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