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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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.