Baron Munchhausen and Jack the Ripper September 21, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing has long had a secret nemesis: Donald McCormick aka Richard Deacon, a British author. McCormick (1911-1998) wrote entertainingly on a bewildering series of topics including the Hell Fire Club, Mossad, Ian Fleming, the Kempa Tai and the death of Kitchener. Many of these books included doubtful elements: extremely valuable sources that no one else had ever heard of and that never saw the light of day after publication. A younger Beachcombing himself struggled with McCormick’s extraordinary discoveries concerning Prince Madog, a twelfth-century Welsh Columbus and he has found that colleagues elsewhere have had similar problems with McCormick’s work.
Let Beachcombing be brash: since McCormick’s death it has become clear that our author invented sources. And today Beachcombing wants to give an excellent example of this. McCormick’s work on Jack the Ripper.
McCormick wrote the first mainstream modern book on the Ripper murders: The Identity of Jack the Ripper (1959) – beginning the tradition of ‘modest’ Ripper titles. It is, as with all of McCormick’s books, readable. But it also uses a source – actually it uses several! – that have been seen by no other researcher: The Secret Diary of Dr Thomas Dutton. Now make no mistake Dutton was a real doctor who died in 1938 when the Sunday Chronicle even ran a piece on his death suggesting that there was a Chronicle of Crime by the good doctor and that in that Chronicle there was new and potentially exciting information on Jack the Ripper.
The next that is heard though of the Secret Diary/Chronicle of Crime comes in McCormick’s book, twenty years later where extensive quotations are given. It is only in a subsequent edition (1970) that McCormick explains how he got his hands on them: ‘I, too, fervently wish that Dr Dutton’s chronicles of his crime researches had been preserved for posterity. He allowed me to take notes from them as long ago as 1932 and they covered a number of other interesting cases. By a lucky chance my notes were safely tucked away, forgotten and then discovered after World War II.’
‘Dutton’ had identified thirty four letters in the police archives that were by one hand. ‘Dutton’ recorded these and McCormick quotes from ‘Dutton”s letters. There follows, for example, a poem that has caused much excitement in Ripper circles.
Eight little whores, with no hope of heaven,
Gladstone may save one, then there’ll be seven.
Seven little whores begging for a shilling,
One stays in Henage Court, then there’s a killing.
Six little whores, glad to be alive.
One sidles up to Jack, then there are five. etc etc
Beachcombing is calling a halt, but the reader will see where this is going.
Ripperologists long disagreed about the reliability of McCormick. In their excellent book, Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell, Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner, for example, had to give up their partnership for two chapters while Evans wrote alone. The authors ‘were unable to reach a consensus about the work of Donald McCormick’.
However, by now the consensus is upon us and it is not pretty.
That McCormick invented Dutton’s diary is now almost universally accepted, though some are more polite than others about it: e.g. the gentlemanly Stewart Evans noted above. There is even the claim that McCormick stole documents from another researcher!
Beachcombing can do no better here than quote from an exceptional, online piece by the ultra-trustworthy Melvin Harris (obit 2004). Note that Beachcombing has cut extensively to get ‘the meat’ not from the point of view of Ripper studies – the account is necessarily tangled – but with the vain hope of understanding McCormick’s psychology. The original, which is well worth it, is here.
Because I knew that McCormick’s health was not good, I decided to soften any future blows [about revelations of fakery] by giving him prior warning. I rang him and gave him an insight into our plans. And bit by bit I made him aware that the bogus nature of his Ripper book had been well established…
He became philosophical about his exposure, especially when I said that I was prepared to describe the fakery as the work of a man with a wicked sense of humour. I stated that I was not going to ask for the name of the faker unless he wished to divulge it. Specifically, though, I drew his attention to the poem about the ‘Eight little whores’. I was struck by the way that writers had cheerfully quoted these lines without any misgivings, and used them as if they were AUTHENTIC VERSES FROM 1888. At that time they had been used by Odell, Farson, Prof Camps, Rumbelow, Cullen and Michael Harrison.
I put it to McCormick that these verses had no antiquity; they were unknown before appearing in his book, IN 1959. While the reference to Henage Court [another matter Harris picked apart] showed that the writer had drawn on the PC Spicer story, which did not reach print UNTIL MARCH 1931. In short it was not a Victorian piece, but a 20th century concoction. Again, at no time did I ask him to name the faker. But I asked him to acknowledge it as a MODERN fake and stated that I would be content to describe it as being the work of a ‘very clever man who enjoys his quiet fun’. McCormick accepted that formula AND WITHOUT ANY BLUSTER OR EQUIVOCATION ADMITTED THAT IT WAS A FAKE AND WAS INDEED INSPIRED BY THE SPICER STORY; A STORY THAT HE DISCOVERED IN A BUNDLE OF OLD PRESS CLIPPINGS AND THEN USED IN CONSTRUCTING HIS BOOK…
Eventually, I met up with McCormick in the flesh. At the book signing at Camille Wolff’s we talked and I put it to him that the Diary hoax had altered matters and I wanted to set the record straight in a new book. I asked him if he now wished to publicly name the faker of the poem, but he said he was not ready. He was still happy, though, for me to use the old formula, that it was faked by ‘A very clever man who enjoys his quiet fun’, and he winked as he said it! Yes, he was a likeable rogue. But he was trapped by his very likeability. Over the years he had kept up the bluff with so many people that he found it hard to disentangle himself, as I found out when I later wrote to him. He was, by then, unwilling to commit himself in writing, instead he wrote letters full of teasing, enigmatic clues.
Finally in October 1997 I wrote to him and asked him to stop the fooling and write a candid letter fit for publication. Sadly the reply that came back read ‘I have an ulcer on my right eye and have great difficulty in writing at present. Please let the matter drop.’ I did and there was never to be a further chance. Within a short while I learned that he was dead…
A likeable rogue? Beachcombing wonders: though he is certainly glad that McCormick was never publicly disgraced in old age.
Beachcombing has a series of other posts that he will write about McCormick’s inventions in other fields. But for now two questions. First, why did McCormick invent? A fantasy that got out of control? The thrill of manipulation? Simple dishonesty? A psychosis of sorts? One of the most extraordinary revelations in Evans and Skinner’s book is that McCormick probably wrote the original newspaper article in 1935 that claimed that Dutton had written on the Ripper! So was this a long game? Or had McCormick really come across the rumour of an exciting source?
Second, how on earth did he get away with it? Here the answer is, surely that McCormick flew under the radar. If he had been writing on academic subjects then he would have been put through the combine harvester almost immediately: but Prince Madog, the death of Lord Kitchener and Jack the Ripper were side disciplines run, at least in earlier times, by talented diletantes. It also worked in his favour that he did not write more than one book in any field, apart from espionage where secret sources are the norm. Then too his pen name Richard Deacon made it a little harder for readers to see the broader pattern.
Beachcombing hasn’t got it in him to be Hugh Trevor-Roper to McCormick’s Sir Edmund Backhouse, but he’d like to make a strong case over several posts so that anything by McCormick in any discipline can be properly quarantined. He’d also like to understand McCormick himself better. Beachcombing is especially interested in McCormick’s work for the Sunday Times and on Ian Fleming (McCormick’s friend) drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Beachcombing wants to thank Landulph for help with this post.
Oct 1 2010: ‘Sensibly Anonymous’ used to work with Donald McCormick and noted ‘The problem with Donald was so much had the ring of truth’. This might seem an anodyne comment but it corresponds to Beachcombing’s experiences of reading DM’s work. He was extremely convincing. Beachcombing would note that he is perhaps least convincing in his Madog book simply because he is so terribly out of his depth…
1st Nov 2010: Beachcombing was lucky enough to get an email about that arch Munchhausen Donald McCormick from the thriller writer Jeremy Duns. Jeremy is going to come back to this theme shortly and Beachcombing will then forward readers to his blog or any relevant publication. However, for now… ‘I just came across your blog post on Donald McCormick, as he is also a nemesis of mine, specifically his work on Ian Fleming. I’m a spy novelist but also a Bond fan, and I’ve written a few article on Ian Fleming and intend to write some more. I have my suspicions why he did what he did. I think it was essentially to sell books and make money, fast, but then he got addicted to the illicit thrill of being ‘in the know’ and the originator of conspiracy theories. He was a tabloid hack, and had a brilliant sense for what would sell, what would ring true, and how to present it. He wasn’t alone, especially not in the field of ‘non-fiction’ books about espionage, which are littered with writers like him, although perhaps none as brazen. Another was Edward Spiro, who under the name EH Cookridge but also a bewildering number of other pseudonyms, churned out sensationalist books about espionage. McCormick and Spiro both had some experience in the intelligence world, so they were well connected and in perfect positions to pass off authoritative-sounding fabrications… I think McCormick took several facts that were known and then strung them together into something much more interesting. The first biography of Fleming, by John Pearson, mentioned that Fleming had been fascinated by Aleister Crowley, the occultist. McCormick wove this into an elaborate tale of Fleming in the woods and satanic worship and Rudolf Hess and so on – it’s absurd, but still comes up in newspaper articles every now and again. Newspapers love this stuff, because of course they are populated by people like McCormick. But, even better, they can just say that ‘it is thought that’… and still repeat the nonsense material without having to take responsibility for it. McCormick also did this in his books. He introduces a plausible but false theory, then says ‘Well, so it is thought’, ‘Could it really be that…’ and so on. He knew that he could express plenty of doubt to cover his back, but that once he had introduced the ideas they would still be discussed as though they might have happened. This article discusses McCormick’s hoax about the signature of John Dee being like 007. But that idea will never go away, I expect. McCormick also cannibalized his own books. So he was interested in Dee, and wrote about him in several books because he knew something about him. Writing a biography of Fleming? Pad it out with stuff about Dee. He had a mad theory about Sikorski being killed that takes up a lot of space in his Fleming biography, all linked to another obsession of his, Christine Granville. He claimed that she was – or could have been, was she, intriguing if the case, etc! – the model for Vesper Lynd, the love interest of Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale. He devotes a whole chapter to her, claiming that she and Fleming had an affair. His main sources were supposedly a biography of Granville, a close confidante of Granville, and a letter from a man called Ted Howe, who he and Fleming both worked with as journalists, and who Granville met. That’s where he got the idea from, I think. The Granville biography by Madeleine Masson mentions Granville meeting Howe in Cairo. I think McCormick read this and thought bingo! From there he constructed a story that Granville met Howe in Cairo and asked for work. Howe suggested she contact Fleming. McCormick quotes a letter shown him by Howe, never seen by anyone else, proving this. Then creates a lot of plausible nonsense about the affair, including the confidante. Quite astonishingly, Masson’s later edition of her biography of Granville then reported all this as though it were true, or might be true, even though she hadn’t found hide nor hair of it, referencing McCormick, who had referenced her (even though she hadn’t said it). Similarly, all the really astonishing stuff about Fleming in McCormick’s biography is not in the biographies by John Pearson or Andrew Lycett, both of whom had unrestricted access to Ian Fleming Publications’ archives. McCormick repeatedly referred to the Fleming Papers in his footnotes – he didn’t make it terribly clear for anyone not familiar with their holding place that these were Peter Fleming’s papers, Ian’s older brother. Very good source, but not the same thing… If you search on Ian Fleming in combination with Granville, Rudolf Hess, John Dee, Crowley and several others, you get links to dozens of articles, some of them in very creditable publications, unflinchingly reiterating McCormick’s inventions. Even the PR for a film about Granville goes into her affair with Fleming. He just made it all up. He worked for newspapers, and he knew that newspapers, and readers, would pick up precisely these stories. It sounds brilliant: the SOE heroine had an affair with the creator of James Bond, who then used her as inspiration for Bond’s first true love. It is just the right sort of story to be parroted unthinkingly for decades, and it has been, despite the only evidence for it being in McCormick’s book, in unseen letters from people who were conveniently long dead or who have never even been traced. Newspapers love a good story. McCormick might have made quite a good novelist, but he was the worst sort of journalist there is.’ Beachcombing asked Jeremy about the Fleming McCormick link in a follow-up email. He found Jeremy’s comparison of the two writers particularly helpful here. ‘It is, of course, very different doing this in a novel than in a piece of journalism, but I think what it shows is that there was a lot of bluffing going on in this sort of thing, and I think there are parallels in the way Fleming bluffed with the ways McCormick and Spiro did. All of them had some intelligence experience – but none of them really knew the sort of details they were claiming. Fleming also occasionally novelized his journalism – he certainly spiced things up, as he wrote the Sunday Times’ ‘table talk’ column Atticus. His book The Diamond Smugglers was essentially a commissioned and agreed rewrite, or edit, or ‘sexing up’ of someone else’s book. The original had been written by John Collard, an agent involved in the practices described, but was a little dry. I write a bit about this here. Fleming’s book contained an interview with John Collard in Tangier. He certainly went there and met him, but Collard’s original manuscript contains all the information that was in Fleming’s book – he just used the interview as a framing device to disguise all the exposition. He could have written the whole book from his office in London and it would have been much the same. This is not deception along the lines of McCormick, of course: it’s closer to a novelist’s artistic licence – and the book is very readable as a result. Ian Fleming employed Donald McCormick as a journalist for his Mercury service, so I suppose another question is just how much of the material McCormick wrote for Mercury was embellished or fabricated out of whole cloth.’ Thanks Jeremy! Beachcombing is looking forward to your post on DM.