How Ripperology Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Josh Clark; a staff writer here at howstuffworks.com. With me is my trusty editress, the intrepid Candace Gibson. How are you,

CandaceCandace Gibson: I'm fabulous, Josh.

Josh Clark: Well, I hope you are feeling intrepid right now. We're about to enter some grizzly territory. Let's talk about Jack the Ripper, shall we?

Candace Gibson: Indeed.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, specifically, could Jack the Ripper have been an artist?

Candace Gibson: Ah, the artist formerly known as Jack the Ripper.

Josh Clark: Um-hum.

Candace Gibson: A.K.A. one Walter Sickert, a British impressionist painter. He would've been 28 around the time of the famous Ripper murders, also called the Conical Murders. These took place back in 1888 from August 31st to November 9th just to set the scene for you and it would've been more than just doves crying in that dank and depraved east end of London in the White Chapel district, it would've been the sound of prostitutes. More specifically, his prey of choice was the alcoholic, drunk, middle-aged and unattractive prostitutes.

Josh Clark: It's the unattractive part that really gets you, you know? I mean, it's bad enough as it is but unattractive too. Now, the problem is is Jack the Ripper is never caught, and as such, a kind of field of amateur investigation called Ripperology has grown up over the centuries of people who dedicate their time trying to figure out who Jack the Ripper was. Right?

Candace Gibson: Right, and over the years, police departments in London, too, have fingered about a 170 suspects in the case but no one has ever been definitively convicted of the crime. And, back in 2002, someone who wasn't even a real Ripperologist sort of took a stab at the case, no pun intended, and that was crime novelist Patricia Cornwell and she was the one who named Walter Sickert. And she had, you know, some hard evidence and some sort of - I don't know, loosely-based evidence and the loosely-based evidence was sort of relevant to her interpretation of Sickert's art.

Josh Clark: Now, actually, yeah, she considered some of Sickert's paintings confessional like he had actually painted or used the murdered prostitutes that he murdered as models for some of his paintings and that he was either taunting police or getting this off his chest through these paintings.

Candace Gibson: Or he could've been super authentic because he was taught under the school of American painter, James Whistler, who recommended that Sickert paint from life so if he wanted to paint dead prostitutes, it only made sense he had to off them first.

Josh Clark: What better way to do it than, yeah. Now, actually, in a 1988 F.B.I. psychological profile of Jack the Ripper, one of the points they concluded was that the Ripper probably would have either gotten some of his rage out in between murders by drawing pictures of brutalized women or writing fantasy stories about brutalizing women so Sickert kind of fits that bill but really one of the problems with basing your theory on art is that art is so widely open to interpretation, especially impressionism.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and that's what's kind of wild about this point of Cornwell's argument. The painting that she was using as her most damning evidence was called the Camden Town Murder and this featured a man sitting on the edge of the bed and while he's dressed, there is a woman in bed who is naked and ostensibly dead and she was saying, look, look, this it ya'll, this the ultimate taint amount confession, but another critic pointed out that the painting has an alternate title and that is, "What shall we do for rent?"

Josh Clark: Right, so, the murderer and murdered woman go to a desperate couple down on their luck just with the change of the title.

Candace Gibson: Right, right, very [inaudible] tones in that regard.

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Candace Gibson: I'm such a critic.

Josh Clark: She didn't base her theory entirely on her interpretation of Sickert's art though. She actually, with her vast millions, purchased some paintings to try and find clues and actually tore one apart which the curator of the Royal Academy in London later called monstrously stupid publically that action but she also had some hard evidence.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, she had some MTDNA in her bag.

Josh Clark: Um-hum. Yes.

Candace Gibson: Mitochondrial DNA.

Josh Clark: Right.

Candace Gibson: And the glitch with this is that mitochondrial DNA only comes from our mother's lineage so it's discounting your father's input into you essentially so using that to confirm the identity of someone is only half.

Josh Clark: Right, and it turns out it left about 50,000 people in London at that time who could've produced a match. Strangely though, one of them was Walter Sickert and the way she found a match was she compared some of Sickert's DNA with DNA samples taken from the Ripper letters. Now, from the time of the murders 'till about 1960, hundreds of letters came in ostensibly written by Jack the Ripper. Most Ripperologist's don't think he wrote any of them but she - Cornwell found that Sickert had written one or two of them. Now, she kind of jumped to a conclusion saying that, you know, in her opinion, that meant he was the Ripper but a Ripperologist kind of put it into perspective thanking Cornwell for all of her hard work and research and proving that Walter Sickert was indeed one of the people who wrote fraudulent Jack the Ripper letters so -

Candace Gibson: Well, that was rather tongue and cheek and if you want to learn more about this case, there's so much more to learn, check out, "Could Jack the Ripper have been an artist," on howstuffworks.com.

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