Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, by Patricia Cornwell

Eight stars

Biographies come in all shapes and sizes, as has been exemplified throughout my binge over these past few months. Patricia Cornwell’s re-release of this biographical piece about Jack the Ripper offers not only a view into the horrible crimes that were committed in London’s East End, but also posits that Walter Sickert is the most likely suspect, providing ample proof. Cornwell offers a strong biographical sketch of both Sickert and the killings, while extrapolating the killing spree outside of the known five prostitutes. She pushes hard to substantiate her argument and uses some biographical data to show how Sickert cannot be discounted as one of the most likely suspects, even though he was a respected artist. Wonderfully detailed and presented in such a way that a novice such as myself could easily follow, Cornwell is sure to garner more interest in this updated version of this non-fiction book, though doubters and trolls are sure to remain active.

Jack the Ripper is arguably one of the most elusive and notorious serial killers of modern time. While the Ripper’s crimes hit London by storm in 1888, the inability to catch the killer soon brought the crimes to international prominence. That no killer has been found almost 130 years later offers an added level of mystery. Cornwell provides some backstory as it relates to Sickert in the early chapters, hinting at his troubled childhood marred with an apparently horrific penile deformity that required numerous invasive (and destructive) surgeries. This early ‘maiming’ might have fuelled his desire to exact revenge on those within the sex trade who were most vulnerable. Soon thereafter, Cornwell presents the murders of five female prostitutes and suggests a likely narrative, based on the police reports and media depictions. With what is known about the aforementioned deformities, the reader is left to choose which path they choose to take. Could Sickert have chosen these early women to exemplify that he was still virile or turned to those who would not necessarily judge him, as long as he had the money to pay? Cornwell also explores Sickert’s roaming nature, as he followed a path all his own, both to fulfil his artistic abilities and his interest in some of the stage work that he undertook. From there, she is able to provide the reader with some possibilities surrounding Walter Sickert’s involvement, based on his known location at the time. There were scores of mocking letters received by the police and newspapers attributed to the Ripper, allowing Cornwell to posit that Sickert may have posted these letters while he was touring with a troupe or had numerous letters sent from different destinations to dilute his guilt. Cornwell uses some of Sickert’s own personal correspondence to match up with the anonymous letters sent by the Ripper, as well as some of the other pseudonyms used by both the Ripper and Sickert. Of greatest interest to the reader might be that Cornwell is convinced that Met Police focussed only on the five prostitutes, which was likely only a small snapshot of the murder spree undertaken by Jack the Ripper. Cornwell offers up some proof, pairing murders into the 20th century with both Sickert geographic pairings or hints of the murders within Sickert’s own artwork. Sickert’s fame within the English art world proved strong as he was known to have taught a young Winston Churchill. While nothing is definitive, Cornwell provides readers with a strong case, admitting that she is focussed on a single suspect, for Walter Sickert’s guilt. All those involved are long dead and names have all but disappeared in the ether, though Cornwell, like the popular protagonist in her long-running series, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, seeks to bring the families some peace of mind. A well-researched and compelling book, those with an interest in Jack the Ripper may find it highly informative and entertaining in equal measure.

I will admit that I am not well-versed in the crimes of Jack the Ripper, so I came into this piece seeking information and to be persuaded over trying to dissect the arguments made. Cornwell does a wonderful job in laying the groundwork for Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper, as well as showing that the killing spree was monumental, through it is impossible to offer up any confirmed tally. Cornwell juggles two biographies here while also trying to lay out a criminal argument, doing so effectively. She offered both a biography of Sickert and a history of the crimes, superimposing them to show that motive and opportunity presented themselves. Cornwell’s approach was, in my mind, less an attack than a collection of facts to strengthen her argument, which she openly admits not wanting to do. While she was attacked after the original version of this book for destruction of expensive artwork to prove her point, Cornwell tries to rebut those sentiments and assures the reader of her forensic approach to crime work. The latter portion of the book spends much time debunking the rumours that surfaced during her work and from the original edition. With haphazard attention paid to crime scenes at the time, Cornwell is stuck using the limited narratives offered at the time and can only explore some of the papers and pieces of art leftover now to push for Sickert’s guilt. Splices of DNA and analysis of paper could prove impossible to substantiate without ruining the original documents, thereby nullifying any further exploration on the subject. The reader is treated to strong arguments based in fact and will leave this book with a stronger knowledge of Jack the Ripper, Walter Sickert, and East-End London. A perfect addition for those who love true crime in an era where even Sherlock Holmes would likely have struggled to come up with a convincing suspect.

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for this compelling piece. While I am so used to your Scarpetta work, this was a refreshing look into your non-fiction mind. I am highly impressed and can only hope your search for justice is far from over.

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