I have been reading Patricia Cornwell on Jack the Ripper. Considering she’s such a commercial writer, you would expect a mess of flamboyant, italicised reconstructions. In fact, Cornwell writes with depth and clarity, building up her argument until you are convinced the Ripper was no one other than who Cornwell says it was – the artist Walter Sickert.
Born in 1860, Sickert was a handsome, creative, respected urban character. Cornwell gives his motive as a deformity of the penis, mutilated by childhood surgery, that rendered him incapable of sex. To Sickert, women were ‘a dangerous reminder of an infuriating and humiliating secret that Sickert carried not only to the grave but beyond it’. In the words of the anonymous author of a letter in the Whitechapel Papers, the Ripper was ‘now revenging himself on the sex by these atrocities.’ (Iain Banks’s castrated psychopath, Frank Cauldhame, vowed that since he was incapable of creating life he would invest all his energy in its ‘grim opposite’.) One of the victims, Cornwell writes, was so relentlessly attacked that she could have been hit by a train.
I am not a Ripperologist or an art historian. I knew little about either Sickert or the Ripper before reading Cornwell’s book. So Portrait of a Killer could be conspiracy theory, the criminological equivalent of the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays. The evidence base seems to rely on Sickert’s movements at the time of the killings and comparisons between the Ripper letters and the artist’s own writings. But the book is compelling.
Julie Bindel recently asked why we don’t class Ripper murders as hate crimes, in the same way that the murders of Stephen Laurence, Anthony Walker and countless other victims of white racists are classed as hate crimes. In one of his letters, Jack the Ripper pledged to ‘destroy the filthy hideous whores of the night; Dejected, lost, cast down, ragged, and thin, Frequenters of Theatres, Music-halls and drinkers of Hellish gin.’ The Yorkshire Ripper had no literary flair but his message was the same: when his brother asked why he’d done the things he’d done, Sutcliffe replied: ‘I were just cleaning up the streets, our kid.’ As Bindel writes, ‘Sutcliffe did not go on a killing spree because he had some sort of moral objection to women in prostitution, as was suggested at the time by much of the media, and since, by authors and commentators, but because he hated women.’
Bindel talks about institutional hatred of women, and I’m not sure about that, but certainly the contempt and condescension the Victorians had for those ‘Unfortunates’ who became Jack the Ripper’s victims persisted well beyond the nineteenth century. Yet only up to a point. Steve Wright may have thought he could count on society’s indifference towards the welfare of prostitutes when he murdered five women in Suffolk. He was wrong. Sentencing Wright to a literal life imprisonment, Mr Justice Gross told the killer that: ‘This was a targeted campaign of murder. It is right you should spend your whole life in prison… Drugs and prostitution meant they were at risk. But neither drugs nor prostitution killed them. You did. You killed them, stripped them and left them… why you did it may never be known.’
In the late 1880s, there were rumours that Jack the Ripper was really Joseph Carey Merrick. Merrick, the Elephant Man, suffered from a genetic deformity so monstrous that you shudder with disgust even reading about him. Dr Frederick Treves, who saved Merrick from an East End carnival tent and sheltered him inside the Royal London Hospital, reflected that ‘one would have expected Merrick to be a bitter, hateful man because of the way he had been treated all his life. How could he be kind and sensitive when he had known nothing but mockery and cruel abuse? How could anyone be born with more against him?’
Merrick was self-aware, he understood his own injustice, yet Dr Treves knew him as ‘an extremely intelligent, imaginative and loving human being’. Cornwell wondered whether Sickert and Merrick had ever been face to face at any point. It’s possible. Sickert was a young man in London when Merrick was being exhibited in the carnie tent. He loved his cruel irony, and often toured the rougher part of the city.
Had Sickert, Cornwell wonders, ever paid the barker and drawn back the cloth? If so, such a meeting ‘would have been replete with symbolism, for each was the other inside out.’