Accessible Art History
Art History Mystery #8: Was Walter Sickert Jack the Ripper?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog. In this week’s post, I’m discussing a mystery that has long haunted the public’s imagination. For three months in 1888, London was terrified of an unknown serial killer. Known as Jack the Ripper, he killed five (and possibly more) women in the Whitechapel area of the city. Then, he disappeared into the night. Or did he? There are some people that believe that we have actually identified the killer, an artist named Walter Sickert. So, to learn more, keep on reading.
Due to the subject nature of this post, reader discretion is advised.
The Story of Jack the Ripper
The first of the canonical Ripper murders occurred on Friday, August 31, 1888. Around 3:40 in the morning, the body of Mary Ann Nichols was found. She was completely mutilated. A week later, on September 8th, the body of Annie Chapman was discovered in the same state. September 30th is known as “The Double Event”. That night, two women were murdered, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. Once again, their bodies were nearly unrecognizable from the attacks. The final murder was that of Mary Jane Kelly. She was dismembered like the others. But after her, the Ripper murders apparently stopped. Each of these women were impoverished, living in one of the least desirable neighborhoods of the city. The tragic end to their lives is utterly horrific and sometimes can get lost in the sensationalism of the story.
These five murders, due to their horrific nature, captured the public’s imagination. Wanting
attention, the murderer wrote letters to papers. There were many copycat letters, but the "Dear Boss" letter, the "Saucy Jacky" postcard and the "From Hell" letter are generally agreed to be from the killer himself. The Dear Boss letter is where the killer gave himself the nickname, Jack the Ripper. The Saucy Jacky postcard’s handwriting matched the Dear Boss letter and seemed to describe details of the Double Event that only the killer would have known. The From Hell letter was the most horrific. Along with the note, the killer mailed part of a kidney in ethanol and claimed he fried and ate the other half.
Jack the Ripper was not the world’s first serial murderer, but he was the first to create an international media frenzy. To this day, there is no agreed upon identity of this horrific killer.
Although there is no single, agreed upon, identity of the killer, there are many subjects. One of those suspects is an artist named Walter Sickert. He was a member of the Camden Town
Group of Post-Impressionist artists that lived and worked in London during the 19th century. Sickert was born in Germany, but moved to Paris as a young adult where he became a part of the Post-Impressionist scene. When he moved to London in the late 19th century, he became fascinated with the working class neighborhoods of the city. By 1905, he and a group of artists formed the Camden Town Group. Filled with Post-Impressionist and Expressionist artists, they focused on the drab, meager existence of living in an industrialized city. Walter (though he went by his middle name, Richard, towards the end of his life) Sickert died in Bath in 1942, at the age of 81.
Connection to Jack the Ripper?
In a way, Walter Sickert brought the connection of Jack the Ripper upon himself. He was fascinated by the horrific crimes and spoke about it often. Once, he stayed in a room that had possibly once been occupied by the psychotic killer. The landlady herself was the one that told Sickert because she had a feeling that the former guest was Jack the Ripper. This inspired Sickert to paint the 1905-7 work, Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, now in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery.
For 80 years after his death, there was little to no mention of Sickert being Jack the Ripper. Things changed with the 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight. In the text, Knight claims that the artist was forced to become an accomplice to the crime by the real killer. The author further claimed that Jack the Ripper was none other than second-in-line to the throne, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence! But, where did Knight get his evidence? He stated that he learned it from an interview with Joseph Gorman, the alleged illegitimate child of Walter Sickert.
Eventually, Knight and Gorman admitted that the book was a hoax and they had written it to seek attention. But, that didn’t stop people from running with it! Most famously, crime novelist Patricia Cornwall sought to prove that Walter Sickert was indeed Jack the Ripper. In her book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, Cornwall stated that she purchased thirty one of his works to analyze them. She also paid for DNA testing on some of the letters and one letter known to have been written by Sickert. Cornwall claims that the mitochondrial DNA (genes passed from mother to child) matched and is only found in about 1% of the global population. She believes that this is conclusive evidence that Jack the Ripper and Walter Sickert are one in the same.
Despite these claims, there are many that do not believe that Walter Sickert was the dreaded killer. They state that the evidence is fragile at best and that there is no way to be certain. What do you think?
The 'Nemesis of Neglect': Jack the Ripper depicted as a phantom stalking Whitechapel, and as an embodiment of social neglect, in a Punch cartoon of 1888. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Walter Sickert, c. 1911. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, c. 1907. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons