The Final Solution: According to Megan Gaylor
Who would have guessed in 1888 that the murders of five prostitutes in London’s adulterated and disease infested East End would lay the foundation for one of the most highly acclaimed unsolved series of murders in world history? Hundreds of books, fiction and non-fiction, numerous movies and documentaries along with analogies found in multiple TV shows highlight the history, happenings and suspense behind the unknown killer and his specific victims. The list of suspects encompasses all from the Royal Family, to an erratic Indian herb doctor, an educated writer surrounded in his life by many renowned people and even a midwife gone mad roaming the streets, among countless others. Although many of the hypothetical solutions mention Walter Sickert, a significant painter in fin de siècle Britain, the same theories seem not only recondite but have inconsistencies in their attempt to tie him to the murders.
Walter Sickert worked his way through three notable schools and graduated at age 17 to find his first love in stage acting. He soon was forced to leave this, however, because of financial issues and moved on to painting. A meeting with James McNeil Whistler, the American artist, paved the way for Sickert’s professional career as an artist beginning as his assistant. Working for Whistler enabled Sickert to meet Edgar Degas, in 1883, another famous painter of the time, whom he developed a lifelong friendship with. Two years later Sickert entered his first marriage of several; the first being with Ellen Cobden, a wealthy politician’s daughter and twelve years older than he. The two spent much of their time away form London in the Netherlands and Munich but mostly in France, which Sickert believed to be his “spiritual home” (Vanderlinden, p 3). By 1896, “chronic independence” and multiple bouts of unfaithful actions on Sickert’s part forced the couple to separate; they divorced in 1899. That same year, he took up residence with Mme. Augustine Villain and her children, in the Neuville. His studio purchases in 1905 were the first occasion bringing him back to London in six years. Sickert founded the Camden Town Group in 1911, defined as a “group of English Post-Impressionist artists who met on a weekly basis in the studio of the painter Walter Sickert in Camden
Town” whose “subject matter was derived from the everyday life of an English industrial town… their paintings remained representational and realistic, reflecting an interpretation of a modern aesthetic different from the more formally daring developments emerging in Paris at the same time.” (Camden). Marrying Christine Angus, a student of his whom he was seventeen years older, wrapped the year; however, her death in October of 1920 sends Sickert into a psychological depression of some sort. It is debated whether or not he was exhibiting psychotic behavior or experiencing extreme pain after his wife’s death because of the course of actions to follow. These include Sickert making a scene at her funeral, removing her ashes from the urn and throwing them about followed by more “erratic and eccentric” behavior the more time that went by and fueled even more by his mother’s death in February 1922 “[adding] to his depression and morbid imagination” (Vanderlinden, p 3). Despite the tough road Sickert has begun to travel at this point, he marries again, in 1926, to a life long friend, Thérèse Lessore, but a few short months later is struck with tragedy again as he acquires devitalizing malaise, thought by some have possibly been a stroke. This takes Sickert a good time to overcome, but Thérèse remains at his side. In 1934, Sickert officially becomes an academician of the Royal Academy, ten years after acquiring status of associate member, but he soon withdraws from his position in defense of his friend’s, Sir Jacob Epstein, work. Through the frequently passing women in his life and often varied residences, Sickert’s art remained a constant and a one man exhibition honored this fact in 1941. Sadly, his life ended the very next year; he passed away on January 22, 1942 in Bath, where he was also buried.
Although the claims against Sickert were considerable in number, inconsistencies can be found with almost each argument. With such weak and, at times, far fetched ideals about the famous painter and his activities, one can find irony in the fact his name appears in at least four different well known conjectures as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. These included Stephen Knight’s theory of Sickert’s role in the Royal Conspiracy, which introduced Joseph Gorman Sickert, the illegitimate son of Walter Sickert, Jean Overton Fuller who voiced her opinions in her 1990 book and finally Patricia Cornwell whose popular publication was released in 2003. Within the next few paragraphs, assertions of Sickert’s guilt will be brought to light, then their validity challenged.
The most commonly used artifact against Sickert, cited by all four of the above mentioned theorists, is most definitely the paintings of his well-known Camden Town Murder Series. Not only are these paintings believed to be Sickert’s avenue of admitting his first hand knowledge in the murders, but some venture farther to say that two of the victims, Mary Kelly and Catherine Eddowes, are featured specifically in them. Unbeknownst to most, Professor Lacassagne published the book, Vacher l’éventreur et les crimes sadiques, in France in 1899 which devotes and eleven page section to the Jack the Ripper murders and includes pictures of both Kelly and Eddowes, post mortem, discrediting Cornwell’s assertion that Sickert included details in the painting that only the killer himself would know (Cornwell). She vindicates this specifically in response to being asked if Sickert may have seen the photographs, “No! No, he would not have, could not have, he could not have known what these women looked like dead. Could not, unless he was there” (Vanderlinden, p 13). Those claims also beg the question, are these “incriminating” paintings unique from the rest of Sickert’s portfolio and were prostitutes abnormal models for paintings relative to the time or the rest of his work? The answer to both of these is no. Several artists of his day, including Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, employed prostitutes as models (Vanderlinden, p 3). Sickert himself was even quoted to say in a letter to Jacques-Emile Blanche, “From 9 to 4 , it is an uninterrupted joy, caused by those pretty, little, obliging models who laugh and unembarrassedly be themselves while posing like angels, They are glad to be there, and are not in a hurry” (Vanderlinden, p 3). Therefore the essence of the art of the time, along with Sickert’s own written thought serve as blatantly clear evidence against the forced notion that his art was unusual or referencing to his slain victims. Cornwell labels the supposed exhibitions of the victims as some sort of morbid “trophies” Sickert published in victory of the killings in which he had escaped convicted. If this is true, why would he neglect to paint Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman and Elizabeth Stride? This directs one back to the fact the knowledge accrued from Lacassagne’s book provided his only information on the victims and their specific murders, since the book only discussed that of Kelly and Eddowes. Knight also addressed the gruesome nature of the titles of some of Sickert’s paintings, such as The Camden Town Murder. Corbett discusses Sickert’s allusion to current events, “Sickert here takes as his subject matter images of London which embody the threatening and random aspects of modern metropolis… Sickert’s London encapsulates the flow of order and unreason” (1-2). Corbett ventures to discuss how artistic details, such as how “relentlessly ordinary and unidealized” they appear, absolutely discount them as first hand accounts, “seem to guarantee their authenticity as observation… They serve as the distillation of all that is other in the city, its chaos, its randomness and violence, center dot and its sleazy and repulsive physicality” (3). Each account reinstates Sickert as an interested observer capitalizing in a myriad of current events, of his time, incorporating them into his art.
Another artifact suggesting Sickert’s innocence, and maybe the most controversial, was the near 600 Ripper letters sent to the authorities at the time of the murders in White Chapel. Cornwell along with a group of scientists and other researchers performed tests analyzing about 250 of the letters. Test results suggest some letters contained matching watermarks and a number came from the same 6,000 piece collection Sickert used himself. Also, mitochondrial DNA obtained through saliva samples from stamps and envelope flaps of the letters were “found to be shared by just one percent of the population—including Sickert and whoever wrote the letters attributed to the Ripper” (Espinoza, p 1). The initial and obvious problem with connection lies in the authenticity of the letters and the reliability of the test, especially because they were performed over half a century after the birth of the letters. One person could not send over 600 letters, besides the fact that the handwriting varied immensely, they reside on countless different types of stationary, and were received by authorities as late as 1960. More importantly, the fact at least two records of arrest are available on Maria Coroner and Miriam Howells, who were convicted with “hoaxing Ripper letters” (Ryder, p 2). Even if the assumption that Sickert wrote the Ripper letters proved one hundred percent true, there is still absolutely no connecting him to the murders of five prostitutes form that alone. Any literate person can write a letter about any subject matter, and at the time of the murders, with over 600 letters to prove it, many people evidently found great joy in somehow connecting themselves to the epic case of the unsolved serial killer in White Chapel.
Making use of the same profiling techniques the FBI implements in efforts to identify and track down serial killers, Cornwell states a surgery in order to remove a “fistula of the penis” left him impotent as a young man. She directs the relevance of this being that the disability left Sickert bitter and with a deep hatred for women; according to serial killer profile definitions, “serial killers today are often found to be impotent- the act of murder becomes their only means of sexual fulfillment” (Ryder, p 4). Various other accounts, however, find several conflicts with this. It was said post-publication of Cornwell’s book that Sickert underwent rectal surgery, not penile, but no outstanding record specifies either way. Even if penile surgery had been part of Sickert’s background, no guarantee remains that he was impotent, but rather, accusations of Sickert’s constant infidelity resulting in the consummation of his first marriage and regular womanizing habits. His close friend, previously mentioned, described Sickert in 1902 as an “Immoralist… with a swarm of children of provenances which are not possible to count” very much making it hard to believe Sickert was unable to function sexually.
Despite the time and money put into the theories and research on the true identity of Jack the Ripper, each and every theorist naming Walter Sickert as the Ripper proved to contain major loopholes in his or her argument. Along with erratic inconsistencies, there were unconvincing and sometimes implausible components begged of ones allegiance to authenticate such an allegation. With so many faults in one argument, one cannot possibly take its counterparts as fact, just as trust recedes in any form of incorrect communication. The drive to find the one of the most highly acclaimed serial killers in the history of the world, who still receives notoriety-not to mention having entire collegiate level courses devoted to him or her- should be fueled by a quest for truth not the reputation that will undoubtedly accompany the major discovery. With such loose connections in a hypothesis, accompanied by easily discredited concepts, the appearance of quest for something other than truth begins to shine through. Through rational thought and examination of facts where one can base his or her opinions upon those facts, Sickert remains a painter caught in the middle of many world events of his time and well known because of his work, not the murders of five prostitutes in the London’s East End.
“Camden Town Group.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/90750/Camden-Town-Group>.
Corbett, David Peters. “’Gross Material Facts’: Sexuality, identity and the city in Walter Sickert, 1905-1910.” Art History 21.1 (Mar. 1998): 45. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. McFarlin Library, Tulsa, OK. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.utulsa.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=372923&site=ehost-live>
Cornwell, Patricia. Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. USA: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Espinoza, Galina and Diane Herbst. “Killer Instinct” People 58.24 (09 Dec. 2002): 101. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. McFarlin Library, Tulsa, OK. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://0search.ebscohost.com.library.utulsa.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=860296&site=ehost-live>.
Ryder, Stephen P.. “Patricia Cornwell and Walter Sickert: A Primer.” Casebook. 19 April 2009 <http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-pamandsickert.html>.
Vanderlinden, Wolf. “The Art of Murder.” Casebook. 2002. 19 April 2009 <http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/dst-artofmurder.html>.