.Portrait of a Killer:
Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed
By Patricia Cornwell
365 pages, $27.95
Scotland Yard couldn't get close to catching "Jack the Ripper" when he terrorized the women of London. But 114 years later, Patricia Cornwell says she's nabbed him.
In her new nonfiction book, the award-winning crime novelist pins the murders on Walter Sickert, an eccentric British painter and actor who died at age 81 in early 1942. Using DNA analysis and other modern crimefighting techniques, Cornwell says she has solved the gruesome 1888 crime spree.
"Sickert murdered sick and miserable prostitutes who were old long before their time. He murdered them because it was easy," Cornwell writes.
"He was motivated by his lust for sexual violence, his hatred and his insatiable need for attention . . . He killed to satisfy his uncontrollable psychopathic needs."
Those are pretty strong accusations, some would argue, to make against a man who has been deceased for six decades and clearly has no Paul J. Cambria Jr. or Terrence M. Connors to jump up and defend him.
Cornwell, no doubt, would be quick to respond that she spent $6 million to hire experts, and spent countless hours conducting perhaps the most exhaustive investigation ever into the five horrific murders.
"There is no one left to indict and convict. Jack the Ripper and all who knew him well have been dead for decades," Cornwell writes. "But there is no statute of limitations on homicides, and the Ripper's victims deserve justice."
Fair enough, but does she make a strong case against Sickert?
What makes her so sure that he stands out among more than 20 potential Ripper suspects who have been investigated and discussed by experts over the years?
I let the reader make his or her own judgments, but if I was on the jury, Sickert would walk. That doesn't mean he wasn't the Ripper. It just means I didn't find nearly enough information in this book to convince me.
For those who may not know much about the Whitechapel murders, they were a truly terrifying series of attacks on women that took place in some of London's poorest neighborhoods. At least five women -- Annie Chapman, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly -- were stabbed and slashed almost beyond recognition between Aug. 31 and Nov. 9, 1888.
All the victims allegedly were prostitutes and all were horribly mutilated. Some were disembowled and had their uteri and other organs hacked out. A number of other attacks around the same time -- as many as 13 others, some say -- may also have been linked to the Ripper.
The killer delighted in the bloody stir he was creating. Dozens of mocking, boastful letters, some including awful cartoons, were sent to police, newspapers and others associated with the massive investigation.
"Ha! ha! ha!," chortled one letter allegedly written by the Ripper. "To tell you the truth, you ought to be obliged to me for killing such . . . vermin."
Londoners were scared out of their wits, just as thousands in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. recoiled and hid in their homes during the recent wave of sniper shootings.
Scotland Yard never caught the killer, and his crimes continue to fascinate many.
"From Hell," a dark thriller starring Johnny Depp, last year became the latest in a long line of Ripper movies. Dozens of books and thousands of articles have been written about the subject. Several extensive Web sites are devoted entirely to Ripper lore and theories.
Enter Cornwell, a former researcher in the Richmond, Va. Medical Examiner's office and a hugely talented author of crime novels. She said she became hooked on the Ripper case during a visit to London last year. She decided to take a crack at the case after a Scotland Yard inspector told her nobody had ever tried using modern forensic science to nab the murderer.
Why focus on Sickert?
Cornwell explains that she zeroed in on him after looking at a book of his paintings and drawings -- some of them with strange, violent overtones -- and noticing "unsettling parallels" with the Ripper.
As the book clearly illustrates, Sickert was a strange man. Some of his paintings depicted murderers at work. He once painted a murky, foreboding scene he called "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom."
Although he rubbed shoulders with London's elite writers and artists, Sickert was known to take long, mysterious late-night strolls through the poorest sections of the city. He traveled often, and kept several different residences.
He constantly wrote letters to newspapers and friends. He also -- according to Cornwell -- had a deformed penis that caused him much discomfort and embarrassment as a child. This, in part, leads Cornwell to conclude that Sickert hated women and wanted to hurt them. (No matter that, as far as I can determine from the book, he never once was arrested for any crime.)
We're also told that Sickert used to keep sharp knives that he sometimes used to "slash paintings to tatters" when he didn't like them.
Without a doubt, Sickert was a weird man, and perhaps nasty, too. In my book, that doesn't prove he's Jack the Ripper.
Cornwell says it does.
She spends many pages explaining how an extensive DNA analysis of some of the Ripper letters shows that Sickert could have written them. She also matches the watermarks on some of the Ripper letters to Sickert's personal stationery.
Cornwell has me convinced there is a good possibility Sickert wrote some of those letters, but none of the DNA evidence links Sickert to any of the murders or crime scenes. No one in 1888 had any idea that hair, blood, fibers and other evidence might someday be enough to put the killer in prison.
The book is full of chilling details about the crimes, and interesting depictions of life in London. It does not -- by a long shot -- close the Ripper case.
"Ms. Cornwell's book is not unlike any of a hundred other books published on Jack the Ripper," says Stephen P. Ryder, who edits a popular Web site called "Casebook: Jack the Ripper."
Ryder adds that "the genre is full of people . . . who are convinced they've stumbled upon the killer." He said Cornwell's book is getting more publicity than any other for the simple reason that she is a famous author.
Among those who have devoted years of study to the Ripper cases, Sickert has "never been considered a major or likely suspect."
In a recent poll taken by the Web site, the leading vote-getter among possible suspects was Francis Tumblety, a doctor who once lived (and now is buried) in Rochester. Researchers say he, too, was known for his hatred of women, and he sometimes showed off his collection of uteri, preserved in jars.
Has anyone ever spent $6 million and countless hours trying to link Tumblety or any of the other likely suspects to the Ripper murders?
I doubt it.
Dan Herbeck is a News reporter and, with Lou Michel, the co-author of "American Terrorist." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org