The story of Jack the Ripper, the well-dressed serial killer who brutally killed five prostitutes amid the fog of Victorian London, has intrigued generations of crime buffs in the century since the murders took place.
The case was never solved, although dozens of Victorians, both famous and obscure, have been advanced as possible suspects over the years. Now crime writer Patricia Cornwell is certain she has found the true culprit: Walter Sickert, an Impressionist painter who walked the same East London streets as Jack the Ripper, and 20 years later produced a gruesome series of paintings of murdered prostitutes.
"I do believe 100 percent that Walter Richard Sickert committed those serial crimes, that he is the Whitechapel murderer," Cornwell told Primetime's Diane Sawyer.
Cornwell has spent $4 million on her obsession, delving into Sickert's life and work in a quest for evidence tying him to five Ripper murders committed in the East London district of Whitechapel in 1888.
She bought up 30 of Sickert's paintings, some costing as much as $70,000, only to tear some of them up to look for clues. She bought his painting table and had forensic experts scour it for fingerprints. She visited the scenes of the Ripper's crimes, and the modest graves of his victims.
The idea that Sickert might be Jack the Ripper has been around since the 1960s, and most experts believe it is a myth stemming from his macabre paintings. But Cornwell's research has convinced her that she has the right man.
"That is so serious to me that I am staking my reputation on this," she said. "Because if somebody literally proves me wrong, not only will I feel horrible about it, but I will look terrible."
Cornwell initially started researching the Ripper murders for one of her crime novels, planning to have her fictional character Kay Scarpetta look into the more than century-old case. But she became so interested in the topic that she decided to make it into a nonfiction book. The book is due out in October.
Paintings of Dead Prostitutes
Sickert is best known for his paintings of London theater scenes. But in 1908-9 he painted a dark series showing a naked prostitute — sometimes alive, sometimes murdered — in a room with a clothed man. The series is known as the Camden Town Murders, after a 1907 killing in Sickert's London neighborhood. But Cornwell believes the artist's tortured depictions of the dead prostitutes were inspired by murders from two decades before.
"Some of his paintings, if you juxtapose them with some of the morgue photos, are extraordinarily chilling," said Cornwell.
She says one of the paintings closely resembles the room where Mary Kelly, the Ripper's last victim, was killed in 1888. Cornwell noted that the painting features a wooden bedstead, just as in the Kelly murder. Sickert painted iron bedsteads in his other paintings.
Cornwell, who has studied serial murders extensively as background for her novels, said that almost all serial killers keep souvenirs of their crimes, so they can use them to fuel their fantasies later. Her hunch is that Sickert drew sketches as a souvenir — but his sketchbooks have been lost.
She believes Sickert waited 20 years before painting the series because he knew the works would have attracted attention if he painted them soon after the Ripper killings.
A Suspicious Red Handkerchief
Cornwell also read extensively about Sickert's life and works. In a memoir written by one of his fans, she read that he kept a red handkerchief in his studio while he was painting the Camden series, using it for inspiration. Cornwell believes the red handkerchief was the same one that a witness saw a man hand to Kelly shortly before she was killed.
The author also found that Sickert had a psychological profile similar to that of many serial killers. He grew up with an abusive father, and was a fearful and compulsive child who washed his hands constantly.
Forensic profilers have found that serial killers often have a growing rage stemming from a painful event in early childhood. Cornwell knew that Sickert had undergone painful surgery several times as a small child, for a fistula, or abnormal canal, somewhere on his body. She later learned from Sickert's great-nephew that the fistula was on the painter's penis, meaning that the operations might have left him sterile.
Sickert married three times but never had children, and Cornwell thinks he might have had a sexual disability that set off a murderous rampage in 1888, when he was 28. "You've got this severe sexual dysfunction, and I think that was a huge trigger for him," she said.
Hunting for a Speck of DNA
With powerful circumstantial evidence linking Sickert to the Ripper's crimes, Cornwell was sure that he was the culprit. But she knew she would need physical evidence to convince people. She thought she knew how she could get it: If she could obtain DNA from letters believed to have been sent by the Ripper, she could compare them with letters known to have been written by Sickert.
The 1888 murders had transfixed all of London, and the police had received hundreds of letters claiming to be from the murderer, most of which were hoaxes. There are a few Ripper letters that are generally believed to be written by the murderer himself. The British government gave Cornwell permission to test the letters, which are kept at the Public Record Office in London.
At her own expense, Cornwell flew a whole team over to Britain: a handwriting expert, a forensic photographer to make a high-resolution record of the letters, and a DNA analyst. They discovered that the letters had been heat-sealed under plastic to preserve them, a process that degrades DNA. None of the letters had any trace of DNA.
There was renewed hope when a former Scotland Yard curator discovered a suspected Ripper letter that had never been turned over to the archive and thus had not been heat-sealed. An initial test found the letter had no trace of DNA, but the letter did have something no one had ever seen on a Ripper letter before: a watermark from Perry & Sons, an exclusive stationer of the day.
In the Sickert archives, Cornwell found that the artist had used the same stationery at the time of the 1888 Ripper crimes. Acknowledging that a defense attorney could argue that someone else wrote the letter or that Sickert wrote it as a hoax, Cornwell believes it would have been enough at the time. "The heck with defense attorneys. A jury back then would have said, 'Hang him.' "
Cornwell's team also tore apart several of her Sickert paintings, scrutinizing the frames and canvas for fingerprints or traces of blood, but found nothing. It was the same story with his painting table.
Second Test Finds DNA on Ripper Letter
After the first test failed to find DNA on the unsealed letter, Cornwell commissioned more sophisticated and time-consuming mitochondrial DNA tests. The new results, which came back two weeks ago, found DNA from a single person on the suspected Ripper letter. The tests also found DNA on the Sickert letters, but the DNA was a blend of many different people. There was a match between the DNA on the Ripper letter and the blended DNA on the Sickert letters. Cornwell's DNA expert points out that this is likely a coincidence, the mish-mash of blended DNA matching a sequence from the DNA on the Ripper letter. But Cornwell herself believes it is "a cautious indicator that the Sickert and Ripper mitochondrial DNA ... may have come from the same person."
After Primetime first reported Cornwell's theories in December, a woman in Britain contacted the author and told her she had a century-old hotel registry book with an entry signed "Jack the Ripper." Cornwell flew to England to see the book, and found that it was filled with crude annotations and obscene sketches that she believes are consistent with Sickert's work and personality. She turned the book over to the Tate Gallery, home to many of Sickert's paintings, for examination.
Primetime asked established Ripper experts what they thought of Cornwell's theories. Some said they thought they were feasible, while others dismissed them as "rubbish."
But Cornwell has not been deterred. She is planning to continue hunting for physical proof of the Ripper's identity — not for his sake, but for his victims' sake.
Recalling the unvisited, untended graves of the five young prostitutes, Cornwell said: "They have a right to have justice after 113 years. They have a right for someone to care about them for once and not to care about him. ... He doesn't deserve to be mythologized and turned into some hero played by movie stars. And he doesn't deserve to have his art celebrated."
This story originally aired on Primetime Dec. 6, 2001.