George Chapman: Pub Poisoner
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Although we tend to think of serial killers as modern phenomena, that is not the case at all. The accessibility of news nowadays means we hear much more about shocking incidents more frequently, but the truth is that even over a century ago insatiable killers prowled about for victims. One such killer was Seweryn Klosowski—better known by his pseudonym George Chapman—who poisoned a string of women in England from 1897 through 1902.
The Early Years
George Chapman was born in Poland in 1865. There isn’t too much information available about his early years, but we know that he was apprenticed to a surgeon starting in 1879 and continued to assist doctors until 1886. He took courses in surgery and assisted in surgical procedures, then became a certified Junior Surgeon in 1887.
After that time, he moved to London, and continued assisting doctors. However, his interest in surgery seemed to dry up, as he opened a barbershop. He met and married Lucie Badewski in 1889, and in 1891 the family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. It is there that Chapman appears to have begun unwinding: in 1892, Chapman attacked his pregnant wife. In 1903, Badewski recollected in the Daily Chronicle that Chapman attempted to smother her with a pillow, and when he was interrupted, she found a knife under it. Untroubled, he had told her that he had meant to cut her head off and had been planning on telling the neighbors that she had gone to New York. She, smartly, decided to leave him and head back home to London. The next year they would reunite briefly, but Chapman would ultimately leave his wife and their children behind, which was probably best for them.
After the marriage broke up, Chapman worked over several women and fathered at least one illegitimate child. His name, Chapman, was actually one he took from a woman he left behind. In 1897, Mary Isabella Spink helped him run a barbershop (she played piano while he groomed) and while it was profitable, he often beat her badly. A neighbor reported hearing her cries at night and seeing bruises on her face and throat. When the barbershop sank, Chapman ended up managing a pub and killing Spink by giving her tartar-emetic, a chemical which in safe doses can induce vomiting and in large doses weaken the heart, cause gastroenteritis, and eventually kill. Spink left him £500 in her will (around £57,000 in today’s money).
His next victim was his pub’s manager, Bessie Taylor, who received similar abuses to Spink. When she began showing similar symptoms of sickness that Spink had, people began talking, and Chapman moved them both out of London into Hertfordshire. Though she lingered for a while, she finally died on Valentine’s day in 1901, and by August Chapman had created a fake marriage out of a real romance with his barmaid Maude Marsh. As before, he beat Marsh and her condition began to decline. After her sudden death from a larger-than-usual dose of poison, police were suspicious enough to study Marsh’s body closely and traces of poison in her organs. Spink and Taylor’s bodies were then exhumed. The investigators found all the same, signature signs of poisoning with each.
Arrest and Conviction
George Chapman was arrested on October 25, 1902, a mere three days after Taylor’s death. Even though the jury was privy to all of the evidence against Chapman, he was only charged with the murder of Marsh. He was found guilty by the jury after only eleven minutes of deliberation and hanged on April 7, 1903.
Chapman’s story doesn’t end there, however. These are just the known murders. The poison he administered can easily be mixed into drinks and food, and in small doses, may only weaken a victim. There are people who claimed to have been poisoned or escaped being poisoned by Chapman in his pubs. The most famous account comes from the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. In My Autobiography (Neversink), Chaplin stated that:
“As a boy, I stopped at a saloon in London Bridge Road and asked for a glass of water. A bluff, amiable gentleman with a dark moustache served me. For some reason I could not drink the water. I pretended to but as soon as the man turned to talk to a customer I put the glass down and left. Two weeks later, George Chapman, proprietor of the Crown public house in the London Bridge Road, was charged with murdering five wives by poisoning them… His latest victim was dying in a room above the saloon the day he gave me the glass of water.”
His numbers are a little off (he also misidentified the poison Chapman used), but the other information is correct, including the tidbit about the latest victim dying in the room above the “saloon.” Chaplin would have been young at the time of this event—fourteen at the most—which is perhaps why some of the facts he gives are a little blurry. He talks about this incident in his autobiography as proof of possession of strong, perhaps even supernatural, intuition.
Investigation and Affiliations
Frank Abberline, a detective at Scotland Yard when Chapman was arrested, was confident that Chapman was in fact the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who still remains officially unidentified to this day. During the investigation on Chapman, he had interviewed Chapman’s wife Lucie Badewski, one of the few women who survived her romance which Chapman. Badewski described her husband going out at night for long periods of time. He was also in the right place at the right time: it is generally agreed upon that Jack the Ripper was active in and around Whitechapel, London, from 1888 to 1891, when Chapman was living in London with Badewski. Jack the Ripper’s gruesome signature murders seemed to have stopped in 1891, the year which Chapman and Badewski had moved to the United States.
However, there isn’t a concrete date for when the family made it to the US. Many also point out that although Chapman focused his attentions on women he was involved with in some way, and though he could become physically violent with them, he seemed to prefer slow murder by poison. The Jack the Ripper murders that are considered “canonical,” i.e., unquestionably committed by the same person, included slashed and severed throats and organs removed, usually the uterus and sometimes other organs in close proximity. Sometimes faces were mutilated as well. All of the victims were female prostitutes.
Another argument against this theory points to the fact that the Ripper would have had to know Whitechapel and the surrounding areas of London fairly well to carry out his murders successfully, and Chapman, having recently moved there during the times the murders were taking place. Others argue that Chapman was and is easy a convenient scapegoat because he was a foreigner to the country, who in some ways, would have still seemed very “un-English” thanks to his changed name and accent.
It’s possible that we will never know the extent of Chapman’s crimes (or Jack the Ripper’s, for that matter). However, his remains an intriguing case even to this day, especially thanks to his brush with future movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s rare that such an infamous figure crosses paths with such a famous figure, with both surviving.
Did you like this story of George Chapman? Comment below.
You may also like the crimes of Albert Fish.