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Could Jack the Ripper have been an artist?

Patricia Cornwell's Suspect
Patricia Cornwell's "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed"
Patricia Cornwell's "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed"
Courtesy Amazon

In 2002, novelist Patricia Cornwell produced a nonfiction book in which she revealed Jack the Ripper as one Walter Sickert. The intelligent (and reputedly egotistical) British impressionist painter was 28 at the time of the Whitechapel murders. A successful artist, Sickert was known to paint and draw nudes of brutalized women. Not only did Cornwell believe that Sickert was the Ripper, she also postulated that he took his act on the road from London to the English countryside and France. His excursions outside of London, Cornwell believes, included murdering children as well [source: CNN].

The author's investigation took on the tones of obsession. She even cut apart a Sickert painting in search of evidence. No one's sure what she expected to find inside the painting, but other Ripperologists have found his artwork suspicious as well. One moody, dark painting, titled "The Camden Town Murder," shows a naked woman lying on a bed, perhaps dead, with a man seated on the edge of the bed, fully clothed. To Cornwell, it's tantamount to Sickert's murder confession [source: The Guardian].

Cornwell found her most tangible support from a modern investigative technique: DNA testing. She visited Scotland Yard and examined several hundred documents and letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper. Cornwell and Ripperologists are aware that most (if not all) of these letters were written by people other than the murderer. Letters from people claiming to be Jack the Ripper were sent to Scotland Yard into the 1960s, in fact. (Sickert, incidentally, died in 1942.) Some of the earliest letter forgers -- two of whom were women -- were arrested around the time of the murders [source: Ryder].

When the DNA test results were returned to Cornwell, she found a match. She had results from Ripper letters compared to samples taken from some of Sickert's known correspondence. She found a match among mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that ruled out 99 percent of the human population, but not Sickert [source: SPT]. Mitochondrial DNA doesn't degrade as easily as nuclear DNA. This is significant, considering the Ripper letters that provided matches had been written a century before.

Patricia Cornwell isn't the only author to point to Sickert as Jack. At least two others, the first in 1970, have arrived at the same conclusion. Like Cornwell, they view Sickert's paintings as evidence of his guilt. They believe the paintings contain clues -- which Sickert purposely included -- to his identity as Jack the Ripper. Some Ripperologists (including Cornwell) believe that Sickert actually used the murdered prostitutes as models for his paintings. The artist was trained under American painter James Whistler to paint only from life. So if Sickert followed Whistler's methodology, we could infer that Sickert must've seen the corpses of the women in his paintings firsthand. But there's no definitive proof that he had access to them -- or that he murdered the women himself.

Sickert is said to have admitted there were clues in his paintings related to the Ripper murders. But, according to a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son, Sickert said he'd put the clues there to point to another theory of the killings -- that they were part of a royal cover-up.

And then there's the theory that one of the Ripperologists' likeliest suspects was himself a Ripperologist. This ironic twist underscores the slippery slope of the investigation in the Whitechapel murders: That the case may never be closed. In addition, there are some holes in Cornwell's theory that keep it from definitively solving the case. You'll find out what they are on the next page.

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