Just a quick note that today’s episode contains details of a violent and graphic nature. The crimes are over a century old, but the information is still horrifying. Please take special care-- and you have been warned.
During my first year of graduate school, I spent hours upon hours each day, shuffling from classrooms to the library, checking out huge stacks of books In preparation for one of the four or five research papers required for my courses. You'd think that after being surrounded by books and reading, reading, reading all day that I'd need a real change of pace to blow off steam. And you'd be right- so I did my fair share of attending football games, bingeing on reality TV and frequenting the campus pub. But if I am really being honest, my favorite place to go wasn't to a bar or a club- it was the bookstore. You remember bookstores, don't you? I loved getting lost in the aisles, perusing anything and everything, and usually spending too much money to add to my already-overflowing bookshelves.
I remember one particular day when I was browsing a new releases table and a particular book caught my eye. What I noticed first was the dust jacket- its background was an old, handwritten letter, across which a huge font, in bright red letters, the color of blood, trumpeted the author’s name- Patricia Cornwell-across the cover. It seemed like yet another crime novel, one among hundreds. I had never read a Cornwell book, but I wasn't sure that they were my taste. And so, I moved on, until I saw the subtitle of the book: Jack the Ripper Case Closed. Now, I am as intrigued by unsolved crimes as much as the next person, so I cracked the cover of the book and began to read the dust jacket’s accompanying description. In it, the author released a bombshell statement: she had purportedly solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity, which had evaded researchers, historians, and police for over one hundred years. And to those of us in the art world, her suspected killer hit a bit too close to home. A painter-- and a well-known and much praised one, at that-- had committed the famous murders, she wrote. Jack the Ripper, she said, was the English painter Walter Sickert.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, in this second half of our special two-part Halloween episode, we are going to delve into a theory that identifies Jack the Ripper as the English painter Walter Sickert. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
If you’re just tuning in to the ArtCurious Podcast for the first time, please stop and listen to Part one of this Halloween segment first and get the backstory on Jack the Ripper’s crimes, as well as a brief biography of Walter Sickert. The rest of this episode will make a lot more sense that way.
Okay, I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make. Prior to Cornwell’s accusation, I had never even heard of Walter Sickert. And I was in graduate school at the time of the book’s release, so I probably should have been more aware of him and his work. But to be fair, I wasn't (and am still not) a British painting specialist. And you could make the case that Walter Sickert isn't one of the true biggies- one of those artists whom you probably know by name and whose works immediately spring to mind in full color. But he isn't a nobody, either.
Walter Richard Sickert was born on May 31, 1860, in Munich to a Danish-German father and an Anglo-Irish mother. He was the eldest of six children, and the family lived in Germany until Walt was 8 years old and the Sickert's relocated to England. Walter Sickert also spent period of his life living in both France and Italy, but England would always remain home. Sickert's father, Oswald, was a painter and printmaker, and thus surrounded his son with the tools of his trade, so even though Walter himself never had any formal training in art during his childhood, he picked up many of the basics from around his home.
At the age of eighteen, Sickert began a career as an actor, appearing in small-scale productions and tours throughout England. But a few years later, he felt that the pull of the visual arts, and painting in particular, was just too strong, and so against his father’s wishes, he decided to become an artist and enrolled in his first art classes. In 1882, Sickert had the supreme good luck of becoming an apprentice and studio assistant to the American painter, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, who had been living in London and had quickly become one of Sickert's favorite artists. The following year, whistler asked Sickert to act as a to courier to deliver his famous Portrait of the Artist’s Mother to the Paris Salon, where he made the acquaintance of a second master artist, Edgar Degas. Over the next few years he continued to learn from both whistler and degas and in the meantime he established himself as a talented and knowledgeable artist in his own right. Originally, his preferred subject matter was landscapes, but as time progressed, Sickert moved away from the natural world and towards a much more unnatural one-the garishly lit, shadowy environment of London music halls and theaters. Like his mentor Degas, the energy of such locations thrilled him, but so did their seedy underbellies. And thus, he began gravitating towards grittier and more emotionally and tonally ambiguous interiors- and it is such scenes that have, over the years, linked the artist to the killer.
The connection between Sickert and Jack the Ripper is actually not a recent theory, and Cornell wasn't the first to bring it to light. But the clout of a best-selling author beats those of dusty academics and researchers- at least most of the time. Cornell just happened to get the most press for her version of the theory. The first mention linking Sickert to the Ripper murders occurred in the 1970s with the release of the so-called Royal Conspiracy Theory, which is still one of the most popular Ripper theories to date- I won't talk about it today, but a huge trove of information exists out there if you'd like to do some independent research. In this theory, though, Sickert isn't a murder, but a possible accomplice, or at least someone who knew of the crimes. In the 1990s, however, a closer examination of Sickert alone hit bookshelves (and news headlines) with the release of Jean Overton Fuller’s tome Sickert and the Ripper Murders. Strangely, though, this theory swirled around for almost two decades, but really didn't seem to catch fire. That is, until Patricia Cornwell took up the torch and ran with it.
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper: Case Closed details the backstory behind Sickert’s life and the Ripper Crimes in hundreds of pages. Cornwell's theory hinges on a variety of potential evidence and concepts, many taken from modern-day psychological studies on serial killers as well as modern forensic practices. Let's address the first part, about how Walter Sickert’s psychological profile fits into our contemporary concept of a psychopath. First of all, Cornwell writes that an examination of Sickert’s works- paintings, as well as drawings and etchings- show signs of a deeply misogynistic mindset with a bent towards violence. And so determined is she to prove this fact, that Cornwell herself has become one of the biggest collectors of Walter Sickert paintings, scooping up close to forty of his paintings, as reported last in 2013. In particular, she has identified a few works as being eerily similar to the surviving crime scene photos of several of the Ripper victims. Some of Sickert’s fleshy nudes are dappled with shadow and light, just as many impressionist and post-Impressionist subjects were. Cornwell, however, takes a different tack, and says that Sickert's works are not experimentations in light and dark, but that the subjects appear to have been “slashed by the paint and brushstrokes.” The immediate comparison is to the facial mutilation, for example, of Catherine Eddowes or of Mary Kelly, both known today through photographs taken of their corpses. And facial mutilation in a victim can mean a number of things- but it frequently points to an intense hatred of the person being attacked. Here, it seems, that Sickert was taking his anger and hatred out on someone- maybe Eddowes or Kelly, or both?-- on canvas.
Even more intriguing is Cornwell’s dissection of Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series. This is a series of paintings completed by Sickert around 1908 that supposedly deal with-- surprise, surprise-- the Camden Town murder committed on September 11, 1907. That night, a part-time prostitute named Emily Dimmock was murdered in her home, killed by a deep slit to the throat. Like the ripper murders nearly two decades prior, the Camden Town murder caused a sensation in the press. Sickert of course was aware of the crime and with the furor surrounding it, not only from the press, but because the art world was obsessed with the crime, too, because the man arrested for the crime was an art dealer named Robert Wood. Fascinated, Sickert completed multiple paintings connected to the idea. some reports count only four canvases as true “Camden Town murder” images, while other historians claim upwards of 20. In one of the most famous, subtitled, “what shall we do for the rent” or “what shall we do to pay the rent?” Sickert has painted a fleshy nude woman, lying on an unmade bed, her behatted head turned away from the viewer. Next to her sits a man with clasped hands, and hunched shoulders, his head hanging down. We can see neither of their faces, and there is no way to tell whether the woman is alive or dead. But Patricia Cornwell states that there are uncanny similarities between this canvas and the photograph of the corpse of Catherine Eddowes, who was pictured prone on her back with her mutilated face turned away and slightly to the right of the camera. In the Camden Town Murder, the woman’s turned face, it can be argued, is turned away in such a convenient manner as to hide the fact that there was something horribly and unnaturally wrong with it.
To be fair, Sickert was known to have been smart in his abilities to use sensationalism to his best advantage, so perhaps he completed the Camden Town Series in order to shock people into paying closer attention to his work. Indeed, he even produced a dark, brushy, and rather indistinct painting titled, aptly enough, Jack the Ripper’s bedroom that could be seen as a grabby attempt at infamy. But to Cornwell, these paintings are little hints that point to Sickert’s culpability. To her, the similarities between the victim photographs and to Sickert’s works are so strong that she wonders if anyone but the murderer himself could have depicted such scenes. And, of course, Sickert was based in London, so while Patricia Cornwell could not pinpoint Sickert’s exact location during the night of each crime, she notes that there was no reason to assume that he wasn't in London, and therefore available and able to kill.
And then, there are more personal details that convince Cornwell of Sickert’s hatred of women. Sickert was childless, she says, and was impotent, probably due to a botched surgery performed to correct what Cornwell identifies as a quote “fistula of the penis.” Probably this would have led to disappointment not only in Sickert himself, but in his potential lovers as well, women who may have also derided and ridiculed him for his condition. His frustration and rage at not being able to perform sexually and at women as a whole, then, led him to seek other means of escape and gratification- murder. This is where Cornwell’s knowledge of current-day psychology and analysis of serial killers comes in hand, because the link between murder and sexual dysfunction is frequently noted in such high profile crimes.
And finally, there is DNA evidence. Yes! DNA evidence, Cornwell, says, that she was able to gather from forensic analyses that she herself commissioned. An investigative team performed DNA testing on the backs of envelopes and stamps on both Walter Sickert’s personal correspondence, as well as a large number of the Ripper letters that were sent to the police and the newspapers in 1888, and after. One particular test- a mitochondrial DNA test, or mtDNA test, came back showing quote “similar sequences” in both sets of evidence. Not only that, but a comparison of the watermarks on the stationary used by Sickert matches up with those found in a few of the Ripper letters as well. Three watermarks, in fact, indicate three different types or brands of paper known to have been owned and used by Sickert, as well as having been used to create several ripper letters. And then, a small final blow- some ripper letters contain drawings or doodles, and certain words, appear repeatedly.
What are the chances, Cornwell leads us to believe, that there would be DNA, doodles, and stationary similarities between these two disparate sets of letters, with one written by a man whose artworks hint at a intense fascination the dark side of society and a possible deep-seated resentment towards the fairer sex? Cornwell was convinced, and as she says to interviewers, quote, “this is so serious to me that I am staking my reputation on this. Because if someone literally proves me wrong, not only will I feel horrible about it, but I will look terrible.”
Well, not so fast, Ms. Cornwell. Almost immediately, the media ran with the story, as the media is wont to do, and art historians, ripperologists, and scientists came out of the woodwork to refute Patricia Cornwell’s claims. The art world in general was irate. Even one of the art dealers known to have sold Cornwell a number of Sickert paintings, a man called Andrew Patrick, was noted to have said that the author had quote “gone beyond the pale” in attempting to prove her point. He continued, quote, “Everyone knows that this stuff about Sickert is nonsense. He loved these dramatic titles, and to play with the idea of menace.” Even more unforgivable was Cornwell's insistence upon destroying one of Sickert’s paintings in order to seek further evidence for her claims- ripping apart a canvas like Jack ripped open his victims. Curator Richard Shone, who produced a well-received exhibition of Sickert’s works at the Royal Academy of London in 1992, was interviewed by u.k. Newspaper The Guardian as saying, quote, “I can't believe she has done this, it's such a red herring. It all sounds monstrously stupid to me. Is she so obsessed that she doesn't mind the destruction of a painting by such a very fine artist to add credence to this silly theory? If even Sickert were Jack the Ripper it wouldn't justify this.”
Once the abject furor died down, several authors produced thoughtful pieces that detailed how Cornwell’s claims may not really stack up against the ripper evidence. One of my favorites was written by author Steven P. Ryder and posted on the Jack the Ripper casebook website. In it, Ryder notes that he doesn't necessarily attempt to refute Patricia Cornwell’s claims, but to present a guide to the factual evidence of the case for those who have read Cornwell’s book so that readers can come to their own conclusions.
Steven Ryder looks at the main concepts presented in Portrait of a Killer and pairs them up, one by one, with the facts of the case to the best of his knowledge. First, there's the artistic interpretation aspect, or the noted similarities between Sickert’s paintings and the known photographs of Ripper victims, particularly Mary Kelly and Catherine Eddowes. We can concede that Sickert was fascinated with true crime, murder, and mystery. Heck, the Camden town paintings alone attest to this. Those themes just came with the territory for the subject matter that he chose to portray. As curator Richard Shone noted, quote “Sickert was interested in the music hall, the theatrical and low life, and he played around with those themes like Degas, his mentor.” With Degas, we might usually think of ethereal ballerinas in wispy tutus, but Degas also tackled heavier subject matter in his works, including possibly domestic violence and rape And in the world of theater and dance in the 19th century, those things were, sadly, often associated. Prostitution, too, was frequently connected to theaters and actresses. And there is still that connotation today that when someone- a woman, of course- mentions that she is a professional dancer, some people--men, usually- turn it into a sexual thing. Regardless, A chunk of works created by the impressionists and post-impressionists-- even going as far back as Manet, one of the so-called fathers of modernism-- highlight the darker side of life, spurred on by many of the same problems endemic in London and elsewhere-- overcrowding, urbanization, industrialization, disconnection, disease. Artists portrayed violence, alcoholism, death… The list goes on. Sickert was not alone in this fascination. And let's not forget one of the biggest points about art interpretation, and art appreciation, really- it is hugely subjective. What I like, you might not like- and what I see in a drawing, you might not see. And our stubborn human natures will also assure that we will continue to see whatever it is that we want to see. So with that in mind, many out there choose to interpret Sickert’s paintings as clues to his secret identity.
Steven Ryder does concede a couple of other points about Walter Sickert’s work. First, he states that there may be evidence that Sickert based one of his etchings on a photograph of one of the Ripper murders, but the evidence is shaky at best and has not been confirmed. Sickert did often paint with photographs as the basis of his works, like many others at the time. But there are two things to note here- first, the crime scene photo of the gory Mary Kelly corpse, as well as the images of Catherine Eddowes after her death, were not published in newspapers until 1899, and were published first in France- eleven years after the crimes of 1888. Sickert did travel to France frequently, and surely these photos would have caused enough of a sensation that it is entirely possible that he would have seen them, and could have based later works on them. But does that make him a murderer? Was he, years after the fact, bragging about his unspeakable deeds, or possibly dealing with any lingering guilt and attempting to exorcise his demons in pigment? Or was he just an artist potentially using a sensational image or images as a starting point for a continued study of themes that were always of interest to him?
There is also the two-pronged possibility that any resemblance to the ripper murder scenes is subjective to the viewers who choose to read works of art in that way, and that any resemblance, as they say at the end of movies, is purely coincidental.
Next, there’s Sickert’s reported impotence and supposed inabilities that fueled his hatred of womankind. Well, it turns out that the whole claim about Sickert’s fistula only stems from one person- a man named John Lessore, who was Sickert's nephew by marriage. And Lessore stated that it was only family hearsay that promoted the sensitive location of the fistula and that no documentary evidence exists to confirm that it affected his sexual life in any way, including but not limited to his supposed impotence. And this connects to the next claim about Sickert’s childlessness. That's probably bunk. There have been multiple rumors, both during Sickert's lifetime and after, about illegitimate children that he sired, and Ryder quotes Sickert's close friend, painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, as saying, quote, “Sickert was immoral, with a swarm of children of provenance which are not possible to count.” On top of all that, Sickert was a known philanderer, who had multiple mistresses during his marriage to his first wife, who identified him as an adulterer. So chances are high that Walter Sickert’s plumbing worked just fine, thank you very much. And evidence exists that shows that Sickert was enjoying himself in this matter while he was away on his frequent trips to France, where he was known to have kept a mistress. And while Cornwell claims that no evidence exists showing that Sickert was in London during the deadly fall of 1888, Ryder states that there are, in fact, multiple independent sources that state that he was in France. There is one letter in existence that Sickert wrote in France during the fall of 1888, though Cornwell is quick to note that it doesn't have a postmark, so it is impossible to date precisely. But Sickert biographers also point to over letters from Sickert's family and friends, even Jacques-Emile Blanche, confirming Walter’s presence in France. Blanche writes of visiting Sickert in France in September. Sickert's mother wrote a letter from France In the same month, noting that her two sons, Walter and Bernhard, were having a lovely holiday filled with swimming and painting. And even Sickert's own wife, Ellen, corresponded with her brother in law during that fall, noting that her husband had been abroad for a number of weeks. Evidence also exists connecting Sickert with a second location in France later that fall in October, where he visited his mistress, who lived in Dieppe. All told, though any number of excuses may be given to claim sickert’s presence in London, chances are probably good that he was in France during the same time as the first four ripper murders- absent for all, perhaps, except for the final death of Mary Kelly in November.
But what about that damning DNA evidence that reportedly connects Sickert to the Jack the Ripper letters? Well, I've saved the best for last. It turns out that multiple DNA tests were completed between the two sets of letters. The first test was what is known as a nuclear DNA test, and this is the type with which you are probably familiar- this is the usual type of DNA testing, used in the past few decades to prove the identities of baby daddies and potential killers alike. That test came back negative. So that's when the team moved on to the mtDNA test. Let me attempt to explain the difference. Though mtDNA tests are used the world over and are as trusted as their nuclear counterparts, there is an important factor which separates the mitochondrial version from the nuclear one- and that is that mitochondrial DNA is not unique. Whereas nuclear DNA will uniquely match a person to the evidence, mitochondrial DNA cannot- what it can do is limit the results to a certain segment of the population. Steven Ryder compares it to blood typing. For example, he says, two different, unrelated people living on two separate continents half a world apart can both have A positive blood types. If you're looking, then, for someone in the world with an A positive blood type, you're able to remove billions of possible suspects from your list- goodbye, O negative!-- but you're still left with billions of Type A folks. Similarly, with the mtDNA results, experts estimate that between 1 to 10 percent of the population would have similar strains of mitochondrial DNA. It we use Cornwell’s numbers- the very generous one percent estimate- then we can assume that only one percent of the U.K.’s population would have matched the ripper letters. And according to a turn of the century census, London already had about 40 million people living there. One percent of that is four hundred thousand. Four hundred thousand! Having Walter Sickert in that list certainly doesn't mean that he isn't Jack the Ripper, but it doesn't necessarily meant he is, either, and what remains are hundreds of thousands of people who would still might fit the bill.
And then there's the issue with even performing DNA testing in the first place. The surviving Jack the Ripper letters, as well as Sickert's own correspondence, aren't a few days old. They are over one hundred years old, and have been handled by dozens, if not hundreds, of people over the years- archivists, policemen, investigators, journalists, family members, and so forth. As Ryder notes, the problem of DNA transferal from any number of individuals, who most certainly weren't wearing the requisite white gloves-- is a very serious consideration. And interestingly enough, Patricia Cornwell doesn't mention this little fact anywhere in her book.
There's also the question of whether or not Sickert, let alone the ripper, actually licked the stamps and the backs of the envelopes containing his letters. Ryder says that this point may seem silly, but the Victorians were pretty scared of germs and bacteria in general, so it was common habit to use a moistened sponge to wet and seal correspondence. And Sickert and or the ripper might not even have mailed their own letters or even stamped them, but could have handed them off to a maid, assistant, friend, or even a family member to post them. Again, the chance of DNA contamination of these letters is fairly high.
Which brings us to the letters themselves. According to historians and ripperologists, there is an estimated 600 surviving letters claiming to be sent from Jack the Ripper or from those claiming leads or information about the crimes. Some of them were sent during that fateful fall of 1888, but many of them continued to be sent years later, with the last letters arriving in the mid-1960s. The vast majority of these letters are considered to be hoaxes. They were sent from all over the world- though the majority were mailed in London, some came from the United States, from France, Australia, and even as far afield as South Africa and beyond. And of course the grammar, spelling, penmanship and so on are vastly different, too, with contradictory suggestions and so called proof found between them. In the u.k. Alone, Ryder points out that mailing in fake ripper letters became something of a quote “sick national pastime” in the years that followed the murders. of course even some morally unsound journalists are suspected of getting in on the action in order to sell more papers. Two people were eventually arrested for forging Ripper letters- interestingly enough, they were both women. The only letter that most experts consider to be a possibly authentic ripper letter is the one mentioned earlier in this episode- the so called “from hell” letter, accompanied by the segment of a human kidney, which was assumed to have come from Catherine Eddowes. But even that has never been able to be completely confirmed, and that, too, could be a hoax or a prank. All of this is to say that between the hundreds of letters that exist as possible proof of Jack the Ripper himself, it shouldn't be surprising that similarities in phrases, watermarks, and stationary would pop up, and none of them can conclusively be stated as coming from Jack the Ripper.
So, who was Jack the Ripper, then? Well, I'm certainly not qualified to say, but I have to note that Steven Ryder’s factual comparison gives me great pause when it comes to identifying Walter Sickert as the killer. So much of the purported evidence is suspect, subjective, and coincidental. Yes, when it comes to solving crimes it can be true that even the little things can add up, and that perhaps coincidences aren't coincidences at all. But if we stick with the dictum that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, I think I could say that I couldn't convict Sickert if I was on a jury. He just happened to be a public figure whose works can easily be misread after the fact and in light of 21st century tales of crime and passion. In fact, the best summary of the Sickert slash Jack the Ripper phenomenon is a pointed and snarky one written in a blog entry for the Guardian newspaper’s art and design section. In his 2013 post, journalist Jonathan Jones sympathized with “poor Sickert,” as he called him, whose name has been dragged through the mud by Cornwell and the like with their out of hand theories. Jones writes, quote, “Who knows, perhaps he was Dracula, that other renowned Victorian monster. After all, Dracula enters modern culture in a novel published in Sickert's London when this harsh, demonic painter was at work. I have researched this using the latest technology, and when you look at closely at Sickert’s painting of Minnie Cunningham, she has two small puncture marks on her throat. As for her name “Minnie” is clearly a reference to Mina Harker in Stoker’s Dracula-- which is therefore a veiled portrait of Sickert and his dark side. The red dress Sickert's Minnie Cunningham wears is a confession of the blood he needs to stay alive. Case closed: Walter Sickert was Dracula. Or perhaps he was just a powerful painter whose art addresses the same themes of sex and city life that have turned the crimes of a nameless murderer into a modern myth.”
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, narrated, and edited by me, Jennifer Dasal, with production assistance from Kaboonki Creative. Learn more about all the ways that Kaboonki can help you with your personal and business creative needs at www.kaboonki.coom-- that's K A B O O N K I dot com.
For images that relate to today’s story, as well as links to further information about this episode and our previous episodes, please visit our website at artcuriouspodcast.com. Due to the nature of this story, I have chosen not to post the existing crime scene photos of the Jack the Ripper victims on the website, nor will I be posting anything like them on our social media accounts. You are welcome to google them if you so choose, as they are readily available online. Instead, please do check the site for images of Walter Sickert and his work, including the specific paintings mentioned in today’s episode, like those from the Camden Town Murder series.
As always, I will post links to articles mentioned in the show today as well as several texts that I used during the course of my research. If you liked this show, let us know! ArtCurious is reachable in many different ways-- contact us via the website, or email us at email@example.com, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod, where we are posting great images and tidbits on a daily basis. Got an idea or a request for an upcoming episode? Feel free to let us know that, too. And of course I'd love to know your thoughts this as well as our other episodes. Do you think Walter Sickert has been unfairly pigeonholed by Cornwell and others? Or is he really Jack the Ripper? And, most of all, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes and recommend us to your friends and fellow art aficionados, so that we can find more listeners and share the love. If you write a review for us on iTunes-- it's quick and easy to do, I promise-- it will help us tremendously to get an even more committed following. That way, I can keep bringing you more of these stories. Please check back in a couple of weeks for a new episode as we continue to bring you the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.