I've been reading a fair bit of literature on the Jack the Ripper murders for a project I'm working on and I want to talk about two books that claim to solve the mystery and identify the Ripper or, as in Stephen Knight's case, the Rippers.
The first book Jack the Ripper: Portrait of a Killer Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell I will discuss here and the second, The Final Solution I will save for a later post. Both offer credible but differing theories as to the killers identities. And of course there are many other theories, equally credible out there.
The Ripper killings, as horrific as they were, have become diluted by the Ripper industry that has sprung up around the killer - movies, comics, books, even video games. Jack the Ripper sums up a Dracula like fictional character and even viewing the autopsy pictures that exist, as horrific as they are, does not have the effect they should have on the viewer. These were real women who suffered terrible and brutal mutilations by killer or killers unknown. And yet to the modern eye they have the effect of being film stills as if cut from one of the many Ripper movies. We have an image of the Ripper in our mind - long flowing cape, stove pipe hat, walking cane and a Gladstone bag. It is the uniform of a monster that actually existed but yet as become, in some senses, fictional.
The Patricia Cornwell book, first published in 2002, reveals world famous painter, Walter Sickert as the fiend of Whitechapel. And although I've read much debunking Ms. Cornwell's theory I must say that most of the debunking gets the facts wrong. For instance I've read that Cornwell claims that all of the letters sent to the police and newspapers pertaining to be from the killer came from Sickert. Wrong - Ms. Cornwell does insist that a great many of the letters came from the talented artist, who could write in several different hands, but many of then, she says, are hoaxes sent by practical jokers with a sick sense of humour. A little aside here but following avenues of my own research I learned that a lady named Miriam Howells from Penricwber, a village only a few miles from my own, was arrested and charged with writing two Ripper letters. The reason I've mentioned this is that it reveals the interest the case achieved worldwide - in an age when news didn't travel that fast the Ripper was the topic of conversation everywhere. Letters to the police came from not only London and most major UK cities but some from as far afield as France and even the US. In fact there was one theory that the killer was an American left behind after Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus left London earlier that year. Police records reveal that three of the many people questioned in 1888 listed their occupations as "Cowboys" and were linked to the American exhibition.
The women pictured left are known as the canonical five - these are the five official victims of the serial killer known as JACK THE RIPPER, but Cornwell, as do most other Ripper students, claims that there were other killings that were also the work of the same hand.
Cornwell brings all her skill as a fiction writer to drawing a vivid picture of London's East End as a filthy slum area populated by society's unfortunates but into which wealthy men, men like Sickert, would venture to get their thrills amongst the degradation of extreme poverty. The East End offered a distraction from the well ordered Victorian society that these men were used to.
Then as now, prostitution was often the only way for certain women to put food on the table and working the streets in the over populated, badly lit East End must have been a dangerous option for women. None of the C5 were beautiful women, all had been ravaged by extreme poverty and hardship - two of them, for instance, had their front teeth missing and all of them were dowdy sorry looking people.
Cornwell tackled this, the ultimate cold case, with all the skills of modern forensics and perhaps the most compelling evidence she discovered was a partial DNA match to Sickert on one of the Ripper letters. Though the DNA was mitochondrial - but it was specific enough to eliminate 99% of the population. The matches on the stamp when compared to DNA on Sickert's own personal letters and the overalls he wore when he painted were exact. However the author warns that this is 114 year old DNA - that the findings would not stand up in a courtroom on their own. She also places great importance on the watermarks in the paper used for the Ripper letters which matches the brands that Sickert often used. This is important as some of the letters when measured were discovered to be not only the same brand but to have come from the same print batch as papers in Sickert's own collection.
Another interesting aspect of Cornwell's theory is that Sickert was a lone killer when so many other Ripper theories has the killer as part of a conspiracy involving the British Royal Family. The author also points out the remarkable similarities between several of Sickert's paintings and actual crimes scenes. Now these days the case is so well publicised that everyone knows what the crime scenes look like but that was not so during the time that the artist was working. Cornwell theorises that Sickert, arrogant and believing himself far superior to the investigating team was leaving these clues in his work because it amused him to do so.
Ms. Cornwell has a point as many of the artists darker works do indeed look like the actual crime scenes
Cornwell, who amassed a multi million fortune from her fiction, is adamant that she has got the right man - "I do believe 100% that Walter Richard Sickert committed those serial crimes, that he is the Whitechapel murderer," She told an American interviewer on TV IN 2002. She also claims that if a jury had been presented with all of her evidence they would have said, 'hang him.'
The reasons for all this? Well, Cornwell claims, Sickert was born with a deformation of his penis, a fistula, underwent several operations as a child which would have left him without enough penis to penetrate. Investigators at the time claimed that the killer would have had to have had medical knowledge and Sickert, an artist, certainly had anatomical knowledge.
It's certainly a page turner of a book and the theories presented and the evidence does suggest to the reader that we have finally caught our man - the problem is that so many other books do the same thing and next time I'll look at Stephen Knight's the Final Solution which is an equally plausible identification of the Whitechapel killer(s).