|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 50, November 2003. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
Stepan Poberowski hails from Russia. He has worked as a television cameraman, a script writer, a researcher and an historical adviser to broadcasting companies. At present he runs an Internet and computer video editing business.
Between November and December 1888 several British and international newspapers identified a new Ripper suspect: Nikolay Vasiliev, also called Nicolas Vassili or Wassily. Not only that, but two books brought out in America during the same period, The History of the Whitechapel Murders: A Full and Authentic Narrative of the Above Murders, (Richard K Fox, Publisher and Printer, New York) and Leather Apron; Or, the Horrors of Whitechapel, London (Philadelphia), no doubt inspired by press reports, fingered Vasiliev as the most likely suspect.1
From the press reports one can sketch a biography of this new suspect. Vasiliev was born to well-off parents in 1847 in Tiraspol, Kherson Province (called Cherson Province in contemporary newspapers), Russia. He was educated in Tiraspol and at Odessa University. At 25 years of age, he was one of the heads of the Skoptsy, a sect of Castrati or eunuchs, who were referred to in English-language newspapers as "The Shorn". In 1872 Vasiliev exiled himself to France to escape the persecution of the Russian government. He carried letters of introduction for members of the local Russian community who helped him to settle down in Paris.
For a couple of months he rented lodgings in the Rue Mouffetarde.2 In the daytime he worked away amid piles of books and when night came went out into the streets to wander about until dawn, calling on streetwalkers to repent and join the Skoptsy. Soon he became known as the "Saviour of Lost Souls". But he gradually changed his methods: from entreaty to curses, from generosity to compulsion. And then the unexpected happened.
Among the women he tried to reform was a young girl called Madeleine whom he met in the Rue Richelieu.3 Vasiliev fell in love with her and, hoping to redeem her and rescue her soul, secured lodgings for her with a respectable tradeswoman, Mme Guidard, in the Rue Serrurier.4 He also found her a place in a lace-making establishment. But after a few weeks his beloved ran away and Vasiliev left his lodgings to search for her.
Two months later he caught up with her in the same place where he had seen her for the first time the Rue Richelieu and stabbed her in the back. Two days after Madeleine's death, he murdered another prostitute in a quiet street of the Faubourg St. Germain. Three days later another was found, wallowing in blood, with the same wounds, in the Quartier Mouffet-arde. Within the space of two weeks, five more victims were found butchered in the arrondissement of the Pantheon, between the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard de l'Hôpital. Their money, purses, jewels, etc., were intact in all cases. Vasiliev was caught red-handed when a streetwalker he attempted to kill in the Rue de Lyon cried out for help.5
During his trial his lawyer, Maître Jules Glaunier, claimed that his client was insane and Vasiliev was confined in a private asylum at Bayonne. According to some reports, he was later sent to Russia where he spent 16 years in an asylum at Tiraspol; according to other sources, he remained in the asylum in France.
The newspapers described him as tall, lean, with a brawny form, a pale, waxy complexion (which may have been a side effect of castration) and burning black eyes. He was released from the asylum on 1 January 1888, when he was 40 years of age.
Unfortunately, the press reports on 'Vasiliev' do not contain enough data that could be checked against other sources. The town where he was born, Tiraspol, is today the capital of the breakaway Transdnistria Region, west of the Dniester River, while Chisinau, 73kim away, remains the capital of Moldava. Tiraspol was founded in 1792, at the same time as the Sredinnaya Fortress, on the left bank of the Dniester in the Ochakovskaya area annexed by Russia pursuant to the Iasi Treaty which cemented its victory in the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1791).
In 1806 Tiraspol became a district town of Kherson Province, most of which lies today in the Ukraine. By the mid-nineteenth century, its population was about 10,000.
The railway reached Tiraspol in 1867 and Chisinau in 1873, bringing about the rapid development of the town, which did a brisk trade in grain and wine. Tiraspol's main street was Pokrovskaja Ulitsa, which was lined with government buildings, luxury shops and the houses of the wealthy in one of which Vasiliev was probably born. Interestingly, Tiraspol was granted its coat-of-arms in 1847, the year of Vasiliev's birth.
In the mid-1860s there were two educational institutions in town preparing students to enter university: the Tiraspol Secondary School and the Tiraspol Orthodox Spiritual School. Unfortunately, no documents about these educational institutions are available. Although some documents are probably kept in the Tiraspol archives, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the proclamation of the Transdnistrian Republic and the ensuing tensions within Moldova render access to these archives very difficult.
Vasiliev was well educated at Tiraspol and at the University of Odessa. The Imperial Novorossiysk University of Odessa was founded in 1865 and originally consisted of the School of History and Philology and the School of Physics and Mathematics. To have time to complete his studies, become a leader among the Skoptsy and emigrate to France in 1872, Vasiliev must have been among the university's very first students. But there is no Vasiliev among either students or non-credit students at the University during its first years of existence, though some students came from Tiraspol. No Vasiliev can be found either among the graduates from the University until at least 1890.
We have seen that Vasiliev became a Skoptsy leader. The fact that he was from Tiraspol points quite accurately to the Skoptsy group to which he belonged. The Skoptsy cult was a heresy that emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century and blossomed in St Petersburg and Moscow under the leadership of Kondratiy Selivanov. In the mid-nineteenth century, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, the Russian government persecuted the Skoptsy. It was considered as the most dangerous of all sects and membership in it was declared illegal. Many members of the Skoptsy fled to Romania and Turkey, where they settled mainly in such towns as Iasi, Bucharest, Galati, Ismail and Nikolaevka, which were near to the border between Russia and Romania as well as to Tiraspol.
The Neo-Skoptsy movement was founded in Galati in 1871. Its objectives were to elaborate theoretically the Skoptsy teachings, especially conversations about the angels, the soul and the Holy Spirit, and to ameliorate the religious and moral conditions caused by the decline of religion. The Neo-Skoptsy cult spread to the Danubian towns near the border. A peasant, Kuzma Fedoseyev Lisin, and his associate Kupreyanov became its leaders and invested the movement with a messianic character. Lisin declared himself to be the second messiah and the reincarnation of Tsar Peter III and Kondratiy Selivanov. As a god, he ranked higher than Jesus Christ, and as a man, higher than the sovereign. The sect was headed by the Svyatoe Izbranie, or Holy Elite, composed of 40 persons. Vasiliev may have been one of them.
When Lisin joined the Skoptsy he was castrated with "the great or Tsar seal", which involved the removal of his penis as well as his testicles. Yet the Neo-Skoptsy preached spiritual castration and held that there was no need to submit to physical castration upon joining the sect; castration could be performed at any time, even in the face of death.
At Neo-Skoptsy radenies, prayer meetings, future preachers were revealed to Lisin by divine intervention. The chosen ones divested themselves of all their possessions, abandoned their homes and went forth to spread the sect's message across Russia. In 1875 Lisin and some of his associates were arrested, tried and banished to Siberia. They concealed the identity of other adherents of the sect from the prosecution. It is therefore possible that Vasiliev, who was not on trial, was among those who were not named.
But most newspaper reports about Vasiliev contain a significant detail which indicates either that he was not in fact a member of the Skoptsy or that journalists who were not familiar with the sect thought up this part of the story. In effect, the newspapers said that Vasiliev pored over religious books all day and when night came went out to preach or, later, to carry out his self-imposed mission of revenge. But the Skoptsy had no books. They rejected the authority of the Bible, believing in the revelations of the Holy Spirit which were set forth in their raspevetses, spiritual verses, which were sung at their prayer meetings. The raspevetses contained basic ideas of the Skoptsy worldview, some events of the history of the sect, and moral norms and principles. Therefore this clue does not confirm the existence of Vasiliev.
A police officer investigating a counterfeiting case in St Petersburg in 1818 came across two adjacent houses belonging to two merchants: Vasiliev and Solodovnikov. Members of the Skoptsy were found at both houses. The main adherent of the sect, Kondraty Selivanov, lived at Solodovnikov's home, and a "virgin of rare beauty", named Bogoroditsa or the Blessed Virgin, whom the Skoptsy revered as a divinity, lived secretly at Vasiliev's home. The St Petersburg authorities did not follow up the case but instead hushed it up. There is, however, no evidence connecting the merchant Vasiliev with Nikolay Vasiliev.
On 17 November 1888, the London Star, in an article entitled "A Fictional French 'Ripper'" recounted briefly Vasiliev's story and concluded: "It is doubtful, however, whether such a man as Wassili [sic] ever existed. M. Macé, a former Chef de la Sureté, who is thoroughly posted in the criminal history of France, has said to an interviewer that no such person committed murders in Paris in 1872. The only Parisian case in any way resembling the London assassinations was one which occurred about 1875. A certain individual terrified the women in the Rochechouart quarter by repeated assaults. He was captured after five or six of these outrages, and was pronounced insane. He was a foreigner, but not a Russian, and in any case he killed none of his victims".
Despite this apparently final verdict on Vasiliev, his newspaper trajectory was not yet finished. On the same day, 17 November (5 November according to the Julian calendar), the St Petersburg newspaper Novosti published a brief article reporting the murder of Mary Kelly and speculating on the possible identity of the murderer: its readers' fellow Russian, Nikolay Vasiliev.
On 28 November 1888, both the Pall Mall Gazette and the Daily Telegraph published articles which began as follows: "The Novosti, a Russian paper, is responsible for the following startling revelation regarding the Whitechapel murderer: 'He was born in Tiraspol in South Russia in 1847, and graduated at the Odessa University. After 1870 he became a fanatical Anarchist, and emigrated to Paris, where he went out of his mind'". The articles concluded: "He went to London, and there lodged with different compatriot refugees until the first woman was assassinated in Whitechapel, since which time his friends have not seen him".
An article worded somewhat differently was published on the same day, 28 November, in the Star, which two weeks before had denied Vasiliev's existence. None of the articles said anything about Vasiliev's membership in the Skoptsy, but affirmed instead that he was an anarchist. In this connection it is worth noting that revolutionaries such as the narodovoltsy, the members of the Narodnaya Volya, the People's Will, who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, considered the Skoptsy as potential allies. However, the original Russian article published in the Novosti on 17 November was actually a reprint of foreign, most likely French, press reports which said nothing about anarchists but repeated the version known to us about the Skoptsy.
The rumours about Vasiliev were picked up by the newspapers soon after the double murder on 30 September 1888. On 12 October, the British newspaper Weekly Herald ran an article entitled "A French Whitechapel Murderer", which managed to tell the entire story without ever mentioning Vasiliev's surname or his nationality. On 2 November, the Russian journalist (and rumoured Tsarist agent) Olga Novikoff, a friend of Gladstone, Madame Blavatsky, Henry M Stanley and William T Stead, who named her the "MP for Russia" because of her tireless work on behalf of her country, asked her Parisian correspondent for information on Vasiliev. Press reports published in mid-November gave Belgium and Switzerland as the sources of the initial information about Vasiliev. Later France was also included in this list.
At that time, the Foreign Bureau of the Tsarist Secret Service, the Okhrana, had its headquarters at the Russian consulate in Paris and maintained a network of agents in Switzerland. The Foreign Bureau used provocation primarily to persuade the French to take action against Russian radicals and cooperate with the Okhrana. The most notorious provocation occurred in Paris in 1890, when an Okhrana operative, Arkadiy Harting, organized a team of bomb-throwers whom he later betrayed to the Sureté. Their heavily publicized arrests helped convince the French public of the dangers posed by Russian radicals in France.
The head of the Foreign Bureau, Pyotr Rachkowski, was a specialist in provocation who refined the art of what is known today as active measures or perception management techniques. Rachkowski paid subsidies to journalists to write articles favourable to Russian interests and acquired or subsidized such periodicals as Le Courier Franco-Russe and Revue Russe. He also founded the Ligue pour le Salut de la Patrie Russe to promote positive views towards Russia among French citizens.
The articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette, the Daily Telegraph and the Star resemble other articles planted in newspapers by the Okhrana as part of its provocation campaigns and may have been based on the assumption that Mary Kelly's murder would be followed by more murders in November or December. Giving 1870 instead of 1872 as the year when Vasiliev emigrated to Paris would have served to link his name more closely with the radical Commune of Paris and with the slaughter of hostages by the Communards.
In addition, Vasiliev could be safely described as an anarchist because this definition was applied to practically all foreign radicals, since the British public were not familiar with all revolutionary trends. Members of the International Working Men's Educational Club, the Socialist club in Berner Street, for instance, were frequently described as anarchists.
The press reports stating that Vasiliev lodged with compatriot refugees may have been aimed at inducing the Metropolitan Police to interrogate Russian immigrants, thus gathering valuable information about Russians in London which the Okhrana could collect through its agents in Scotland Yard. Contemporary Okhrana documents mention the names of two agents, John and Murphy, both of whom probably served in the Special Branch.
By 1888 the Okhrana Foreign Bureau had completely infiltrated and demoralised Russian immigrant communities in the Continent, but it could not reach the revolutionaries living in Britain. The Okhrana's interest in the British capital is shown by Rachkowski's journey to London in June 1888, as well as by a veiled mention of a trip to Britain by secret agent Gurin, who was known for his active participation in the destruction of the Narodnaya Volya printing press in Geneva in 1886.
But the provocation if that was indeed what it was did not go any further and left no trace except for one newspaper report. When the Ripper vanished, the possibility for the Okhrana to use his name for its own purposes vanished with him. By the New Year, 1889, Vasiliev had disappeared from the pages of the newspapers. He remains an elusive legend, which probably had some basis in reality, but was mostly embellished by the journalists who wrote it up.Acknowledgments
My thanks to Eduardo Zinna, Artemy Vladimirov and Alexander Chisholm for their help in the preparation of this article.
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1 The History of the Whitechapel Murders gave as its source for the Vasiliev story the journalist John Paul Bocock, of the New York World.
2 The places Vasiliev allegedly frequented while in Paris are real and, what is more, still exist. The Rue Mouffetard not Mouffetarde is on the Left Bank, south of the Seine. It is one of the oldest streets in Paris, going back to Roman and medieval times. Until recently, it was also one of the most disreputable. Its name was derived from moufette, skunk, because of the stink caused by the activities of the tanners and tripe butchers who once plied their trade along the banks of the Briève river, which now runs underground.
3 The Rue Richelieu runs from Montmartre to the Palais Royal and the Louvre.
4 The Boulevard Serrurier is in the 19th arrondissement, north of the Seine, which in Vasiliev's time was a semi-rural area .
5 The Faubourg St Germain, in the 7th arrondissement, is where many ministries, embassies and homes of the very rich are located.
6 The arrondissement of the Pantheon is in fact the 5th arrondissement. The Pantheon is a former church which, during the French revolution, between 1831 and 1852 and today, has served as a final resting place for great men and women. Among those who lie there are Mirabeu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Braille and Zola.
7 The Rue de Lyon is in the Bastille quarter, north of the Seine.
8 Interestingly, there was one Nikolay Vasiliev among the accused at a political trial in St. Petersburg in 1861, but his biographical data do not tally with Vasiliev's data as published in the newspapers.
9 For more information on the Narodnaya Volya see Zinna, Eduardo: "A Passion for Justice: Jacob Rombro and the Berner Street Club", Ripperologist, 39 (2002).
10 According to one source, Rachkowski was also involved in the production of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, arguably the most notorious political forgery of the twentieth century