Portrait of a Killer?


Patricia Cornwell recently wrote the book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Riper, Case Closed (Putnams: New York, 2002) in which she presents thoroughly researched findings that lead her to the conviction that a famous English painter, Walter Richard Sickert, was the famous serial murderer that plagued London over a century ago in the late 1890s.


Cornwell is a very successful fiction writer; however, she also has years of experience in the field of forensics and was able with her financial resources to hire DNA experts, art experts, hand writing experts and bring all the modern investigative techniques to bear on this case. 


The book, therefore, is worth reading just to see how criminal forensics have dramatically changed in the years since the Jack the Ripper case.  (The murderer was so labeled because he not only killed poor women, often prostitutes, but he cut them up horrifically.)  The book is also worth reading for its excellent recreation of the period during which the crimes occurred.  Cornwell gives you a powerful picture of the degrading poverty of the times.  However, the most interesting part of the book, for me, is the technique that she uses to “convict” Sickert posthumously.  That technique is the standard one used by most prosecutors and police departments.  When you don’t know who really killed someone, and you have someone that you can tie to the murders in any way---(a lover, a neighbor, someone just happening by at the time, whatever)---then you go after that person.  You interpret everything you can lay your hands on in terms of how it can be made to fit that individual. 


Our criminal justice system is dangerously fixated at blaming someone, getting convictions at any cost---and the cost is frequently the denial of justice.  When a person is wrongfully convicted, then you are left with the likelihood that the real murderer gets to go free!  That is a terrible price to pay just to please the ego of those in change of bringing the guilty to trial.


So let us look at what Cornwell did.  She identifies Sickert as a person who was first an “obscure” actor.  Yes, he was not famous; however, he was able to gain roles and tour with acting companies.  As most actors know, that may not make them famous, but it is a mark of success to be able to get roles and work.  He then decided to become a painter as this was what his father was and he became a student of James McNeill Whistler the famous English painter.


“Sickert was fluent in German, English, French, and Italian.  He knew Latin well enough to teach it to friends, and he was well acquainted with Danish and Greek and possibly knew a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese.  He was said to read the classics in their original languages” (p. 2)  Wow!  If that does not positively impress you, then I don’t know what will?


“Walter Richard Sickert was born May 31, 1860, in Munich, Germany…(he lived until he was 81)…Walter was the firstborn of six children---five boys and one girl.  Remarkably, it appears that not one of them would ever have children…Walter was the third generation of artists.  His grandfather, Johann Jurgen Sickert, was so gifted as a painter that he earned the patronage of Denmark’s King Christian VIII.  Walter’s father, Oswald, was a talented painter and graphic artist who could make neither a name for himself nor a living” (pp. 41-42).  However, his mother had money so that the father didn’t have to be the primary income producer for this family. Walter’s sister Helena grew “up to be a famous suffragette and political figure who wrote her memoirs” (p. 47).  This is where Cornwell gets most of her information about the Sickert family.  Although Cornwell interprets some of what Helena says about Walter negatively, the bottom line is that Helena says nothing about Walter that would account for why he would grow up to be the psychopathic serial murderer that Cornwell contends.  Yes, he was indifferent towards other children once they served no purpose for him.  But, keep in mind that Sickert was a genius with photographic recall, far brighter than these children, and it should not surprise you that he lost interest in playing with him.  Instead of being abused by his parents, he was much loved by his mother and was her favorite.  His father had little use of any of the children, but was not known to abuse them in any way.  So Walter was not the scapegoat, not a child abused, not a child in any way that was demonstrating psychopathic tendencies.  His sister did not report him torturing other children or animals.  He didn’t engage in any activities that would these days have him sent off to a therapist.


His father didn’t encourage any of his children to pursue art but little “Walter could not resist drawing, painting, and making models out of wax” (p. 49).  Some would say, especially given his future greatness as an artist, that Walter Sickert was born with a “calling” as Hillman would say.  Hillman indicates that people who have their calling frustrated can become angry.  But, such is not the case with Sickert as he became an artist.


Instead of interpreting all the strengths in Walter’s upbringing---the fact that he was his mother’s pride, the fact that the family was financially stable due to his mother’s money, the fact that he was bright and was an energetic and intellectually keen student---Cornwell dwells upon negative interpretations at every turn.  She sees him filled with arrogance, lacking feeling, and manipulative which she says are typical of psychopaths (p. 52).  If everyone who had the positives of Walter’s upbringing, along with the arrogance etc., turned into a psychopath, then we would be living in a world filled with psychopaths!  It is patently ridiculous to start leading the reader to believe that Walter was turning into one based on what she knew of his childhood.  But it is necessary for her to do so if she is going to label him as the killer. 


However, one significant factor did occur in Walter’s young life.  He went through a number of operations to his penis.  “By the age of five, Sickert had undergone three horrific surgeries for a fistula” on his penis (p. 59).   For Cornwell, this is a very powerful piece of evidence and accounts for the violent and often sexually degrading forms of murders the killer engaged in.  Here again, her attack on Sickert is uncalled for.  She has no evidence whatsoever that these operations warped Sickert and helped make him a psychopathic serial murderer as she contends.  In fact, Cornwell does a nice job of undermining her contentions in a variety of ways. 


First there is the case of the Elephant Man.  During this time in London a very famous case existed.  “Joseph Carey Merrick---mistakenly called John Merrick by the showman who ‘owned’ him last---was granted shelter” in a hospital thanks to a thoughtful physician who came to his rescue.  Merrick was so disfigured by his medical problem that he was hardly recognizable as a human being.  (For more on this fascinating case and the period it was occurring in, you should watch the excellent movie The Elephant Man.”  People thought Merrick to be mentally impaired and treated him as a subhuman and put him on public display to be despised and ridiculed.  “In fact, he was an extremely intelligent, imaginative and loving human being” (p. 77).  Instead of being bitter and hateful for the way he had been treated all of his life and for the way that he looked, he was just the opposite.  Cornwell indicates that Merrick and Sickert are the opposites---“each was the other inside out” (p. 77).   Sickert was always noted for his good looks and his mother saw him understandably as a beautiful child and the photographs from his childhood and adulthood show him to be a handsome person.  Sickert was always well treated in his life.  Therefore, they are opposites.  Merrick turned into a loving adult, despite his deformities and abuse.  Sickert turned into a psychopathic killer, despite his good looks and living a comfortable life.  Wow!  Cornwell, you sure got that clearly documented!  Huh?!  I guess I should abuse my children so that they don’t turn into killers but into loving people!?


Another thing that Cornwell mentions in the negative is that Sickert was married three times.  In no way does she relate this in a positive way.  Instead she attributes this negatively and sees him as a man with no real feelings for these three women.  At the same time she notes that even after his first wife divorced him, she continued to love him and went out of her way to secretly continue to support him!  If Sickert is such a terrible person, why would his first wife behave this way toward him?  My guess is that Cornwell would attribute her behavior to some character flaw in the wife rather than love for a man Cornwell has concluded is a murderous psychopath.  Yes, I know, psychopathic killers can be nice to some and vicious toward others.  But before you label a human in this way you have to come up with a lot more tangible evidence than Cornwell develops. 


Clearly, Sickert is an unusual person as are many great creative artists.  It is unfair, to say the least, to label that unusual behavior, which others tend to see as part of the creative process, as the markings of psychopathy!  Picasso had many of the same traits and I am sure that you could make a case for him being a killer also if you tried hard enough!  Down through the ages many great thinkers and artists were in their private lives less admirable than we would want them to be and few of them make for great role models in terms of their personal behavior.  We tend to judge greatness not in terms of their personal lives but in terms of the quality of their creative work.  Sickert, during his lifetime, was so judged by the public and labeled great.  Now, since he is in the grave and unable to defend himself, Cornwell can do as she pleases and malign him to her hearts content.  I learned almost 50 years ago that if you are going to libel or defame a person, it is best done after they are dead and that is what Cornwell is doing.  Obviously she would argue otherwise.  But, as is clear from my statements, I don’t buy her argument any more than I buy the comparable arguments frequently made by the police and prosecutors when they engage in the same type of activity just to gain convictions.


As an adult, Sickert wrote numerous letters to the newspapers.  So did the killer.  Therefore, Sickert was the killer!  Obviously Cornwell did not say that as it is ridiculous.  However, she does use that as “evidence” against Sickert.  But it is once again a clear example of how she is focusing on Sickert and selecting anything she can about him to pin the murders on him.  If today you said to the police, let’s interrogate everyone that writes frequent letters to the newspapers because a murderer you are trying to catch writes lots of letters, the police would consider your approach ridiculous.  But that is what good police work is all about---you look at the evidence and see where it takes you.  You don’t look at a suspect and try to attach the evidence to him.  But that is what Cornwell is doing as that is the common approach of the police and prosecutors---although they will all deny that they do so as it is a clearly biased approach and can easily lead you to the wrong suspect.


I have saved some of Cornwell’s most important evidence against Sickert for the end of my review.  Cornwell had the stamps lifted off the envelopes that the Ripper sent and compared DNA from that with Sickert letters.  No match was found.  However, the DNA material from the two were similar enough so that Sickert could have the same DNA---could, not did.  This reduces the number of people that could be the ripper. 


Also, the watermarks on paper used in Ripper letters match watermarks on paper used by Sickert.  This also is significant and reduces the number of potential suspects tremendously and leaves Sickert in, not out, of the group of potential suspects.


Then there are Sickert paintings which clearly are related to the Ripper murders and some which can be interpreted to relate to the Ripper murders.


Then there is the known fact that Sickert sometimes wandered around alone at night and could have been in the area of the murders when they took place.  However, if Sickert were alive today, if he had been questioned as a suspect then, he might very well have had a complete alibi for his whereabouts during all of the murders proving he was no where’s near them.  No one at the time ever came forward and identified him (or anyone else) as being the murderer.  He might have also had very plausible excuses or explanations for all the other things that pointed toward him.


Remember, this was a very famous case and everyone was interested in it.  The paintings that Sickert did that relate directly or potentially to the murders can easily be explained away simply on the grounds that the murders stimulated him to paint about this famous case.  Artists look for inspiration in a variety of areas.


Regarding the watermarks being the same, remember first of all that Cornwell is NOT saying that this proves he wrote the letters---only that the Ripper and Sickert and OTHERS were using the same type of paper.  So this is not enough to convict him of anything except that he used paper to write letters.


It is also important to keep in mind that the ONLY reason Cornwell is able to make any case against Sickert is that he was famous.  If the real Jack the Ripper is not a famous person, then a person like Cornwell would not be able to gather information about that person.  It is his fame that makes him vulnerable to attack.  However, just as the fame can be tapped into and used selectively to point toward his guilt, it can also point toward his innocence. 


So, as the defense team would say: “Yes, he could be the killer.  But, members of the jury, so could lots of others!  Your responsibility is to declare him innocent unless you can prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  That you cannot do.  No witness is presented saying he was the one they saw committing the murders, no witness is presented saying even that he was in the area during the murders.  No evidence is presented establishing that Mr. Sickert was ever physically cruel to any human or beast in his entire 81 years on this planet.  Nothing irrefutably ties him to any of the murders.”


Now in defense of Cornwell, do I think that she may have found the murderer?  Yes, I think she may be on the right track.  The point that she makes is that when you line up enough coincidences and circumstantial evidence, it becomes hard to believe that Sickert was not involved.  Would a jury convict Sickert on the basis of her evidence?  That would largely depend on the quality of the defense team.  O.J. Simpson had a great defense team and beat the double murder charges even though they had more evidence linking him to the crime than Cornwell is able to put against Sickert.  However, I would contend that the only way Sickert could be convicted on the evidence is if the jury fails to apply the “reasonable doubt” clause.  Clearly in this case we have reasonable doubt of his innocence---just as we have reasonable belief in his guilt.  But you are supposed to establish guilt BEYOND reasonable doubt and I do not feel that Cornwell has done so.


That is the point I am making---the point that really is important today in the 21st century.  It matters little whether Sickert is the murderer or not.  He leaves no direct descendents behind to feel the pain of the accusations as neither he nor his siblings had children.  It becomes only an interesting debate about history and forensics.  What does matter is that once again we have convicted a person when reasonable doubt of their guilt exists.  Cornwell encourages this form of behavior and therefore I find her the guilty one in this case.