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Jack the Ripper, the most famous serial killer of all time, tends to attract all kinds of weird crank theories. Sometimes these really capture the public imagination, such as the silly Royal/Masonic conspiracy theory of the 1970s, or the forged diary of the early 90s. Patricia Cornwell’s popularity as a bestselling crime novelist means that her crank theory might well prove to be the most enduring of all.
When Cornwell announced some years ago that she was going to solve the case (I believe she staked her reputation on it) I was mildly intrigued, if sceptical. She poured huge amounts of money into it and, for the first time, attempted to use DNA testing to find a solution. I had a vague hope that she might actually find a credible suspect, but I don’t really care who it was. Although I've been interested in the case for years I'm more interested by the historical context in which the crimes fit, and the way the contemporary media portrayed them. That said, it still annoys me when people present sloppy research and stupid teories as the truth; even more so when people for some reason believe them.
When Cornwell revealed to the world who her suspect was it became obvious that she wasn't going to add anything of value. She believes that it was Walter Sickert, the celebrated artist. Oh dear. Sickert has been mentioned as a suspect in at least two books before Cornwell. You have to wonder if Cornwell didn’t just look down a list of existing suspects, decide which one she liked, and then went out looking for evidence that implicated him. In which case she may have chosen Sickert out of all the options because, as a famous person, he would be easiest to research.
This book presents no evidence whatsoever that suggests that Sickert was the Ripper. Cornwell basically starts out with the premise that he was the guilty man, and then goes through the murders, each one in turn, describing how Sickert might have behaved, if he were the murderer, never really explaining to us why we should believe that he was.
Her attempts to explain what motivated Sickert to start brutally murdering women are wild speculation, and not particularly convincing. She contends that as a child he had a fistula on his penis, and that operations to fix it left him impotent, causing a psychopathic hatred of women. The location of his fistula is unknown (he was treated in a hospital that specialised in treating conditions of the anus, rectum and vagina, which suggests that it wasn't on his penis at all). Furthermore, Sickert probably had several illegitimate children, and his first wife divorced him for adultery, so it is most unlikely that he was impotent. But Cornwell invites us to make the leap of faith with her, and to help us out she writes a vivid description of how much the young Sickert would have suffered during an operation on his penis, with lots of speculation about how he must have felt, how scared and disorientated he would been, how much pain he would have felt. None of which is fact, none of which can be in any way verified, none of which, in all probability, is true. But after you've read three pages describing a young boy suffering under barbaric Victorian medical procedures you're naturally going to be more inclined to believe it.
Having failed to find any evidence whatsoever that Sickert was the killer, Cornwell falls back on the Jack the Ripper letters. Oh dear. The problem with the letters, several hundred of which were received by the police, is that they probably weren't written by the killer. Cornwell, however, has convinced herself that Sickert wrote almost all of them. Not just one or two, which might have been slightly less unconvincing, but almost all - several hundred letters in wildly different handwriting, many posted from locations far away from London. Cornwell presents us with the idea that Sickert was travelling all over the country to post his letters in order to baffle the police. Again, we are presented with no evidence to back up this daft claim, although Cornwell does say that it's impossible to prove that Sickert didn't do it. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but surely the burden of proof in such a case would demand that Cornwell should be trying to prove that he did do it rather than inviting us to prove that he didn't.)
Apart from that she presents some distinctly disappointing and inconclusive DNA evidence. Oh, and one of the letters is written on paper with the same watermark as some paper Sickert owned. And there are a few sketches on some of the letters that she thinks look like Sickert sketches, so he must have written them, so he must have been the murderer, right? Sigh.
Cornwell also points out that Sickert painted lots of paintings about murder (often with a sexual element). But other artists have painted pictures about murder, especially when there were real-life series of sex crimes in the news at the time (Weimar German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz, for instance), and as far as I know they've never been accused of being serial killers. Hell, the Rolling Stones sang a song about the Boston Strangler, but weren’t murderers.
That's all the ‘evidence’ we get. He may have been impotent, he may have written some letters, he painted pictures of murder. Cornwell is obviously convinced, but I'm not, not at all (and nor are any of the respected 'Ripperologists', people who have been studying the case for decades). It also seems that Cornwell's researchers didn't do their job properly. When talking about a murder that took place on August 31 1888, Cornwell boldly states that 'there are no letters, no news accounts, no works of art that might so much as hint that Sickert was not in London.' Well actually there are. Matthew Sturgis, a biographer of Sickert, has pointed out that there was a very good chance that Sickert was on holiday in France with his mother at the time (the mother wrote a letter that supports this). Not to be deterred Cornwell (who acknowledges that Sickert was in France at some point during the Autumn of 1888) speculates that he commuted to London to perform his murders. Yeah, right.
And of course there's the problem that Jack the Ripper stopped after his fifth victim, and serial killers don't usually stop killing, they carry on until they're caught or they die. Cornwell gets around that by randomly attributing to Sickert every unsolved murder of a woman or child that took place in the British Isles in the 20 years after the Ripper murders. No evidence is presented to back these claims up.
She constantly criticises the police of the time, in spite of the fact that many details of how they investigated the case are unknown to us. She frequently points out that if the crimes had taken place in contemporary America the killer would have been caught (well, yes, but so what?). She also adopts a thoroughly annoying attitude of high-minded condemnation towards anyone else who is interested in the crimes. She even says that anyone who denies her version of the story must be 'tainted with self interest' (I don't have any financial interest in the case, and she hasn't convinced me in the slightest).
She claims that what motivated her in her search for the Ripper was a desire to give justice to his victims, who she seems to think have become commodified by the 'Ripper industry', and that no one cares about them. This is rather unfair, as she'd realise if she'd read any of the better recent Ripper books. Besides, her compassion for the victims doesn't extend to not printing the horrible mortuary and crime scene photographs of them (there is a photo of one victim while she's still alive - we don't get that here, just the one of her corpse, because that’s what compassion really means, right?). In fact her respect for the victims doesn't even extend to spelling their names correctly (two are wrong throughout).
Cornwell does write pretty well, but then you'd expect that from a novelist who sells as many books as she does. She puts in quite a lot of nice picaresque background detail on Victorian London, including an interesting bit about bull's-eye lanterns. There are no footnotes, which is disappointing, especially as she claims at one point that there were rumours that the Elephant Man was the Ripper, something I'd been unaware of, and would love to know more about (assuming it’s true).
I think what annoys me most is that now people will think that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper, because Patricia Cornwell says so. She's thrown a lot of money at her investigation, and her book will be read by thousands of fans who will probably not see any reason to question what she says. What this amounts to is a wealthy American buying a piece of British history, just like that guy who bought London Bridge and had it moved to America.
This book tells us nothing at all about the case, it simply blackens the name of a distinguished artist. Ignore it.