On this date in 1888 in London’s East End, prostitute Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim of the killer who the world came to know as “Jack the Ripper,” was discovered murdered and mutilated. Over the next several weeks, four more women of the evening would fall victim to the slasher, who despite sending numerous taunting letters to the police, was never caught.
In the decades since the murders, dozens of men (and at least one woman) have been implicated in the crimes, including Queen Victoria’s grandson and Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.
For her 2002 book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, the famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwell spent much of her own fortune investigating the case and concluded that the killer was none of the usual suspects that have been suggested in countless true crime anthologies. Instead, she believes that the Ripper was 28-year-old British artist Walter Sickert, who would later become one of Britain’s most famous painters in the decades following the murders.
Walter Richard Sickert was born in Germany in 1860 and moved to England as a young boy. He was the son and grandson of painters, but first sought fame as a stage actor. He studied painting at the feet of James McNeill Whistler – the creator of Whistler’s Mother – and later from the impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
He was by all accounts handsome, brilliant (he spoke several languages fluently), urbane, narcissistic, eccentric, and very secretive. Despite his sophisticated manner, he was most often found in London’s East End, which was a dangerous, filthy, overcrowded area brimming with crime and disease, where prostitutes (known as “unfortunates”) could be had for pocket change.
Cornwell believes that Sickert had a genital deformity that prevented him from copulation. She speculates his anger over his condition percolated into rage and manifested itself in the vicious slashings and disembowelments of his victims.
Of course, a glacier-cold case like the Ripper’s makes it virtually impossible to ever prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sickert was the killer, but this hasn’t stopped Cornwell from trying. She has used the latest twenty-first century technology on the remaining physical evidence and believes she has found matches between Ripper letters and Sickert objects. She has reportedly even gone to the controversial lengths of destroying original Sickert paintings to obtain DNA.
When all is said and done it may turn out that Walter Sickert was simply a painter and not Jack the Ripper. But if Cornwell’s theories are correct, it will be a stunning conclusion to a case that continues to frighten and intrigue millions of people generations after the events occurred. It would be as if the 1960’s Bay Area Zodiac killer – who, like the Ripper, enjoyed taunting the police and was never caught – turned out to be a famous celebrity of today.
Stranger things have happened. I just can’t think of any.
(In tomorrow’s The Art of the Killer, Part 2 post we travel to see one of Sickert’s paintings.)