Could Jack the Ripper have been an artist?

The mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride, one of two prostitutes who were murdered in the Whitechapel district of London on September 30, 1888 by Jack the Ripper.
The mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride, one of two prostitutes who were murdered in the Whitechapel district of London on September 30, 1888 by Jack the Ripper.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

It must have been particularly unsettling to be a prostitute in London, England in 1888. In addition to the usual dangers that accompany such a profession, in the fall of that year, a madman -- a butcher of women -- was on the prowl in the city's East End. At least five women were murdered by a serial killer who'd led them to believe he was merely a customer. They met their ends in a most brutal fashion, and the crimes became known as the Ripper murders.

In one case, a victim's kidney was removed and taken as a souvenir. In another, the victim's sex organs were dissected. An equally gruesome case involved an interrupted amputation in which the killer left behind a partially removed leg. The city was whipped into a frenzy by news of these horrible murders. The press called this monster "Jack the Ripper." The killer was bold, murdering his victims on the street in some cases, and leaving their eviscerated remains for any casual passerby to find.

According to popular belief, there were other victims, including one woman whose torso was discovered beneath a tarp and her arms and legs found floating in the Thames River. The London constabulary (police department) ultimately attributed five murders, all female prostitutes, to the Ripper. These serial killings took place between Aug. 31 and Nov. 9, 1888. Two took place within an hour of each other on Sept. 30. That fall, London became a place of fear.

And then, as quickly as it began, the killing spree stopped. Jack the Ripper withdrew into the shadowiest corners of history.

For more than a century, countless people have doggedly pursued the true identity of Jack the Ripper. These Ripperologists use historical research and analysis from the London police and Scotland Yard's 19th-century investigation to guide their efforts. Amateur criminologists and historians have nominated dozens of possible suspects in the case, none of whom have been definitively identified as Jack the Ripper. So the quest continues.

In 2002, popular crime fiction novelist Patricia Cornwell advanced her own theory of Jack the Ripper's identity. She released "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed," a nonfiction book in which she identifies her Ripper suspect. On the next page, find out why Cornwell is certain a well-known 19th-century British artist is Jack the Ripper.

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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.

The artist is exonerated?

Artist (and potential Jack the Ripper) Walter Sickert, circa 1912
Artist (and potential Jack the Ripper) Walter Sickert, circa 1912
George C. Beresford/Beresford/ Getty Images

As soon as Patricia Cornwell's book naming Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper was published, dedicated Ripperologists set about poking holes in her theory and methods. One critic, a curator of Sickert works at the Royal Academy in London, called her "monstrously stupid" for destroying a Sickert painting in the name of research [source: The Guardian].

Other criticism has been leveled more at Cornwell's conclusion. Chief among this criticism from Ripperologists is her use of mitochondrial DNA.

We receive our mtDNA from our mother's lineage only, which makes it less accurate in identifying our cells than the unique combination of DNA found in our cells' nuclei [source: ORNL]. While Cornwell's mtDNA sample ruled out 99 percent of the population, this still left nearly 50,000 other London residents in addition to Sickert who may have produced an mtDNA match as well.

Ripperologists critical of Cornwell point out that if Walter Sickert were the man who sent the Ripper letters that provided this DNA match, this doesn't prove he was also the killer. Sickert was well-known for his prolific letter writing to the editors of local newspapers. He was also very much interested in the Ripper murders. So it's perhaps less of a stretch to assume that Sickert wrote the letter as a bizarre prank than it is to assume that because he wrote the letters, he was the Ripper.

The use of paintings as evidence is also called into question by some Ripperologists. As anyone interested in art knows, paintings are open to interpretation by the observer. But Ripperology puts little stock in art appreciation. While Sickert's paintings can be taken to depict dead women, they could also be sleeping or resting women. The one work of Sickert's that's most often cited as evidence of the painter's guilt is "The Camden Town Murder." But as Ripperologist Wolf Vanderlinden points out, Sickert gave this painting an alternate title: "What Shall We Do for Rent?" Under this other title, the menace in the painting is replaced by a sense of desperation and uncertainty: Murderer and victim become simply a couple who've fallen on hard times [source: Vanderlinden].

It's possible that Sickert did use the murdered women as subjects for his paintings. It's also possible that the artist did so as an attempt at grisly humor or simply out of interest in the Ripper case -- art imitating life. Cornwell's assertion that Sickert only painted things he saw in real life is undermined by evidence that Sickert did, in fact, paint from photographs on occasion -- especially later in life. And when the artist produced his most "confessional" paintings around 1905, a book containing photos of the Whitechapel murder victims had already been published for six years [source: Vanderlinden].

Ultimately, there are too few clues to definitively identify Walter Sickert or any of the other suspects as Jack the Ripper. While Patricia Cornwell is satisfied with her closed case, the century-old manhunt continues for Ripperologists pursuing their own theories.

For more information on serial killers and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Curtis, Lewis Perry. "Jack the Ripper and the London Press." Yale University Press. 2001.http://books.google.com/books?id=OKtI2mFPNlgC&pg=PA177&lpg=PA177&dq=george+lusk+kidney+fried+and+eaten&source=web&ots=2WjPU4VY6l&sig=_sp0eiHjkNYKUEp7r_gUJnz2fg4&hl=en
  • Dunn, Adam. "Patricia Cornwell vs. Jack the Ripper." CNN. December 3, 2002. http://archives.cnn.com/2002/SHOWBIZ/books/12/03/cornwell.ripper/index.html
  • Gibbons, Fiachra. "Does this painting by Walter Sickert reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper?" The Guardian. December 8, 2001.http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,615448,00.html
  • McCrary, Gregg. "A succession of murders." The Crime Library. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/ripper_profile/1_index.html
  • Ryder, Stephen P. "Patricia Cornwell and Walter Sickert: A primer." Casebook. http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-pamandsickert.html
  • Vanderlinden, Wolf. "The art of murder." Ripper Notes. February 2002. http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-artofmurder.html
  • Willing, Richard. "Cornwell paints 'Portrait' of Jack the Ripper." USA Today. November 18, 2002. http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/reviews/2002-11-18-cornwell-portrait_x.htm
  • "Novelist says British artist may have been Jack the Ripper." St. Petersburg Times. October 31, 2002. http://www.sptimes.com/2002/10/31/Artsandentertainment/In_the_news.shtml