Ripper: The Secret Life Of Walter Siekert, by Patricia Cornwell
Quite a while ago I read the previous book that the author had written, the prematurely and unfortunately titled “Case Closed,” and this book basically falls in line with the previous volume. One thing this book does is to demonstrate the rather primitive nature of forensic efforts in the late 19th century. And whether or not Sickert was in fact a serial killer, he behaved in ways that were definitely troublesome. His proliferation of dark rented quarters, his hostile view towards women, and his obsession with matters dark and criminal, all of these would attract suspicion in a reasonably competent modern investigation of the crime. The greater ability at present to gather physical evidence has made it easier to solve cold cases as long as the evidence of the past has been preserved well to the future. And if there is one thing that is true in the ripper cases, however widely they are defined (and the author goes well beyond the canonical five), is that the evidence relating to these cases was not gathered well or preserved well. And, unfortunately, the choice of victims was largely the sort of people who were not cared about by society and the police at large.
This book is a large one at a bit more than 500 pages long and it is divided into 35 chapters. The book begins with a look at Mr. Sickert as Mr. Nobody (1), then discusses the unfortunates (2) and their unknown killer (3), before returning to discuss the painter as a boy (4) and his ambiguous sexuality in the eyes of his family (6). There are chapters about Sickert’s first wife (7). Included in the chapters are discussions about the supposed royal conspiracy (11), as well as Sickert’s interest in bleeding corpses in his art (12), and the question of instant death (13) as well as the system of coroners that had been established in England to solve crimes (16). The author tries to connect the painter in his ordinary and private life and his letters–some of which are admittedly pretty disturbing, as well as the behavior of the ripper letters which adopt various Americanisms and the same sort of language (19, 20). Other chapters focus on clues like a black bag (23), other crimes that could be connected to the Ripper (30), speculations of how the Ripper may have controlled the discovery of the crime through the use of keys (31), and even Sickert’s fondness for Cornish poetry that is suggestive of the Ripper (33). If this case is by no means definitive, nor can it be at this late day, it certainly makes for thought-provoking reading, that is for sure.
This book is rather sad when one thinks about it. Included in the book are a lot of details about the lives of the victims as well as of the painter and main subject of the book that are somewhat heartbreaking. As one might imagine, the case, such as it is, is rather circumstantial, but that is largely a product of what is going on. It is clear, at least at present, that if someone behaved as Sickert did that there would be a great deal of suspicion on him as a person. His interest in painting the crime scenes would have been seen as a bit suspicious, and his own habits of rambling and enjoying gambling dens and adopting various styles of handwriting and disguises would all attract a great deal of scrutiny. Why, after all, would someone want to hide so deeply unless they had something to hide, and that would prompt people to investigate him, which apparently no one thought to do at the time. Additionally, it appears that the narrow focus on five ripper crimes fails to account for the ripper’s possible behaviors outside of London as well as the fact that he had multiple victim profiles, which would have provided more insight into who he was as a person. In particular, the author makes much of a supposed connection between what Sickert suffered medically as a child and the sort of mutilation that she argues the Ripper inflicted on various boys, which is deeply unpleasant but also highly suggestive.