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Link to biographical sketch.
Link to Review of Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case
Patricia Cornwell is the author of the Dr. Kay Scarpetta series of crime
novels, the Andy Brazil series of crime novels, a biography of Ruth Bell
Graham (wife of the Reverend Billy Graham), and other works that include
two books on food. The Scarpetta books are Cornwell's most important,
and the basis of her great success.
Cornwell has been an award-winning crime reporter for the Charlotte
Observer, a computer operator in the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner's
Office, and a volunteer police officer.
She is very interested in forensics, in the progress of forensic science,
and in introducing uniform high standards throughout the forensic
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profession. She helped to establish the Virginia Institute of Forensic
Science and Medicine, and serves as its Board Chairman.
Cornwell is also Head of the Patricia Cornwell Foundation, with
charitable interests in education, literacy and animal rights.
Patricia Cornwell's novels are noted for their realism, their attention to
detail, and their forensic mastery. She has said, "It is important to me to
live in the world I write about. If I want a character to do or know
something, I want to do or know the same thing."
Her first novel, Postmortem, is the only novel to win the Edgar, Creasey,
Anthony and Macavity awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Aventure in
a single year.
PORTRAIT OF A KILLER
by Patricia Cornwell, 2002
In London's Whitechapel area, in late 1888, at least seven women were
horrifically murdered by a killer who came to be known as "Jack the
Ripper." Despite much speculation, the Ripper's identity has never been
established. In Portrait of a Killer, Patricia Cornwell argues that Jack the
Ripper was the famous English artist, Walter Sickert.
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Portrait of a Killer describes several of the victims, their murders and
the resulting investigations. Among the victims were Martha Tabran, Mary
Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, and
Mary Kelly. All were prostitutes who plied their trade in London's notorious
East End. Most, if not all, were alcoholics. The murders showed a pattern of
escalating violence that culminated in the near obliteration of Mary Kelly's
Cornwell argues that the Ripper may have committed many other
murders not usually attributed to him. These include the murders of Alice
MacKenzie, Emily Dimmock and Joan Boatmoor (all promiscuous women),
and several women whose bodies were never identified. In addition,
Cornwell argues that the Ripper may have killed children of both sexes,
and perhaps have killed women in France and even Italy. Cornwell makes
these arguments based on characteristics of the victims, the methods by
which they were killed, and/or statements in letters purportedly written by
Cornwell has spent years studying psychopaths and their crimes, and is
convinced that Sickert was a psychopath. Sickert's art is full of violence
against, and mutilation of, women. Sickert's writing and recorded
conversation contain much that is morbid, shocking and hostile to women.
According to Cornwell, he ruthlessly exploited his first two wives, Ellen
Cobden Sickert and Christine Angus Sickert. Cornwell tells us that he
displayed amazing callousness in the face of Christine's death, both before
and after the fact. He shamelessly manipulated the Angus family after
Christine's death. He seemed incapable of remorse.
Cornwell relates that during World War I, he was fond of sketching
dying soldiers, and displayed amazing callousness to them, also. She
paints him as cold, self-centered, shockingly boorish, a pathological liar,
and given to disturbingly eccentric behavior.
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Much of Cornwell's conviction that Sickert was the Ripper stems from
similarities in their styles, and from circumstantial arguments that Sickert
was well-positioned to commit the murders and get away with it. (These are
the characteristics and circumstances that first led her to suspect him.)
Sickert had a taste for slumming in the East End, and had a habit of
nocturnal wandering through it. He had a penchant for, and artistic training
for, disguises; and Cornwell offers evidence that several of the murders
may have been committed by a man in disguise.
Cornwell tells us that Sickert secretly rented many studios in gloomy
places. These could have aided his murders.
Both Sickert and the Ripper had were addicted to writing letters to
newspapers. Both often referred to other people as "fools." Both were
knowledgeable about horse racing. The Ripper's victims were all very thin
or very fat, and often ugly; this matched Sickert's taste in models.
Both Sickert and the Ripper were acquainted with the exclamatory
phrase, "Ha ha!" The Ripper used this phrase in his letters and Sickert
heard it frequently from his mentor, James McNeil Whistler.
Both Sickert and the Ripper attached symbolic importance to a scarf or
handkerchief around the victim's neck. Clothing of suspicious characters
around the time of one murder resembles Sickert's clothing.
Sickert was very interested in Jack the Ripper. In 1908, he painted Jack
the Ripper's Bedroom. Around 1930, Sickert told the artist Andre Dunoyer
de Segonzac that he had lived in Whitechapel in the same house that Jack
the Ripper had lived in. Sickert spiritedly described Jack the Ripper's life to
Dunoyer. Sickert, who supposedly never painted or drew what the had not
seen, painted a handcart identical to one used to transport the body of a
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Cornwell argues that Sickert was completely impotent, and the Ripper
lust-murders were notable for an absence of semen.
One of Sickert's paintings, The Fair at Night, Dieppe, looks very much
like what one might expect to see when spectators surrounded the East
End locations where the Ripper murders took place. Cornwell suggests
that like many psychopathic killers, Sickert returned to the scene to enjoy
the commotion he had created.
There is also more substantial and objective evidence connecting
Sickert with the Ripper. Sickert and whoever wrote the Ripper letters used
similar paper types. Mathematical scribbles on the back of a Sickert
drawing resemble those on a Ripper letter.
In one case, a Ripper letter ends with the postscript "R. St. w." In later
years, Sickert signed himself "R.St." for Richard Sickert.
In some cases, Sickert seemed to know more about the Ripper murders
than he could have learned without having guilty knowledge. Two of
Sickert's paintings, La Putana a Casa and Le Journal resemble the dead
Catherine Eddows, whose body he was not likely to have seen after the
police found it.
He was allowed by the police to enter the house where Emily Dimmock
was murdered, and to do several sketches of the murdered woman's body.
It seems an unlikely coincidence to Cornwell that he would happen to be in
the neighborhood, unless he knew in advance that the murder had
Although the Ripper letters were made to look as though they were
written by a near-illiterate, many clearly were written by someone intelligent
and well-read. Moreover, many of the misspellings do not match what a
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genuinely illiterate person would write (genuine illiterates misspell
phonetically and consistently).
As mentioned above, the writing paper used by Sickert resembles the
paper of the Ripper letters. When examined closely, both the calligraphy
and the materials of the Ripper letters suggest an artistic origin.
Mitochondrial DNA evidence also suggests a link between Sickert and
the writer of the Ripper letters.
Finally, recently discovered entries in the 1877-1888 guestbook of the
Lizard Guest House in Cornwall, England seem likely to have been made by
Sickert. These contain drawings that resemble those in Ripper letters.
Cornwell also makes the point that Ellen Cobden Sickert, Sickert's
former wife, sent a secret letter to her sister Janie, three months after the
murder of Emily Dimmock. Ellen Cobden Sickert had a well-developed
conscience, was desperate to preserve the good name of her father's
family, and was normally not secretive about family business. Thus,
Cornwell wonders what information the letter contained.
There are some 250 known Jack the Ripper letters, composed between
1888 and 1896. Cornwell differs from most experts in believing that most
were written by the same person (the Ripper AKA Walter Sickert). This
belief is central to her attempt to link Sickert to the murders.
Portrait of a Killer contains other interesting information and argument.
Cornwell describes Metropolitan Police Inspector Frederick George
Abberline, whom she admires very much. She also describes two men that
she admires less: Sir Henry Smith, Acting Commissioner of the City of
London police, and Sir Melville Macnaghten of the Metropolitan Police. In
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addition, she describes Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles
Warren, whom she does not admire at all.
Cornwell argues against the belief that the Ripper must necessarily
have been a surgeon. She rebuts the theories that Sir William Gull (Queen
Victoria's surgeon) or the Duke of Clarence committed the murders.
Cornwell also portrays Sickert's background and life. She tells about his
restless, talented, alcoholic father, who was actually supported by his wife
(Sickert's mother), although it was pretended otherwise. She describes
Sickert's sister Helena, physically frail but a famous suffragette.
As Cornwell recounts, Sickert was probably born with a fistula (hole) in
his penis. This required Sickert to undergo, before the age of five, three
surgical operations that may have been done without anesthetic. His
misfortune may have left him impotent. The operations and the impotence
may well have left him extremely angry.
One of Sickert's grandmothers had been a loose and irresponsible
woman. Cornwell speculates that Sickert may have thought that his
physical deformity sprang from her, and may have hated prostitutes
accordingly. The writer of the Ripper letters certainly hated prostitutes.
Cornwell deduces that Sickert had some problem, possibly gambling,
that drained his finances. She follows his life from his failed career as an
actor, through his apprenticeship to the painter James McNeil Whistler,
through three marriages, through the successful libel action against him by
the artist Joseph Pennell, through his estrangement from Whistler, and
through his periods of severe depression and paranoia.
Walter Sickert is a difficult person to investigate, a point that Cornwell
acknowledges. He was cremated, and neither he nor his siblings had
children; thus, we cannot analyze his DNA. He used many pseudonyms,
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disguised his handwriting, disguised himself physically, often did not date
letters, and disappeared from view for long stretches of time.
The methods of the London police were dreadful, and much of the
evidence relating to the Ripper murders has disappeared.
Patricia Cornwell argues that the famous English artist Walter Sickert
was Jack the Ripper. Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve of
Scotland Yard, the most respected investigator in Great Britain (according
to Cornwell), believes that the evidence against Sickert would sustain a
criminal prosecution. However, some readers of Portrait of a Killer
disagree, and the book is controversial. An argument that Sickert was NOT
the Ripper has been made by Wolf Vanderlinden. This can be accessed at
Vanderlinden rebuttal to Cornwell .
Portrait of a Killer is worth reading for several reasons. First, it paints a
vivid and fascinating picture of London's East End near the end of the
nineteenth century. Tuberculosis, alcohol, air pollution, raw sewage in the
Thames, venereal disease, hopelessness, malnutrition and slumlords were
the real scourges. To these, the Ripper added murder and terror.
The book discusses suicide and homicide in the East End, the
miserable lives of Metropolitan police, and the existence of two separate
police forces in London (the City of London police and the Metropolitan
police). It discusses the sexual atmosphere of London, which included
abysmal ignorance, rigid puritanism, prostitution, venereal disease, music
halls where young children danced provocatively, and a rising feminist
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movement that rejected sexual excess, sexual enjoyment and even sex
Second, it gives an unvarnished portrait of one of England's best artists,
Third, it gives a good description of the Ripper murders, and of the face
that the Ripper presented to the public. It also gives a good description of
the thoughts and actions of psychopathic murderers generally.
Fourth, it nicely discusses forensic procedures: those used at the time
of the murders and those used now, particularly in the USA. Although
forensic procedures are much better than they were in Victorian times,
there is still much that needs improvement—a point that Cornwell is
passionate about. Generally, the book gives an interesting discussion of
the art and science of learning how people lived and died from examination
of their remains.
Cornwell has done good job of investigating the context of the murders
as well as the murders themselves. The lives of many of the victims are
reconstructed as accurately as possible, up until their deaths, and the
subsequent investigations are also well reconstructed. Necessary
background subjects, such as the types of knives likely to be available to
the Ripper, are also explored conscientiously. Seemingly unrelated
homicides and seemingly unrelated published material (e.g. in London
newspapers of the time) have also been sifted.
Although the genital deformity that Walter Sickert suffered from may
have propelled him to homicide, it is unfair to assume the worst about
people with physical handicaps or who have suffered unfairly. Cornwell is
careful to point this out, by contrasting Sickert with his contemporaries
Joseph Merrick (the "Elephant Man") and Sickert's father-in-law, Richard
Cobden (who repealed England's infamous Corn Laws).
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Much of Cornwell's conviction stems from her beliefs that Sickert was a
psychopath, and that Sickert and the Ripper had very similar styles. These
beliefs in turn stem from careful study of Sickert, the Ripper and
psychopaths generally. Right or wrong, they are hard to impart to an
Although a link between the Ripper and the writer(s) of the Ripper
letters may never be proven, there is a good chance that Sickert will
someday be condemned or exonerated as the writer of the Ripper letters.
Although no analysis can yield information that is not present, careful
measurements and statistical analysis can sometimes tease out
information that even expert human inspection cannot. As methods of
cybernetically analyzing handwriting and drawings improve, we may finally
learn the truth.
Portrait of a Killer would be improved by more frequent reference to the
dates of various events, and by a table or timeline giving events, dates and
-- Arthur Wilton