Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
By Patricia Cornwell
Hachette Digital, 2008.
I decided to read Patricia Cornwell's book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed because I have an interest in Walter Sickert. I continued to read the book, despite the fact that it was by far the most absurd book I've ever read, because I assumed at the turn of every page that it couldn't get any sillier. At some point, I thought, Cornwell would have to present solid evidence that connected Walter Sickert to the Ripper murders. After all, you can't go around accusing people of murder left, right and centre when you have no proof, can you? Apparently, you can.
According to Ms Cornwell, she began to wonder about Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper when she was flipping through a book of his art and came across his 1887 painting of Ada Lundberg performing at the Marylebone Music Hall (see image below). When Cornwell looked at that painting, she didn’t see a performer singing for an audience, she saw a woman screaming as menacing men looked on. ‘I am sure there are artistic explanations for all of Sickert’s works,’ Cornwell writes, ‘but what I see when I look at them is morbidity, violence, and a hatred of women.’
Well, you can find all sorts of things in paintings, if you're determined to see them, and Ms Cornwell certainly was determined. A good researcher examines the information available and uses it to form a theory; Cornwell, on the other hand, proceeded from the firm conviction that Sickert was her man and set about constructing an argument that would produce her desired conclusion.
To be fair, Ms Cornwell is not the first person to construct a ridiculous theory regarding the true identity of Jack the Ripper that involves Walter Sickert. It was in the 1970s that his name was first linked with that of the famous Whitechapel murderer, and I’ll now attempt to give a brief synopsis of how that came about.
In the late 1960s, a fellow by the name of Joseph Gorman turned up claiming to be Walter Sickert’s illegitimate grandson. He then amended his story and claimed that Sickert was not his grandfather, he was in actual fact his father; his grandfather, he claimed at that point, was the eldest son of Edward VII, Prince Albert Victor. Gorman adopted a new name, HRH Joseph Sickert, to go with his imaginatively fabricated identity. He claimed that his grandmother, a shop girl by the name of Annie Crook, had married Prince Albert Victor in secret and had given birth to a daughter, Alice (Joseph Sickert’s mother). Mary Jane Kelly, a friend of Crook’s, knew about this marriage, as did several of her prostitute pals and was set to blackmail the British government. To avert a scandal that might have brought down the British monarchy, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, persuaded the Royal Physician, Sir William Gull, to go off on a murder spree with two fellow Freemasons and do away with the troublesome women. Little Alice Crook, having been spirited away to France, later became Walter Sickert’s mistress. Walter Sickert knew the truth behind the Ripper murders, Joseph Sickert claimed, but had not been involved in them. Joseph Sickert, who later claimed that he regularly had tea with the Queen, had a furtive imagination.
Stephen Knight, author of Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (published in 1978) went further and, based on Joseph Sickert’s claims about the masonic Ripper plot, concluded that Walter Sickert must have been a co-conspirator in it. In the same year, Joseph Sickert, whilst maintaining that he was the illegitimate son of Walter Sickert and the grandson of Prince Albert Victor, told the Sunday Times that the story about the Ripper conspiracy had in fact been a hoax. This didn’t prevent Jean Overton Fuller from publishing a book in 1990 which claimed that Walter Sickert was the actual perpetrator of the crimes, rather than a co-conspirator. Nor did it prevent Melvyn Fairclough from regurgitating Joseph Sickert’s masonic-royal-Ripper plot nonsense one year later.
But let's be clear about this, during Sickert’s lifetime he was never a suspect in the Ripper murders. Were it not for HRH Joseph Sickert’s absurd conspiracy claims, which he later admitted were a fabrication, nobody would ever have suggested Walter Sickert as a possible Ripper suspect.
Anyway, getting back to Cornwell's theory (though she considers it to be a matter of fact). Having decided that the Ripper was a sexually dysfunctional psychopath with a severe hatred of women, Cornwell's mind was made up from the outset that Sickert was an impotent woman-hater. According to Cornwell, 'Sickert was dependent on women and loathed them’. But Sickert did not hate women; at times he liked them rather too much. He was never faithful to his first wife, Ellen. Regarding Sickert's marriage to Ellen, Cornwell claims that 'it is possible the brotherly and sisterly couple never undressed in front of each other or attempted sex'. Based on what evidence?
'Sickert was born,' Cornwell asserts, 'with a deformity of his penis requiring operations when he was a toddler that would have left him disfigured if not mutilated'. She goes on to suggest that he may not have had much of a penis at all and it was 'quite possible that he had to squat like a woman to urinate'. Sickert did undergo an operation when he was an infant; that much is true. He was treated for an anal fistula at St. Mark's Hospital. Cornwell herself admits that Sickert's doctor's specialities 'were the treatment of rectal and venereal diseases,' and that 'no search of his published writings or other literature unearthed any mention of his treating so-called fistulas of the penis.’ Nonetheless, she concludes that it was Sickert's penis that was the problem. Why? Because Jack the Ripper had to be impotent, so Sickert had to be impotent, and an anal fistula does not produce impotency! If it looks like an apple and tastes like an apple, but Cornwell wants an orange... it's an orange.
I shall now provide you with a sampling of the nonsense that passes for 'evidence' in the mind of Patricia Cornwell:
1. Martha Tabran was seen with a soldier before her murder. The murderer of Martha Tabran was therefore Walter Sickert dressed up as a soldier. ‘Walter Sickert was familiar with uniforms,' Cornwell explains, and as a boy he 'frequently sketched men in uniforms and armor’. Heavens to Betsy, a male child who draws soldiers... a sure sign of early-onset homicidal psychopathy.
2. Jack the Ripper liked to call people fools in his letters; Walter Sickert called people fools.
3. A witness saw a man with a black Gladstone bag after Elizabeth Stride was murdered; Sickert had a Gladstone bag.
4. During the Ripper murders, bloody knives started turning up all over the place. A coconut dealer by the name of Thomas Coram was leaving a friend’s house in Whitechapel when he noticed a knife at the bottom of steps leading into a laundry. The knife was later described by a local constable as the sort a baker or chef might use. ‘Sickert was an excellent cook,' Cornwell writes, 'and often dressed as a chef to entertain his friends’.
5. (And this is my personal favourite) One of the Ripper letters included the address ‘Punch & Judy St.’; Cornwell points out: 'Sickert would have been familiar with Punch and Judy'.
Cornwell, unlike most Ripperologists and the police who investigated the Ripper murders, believes that most of the Ripper letters sent to police and the local press (from all over the place, with several posted on the same day from distant locations) came from Jack the Ripper himself. The letters are central to her claim that Sickert was the Ripper. The fact that the handwriting of the numerous Ripper letters doesn't resemble Sickert's does nothing to deter Cornwell from asserting that he did write them; the difference in handwriting simply proves that he was an incredibly devious little psychopath. She points out that Sickert could even write backwards. So could Leonardo da Vinci, but I don't think she's about to pin the murders on him (though we shouldn't rule that out entirely). For that matter, I can write backwards; do I need an alibi?
As for the doodles on the Ripper letters, Cornwell claims that most, if not all, were penned by a skilled artist, namely Walter Sickert. Anna Gruetzner Robins, author of Walter Sickert: Drawings, supports this claim, though she doesn't believe that Sickert was the actual Ripper. Matthew Sturgiss, author of Walter Sickert: A Life, remains unconvinced about the claims of Cornwell and Robins. Sickert expert Wendy Baron has also dismissed the claims, having found nothing in the doodles to suggest that Sickert was the person responsible for them. But even if it were proved that Sickert was responsible for some of the letters (and that's a big if), it would simply show that he was a Ripper letter hoaxer. That is a far cry from being a slayer of East End prostitutes.
Several Ripper letters mentioned horse racing and gave the police betting tips. 'Sickert painted pictures of horse racing', Cornwell points out, 'and was quite knowledgeable about the sport'. 'While I have no evidence that Sickert bet on horse races,' she goes on, 'I don’t have any fact to say he didn’t.’ According to Cornwell's logic, the absence of proof passes for proof in itself. When trying to determine if the artist was in London at the time of a particular murder, she points out that she has no proof that he was not in London. Well, there’s no proof that I wasn’t in Madagascar yesterday evening; I guess I must have been there.
In actual fact, Walter Sickert was abroad for most of the late summer of 1888, when Jack the Ripper was murdering prostitutes in London. Two days before the murder of Annie Chapman, Sickert's mother wrote to a friend that she and her family (including Walter) were all having a happy time in France. Whilst Cornwell does refer to Sickert's mother's letter, and to a letter written by Sickert's wife, Ellen, about him being in France with 'his people', which Cornwell incorrectly assumes are his arty friends in Dieppe rather than his family, she dismisses the importance of such evidence of his absence from London. After all, even if he had been in France, he could have hopped on a steamer to scoot across the English Channel, then caught an express train to London in order to do away with an East End tart (presumably because a French tart wouldn't do) before dashing back to France in time for dinner without anyone noticing he'd gone. I imagine he managed to fit in posting several Ripper letters from Liverpool, London and Lille (in northern France) while he was at it.
Having gone to great trouble to demonstrate that Sickert was a crazed killer who couldn't even holiday in France without rushing back to the East End to assassinate a prostitute, how does she explain the fact that the Ripper murders came to an abrupt end following the slaying of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888, even though Sickert lived for another fifty-four years? What did he do, take up fishing or stamp collecting to fill his time? Well, apparently he didn't stop murdering people... he went on going. Sickert wasn't just Jack the Ripper, he was responsible for the Thames Torso Murders of 1887-89 too, and he committed the Camden Town Murder in 1907. He may even have murdered a widow named Madame Francois at Pont-à-Mousson, in north-eastern France, in 1889, and another French woman in the same area. He was a busy fellow.
Ms Cornwell provides no evidence that links Walter Sickert to the Whitechapel murders. She seems to believe that by her simply asserting that he was guilty we'll all be daft enough to believe her. In places, the book seems to be more about her than Sickert or Jack the Ripper anyway. About a quarter of the way through the book she writes: ‘I had been a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and was no coward when it came to dashing off to crime scenes.’ Then she tells us that she had a moment of enlightenment (something I strongly doubt) whilst in Aspen with her family, in a condo at the base of Ajax Mountain. In what way are these details, or reminiscences of her days working in the medical examiner’s office, relevant to the Whitechapel murders? There's a lot that seems to be there just to fill the book out. Chapter Thirteen gives a history of the British coroner from the reign of Richard I. And what’s the point of giving the reader an explanation of how the Ripper murders would have been investigated in present day Virginia? Do I need to know that ‘the US has never had a national standard of death investigation’?
This may be the longest book review I will ever write. But a short one just wouldn't have done justice to the astounding absurdity of this book. It probably won't surprise you to hear that I am giving this book no stars at all out of five... it doesn't merit a single one.