Jack The Ripper – Case Closed?

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Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed By Patricia CornwellI daresay that everyone reading this is familiar with the name Jack the Ripper. For that matter, you are probably aware of the basics of the case – that a serial killer murdered and mutilated prostitutes in the East End of Victorian London, successfully evading the then fledgling police force in what would become known as “the autumn of terror” in 1888. Although this era is associated with the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, his real-life counterparts had their work cut out for them in this case; forensic science was only in its infancy, fingerprinting was a novelty rather than a serious crime-solving tool, and constables found themselves with barely any training and equipped with lanterns that were at best ineffective in the smoggy streets and at worst dangerous to use. In the 120 years since these notorious crimes took place, the mystery of who the Ripper was has never ceased to fascinate people. There are doubtless scores of unknown killers in London’s history, but this case continues to cause speculation because of both the shocking brutality of the crimes and the very fact we know so little about them and the perpetrator. The Whitechapel murders have spawned a large amount of literature on who Jack was, a dedicated branch of enthusiasts (“ripperologists”), Jack the Ripper walks around London and even the “Jack the Ripper Experience” in the London Dungeon.

The latest entrant into this field is novelist Patricia Cornwell, author of the popular Kay Scarpetta novels. I personally have never really taken to these books, despite my long-standing interest in this genre, but found myself wanting to read her departure into non-fiction writing nonetheless as I have rather a morbid fascination with true crime. Besides, Cornwell is uniquely placed to be an incisive and reputable writer on Jack the Ripper. She has a background of being both a police reporter and an employee in the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner’s office, work that has seen her witness hundreds of autopsies and given her a familiarity with forensic techniques and police procedure that have likely contributed to her later success as a crime novelist. Her position has also seen her having access to materials, people and locations that unknown researchers would have been unlikely to get – she also of course has the money to buy original documents, travel widely and employ a team of assistant researchers as well. Given the obvious time, expense and expertise that went into writing her book (“Portrait of a killer: Jack the Ripper – case closed”) we could well expect something a bit special from her.

To come straight to the point, Cornwell’s candidate for Jack the Ripper is the prominent Victorian artist Walter Richard Sickert. This revelation is hardly a spoiler; the artist is named as her man in the opening chapter and the rest of the book is spent presenting her case against him. He is not a new suspect in this case (I believe he has been linked by at least one other writer as a possible accomplice to the Duke of Clarence and the Royal Physician in a grand conspiracy to protect the reputation of the Duke against blackmailing prostitutes; both men have incidentally been separately named and suspected on their own in yet other works). What is different here, though, is that Cornwell has Sickert as a lone killer rather than part of some larger conspiracy. However, there is no indication of exactly how or why Sickert has been chosen as the focus of this work, giving the reader rather the impression that an assumption has been made at the beginning, with the evidence presented later being fitted in to suit this theory.

“There is no question that “Portrait of a Killer” is a thoroughly and painstakingly researched book.”

Walter Sickert was born in Germany, but was brought to London as a young child to be treated for a congenital abnormality of the penis. Aged only 5 and unable to understand English, he was left in the hospital by his parents for an operation that would be barbaric by today’s standards (not all operations involved anaesthesia at this time, and patients were often strapped to the operating tables as a consequence). Sickert survived, but was believed to be badly mutilated as a result; it is alleged that he could not urinate standing up or have normal sexual relations, although the extent of any damage to his penis cannot be proven as no medical records have survived. Cornwell cites this early trauma as the root cause of Sickert becoming Jack the Ripper. I am far from being an expert, but I have read quite widely about true crime and from what I know this is not inconceivable – the pain and fear of such an operation and a later ability to feel a normal sexual desire without being physically capable of satisfying it could have indeed sparked a hatred and resentment of women. Coupled with the right sort of personality, it may well have led to violence against them. However, this is all conjecture and is undermined somewhat by the fact that Sickert actually had 3 wives, one of whom divorced him on the grounds of adultery. Cornwell tries to get around this problem by stating that stating adultery was simply the easiest way for a couple to get a divorce at that time, but there are certainly persistent rumours that Sickert had a French mistress and even a son. Like so much else surrounding the Ripper, this argument is uncertain at best.

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Ripper killings is the fact that they exploded onto the scene, rapidly escalated from a cut throat to partial dismemberment and removal of organs, and then scene and then seemed to vanish as quickly as they started; the five deaths that are popularly attributed to him took place in little over 2 months of late 1888. A serial killer doesn’t just suddenly start and stop killing like this. Any theory about who Jack the Ripper might have been therefore needs to account for what triggered the killings and why they ceased so abruptly. In the case of Sickert, Cornwell proposes that it was the marriage of his friend and mentor James McNeill Whistler, just before the first attributed killing, which sparked a jealous rage in the artist. When it comes to why he stopped, she can only suggest that he didn’t, and put forward some other unsolved and broadly similar cases that stretch into the 1890s. In places she argues so passionately for her cause that you really want to believe her, but some of the examples she cites frankly smack of desperation and clutching at straws. The fact that a boy in Middlesbrough had his throat cut at a time when Sickert was probably in England is not terribly convincing proof of his guilt. Why would the Ripper change his modus operandi from women to boys? Why would he scale his violence back down, something virtually unknown in serial killers? Such points are glossed over a little too lightly for my tastes.

“Overall I found it a very readable book – even if I didn’t always agree with her – although the chapter ordering could have perhaps been better…”

The fascinating aspect for me, though, was the fact that in this book Cornwell presents the first attempt to use modern forensic and investigative techniques on the Jack the Ripper case. It is not just a re-hashing of what is already known (or rather, what we think we already know); it actually provides new evidence. The infamous Ripper letters – never actually proven to be from the killer himself, I might add – have had their watermarks, batches and inks scientifically analysed. Handwriting specialists have been commissioned to do in-depth analyses on the contents of the letters. The envelopes have been tested for the DNA of whoever stamped and sealed them. I won’t spoil the results for you, but to anyone with an interest in forensic science, this part of the book is compulsive reading.

There is no question that “Portrait of a Killer” is a thoroughly and painstakingly researched book. It is clear that this is a personal quest of great importance to Cornwell and she writes with energy, enthusiasm and conviction, although in a few places in does edge over into grandiosity, such as where she states “murder is not a mystery and it is my mission to fight it with a pen” (page 11). Overall I found it a very readable book – even if I didn’t always agree with her – although the chapter ordering could have perhaps been better, and it would have been helpful if the plates had been numbered and referenced in the text, so the reader could refer to them easily in the appropriate places. A clear map to show key locations and their relation to one another would also have helped me out; I am not familiar with the East End and having to refer to my London A-Z constantly got a little distracting in the end. The title also seems a little libellous and gives an impression of conclusiveness that I don’t feel the book ever quite had. These last points are perhaps not a fair reflection on Cornwell, though. They are more a case for a better editor.

I think that overall I will recommend this book – it is on the whole well written (if not so well structured) and should appeal to those with an interest in criminology, forensic science, Victorian London or who are fans of Cornwell’s other books. Unless you are a ripperologist though, I would suggest getting a library copy rather than investing all that cash in it.

“Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed” is by Patricia Cornwell (2002). Published by Little Brown.

**Please note that this book contains graphic scene of crime photos and Cornwell does not hold back in her description of the attacks. It is not suitable reading for people with a nervous disposition, and it is best treated as though it had a 15 certificate.**

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Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
by Patricia Cornwell

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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