Lees and “The Bell Tower”

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jun 5, 2013

A few months ago, while reading a work of fiction based on the Whitechapel murders, I discovered another book about the same crimes advertised in the back. (There was even a clip-out coupon; how quaint this seems, now.) Despite my skepticism about any claims of solving a century-old crime, and even moreso about claims to have pulled a clean solution from the bottomless mire of Ripperology, I was intrigued by The Bell Tower: The case of Jack the Ripper finally solved… in San Francisco.

I presumed that in some way it connected Jack the Ripper to the Emmanuel Baptist Church murders, of which I had read in researching the career of Isaiah Lees; as this was one of a few strange, coincidental associations between Lees and the Ripper crimes that I had encountered, I made a note to get hold of the book at some point.

I’ve done so, and finished the 525-page account by Robert Graysmith of his theory that the executed Theodore Durrant was innocent of the murders in the church, which were actually the work of church pastor Jack Gibson (and a buddy), who was also behind the infamous Whitechapel murders in London, which form a kind of cross if you choose enough of them and assume one or two additional points.

Let me just say that I’m unconvinced. Beyond that, and noting that the author of another recent book-length re-examination of the Baptist church murders found Durrant’s identification as the murderer entirely satisfactory, I don’t really want to get into debating either those events or the identity of Jack the Ripper. I’ll leave that game to far more dedicated players than I.

I do, however, want to note my bafflement at Mr. Graysmith’s apparent loathing for Isaiah Lees.

Though Lees’s role in Graysmith’s telling of the story is largely peripheral, and Lees is never directly profiled at any point in the story, the conclusion that the author has some sort of strong feeling about the man seems inescapable given the way he practically spits adjectives at Lees at every. single. appearance. of the man. Many of those adjectives are pejorative (it may be that all are intended to be such). A survey:

Captain Lees, [Chronicle publisher] de Young’s ally and a foe of the working man…

…white-haired, goateed Lancashireman…*

In spite of being reviled by the common man throughout San Francisco and suspected of complicity with Charles de Young’s attempted murder of Pastor [Isaac] Kalloch in front of his church, Lees [would] become police chief in less than two years.

…the city’s reviled chief of detectives, Isaiah W. Lees, master of the secret police…

…through the little window the mob recognized the corpulent, white-goateed, and hated figure of Chief Lees. Even in civilian garb, the boss of the Red Squad, the cop most feared and loathed by all common people was recognizable.

…the hated Captain Lees.

I mean… huh? I’m not trying to dispute this, exactly, but rather to wonder what in god’s name its basis is. Descriptions like the above are riveted to Lees’s name at nearly every appearance in The Bell Tower, yet unless I missed something, explanation for them is entirely absent. Lees just appears in the narrative, “hated,” “reviled” and “loathed” with no further details supplied.

Possibly I’m just naive; I had to look up the meaning of “red squad,” but it could be that the term is commonly understood and I just didn’t get the memo. I’m still not sure why exactly Lees is supposed to have been a “foe of the working man,” etc., but maybe I’ve just been grossly misled by everything else I’ve read about him. Maybe biographer William Secrest was, also… or else for reasons best known to him was intentionally ignoring evidence that thoroughly substantiates Graysmith’s picture of a bloated, Satanic Englishman committed to oppressing the workingman for his pal de Young (whose reasons for supporting such oppression, in their turn, were presumably best known to him).

Maybe. If so, I certainly apologize to readers; I did my best to write a fair description of Lees and my other subjects, including both virtues and faults, based on what I could learn of them. If I completely mischaracterized Lees, I’m ready to acknowledge the error.

Though, in the absence of any reasoning whatsoever for Graysmith’s very different verdict on Lees… I’m standing by my conclusions.

* Calling Lees, who was born in Liverpool and grew up in America, a “Lancashireman” is a bit like saying I’m from Amber, Iowa. Lees’s family lived in Lancashire for approximately the first year of his life, like my family made its home in Amber for my first year. But I was not born there and did not grow up there, and cannot imagine anyone who would examine my background and see “a man from Amber.”

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