Verdict: Not Guilty (S1E8)
Updated: Jan 31
We look back at the artists we’ve covered this season and consider what we’ve learned about the Whitechapel murders and the theories they’ve inspired. Why are artists so popular as Ripper suspects? Full transcript below.
Above: Taken from the London edition of the satirical magazine Puck, printed on September 21, 1889.
Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford by Walter Sickert:
Interview with Bruce Robinson, author of They All Love Jack:
We like to say that crimes like the Whitechapel murders “capture” the imagination. It’s another way of saying they fascinate us. More than a century after the Ripper’s reign of terror, his atrocities have lost nothing of their morbid allure—that much is certain. Yet in a sense it’s misleading to say these homicides have captured the imagination. It’s a figure of speech, I know, and English is full of sayings that make no literal sense or fall short of describing what they’re intended to describe, and we keep on using them because we have before, and nobody got hurt. Still, to capture is to cage, whether literally or figuratively, to close in and close off. The Whitechapel murders have had the opposite effect on our collective imagination. They’ve invited it to run wild, to roam as free and far as it pleases—even if it wanders well beyond the pale.
There are many reasons why the Ripper crimes captivate us even today. There’s one main reason for why they spur our fancy into a full gallop: they were never solved. In trying to crack the Whitechapel enigma, researchers have dreamed up dozens of solutions, naming and renaming the culprit over time. In 1888, a knifeman claimed the lives of at least five women—Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. He was real for them; he could hardly have been more so. Since the deaths of his canonical victims, however, the malefactor known as Jack the Ripper has become less a man of flesh and blood than a figment of the popular imagination. Molded and remolded by the hands of his accusers, he is infinitely malleable and mythical in stature. The Roman god Janus had two faces. God only knows how many Jack the Ripper’s had.
Many ideas about the killer’s identity blur the distinction between informed speculation and outright fantasy. Fiction collides with forensic analysis in unexpected ways. To give an example, commentators past as well as present have sized up the nature of the victims’ mutilations and reasoned that a doctor may have carried out the killings. Partly on these grounds, many have cast the Whitechapel fiend as an incarnation of Jekyll and Hyde, a gentleman by day and a monster by night. Whether or not they borrow characters and plot points from works of fiction, Ripper investigators immerse themselves in Victorian England, trawling the archives for every stray reference to the suspect in question, from hotel guestbooks in the county of Cornwall to membership rosters at Masonic lodges. Vendors may shelve these authors’ books in the nonfiction section, but their arguments can come across as so outlandish and unpersuasive they read more like historical fiction than empirical research.
This season, we encountered several of the Ripper’s sundry forms. Six of them were artists. Taken together, these theories raise at least three questions about the Whitechapel murders as they pertain to artists and art. First, why would any Ripper sleuth make the decision to implicate an artist? And not just any artist, not some hack who scribbled hundreds of pages worth of penny dreadfuls a year, not a failed actor who had all the charisma of a litter box, not a would-be painter cursed since birth with two left hands who flunked out of art school—but a great artist, a Lewis Carroll, a Richard Mansfield, a Walter Sickert? Second, how does casting suspicion on an artist inform—and distort—the way these investigators look at his art? Third, how does casting suspicion on an artist inform—and distort—the way these investigators look at forensic evidence? The answers to these questions variously lead back to a tension underlying all of these theories. On the one hand, these Ripper hunters dish up what sounds like the solution to a detective novel, a sensational revelation at the climax of a tale that had you hooked on page one—in short, the stuff of fiction. On the other hand, however, they present an argument they expect to be taken seriously, marshaling evidence to incriminate their suspect—the kind of claims appropriate for a court of law. In the end, it’s this duality that makes these theories at once so troubling and so fascinating. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 8 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
So why is Jack the Ripper imagined as a master of his craft, whether that craft is painting, singing, or costume design? Simply put, it makes a good story.
It’s no coincidence that several of the Ripper theorists covered this season have devoted their lives to the telling of stories, most of them fictional. In addition to a documentary implicating wigmaker and costume designer Willy Clarkson, P. William Grimm has made animated shorts and posted them on YouTube. Poet James Kenneth Stephen’s earliest accuser, Michael Harrison, wrote detective and fantasy novels throughout the early-to-mid twentieth century. Apart from pointing the finger at Walter Sickert, Patricia Cornwell has raked in millions as a crime writer. Before unmasking Michael Maybrick as the Whitechapel slasher, Bruce Robinson authored screenplays and children’s books. As I contemplate their findings, I can’t shake the feeling that they advance arguments less because they’re cogent and more because they're page-turners. It’s second nature, not least because several have made careers of peddling fiction.
Most good stories have a compelling main character—any of these Ripper hunters could tell you as much. If we think of their arguments as narratives, we could see their suspect as the central character, even as a sort of anti-hero. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons why a masterful artist would serve them well in this role.
First, artists of note lead public lives. Most artists make work to share it with an audience, whether that audience is large or small. Precious few artists make it big. With the possible exception of James Kenneth Stephen, the creators we’ve talked about found more eyes (and in some cases ears) for their output than most ever do. The general public may have forgotten them by the twenty-first century, but they were nothing short of renowned in their lifetimes. It’s as if these Ripper hunters sought out suspects whose fame came as close as possible to rivaling the murderer’s infamy.
The killer need not have lived in the public eye. In truth, there’s a fair chance that Jack the Ripper was some guy from Whitechapel nobody’s ever heard of, whose name even a century of tireless sleuthing has never brought to light. Ordinary people seldom show up in the historical record, so how could investigators learn of their existence? More than one Ripper writer has floated this idea, and it strikes me as possible if not probable. The trouble is “some guy from Whitechapel nobody’s ever heard of” is not what publishers want on the inside flap of a hardcover’s dust jacket. There’s nothing sexy in the least about it, and it’s liable to make shoppers put the book back on the shelf rather than take a copy home.
Now imagine if the Ripper had been a somebody to Victorians, a somebody such as a celebrated artist. There’s a simple irony behind this premise, and it’s precisely this irony that makes the premise irresistible. The suspect lived under considerable public scrutiny and still got away with murder in secret. Simply put, he led a double life, and it’s up to these investigators to expose the darker side. Whether they care to admit it or not, they’ve taken cues from Robert Louis Stevenson. The appeal of their works derives in large part from that flash of bright light as they reveal a Jekyll to have been a Hyde all along. It’s why Patricia Cornwell titled the second edition of her book, Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert.
Reason Number Two for naming an artist as the perpetrator has more to do with skill than mere celebrity. Jack the Ripper evaded detection, and artists possess a variety of talents specific to their craft that could have enabled them to dodge the authorities. Which brings us back to the disguise hypothesis. Some version of this notion factors into nearly every theory we discussed this season and is usually tied to the candidate’s peculiar artistic gifts. In some cases, they excel in altering their appearance. Willy Clarkson had ready access to wigs and costumes and knew how to fashion a foolproof disguise. After cutting down his victims, he could don false whiskers, a top hat, and tails, assuming the shape of an affluent gentleman—the last fellow patrolmen would stop and question. Richard Mansfield could pull the same basic maneuver, spilling blood as a Hyde-like brute only to adopt the comportment of a Jekyll seconds later. Walter Sickert threw lawmen off his trail by dressing as a soldier when he killed Martha Tabram. He had portrayed warriors to critical acclaim onstage, so he could play the part again in the streets of Whitechapel. More than that, he could disguise his handwriting. According to Cornwell, Sickert worked wonders with his pen, producing countless unrecognizable scripts in one mocking letter to the police after another. Michael Maybrick did the same, sending hatemail to Scotland Yard from every corner of Britain. There’s no evidence that Maybrick could lay claim to such chameleonic penmanship, and it certainly isn’t a skill that every singer-songwriter requires, but that won’t stop Robinson from making the claim. Viewed from a certain vantage point, the case against Lewis Carroll also boils down to a disguise hypothesis. The consummate wordsmith disguised confessions to his unspeakable crimes as children’s literature, thanks to his remarkable knack for anagramming. James Kenneth Stephen is the only unusual suspect who seems not to have disguised himself, his handwriting, or covert confessions in his literary works. However, in Murder and Madness, David Abrahamsen argues—from a position of psychoanalytic authority, mind you—that Stephen’s lover and partner in crime, Prince Eddy, next-but-one in line to the throne, shaved off his mustache, slipped on a dress, and left Miller’s Court pretending to be Mary Jane Kelly after the killers dissected her body. Gay men do that shit all the time, Dr. Abrahamsen assures us.
The abiding popularity of the disguise hypothesis points to a suspicion about the very nature of making art: artists look suspect to these Ripper theorists because they deal in artificiality. Time and again, their contentions take for granted that artists could employ their facility for fabricating untruths or manipulating clothing, the body, or the written word to warp our perceptions to nefarious ends. This conviction is most salient in the context of theater. Isn’t it curious how three of the six unusual suspects enjoyed either lifelong or short-lived careers in show business? Fakery is essential to the stage. Clarkson manufactured heads of faux hair for nonexistent characters played by actors like Mansfield and Sickert. Believe it or not, there’s a centuries-old tradition of moralists’ casting aspersions on theater partly because it thrives on falsehood, and these Ripper theories are part of that history.
More to the point, unveiling the Whitechapel knifeman as a master of disguise in one way or another is certain to captivate readers and viewers. Judging from these theories, the offender didn’t escape by the grace of good fortune. He outran the law by dint of God-given talent. Jack the Ripper was an evil genius, elevating the commission of murder and avoidance of punishment to the level of an art form. Ripper hunters who give this impression romanticize the killer, building him up to be awesome, exceptional, and even inspired. He’s the kind of larger-than-life villain we pay to watch in Hollywood horror flicks. In 2016, screenwriter Bruce Robinson, author of the 800-page They All Love Jack, voiced this sentiment during an appearance at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop. There’s a link to the video in the show notes. Midway through the Q&A, a guy in the audience asks whether the Ripper kept killing after retiring to the Isle of Wight. Even I was surprised by the response. Without citing evidence, Robinson declares that his diabolical candidate murdered Florence Maybrick’s son in Canada, nine women in Texas, and six more in Jamaica—yes, Jamaica. I was taken aback because none of this is mentioned in They All Love Jack. I was like, “Really, Bruce? Jack the Ripper murdered sixteen additional people in three countries and you didn’t put it in the book?” Maybe his editor told him to keep it under 1,000 pages. Anyway, after punching up the body count, Robinson adds, “This was Hannibal Lector, this guy,” letting the blockbuster horror of it all sink in. Let's hope Hopkins is available for the movie.
The Artwork as Evidence
These Ripper hunters are telling stories, but they’re also making arguments. They’ve made it their mission to prove their suspect was Jack the Ripper. This agenda shapes—and arguably limits—the way they interpret their suspect’s art. Indeed, more than one of them mines it for what they consider incriminating evidence. In itself, this tactic reveals a set of unspoken assumptions about art’s relationship to its creator as well as what he means to accomplish by sharing it with the world.
There are lots of ways to think about paintings, songs, books, plays, and poetry. One critic might try to make sense of why they’re beautiful, disgusting, funny, or poignant. Another might ponder how they espouse, critique, or merely reflect the cultural, social, or political mores of the time and place in which they originated.
These and other lines of inquiry matter little if at all to the average Ripper theorist. Of greatest importance to him or her is what the artwork reveals—or appears to reveal—about the artist. The two are joined by an inseverable bond in the Ripper hunter’s mind, and the artist’s proclivities, prejudices, behavioral patterns, and darkest desires find inevitable expression in his creations. Guided by this principle, the Ripper theorist fixes most readily upon signs of misogyny and depictions of violence—especially murder—in the suspect’s art. The Ripper was probably a sexual psychopath whose hatred of women drove him to murder. These Ripper sleuths are determined to show that their suspect fits the description. Responsible researchers consult evidence first and then draw conclusions. I often wondered whether these investigators had. It seemed likely to me they had reached their endpoint through circular thinking, whereby they finished up right where they started. To be more specific, as soon as Michael Harrison got it into his head that James Kenneth Stephen perpetrated the murders, Harrison went looking for proof in Stephen’s poetry. Lo and behold, he uncovered traces of not just misogyny but homicidal tendencies. This evidence “proves” what Harrison knew from the beginning, namely that Stephen was James the Ripper.
While flawed in the extreme, this method is not entirely misguided. There’s no denying that parts of an artist’s personality creep into his or her handiwork, at times without the creator’s realizing it. For this reason, it’s possible to make inferences about the artist based on the art. Speaking of Stephen, think of the closing lines of his first-person lyric poem, “In the Backs,” in which the speaker remarks that he wouldn’t give a fig if a woman he’s seen for the first time in his life were raped and murdered. If you ask me, it’s not unreasonable to read that closer and conclude the guy had problems with women.
Still, writing a misogynist poem—however distasteful—hardly proves that Stephen abhorred women enough to kill at least five of them. Nevertheless, his accusers, from Michael Harrison to David Abrahamsen, act like it does, as if they had turned up a bloodstained glove with an exact match to DNA recovered from the Berner Street crime scene. More often than not, the Ripper theorist’s approach propels them out of the realm of even-headed conjecture into the wilderness of wild-eyed fantasia. I had this impression whenever an accuser submitted a suspect’s portrayal of murder as proof of his capacity to commit that crime in reality. Consider the letter writer who pointed the finger at Richard Mansfield in 1888, partly because he starred as the murderous Hyde. The author effectively conflates the performer with his character, treating Mansfield as no different from the fictitious menace. Needless to say, an actor can play a murderer without committing that offense in real life. Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh have all played Hamlet, and none of them have stabbed their girlfriend’s dad—at least that we know of. You can extend the same logic to other media. A painter like Sickert can release a series of pictures loosely inspired by a real-life homicide without having taken the victim’s life. And if every novelist who invented a murder mystery had carried out a homicide in her personal life, I shudder to think how many bodies Agatha Christie buried. Simply put, these arguments push the fundamental truth that artists pour facets of themselves into their work to an absurd extreme.
More striking still is how some Ripper theorists treat works of art like codes to be cracked, codes that somehow inculpate their suspect. In Light-Hearted Friend, Richard Wallace rearranges the letters of a passage in The Nursery “Alice” to expose an anagrammatic confession of murder. In Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Stephen Knight explains that Sickert painted a gull on Queen Victoria’s shoulder in his famed Ennui to indicate—obviously—that Sir William Gull, Physician-in-Ordinary to the sovereign, took the lead in the Whitechapel homicides. Authorial intent is foundational to these arguments—we’re supposed to believe Wallace and Knight because Carroll and Sickert supposedly intended for these messages to be decrypted. As the work of art historian Wendy Baron suggests, Knight showed little interest in Sickert’s actual intentions, which had nothing to do with the mysterious shape perched on the monarch’s shoulder. Wallace and Knight are almost paranoid in their conviction that every detail, no matter how irrelevant at first glance, can carry grave significance and furthermore prove that we’re dealing with the work of a serial killer, or at least an accomplice to one.
The Crime Scene as Art
Yet this kind of sleuthing cuts more ways than one. Some Ripper hunters dust works of art looking for a murderer’s fingerprints. Others inspect murder scenes searching for an artist’s. Two have conducted such analysis at 13 Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly met her end and the site of the Ripper’s most horrendous offense.
P. William Grimm scours the scene with the eye of a theater critic. In The Wigmaker of Wellington Street, he speculates that Willy Clarkson was running a blackmail racket, aided by prostitutes who acted as informants. In the course of this argument, Grimm casts 13 Miller’s Court as something of a playhouse in which Clarkson orchestrated a gruesome spectacle, a hideous tableau meant to intimidate his accomplices. Referring to the carnage, the filmmaker contends, “It was so disturbing, it seems as though the scene had been arranged theatrically, staged as a final warning message.”
Patricia Cornwell adopts a similar strategy. If Mary Jane Kelly’s wretched dwelling served as a stage for Clarkson in Grimm’s theory, its walls acted as a canvas for Sickert in hers. In Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, Cornwell recounts a discovery she made while reviewing crime-scene photographs of Kelly’s corpse, splayed out in bed. On the wall, directly above the victim’s left knee, Cornwell discerns what looks like “a cartoonish smiling face, possibly male with a shock of parted hair. Next to it is another cartoonish figure that might resemble a baby.” Further up, she spies what could be a cross carved crudely into the partition, accompanied by another figure, “what could be construed as a boy with a mop of dark hair, an ear, the white of an eye, a pupil and a smile.” These markings may be knots in the wood or water stains, Cornwell grants, nothing more than signs of normal wear and tear. Still, they remind her of the breathtaking Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, a Sickert painting held by the Tate Modern in London. Seriously, check it out. There’s a link to it on the Art of Crime website. It depicts Cunningham in profile, dressed in blood-red before a brownish wall. Visiting the Tate, Cornwell and several companions spotted in the same instant what to them resembled a masculine face in the background. And yet, on inspection, it’s difficult to say whether it’s a face or not. Impish as ever, the painter may have been messing with his viewers, making them doubt their own powers of perception. Even as Cornwell concedes that we may never know the origins of the discolorations on Kelly’s wall, she strongly implies that Sickert was playing the same game at the crime scene as he was in Minnie Cunningham. He may have streaked the surface with Kelly’s blood—or a dilution of it— and presented his public with what she calls a “gory mural.” Cornwell explains why officers on the scene thought nothing of these strange marks, let alone construed them as a painter’s calling card: “The police weren’t looking for an artist who might have signed his work.” According to Cornwell, Sickert may have been claiming responsibility for—even authorship of—the awful bloodshed.
In the abstract, there’s nothing untoward about interpreting a crime scene. Forensic experts do it all the time. They try to understand how, say, a murder played out given the evidence before them. In the case of Kelly’s slaying, investigators reckoned that the Ripper spent some two hours mutilating her body before taking his leave considering the extent of the victim’s injuries. Yet it’s not as though the killer meant for police to reach this conclusion. He was simply giving in to his twisted temptations. Things look different as soon as an artist comes under suspicion. All of a sudden, intentionality enters the picture. His crime was his work, and he intended for an audience to draw a specific meaning from that work, whether it was a warning to potential traitors or a signature in the form of a sanguinary doodle. Grimm and Cornwell have done more than interpret a crime scene in artistic terms. They’ve eyed it with a view toward what sounds a lot like authorial intent. More than that, both come close to the paranoid, almost-any-detail-can-be-revealed-as-a-piece-of-this-puzzle reading we saw in Wallace and Knight. For these Ripper theorists, interpreting crime scenes isn’t so different from interpreting art.
You’re Wrong About the Ripper
As we near the end of this episode, it’s worth asking one last question, one I couldn’t get out of head while making this season: Is there any merit to these Ripper theories?
As I mulled it over, I remembered the opening scene in a play called Eurydice by American dramatist Sarah Ruhl. The titular heroine is telling her husband, Orpheus, the honey-voiced bard of Greek mythology, about a book she read that day. “It had very interesting arguments,” she remarks. Orpheus responds, “Oh. And arguments that are interesting are good arguments?” “Well—yes,” she answers. “I didn’t know an argument should be interesting,” he reflects. “I thought it should be right or wrong.” This exchange seemed useful in answering my own question. Was I with Eurydice when it came to these theories—that is, did my verdict hinge most upon whether they stimulated the mind? Or was I with Orpheus—did my appraisal depend on whether I considered them correct? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it soon became clear that I was of two minds. I have both an Orpheus and a Eurydice in me, and they were as much in disagreement with each other as they are in Ruhl’s play.
The Orpheus in me takes issue with that vast majority of these theories. My stance on whether any of the unusual suspects committed the Whitechapel murders should be clear: Nope, not a chance. I’d give the same answer to anyone asking if I could say who had. By now, I’ve come across quite a few Ripper theories, and none of them have convinced me one hundred percent. At a remove of more than 130 years and with so many holes in the historical record, moreover, I doubt any will in the foreseeable future. It matters that the Ripper sleuths we talked about this season are almost certainly wrong about their suspects. Let’s not forget what they’re doing, after all: They’re accusing a man of being Jack the Ripper—the world’s most notorious serial killer. Given the severity of this charge, the standards of evidence ought to be sky-high. More often than not, they barely clear the topsoil. It’s impossible to libel the dead in the eyes of the law, but speaking for myself, I’d be decidedly less than thrilled if after I died, someone falsely accused me of murdering and mutilating multiple women. My surviving relatives and loved ones probably wouldn’t take kindly to it either. At times, I found myself incredulous at—and even maddened by—some of these theories, especially when researchers like Bruce Robinson cheerfully ascribe unsolved murder after unsolved murder to their suspect without hard evidence and with gory gusto.
Still, these arguments are not without merit. I wouldn’t have made this podcast if I thought so. Yes, these Ripper hunters fails to prove their allegations, but there’s nevertheless much to be learned from their work. Whether right or wrong about the Ripper's identity, these arguments opened up fruitful lines of inquiry and led me to knowledge I may never have gained otherwise. For example, Robinson’s hydra-headed conspiracy theory depends on Michael Maybrick’s eminence as a Freemason as well as his connection with the trial of Florence Maybrick. Robinson never convinced me that he had busted the Ripper. All the same, I had never heard of Michael Maybrick before coming across his book, nor had I realized that pop stars populated Victorian London. I couldn’t have told you Freemasons appointed a Grand Organist, and I also knew zilch about the role of music in Masonic activity. Nor was I aware of Florence’s mistreatment at the hands of the justice system. As I read more about her story, I gained insight into broader struggles that women were facing in the late nineteenth century. I could rattle off a long list of lessons I gleaned from researching Willy Clarkson, Richard Mansfield, Lewis Carroll, James Kenneth Stephen, and Walter Sickert, too. As someone who cares about art and crime and what they can tell us about the world, I reaped pleasure from making these discoveries, and I’m glad I spent time with these Ripper theories. Put another way, the Eurydice in me appreciated them. And I hope The Unusual Suspects has pleased the Eurydice in you.
You’ve been listening to season 1 of The Art of Crime. Season 2 explores a new topic and is already in the works. The first episode will drop a month or two from now. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy a series of shorter bonus episodes. Each tells a story that in some way intersects with one or more of the Ripper theories we discussed this season. The first is due out in two weeks’ time. So, until then!