Walter Sickert is one of the most recent Jack the Ripper suspects, having not been named a suspect until some 80 years after the infamous Whitechapel murders. However, those pointing the finger at the renowned artist have invested huge amounts of time and money into proving that he was, in fact, the notorious Jack the Ripper.
Walter Richard Sickert was born 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany to artist Oswald Sickert and his wife, Eleanor Louisa Henry. The family relocated to Britain when Walter was 8 years old and were granted British nationality soon after this. With Sickert senior’s work having been recommended to the Keeper of the National Gallery, it comes as no surprise that young Sickert went on to study art. He eventually became an assistant to American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler before discovering his own style.
Sickert's earlier work was known for its sombre tones and depictions, and this soon developed into his own version of impressionism. He was known to be fascinated with urban culture and worked from studios where he could observe the working-class life around him. Over time, his artistic work evolved into realism and modernism, with a number of his most famous paintings depicting well-known personalities as well as those he saw around him.
Despite his importance to the art world, both in his lifetime and today, he was also known to have a very keen interest in the Jack the Ripper case. Indeed, it is thought that he stayed in a room that was alleged to have been used by the killer and he used this as inspiration for his painting “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”. While this fact alone would not be enough to place Sickert as a suspect, there are many who have theories to the contrary.
While Sickert’s name has been mentioned in relation to the Jack the Ripper killings by a number of different authors, the nature of his connection with the case is widely disputed. Some – like Stephen Knight - believe he was complicit in the murders, while others - such as Jean Overton Fuller and Patricia Cornwell - believe that Sickert was responsible entirely for the autumn of terror and was the real Jack the Ripper. In fact, Cornwell was so confident of her own theory that in 2002 she released a book about it, titled “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed”.
So, what was it that made one of world’s most successful and famous novelists go out on a limb to name Sickert as her primary suspect? Cornwell suspected Sickert for a number of reasons.
At the heart of her theory, she believed him to be impotent with an intense hatred of women due to a number of operations he had as a child. In addition to this, she also believed his fascination with Jack the Ripper was more than just a coincidence and ultimately put forward that she believed he wrote many of the infamous Jack the Ripper letters and was subsequently the killer himself.
While many are sceptical about the evidence that links Sickert to the Jack the Ripper crimes, Cornwell was so confident in her theory that she invested a significant amount of her own time and money into collating evidence for herself. But is the evidence there to solve the greatest murder mystery of our time?
As a child, Sickert is believed to have had a number of operations as a child that were incredibly painful and led to him becoming impotent. The psychological effects of this, Cornwell believes, left him with a pathological hatred of women, as is believed to have been the case of a serial killer with crimes like the Ripper's.
In addition, his fascination with murder, and the Ripper killings in particular, led him to paint a series of work including Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom and paintings that were inspired by the murder of a Camden Town prostitute called Emily Dimmock, a crime which obviously was very similar to those in the Ripper killings.
Cornwell also puts forward that Sickert was responsible for the majority of the famous Jack the Ripper letters. It was this aspect of her theory that prompted Cornwell to fund her own DNA tests to prove it. She had stamps tested for DNA, then compared it to that found on the letters - and a match was found for one of them. However, as the match was focused on mitochondrial DNA, it is not wholly accurate to presume that Sickert was responsible for the letter, no less for the Jack the Ripper murders, as between 1 and 10% of the population would have shared that same mitochondrial DNA at the time.
Whilst there were others who believed Sickert to have been the true Ripper, much of the evidence has largely been discredited over the years.
The hospital where Sickert was thought to have had his operations as a child were not specialists in the area, which brings doubt into whether they would have been charged with operations of the suspected nature, or whether the operations happened at all. There is also evidence to suggest he was far from impotent, having had many wives and several mistresses in his lifetime, alongside reports of an illegitimate child. While his fascination with murder can certainly appear macabre, it in no way counts as concrete proof that he was even involved or that he hated women. In addition, it is reported that Sickert wasn’t even in London at the time of many of the killings. Finally, while he may well have been responsible for at least one of the Ripper letters, Ripperologists and experts on the case are all in agreement that none of the letters were written by the actual killer.
There are many cases both for and against Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper, but despite the bold claims by Cornwell that the case was closed, with so much of the evidence in contention, we may never truly know for certain who Jack the Ripper was.
We’d love to know your thoughts about Sickert being the infamous killer. Do you believe that the DNA evidence was enough to link him to the heinous unsolved crimes or was it just not substantial enough, given the doubts cast over the rest of the evidence?
Find out more about Walter Sickert and the rest of the Ripper suspects, as well as the victims and the murders themselves on our Jack the Ripper walking tour in London.
Book your place on our tour today and be transported back in time to 19th century London to see if you can discover the true identity of the killer once and for all.