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Scientific Objectivity and Scientific Irascibility:
Melvin Harris' rhetoric on the perpetration of the fraud of the Maybrick Ink test
According to author Melvin Harris, one of the most infamous hoaxes ever perpetrated against the community of scientists, historians, and laypersons was that of the Maybrick 'Jack the Ripper' diaries. Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who terrorized prostitutes during the late Victorian Era, remains a great unsolved crime. The supporters of the so-called Maybrick diaries claimed to solve the Jack the Ripper murders by implicating convicted 19th century murderer John Maybrick. The diaries were 'discovered' during the late 20th century and a subsequent book by Shirley Harrison was published to support this claim that Maybrick was 'Jack.' However, Melvin Harris in his essay "The Maybrick Hoax: A fact-file for the perplexed," disputes the scientific evidence presented by the supporters of the Maybrick theory. Scientific tests of the diaries proved contradictory, and according to Harris, the differing results were not due to a mere divergence of scientific opinion but an outright attempt at perpetrating a fraud.
According to Harris, following simple and accurate protocols should have revealed the folly very early on. Most notably, Harris states the tests performed by Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh were erroneously used as 'proof.' The mere fact that the ink of the diaries was not "in conflict" with the types of ink in common use between the years of 1888-9, when Maybrick was supposed to have penned the entries does not constitute adequate evidence the diaries were antiques (Harris 1). Simply because the ink did not automatically rule out the dating of the letter was far from conclusive that the writings were not falsified. (The fact that I have a letter written in erasable pen and erasable pen was in common use during the 1980s, for example, does not constitute proof that the letter was written in 1982). Furthermore, Harris notes that "chemical profile of an iron-gail ink made 50 years ago, or 2 years ago or even a month ago, will match that of iron-gall inks made a century back" (Harris 1).
There were also other obvious problems regarding the ink: there was none of the expected age-bronzing and ink-dissolving tests indicated new ink because of the rapid rate at which the letters dissolved. Finally, there were ample sources of the ink from modern sources that could be used to make a forgery in London where the diaries were found. Specifically, the Bluecoat Art Shop sold a "Victorian-style black manuscript ink made by 'Diamine' of Liverpool" which Harris thought was very likely the modern ink used to forge the so-called authentically Victorian diaries (Harris 1-2). To further support his contention of deliberate fraud, Harris states that proponents of the veracity of the diaries were extremely resistant the process of testing at first, including for the presence of a "give-away extra component…a preservative known as chloroacetamide" which was only present in commercially-produced inks after the Second World War (Harris 2).
Thus Harris does not simply accuse what he caustically calls the 'Diary camp' as reluctant to take action because of overzealous enthusiasm about finding a potentially valuable historical document or scientific ignorance. He suggests there is willful blindness at play in the refusal of Mrs. Harrison and her supporters to use tests that could retrieve potentially uncomfortable facts. He notes that in her book Harrison dismissed his claim saying that Diamine ink "contains a modern synthetic dye that any of our analysts would have spotted in the ink of the diary" which was blatantly untrue and which she had already been told by the manufacturers (Harris 2). Harris does not say how he 'knows' she was told so, but does stress that subsequent editions of her book retains this assertion, implying that she wishes to tell a seamless story in support of her version of the events more than to be honest with the credulous public.
This idea that there was a deliberate deception is further implied when Harris states "fortunately for the truth" [italics mine] "Robert Kuranz, the U.S. forensic ink analyst, had retained 12 unused ink-on-paper samples taken from the Diary in Chicago" (Harris 2). In short, the Diary camp's efforts were foiled because of the retention of such samples. The laboratories of Analysis For Industry (AFI) tested these samples for the presence of chloroacetamide. By this time, incidentally, Mike Barrett who had claimed to 'discover' the diaries had confessed to using the ink from the Bluecoat Art Shop to create them. Thus, Harris states that "at this point let me emphasise that these ink tests organised by surgeon Nick Warren and myself were not meant to prove that the Diary was a fake. We had already established the fact that it was a modern forgery. There were no doubts on that score. Our tests were simply aimed at seeing whether Barrett's claims would stand up to investigation" (Harris 2). The AFI findings indicated the presence of chloroacetamide (Harris 2).
This statement may sound slightly presumptuous, even odd -- why go to such efforts to dispute what is supposedly agreed to be an obviously false claim? Although the fact that Barrett admitted to a forgery certainly seems to support Harris' attitude towards Diary supporters, it remains questionable why Harris is so determined to prove it is false, even in the wake of the Barrett confession. Harris vaguely suggests that Barrett was not alone in perpetrating the fraud, indicating that he is still fighting persons who have a vested interest in keeping the Diary myth alive, but he does not explain why this is the case, other than the suggestion that Shirley Harrison and supporters of her book are profiting from the perpetuation of the Diary's false 'truth' (Harris 1).
However, despite Harris' evident ire the Diary camp, he does admit that Harrison and her publisher Robert Smith did eventually perform their own laboratory tests on the ink. He believes that despite Smith's agreement to reproduce the tests at Leeds University, the subsequent tests were not carried out in a fair manner. "The original standards applied at AFI were never matched; the results were unsatisfactory and did nothing to resolve matters. One report from Leeds first showed the detection of chloroacetamide, then its non-detection on a re-test. The reason given for this clash was that Leeds had used contaminated equipment on its first run" in contrast to Harris' AFI tests which used anti-contamination tests before the tests were conducted (Harris 2-3). Harris suggests that Harrison's supporters created the appearance of cooperation but did nothing of the kind.
The Leeds tests also showed an absence of sodium, which was a critical component in the 'Diamine' of Liverpool Blue Art Shop Link. This absence was used to suggest that Barrett's confession was fraudulent and thus Mrs. Harrison triumphantly wrote: "the findings... show that there is absolutely no connection with Diamine ink….there is no chloroacetamide or nigrosine in the diary ink..." (Harris 3). Harris dismisses Harrison's confidence as bravado and implies that her refusal to "offer Analysis for Industry and Dr. David Baxendale the opportunity of re-testing the ink" for two years is highly suspect and thus the Leeds findings (unlike his AFI findings) should be summarily dismissed (Harris 3). While the lack of anti-contamination tests is certainly a 'point' in Harris' favor, and the discrepancies between the tests suggest a need for further testing, Harris seems to project certain emotions and intellectual intentions upon Harrison's and Smith's actions which are not necessarily substantiated, other than in his choice of adjectives and rhetoric. Over and over again, in short, Harris stresses this was not merely a difference of scientific opinion, but a clear, attempted cover-up.
Harris then says that "I tried to lay hold of the earlier report by Dr. Eastaugh, since he too had used an Electron Scanning…[continue]
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