Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive

Can Art Reveal a Killer?

Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell

Best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell has received much attention for her nonfiction book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed, because she claims to have solved the mystery that has kept other experts guessing for over a century: she has identified the man who committed the Whitechapel murders. According to her, Red Jack is British artist Walter Richard Sickert.

Walter Richard Sickert
Walter Richard Sickert

Jack the Ripper's true identity has been to crime enthusiasts what the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is for literary buffs. "The truth about Red Jack" comes out nearly every decade, but what do we really know? In 1888, in London's distressed East End, a mysterious figure savagely murdered five prostitutes, growing increasingly frenzied. He sliced open his victims' throats and disemboweled three. Many experts say the murders then abruptly stopped, while others add a few more, both before and after. The killer was never caught, but he left tantalizing clues. Ripperologists have offered numerous candidates, including Sickert (who has since been dismissed).

While Cornwell offers plenty of detail on Sickert's personality and motives, what supposedly sets her apart from other speculators is physical evidence. She spent six million dollars on evidence analysis, using a team of top forensic experts to interpret the findings. She bought Sickert's desk and 45 of his paintings to examine for clues—specifically traces of DNA. She also had an expert compare writing on many of the hundreds of "Ripper" letters sent to Scotland Yard during and after the murder spree. The end result is that Cornwell found a watermark on two Ripper letters that matches a watermark on two of Sickert's letters.

Yet we're faced with three obvious problems: 1) We don't know for certain if any of the "Ripper" letters was sent by the murderer, let alone these two; 2) this stationery could have been in wide use in London; and 3) it's possible that Sickert hoaxed some Ripper letters (a strange fad in those days). To further weaken her case, her DNA analysis is incomplete. Cornwell had a specialist compare DNA from saliva on stamps and envelopes from a Ripper letter to DNA from a Sickert letter and from items that Sickert owned, such as his coveralls. She claims to have a near-match between the two men that rules out all but 1% of London's population at that time. However, she used mitochondrial DNA, which is less individualizing than nuclear DNA, and one sample is from traces of saliva over a century old—which might not have even come from Jack or from Sickert. In addition, some experts say that this 1% estimate on such meager samples may be as inclusive as 10%, i.e., the DNA sequences could be from anyone from among 400,000 to four million people. In addition, Sickert's items bore DNA sequences from several people, and since he was cremated, his cannot be clearly distinguished. To make a DNA case, we need a sample for comparison, which means we need to have a letter that contains DNA that is genuinely Jack's. We have no such thing. Without a physical piece of individualizing evidence that links a crime scene to one person and only one person, we can't convincingly solve the case.

Beyond that, Cornwell says that Sickert painted several prostitutes in a way that resembled the photographs of the dead Ripper victims, but those photos were taken at the morgue, not the crime scene, and were published in books to which Sickert had access. He also painted these scenes two decades after the murders, and the women depicted are not necessarily dead. Yet what about "dried blood" on a Ripper letter turning out to be artist's medium? That still does not tie it to Sickert. Taking a stab with psychology, Cornwell believes the macabre paintings he did of menacing men sitting with murdered prostitutes is a reflection of his own crimes from two decades before, sublimated for a while to avoid attention. Cornwell leaves no room for the motive of simply being interested in bringing attention to his art by depicting sensational subject matter.

Cornwell admits that conclusive physical evidence is lacking at this time, but insists that the many links she has made between Sickert's life and the Ripper crimes just cannot be denied. He was a master of disguise, his initials match those on some of the Ripper letters, he had quirky handwriting (like Jack) and as a boy he had sketched naked and bound women. These are among the reasons why, she says, she has closed the case. But in fact, she has merely begged the question: She appears to have assumed Sickert is Jack and to have made the "right" facts align nicely with that thesis, thereby "proving" it. But she hasn't really proved anything. The records are incomplete, the remains are gone, the crime scenes have long since been contaminated, and evidence is missing or wiped away. Thanks to Cornwell, Sickert can be restored among the usual suspects, but she offers no scientific basis for tapping him as the infamous Red Jack.

Even so, there is evidence that some art does serve as rehearsal for murder.

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