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(Part 4) Patricia Cornwell’s Jack: First Impressions of Case Closed

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From RipperLady archives

Can you believe this has taken four parts just to get through the opening chapter? Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to tackle any more Cornwell for awhile once we’re finished here… unless, of course, there’s a wild outcry for more, more, more!

Well, last time I posted (I feel like I’m in a serial!), we learned that Sickert may have been sexually mutilated through surgeries in childhood. We also learned that one of the letter writers to Scotland Yard suggested that the Ripper was a sexually mutilated man. And last time, I also cautioned the reader to remember that, no matter how possible, the notion of Sickert’s mutilation is a hypothesis, not a known fact.

Yet, Cornwell takes this hypothesis and uses it to speculate on Sickert’s frame of mind right before the marriage of his mentor, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. She writes: “The anticipated connubial bliss of [Whistler] must have been disconcerting to his former errand boy-apprentice.” And that “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.”

It must have been disconcerting? And women were a dangerous reminder of a humiliating secret? Well, for starters, Cornwell has just assumed the certainty of her hypothesis…. even though, as she herself admits, Sickert’s cremation makes it impossible to verify. (In fact, she almost implies–or perhaps does imply–that Sickert intentionally had himself cremated to wipe out the evidence of a physical debility that Cornwell is only speculating about). Secondly, she’s presuming to have access into Sickert’s mind and to know what he must have been thinking, how he must have been experiencing Whistler’s marriage. Yet, she has no direct access to that information because Sickert did not keep journals. Perhaps she is channeling Sickert?

Before she gets to the summation of these charges, let’s look at what is currently something of a side issue, but which will figure into Cornwell’s summation. She mentions that Sickert tended to read only stuff that affected him. He liked to see his name in the paper; he liked to read his own letters to the editor. And he loved to read about crime. In other words, he was somewhat narcissistic (as many artists are), and he was fascinated by crime stories. In fact, he had such an interest in crime that Sickert later drew sketches of murder scenes. Cornwell uses this evidence to damn him with the appellation “Jack the Ripper.” She assumes that this fascination is indicative of an unhinged and violent mind. And later in the book, she will argue that some of these artistic renderings may have been drawn of murders committed by the artist himself.

So, let me ask… Would you say that Patricia Cornwell has an interest in crime? She writes detective fiction and speculates on the identity of Jack the Ripper, doesn’t she? Judging by the fact that you are reading this, I would guess that you have some interest in crime. And I know I do. So, here we are… Walter Sickert liked to read about crime. I like to read about crime. You, right at this very moment, are reading about crime. Cornwell reads and writes about crime. Every Ripperologist in the world reads and theorizes on crime. Unless all of us (or even many of us) read about murder as a prelude to commiting murders of our own, then Sickert’s interest in crime seems about as sinister as mine or yours or Cornwell’s.

Ah, but as mentioned above, Sickert also liked to paint and draw crime scenes. (Never mind that he is much more famous for painting music halls!). Doesn’t that demonstrate a murderous inclination? The short answer? No!

Cornwell is a writer. She paints crime scenes with words. Sickert is a painter. He paints crime scenes with… well… paint (and pencil). Are we to assume that, because Sickert is a visual artist rather than a verbal artist, his portrayal of crime is somehow more sinister than Cornwell’s own portrayal of crime? Or, for that matter, Alfred Hitchcock’s visual/verbal portrayal of crime? Ummm, I think not. Each artist is using his or her own medium to artistically portray murder. Now, that’s not to say that Sickert is absolutely not Jack the Ripper. It’s simply to say that if the subjects of his artwork indicate an inclination towards murder, then we could say the same thing about Patricia Cornwell, Alfred Hitchcock, and any number of other visual and verbal artists.

Finally, Cornwell just pulls out the stops in her summation of the charges against Walter Sickert, as she writes: “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.”

Okay, how much of that do I really need to parse at this point? We see, once again, Cornwell assuming the certainty of her hypothesis re: Sickert’s genitals. We see her beg the question, as she assumes the very thing she needs to prove in her argument… i.e. that Sickert actually was this killer. But we also see, in the final sentence, a rather tenuous grip on factuality. Without access to his thoughts, how does Cornwell know that Sickert scripted the actual performance of mutilations in his thoughts? And further, while the boyhood sketches depicting the murder of women may have been drawn by Sickert, they are actually part of a collection of his father’s artwork. Cornwell has no more certainty that these sketches were drawn by Sickert than she has certainty that Sickert wrote the “Scotus” letter. All she has is hypothesis.

And even if she knew for a fact that Walter , not Oswald, Sickert drew the sketches, would they necessarily indicate that he harbored murderous desires towards women?

And finally finally finally…

Cornwell ignores the “Nemo” letter to the editors of the Times of London (the letter about Eastern criminal methods). Yet in a set up to a major rhetorical flourish, she does make a point of “Nemo” having been Sickert’s stage name, only to instruct us that Sickert “dropped” this name “in the late summer of 1888 [and] he gave himself a new stage name that during his life would never be linked to him.”

Oh, the certainty of it all. Oh, the manipulation of it all! Need I tell you what that new stage name is? No, you know it. It has been played out on the world stage for over a century now. It is synonymous with evil and murder and blood on the streets of London in the fog.

But Cornwell’s flourish, no matter how effective rhetorically, still begs the question.
And Martha Tabram is still quite likely the victim of a different killer.

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About Ripper Lady

  • Nyx

    What about the watermarks on the Ripper letters that matched watermarks on letters Sickert sent out? Did you mention that? Did I miss it? What about the inks that were used on these letters that were known to be used by Sickert? I think she proved that the killer was an artist from the matches done on the paper and ink.

    I think Cornwell has dug up enough evidence that the case should be reopened and possibly even brought to trial.

    She hasn’t proved that the Ripper was Sickert, but she has brought up new evidence. Sure, she seems biased. She’s convinced that Sickert was the Ripper. But wouldn’t any District Attorney prosecuting a case have the same bias?

    Despite what Cornwell states the case isn’t closed, but it definately should be reopened and examined with modern forensic examnination.