Title: Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Book Length: 570 pages
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime
Read Start Date: January 4, 2023
Read Finish Date: March 22, 2023
Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads: From New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell comes Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, a comprehensive and intriguing exposé of one of the world’s most chilling cases of serial murder—and the police force that failed to solve it.
Vain and charismatic Walter Sickert made a name for himself as a painter in Victorian London. But the ghoulish nature of his art—as well as extensive evidence—points to another name, one that’s left its bloody mark on the pages of history: Jack the Ripper. Cornwell has collected never-before-seen archival material—including a rare mortuary photo, personal correspondence and a will with a mysterious autopsy clause—and applied cutting-edge forensic science to open an old crime to new scrutiny.
Incorporating material from Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, this new edition has been revised and expanded to include eight new chapters, detailed maps and hundreds of images that bring the sinister case to life.
My Review: Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert explores the theory that the famous British painter Walter Sickert was also Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who terrorized London in the late 19th century.
The book presents evidence that Sickert had a connection to the Ripper murders, including similarities in the style and content of his paintings and the crime scenes, as well as letters that he wrote and received that may indicate his involvement. Cornwell also delves into Sickert’s personal life and character, painting a portrait of a disturbed and possibly violent individual.
However, the theory presented in the book has been met with skepticism and criticism from some experts in the field, and it remains a controversial topic in the ongoing debate about the true identity of Jack the Ripper.
While a well-researched book, I found Cornwell’s theory about the true identity of Jack the Ripper less than compelling. Cornwell made less of a case for Walter Sickert being the notorious serial killer, than she did that Sickert was an awful human being who had an obsessions with death / violence. At times, Cornwell’s arguments feel repetitive and she can be overly speculative in her analysis. Additionally, some of the evidence presented is circumstantial and open to interpretation, which left me feeling unconvinced, to say the least.
For example, Cornwell presents a letter allegedly written by Jack the Ripper alongside one from Sickert in her book, both containing doodles or drawings. Cornwell asserts that the drawings are very similar, but upon examination, I personally did not find them to be alike. Additionally, Cornwell claims that she couldn’t proceed with her investigation without certain “scientific” evidence. However, it is unclear what type of science she is referring to, as the DNA evidence is non-existent and handwriting analysis is not a reliable method in court.
The sole piece of evidence that could potentially be considered credible (although that term is used loosely) is the matching watermarks on certain Ripper letters sent to the police and Sickert’s letters from the same period, indicating that they were manufactured from the same batch of paper. While it is possible that Sickert wrote these letters, it does not necessarily mean that he was the Ripper. However, Cornwell’s research indicates that Sickert had an obsession with death and murder, was unpleasant, arrogant, and possibly even narcissistic, and created violent art.
Is this the recipe for a serial killer or just a major jerk? It’s difficult to say. While Sickert’s obsession with death and murder, coupled with his violent art and nasty personality, certainly raise some red flags, there is no conclusive evidence linking him to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. It’s possible that he was taunting the police for fun, or that he didn’t send the letters at all. And if he was the Ripper, why did he suddenly stop killing? It’s a mystery that may never be solved. While Cornwell attributes many more murders to the Ripper than the five that are typically attributed to him, the lack of concrete evidence linking Sickert to the crimes makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions.
Cornwell’s obsession with the killer at the expense of the victims made the book even less exciting for me. While reading it, I also listened to the Bad Women podcast, which focuses on the victims of Jack the Ripper. Cornwell refers to the victims as prostitutes, but in reality, they were not. This indicates that she was more interested in the killer than the victims, even though she claims the book is for the victims to get justice. About 20% of London’s population at the time of the killings was homeless, and the victims may have been homeless or fallen on hard times, but there is little evidence to suggest they engaged in prostitution.
Another aspect of the book that I found distasteful and disrespectful was Cornwell’s graphic depiction of the murders, as well as her inclusion of actual photographs of the victims’ mutilated bodies. It’s unclear how this serves the victims or their families, as it can be incredibly triggering and traumatizing to see such images. In my opinion, it is not appropriate to include such graphic content in a book, especially without a warning for readers who may be sensitive to such material.
During an interview for a Bad Women podcast episode, Cornwell referred to Jack the Ripper as “Jack the Rippoff” and disclosed spending 7 million dollars on her investigation into Sickert. It appeared to me that Cornwell was not particularly passionate about her own project, but may have felt obligated to complete the book due to her commitment and contractual obligations with the publisher. If Cornwell isn’t so thrilled with the book, should I be?
Trigger warnings for this book include: graphic descriptions of violence and murder, depictions of mutilated bodies, mentions of sexual assault, discussions of mental illness, and potential victim blaming.
Although I gave this book 3 stars, would I recommend it? The book has received mixed reviews, with some readers praising it for its thorough research and others criticizing it for its unsupported claims and graphic descriptions of violence. If you are interested in true crime or the Jack the Ripper case, you may find the book worth reading for its unique perspective and extensive research. However, if you are sensitive to graphic content or have concerns about the author’s methods and claims, you may want to consider a different book on the topic. Ultimately, whether or not to read the book is a personal decision that depends on your individual interests and comfort level.