’s like I’ve followed in his footsteps all the way. That’s what made it impossible for me not to follow his story.”