From Texas to Whitechapel: Life in the shadow of Jack The Ripper

  1. The news out of Texas this week regarding the recent shooting is horrific, and I'm not quite ready to process it closely right now. so instead, I want to talk about a much older series of murders. I've recently finished reading Patricia Cornwell's Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, and on the whole I found it a frustrating experience. Not that I find her entirely off base – the Ripper murders have always been rife with contradictions and enough detritus to distract anyone. The entire case is a vortex that will consume anyone who veers to deeply into it, as she herself conceded at the end of the book.
  2. But any investigation boils down to three basic things – Means, motives and opportunity – and when you try to boil Cornwell's book down to those factors, interesting things appear. Means is the easy one. Cornwell quite rightly dispels the notion that it takes some deep surgical skill to commit most of the Ripper's murders. Any reasonably strong brute could probably have done it, especially if they were for some reason uninhibited by conscience or fear of being caught.
  3. Opportunity is where crux of her of her argument lies: Sickert is generally said to have been in France for the duration of the Whitechapel murders. Cornwell says the dates and notes on his sketchbook say otherwise. I'm actually inclined to go with her on this one: I've lived in England, and even in the 19th century, getting back and forth from France to England would have been pretty easy. There weren't even really passport records then. No, lots of aristocrats and artistic elites were mobile, and I see no reason why Sickert wouldn't have been.
  4. Cornwell's argument falls down with motive – too much conjecture and hypothesis, too much interpretation of actions and events to fit a narrative, with too little search for antithesis, too little overt challenging of her own conclusions. But even here, she hits on a couple interesting points that are worthy of discussion, notably the letters.
  5. London was buried under letters from the alleged Ripper, sent to the police and the newspapers. It's commonly held there was a mania for hoaxers, and while that sort of thing happens – look at our own epidemic of fake news – the similarities and attention-seeking qualities of the letters have always struck me, and the assertion that at least some of them came from the same paper stock Sickert used in his London flat was interesting. And besides, while I understand hoaxes and mania, I still believe that it's far more uncommon for people to lie as groups than it is as individuals.
  6. I'm not convinced Sickert was the Ripper, but I could be convinced he wrote the letters. He was, as Cornwell illustrates, a voracious letter writer, and engulfed newspapers on a regular basis. He was also known to "play act" being a murderer, including Jack the Ripper, while painting, more than once being heard shouting, "I AM JACK THE RIPPER." These are all well-documented facts. Sickert created dark, disturbing art, but I've known rather a lot of people who create dark, disturbing art who are, on the whole, relatively normal people, and often more peaceable than most. They take their aggressions out in their work. Equating dark art with being disturbed is the province of underpaid grade school counselors. There's rarely any sort of correlation to action.
  7. No, I'm no more convinced Walter Sickert was the Ripper than I am it was William Gull, Montague Druitt, Aaron Kosminski, or any of the other suspects who have emerged. Indeed, I'm not entirely convinced there really was a singular Ripper. Cornwell points out, quite correctly, that it was preposterous to believe that the serial killer had only 5-7 victims.She puts forward as many as 70 possible victims, including in other British cities and even in France. This is not impossible, of course, but it's just as likely those murders were all unconnected, that the world is just filled with violent men. We like to think of Jack the Ripper as a singular person. There's something comforting in Cornwell's hypothesis that he was responsible for as many as 70 murders. If she's right, there were 69 fewer monsters out there. If she's right, the world was actually better place than we thought. We can pin it all to one monster and walk away.
  8. But as we look out at the news, at the slayings in New York and Texas and a seemingly unending chain that goes back ... well, back to Whitechapel. And further, of course, but whatever happened there, it was a definite beginning of sorts. Call it the modern era of murder. Who was Jack the Ripper? He was Stephen Paddock. Or Omar Mateen. Or Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, Devin Patrick Kelley or one of any number of men touched by sickness and rage. We are constantly surrounded by monsters, and it's nothing new. I do not know if there was ever a single person in the role of Jack the ripper, do not know who killed Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes or Mary Jane Kelly, but I know this: Whoever he was or wasn't, Jack the Ripper's shadow is everywhere.
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