The Magazine

Forensic Failure

Patricia Cornwell doesn't catch Jack the Ripper.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By JON L. BREEN
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Portrait of a Killer
Jack the Ripper Case Closed
by Patricia Cornwell
Putnam, 387 pp., $27.95

Trying to smoke out Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered at least five prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, has degenerated into a hobbyist pursuit, like bird-watching or crossword puzzles or rotisserie football, and the bestselling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell doesn't like it. In an interview promoting her book "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed," Cornwell says, "These were not cute little mysteries to be transformed into parlor games, or movies, or the subject of conventions of mystery buffs, but rather a series of horrible crimes that no one should get away with, even after death." She also deplores the posthumous character assassination of wrongly accused Ripper suspects: "I don't think you should ever theorize about someone being a criminal just because they're dead and you can get away with it. That's a terrible thing."

Cornwell's objections are well taken. Too often in treatments of the Ripper case, the author picks a suspect (often outrageously unlikely and preferably famous--Lewis Carroll is an extreme example) and looks for evidence in support of the theory, ignoring evidence against. Writers who admit they are writing fiction can take even wilder flights of fancy, accusing everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Rasputin.

But now Cornwell is positive that she has cracked the case once and for all, and we can put to rest all this silliness. Unfortunately, her arrogant expressions of certainty despite the absence of compelling evidence put her in the same category as those reputation-destroying players of games she holds in such contempt. Fans of her fifteen mystery novels from "Postmortem" (1990) to "Isle of Dogs" (2001) will loyally buy her Jack the Ripper book, and some of them will no doubt be convinced. Anyone with concern for the rules of evidence will not be fooled.

Judging by the size of her name on the dustjacket, Cornwell may be the first commentator on the case to be bigger than Jack the Ripper. The Whitechapel killer has been a durable commercial commodity, the subject of motion pictures, television documentaries, and a stream of articles and book-length studies. Why does he (probably not she, although a "Jill the Ripper" theory has been floated) retain such a fascination well over a century after his crimes?

First, there's that chillingly colorful name, whether invented by the killer himself or an impostor. That Jack was never identified or caught is an indispensable factor. The visuals are sure-fire: the image of a menacing figure creeping through the pea soup London fog, blade in hand. Then there's the more respectable sociological angle: the spotlight the killings put on the underside of Victorian society. The cult of Jack was jump-started by the relative uniqueness of the crimes in their time and place. Serial murder, though not unknown, did not seem as widespread as it does today. Investigative methods in nineteenth-century Britain were unlikely to connect a series of crimes unless (like the Ripper murders) they were confined to a relatively small area and had startling similarities.

Some of the Ripper suspects are known for nothing else, notably the suicidal barrister Montague John Druitt, accused by Tom Cullen in "Autumn of Terror" (1965), and the Russian agent Pedachenko, the choice of Donald McCormick in "The Identity of Jack the Ripper" (1970). Of candidates known for other endeavors, the most popular, because of high station, was Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence.

The rickety case against Queen Victoria's gormless grandson was first advanced in veiled and cautious fashion in a 1970 magazine article by the elderly Dr. Thomas Stowell, who died shortly after publication and whose notes were burned by his survivors. Frank Spiering's "Prince Jack" (1978) unconvincingly embroiders on Stowell's case.

In "Clarence: Was He Jack the Ripper?" (1972), Michael Harrison answers in the negative and offers an entertaining but unpersuasive alternative: James Kenneth Stephen, the prince's tutor, a cousin of Virginia Woolf, and a writer of misogynistic verse. David Abrahamsen's "Murder and Madness" (1992) posits a Leopold-and-Loebish collaboration of Clarence and Stephen. The ostensible author of "The Diary of Jack the Ripper," a probable forgery, was James Maybrick, alleged victim of arsenic poisoning at the hands of his wife Florence in another notorious British murder case.

THE MOST PERSISTENT THEORY was propounded by Stephen Knight in "Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution" (1976) and recycled fictionally in the Sherlock Holmes film "Murder by Decree" (1979) and Anne Perry's novel "The Whitechapel Conspiracy" (2001): an elaborate plot of Dr. William Gull, the royal physician, other Freemasons in the highest ranks of the British government, and even Queen Victoria herself to cover up the prince's secret marriage to a Roman Catholic. Among Knight's accused conspirators is the British impressionist artist Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), a onetime assistant to James McNeill Whistler. Knight's argument is effectively presented and convincing on its face, but according to Ripper specialist Donald Rumbelow in "Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook" (1988), an independent look at Knight's evidence reveals enough selectivity and distortion to discredit his theory.

PATRICIA CORNWELL was introduced to the Jack the Ripper case while doing research in Great Britain for a new novel about her forensic pathologist detective Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell writes that as of May 2001, she "had never read a Ripper book in [her] life, . . . knew nothing about his homicides, . . . did not know his victims were prostitutes or how they died." By December 6, however, she was telling "Primetime Thursday"'s Diane Sawyer that she would stake her reputation on the claim that Walter Sickert was the Whitechapel killer.

Cornwell reportedly spent millions of her own dollars pursuing the investigation, buying and sometimes destroying the suspect's paintings (to the horror of the British art world), and sponsoring DNA analysis of old documents. Many Ripperologists have devoted decades of study to the mystery without claiming to have solved it, but a scant eighteen months after her introduction to the case, Cornwell's brief against Sickert has been published.

At no point does Cornwell offer any real evidence linking Sickert to the Ripper murders. Instead, she devotes her energies to connecting Sickert to the supposed Ripper letters, of which hundreds were received by police and press. Some of the Ripper letters were found to have used artists' materials of the kind Sickert would have employed and to have watermarks similar to stationery used by Sickert. Likewise, some of the doodles with which Sickert decorated his own letters were similar to doodles on the alleged Ripper letters, as were some of the expressions used. (Cornwell believes the "Ha! Ha!" that recurs in Ripper letters is an Americanism Sickert picked up from his mentor Whistler.)

For all its trumpeting in publicity, the DNA evidence is admittedly inconclusive. "The best result," writes Cornwell, "came from a Ripper letter that yielded a single-donor mitochondrial DNA sequence, specific enough to eliminate 99 percent of the population as the person who licked and touched the adhesive backing of that stamp. This same DNA sequence profile turned up as a component of another Ripper letter, and two Walter Sickert letters." This sounds impressive, but diminishes on closer examination. For one thing, it does not take into account contamination by all the persons who might have handled the various letters in the century since they were written, or the possibility that Sickert did not lick his own stamps. Research continues, but book deadlines do not wait on science.

EVEN ONE WHO FINDS these tenuous associations connecting Sickert to the Ripper letters convincing must follow Cornwell in a second leap to the conclusion that the Ripper actually wrote the letters. Most writers on the case, in common with the police of the time, believe the Ripper letters were all, or nearly all, hoaxes. Sickert was a prolific author of articles on art and a compulsive writer of letters to the editor. It is possible (though hardly proven) he could have written some hoax Ripper letters, but that is a long way from the conclusion he committed the murders.

Cornwell reports that she initially agreed with the conventional wisdom that the Ripper letters were fakes. She writes, "However, during my intensive research of Sickert and the way he expressed himself--and the way the Ripper expressed himself in so many of his alleged letters--my opinion changed. I now believe that the majority of the letters were written by the murderer." The implication that she has somewhere presented other evidence Sickert was the Ripper is not borne out anywhere in the book.

Cornwell believes Sickert, who underwent a series of operations for a fistula in childhood, was genitally disfigured and that an inability to have sexual relations fueled a hatred of women. Her backing for this speculation is shaky, and according to some accounts, Sickert, though his three marriages were childless, had numerous illegitimate offspring. In making her point, Cornwell commits textbook examples of the logical fallacy of begging the question, proving her conclusion from premises that assume her conclusion--as when she writes: "The lack of seminal fluid in the Ripper lust-murders is consistent with the supposition that Sickert was incapable of sex." The murderer's missing ejaculations prove that Sickert was impotent, and Sickert's impotence proves that he was the murderer.

Cornwell includes much interesting if tangential information on the history of criminal justice, contrasting the methods of British police in the 1880s with forensic detection as now practiced in the United States. The underlying theme is that Sickert would have been caught if modern scientific methods had been available. More begging the question. The Ripper might have been caught, true, but where is the proof that Sickert was the Ripper?

Cornwell notes that some of Sickert's paintings "bear a chilling resemblance to mortuary and scene photographs of Jack the Ripper's victims." The illustrations Cornwell prints in "Portrait of a Killer" do not bear this out as dramatically as she suggests, but even if the point is conceded, it proves nothing. Certainly Sickert had a fascination with the Ripper crimes and the sordid world in which they took place, but it is not necessary to believe he painted from a firsthand memory of the scene. He often painted from photographs, and photographs of the victims could have been available to him. Cornwell is never able to demonstrate the clincher of guilt in detective fiction: that Sickert had knowledge of the crimes that only the Ripper could have. In her effort to put Sickert in as damning a light as possible, Cornwell asserts that as a teenager he "stalked" Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. The lack of notes prevents the reader from tracing where she got this idea, and despite loaded language that cries for more detail, she never expands on the accusation.

A writer who is so dogmatic in making her accusation, after deploring earlier writers who made their cases no more incompetently, should not be let off the hook easily. At best, Sickert is an intriguing possible (albeit unlikely) suspect. In one interview Cornwell expresses the horror she would feel if anyone proved her wrong. She's probably safe. It's unlikely anyone at this late date can prove that Walter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper, or that anyone else was. But the burden of proof rests with the prosecution, not the defense. At least Stephen Knight presented a prima facie case that required a rebuttal from other writers to show its inadequacy. If Cornwell's case went to court, the judge would dismiss it as without merit at the end of the prosecutor's evidence, sparing the defense the need to call any witnesses.

Cornwell's argument can be boiled down to a sentence: Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper because I say so.

A frequent contributor of essays on mystery fiction to The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.