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Cornwell Rips Sickert

How Bad Is It?

by Pamela Kyle Crossley *

Months after Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper --Case Closed has been published (in a clamor of carefully managed publicity), there is not much suspense about whether or not Patricia Cornwell has identified the Ripper. Despite breathless reviews of the books on the broadcast television networks and their websites, knowledgeable reviewers have quickly pointed out the factual errors, lack of evidence and logical lapses that make preposterous the author's claim that she has proved the book's central thesis. Most concede that though the evidence makes Sickert a very unlikely candidate for the Ripper, he cannot be absolutely excluded. That much has been known for decades. But not being able absolutely to exclude Sickert is not, to most of us, evidence that he committed the crimes. The vast majority of adult males living in Britain at the time of the murders cannot be excluded, and if you like the theories proposing a female murderer, that leaves most of the British population over the age of, say, fourteen in the picture. The real mystery here is not whether Sickert committed any or all of the Ripper murders (there is no evidence at all that he did), but how such a literary misadventure can be perpetrated. Even given the reactionary Cornwell's obvious obsession with demonizing a bohemian reprobate, the complete lapse of judgment on the part of the author and the publisher (PenguinPutnam) that this book represents is astounding. With that in mind, I would like to comment that upon reading the book I concluded that it was not as bad as most informed reviews had suggested it was. It is much, much, much worse. At least one prominent lawyer thinks there should a lawsuit. Well, there ought to be a law, at least.

By now the more amazing features of the book's production and promotion are well known, so I will not belabor them beyond a nod to those who have been off-planet for a spell. Ms. Cornwell is the author of a spectacularly profitable series of murder mystery novels. Before turning to fiction she was a Virginia-based local journalist who broke into book publishing by writing the authorized biography of the wife of Billy Graham. Her Postmortem, published in 1990, was a tightly constructed and well-plotted procedural novel based on the author's knowledge (having served six years as an assistant in the examiner's office in Richmond) of pathology lab processes. Not the world's most original idea, but the novel was much better than any Quincy script and featured a woman protagonist (Kay Scarpetta), a good hook. Since then there have been about four sequels in the series, each less enjoyable than the last. The problem seems to be that Cornwell imagines that readers want to know more and more about the personal lives and traumas of her continuing characters, who are tedious, two-dimensional, self-absorbed, and predictable. As these creatures of her imagination get more and more indulgence from the author, plots and narrative get much less and seem often to be a sideshow. Taught, vulnerable, brittle Kay (the overgroomed and overpaid pathologist of Richmond, Virginia) agonizes over her various amorous and existential crises. She has a couple of a hard-bodied, crispy-haired, clear-eyed FBI men with vague wives as on and off lovers, one blown up by bad guys and the other still chugging away as a legendary profiler. She turns for companionship and professional diversion to shlubby policeman Marino, who is in knots because he is not in Kay's league but can't shake his feelings for the dame. Then there is a noisome niece, Lucy, who is overflowing with every kind of athletic and intellectual talent there is and showing every sign of shooting to the top of the FBI, but for depth struggles (every now and then) with being gay in a homophobic world. These people never get over themselves except to occasionally confirm how fascinating they find each other. It is hard for the corpses and evildoers to get in edgewise.

Though the series looks sparse in comparison to, say, an Agatha Christie twice-yearly gusher, Cornwell is actually a prolific writer who has also produced full-length factual procedurals and novels about police precincts. Fiction --overt fiction-- is not her only activity, however, as the public will have noted with her recent "solution" to the alleged mystery of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And now, of course, there is her solution to the mystery of Jack the Ripper. On the basis, one expects, of the Scarpetta novels, Cornwell is reported to have amassed about $150 million dollars, and now keeps three homes and numerous vehicles and all those kinds of things. So while for most of us $6 million would be a hefty outlay to pay for a team to investigate the Ripper, in the general scheme of things it was so much mad money to Cornwell. That's lucky, since it is hard to see that she got anything new for her money. But of course there is the entertainment value of watching her try to come up with something new. That's what you'll get for your money if you buy the book. You'll overpay, but there is an undeniable entertainment quotient between the covers.

Science Solves an Ancient Mystery

The book opens with a melodramatic recounting of how Cornwell came to be interested in and decide to solve that pesky Ripper mystery. It seems unlikely that any literate adult in the English-speaking world knows nothing of Jack the Ripper, but Cornwell claims she started out in such a condition. She gets invited to Scotland Yard during a trip to London, but doesn't want to go. She agonizes (we have to relive all this with her) over the fact that her readers will be traumatized if they find out that Patricia Cornwell is too busy or tired or uninterested to take up the invitation, and so bravely soldiers over to the Yard to meet with the tweedy British guys who are trying to solve murders over there. She gets shown some Ripper memorabilia, and a painting by Walter Sickert hanging in a storeroom, and has a conversation with a sympathetic detective, and whammo --she is not only hooked, but knows who the murderer was. But how to prove it? She buys over thirty of Sickert's paintings for some reason (gosh, dare we speculate?), buys a table he is reported to have painted on, buys some of the clothes he wore in the studio, buys some documents she thinks will yield clues (including a guest book from a holiday hotel at St. Ives, Cornwall, that has doodles in it that she believes connect Sickert to the Ripper murders), and pays a bevy of art historians, archivists and forensic DNA specialists to find the definitive, scientific proof that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

Knowledgeable reviewers have already commented on the gaping deficits of research and analysis in the book. How Cornwell came up with the idea that meaningful DNA results could be found in objects that have been pawed over for a century by innumerable people and preserved by means that obviously destroy DNA if it has been present is baffling in itself. Anything discovered would be meaningless since Sickert's body was cremated and he has no known descendants; DNA discovered even on his own possessions cannot be shown to be his as distinct from the DNA of anybody else who has touched them or sneezed on them. His fingerprints were also never recorded. As is well known, she destroyed one painting trying to discover DNA traces or fingerprints (didn't work). She tried to coax DNA out of the sweaty parts of his studio clothes (sort of worked, but results were statistically meaningless). She tried to find fingerprints on the table (didn't work). She managed to get some DNA readings but only by having the stamps detached from some mail that might have been licked by Sickert and comparing it to DNA found under a detached stamp on some "Ripper" correspondence. And behold --enough mitochondrial DNA could be isolated in each case to get a type. They were compared and the possibility that the same person contributed the DNA could not be excluded!

Reviewers have pointed out, in droves, the daftness of this approach. Let us hope Kay Scarpetta would never consider it. First of all, just as a matter of common sense, I know very few people in Europe (or anywhere outside North America) who lick stamps even today. They use a wet sponge in a little well to moisten the stamps and attach them. Licking self-gluing stamps is an American eccentricity. I am guessing that in Victorian times it was even more unlikely that people would lick stamps than that they would today. But let's suppose that some coarse or eccentric or absent-minded or desperate (or American) persons licked both stamps. Cornwell cannot assign either of the samples to either Sickert or the Ripper (or both). One comes from some correspondence originating with James McNeill Whistler. Since Sickert was Whistler's assistant at the time, she figures Sickert probably got stuck with all the stamp licking. The other comes from the Ripper correspondence, author and relationship (if any) to the murders unknown.

Quite beyond the impenetrable provenance of the DNA, the fact that it is not nuclear but mitochondrial is fatal. Mitochondrial DNA does not recombine, but has its own lineage through the mother and her maternal ancestors. (Cornwell tries to explain this, but her explanation seems as murky as the origins of her DNA samples). MtDNA is not exclusive but inclusive --it has been used by anthropological researchers to suggest the "Eve" hypothesis that all humans are descended from a single female ancestor who lived about 200,000 years ago. Only as far back as Sickert, mitochondrial DNA is a bit more exclusive, but not much. Cornwell's paid informants told her that the mtDNA results suggested that the two theoretical stamp lickers were both in a single 1% segment of the contemporary British population. Outside experts who have commented on the subject have said the probability is more in the range between .01% and 10% (or something between 400,000 and 4 million individuals based on the British male population of the time). But Dr. Terry Melton, an mtDNA specialist at Pennsylvania State University and CEO of Mitotyping Technologies, points out that the specific traits (two substitutions at positions 73 and 263) shared by the samples are actually common to somewhere between 50% and 99% of the European population. In combination with a tendency of modern lab techniques to produce a limited range of type identifications as an artefact of the laboratory process, Melton pronounces Cornwell's expensive (and protractedly explained in her book) DNA fiddling worthless. "This being my own area of scientific specialization," Melton comments, "I alternately laughed and winced over descriptions of this testing. Tragically, given the current popular belief that DNA reveals all, the average reader will not realize that these results are meaningless or at least glaringly incomplete."

I expect that the dudding out of the DNA thing was a surprise to Cornwell, and probably to her publishers, who may be among the majority of American readers who think that DNA solves everything. So what would Dr. Kay do? Well, no DNA, so okay, we move on to other physical evidence, scientific and conclusive. What would that be? The letters sent to the newspapers, police and a few individuals, whose writers claimed to be the Whitechapel murderer! Why, Cornwell muses, has nobody before her thought of fingering Jack the Ripper on the basis of the letters? The obvious reason is that most investigators --beginning with the contemporary Metropolitan and City police and continuing to modern writers-- consider that nearly all the letters are hoaxes. The contents, handwriting, dates and places of origin of the letters have suggested that hundreds of different writers were involved. Only one letter is considered by most researchers to have included a piece of corroborating evidence: The letter sent to local vigilante George Lusk weeks after the murder of Catherine Eddowes. It accompanied a package containing a portion of human kidney that might have corresponded to that removed from Eddowes body, though at the time there was no way to confirm that the tissue originated with her. This letter, with the opening "From Hell," is so emblematic of the few scribblings felt to belong to the murderer that it inspired the name of Evans and Skinner, Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell (Sutton, 2001), which Cornwell would have done well to read. Her problem, however, would seem an insurmountable one: The original Lusk letter no longer survives, so no chance of physical evidence of any kind there.

To solve that problem, Cornwell makes the breath-taking assertion that many or most of the letters are authentic --written by the Ripper. Now we are back in business, and the missing Lusk letter is not a big problem. Hundreds of others to work with. Cornwell chides previous researchers who have doubted the authenticity of the letters as naifs who don't know that smart people can disguise their handwriting and affect grammatical tics or errors. (Elsewhere she provides the forensic insight that tall people can slouch or short ones use shoe lifts to misrepresent height). She explains with some vague references to time tables that a single killer could have taken trains all over Britain to mail the letters from different venues, even on the same date. Though Cornwell does not state exactly how many letters she studied or how many she deemed authentic, she rambles freely through the letters for the entirety of the book, plucking phrases here and there to illustrate or underscore some point she wishes to make, evidently assuming the reader will accept all the tidbits as Ripper writings. She also manages to get an mtDNA type from under the stamp of the letter known to researchers as the "Openshaw" letter. It is notorious as one of those that no researcher has accepted as authentic. Cornwell just turns the logic around. Since most of the letters are in her view authentic (because anybody can disguise handwriting and style), the odds are that any single letter is authentic. This one, already presumably authentic, has moreover yielded an mtDNA fragment that has a 1 in 2 or possibly 99 in a hundred chance of being from somebody other than the person who left DNA on Sickert's clothes. Ergo, the letter must be authentic and must be written by Sickert.

I liked the old logic better --the one that relied on content, dates, and a variety of considerations to try to sift the credible letters from the hoaxes, in the days before lab processes were capable of creating illusional "type" relationships between fragments of mtDNA. Evidently the contemporary police did too, since they arrested at least two individuals (women as it happened, and not residents of London) for writing hoax Ripper letters, and stated that the journalist Tom Bulling was believed to be another hoaxer. Whether or not people can disguise handwriting and pretend to be uneducated, there has always been the question of content, specifically the inclusion of information that has not been made public. Only the Lusk/From Hell letter is believed to do that. Yet at no point does Cornwell privilege this letter in any way on the basis of that. She snatches at will from any letter or postcard, and enshrines the least likely letter as real Ripper material on the sole basis of its amenability to certain lab techniques.

To be fair, Cornwell has a couple of other sure-fire methods for using the letters to fit up Sickert. One is, ironically, style. Though she explains more than once that writers can affect any eccentricity they like, Cornwell believes that Sickert has given himself away by using the phrase "ha ha" to suggest laughter and "fools" to mean men whom he considers to be not very bright. Her reason for considering the word "fools" as evidentiary is not clear, but that she indeed considers it evidentiary is very clear. "Ha ha," we are told, is an Americanism that no resident of Britain would use to describe a laugh. Use of the phrase suggests to her an American connection (others have felt an American connection, though not on the basis of "ha ha" so far as I know). More than that, it specifically suggests a connection to J.N. Whistler, an American who was noted for his loud, explosive "ha ha" sort of laugh, and for whom Sickert was personal assistant. Several reviewers have pointed out that Cornwell's confident assertion that "ha ha" is unique, or American, or in any way a clue to anything is inexplicable. It was in fact commonly printed, in Britain and in North America, to mean what it means today --and had been for hundreds of years before Whistler was born. Though Whistler's loud laugh might have been a cause of comment, there seems no reason to conclude that "ha ha" denotes Whistler's laugh and only Whistler's laugh. And if it did, the guilt of Walter Sickert does not seem to proceed ineluctibly from it. In a similar way, she establishes that in his days as a bit player on the London stage Sickert often had himself credited as "Nemo." Several Ripper letters are signed "Nemo." Therefore Sickert probably wrote them. Several reviewers have pointed out that "Nemo" was just a late nineteenth-century fashion for "Anonymous." Its use would seem to signify nothing more than somebody today signing himself "Joe Sixpack" or "John Doe." On the whole Cornwell's method here seems impenetrable, but she is very definite on these points and repeats them many times in the book.

She may be on firmer ground with her analysis of stationery. Since she considers that virtually any of the Ripper letters are likely to be authentic, she includes all 500 and more of them. Not surprisingly she finds among them multiple samples of watermarked stationery from three commercial sources, all of which she believes she can demonstrate that Sickert or his wife Ellen (Cobden) used at various times. This in itself means nothing, despite Cornwell's weighty presentation of these facts. Those of us who don't think most of the Ripper letters are authentic don't care where the hoax letters came from or what they were written on. Cornwell puts herself in a position to include all or a majority as Ripper evidence, but the lines of stationery involved were commonly used, and as a statistical certainty would be represented multiple times in the hundreds of letters. Moreover, a random stroll down any middle-class or upper-middle-class London street of the time would probably turn up hundreds of people using any of these three lines of stationery, but not otherwise making particularly good suspects for being Jack the Ripper.

But Cornwell claims that the watermark found on some Ripper letters and on some probable Sickert correspondence are identical. This is an intriguing observation, and is reinforced by her claim that she can match tears or perforations on Ripper letters to pages from Sickert's possessions. On her website, this point has recently been elaborated: A fourth brand, not mentioned in the book, is remarked to be represented by two items traced to Sickert and two from the Ripper letters. These four pages, say Cornwell's researcher, can be shown on the basis of their cut angles to come from a single group of 24 sheets. This is not a point that can be independently verified, unless you wish to buy the research materials from Cornwell and do your own investigation. In the general consensus among Ripper researchers (who on most points apart from this one don't have consensus), proving that an individual wrote a Ripper letter immediately establishes the probability that he or she is not in fact the Ripper. Nevertheless it would be interesting to identify an additional hoaxer, wouldn't it? I believe most who know something about Sickert would consider him a likely participant in this popular game (along with hundreds and more likely thousands more, since a vast portion of the Ripper materials have been pilfered over the years from Scotland Yard storage), and it is evidently easier to identify Ripper letter hoaxers (since a half dozen or so are known or very strongly suspected) than to identify the Ripper. It is possible (the only possible though still not probable thing in the book) that Cornwell has identified Sickert as a Ripper letter hoaxer. To the rest of us, that would be extremely interesting and indicative that he more than likely was not the Ripper. Alas, to Cornwell, Ripper letter writer = the Ripper.

The Killer's Motive and Methods

Cornwell has proved Sickert's guilt on an accumulation of what she admits is circumstantial evidence. He was alive at the time of the murders, he was based in London and often walked (alone) around east London, he knew an American and was familiar with the phrase "ha ha," he referred to unwise or unintelligent men as "fools," he probably used stationery that was commonly used by people living at the time in Britain, clothing that he almost certainly wore yielded an mtDNA profile sixty years after his death that put him in a group of 50 to 99 percent of the European population. As she points out, to "ignore coincidence after coincidence after coincidence is just stupid." But this physical evidence is not what she relies on (though she has said repeatedly in interviews that it would be sufficient to "hang him" if presented to a jury). Cornwell puts much greater weight on the evidence of Sickert's artistic subjects, themes and styles. In this she finds not only evidence of his guilt, but also of his motives and the ways in which he blended his "Jekyll" self of the respected Victorian painter and his "Hyde" self of a prolific serial killer.

Proceeding on the no doubt sound theory that the Ripper had some kind of sexual issue, Cornwell explains that Sickert was driven to murder and mutilate women because he had a deformity of his penis that required repeated agonizing and terrifying surgical operations and left him incapable of "normal" sexual performance. Indeed Cornwell poignantly reconstructs the child Walter's gruesome medical experiences in great detail, explaining not only the extent of his sufferings but also the extended and complex psychological consequences. She has found in his medical records and in some family memoirs the information that young Walter had a "fistula."

If you have conversed with a grandparent or greatgrandparent, you know that a century ago "fistula" was a common term for hemorrhoid. Cornwell discovers that its medical meaning is "hole." Where was the hole? There is no evidence that this extraneous hole was in Sickert's penis, but neither is there evidence that it wasn't. The specialist to whom Walter was taken by his parents was known for his treatment of ailments of the rectum and anus. But there is no proof that he did not make an exception and treat little Walter for a hole in the penis. After all, a hemorrhoid would not explain why Sickert was a serial murderer and mutilator of women. But a hole in the penis would. Therefore he probably had a hole in his penis.

Cornwell traces young Walter's preoccupation with terror and brutalization in his recurring references to Punch and Judy. There are also references to (and apparent depictions of) Punch and Judy in the Ripper letters. And Walter's father, Oswald, was a comic artist who composed a Punch and Judy series. "Many people today," Cornwell explains, would consider the gleeful, unrestrained and brutish violence of Punch and Judy inappropriate." That is probably true, since many consider the same qualities in Road-Runner cartoons inappropriate. However, I am not aware of a single study of the Victorian period that associates Punch and Judy with pathological or even inappropriate violence. For centuries these little pantos had entertained children who were too young to read or adults who remained illiterate. The portable stage accommodated the mindless plots and indecipherable dialogue. Moreover, it seems to be taken for granted by cultural historians that all the audience at a Punch and Judy show knew that the perpetrator and object of the violence were little wooden puppets, almost identical to what could be seen in shop windows on every street and in the nurseries of middle class homes. Cornwell intones gravely that Punch and Judy references betray Oswald's physical abuse of his wife and children, and presage Walter's string of murders and mutilations.

The surgical interventions (for which there happens to be absolutely no evidence specifying which organ was being administered to), despite their explicit and melodramatic presentation in the book, apparently did not work. In Cornwell's view, Sickert emerged from these traumas a man who was impotent, or perhaps was deformed, or perhaps --she speculates-- had no penis at all. Having no sexual outlet, this lost soul tormented himself by frequenting music halls and brothels where he was in unending mental agony due to his incapacity, until he finally vented his rage on the very prostitutes who were causing his torture (and who were proxies for his mother, on whom he blamed his childhood terrors).

Cornwell's unflappable insistence that Sickert was sexually mutilated and incapable of intercourse with a woman has surprised the considerable population of Sickert art scholars and biographers. As with the researchers who had not previously attributed most or all of the Ripper correspondence to the real killer, these academics had not made the connection between hemorrhoid surgery and uncontrollable sexual rage resulting in repeated murder and mutilation. Many contend that Sickert was not only sexually capable but was sexually profligate. He married three times and was divorced by his first wife on grounds of repeated adultery (she was twelve years his senior and probably beyond child-bearing age when they married). Cornwell insists this was a fiction used by the Sickerts to cover the "shame" of never having consummated their marriage. Sickert's friend Jacques-Emile Blanche commented in 1902 that Sickert was so sexually promiscuous that his illegitimate children were probably too numerous to count. Cornwell does not mention this, but by analogy to the case of the first Mrs. Sickert could explain Blanche's remarks as an attempt to disguise his friend's humiliating secret.

Sickert's fascination with sexual entertainments, prostitutes, and nude women is undeniable. Art historians who have taken note of Cornwell's hypothesis have found it mystifying, since she seems not to be aware of --or to consider it meaningful-- that the impressionists who were Sickert's contemporaries all had the same preoccupations. Cornwell focuses repeatedly on Sickert's practice of keeping what she calls "rat-holes," by which she means secret rooms in the seamy parts of town (the better to nip out, murder prostitutes, and disappear), where she imagines him brooding over the ghastly trophies of his murders. Biographers of Sickert, particularly Matthew Sturgis, do not think these studios existed (only the fraudulent "Joseph Sickert" --see below-- said they did), and since Cornwell has no annotations in the text it is often impossible to figure out where she got any bit of information or which of her flunkies told it to her. Sickert commented in some of his letters that he considered the music halls and brothels to be typical of the "real" life that impressionists must struggle to understand and represent. In an interview, Cornwell enlarged upon her music hall insights: ""I am suspicious that he also killed children," she explains. "There is a sort of pedophiliac interest that went along with [Sickert's love of] music halls." Whatever Sickert's reasons, he was simply walkingthe same kinds of streets walked by Cezanne, Lautrec, Degas, Grosz, and dozens of others. He was a European by birth and education, considered himself a "French" painter, and considered taking up French citizenship. His tastes may have appeared to his British audiences to be bizarre or sinister. If so, perhaps that only reinforced his continental sympathies and increased his commercial appeal in London.

But Sickert did not stick to the generalities of the impressionist environment. He was persistently and openly fascinated by sex murders in London. He painted an interior (fantasy to some, but Cornwell claims it is simply a statement of fact) titled "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom." Many of his compositions are acknowledged to strongly suggest the various victims attributed to the Ripper. His interest in these events was well known, and even part of his commercial appeal. After the "Camden Town" murder of Phyllis/Emily Dimmock in 1907, Sickert was reported to have visited the scene and sketched the body. Soon afterward he completed a painting that was based on the killing. Cornwell instructs us that murderers like to return to the scene of the crime, and serial killers like to involve themselves in the investigation. She then remarks that she herself has visited crime scenes as "journalist and author," but does not mention whether this causes her to suspect herself of being the killer.

Why on Earth Pick on Sickert?

So the "coincidences" relating Sickert to the Ripper are piling up. In addition to those noted above, he also made reference to a universally known and loved entertainment, painted the same kinds of subjects in the same way as a whole generation of impressionists, and had an avid interest in serial crimes that preoccupied the newspapers, fiction and theater of the time. He spent some time in the populous East End. A witness said that a man who possibly was the killer had a red handkerchief, and Sickert was known to have a red handerchief about which he was rather possessive. In his youth he was a part-time actor, and therefore was expert at disguise. The Ripper might have used disguises.

But there may still be those stubborn few who ask,"Why Sickert?" Informed reviewers have all noted that for decades Sickert has been on the list of Ripper suspects or suspected accessories. Before Cornwell. This implies that it has long been recognized that there are strong grounds for suspecting Sickert.

Indeed. Sickert came under suspicion when a man calling himself "Joseph Sickert" and claiming to be Walter Sickert's illegitimate son was chased down by some BBC researchers in 1973. They were working on a documentary --of sorts-- relating to the Ripper murders, still a very popular subject. Sickert told them that his father, the famous painter Walter Sickert, had confided to him the details of the conspiracy behind the murders, which reached to the highest circles in the land. The Queen's eldest son, the Duke of Clarence, had decided (inspired by impressionist art?) to sample the bohemian life of the East End. He turned to Walter Sickert, whom he knew to be both a gentleman and a denizen of the seamy neighborhood around Cleveland Street. But the duke --"Eddy" to his friends-- got too entangled, and ended up marrying and siring a son by a local girl, Annie Crook, due to Walter Sickert's negligence. At length the situation was discovered by the royal physician, Sir William Gull. He had Annie institutionalized and lobotomized, dispatched the child to an orphanage, and had Eddy packed off to the palace to be under surveillance for the rest of his short life. But there was a loose end: Annie's friend Mary Kelly had witnessed the wedding. How to dispose of the witness? Gull decided to stage a string of prostitute murders that would culminate in Kelly, making it appear that she had been the random victim of homicidal maniac. Gull blackmailed Sickert into aiding him in the murders, and the weight of his crimes caused Sickert to continually depict Ripper murders or near facsimiles in his art.

This is the most famous of all Ripper conspiracy theories. From the BBC production of 1973 to the execrable film From Hell (in which the middle-aged, portly, studious, straight-arrow Fred Abberline is transformed into an opium addicted, psychic Johnny Depp) in 2000, it is frequently dramatized and reworked. After its presentation on the BBC, the writer Stephen Knight tracked down Joseph Sickert to seek more details. The result was Knight's publication in 1978 of Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (not entirely unevocative of Cornwell's title). Knight added copious details of the duke's life in Cleveland Street, the role of Sickert in the conspiracy, and an entirely new dimension drawn from Masonic ritual. The book was a popular hit. Most readers did not notice that soon after publication Joseph Sickert denied the whole thing. He had made up the whole plot. He actually had no direct knowledge of the murders at all.

In this case, the inspiration for making Sickert the pivotal figure in the narrative was evidently the fact that Sickert was well known for his interest in the murders and his repeated depictions of related themes. I think it very likely that urban legend of some sort or other connected Sickert to the murders, though I know of no specific evidence confirming this. He was an unapologetic egotist who spent all his first wife's money, cheated on her, betrayed his friends, was sarcastic and mean-spirited in his remarks about others, and bragged that he considered women nothing but his playthings. On occasion he delighted in shocking his British acquaintances with coarse language and humor, and clearly played up to British prejudices against immoral continentals. Cornwell dwells at length on Sickert's unappealing qualities, including the fact that he once went four months without cleaning his shoes. Her interpretation of anecdotes and small phrases from his letters (many of which will strike some readers as admitting other interpretations from those Cornwell imposes) renders an unemphathic, narcissistic, probable psychopath who eventually alienated the affections of his inlaws (more so than those of his former wife or small number of lifelong friends, I note).


The imposter "Joseph Sickert" evidently knew of a popular association of Sickert with Jack the Ripper, and extemporized from there. Cornwell states that even if Sickert had been suspected as Jack the Ripper, "nobody would have believed it." This seems very improbable. Suspicion of high-born or prominent individuals as Jack the Ripper was a popular pastime. Sickert was suspected, certainly by the public and most probably by the police for at least a time. He was not popularly loved, and news that the police considered him a person of interest would probably have been received with glee in many quarters. Sickert himself probably enjoyed the persisting suspicions and may have deliberately encouraged them with his provocative paintings. In case his paintings did not make the connection strongly enough, he also loved to tell acquaintances that he once lived in the same rooming house as Jack the Ripper. There is no evidence that Sickert ever committed murder. But he might have found it entertaining or even remunerative to be the object of vague suspicions. If he were here today he would probably object to Cornwell's book only because it does such a embarrassingly incompetent job of making a case against him.
But there was a far more specific reason that Sickert was popularly suspected, and perhaps came under special notice by the police: His Ripper-themed art seemed to display details of the murders of Mary Kelly (including the furniture in her room) and Catherine Eddowes that were not public. Soon Cornwell's research turned up another fact that caused her to become absolutely convinced that Sickert was the killer. In the paintings that are generally considered to constitute his "Jack the Ripper" series (and in others that Cornwell adds), the victims are depicted in the exact condition that they appear in autopsy (Eddowes) or crime scene (Kelly) photographs, in others factual details are strongly suggested. At the time the paintings were produced the British public had not seen the photos. The police must have been intrigued, at least momentarily. Like Knight and other authors before her, Cornwell reasons that the only way that Sickert could have known these details at the time he finished the paintings was if he saw the corpses himself. Since there was no evidence or claim that he had ever been admitted to the autopsy room or the inquest rooms, he must have killed the women himself or, as Knight suspected, been present when they were killed.

Recent books on the murders have repeatedly reproduced the autopsy photos, and it is now known that not only are the details of the wounds strongly suggested by the Sickert paintings, but also the positions of the bodies. To Cornwell, this only reinforces the impression that Sickert had seen the corpses himself. In December of 2001 she told ABC Primetime, "Some of his paintings, if you juxtapose them with some of the morgue photos, are extraordinarily chilling."

This is likely to be the proximate origin of all serious suspicions of Sickert. His association with Ripper themes may have inspired some Scotland Yard official to bring one of his paintings to the attention of his colleagues, or even to hang the art in the wardroom as a joke. This may be how Cornwell came to see the painting at Scotland Yard, while she was looking at Ripper memorabilia and learning of the case (according to her, for the first time). She does not say which painting she saw, but if it was typical Sickert it may have struck her as macabre or sinister, precisely the effects the art had on Sickert's contemporaries. It may have made her suspect Sickert of being the Ripper, as it probably inspired some of the public suspicion in Sickert's own time.

Interviewers have suggested to Cornwell that Sickert's reproduction of the general composition of the photographs as well as the details of the bodies might indicate that he saw the photos, rather than the bodies. When interviewed on ABC, she responded, "No! No, he would not have had, he could not have known what these woman looked like dead. Could not, unless he were there." She has repeatedly asserted that it would have been impossible for Sickert to have seen the photos. Of course, since the photos existed, it was always possible for Sickert to have seen them. Policemen and clerks can be bribed, as happens frequently today, to leak photos to the press that are supposed to be completely sealed. Nobody could know for sure that Sickert had not seen the photos before they published, even if it was improbable. But the fact is that we do not need to speculate about that. As Wolf Vanderlinden has pointed out, the photos of Kelly's and Eddowes' corpses were published in France, in 1899. Sickert could have bought the book when it was first published --since he was living in France at the time-- or he could have seen it anytime before he began his Ripper paintings around 1905. Either Cornwell's highly paid researchers didn't discover this, or they forgot to tell her.

As a suspect Sickert is so appealing to the conventional imagination (indeed he appeared to be to painting what Paganini had been to the concert hall) that he has been investigated more than once. And - until the publication of Cornwell's book-- he had been eliminated as a suspect for a very simple reason: At the time of the murders of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were killed in late summer/early autumn of 1888, Sickert was in France. He completed at least one painting while there, was frequently seen by others (his mother and brother as well as close friends), many of whom mentioned him in letters to others. His wife in London told people he was in France. There is absolutely no evidence that he was in London. Cornwell explains this by stating that the ferry ride across the English Channel was only four hours, that letters could have been mailed by others on Sickert's behalf, and various other slightly ingenious suggestions. But the fact is that Sickert has a plain old-fashioned alibi, one that is backed up by Matthew Sturgis, who probably knows more about Sickert and his movements than anybody else alive. Sickert was in another country. In most court cases, that in combination with a complete lack of evidence for being the killer would get you acquitted.

Nagging Questions

You may now consider Cornwell's case against Sickert to be airtight. After all, as she explained to a skeptic in an online chat for ABC, "I have taken an investigative and scientific approach versus theorizing and have had access to documents that no one has ever touched or seen — thousands of pages of letters, for example, that contain some very interesting and incriminating information." But there remain a few questions. For example:

• Is there anything at all that specifically connects Walter Sickert to any of the Ripper crimes? He himself suggested a connection by incorporating the sex murder themes into his art and calling a painting "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom." He also told people that he lived in the same rooming house as Jack the Ripper. Beyond that there is nothing. The physical evidence that Cornwell says indicts Sickert actually points to James McNeill “Ha Ha” Whistler, who was probably too old and busy to be seriously considered as a suspect. Beyond that, the evidence would work as well to point to Henry James, or Oscar Wilde, or Randolph Churchill or almost anybody.

• So the woman wrote a stupid book. Evidently it isn't the first time and might not be the last. Is there any real reason to comment? Yes! The leading site of Ripper researchers, Casebook <http://www.casebook.org/>, now lists Sickert as the most probable suspect, evidently on the inspiration of this book. Strange but true. If the impression is generally received that Sickert was the Ripper, his paintings could become too expensive for museums to buy. And there is always the danger that we will have to watch a movie of Nicole Kidman in a rubber chin as a dauntless Cornwell finally solving the great Ripper mystery.

• Don't most serial killers keep killing until they are either caught or they die? That is the conventional wisdom, and Cornwell accepts it. Sickert died in 1942, but was incapacitated during the last decades of his life. So, what was he doing between 1889 (or possibly 1891) and then? According to Cornwell, still murdering. Though she doesn't explicitly state it, she leaves the reader no option to very strongly suspect Sickert of not only the Ripper murders but also the "Torso" murders and the killing and dismemberment of eight-year-old John Gill in Bradford and the girl Caroline Winter near Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1888, the Dimmock murder of 1907, and his second wife in 1920. Interviewers have asked her if she found evidence of Ripper-style murders in France during Sickert's residence there in 1899-1905. She hasn't yet, but is still looking.

• How scary is Sickert's art? There is plenty of it on the Internet. See particularly the Wolf Vanderlinden essay, linked below. I personally find the art of say, Ivan Albright, more frightening. So far as I know nobody thought Ivan was a serial killer, though there were some unsolved murders in the vicinity.

• Did Cornwell get her money's worth? That's a trick question --you already know my answer. Let's see. She got zilch on DNA, no matter how she spins it. She got nothing on linking any written materials to both the killer and to Sickert. She might be able to suggest that Sickert wrote a hoax letter or two, in which case she could argue he should have been sent up with the two nice ladies from Yorkshire and Wales who got nicked for the same thing. Her historical and art researchers were terrible. They told her that "ha ha" and "fools" were so rare as to be evidential. I guess they are the ones who told her that bodies of travellers might be preserved in "mead" until they returned home for burial. Evidently they were thinking of the body of the Nelson, put in a casket filled with brandy until he could get home. "Mead," of course, was not available because the formula for it was lost in medieval --possibly even as early as classical-- times. The research for the (many!) digressions into forensic techniques seem canned and superficial, even in the few cases where they are relevant. An example of the lack of more than cursory reading is the attribution of the discovery of forensic fingerprinting to Francis Galton (with no other comments about Galton's real work) with no mention of Purkingje or Herschel, let alone the theorists of the seventeenth century. She says in (implied) mile-high letters that there is NO photo of Abberline. Actually, there is. Abberline sent it to a friend in France, and it even has a little bit of his writing on the back. You can find that on the Internet, for free. Her researchers didn't seem to know the Eddowes and Kelly photos had been published before Sickert's Ripper paintings, an essential point. Little things like that. Anybody might make such mistakes, unless they were being given a slice of $6 million to do the research.

• Who would publish a book making ridiculous claims with no supporting evidence and a string of errors of fact and analysis? Well, we know who published it. I think your question is "why." The short answer seems to be that factuality is no longer a value in publishing, particularly publishing that is ostensibly "non-fiction." As we will explore in future columns with respect to Jared Diamond and Gavin Menzies, as well as others, whatever role documentation and evidence once had in serious discussions of history and politics is now gone.

• In the unlikely event that Cornwell is wrong, what would be her motivation? The reader can't help but notice that Cornwell is a bit unbalanced in her characterization of Sickert and her insistence that people like him (meaning the way she insists he was) are serial murderers. She relentlessly interprets his actions and comments as psychopathic, and her language drips with hatred of the personality she has projected upon him. The reader has the very uneasy feeling that Cornwell has an obsession with a certain kind of personality, for whatever reason, and is determined to not only find it in Sickert but use it to solve a criminal problem that has baffled thousands of others for over a century. Everything Sickert represents is obnoxious to Cornwell. He had contempt for women, he had contempt for middle class materialism, he had contempt for banality, he was a sexist, racist and elitist, he frequented places where the dregs of society went, he thought Punch and Judy was funny. Beyond these psychodynamics, I don't see a reason to look for a motivation. There is no evidence that she is fabricating evidence or trying to blackmail anybody. She doesn't need money or another best-seller, at least not to my mind. If she is wrong, it is nothing but the honest conviction and dogged determination of a hopelessly clueless narcissist. She thought it was time to assuage the souls of the Ripper victims by finally using modern techniques to identify the killer. As she said in response to a question about her motivation to take up the investigation, "There's a lot of philosophical and other reasons that I thought it was important to pursue this to -- well, it's not even to the end, it's just as far as I've gone with it. I felt that it was my moral obligation to continue down that path, because I just can't let him get away with murder even if he is dead and cremated." If Cornwell is to be believed, her motivations can be inferred as: 1) she had never heard of Jack the Ripper before, and when somebody told her she was filled with righteous anger, 2) she hated Sickert's paintings on sight, and hated Sickert himself on sight of his face (including a film of him in old age that convinced her he was "evil"), 3) she couldn't figure out how Sickert could have had visual knowledge of the corpses of Eddowes and Kelly, and when her researchers found out it was too late for her to get out of the book, 4) she believed she had Scarpetta-style skills that would allow her to solve the mystery nobody else had, 5) she thought DNA is all powerful, or at least managed to sell her agent and publisher on the idea.

• But wouldn't Sickert's art shoot up in chic if people believed he was Jack the Ripper? And didn't she buy like three dozen of his paintings? Well, yeah, there is that. Even if you already have $150 million dollars, you can't get a reputation for cool unless you collect art. Cornering the market on the paintings of Jack the Ripper would be very, very cool.

• Isn't it less likely that Sickert telepathically anticipated the angle and composition of the photographs than that he just looked at the photographs? Yes.

• I notice that in the book Cornwell freely substitutes the name "Sickert" where anybody else would write the "suspect" or "killer" or "Jack the Ripper." And where somebody else would naturally write "Sickert" she writes "Jack the Ripper." She says Richard Cobden's son-in-law was Jack the Ripper. Is this allowed? As Cornwell says, he shouldn't get away with murder, even if he's dead and cremated (in the book she implies that his cremation was designed to thwart the forensic techniques coming after his death). And if he isn't guilty, he still shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. Sickert can't sue, and he has no legal heirs. He has a nephew,named John Lessore, by marriage to his third wife. This nephew made the mistake of passing on a moldy family rumor (not from his family, though) that Walter's fistula might have been on his penis, and though the nephew quickly said it was actually a groundless rumor and tried to retract it --too late! If Cornwell claims Lessore gave her the information that is central to her motivation thesis, he might not have a case. Interestingly, John Dean (no stranger to controversy) was so outraged by the Cornwell hatchet job on Sickert that he wrote a law review article on the possibilities of a lawsuit and openly encouraged any representatives of Sickert's estate to initiate one. For herself, Cornwell seems unworried by such a prospect (dead guys with no heirs are usually not very troublesome in court). In interviews she has suggested that she would welcome a legal challenge, and would be interested to see how the Sickert or Cobden families would "prove Sickert innocent." The notion that a man against whom there is no evidence has to be proven innocent is curious, but in any event Cornwell would --like Sickert himself-- welcome the publicity, and in her case a few million dollars in legal fees would be no burden. Nevertheless she graciously offers these words of comfort for the nephew: "Mr. Lessore is very upset at what I have to say and certainly not about to believe such a thing of his uncle. I told him I was very sorry for the pain I know this must cause him. But that is part of the ripple effect of evil; it continues to hurt people forever. I told him that I did not do this to him — the person who has hurt him is Sickert." Well, can't say any fairer than that.

• So what is the really the big issue? What is it all about? Superficially it is about a person with access to public opinion being able to make unfounded accusations and on the basis of that garner a lot of approving attention for herself from the commercial televisions networks, as well as make a lot of money from selling the book and derivative rights. But on a more important level it is about feeding the paranoia of contemporary American society: Being able to claim with a straight face that somebody who lives differently from you is probably capable of unspeakable crimes. Being able to look at a face, or a piece of art, and announce the presence of "evil." Being able to claim that those living among us, in plain sight, and familiar to us are secretly working to kill and mutilate us. And, of course, it is about the current assumption in the U.S. that one is guilty until proven innocent.


Pamela Kyle Crossley is professor of history at Dartmouth College (USA) and co-author of Global Society: A World History since 1900 (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)


* This essay owes its survival to the sharp backup skills of Patricia Whitaker.