Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed

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9780399149320: Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed

The number-one New York Times-bestselling novelist Patricia Cornwell is known the world over for her brilliant storytelling, the courage of her characters, and the state-of-the-art forensic methods they employ.

In this headline-making new work of nonfiction, Cornwell turns her trademark skills for meticulous research and scientific expertise on one of the most chilling cases of serial murder in the history of crime-the slayings of Jack the Ripper that terrorized 1880s London. With the masterful intuition into the criminal mind that has informed her novels, Cornwell digs deeper into the case than any detective before her-and reveals the true identity of this elusive madman.

Enlisting the help of forensic experts, Cornwell examines all the physical evidence available: thousands of documents and reports, fingerprints, crime-scene photographs, original etchings and paintings, items of clothing, artists' paraphernalia, and traces of DNA. Her unavoidable conclusion: Jack the Ripper was none other than a respected painter of his day, an artist now collected by some of the world's finest museums.

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About the Author:

Patricia Cornwell's most recent number-one bestsellers include The Last Precinct and Isle of Dogs. Her earlier work includes Postmortem-the only novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and Macavity awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Aventure in a single year-and Cruel and Unusual, which won Britain's prestigious Gold Dagger Award for the year's best crime novel of 1993. Her fictional chief medical examiner, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, won the 1999 Sherlock Award for best detective created by an American author. Cornwell helped establish the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, the first forensic training facility of its kind in the nation, and serves as the Institute's Chairman of the Board. Visit the Institute's website vifsm.org and Cornwell's own website at patriciacornwell.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Monday, August 6, 1888, was a bank holiday in London. The city

was a carnival of wondrous things to do for as little as pennies

if one could spare a few.

The bells of Windsor’s Parish Church and St. George’s Chapel rang

throughout the day. Ships were dressed in flags, and royal salutes boomed

from cannons to celebrate the Duke of Edinburgh’s forty-fourth birthday.

The Crystal Palace offered a dazzling spectrum of special programs:

organ recitals, military band concerts, a “monster display of fireworks,”

a grand fairy ballet, ventriloquists, and “world famous minstrel performances.”

Madame Tussaud’s featured a special wax model of Frederick

II lying in state and, of course, the ever-popular Chamber of Horrors.

Other delicious horrors awaited those who could afford theater tickets

and were in the mood for a morality play or just a good old-fashioned

fright. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was playing to sold-out houses. The famous

American actor Richard Mansfield was brilliant as Jekyll and Hyde

__

C H A P T E R O N E

M R . N O B O D Y

at Henry Irving’s Lyceum, and the Opera Comique had its version, too,

although poorly reviewed and in the midst of a scandal because the theater

had adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel without permission.

On this bank holiday there were horse and cattle shows; special

“cheap rates” on trains; and the bazaars in Covent Garden overflowing

with Sheffield plates, gold, jewelry, used military uniforms. If one wanted

to pretend to be a soldier on this relaxed but rowdy day, he could do so

with little expense and no questions asked. Or one could impersonate a

copper by renting an authentic Metropolitan Police uniform from Angel’s

Theatrical Costumes in Camden Town, scarcely a two-mile stroll from

where the handsome Walter Richard Sickert lived.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sickert had given up his obscure acting career

for the higher calling of art. He was a painter, an etcher, a student of

James McNeill Whistler, and a disciple of Edgar Degas. Young Sickert

was himself a work of art: slender, with a strong upper body from swimming,

a perfectly angled nose and jaw, thick wavy blond hair, and blue

eyes that were as inscrutable and penetrating as his secret thoughts and

piercing mind. One might almost have called him pretty, except for his

mouth, which could narrow into a hard, cruel line. His precise height is

unknown, but a friend of his described him as a little above average. Photographs

and several items of clothing donated to the Tate Gallery

Archive in the 1980s suggest he was probably five foot eight or nine.

Sickert was fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. He knew

Latin well enough to teach it to friends, and he was well acquainted with

Danish and Greek and possibly knew a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese.

He was said to read the classics in their original languages, but

he didn’t always finish a book once he started it. It wasn’t uncommon to

find dozens of novels strewn about, opened to the last page that had

snagged his interest. Mostly, Sickert was addicted to newspapers,

tabloids, and journals.

Until his death in 1942, his studios and studies looked like a recycling

center for just about every bit of newsprint to roll off the European

P A T R I C I A C O R N W E L L

[ 2 ]

presses. One might ask how any hard-working person could find time to

go through four, five, six, ten newspapers a day, but Sickert had a

method. He didn’t bother with what didn’t interest him, whether it was

politics, economics, world affairs, wars, or people. Nothing mattered to

Sickert unless it somehow affected Sickert.

He usually preferred to read about the latest entertainment to come

to town, to scrutinize art critiques, to turn quickly to any story about

crime, and to search for his own name if there was any reason it might

be in print on a given day. He was fond of letters to the editor, especially

ones he wrote and signed with a pseudonym. Sickert relished knowing

what other people were doing, especially in the privacy of their own notalways-

so-tidy Victorian lives. “Write, write, write!” he would beg his

friends. “Tell me in detail all sorts of things, things that have amused you

and how and when and where, and all sorts of gossip about every one.”

Sickert despised the upper class, but he was a star stalker. He somehow

managed to hobnob with the major celebrities of the day: Henry Irving

and Ellen Terry, Aubrey Beardsley, Henry James, Max Beerbohm,

Oscar Wilde, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Rodin, André Gide, Édouard Dujardin,

Proust, Members of Parliament. But he did not necessarily know

many of them, and no one—famous or otherwise—ever really knew him.

Not even his first wife, Ellen, who would turn forty in less than two

weeks. Sickert may not have given much thought to his wife’s birthday

on this bank holiday, but it was extremely unlikely he had forgotten it.

He was much admired for his amazing memory. Throughout his life

he would amuse dinner guests by performing long passages of musicals

and plays, dressed for the parts, his recitations flawless. Sickert would

not have forgotten that Ellen’s birthday was August 18th and a very easy

occasion to ruin. Maybe he would “forget.” Maybe he would vanish into

one of his secret rented hovels that he called studios. Maybe he would

take Ellen to a romantic café in Soho and leave her alone at the table

while he dashed off to a music hall and then stayed out the rest of the

night. Ellen loved Sickert all her sad life, despite his cold heart, his patho-

P O R T R A I T O F A K I L L E R

[ 3 ]

logical lying, his self-centeredness, and his habit of disappearing for

days—even weeks—without warning or explanation.

Walter Sickert was an actor by nature more than by virtue of employment.

He lived on the center stage of his secret, fantasy-driven life

and was just as comfortable moving about unnoticed in the deep shadows

of isolated streets as he was in the midst of throbbing crowds. He

had a great range of voice and was a master of greasepaint and wardrobe.

So gifted at disguise was he that as a boy he often went about unrecognized

by his neighbors and family.

Throughout his long and celebrated life, he was notorious for constantly

changing his appearance with a variety of beards and mustaches,

for his bizarre dress that in some cases constituted costumes, for his hairstyles—

including shaving his head. He was, wrote French artist and

friend Jacques-Emile Blanche, a “Proteus.” Sickert’s “genius for camouflage

in dress, in the fashion of wearing his hair, and in his manner of

speaking rival Fregoli’s,” Blanche recalled. In a portrait Wilson Steer

painted of Sickert in 1890, Sickert sports a phony-looking mustache that

resembles a squirrel’s tail pasted above his mouth.

He also had a penchant for changing his name. His acting career,

paintings, etchings, drawings, and prolific letters to colleagues, friends,

and newspapers reveal many personas: Mr. Nemo (Latin for “Mr. Nobody”),

An Enthusiast, A Whistlerite, Your Art Critic, An Outsider, Walter

Sickert, Sickert, Walter R. Sickert, Richard Sickert, W. R. Sickert,

W.S., R.S., S., Dick, W. St., Rd. Sickert LL.D., R.St. A.R.A., and RDSt

A.R.A.

Sickert did not write his memoirs, keep a diary or calendar, or date

most of his letters or works of art, so it is difficult to know where he was

or what he was doing on or during any given day, week, month, or even

year. I could find no record of his whereabouts or activities on August 6,

1888, but there is no reason to suspect he was not in London. Based on

notes he scribbled on music-hall sketches, he was in London just two days

earlier, on August 4th.

P A T R I C I A C O R N W E L L

[ 4 ]

Whistler would be getting married in London five days later, on August

11th. Although Sickert hadn’t been invited to the small, intimate

wedding, he wasn’t the sort to miss it—even if he had to spy on it.

The great painter James McNeill Whistler had fallen deeply in love

with the “remarkably pretty” Beatrice Godwin, who was to occupy the

most prominent position in his life and entirely change the course of it.

Likewise, Whistler occupied one of the most prominent positions in Sickert’s

life and had entirely changed the course of it. “Nice boy, Walter,”

Whistler used to say in the early 1880s when he was still fond of the aspiring

and extraordinarily gifted young man. By the time of Whistler’s

engagement their friendship had cooled, but Sickert could not have been

prepared for what must have seemed a shockingly unexpected and complete

abandonment by the Master he idolized, envied, and hated.

Whistler and his new bride planned to honeymoon and travel the rest of

the year in France, where they hoped to reside permanently.

The anticipated connubial bliss of the flamboyant artistic genius and

egocentric James McNeill Whistler must have been disconcerting to his

former errand boy–apprentice. One of Sickert’s many roles was the irresistible

womanizer, but offstage he was nothing of the sort. Sickert was

dependent on women and loathed them. They were intellectually inferior

and useless except as caretakers or objects to manipulate, especially for

art or money. Women were a dangerous reminder of an infuriating and

humiliating secret that Sickert carried not only to the grave but beyond

it, because cremated bodies reveal no tales of the flesh, even if they are

exhumed. Sickert was born with a deformity of his penis requiring surgeries

when he was a toddler that would have left him disfigured if not

mutilated. He probably was incapable of an erection. He may not have

had enough of a penis left for penetration, and it is quite possible he had

to squat like a woman to urinate.

“My theory of the crimes is that the criminal has been badly disfigured,”

says an October 4, 1888, letter filed with the Whitechapel Murders

papers at the Corporation of London Records Office, “—possibly

P O R T R A I T O F A K I L L E R

[ 5 ]

had his privy member destroyed—& he is now revenging himself on the

sex by these atrocities.” The letter is written in purple pencil and enigmatically

signed “Scotus,” which could be the Latin for Scotsman.

“Scotch” can mean a shallow incision or to cut. Scotus could also be a

strange and erudite reference to Johannes Scotus Eriugena, a ninthcentury

theologian and teacher of grammar and dialectics.

For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual

relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made

Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.

He began to act out what he had scripted most of his life, not only in

thought but in boyhood sketches that depicted women being abducted,

tied up, and stabbed.

The psychology of a violent, remorseless murderer is not defined by

connecting dots. There are no facile explanations or infallible sequences

of cause and effect. But the compass of human nature can point a certain

way, and Sickert’s feelings could only have been inflamed by

Whistler’s marrying the widow of architect and archaeologist Edward

Godwin, the man who had lived with actress Ellen Terry and fathered

her children.

The sensuously beautiful Ellen Terry was one of the most famous actresses

of the Victorian era, and Sickert was fixated on her. As a teenager,

he had stalked her and her acting partner, Henry Irving. Now Whistler

had links to not one but both objects of Sickert’s obsessions, and these

three stars in Sickert’s universe formed a constellation that did not include

him. The stars cared nothing about him. He was truly Mr. Nemo.

But in the late summer of 1888 he gave himself a new stage name that

during his life would never be linked to him, a name that soon enough

would be far better known than those of Whistler, Irving, and Terry.

The actualization of Jack the Ripper’s violent fantasies began on the

carefree bank holiday of August 6, 1888, when he slipped out of the

wings to make his debut in a series of ghastly performances that were destined

to become the most celebrated so-called murder mystery in history.

P A T R I C I A C O R N W E L L

[ 6 ]

It is widely and incorrectly believed that his violent spree ended as

abruptly as it began, that he struck out of nowhere and then vanished

from the scene.

Decades passed, then fifty years, then a hundred, and his bloody sexual

crimes have become anemic and impotent. They are puzzles, mystery

weekends, games, and “Ripper Walks” that end with pints in the Ten

Bells pub. Saucy Jack, as the Ripper sometimes called himself, has starred

in moody movies featuring famous actors and special effects and spates

of what the Ripper said he craved: blood, blood, blood. His butcheries

no longer inspire fright, rage, or even pity as his victims moulder quietly,

some of them in unmarked graves.

P O R T R A I T O F A K I L L E R

[ 7 ]

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