The writer has spent two decades and $6 million trying to prove that Victorian London’s most notorious murderer was Walter Sickert
In the autumn of 1888 London was in a state of terrified excitement over Jack the Ripper. There had never been a killer like this in England before, wrote Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton, the joint editors of The Spectator. They congratulated the British public on not succumbing to the continental habit of lynching (‘In Naples the doctors would have perished, in Berlin the Jews’) but warned that ‘this devil’ might never be caught.
By January 1889, Townsend and Hutton were calling for an end to all the ‘morbid interest’ in the Ripper’s crimes. I imagine them in their cramped office near Waterloo Bridge, fed up with Ripper mania, and with the banging from the building site opposite that was to be the Savoy, Britain’s first luxury hotel.
I’d like to have seen their faces had they known that this morbid interest would last not just another year, but another century. I’d like to have told them that 128 years later, in that same Savoy, a millionaire American crime novelist would be explaining to their magazine how and why she’d finally solved the Ripper mystery. And I expect, if I’d told them who Patricia Cornwell fancies for the killer, they’d have had a joint editorial faint.
Cornwell, author of the Kay Scarpetta novels, has been quite sure for close to two decades now that Jack the Ripper was in fact the artist Walter Sickert. She wrote a book about it in 2002 which seemed interesting if not quite Case Closed — the book’s tough-talking title. Sickert was certainly obsessed with the murders. There’s his painting of the Ripper’s bedroom and his nudes are posed, says Cornwell, in the manner of the Ripper’s victims.
Cornwell’s Ripper book attracted an astonishing amount of derision from all manner of people, whether or not they knew anything about the case.
‘It was pretty brutal after the first book,’ she says, sitting in front of me in her suite in the Savoy, slight, blonde, tough. ‘I was hurt, puzzled, befuddled, knocked way off-guard, wondering why I didn’t see all the criticism coming.’
Yet here she is, ready for round two. She’s republishing the Ripper book updated with new, ‘compelling’ evidence pointing the finger even more firmly at Sickert. Is she ready for more flak? And why bother? She’s earned millions from the Scarpetta books. The Ripper investigation, by contrast, has cost her more than $6 million. What possesses her to stay in pursuit of Sickert?
Cornwell has silver skull rings on her fingers and another skull on her belt. She looks like some otherworldly detective in pursuit of a murderous ghost. She says: ‘I had to do this because it would be wrong for me not to finish what I started. If you’re going to accuse another human being of being a serial killer, you have to provide the evidence.’
She’s a very unusual woman, Patricia Cornwell. She’s 60, with the direct stare and the candour of a child. She’s sold more than a hundred million books and flies a helicopter, but she still comes across as vulnerable, which is perhaps the legacy of her childhood.
It wasn’t a great one. Cornwell’s father jumped ship and left his kids in the care of their mentally ill mother, who soon had a psychotic breakdown, meaning the children went into care, where Cornwell was abused. Given all that, how on earth did she come out on top?
‘Well, I have some bad genes, clearly, but also some good genes from my grandma Gussie,’ she says. ‘I mean when she was 98 years old, GG would go out to empty the garbage wearing a rape whistle. She wasn’t a quitter, and quitting has never been an option for me.’
Was it always writing that you focused on?
‘When I was little and when things were lonely or really sad, I made up characters and it kept me company. I don’t feel sorry about my childhood — I mean, people make a much bigger thing of it than I really do. But I did not want to be a victim any longer when I was a kid, and so it’s not surprising I would create Scarpetta because, in my fantasies, that’s who I wanted to come knocking on the door of the foster home and say “That girl’s coming with me.” I created a character who was a role model. I want to take care of things the way Scarpetta does, you see what I mean?’
I do, and she most certainly has taken care of things just as efficiently and successfully as Scarpetta would. Cornwell was the first writer to make a forensic scientist her fictional heroine, and she inspired the whole genre of CSI fiction; turned us all into blood-spatter experts. She’s made more than a hundred million dollars, though some might say there’s been a steep price to pay as well. Her determination to present things as they really are has meant untold hours in the morgue. A life lived a little like Persephone, half with the living, half with the dead.
But it’s not so bad in the morgue, she says.
‘I’ve always had this theory that, because it’s so cold and stark and colourless in there, because the only colours are the bodies, biology is screaming to stay warm and alive. Actually what happens is people around dead bodies get into flirtations, they laugh and argue. It’s as if you’re resisting death trying to suck the colour out of you.’
Outside, behind Cornwell, through the Savoy suite’s glass wall, London is looking a little morgue-like itself, bleached brown and grey by the pale sun. Cornwell herself is keen, in a polite but determined way, to move from Scarpetta to the Ripper, so we cut back to the chase.
And though it’s been much mocked, her Ripper investigation must count as one of Cornwell’s greatest and strangest achievements. Which other writer has ever stepped into her own literary heroine’s shoes, deployed for real the skills she learnt researching fiction?
So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.
The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’
Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?
‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’
And perhaps after all, Hutton and Townsend wouldn’t have been that surprised. The Spectator’s leader of 1888 says: ‘From his dress, from his success in pacifying women, from his knowledge of anatomy and from his devilish daring, the probability seems strong that the criminal is not a rough, but a man more or less educated and trained.’
‘Do you feel, at the end of all this, that the investigation has been for the sake of those poor women, to do them justice?’ I ask, feeling quite sure she’ll agree. Once again Cornwell surprises me. ‘I had somebody say to me today, “Why bother with all this any more?” And the answer is because it’s never too late for redemption.’
Redemption for who? For the Ripper? ‘Walter Sickert was created by a lot of things that happened to him too, and also the way he was born,’ says Cornwell. ‘I do believe that energy, the spirit of us, is eternal, and I do believe in justice for the victims, and in redemption for him.’