Searching for Jack the Ripper: Seven Theories

The murders of Jack the Ripper are one of the most famous unsolved crimes. Remarkable for both their graphic brutality and the Ripper letters, discussion and theories about the identity of the Ripper continue today. More suspects than we can name have been suggested as possible candidates for the Ripper killings; however, we’ll just discuss a few. Let’s note, these were some of the most interesting suspect theories, not necessarily the most likely, the most famous or the only ones. They range from sailors executed for murder to the heir to the British throne.


Walter Sickert

In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell published her own take on Jack the Ripper. In Portrait of a Killer—Jack the Ripper Case Closed, Cornwell argued that the serial killer called Jack the Ripper was painter Walter Sickert. Sickert had been connected to the case by two earlier authors in 1976 and 1990, either as the killer or an unwilling accomplice.

Cornwell relied heavily on Sickert’s art to support her argument, believing that his work is clearly misogynistic. She suggested that he was sexually impotent following surgery to correct a medical condition involving his penis. A falling out with artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler may have, according to Cornwell, triggered the killings. In addition, she believed that the Ripper letters were authentic, and sent by the Ripper and used these to provide evidence for Sickert’s guilt. She has since claimed to have linked paper used in the Ripper letters to paper purchased by Sickert’s mother and claims a mitochondrial DNA link to Sickert in the stamp from one of the letters.

There are many questions about Sickert’s potential role in the killings, but many historians of the Ripper murders disagree with Cornwell’s theory. It’s widely believed that the Ripper letters were hoaxes, and not sent by the killer. The evidence cited by Cornwell to support sexual impotence could refer to an anal fistula, leaving his penis intact. Sickert certainly had access to reports of the Ripper killings, which could have inspired his paintings. In addition, there is significant evidence to suggest that Sickert was not in England at the time of four of the five killings, but was abroad in France. Mitochondrial DNA provides a relatively minimal link; several million people in Britain at the time could have had the same mitochondrial DNA profile.

While Cornwell presents an interesting argument, if Sickert wasn’t in England, he couldn’t have been the Ripper. It is possible that the Ripper killings inspired his art, or even that he was, in some way, involved in the Ripper letters.