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The mystery of Jack the Ripper scarcely needs any introduction. For around 18 months in the late 1880s, the Ripper terrified London, committing a series of brutal murders on prostitutes before suddenly stopping. Since the guilty party was never identified, there has been no end of speculation over the years and plenty of conflicting ideas put forward. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell is the latest to claim that she has finally solved the mystery which has baffled police and amateur investigators for well over a century.
Cornwell claims she is taking a new tack in order to identify the killer. Using modern day forensic techniques, she looks to dissect everything that is known about the Ripper murders and re-evaluate all known facts, testimony and evidence in the light of modern investigative techniques to finally reveal the Ripper's identity. You certainly can't dispute Cornwell's qualifications for undertaking this task. As a former crime journalist, mortuary worker and crime novelist, she is well-versed in forensic techniques. So is the Ripper finally to be brought to justice after almost 120 years?
Well, no. Whilst Cornwell names the person she believes is responsible, her claim is no more convincing than any of the other candidates that have been put forward over the years and indeed, in some areas, is less convincing than rival theories.
First of all, though, let me save you £15 (the hardback RRP, although it can be picked up cheaper second hand). Normally I work very hard to avoid spoilers, but in this case, I'm going to make an exception and tell you who Cornwell fingers as the Ripper because Cornwell herself makes no effort to hide it. As a crime thriller writer, I expected her to create a sense of drama, slowly collecting evidence and constructing her case step by step before dramatically revealing the Ripper's name in the final chapters.
Not so. Go into any bookshop and look on the dust jacket or back cover and you will instantly see that Cornwell names artist Walter Sickert as the guilty man. This is a rather odd way to approach the book since it instantly robs it of any kind of mystery or suspense and takes away one of the more powerful attractions of Ripper books.
Still, this is the least of the book's problems since it is unbelievably badly written and I expected far, far better from such a well-established author. There is no real narrative flow and it leaps around with no sense of style or consistency. One minute we are looking at Sickert's childhood to "prove" that he fits the profile of a psychopathic killer; next we are investigating the murder of the Ripper's first victim. Then we're back looking at Sickert's family again, before moving onto yet another topic. It's thoroughly confusing and deeply dissatisfying. Given that it's written by an author who produces crime fiction for a living, I expected a strong narrative thread that at least would make it interesting to read, even if you disagreed with Cornwell's conclusions. Instead, I found it pedestrian, turgid and confusing.
I could almost forgive this if Cornwell presented compelling new evidence to show beyond all reasonable doubt that Sickert was, indeed, the Ripper. She never comes close and merely rakes up the same facts, figures and quotes that will be familiar to anyone who has read anything about the Ripper. Far from using modern day forensic techniques to analyse the evidence, she seems to base many of her conclusions on hearsay and speculation. The book is littered with weasel phrases like "it seems likely", "it is probable", "surely Sickert must have..." and so on. She will link several of these guesses and suppositions together to show what "must" have happened and it's never convincing; if just one of these leaps of logic is wrong, the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down. Conventional wisdom holds that "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and Cornwell's chain of logic in identifying Sickert as the killer consists of nothing but weak links.
Let me give you a fairly typical example. One of Sickert's paintings shows an old handcart sitting outside a basket shop in France. The handcart is of the style often used by police in the late 1800s to transport seriously injured or dead people to the hospital or mortuary. Records suggest that such a cart was used to transport the body of the first Ripper victim. Therefore (according to Cornwell) Sickert (as is common with psychopaths) MUST have returned to the scene of the crime to watch the police fumbling around and therefore he MUST have seen the cart being used and placed it in his later picture as both a "souvenir" of his kill and to taunt the police. Yes Pat, of course he did.
This is not the only time that Cornwell points to Sickert's painting as "proof" of his guilt (it's not even the least convincing), and is pretty indicative of the "evidence" she produces to "prove" her theory. Despite repeatedly assuring the reader that this can be the only logical conclusion, you are actually left with the overall impression Cornwell first decided on their conclusion and then went out to find the evidence to support it, rather than using the available evidence to reach a conclusion that fits all the facts.
Here's another example: Several of the Ripper letters contain the phrase "ha ha" (or some variant) as a taunt to the police. Sickert was once a pupil of the artist James Whistler who, by all accounts, had an annoying habit of frequently laughing in exactly that way. Therefore, by mimicking his old master and using this phrase in his letters, Sickert was clearly identifying himself to the police who were just too stupid to realise it. That is one serious leap of logic.
Cornwell also has a tendency to make sweeping statements without backing them up with any real evidence. For example, there are several letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper, some of these are generally believed to be genuine, but many are considered fakes. Cornwell ignores this, simply proclaiming "I now believe that the majority of them are real" without providing a single shred of evidence as to why this. I have no problem with re-evaluating or challenging conventional wisdom, but there have to be reasonable grounds for doing. Once again, this is the arrogance of the author coming through: we should accept her assertion as the truth simply because she is telling us.
This breathtaking arrogance runs throughout the book. Just look at the subtitle: "Case Closed". Effectively, Cornwell is claiming that she has succeeded where dozens of other highly intelligent and competent investigators (including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle) have failed. She and she alone, has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Sickert was The Ripper. I'm sorry Patricia, I disagree. Everything you produce is, at best, circumstantial and at worst, highly dubious. Despite her claims to the contrary, I have no doubt that if this case were brought to trial today, even the most incompetent Defence lawyer would have little difficulty in getting Sickert acquitted.
Cornwell also makes the classic error of the amateur historian by refusing to view things in the context of their own time. She castigates the police for conducting an incompetent investigation that may have resulted in vital evidence being overlooked or accidentally destroyed. Certainly, there were mistakes in the way the police investigated the murders, but they were simply following the procedures of their time (at a time when the idea of an organised, formal police force was still pretty new and investigative techniques primitive). Certainly, when compared with the painstaking investigations of the early 21st century, the police investigation was shoddy... but I'm sure that in 120 years, future law enforcement agencies will be equally incredulous at the "naivety" of 2012 police.
The sad thing about all of this is that there may well be some truth in Cornwell's claims. This is not the first time that Sickert has been identified as The Ripper, and there is certainly some evidence to support the claim. However, he is no more or less convincing as a suspect than other people who have been identified as the guilty party. The simple fact is, it's unlikely that we will ever know for sure and for Cornwell to claim that she has closed the case says more about the arrogance of the author than it does about the validity of her argument.
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
Little, Brown & Company
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
I daresay that everyone reading this is familiar with the name Jack the Ripper. You probably are 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?. 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 115 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; 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 bein
g 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 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. Walter Sickert was born in Germany, but was brought to London as a you
ng child to be treated for a congenital abnormality of the penis. Aged only 5 and unable to understand English, he was left in the hospitable 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 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 Middlesborough 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. 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. ●Details ?Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper ? Case Closed? is by Patricia Cornwell (2002). It is published by Little Brown, ISBN number 03168
61596. The hardback edition that I read cost £17.99, RRP; the softback is £6.99 RRP. **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.**
I will start this review my issuing a warning. I will not hold back in descriptions of actual events in what I write here. Some of the actual descriptions may prove to be too much for some people but, in order to deal with the book, I feel it is necessary to deal with historical events. Over the course of legal history, there are some names that will live in infamy. I am thinking here of those men and women who apparently killed or injured others with cold-blooded disregard, or even worse, apparent pleasure. My mind is drawn to Donald Nielson, the so-called Black Panther, Fred and Rosemary West, Denis Nilson, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, Peter Sutcliffe, whose murders, I am afraid to say, engrossed and shocked me as I grew up in the 1980s, Harold Shipman and most recently Armin Meiwes, the German computer expert who advertised on the internet for someone willing to be killed and eaten. It is all the more shocking that he had many volunteers, but I am so pleased that I did not have to be present in the courtroom when they played the video of the killing. There is, however, one murderer that I have omitted. Over the space of what was merely a few months in the late 1880s, a number of murders led to the naming of a character. The fact that these murders were so vicious in their depravity is one of the things that makes them so famous. The fact that the murderer kept in contact with the police by letter, taunting them at every turn, is also outrageously ghoulish and draws us in yet further. No-one knows who he or she was, and there are so many suspects that everyone has a favourite. The soubriquet that he 'adopted' is famous the world over - Jack The Ripper. In this review I intend to look at a book written by the American author Patricia Cornwell. Her novels centre around a forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell became fascinated with the whole Ripper Legend and wondered what would happen if modern detection methods were applied as much
as possible to the ripper murders. She already had one suspect, and wondered whether any definite proof could be found. She even invested a lot of her own wealth into the investigation. However before I go further into Cornwell's theories, I feel it is necessary to give a few historical facts. The Murders ========== Jack the Ripper is credited, for want of a suitable word, with five murders. However, there are suspicions that a further thirteen murders were committed by the same hand. However I shall deal purely with the five definite 'Ripper Murders'. On 31st August 1888, prostitute Mary Ann Nichols was found murdered. Her throat had been slashed with a very sharp knife and she had also suffered many lacerations to her body and abdomen. 8th September saw the discovery of yet another victim. Annie Chapman had been seized and almost decapitated by the knife that slashed her throat. Her abdomen had been totally sliced open. Her intestines had been removed and placed on her shoulder, whereas her uterus, ovaries, part of her bladder and part of her vagina had been removed and were not present at the scene. This showed immediately that the murderer was becoming more and more savage. 30th Sepember saw two murders. Elizabeth Stride was found- her throat too had been cut. It is widely held that the murderer may well have been disturbed in the act of murder and so was not able to mutilate the body, and that is why he went in search of another victim that very same night. Catherine Eddows was mutilated almost beyond recognition. Her thoat had been slashed and her abdomen ripped open. Yet again the intestines were laid over her shoulder. Part of the intestines had been cut and were placed by her left arm. The victim had cuts to her lower eyelids, her nose was almost severed and part of her ear was missing. Once again the murderer had removed the uterus. On 9th November London witnessed the mos
t frenzied Ripper murder. Mary Jane Kelly was murdered in her lodgings. She was found on her bed, naked, and one hopes she was dead before the mutilations took place. Her throat was, like the other murders, slashed with a very sharp blade. Her abdomen was opened and totally eviscerated. Her breasts were cut off. Some organs were placed under or around the body after death. Her face was almost cut off. If you were to look at a photograph of the murder scene, you would not at first realise that there were a body there. It is also possible that Jack the Ripper murdered the following people: "Fairy Fay" 26th December 1887 Annie Millward 25th February 1888 Ada Wilson 28th March 1888 Emma Smith 3rd April 1888 Martha Tabram 7th August 1888 Unidentified victim 3rd October 1888 Annie Farmer 20th November 1888 Rose Mylett 20th December 1888 Elizabeth Jackson June 1889 Alice McKenzie 17th July 1889 The Pinchin Street Murder 10th September 1889 Frances Coles 13th February 1891 Patricia Cornwell's Theory ==================== I will not give all of Cornwell's theories here, just in case you wish to read the book. Patricia Cornwell is of the opinion that the murderer was 19th Century artist Walter Sickert. I must say that she does give a very plausible case for the prosecution. Sickert was very good at disguises, given that he was also an actor. One of his stagename's was Mr Nemo, and one of the Ripper Letters is signed by Mr Nobody (see the link, Latin scholars?). It is asserted by the author that Sickert may well have been rendered impotent by a penile fistula (I am not going to describe it any more because I wince every time I read it), and this may have led to a hatred of women. This is plausible, but a little tenuous as no medical records exist and Sickert was cremated. There ar
e three major links between Sickert and Jack. they both uses identical sorts of paper for letters (very flimsy in my view), and there are links in the mitochondrial DNA in Sickert Letters and Ripper letters (interesting but not cast iron). The one thing that is interesting and horrifying, is that Sickert used violent imagery in his pictures and paintings. One of his paintings is called 'Jack the Ripper's Bedroom' which in my view is a sick joke if there is no link. There is also a startling similarity between some bodies in his pictures and the way that some of the Ripper's victims were pictured. One of Sickert's famous pictures, 'Ennui' has a painting on the wall with a woman, and over her shoulder appears to be the shape of someone about to grab her. Of course we will never know. What I will say is that the case is made in a very plausible way. It's a bit complicated for my simple mind, but it points a lot of circumstantial evidence firmly in the way of Sickert. Conclusions ========== A very well written book. Cornwell spent a lot of her own money investigating Jack The Ripper. Of all the theories given over the years, I would say that this is very plausible and may well have led to Sickert being questioned and possibly charged. However we must bear in mind that all this constant theorising should not cloud the issue that we are dealing with murder here. In my view Ripperology, as the science has been called, must not become a game. Patricia Cornwell has stated her case, and stated it well, but the true answer will, of course, never be known, not unless Jack The Ripper is still alive 116 years later. Patricia Cornwell: "Portrait of a Killer- Jack the Ripper Case Closed": Time Warner Paperbacks 2003 ISBN 0751533599 £6.99
I must admit that I am not a fan of Patricia Cornwell so in writing this book review I have to remain really objective. Now I am a Ripper fan of sorts if you can call it that and I do read a lot of material on the subject and I am fascinated by the criminal minds and why they do it, what makes them expode and kill. The cover of the books is made to look like an old page of a book and it has her name and the title of the book on the front. Also it has Jack the Ripper - Case Closed underneath. In the top left hand corner of the book is a picture of a victorian male and some letters from people who called himself Jack the Ripper. The back of the cover is a picture of her researching the book. This Book is hardback and the colour of the book is black. What is the book all about then? And why has an American come over to solve our murders. These are questions that I wanted to know. I had seen the television programme that she did on this book and my first impressions were typical American, coming over here telling us what to do, do they not have crimes that need solving in America? She was a bold brash lady and I did not like the way she went around as though she knew everything. But putting this all aside I did decide to buy the book to be honest and fair, if Joe Bloggs down the road did a book on Jack the Ripper, I would buy it. The books is about the Victorian British killings that became known as Jack the Ripper. In Victorian London in August to November 1888 7 women were killed. For over a hundred years now, people have said this is Jack the Ripper or he is Jack the Ripper but in true fact no one really knows and no matter what evidence you can get, it will not be enough proof. If people did know at the time, well they took it to their graves and this will be one of the greatest mysterious of unsolved crimes ever. How does she come to such a conclusion, she visits museums and looks at a person and decides to call him the
Ripper. Lets take a bit more in depth look at this. One of the things that she did in research for this book was put a lot of offal in clothing and then slashed it. As people in Victorian times tended to wear a lot of layers, she proved that these were not just a quick slash killer, who ever did it spent time and thought them out. The person who killed them would have to have a bit of time to carry out the killings. There was no evidence whatsoever that suggested it was Mr Sickert. Also she names Walter Sickert as Jack The Ripper and stakes her reputation on it. Who is Walter Sickert. Well he was an Artist who was connected to Whistler, the famous Artist. She visits various museums and takes a look at some of Sickerts Artwork and depicts them as he is the Ripper and one of them she is sure is his bedroom. Another of Sickerts famous Art works is a painting called Ennui is which there is a small painting of a woman on a wall in the background and she states that a man is coming up behind the woman in the background. There is a lot of other information throughout the book that makes it a good read. She has used experts for all around the world to back up her revelations. To be fair and honest so are other books on Jack the Ripper. Many experts have in the past say things are original and then later found to be false. The DNA were not conclusive and I just hope and pray that if any of Mr Sickerts relatives were alive they would sue her. Was it by some miracle that she named Sickert, no he had been named like so many others as a possible and no more. Well some paper that Sickert has was also the same as The Rippers, mmm that is a hard one isn't it. NOT! How many people today buy the same paper.... no fingerprints, a few photos of early scene crimes and that is about it. The end part of the book is Case Closed, but really it isn't as the only person who really knows who the Ripper was is himself and their will always be new boo
ks coming on the market saying they know who the Ripper was and this is all speculation for we will never know unless by some miracle, the bodies were dug up and DNA tests were done. Good book, great read, just not convinced. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in Jack the Ripper as it does give clear reasons why she has come to this conclusion and this is now sitting in my library along with the other twenty or so people who were also convinced they knew who he was. I suppose the reason why I was not convinced by her book is that she seems to think that she has all the answers and walked over a many other peoples reviews. I feel that by saying for instance on the cover that Case Closed represents that she knows it all and she is correct. Yes I must admit in defence of the book it was very well researched but a lot of that is readily available to anyone else who would look in to this if they wanted to. I just felt it was a case of what can I do next, go over to England and solve their murders. Also after watching the tv programme on this, she seemed to me more concerned with money and her image, even though she is a multimillionairess and this sticks in my mind, did she really do this do add to her fortunes! Also I think that she is adding to her fame by taking on something as famous as the Ripper Crimes. If this is not the case why did she not try and solve unknown cases? She is famous and benefitted from a famous crime as well. This unfortunately took a bit away from the book for me. I paid £18 for this book and it is available in book clubs and stores and supermarkets and book shops. ISBN 0-316-86159-6 Good read but a waste of money with no real substantial evidence that really does pin it on someone. Oh well onto the next one, it is now sitting in my library with the other 30 books or so by authors who claim to know the answer..... Karen
Paticia Cornwall claims to have closed the Jack the Ripper case. That is utter tosh. Her book conyains a mishmash of dubious research, doubtful forensic evidence, tired and dubious psychodrivel which we are to believe is real forensic psychology. The book is self-serving dross. It is a hymn in praise of Ms Corwall. "Ooh, look at me! Am I not the smartest person you ever saw?" Well, sadly, no. Not in my opinion. The book is badly flawed. Cornwall woud make a very poor prosector. She picks and chooses he evidence, ignoring what does not fit in to her pre-ordained theories. Sickert was Jack the Ripper because SHE says so! Never mind that she had to overlook evidence that proved Sickert was not even in Britain, let alone London at the time of some of the murders. But hey! Let's pretendv that doesn't matter! As Cornwall did... The book started oddly and became worse, it began to ramble and meander all over the place. degenerating into what was almost hysteria at several points. As a fan of Patricia Cornwall I was bitterly disapointed by this book.
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 has just published a book on the subject, and given her popularity as a bestselling crime novelist, I fear that her crank theory is going to prove to be the most enduring of all. When Cornwell announced 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 that would satisfy most people, which would hopefully mean that people could start considering more important things about the crimes. Although I've been interested in the case for years I'm not terribly bothered about who the murderer was, but am fascinated by the historical context in which the crimes fit, and the way the contemporary media portrayed 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. It is tempting to believe that Cornwell just looked down a list of existing suspects, decided which one she liked, and then went out looking for evidence that implicated him. In which case it seems likely that she chose 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, describi
ng how Sickert *might* have behaved, *if* he were the murderer, never 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 trave
lling 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 fairly 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, who is suggesting that a man who lived in London was travelling all over the north of England to post letters, 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 (there's some good stuff on the excellent Ripper web site casebook.org about that if you want to know more). 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, does that mean that they're suspects in that case? And 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 pla
ce 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, recently 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' (presumably she thinks that she's put an end to a lucrative little publishing industry; well, 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 appalling 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). 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. I think what annoys me most is that now everyone 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. Cornwell now owns Jack the Ripper, at least in her mind, and it's going to be very difficult to get him back from her. This book tells us nothing at all about the case, it simply blackens the name of a distinguished artist. Ignore it. (Sorry, this opinion is far longer than it should have been. I got a bit carried away.)
True crime book documenting the investigations to uncover the infamous murderer.