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The Mass Media

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed?

I first encountered Jack the Ripper at the tender age of twelve. No, not in the back alleys and the shadowy streets of the Victorian Era slums of White Chapel but a collection of “strange but true”-type stories. It was particularly spicy because one of the members of the royal family, Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria, was mentioned as the most likely suspect in the common theory of a royal conspiracy. Yet, all attempts at trying to nail down any particular suspect as the most viable are about as successful as verifying the truth of Yeti, the sightings of Elvis or Whitey Bulger, and the existence of life after death.

For those not familiar with the story, Jack the Ripper was the alleged serial killer who murdered London prostitutes of the East End (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly) between August and November of 1888. The name originates from a letter sent by a person claiming to be the killer. I say “person” because there is a theory, though weak, that the killer was actually a woman. There aren’t even any agreements on just how many victims there were.

A Google search for “Jack the Ripper” yielded any number of websites devoted to armchair detectives who feel they know who the true villain is. One that was particularly helpful in letting me brush up on my history was http://www.casebook.org which takes a careful look at all aspects of the cases and presents objective views unclouded by the romanticism that seems to invade so many.

The list of suspects seems ludicrously long, ranging from Lewis Carroll, beloved author of Alice in Wonderland and suspected child pornographer, to known killer, 30-year inhabitant of Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum, and East End resident James Kelly. The only one I plan to examine however, is that of Walter Sickert, well known as a leading English Impressionist, and the subject of noted author Patricia Cornwell’s new book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed.

Cornwell has received a great deal of publicity since she spent somewhere in the area of $6 million in researching the murders. Using DNA evidence, psychological profiles, art, and notes from the original cases, she pins down Walter Sickert as the killer. She is not the first to name him a suspect. Donald McCormick in The Identity of Jack the Ripper also advanced the idea of Sickert as perpetrator in his 1970 book.

In her own words, she describes him as somehow managing “to hobnob with the major celebrities of the day: Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, Aubrey Beardsley, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Oscar Wilde, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Rodin, Andre Gide, Edouard Dujardin, Proust, Members of Parliament.” Not only did he rub elbows with the rich and famous but also studied under the likes of Edgar Degas and James McNeill Whistler.

Sickert was married three times and prone to taking off for weeks to parts unknown. His personality can only be described as arrogant, selfish, and narcissistic. He was considered a talented painter and a mediocre aspiring actor. Not only did he display his works around London but he also painted the infamous Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom one of the main reasons he has been accused.

Yet, after a close reading of Cornwell’s book, I’m not convinced. She tries to piece together bits of his personality using old correspondence as well as a “fistula” that she alleges was located on his penis and the cause of his impotence which, she asserts, would naturally been the root of his supposed rage against women. She chalks it up to the psychological trauma of the surgeries he underwent as a 4-year-old in an era without anesthesia. However, as it could have been located on his anus, a possibility she freely admits, there is no reason to assume he was impotent.

Not only does she diagnose him as having an erectile dysfunction but labels him a psychopath from the way he regarded those around him and the historical evidence of his character. Using century old letters that were considered to be hoaxes, she posits that he wrote virtually a majority of them. Though the handwriting is not consistent between the letters, Cornwell claims Sickert’s skill as an artist allowed him to disguise his penmanship. Matching watermarks to stationary known to be his is the basis for her claims. However, the paper with the watermark “A Pirie and Sons” was widely used.

Her most compelling argument of all is the claim that DNA of the “Ripper notes” was matched to Sickert from the stamps on envelopes of the letters he had sent to friends. Yet, he has no surviving relatives, only some alleged illegitimate children, and his remains were cremated. There is no proving that he even licked the stamps. There were over 600 letters and, considering how popular the Ripper mythos is, any number of researchers may have handled and contaminated the evidence that she has tested.

Finally, Cornwell prints several pieces of his work within her book and compares them to some of the photographs of the dead prostitutes claiming that they were modeled on the victims. The crimes were popular and he, as a London resident, may have been as caught up in the media hype as the rest such that they influenced him to do one piece on the murders. Besides, art is largely objective and some of his figures were so vague that her interpretations more than stretch the boundaries of credibility and common sense.

The book is largely a psychological autopsy based on shaky assumptions that, in spite of the incredibly detailed and competent research, undermine her theory of Sickert as the killer. Patricia Cornwell is slated to come out with an updated paperback version as she mentions that there is some testing that still his yet to be completed. Although I’m wary of naming Sickert as a killer, I admit to curiosity to see what she’ll come up with next.

About the Contributor
MiMi Yeh served as arts editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2001-2002; *2002-2003; 2003-2004 *Evan Sicuranza served as arts editor for Fall 2002 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.