Born in 1860 in Munich, Walter Sickert is known by millions as being one of the artists who heralded the transition from impressionism to modernism and his work of arts are often considered priceless. He was also a dark character and he had a keen interest in murder, as evident in his works such as “The Camden Town Murder” and “Jack the Rippers bedroom”. The latter was inspired by his belief that he lodged in a room whose previous resident had been Jack the Ripper (or according to his landlady at least) and supposedly often dressed up as the killer himself and stalked the East End streets. Not normal behaviour, but when have artists ever been normal? Or could this be indicative of the fact that he was in fact involved in the crimes, either as part of a group or as a lone killer?
Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper was first mentioned by Donald McCormick in his 1959 book “The Identity of Jack the Ripper”. McCormick does not seriously entertain Sickert being the Ripper, but uses him as an example of a Ripper theory mentioning his interest in the crimes and history of painting death and murder as being catalysts for his suspicion.
Since the 1970’s Sickert as Jack the Ripper has been discussed frequently, mainly thanks to the story of a man named Joseph Gorman (or Joseph Gorman Sickert as he preferred to be called, as he claimed to be Walter Sickert’s son). Gorman first appeared in 1973 when the BBC decided to produce a docu-drama investigating and attempting to solve the Jack the Ripper case. This thoroughly entertaining series took place over six episodes and saw Detective Chief Inspector Barlow and Detective Chief Superintendent Watt of “Z Cars” and “Softly, Softly” fame (played by Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor respectively) try and use the original police files and inquest testimony to solve the crimes of Jack the Ripper. At the end of the last episode, Joseph Gorman pops up and hints at the Royal and Masonic Conspiracy, as told to him by Walter Sickert. This was further expanded by Stephen Knight in his book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” (for those not familiar, it details a conspiracy by leading Masons to cover up the infidelity of Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence in marrying a Catholic prostitute. Their method was to murder the witnesses to the wedding, as well as the wife and child – who Joseph Gorman claims was his mother – who was supposedly hidden away by Walter Sickert) with one added fact – that Walter Sickert was more than a mere bystander to these events, but in fact one of a trio of Jack the Ripper’s.
In 1990, Walter Sickert was accused of being a lone Jack the Ripper in “Sickert and the Ripper Crimes” by Jean Overton Fuller. This is based entirely on the claim by Florence Pash (Walter Sickert’s friend) to the author’s mother that Walter Sickert had seen the bodies of the Ripper victims and the assumption that these must have been at the crime scenes and had left clues in his paintings.
Finally, in 2003 American crime author Patricia Cornwell published her own examination into the Jack the Ripper crimes, “Portrait of a Killer” which accuses Walter Sickert of being the murderer. When in London researching a Kay Scarpetta novel to be set there, she was taken on a Jack the Ripper tour by John Grieve, then deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, where she was told that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. When Cornwell examined Sickert’s art she claimed it displayed “morbidity, violence and a hatred of women” and she embarked on an investigation costing thousands of pounds to try and prove that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Sickert’s motivation, she claimed, was a fistula on his penis that made him incapable of having sex and had resulted in a hatred of women. It is far more likely though that the fistula was in fact on his anus, and as Sickert was a frequent womaniser it is unlikely he was not capable of intercourse.
Cornwell also examined several Jack the Ripper letters, believing them to be written by Walter Sickert (confirmed by paper historian and analyst Peter Bower who finds it likely that Sickert wrote two Jack the Ripper letters as they match a batch of 24 sheets of paper – which match three letters written by Sickert) and used forensic examination to match DNA between the stamp on a Ripper letter and Sickert (found on one of his paintings). In fact though, there were hundreds of Jack the Ripper letters sent and it is believed that most, if not all of them are hoaxes. It is also not surprising that Walter Sickert may have written two hoax letters as he was known to have an interest in the murders. Also we do not know that the DNA compared to is most definitely that of Sickert, and the match was on Mitochondrial DNA shared by 1% of the population, meaning that 40,000 people living in London at the time would also have been a match (also more sophisticated analysis techniques apparently indicate the DNA was female).
Patricia Cornwell also tries to use clues in his paintings (as murder was a frequent subject of his, it is bound to be present). She examined whether his interest in the murders and his habit of eccentricities such as shaving his head on a whim, wearing fake beards out and wearing non formal clothes (and even slippers) to formal occasions meant he could have the personality of being capable of butchering five women, and mocking the police by writing letters to them. It is worth noting though, when assessing her credibility, that Patricia Cornwell does try and link every unsolved – and many solved – murders of women within a certain period to him. A follow up or revision of “Portrait of a Killer” has been expected (and promised) for several years, but has yet to materialise, and Patricia Cornwell has antagonised the Ripperology community and been accused of destroying Sickert paintings as part of her research.
So was Walter Sickert Jack the Ripper, either as part of a group covering up a Royal scandal, or on his own because of his own sexual inadequacy – leaving clues in his paintings and mocking the police with letters? Well, it’s probably quite unlikely as there is a very high chance that he spent the autumn of 1888 in France.