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.