l've had a morbid fascination for Jack the Ripper ever since I first heard about him when I was a teenager. The idea that someone could kill between five and seventeen victims -- how many were Jack's doing, and how many either copycats or simply the result of the horrific violence that was commonplace among the poor in London in the 1880s and 1890s -- is still a matter of conjecture. The "five canonical murders" -- Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly -- were all of poor women working as prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London. The killings started out horrid and ended up nothing short of appalling -- the last two were mutilated nearly beyond recognition.
Despite the efforts of the police, Jack's identity was never determined. This, of course, has led to a plethora of theories -- guesses would be a better term -- about who he was, ranging from known murderers like Seweryn Kłosowski and Thomas Neill Cream to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence -- the son of King Edward VII. All of them have points for and against, and some are clearly more preposterous than others. None, unfortunately, fits with everything that is known about the Ripper murders.
But Cornwell says there's one that's different. In Portrait of a Killer, she makes a case that all of the canonical murders, plus that of Martha Tabram (which occurred before that of Mary Ann Nichols) and several afterwards, were the work of artist Walter Sickert.
Sickert was, apparently, a strange man, and had a fascination himself for the Ripper murders. He deliberately stayed in an apartment that had allegedly been home base for Jack at some point (how he could have known that when no one knew who Jack was, I have no idea). He drew and painted several scenes related to the murders, and many of his other paintings have macabre, grotesque, and violent themes.
[click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]
The bottom line is, we probably will never know for certain who Jack the Ripper was. In fact, I always bring him up in my Critical Thinking classes when we discuss the concept of "sufficient evidence" -- and that, as frustrating as it is, there are times we have to say "We don't know, and probably never will know." That notwithstanding, Cornwell's book is fascinating reading; even if she's wrong about her central premise, she provides a unique and lucid window into the sordid life of Whitechapel in the 1880s and 1890s. And her descriptions of the victims themselves are poignant and sympathetic. It's worth a read just for that alone -- whether or not her favorite theory about the Ripper's identity is correct.