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Ripper Case Closed?
December 9, 2002 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Walter Sickert was a renowned impressionist painter. In her new book, author Patricia Cornwell also claims that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Whether you believe her theory or not, Cornwell is certainly getting a lot of press out of this. If all these links aren't enough for you, you can also watch a documentary on Cornwell and her Jack the Ripper theory tonight at 10 p.m. EST on The Learning Channel.
posted by Reggie452 (18 comments total)

 
Also discussed here
posted by matteo at 7:02 AM on December 9, 2002


For a great summary of all the Jack the Ripper Theories, Check out the back of the trade of Alan Moore's "From Hell". It's well worth it if you're into the whole JTR thing.
That being said, I really think there's no way to tell the truth this far removed from the incidents in question. Without doubt there was a lunatic involved, and without doubt there was some scrambling at high levels to cover things up. Whether it was royal secrets or just their own asses, we'll probably never know.
posted by lumpenprole at 7:07 AM on December 9, 2002


Sorry for the double-post. That's what I get for limiting my search to the last year.
posted by Reggie452 at 7:16 AM on December 9, 2002


It bothers me on some very fundamental level that the misidentification of a pathetic maladjusted loser who killed five even more pathetic sick elderly prostitutes in the dirty, dank, rat- and vermin- infested heart of the worst slum in the city could still fascinate the gullible to such an extent. That such baloney could still be considered serious 'history' and could be be used as a fig leaf to cover the obvious prurient interest needed to sell the drivel that gets vomited between the covers of these books.

'Jack the Ripper' indeed. Next they'll be telling us that Abraham Lincoln was really Count Dracula.
posted by 314/ at 7:18 AM on December 9, 2002


I don't know what else Patricia Cornwell is, but for my money she's one of the worst writers ever to land a publishing deal - unbelievably, credibility-strainingly, embarrassingly bad.

I was in an airport once on a long layover, I dig the forensic=pathology thing, and I figured I'd take a chance on one of her (well-reviewed!) tomes. Little did I know I was in for a trudge through prose for which any repuable high-school English teacher would have the author condemned to a life in the Gulag. Ack and double ack.

Automatically renders her less credible as an authority on anything, in my eyes - fairly or not.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:41 AM on December 9, 2002


...killed five even more pathetic sick elderly prostitutes in the dirty, dank, rat- and vermin- infested heart of the worst slum in the city could still fascinate the gullible to such an extent.

That's an oversimplification. I feel compelled to conclude you have not read much on the case, other than what is readily presented by magazine articles and popular media. (Feel free to prove me wrong, though. I'm not trolling here.) There were far more than five murders committed under Jack's m.o., and most of these were hushed up by the police/gov't after they announced they had the case "under control."

Cornwell also traces other cases outside of England with the same m.o. at times when Sickert was present.

I can see your point about the questionable nature of drawing patterns in such a crime-ridden place and time. But, as far as theorists go, I don't think the Jack folks are ridiculous. Lets face it, this, Kennedy and the Masons are good mental exercise... (I'm no expert on any of these, including Jack, but maybe if I had more time...)
posted by Shane at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2002


Unfortunately, I'll be busy with another huge time-wasting conspiracy theory tonight at 10:00.
posted by elgoose at 8:55 AM on December 9, 2002


I don't know what else Patricia Cornwell is, but for my money she's one of the worst writers ever to land a publishing deal - unbelievably, credibility-strainingly, embarrassingly bad.

I agree, her knowledge of forensics is questionable at best.

It bothers me on some very fundamental level that the misidentification of a pathetic maladjusted loser who killed five even more pathetic sick elderly prostitutes in the dirty, dank, rat- and vermin- infested heart of the worst slum in the city could still fascinate the gullible to such an extent.


Damn, that sounds really interesting ... fill me in!
posted by rotifer at 9:51 AM on December 9, 2002


I just finished the book and was very convinced by her theory of Sickert as the Ripper. Her writing skills aside (although I do like her), she made some very convincing arguments for me and was able to back them up with proof. In the book, the present-day "District Attorney" of London (I don't recall what the correct title for this person is) stated that he would be convinced to indict based upon the evidence she uncovered.
posted by macadamiaranch at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2002


My understanding is that people have been tossing Sickert's name around for about 30 years now, and have generally decided he's not the guy. As far as I can tell, Cornwell's big "breakthrough" is mDNA evidence qualifying Sickert as the possible writer of one of hundreds of Jack the Ripper hoax letters; an interesting discovery, but not exactly damning, as we already knew Sickert was fascinated by the murders. It seems to me that the really convincing evidence is that Sickert was in France at the time of the murders: tough to convict a guy with an alibi...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2002


First off, I should say that I haven't yet read the book -- I initially planned on it (I confess to having a fascination for the Ripper ever since I saw Murder by Decree when I was about 9) but I might not even bother now considering how dreadfully wrong-headed it appears to be; I did, however, see the TV special and have followed the articles tracking Cornwell's work in this area for the past couple of years.

I'd underscore mr_roboto's last point there -- Sickert was in France during most of the Ripper murders! Cornwell's thesis apparently hinges on the ridiculous notion that he could slip back and forth between England and France without a single mention or piece of evidence tracking his movements, all the while faking his diary entries & letters (plus postmarks), as well as have various friends and family members cover for him. (Which brings up a slightly tangential point, but one which I think illustrates Cornwell's essential tone-deafness towards evidence: in one letter, Sickert refers to visiting "[his] people" in France that autumn. In British English, of course, "my people" in this context refers to "my family." Cornwell, naturally, can't be bothered to find this out, and instead concocts the preposterous explanation that he is referring obliquely to "his people" who are just like him -- murderers! Murderers, all!) She then "bolsters" her claims by attributing further unsolved killings to Sickert, based largely on broad similarities in m.o. (Paging Mr. Lucas, Mr. Henry Lee Lucas...)

The DNA "evidence" from the letters is useless -- there's no definitive DNA evidence known to have belonged to Ripper (namely, evidence collected at one of the crime scenes that can be ruled as belonging to no one but the killer), so there's nothing with which to make a match! At best, as mr_roboto says, what she's uncovered is that Sickert might have written one the Ripper letters -- most (if not all) of which were hoaxes. You could (theoretically, at least) extract DNA evidence from all of the letters, but it doesn't make all of the letter-writers the killers. As I understand it the DNA evidence -- again, such as it is -- wasn't even extracted from one of the two or three letters that are considered possibly authentic (such as the "Dear Boss" letter). That, I admit, would be much more intriguing (and potentially indictable) evidence -- but she doesn't have it.

The shabbiness of her method is revealed by her comment that even if her information doesn't definitely prove Sickert was the Ripper, that it still "would have been enough to hang him at the time." So, evidently, the actual truth of the matter (presuming we could get it) is irrelevant -- if the tiniest flecks of circumstantial evidence would have convinced a 19th century jury to hang him, then the mystery is solved. That's perilously close to a lynch mob mentality, but what can you expect from someone who literally destroyed (ripped, if you will) some of Sickert's important works just to "see" if he'd left evidence somewhere inside. Because of course, that's what a diabolical serial killer (insert sinister "muah-hah-hah" laugh here) would do in one of those crappy two-bit novels of hers.
posted by scody at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2002


More and more as I read about the Ripper murders I'm inclined to believe that the Ripper, like most serial killers, was a middle class nobody who'se career probably ended due to influenza, TB, or falling under a carriage.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:12 PM on December 9, 2002


I saw the documentary: much of the evidence was ad hominem garbage, such as movie footage of Sickert in old age, confused-looking and heavily bearded, his appearance (slanted by scary soundtrack) cited by Cornwell as demonstration of his evident evil nature. Handwriting comparison also seemed very iffy, given that handwriting was far more standardised - enforced by copybook practice in schools - in those days.
posted by raygirvan at 5:13 PM on December 9, 2002


Reggie, most people feel a year is long enough for the double-post admonishments to expire, especially for topics vs. individual links. Also, matteo didn't actually admonish you. This was a fine post.
posted by dhartung at 6:35 PM on December 9, 2002


It isn't be the first controversial cause, you might even say 'hobbyhorse'', Cornwell has ridden.
posted by cookie-k at 7:39 PM on December 9, 2002


(Oh, Lordy! My firstest post, and I done muffed it. Must now slink abjectly away...)
posted by cookie-k at 7:43 PM on December 9, 2002


If it's the same documentary that aired in Britain a while back, then I've seen it, and I wasn't at all impressed. It was really shoddy, not just because the evidence was thin, but also because the documentary crew couldn't decide whether they wanted to talk about the Ripper or just Cornwell in general. In fact, I'd go so far as to say as it was one of the worst (most unbalanced) documentaries I've ever seen.
posted by jzed at 5:51 AM on December 10, 2002


I saw the documentary and I wasn't convinced... though her evidence was somewhat logical her conclusions were... too broad for my taste.
posted by freethinker1 at 9:43 AM on December 12, 2002


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