“Ripper: The Secret Life Of Walter Sickert” is a follow-up book to the one written by Patricia Cornwell in 2002. Whether people agree with the premise or not, it is an interesting read as a nonfiction book or a crime novel, either way, it makes for a good story.
Cornwell attempts to make the case that the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. With photos, personal correspondence and even his paintings as evidence, she plays the role of an investigator of these hideous murders and has Sickert as the person of interest.
Below is a Q/A with the author:
Elise Cooper: Even though this is a nonfiction book you wrote it as a novel?
Patricia Cornwell: I try to be a storyteller in everything I write. Because I started out as a journalist, I feel that a part of me is still a journalist. It never leaves you. Whether fiction or real-life cases, I try to present the facts.
EC: Your first book caused some controversy, so why write a second book?
PC: This is the book I should have written the first time. I looked at the case from the lenses of modern criminal investigations, using the science as best I could to give us a guide. I think there is some good empirical evidence and primary sources such as original letters, documents and the original police reports.
EC: How would you describe Sickert?
PC: A sexual violent psychopath and a narcissist. He never felt empathy or guilt. Mostly what he felt was rage and jealousy. There is no evidence he ever loved someone. He was very calculating and compulsive.
EC: How did you become fascinated with this case?
PC: I happened to be in London in the spring of 2001, and somebody said, “While you’re here, would you like to take a tour of Scotland Yard?” One of their senior investigators, who knew a lot about the Ripper crimes, started telling me about the case.
I now think that this is the most compelling unsolved murder mystery. Because of its legend, I do not think it can ever be solved. No one will ever be satisfied with any resolution. The mystery has become bigger than the crime.
EC: What do you want to debunk about the Ripper theories?
PC: I think those who believe it was part of a royal conspiracy came from a bunch of formulations spun by the killer himself, Sickert. I also think it is nonsense that the traditional Ripper theories had him only killing those five people. I believe he killed many more victims and continued to kill after 1888.
EC: What about those who say the Ripper had to be a doctor?
PC: His killings were not professional. He mutilated his victims, so there was no need for surgical skills. He did have some anatomy training in art school. He had a scientific mind and followed the latest technology advances. He was a very smart and cunning person. He was careful and did not leave behind biological evidence. Maybe it was not accidental that he had himself cremated.
EC: On page three there is a photo where he looks like the gangster John Dillinger. Was that his fantasy?
PC: He was a master of disguises. I wonder if that is how he did his dry runs and was able to stalk his victims. Remember, he did not die until 1942 and Alfred Hitchcock made the first Ripper movie in 1927 called “The Lodger.” I think the photo was an example of him imitating what people thought of the Ripper. This was his form of mocking the public.
EC: You point out Sickert was an enigma regarding the aristocracy. Please explain.
PC: He wanted to thumb up his nose to them, yet, he wanted to hob knob also. He had disdain for upper-class people but appeared to collect celebrities. He wanted to be a part of them. There is this hypocrisy where he despised them, but could not get enough of them. He wanted the acclaim that the painter James McNeil Whistler had. Sickert was treated as nothing more than Whistler’s personal assistant.
EC: How compelling were Sickert’s paintings as evidence?
PC: I think there were teases in his paintings. He projected his violent fantasies into his artwork. This painter never painted anything he had not seen. This man was a very smart. One painting is very reminiscent of the Mary Kelly crime scene, the body on a bed with a figure bludgeoning her to death. In another drawing, there were a tremendous amount of stab marks with a pencil on a woman’s chest.
EC: What about his personal correspondence?
PC: If you compare two Ripper letters with three Sickert letters there is a stunning comparison. They come from the same paper mark that consisted of only 24 sheets and had the same watermark and dimensions.
EC: How certain are you that Sickert is Jack the Ripper?
PC: I am 95 percent certain. I am 100 percent certain he was involved in the case. The 5 percent doubt is for other considerations. The big questions that remain: What did his wife Ellen know and what did Whistler know? I do think they both feared him.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?
PC: My goal is to make it easy for readers to be entertained and to be able to follow the story as they learn something. I hope they have an open mind as they look at this case.