Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed
A HOUSE BUILT ON SAND
‘PORTRAIT OF A KILLER’ (2002) by Patricia Cornwell is a book in two parts; that’s stressed even in the sub-title: ‘JACK THE RIPPER – CASE CLOSED’. It appears to be a good book struggling to escape poisonous tentacles – or, perhaps, a house built on sand.
I came across this book several years ago when, with a lifetime of interest in crime and punishment, I wanted to examine details of perhaps the most famous murder-spree in history. So, largely by using the index, I skipped through details of a sequence of gruesome murders. Unfortunately, at some time since then I lent the book which disappeared onto bookshelves of the anonymous. I acquired this copy via Ancestry and discovered the bits I leap-frogged over more than a decade ago.
It is indeed a book with two faces: one is that meticulous description of the murder scenarios and the background of the victims which had been my focus those years before. As I was reading the whole book I could appreciate the clear style in which PROBABLE facts were marshalled in order as I’d long enjoyed from the creator of Scarpetta. Even more, the author provided a vigorous coverage of the general background of that society: the gap between components of a rigid class strata so exploited by Jack the Ripper: poverty, disorder and a constant fight for survival in one; comfortable indulgence of the other extreme with that temptation to taste the forbidden pleasures of that goldfish bowl so clearly described in ‘The Worm in the Bud’ by R. Pearsley (1969); while the general social background described by Henry Mayhew a generation before was still there and rotting. Patricia Cornwell adds frequently passed-over areas like police procedures on patrol, public abhorrence for detectives and the hysteria whipped up newspapers which has made five murders so notorious. Was the number only five? Perhaps. Other claims for Ripper victims are best assigned to the ‘Maybe’ category because the whole area has been worked over until even the sub-soil of what may be termed ‘Hell on Earth-has been torn up by those mining such a rich vein of profit.
To illustrate here is an ALPHABETICAL list of 15 Ripper suspects:
CHAPMAN, CLARENCE, CREAM, CROSS, CUTBUSH, DEEMING, DRUITT, FEIGENBAUM, GULL, KOSMINSKI, MAYBRICK, OSTROG, SICKERT, TUMBLETY, WILLIAMS
Why listed like that? It lessens the impact of FAMILIAR names and limits all to an even consideration. Why are they suspects? One was born into the top rank and two helped assist / cover-up his Ripper activities. Three had medical connections -Jack was a deranged doctor, wasn’t he? No, one was a hair-dresser or did he just find a body? Four were mad, though one admitted everything by committing suicide; one actually declared,’ I’m Jack the- ‘, though he wasn’t either of the two who actually confessed. But was Jack one of the four killers executed – didn’t another one disappear? Yes, but don’t forget one was killed by his wife (who escaped the gallows, he should have never that diary. Even so three have still managed to be accused years after their deaths. Complicated isn’t it?
Patricia Cornwell has spent great deal of time, effort and a lot of money in trying to solve the mystery. With her eminence in the world of crime fiction, she’s enjoyed considerable help from those controlling access to what MIGHT remain of evidence – and she’s well versed with how law enforcement operates in North America.
At a moment of disorientation, she was presented with the solution of the Ripper crimes. I first of Walter Sickert over fifty years ago as somebody who’d become so excited st being told he was renting the bedroom of Jack the Ripper that he produced a murky painting entitled ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’.
Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was an artist. perhaps buffeted by a ‘gifted’ family background, who certainly possessed a weird personality with an awareness of what attracted those imprisoned by the constraints of society before the ‘War to end all wars.’ For Patricia Cornwell this was a eureka moment
‘I knew the identity of a murderer and I couldn’t possibly avert my gaze…..” It doesn’t matter if he’s dead. Every now and then this small voice asks me, what if you’re wrong? I would never forgive myself for saying such a thing about somebody, and then finding out I’m wrong.”
“But you don’t believe you’re wrong……”
“No. Because I’m not,” I said.’(PP.9-10)
The portcullis had been slammed down. The castle was under attack.
The defence is quite clear. The author meticulously presents evidence but somewhere in the handling there’s a sleight of hand: whatever, in ANY way, can link Sickert to that reign of terror in 1888 Whitechapel is pawed over, the rest is dropped on to the slag heap.
In previewing an analysis of the Ripper letters, with its extraordinary range of hand-writing (some of the many illustrations), the author states a preference for examining ‘the unique and repeated use of linguistic combinations in multiple texts [which] is the fingerprint of a person’s mind. (P.57). So this review will have brief look at the use of language in this book.
There’s a subtle but frequent use of modal auxiliary grammar ‘When Sickert was born his gender may have been ambiguous’ (P. 64) ‘It would have been easy for him to disguise himself’ (P.81). ‘It must have been thrilling to spy on a constable huffing and straining as Mary Ann Nichols’s almost severed head lolled from side to side…’ (P.91) As here, this often accompanied by proximity in the text of Sickert to the murderer. Other words such as POSSIBLE, POSSIBLY, PERHAPS, MAYBE etc. are there to SUGGEST a CERTAINTY which isn’t there.
On Page 84 when a Thameside warehouse burns down, something changes`: ‘it is purely speculative to say that Sickert wandered toward the water to watch, He might not have been in London on this, although there is nothing on record to prove he wasn’t.’ Why is that so important? The Brandy Warehouse burnt down on the night of 30 August 1888 and the corpse of Mary Ann Nichols was found in the early morning of 31 August; she was the first of the ‘canonical five’ victims of the Ripper and the one receiving the most treatment
(16 pages) in the book including the quotation in the previous paragraph.
However, there are some statements which seem to challenge each other: ’Sickert was far too clever to paint pictures of murders and entertain his friends by re-enacting a real killing that had happened just beyond his door’ (P.83) and ‘Sickert is known to have drawn, etched and painted only what he saw. Without exception, this is true.’ (P. 91)
At this point I must confess that I welcome being numbered among ‘the skeptics and critics tainted by self-interest who will refuse to accept that Sickert was a serial killer, a damaged, diabolical man driven by megalomania and hate’ (P. 14). Why? Because any ad hominem onslaught like that has abandoned rationality and KNOWS its position is weak.
The area which appears LEAST useful are the claims for MT_DNA, especially specimens obtained from the obverse of stamps on a Ripper letter and a Sickert letter. MT_DNA is ‘only passed down by the mother’ (P. 170) insists the author but it’s not that simple.
Ignore any corruption / decay of the samples; ignore the size of any matched sequence. Just consider that MT_DNA probably stretches back to earlier than 20,000 B.C. so don’t try to imagine how many relatives that gives you. In my family research I have more than 2,000 named ‘cousins’ of which I can identify a hundred or so - and then only HOW they relate normally also involves measurable amounts of AT_DNA or Y_DNA or X_DNA.
As Blaine Bettinger, a DNA authority, in ‘DNA Testing & Genetic Genealogy’ (2016) wrote ’an MT_DNA test can only reveal that two people are maternally related somehow, but it can’t determine the exact nature of the relationship.’ (PP.66-67)
Consider the probability of Sickert writing even ‘a startling number of the Ripper letters’ (P.166) in multiple hand-writing styles. How would they reach their recipients? Could he trust delivery to others? How did he find the time with his myriad activities (Painting, Acting, writing other letters – and murdering women)? Where did he get the writing-materials He may well have written SOME letters – and should have merited imprisonment. Why?
Forty years ago ‘Wearside Jack’ distracted a police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper long enough for Peter Sutcliffe to kill 3 more women before his arrest on 21 Jan 1981.Peter Humble, the faker, was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
Patricia Cornwell states: Perhaps he only composed a number of Ripper letters because he had a wacky, warped sent of humour’. (p.176). Earlier she provides a better summary: ’Sickert murdered sick and miserable prostitutes who were old before their time. He murdered them because it was easy. He was motivated by his lust for sexual violence his hatred and his insatiable need for attention.’ (P.96)
Certainly I believe the authors stretches consideration of ‘murders of interest’ to Ripper- hunters far more extensive than possibility justify? Does Patricia Cornwell have her doubts about pointing the KILLER finger at Sickert as well as that of LETTER-WRITER? I was intrigued by this passage on P.351:
‘After the butchery of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper faded into a nightmare from the past. He was probably that sexually insane young doctor who was really a barrister and who threw himself into the Thames. He could have been a lunatic barber or a lunatic who was safely locked up in an asylum. He could be dead. What a relief to make such assumptions.’
Note the three examples of MODAL English. The weakest is ‘could have been’ which basically dismisses a mistake; ‘could be’ is plain uncertainty while ‘probably’ is a strong suggestion pointing to John Montague Druitt, whose 1876 letter she had examined and (reluctantly?) dismissed from a list of suspects.
In conclusion, I will go further. From what I have read in this book, Sickert appears as a pampered man screeching for the attention of newspapers, theatrical audiences and the recognised art world for what he never deserved. He was buttressed by money from women, assisted by whatever his creations could secure from depraved patrons in the hidden world of Victoriana. I could never imagine him as Jack the Ripper – except in his dreams!