Pardoning Harry: The Man Who Invented Jack the Ripper

H.J.W. Dam

While Aimée brought light, love and laughter wherever she roamed, her men were undeniably fifty shades of black. She was drawn to controversial, dangerous, some would say diabolical men who had measures of charisma and charm. They were each mesmerized by the hoopla that was Aimée Crocker. Her lovers and husbands included a Chinese Baron who attempted to murder her but killed her maid by mistake; an inveterate gambler who kidnapped her daughter and later a newspaperman; a famous writer who authored a blasphemous tomb about the history of atheism and a scandalous volume about the debauchery of Rome; and three princes: a Russian “prince” who lied about his royal blood and who had an affair with her 15-year-old daughter; a prince from Borneo who ruled a tribe of headhunters; and the prince of darkness himself, the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley.

Towards the close of her first marriage, Aimée spent time with Bohemian club writer and scoundrel Henry Jackson Wells “H.J.W.” Dam. He hovered around her at a charity event for the St. Thekla’s Guild. They flirted at the Evans Silver Wedding anniversary. They canoodled at the Juncate Club party at Granger Hall… “Harry” made inroads with the heiress through befriending her family. He was the witty master of ceremony for the 1883 Ladies Jinks party at the Bohemian Club on Pine Street attended by several Crocker women (and two of Aimée’s future mother-in-laws). Dam wrote a testimonial for Aimée’s mother Margaret at a city-wide celebration, The Festival of Flowers, when she donated her gallery and all of her paintings to the state capital.

Aimée also met Harry at the Folsom State Prison in April of 1885 when she was just 20-years-old, invited by Governor Stoneman and his wife. Where better to hang with a San Francisco bad boy? The guests were regaled with an ample lunch that was spread by Warden McComb, and later went on a drive over the prison grounds set at the head of the American River, 20-miles north of Sacramento. They took in the lovely landscapes and ogled the burley prisoners as they worked in the granite quarry. This was an environment far more frightening than the Folsom Prison Johnny Cash would discover 80 years later. Shackles or “Oregon boots” were in use as were dark dungeon cells. Those in solitary were left unwashed, unexercised, and poorly fed. Gatling guns were housed inside eight strategically placed guard towers.

Harry was, according to reports, having an affair with two married women, Aimée Crocker and Governor Stoneman’s wife. He was then employed by the governor as his executive secretary.

Born on April 27, 1856 in San Francisco to Alphonso Dam and Lucy Ellen Beck, few lads had ever begun life in California with brighter prospects than Henry Jackson Wells Dam. Educated at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1875 he graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree and at once chose journalism as his profession, working for several San Francisco newspapers including the Chronicle and the Wasp (alongside Ambrose Bierce). Dam made his mark almost immediately. He achieved a degree of early notoriety by grabbing a not-altogether-successful interview with General Ulysses S. Grant. He became a social favorite as well as a successful newspaper man.

General George Stoneman

When General Stoneman was elected Governor in 1882, he appointed Dam his executive secretary. It was understood that the young journalist had sought the place chiefly for the leisure it would give him for literary work.

A novel, not yet published, the libretto of a comic opera that was not successful, some airy magazine poetry, and an occasional short story were the fruits of this leisure. A love of gaiety led the talented secretary into dissipation, and his good looks caused more than one Sacramento husband unhappiness.

His salary was not equal to the demands his pleasures made upon his purse. The young man was in receipt of a salary of $2,000 per year from his position as Executive Secretary, and $300 a year as Secretary of the State Capitol Commissioners. This gave him an income of about $200 per month, which his love for wine, women and song, together with a total unappreciation of the value of money, rendered insufficient.

Dam held his post until Stoneman left office in January 1887. At the end of his term, Stoneman—a staunch believer in rehabilitating prisoners through parole—caused a furor by granting 260 pardons and commuting 146 prison sentences, several being to first and second-degree murderers. Harry Dam was accused of amassing thousands of dollars by the illicit sale of these pardons. Dam strenuously denied these accusations, but they would dog him for the rest of his life.

Dam wrote, “I never sold any pardons, never had any to sell, never recommended a pardon to the Governor, and never even suggested the issuance of a single one. Governor Stoneman will substantiate this.” He claimed that when he left the Executive Secretaryship, he was “three degrees poorer than a church mouse.”

Instead of backing up Dam’s story, it was reported that ex-governor Stoneman, a Civil War general, threatened to kill Harry Dam, his former executive secretary, on sight, his outrage fueled not just the by pardon brouhaha but Dam’s dalliance with his wife.

Ambrose Bierce roundly criticized Dam for setting up a brokerage for the wholesale and indiscriminate pardoning of convicting felons on behalf of the governor. “Such a godless lot of professional criminals as he turned loose from the penitentiary never before received ‘Executive Clemency,’” he wrote.

Folsom Prison circa 1895 (courtesy Crocker Art Museum)

Before the scandal broke, Dam wrote an article for the North American ReviewPractical Penology” about techniques used at Folsom to reform prisoners and teach , “The lesson of right and wrong, not from the religious, sentimental, or relative, but from the practical, personal, and absolute point of view.” Dam advocated for working the prisoner hard, preferable in the open air, getting them good and hungry and then feeding them with increasingly appealing foods.

“[The prisoner] wants the air, the liberty of the grounds, and, above all, good things to eat. The palate is a potent means of influencing the great majority of men, but with the convict, as may be imagined, is far more influential than with any other class.” The best prisoners would eventually be served tea and cake. “Brown-crested bread puddings inflame the sensuous appetite, while corn bread and hot rolls are not figments of the imagination, [but become] absolute and attainable realities,” he wrote.

The lesson Dam conveyed was a simple one, “It pays to be good; it does not pay to be bad. And any man who commits crime in preference to working honestly for his living, only brings unhappiness upon himself, and is foolish so to do.”

Dam dodged becoming an inmate in this prison system he applauded. He evaded indictments and the Governor’s ire when he moved hastily and quietly to New York.

Dam soon landed a job with The New York Times. He also took his first tentative steps into the theater, co-writing a comic opera called Mizpah, which bombed when it was staged in Chicago. Dam moved to London later in the year and found work with The Star, and as the London representative of other newspapers, including The New York Times, for which he was paid £4 a week, and afterwards for the London edition of the New York Herald.

Jack the Ripper

Harry Dam was accused of terrifying London with false stories about the murders

Thomas Power O’Connor (1848-1929) – better known as “T.P.” or “Tay Pay” assembled a truly stellar crew of writers and editors (among them George Bernard Shaw) and, on January 17, 1888, his publication The Star newspaper hit the streets.

Inspired by the “New Journalism” that was becoming popular in America, The Star, which was priced at one halfpenny, would, champion the cause of the underprivileged and highlight the needs and plight of the working classes. As he pointed out in his declaration of editorial policy:

“The rich, the privileged, the prosperous need no guardian or advocate; the poor, the weak, the beaten require the work and word of every humane man and woman to stand between them and the world.”

Between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, five brutal, very similar murders took place in Whitechapel, London: Polly Nichols (August 31st); Annie Chapman (September 8th); Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride (the ‘double event’, September 30th) and Mary Jane Kelly (November 9th). The similarities between the murders – all the victims were prostitutes whose throats were cut – provided a field day for the press. Newspapers played a vital role in creating the myth around “Jack the Ripper” and amplified his terror. There was more potential than normal for speculation and sensationalism in the case of the Whitechapel murders as there were no witnesses, the police could uncover no clues or motives and no serious suspects were found. In those pre-forensic science days, the police could do little more than flood Whitechapel with bobbies, take witness statements and gather evidence for the coroner. Scotland Yard successfully tested a pair of bloodhounds, but never used them in the investigation. Police did make use of photography for the first time. Grisly photos of a mutilated Mary Ann Kelly were probably the first crime-scene photos ever taken.

With the onset of the Whitechapel Murders The Star had established its recipe for shock journalism whereby a lurid headline would entice the reader in to an article that was couched in dramatic prose that pulled no punches when it came to sensationalizing the crimes.

Harry Dam had, like all the British journalists, been put on the job of solving the mystery of the Whitechapel murders. But Dam, a free-born American, was not cowed by the English libel laws. It was young Harry Dam who created a sensation by introducing the first theory of the authorship of these grisly crimes to the terrified public. It was announced that a washed leather apron had been found in the backyard, close to where Annie Chapman had been murdered. The Star, almost alone among English newspapers, went to town with the “Leather Apron” story and treated its readers to a series of articles that left little doubt about the danger posed by this evil and sinister character, “a character halfway between Dickens’ Quilp and Poe’s baboon. He is short, stunted and thickset. He has small, wicked black eyes and is half crazy.”

On September 10th, 1888, the paper reported that Sergeant Thicke had arrested John Piser, a tanner and slipper maker who wore a leather apron for his trade. The author of the article seemed confident that the police had got their man:

The man arrested by Detective-Sergeant Thicke is now at Leman-street Station. He fits the description of “Leather Apron” exactly, and this similarity is the cause of his arrest. He denies, however, that he is the man wanted, and says he never wore a leather apron in the streets. He is waiting, however, to be recognized, or the contrary, by some people from Wilmot’s Lodging House who know “Leather Apron” well. He went along submissively with Detective-Sergeant Thicke. His stepmother and his stepsister deny in the strongest terms that he is “Leather Apron.”

John Pizer, however, was able to provide cast iron alibis for the nights of the murders and the police quickly ruled him out as a suspect and he was released without charge.

This proved unfortunate for T. P. O’Connor and his fledgling newspaper as they were now faced with the danger of Pizer bringing a successful, and substantial, libel action against them. The day was saved by the newspaper’s Chief Sub-Editor, Ernest Parke, who – in what T.P. O’Connor later described as a “dexterous expedient” – invited Pizer to The Star’s Stonecutter Street offices and persuaded him to accept £50 in full settlement of any claims he might have against the newspaper.

During that autumn, sales of London newspapers rocketed, with The Star, the most popular, selling up to 300,000 copies a day.

Harry Dam was accused in the press not only of promulgating the Leather Apron story but of writing at least one of the notorious “Jack the Ripper” letters. During the autumn of the Ripper, the media, police and other officials had received a sea of letters. Several of the Ripper Letters were written as if by the killer himself. The vast majority of them, if not all, were believed to be hoaxes. Three letters stood out and received attention by the press and the police… the “Dear Boss” letter, the “Saucy Jack” letter and “From Hell.” It was reported that it was H.J.W. Dam that wrote the Dear Boss letter dated September 25, 1888 that gave Jack the Ripper his name to boost circulation numbers.

Dear Boss Letter


Dear Boss,

I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha. ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck.

Yours truly

Jack the Ripper

Dont mind me giving the trade name

PS Wasnt good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands curse it No luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now. ha ha

The body of Catherine Eddowes was found three days later with her ear cut off as forecast in the letter. London’s Star printed an account of policeman who found her, “The first thing I noticed was that she was ripped up like a pig in the market,” her entrails “flung in a heap about her neck.”

Harry Dam’s handwriting is not the same as the Dear Boss letter’s author

Of course, the writer has not been identified. A sample of Harry’s handwriting published after the pardoning scandal does appear quite different.

The Ripper’s notoriety was fueled by a fiercely competitive media market with newspapers trying to outdo one another in relaying gory details of the crimes, unearthing clues, floating theories and taunting the police. His killing spree remains an object of fascination more than a century later.

Harry led a life of bobbing and weaving, courting then escaping danger. In 1890, Harry Dam was almost killed in a ballooning accident. Though he was persistently linked to Aimée Crocker as a serious suitor, that match was in the end impersistent. Harry would marry actress Dorothy Dorr on  October 27th, 1892 at All Saints, Gordon Square, St. Pancras, London. They had two sons, Colby and Loring.

Family life stabilized the turbulent H.J.W. Dam somewhat. He was still working for the London edition of The New York Herald when he began to make a name for himself as the author of articles about science and invention. Dam was one of a few journalists to interview Professor Wilhelm Röntgen at his laboratory in Wurzburg, Bavaria, about the discovery of X-rays. He interviewed Marconi for McClure’s in 1897.

Dam also interviewed Bret Harte, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Henry Irving. The Star taught Harry how to write alluring articles with provocative titles which included:  “Four Hundred Degrees Below Zero,” “The Search for the Absolute Zero,” “The Great Dynamite Factory at Ardeer,” “The Future of the United States,” “Inoculation Against Snake Poison,” “Foods in the Year 2000,” “The Mystery of Vesuvius,” “The Making of the Bible” and in fiction “Monsieur Bibi’s Boom-boom,” “A Theosophic Marriage,” and “The Tax of Moustaches” (which won him $1500 in the Black Cat competition in 1899). Among the plays he produced in England and America were: Diamond Deane, The Silver Shell (a Russian revolutionary story later made into a silent film as The Suspect), The Shop Girl, The White Silk Dress, La Coquette, La Madeline (with superstar Blanche Walsh in the leading role), A King of Fools, Skipper & Co,  and  The Red Mouse.

Scene from The Heir to the Hoorah, 1905

In September 1901, Dam sold an eight-page short story called “The Transmogrification of Dan” for $85 to the literary magazine The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, edited by George Jean Nathan and Henry Louis Mencken. But in 1906, he discovered the story had been turned into a hugely popular play, The Heir To The Hoorah. Dam sued the producers, the Kirk La Shelle Theatrical Company, and in January 1910 the US Circuit Court of Appeals set a legal precedent by awarding all the profits of the play to Dam.

Dam never saw his legal case resolved. He died in Havana, Cuba from stomach cancer on April 26, 1906 the day before his 50th birthday. In The Brooklyn Eagle, the distinguished journalist Julius Chamber noted that no members of the newspaper business turned up to say their farewells and pay their final respects.