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Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Ripping Yarn, Pt. III

Forensic pathologist and novelist Dr. Patricia Cornwell fingered Sickert as the sole Ripper in her 2002 book Portrait of a Killer. She offered as evidence a series of letters to the Times of London by someone claiming to be the Whitechapel murderer, who declared that he was “. . . down on whores . . . . and shan’t quit ripping them [hence the nickname]” The penmanship and writing style were similar to Sickert’s. Watermarks indicate that the Ripper letters were written on paper stock purchased by Sickert. Even more telling, some of the letters featured artwork that bore a striking similarity to some of Sickert’s cartoons.As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Cornwell had an advantage over previous investigators in that she knew where to look for viable mitochondrial DNA. Sickert had always been her prime suspect, a bias she clearly states at the beginning of her book. After procuring a sample of Sickert’s, she then received permission from Scotland Yard to perform DNA testing on some of the letters that the Ripper sent to the Times. Most of the readings were inconclusive, due to their age and deterioration. After exhaustive searching, however, she found that the dried saliva on the back of the stamp of one letter positively matched Sickert’s, leading her to conclude that the case was finally solved: Sickert was the Ripper, and he acted alone.

Although Dr. Cornwell does her best to dismiss a possible conspiracy in the Whitechappel murders, she gives evidence of it. The letters themselves provide evidence of conspiracy. After all, if we buy into the Chicago tale, the point of the operation was to divert attention away from the Kelly hit, by masquerading it as one more in a spectacular line of murders by some monstrous individual. Problem was, the first two murders (or three murders, if you count Smith) received very little attention indeed. The Times published nothing about their deaths beforehand. So if the conspirators were to hide Kelly’s death in a series of sensationalistic murders, they would have to make sure that the killings gathered as much media attention as possible.

Dr. Cornwell’s psychological portrait of Sickert shows him to be something of a joker, a man who liked to taunt authority, and shock his friends. She describes some of his artwork that depicts themes of the Ripper murder that she insists that no one but the Ripper could identify. At the same time, she also notes, but dismisses, references to Sir William Whitney Gull and other possible co-conspirators. She also points out that Sickert’s curt resignation from the London desk of The New York Herald followed an incident when a “mysterious soldier appeared at the [office], and announced a murder and mutilation he could not have known about unless he was an accomplice or the killer” (pg. 271). Despite this turn of events, Dr. Cornwell offers no explanation as to why an unnamed soldier’s confession to Ripper-like murders would have spooked Sickert enough to quit his job, since she maintains that Sickert acted alone. In my mind, the event implies that Sickert feared that the soldier, possibly the bayonet stabber described to police by Emma Smith, would rat him out.

Official victims three and four were murdered about sixty-minutes and a hundred yards apart. The first victim of the night was found dead in her stairwell, and the blood still gushing from her indicated that she had died just moments before. A crowd of people had gathered to look at the pitiable sight when they heard screams. They traced the sound to a nearby fence, where they found the second victim convulsing in her final death throes. The police, who finally arrived in response to the first murder, went directly to the dying, disembowelled woman before them. Since the crowd had migrated to the fresher kill, the bobby in charge asked if anyone knew the identity of the second woman. An unknown, masculine voice identified her as Mary Kelly. Four hours later, Scotland Yard positively ID’d her as Catherine Eddowes. Mary Kelly was, at this time, still quite alive, and very pregnant.

The Times-Herald story doesn’t mention the misidentification of Eddowes, but the point seems clear. It wouldn’t be unusual if either Gull or Sickert had some reservation about the whole ordeal, for if Dr. Howard was correct, Kelly might very well have been a friend of theirs. By falsely identifying Eddowes as Kelly, they may have been trying to save the latter’s life, while at the same time satisfying the crown with false evidence that the operation was successful, and at a close.

By the time they finally got to Kelly, the last and most gruesome of the killings, public imagination took over the cover story from there. Copycat murders sprang up all over the place. Furthermore, the police eventually warmed to the cover story, issuing cryptic statements that they had in fact captured the Ripper, and/or he was dead. That didn’t stop the public from looking for a Ripper, however, nor did it keep them from lynching a shocket named Kaminsky. (A shocket is a Jewish butcher versed in the traditional methods – anti-Semitic fervor led many to believe that the Ripper murders were carried out, quite literally, in a kosher manner.) One thing the hysteria did accomplish: it drew attention away from the crown.

Dr. Howard claimed that he, along with the other doctors of the Royal College, had committed Sir Gull to the looney bin in1889, where he died in 1895. The purpose of te commitment was to silence him. Remorseful about his role in the killings, Gull threatened to expose the plot. To cover their tracks, the crown then staged Gull’s death in order to mask the true reason for his disappearance.

Whether or not Dr. Howard was full of it, the fact remained that as the Twentieth Century dawned, the English were unsurpassed when it came to clandestine operations and gathering intelligence. At the same time, England drew closer politically to the United States. Eventually, the British urged the Americans to ally with them and become partners in their little spy games.

Americans, however, still tied to isolationist policies, felt that such “pranks” were strictly European business. Americans found the whole cloak-and-dagger thing rather distasteful, and beneath them. Former Secretary of State Henry Stimson put it this way: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

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