Free «Portrait of a Killer» Essay Sample

Background on Cornwell and major works

The author of Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, Patricia Cornwell is a well-known American crime writer.  Cornwell was born in Miami, Florida and attended King College in Bristol but was later transferred to Davidson College where she graduated with a Bachelor of Art in English.  She was married to an English professor by the name Charles Cornwell who was at one time her instructor (Biblio). 

Cornwell has written a wide variety of fictional and non-fictional books.  Among her books which entail murder and forensics are Scarpetta novels and Andy Brazil series. Scarpetta novels encompass fictitious detectives who play a major role in investigating murder crimes. These novels are considered to have played part in influencing the development of several television series on forensics and documentaries (Biblio).  Conversely, Cornwell’s experience in forensics and murders could have instigated her interest in the Ripper case.  This led to her continuing, self-financed investigation of the case in order to support her theory of the painter Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper.        

Background on Jack the Ripper and unsolved crimes

The crime which entailed a series of murders occurred during the months of summer and autumn in 1888, in a small area in the East End quarter of Whitechapel in London (Hoffler).  The crime resulted in five women losing their lives.  During the murders, the killer is purported to have been sending letters to the City and Metropolitan police.  About 1200 letters in a week were received by the police and the media however, most of them are considered as hoaxes as some came from as far as America, South Africa and even Australia (Hoffler).  The motive of the killer was believed to be a physical deformity, particularly a sexual one.   

Primary suspects and Cornwell’s analysis

There are several suspects who fitted the Ripper’s personality and these include William Gull, Prince Albert, and Walter Sickert among others (Hoffler).  William Gull was a surgeon hence much skilled with the knife.  Prince Albert was also a suspect as was infected with brain syphilis by a prostitute and this gave him the motive to avenge by employing services of a medical practitioner.  However, the analysis by Cornwell pointed to a physically deformed sociopath or painter.  In Cornwell’s analysis, Walter Sickert is the primary suspect as a result of his character traits fitting that of the Ripper.  Sickert’s paintings make him suspect, while his physical deformity provides the motive behind the crime.      

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Cornwell’s analysis of Walter Sickert as the Ripper

According to Cornwell, the character traits of Sickert since his boyhood are reflective of a violent psychopath (62).  Sickert had penile fistula and the operations undertaken to correct it left him maimed and sexually dysfunctional.  As a result, he begun to find women repugnant and hence sought to avenge   In addition to that, the end of Sickert and Whistler friendship following Whistler’s marriage motivated and ignited his anger against women by making him aware of his disability (Cornwell 7).  His work also provides more evidence that links him with the Ripper. 

Sickert was an artist and the contents and themes of his work revealed his vast knowledge of the Whitechapel murders as well as the mind of violent psychopath.  In Sickert’s sketch, Venetian Studies, the female figure has a dark line around her neck which according to Cornwell is a representation of the Ripper’s first victim (148).  Moreover, the painting, The Camden Town Murder, which shows a man sitting next to a dead prostitute which he is perceived to have murdered, could have evoked the murders witnessed in the Whitechapel.  In Camden Town, a prostitute had been murdered and the crime became a local legend (Hoffler).  It seems that Sickert was inspired by the actual event and not the murders at Whitechapel which had occurred twenty years earlier.  In addition, Cornwell suggests that Sickert used his art to disclose his destructive fantasies as most of his paintings particularly those of nude figures appeared to be dead or at risk of imminent death (150). 

Analysis of Sickert as the Ripper

Cornwell employs the modern forensic technology in which samples alleged to be from the Ripper are compared with those from Sickert.  According to Cornwell, Sickert’s artistic genius played part in crafting the letters and ensuring they contained a disgusting handwriting and variation in the writing styles (206).  A stamp licked by the writer was analyzed for mitochondrial DNA and the results pointed to Sickert.  In addition, fingerprints from the Ripper were found in his letters, and a comparison with the partial prints of Sickert is still underway to match the two (Cornwell 163).  

Moreover, there are some evidence sources that indicate that Sickert was in France at the time of the murders.  According to evidence from Matthew Sturgis, who is Sickert’s biographer, the exact date Sickert left for France cannot be accurately determined as he is contemplated to have departed in mid-August.  Regarding his last London sketch which is dated August 4th, no sources are available showing he was in London after that date.  Consequently, Sickert’s mother wrote from France on September 6th describing how Sickert and his brother were enjoying themselves by painting and swimming there.  In addition to that, Sickert’s wife wrote to her brother-in-law on September 21st saying that weeks have passed with her husband in France (Ryder).

Despite Cornwell admitting that a single letter originating from France was written by Sickert, evidence by Sturgis suggest that Sickert could not be the Killer.  This can be attributed to the fact, during the first four murders Sickert was in France.  While it was possible to commute between France and England using ferry services, there is no evidence to prove this speculation.  Therefore, inasmuch as Sturgis’s evidence attempts to disapprove that Sickert is not the Ripper, Cornwell’s research and evidence has revealed very interesting connections between Sickert and the Ripper.  Her discovery of the link between Sickert and the Openshaw letter provide a basis for her claims.  However, this evidence is insufficient in proving that Sickert is the Ripper.   


While there are loopholes in Cornwell’s research, she should be supported and applauded for her work and the outcome of her research.  The connection between Sickert and the Ripper as revealed by Cornwell’s investigation and analysis of evidence, provide an avenue for further investigations to be conducted on the Ripper case.  Moreover, the book is interesting and has the potential to influence the minds of many with ideas regarding the crimes of the Ripper. It is well structured and chronicles step by step the work of Cornwell and her team that led to the drawing of the controversial conclusion.


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