Severin Klosowski was born in a small Polish village in 1865, the son of a carpenter.
After leaving school, he was apprenticed to a barber-surgeon, learning hairdressing and acquiring enough medical knowledge to get a job as an assistant surgeon at a hospital for a while.
In 1887, he was still in Warsaw, but in 1888, he moved to London, Whitechapel to be precise, working as a hairdresser’s assistant.
A restless character, with disdain for conventional morality, he kept ‘carrying on’ with various floozies. Nor was he a very truthful person, claiming to be a Jew although he was in fact a Christian, and using the names Severino Klosowski and Ludwig Zagowski interchangeably.
In October 1889, he married the young Polish woman Lucy Baderski, but their marital bliss was severely jolted when another woman arrived from Poland, claiming to be Klosowski’s wife from an earlier marriage.
For a while, both women cohabited with the immoral barber, until the alleged ‘first’ wife moved out.
Klosowski took Lucy with him to New York in April 1891, and then to Jersey City.
Here, he assaulted her one day in early 1892, without provocation, and held her down to prevent her from screaming. If a customer had not come into the barber’s shop, her life might well have been in danger, since he had a large knife handy.
Afterwards, he hinted that if she had ‘disappeared’, he could just have told people that she had moved back to New York.
Rather understandably, Lucy did not want to stay with the sinister Klosowski after this incident, and she made haste to return to London.
Her sturdy, moustachioed cad of a husband did not seem to bother much about this, and he kept amusing himself with various floozies.
In 1893, he returned to London, where he met a woman named Annie Chapman, with whom he cohabited for a while.
Realizing that his foreign-sounding name was hardly an asset in his adopted country, he started calling himself George Chapman.
‘Chapman’ struck lucky in 1895, when he met Mrs Mary Isabella Spink, who had been deserted by her husband due to her intemperate habits.
She had a fortune of £500, which Chapman used for various business ventures, including setting up a barber’s shop in Hastings that advertised ‘musical shaves’: Mrs Spink lathered the customers and then played the piano while Chapman shaved them.
Like all of George Chapman’s schemes, this shop did not last very long: he moved to London, where he used the remainder of the Spink money to take over the lease of the Prince of Wales public house in Bartholomew Square, off the City Road [it no longer stands].
Once he had spent her money, he began to tire of Mrs Spink, who was of no further use to him.
He purchased antimony and began dosing her with this compound. Slowly poisoning her to death, he watched her long and painful decline with what seemed like grief and concern.
After the wretched Mrs Spink had died on Christmas Day 1897, Chapman advertised for a barmaid.
There were plenty of replies, and he chose Bessie Taylor, a dim-witted young woman who had no objection to doubling as Chapman’s wife in a bogus marriage, just like Mrs Spink had done.
They moved on to the Monument pub in Union Street, Southwark [it no longer stands], but Chapman soon got fed up with Bessie and poisoned her to death in the same manner.
After her death in 1901, he employed another foolish barmaid at the Monument: young Maud Marsh, who soon called herself Mrs Chapman just like her predecessor.
They moved to the Crown public house at 213 Borough High Street, where the chameleon Chapman posed as an American; the pub was called ‘George’s American Bar’ by some of the locals.
In 1902, the irrepressible Chapman employed another barmaid named Florence Rayner, at a time when his ‘wife’ was still alive.
She did not have any objections to having an affair with him, but when he offered to take her to America, she told him to think of his wife downstairs.
Chapman hinted to her that his ‘wife’ might soon expire, and indeed, he managed to poison her to death on October 22.
But the doctors attending Maud Marsh were less gullible than those who had looked after her two predecessors.
They suspected that she had been poisoned and refused to make out a death certificate without a post-mortem. And indeed, her various organs contained a quantity of metallic antimony.
Chapman was promptly arrested and the bodies of his two previous ‘wives’ exhumed.
They were found to contain significant quantities of metallic antimony as well. Chapman was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and executed at Wandsworth Prison on April 7, 1903.
It did not take long for the Scotland Yard detectives to suspect that Klosowski alias Chapman might have more on his conscience than the murders of his three ‘wives’.
Here we had a serial killer of superior coolness and cunning, who had callously watched his three ‘wives’ die painful and protracted deaths.
After all, there were few men in London capable of multiple murder.
Klosowski had lived in Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper murders, and he had known this part of London well. He possessed some degree of medical knowledge, and he might well have attempted to murder his first wife with a knife.
A human chameleon, he was an expert with regard to fitting into his environment, and although he lacked both breeding and education, he was a clever and enterprising man.
When there was newspaper speculation that Klosowski was the Ripper, the columnist George R. Sims spoke up in his ‘Mustard and Cress’ column in the Referee newspaper, claiming that from private information, he knew that Jack the Ripper had been a doctor found drowned in the Thames in December 1888.
Sims was answered by Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, who had been one of the leading detectives hunting Jack the Ripper.
Abberline found Klosowski a very likely suspect, since he resembled the contemporary descriptions of the Ripper, and since he had been residing right in the middle of Whitechapel at the relevant time.
Klosowski’s ability to ‘fit in’ and avoid suspicion was pointed out, and there had been at least one Ripper-like murder in New York at the time Klosowski had been living there.
Abberline’s proposal of Klosowski as a Ripper suspect has received support from Superintendent Arthur Neil, from Hargrave Adam who edited the Trial of George Chapman, from the crime writer Jonathan Goodman, and from leading Ripper author Philip Sugden.
Abberline certainly spoke to Lucy Baderski, since he was able to describe Klosowski’s assault on her in 1892.
Hargrave Adam’s statement that he also questioned her closely about Klosowski’s movements back in 1888, finding out that he was often out until the wee hours, is interesting if true.
It is by no means certain that Klosowski lived with Lucy as early as 1888, however, and Adam was not the most reliable of writers.
Other ripperologists have pointed out the great contrast between the Ripper’s frenzied assaults and mutilations of [presumably] randomly selected street prostitutes, and Klosowski’s slow poisonings of three women he knew well.
Although they have found nothing to definitively disqualify Klosowski as a Ripper suspect, a recent biography of the Borough Poisoner highlights the weakness of the case against him, and the amount of wishful thinking used by Abberline and Hargrave Adam.
The only one of Klosowski’s London pubs to remain today is the Crown at 215 Borough High Street.
This venerable old pub was constructed in 1841, on the site of the old Marshalsea Jail, which, as close students of Dickens’ Little Dorrit will know, was later used as a debtor’s prison.
The Crown survived Severin Klosowski and his victims by many decades. When it finally closed in 1976, the ultimate landlord said that he had always found the old murder pub a most spooky place.
When he had arrived in 1967, he had opened four rooms that looked like if they had been boarded up for at least 40 years. There were plenty of bumps in the night, and his mother had seen the ghost of a man in one of the upstairs rooms.
For a while, the Crown was used as a canteen by a nearby company. Later, it was rebuilt, keeping the original façade, and it is today part of the London Institute of Technology and Research.
This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2021).
Main Picture: Chapman and Maud Marsh, from H.L. Adam, Trial of George Chapman - Notable British Trials, London 1930