Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed

November 2, 2008 - Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed (Patricia Cornwell). Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell uses her knowledge of forensic science in an effort to, as she claims in the title, close the case of Jack the Ripper.

I will confess that I am not widely read on the subject of Jack the Ripper, but Cornwell's is not the first reading I have done. The first was a book by Martin Fido, which I believe is titled Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper. I read it several years ago but, due to the Great Moving Van Fire of '03, I no longer have the book. However, as I recall, Fido gave an overview of the murders that are generally credited to the Ripper, then he provided information about the six or seven men who are generally considered as prime Ripper suspects. Finally, Fido revealed his belief that one of those men, a Polish Jew named Aaron Kosminsky, was probably the Ripper, and that Kosminsky was taken to an insane asylum in 1891, approximately three years after the Ripper murders.

Cornwell follows a reverse course in her 361 page book. Within the first 40 pages or so, she identifies an actor-turned-artist named Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper. She says he had a deformed penis and that his hatred of women was revealed through his artwork. She also puts forward a theory that his acting background made him a master of disguise, thus making it difficult for any potential witness to identify him.

From there on, Cornwell attempts to show how, in her opinion, modern forensic science, when applied to the Ripper case, points to Sickert as the Ripper. She analyzes mitochondrial DNA from letters that Sickert wrote and from letters that are attributed to the Ripper; she brings in experts to analyze the paper that said letters were written on; she analyzes handwriting, all in an attempt to prove her case that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. I don't buy it.

To my mind, the case that Cornwell lays out is, at best, circumstantial. And, she seems to go about things in reverse order. Rather than use evidence to lead her to a suspect, she seems to have picked a suspect and then looked for evidence that points to him as the killer. Where Cornwell does well, I think, is in her description of life in Victorian London and in her descriptions of the various murder scenes. But, then she continually inserts Walter Sickert into these scenarios without any concrete proof to back it up.

For example, she writes that Walter Sickert liked to walk at night within say, a one-mile radius of where the murders happened. Based on that, Cornwell hypothesizes that, because Sickert was familiar with the area, he could easily have planned his escape routes before he committed the murders. What?! I suppose he could have, but did he?

Not only does Cornwell contend that Sickert was the Ripper, she carries her argument a step further and implies that Sickert/the Ripper committed several other murders that are not generally attributed to Jack the Ripper. Basically, what she asks the reader to believe is that, in the latter half of 1888, Sickert/the Ripper killed several women by slashing their throats and cutting out various organs. The level of violence escalated through November 1888, culminating with the total evisceration of Mary Kelly. Cornwell then argues that Sickert/the Ripper was a smart man who modified his method so that he could continue killing for years in England and France. Again, I don't buy it.

Based on Cornwell's book, it certainly appears that Walter Sickert was a right bastard, self-absorbed to a monumental degree and inconsiderate of anyone's needs but his own. He was eccentric and probably also too clever for his own good. In fact, I can see Sickert possibly inserting himself into the hysteria of the day by writing a letter (or letters) and signing them "Jack the Ripper." But, was he the real Jack the Ripper? Cornwell may say the case is closed, but I'm not convinced.