A fascinating interview in The Spectator (here) reveals more about Patricia Cornwell’s obsession with the identity of Jack The Ripper – including some interesting new evidence.
So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.
The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’
Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?
‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’
I think I agree with her about the 5% rule – only I’d say 5% that Sickert was the Ripper, and 95% chance that he was simply the author of the Ripper letters. We know, for example, that many people obsess over these cases, and that does not make them the guilty party. Cornwell’s obsession doesn’t make her the Ripper reborn, or any kind of serial killer, except in fiction. The writer of the Yorkshire Ripper letters was not the Yorkshire Ripper. Wearside Jack, as John Samuel Humble was nicknamed, sent three letters and left an audio message which derailed the investigation. False confessions to horrific crimes are not rare.
Why do we have so many theories about Jack the Ripper? It’s a question which still intrigues me, much more than question of his actual identity.
In any case, it looks like Cornwell’s new evidence about the letters derails the idea that journalist Francis Craig was the writer of the letters, and the killer – which I wrote about in my first post about Jack, here. It seems unlikely that Craig had access to Sickert’s mother’s stationery – although that would be twisty enough to find its way into a Scarpetta story.
It must surely be all bound up with why we love mystery stories so much. We (not just crime fiction readers and writers, but especially us, perhaps) don’t like not knowing not only who done it, but why. That second part, the why of it all, is why we love the detail that Sickert was using his mother’s stationery. Not just a Freudian aha! moment – but who didn’t immediately think of Psycho? Perhaps it was just me whose mind immediately served up the rocking chair scene. Who and why are the questions that drive so many of the psychological thrillers we love.
As I put it in my second Ripper post,
So crime fiction – and true crime like Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm, Ann Rule and the Ripper books, even the addictive podcast Serial – are all ways of trying to get to the truth of human behaviour. It’s a survival mechanism. If our trust in other people is undermined in early life, understanding people becomes a driving necessity. From the earliest myths, through folk and fairy tales, epic poetry and gothic novels, revenge tragedies and morality plays, penny dreadfuls and religious tracts – perhaps that’s what all storytelling is about.
Of course, there aren’t many serial killers out there – the danger is really far closer to home. Every week two women in the UK are killed by partners and ex partners. Children are at more risk from their own families than from anyone else. These truths are hard to face.
No wonder Cornwell can’t stop hunting the Ripper.
I certainly think it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to crime fiction.
What do you think?
(No, really, I’m not obsessed).