Skip to main content

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed

Review

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed

For
more than a century, the mystery of "who was Jack the Ripper" has
fascinated both sides of the Atlantic. Who perpetrated the brutal
murders of so many Whitechapel prostitutes in England in the late
1800s? And why?

Numerous theories have been put forth over the decades: a lunatic,
a crazed doctor, a member of the royal family, a famous artist. And
now, for the first time, someone has taken Scotland Yard's
evidence, along with other letters and ephemera, and applied
modern-day forensic science to the still-open investigation.

The someone is Patricia Cornwell, author of the critically
acclaimed Kay Scarpetta mystery series and a forensic specialist
herself. The results, while not entirely convincing, are
compelling.

Cornwell asserts, with great confidence, that Jack the Ripper was
the impressionist artist Walter Richard Sickert, an apprentice to
Whistler, and, in his own right, a highly accomplished and
recognized artist. In fact, Cornwell posits that Sickert's work is
perhaps one of the greatest clues of his culpability. First, his
paintings are menacing and threatening, particularly towards women
of a lower class. Also, known as an artist who painted what he saw,
a few of Sickert's canvasses eerily resemble the Ripper's crime
scenes. Coincidence? Perhaps. But Cornwell interprets his work as
revelatory, confessional almost. In profiling the famous serial
killer she suggests that the Ripper would have been a man who
harbored a keen, deep-rooted hatred of women, most likely founded
in his own sexual inability or inadequacies. Sickert at a young age
underwent a series of corrective penile surgeries, which quite
possibly left him impotent. There is no proof one way or another
that he was entirely sexually dysfunctional, but there are hints at
problems that lend some credence to Cornwell's theory.

The Ripper did not exist in a vacuum, and Cornwell did an
extraordinary job of setting the scene, placing the reader in late
1800 England. Detailed references to John Merrick (the elephant
man), Henry Irving (one of the stage's greatest stars of the time),
Henry James (author and constable) and others frame Cornwell's
story. The Ripper was very much a part of the happenings of the
time, and his name was as likely to be found in the pages of the
newspaper as any of the abovementioned notables. Sickert, a
voracious reader with morbid sensibilities would have been
captivated by the stories of the Ripper. As a prankster and
prolific writer, he might even have been tempted to pen a faux
Ripper letter or two to the police or the daily paper. (At the
time, many of the Ripper letters were thought to be hoaxes.) As a
murderer, if he was a murderer, Sickert's well-known vanity would
have thrilled at and thrived on the publicity. To be mentioned on
the same pages as royalty and celebrities would have fed his hungry
ego.

Cornwell offered much supposition and hints at Sickert's guilt. For
instance, he was a master of disguise and could have easily lured a
prostitute to her death and then escaped undetected, Cornwell
suggests. He was enthralled by the music halls and the
"unfortunates" who frequented them, and he was known to walk the
streets of the Whitechapel area late at night for long periods of
time. He had an unhealthy fascination of the anatomy of the human
body that went far beyond an artist's natural curiosity. And the
Ripper letters included allusions Sickert would have known and
drawings in the fashion of Sickert's own work.

From DNA to mitochondrial DNA, from handwriting experts to
watermark experts, from newspaper articles to authentic Sickert
paintings, Cornwell left no stone unturned. She described in lay
terms --- using easily understood analogies --- the forensic
methodologies she and her impressive crew of colleagues used in
their thorough investigation. Along the way she spent an exorbitant
amount of money trying to prove his guilt. (She even went so far as
to purchase several of his paintings, and destroyed one in the
hopes of finding conclusive evidence.) The science is fascinating,
albeit more often inconclusive than convincing. Her research did
not always glean the results she had hoped for. But taken all
together, the evidence, mostly circumstantial, is damning and
probably would have been enough in today's court system to bring
Sickert to trial.

Case Closed? I can't say I was convinced by book's end that Sickert
was indeed the Ripper. I wanted a smoking gun that left no room for
doubt, and Cornwell did not deliver a smoking gun because she did
not find one. She found compelling evidence that makes the
strongest case of guilt to date. But with no death bed confession,
or bloodstained canvasses, or eyewitness reports, we will never
really know his innocence or guilt. The strong science, the history
lesson, and the story of Sickert's life make PORTRAIT OF A KILLER
an intriguing read, and on those fronts I recommend the book. But I
leave you to decide for yourself if she has found enough evidence
to label Sickert the Ripper --- or not.

Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 22, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: November 11, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399149325
  • ISBN-13: 9780399149320