The author, the artist and the Ripper: one woman's mission to find
By Jeremy Laurance
26 October 2002
The most expensive murder investigation ever mounted by a private
individual will conclude next week with the publication of a book that
claims to identify one of the most notorious killers in history – and
is set to scandalise the art establishment.
Patricia Cornwell, the multi-millionaire American author, spent two
years and more than £2m on the trail of Jack the Ripper, the Victorian
serial killer who terrorised east London by disembowelling five
prostitutes between August and November 1888. Cornwell has has crossed
the Atlantic half a dozen times, bringing a team of art specialists and
forensic science experts to examine letters and artefacts. She claimed
on a US television show a year ago that she was "100 per cent
sure" that the killer was Walter Sickert, the noted impressionist
painter, wit and storyteller.
Walter Sickert with his third wife Therese Lessore, St George's Hill
House Bathampton 1940
That claim drew a chorus of derision from art critics and
commentators who dismissed it as a "crackpot conspiracy
theory." Initial efforts by Cornwell's team to confirm the theory
by extracting DNA evidence from Sickert's paintings, letters and
belongings and comparing them with letters written by the Ripper failed.
But in the last few months, using more sophisticated methods,
Cornwell has obtained crucial DNA evidence which she believes clinches
the case against Sickert and means his art, examples of which hang in
Tate Britain, must be reassessed.
Details of her discovery will be made public for the first time in
Britain next week with the release of her book, Portrait of a Killer:
Jack the Ripper – case closed, and a BBC Omnibus programme to be
broadcast on Wednesday 30th October 2002.
Cornwell's obsession with the Ripper case began when she planned to
have her fictional heroine Kay Scarpetta look into the mystery.
She bought 30 of Sickert's paintings and was reported to have torn up
at least one in her search for fingerprints or bloodstains, a revelation
that appalled the art world. No DNA was found. Sickert's painting table
also yielded nothing.
Cornwell fell back on circumstantial evidence. Sickert was known to
have a keen interest in the Ripper murders and was first mentioned as a
suspect in the 1970s. He produced a series of works known as the Camden
Town drawings which showed a clothed man on a bed with a naked
prostitute with, in one case, his hands round her neck. He grew up with
an abusive father, was a fearful and compulsive child and had a defect
of his penis which required surgery and may have left him impotent. He
married three times but never had children. Cornwell believes that his
sexual dysfunction was a "huge trigger for him".
Physical evidence was essential, however, and the breakthrough came
with the examination of a letter purportedly sent by the Ripper to a
The case gripped London in the late 1880s and hundreds of letters
were sent to the police allegedly from the Ripper. Most were hoaxes but
a few are held at the Public Record Office. Cornwell obtained permission
to test these letters for DNA but her scientific team found they had
been heat-sealed under plastic, which degrades DNA.
Undeterred, she kept pressing for clues and a former Scotland Yard
curator unearthed a missing letter that had never been sent to the
archive. Initial tests revealed no DNA but the paper on which it was
written carried a distinctive watermark from Perry and Sons, an
exclusive stationer of the day. The paper, with its watermark, was the
same as that used by Sickert at the time of the killings.
A defence lawyer might have argued that the Ripper letter was not
genuine, or that Sickert wrote it as a hoax. But Cornwell was convinced.
"The heck with defence attorneys. A jury back then would have said:
'Hang him'," she said.
Her quest for conclusive evidence continued, and after the first
tests for DNA failed, she commissioned more sophisticated and more
time-consuming tests for mitochondrial DNA. This time the tests yielded
a DNA signature on the Ripper letter which matched DNA on the Sickert
letters. It was the evidence that Cornwell had been looking for.
The Sickert letters carried a blend of DNA from several different
people, reflecting the numbers who had handled them so the match could
have been coincidence. But Cornwell, who disclosed the discovery in an
interview with ABC News in the US, said she believed it was "a
cautious indicator that the Sickert and Ripper mitochondrial DNA ... may
have come from the same person".
Cornwell has won the backing of at least one prominent art historian,
a Sickert expert, for her theory. If she can persuade a sceptical art
establishment, what had been a mystery will transform to a dilemma. For
if Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper how does that change his standing
as an artist?
Cornwell is clear: "[Jack the Ripper] doesn't deserve to be
mythologised and turned into some hero played by movie stars. And he
doesn't deserve to have his art celebrated."
One of Portrait of a Killer