Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closedby Patricia Cornwell
Now updated with new material that brings the killer's picture into clearer focus.
In the fall of 1888, all of London was held in the grip of unspeakable terror. An elusive madman calling himself Jack the Ripper was brutally butchering women in the slums of London’s East End. Police seemed powerless to stop the killer, who delighted in/b>
Now updated with new material that brings the killer's picture into clearer focus.
In the fall of 1888, all of London was held in the grip of unspeakable terror. An elusive madman calling himself Jack the Ripper was brutally butchering women in the slums of London’s East End. Police seemed powerless to stop the killer, who delighted in taunting them and whose crimes were clearly escalating in violence from victim to victim. And then the Ripper’s violent spree seemingly ended as abruptly as it had begun. He had struck out of nowhere and then vanished from the scene. Decades passed, then fifty years, then a hundred, and the Ripper’s bloody sexual crimes became anemic and impotent fodder for puzzles, mystery weekends, crime conventions, and so-called “Ripper Walks” that end with pints of ale in the pubs of Whitechapel. But to number-one New York Times bestselling novelist Patricia Cornwell, the Ripper murders are not cute little mysteries to be transformed into parlor games or movies but rather a series of terrible crimes that no one should get away with, even after death. Now Cornwell applies her trademark skills for meticulous research and scientific expertise to dig deeper into the Ripper case than any detective before her—and reveal the true identity of this fabled Victorian killer.
In Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed, Cornwell combines the rigorous discipline of twenty-first century police investigation with forensic techniques undreamed of during the late Victorian era to solve one of the most infamous and difficult serial murder cases in history. Drawing on unparalleled access to original Ripper evidence, documents, and records, as well as archival, academic, and law-enforcement resources, FBI profilers, and top forensic scientists, Cornwell reveals that Jack the Ripper was none other than a respected painter of his day, an artist now collected by some of the world’s finest museums: Walter Richard Sickert.
It has been said of Cornwell that no one depicts the human capability for evil better than she. Adding layer after layer of circumstantial evidence to the physical evidence discovered by modern forensic science and expert minds, Cornwell shows that Sickert, who died peacefully in his bed in 1942, at the age of 81, was not only one of Great Britain’s greatest painters but also a serial killer, a damaged diabolical man driven by megalomania and hate. She exposes Sickert as the author of the infamous Ripper letters that were written to the Metropolitan Police and the press. Her detailed analysis of his paintings shows that his art continually depicted his horrific mutilation of his victims, and her examination of this man’s birth defects, the consequent genital surgical interventions, and their effects on his upbringing present a casebook example of how a psychopathic killer is created.
New information and startling revelations detailed in Portrait of a Killer include:
- How a year-long battery of more than 100 DNA tests—on samples drawn by Cornwell’s forensics team in September 2001 from original Ripper letters and Sickert documents—yielded the first shadows of the 75- to 114 year-old genetic evid...
Read an Excerpt
Monday, August 6, 1888, was a bank holiday in London. The city
was a carnival of wondrous things to do for as little as pennies
if one could spare a few.
The bells of Windsor’s Parish Church and St. George’s Chapel rang
throughout the day. Ships were dressed in flags, and royal salutes boomed
from cannons to celebrate the Duke of Edinburgh’s forty-fourth birthday.
The Crystal Palace offered a dazzling spectrum of special programs:
organ recitals, military band concerts, a “monster display of fireworks,”
a grand fairy ballet, ventriloquists, and “world famous minstrel performances.”
Madame Tussaud’s featured a special wax model of Frederick
II lying in state and, of course, the ever-popular Chamber of Horrors.
Other delicious horrors awaited those who could afford theater tickets
and were in the mood for a morality play or just a good old-fashioned
fright. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was playing to sold-out houses. The famous
American actor Richard Mansfield was brilliant as Jekyll and Hyde
C H A P T E R O N E
M R . N O B O D Y
at Henry Irving’s Lyceum, and the Opera Comique had its version, too,
although poorly reviewed and in the midst of a scandal because the theater
had adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel without permission.
On this bank holiday there were horse and cattle shows; special
“cheap rates” on trains; and the bazaars in Covent Garden overflowing
with Sheffield plates, gold, jewelry, used military uniforms. If one wanted
to pretend to be a soldier on this relaxed but rowdy day, he could do so
with little expense and no questions asked. Or one could impersonate a
copper by renting an authentic Metropolitan Police uniform from Angel’s
Theatrical Costumes in Camden Town, scarcely a two-mile stroll from
where the handsome Walter Richard Sickert lived.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sickert had given up his obscure acting career
for the higher calling of art. He was a painter, an etcher, a student of
James McNeill Whistler, and a disciple of Edgar Degas. Young Sickert
was himself a work of art: slender, with a strong upper body from swimming,
a perfectly angled nose and jaw, thick wavy blond hair, and blue
eyes that were as inscrutable and penetrating as his secret thoughts and
piercing mind. One might almost have called him pretty, except for his
mouth, which could narrow into a hard, cruel line. His precise height is
unknown, but a friend of his described him as a little above average. Photographs
and several items of clothing donated to the Tate Gallery
Archive in the 1980s suggest he was probably five foot eight or nine.
Sickert was fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. He knew
Latin well enough to teach it to friends, and he was well acquainted with
Danish and Greek and possibly knew a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese.
He was said to read the classics in their original languages, but
he didn’t always finish a book once he started it. It wasn’t uncommon to
find dozens of novels strewn about, opened to the last page that had
snagged his interest. Mostly, Sickert was addicted to newspapers,
tabloids, and journals.
Until his death in 1942, his studios and studies looked like a recycling
center for just about every bit of newsprint to roll off the European
P A T R I C I A C O R N W E L L
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presses. One might ask how any hard-working person could find time to
go through four, five, six, ten newspapers a day, but Sickert had a
method. He didn’t bother with what didn’t interest him, whether it was
politics, economics, world affairs, wars, or people. Nothing mattered to
Sickert unless it somehow affected Sickert.
He usually preferred to read about the latest entertainment to come
to town, to scrutinize art critiques, to turn quickly to any story about
crime, and to search for his own name if there was any reason it might
be in print on a given day. He was fond of letters to the editor, especially
ones he wrote and signed with a pseudonym. Sickert relished knowing
what other people were doing, especially in the privacy of their own notalways-
so-tidy Victorian lives. “Write, write, write!” he would beg his
friends. “Tell me in detail all sorts of things, things that have amused you
and how and when and where, and all sorts of gossip about every one.”
Sickert despised the upper class, but he was a star stalker. He somehow
managed to hobnob with the major celebrities of the day: Henry Irving
and Ellen Terry, Aubrey Beardsley, Henry James, Max Beerbohm,
Oscar Wilde, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Rodin, André Gide, Édouard Dujardin,
Proust, Members of Parliament. But he did not necessarily know
many of them, and no onefamous or otherwiseever really knew him.
Not even his first wife, Ellen, who would turn forty in less than two
weeks. Sickert may not have given much thought to his wife’s birthday
on this bank holiday, but it was extremely unlikely he had forgotten it.
He was much admired for his amazing memory. Throughout his life
he would amuse dinner guests by performing long passages of musicals
and plays, dressed for the parts, his recitations flawless. Sickert would
not have forgotten that Ellen’s birthday was August 18th and a very easy
occasion to ruin. Maybe he would “forget.” Maybe he would vanish into
one of his secret rented hovels that he called studios. Maybe he would
take Ellen to a romantic café in Soho and leave her alone at the table
while he dashed off to a music hall and then stayed out the rest of the
night. Ellen loved Sickert all her sad life, despite his cold heart, his patho-
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logical lying, his self-centeredness, and his habit of disappearing for
dayseven weekswithout warning or explanation.
Walter Sickert was an actor by nature more than by virtue of employment.
He lived on the center stage of his secret, fantasy-driven life
and was just as comfortable moving about unnoticed in the deep shadows
of isolated streets as he was in the midst of throbbing crowds. He
had a great range of voice and was a master of greasepaint and wardrobe.
So gifted at disguise was he that as a boy he often went about unrecognized
by his neighbors and family.
Throughout his long and celebrated life, he was notorious for constantly
changing his appearance with a variety of beards and mustaches,
for his bizarre dress that in some cases constituted costumes, for his hairstyles
including shaving his head. He was, wrote French artist and
friend Jacques-Emile Blanche, a “Proteus.” Sickert’s “genius for camouflage
in dress, in the fashion of wearing his hair, and in his manner of
speaking rival Fregoli’s,” Blanche recalled. In a portrait Wilson Steer
painted of Sickert in 1890, Sickert sports a phony-looking mustache that
resembles a squirrel’s tail pasted above his mouth.
He also had a penchant for changing his name. His acting career,
paintings, etchings, drawings, and prolific letters to colleagues, friends,
and newspapers reveal many personas: Mr. Nemo (Latin for “Mr. Nobody”),
An Enthusiast, A Whistlerite, Your Art Critic, An Outsider, Walter
Sickert, Sickert, Walter R. Sickert, Richard Sickert, W. R. Sickert,
W.S., R.S., S., Dick, W. St., Rd. Sickert LL.D., R.St. A.R.A., and RDSt
Sickert did not write his memoirs, keep a diary or calendar, or date
most of his letters or works of art, so it is difficult to know where he was
or what he was doing on or during any given day, week, month, or even
year. I could find no record of his whereabouts or activities on August 6,
1888, but there is no reason to suspect he was not in London. Based on
notes he scribbled on music-hall sketches, he was in London just two days
earlier, on August 4th.
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Whistler would be getting married in London five days later, on August
11th. Although Sickert hadn’t been invited to the small, intimate
wedding, he wasn’t the sort to miss iteven if he had to spy on it.
The great painter James McNeill Whistler had fallen deeply in love
with the “remarkably pretty” Beatrice Godwin, who was to occupy the
most prominent position in his life and entirely change the course of it.
Likewise, Whistler occupied one of the most prominent positions in Sickert’s
life and had entirely changed the course of it. “Nice boy, Walter,”
Whistler used to say in the early 1880s when he was still fond of the aspiring
and extraordinarily gifted young man. By the time of Whistler’s
engagement their friendship had cooled, but Sickert could not have been
prepared for what must have seemed a shockingly unexpected and complete
abandonment by the Master he idolized, envied, and hated.
Whistler and his new bride planned to honeymoon and travel the rest of
the year in France, where they hoped to reside permanently.
The anticipated connubial bliss of the flamboyant artistic genius and
egocentric James McNeill Whistler must have been disconcerting to his
former errand boy–apprentice. One of Sickert’s many roles was the irresistible
womanizer, but offstage he was nothing of the sort. Sickert was
dependent on women and loathed them. They were intellectually inferior
and useless except as caretakers or objects to manipulate, especially for
art or money. Women were a dangerous reminder of an infuriating and
humiliating secret that Sickert carried not only to the grave but beyond
it, because cremated bodies reveal no tales of the flesh, even if they are
exhumed. Sickert was born with a deformity of his penis requiring surgeries
when he was a toddler that would have left him disfigured if not
mutilated. He probably was incapable of an erection. He may not have
had enough of a penis left for penetration, and it is quite possible he had
to squat like a woman to urinate.
“My theory of the crimes is that the criminal has been badly disfigured,”
says an October 4, 1888, letter filed with the Whitechapel Murders
papers at the Corporation of London Records Office, “possibly
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had his privy member destroyed& he is now revenging himself on the
sex by these atrocities.” The letter is written in purple pencil and enigmatically
signed “Scotus,” which could be the Latin for Scotsman.
“Scotch” can mean a shallow incision or to cut. Scotus could also be a
strange and erudite reference to Johannes Scotus Eriugena, a ninthcentury
theologian and teacher of grammar and dialectics.
For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual
relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made
Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.
He began to act out what he had scripted most of his life, not only in
thought but in boyhood sketches that depicted women being abducted,
tied up, and stabbed.
The psychology of a violent, remorseless murderer is not defined by
connecting dots. There are no facile explanations or infallible sequences
of cause and effect. But the compass of human nature can point a certain
way, and Sickert’s feelings could only have been inflamed by
Whistler’s marrying the widow of architect and archaeologist Edward
Godwin, the man who had lived with actress Ellen Terry and fathered
The sensuously beautiful Ellen Terry was one of the most famous actresses
of the Victorian era, and Sickert was fixated on her. As a teenager,
he had stalked her and her acting partner, Henry Irving. Now Whistler
had links to not one but both objects of Sickert’s obsessions, and these
three stars in Sickert’s universe formed a constellation that did not include
him. The stars cared nothing about him. He was truly Mr. Nemo.
But in the late summer of 1888 he gave himself a new stage name that
during his life would never be linked to him, a name that soon enough
would be far better known than those of Whistler, Irving, and Terry.
The actualization of Jack the Ripper’s violent fantasies began on the
carefree bank holiday of August 6, 1888, when he slipped out of the
wings to make his debut in a series of ghastly performances that were destined
to become the most celebrated so-called murder mystery in history.
P A T R I C I A C O R N W E L L
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It is widely and incorrectly believed that his violent spree ended as
abruptly as it began, that he struck out of nowhere and then vanished
from the scene.
Decades passed, then fifty years, then a hundred, and his bloody sexual
crimes have become anemic and impotent. They are puzzles, mystery
weekends, games, and “Ripper Walks” that end with pints in the Ten
Bells pub. Saucy Jack, as the Ripper sometimes called himself, has starred
in moody movies featuring famous actors and special effects and spates
of what the Ripper said he craved: blood, blood, blood. His butcheries
no longer inspire fright, rage, or even pity as his victims moulder quietly,
some of them in unmarked graves.
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Meet the Author
Patricia Cornwell's most recent bestsellers include Red Mist, Port Mortuary, and Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Her earlier works include Postmortem—the only novel to win five major crime awards in a single year—and Cruel and Unusual, which won Britain’s prestigious Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of 1993. Dr. Kay Scarpetta herself won the 1999 Sherlock Award for the best detective created by an American author.
- Boston, MA and New York, NY
- Date of Birth:
- June 9, 1956
- Place of Birth:
- Miami, Florida
- B.A. in English, Davidson College, 1979; King College
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I'm not as deeply immersed in "Ripperology" as many are, but I have a pretty extensive library on the subject, and knowledge about the evidence for and against just about every suspect. While Ms. Cornwell is not the first to propose Walter Sickert, she makes a chillingly convincing case. Her application of 21st century forensic methods, particularly profiling concepts, provides a new perspective on an intensely explored subject.
Jack the Ripper is a classic crime story of a man who terrorized females on the streets of London. In this book the author, Patricia Cornwell, unravels the mystery of Jack the Ripper to be Walter Sickert an artist from the 1800s. This book is filled with thrill and excitement that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat and thats what makes it awsome. I like the feeling of exitement in a book with a great message. I think that the message of this book is to keep your gaurd up because you never know who's out there in the shadow of the night. I don't recommend this book to younger people due to its explicit sexual content which is probably the worst part about this book, but overall this book would be a great subject of descussion.
i read the book, i read it again and still find it very unconvincing. she might have described the cases well, (and they do not differ from the other books i have read on the same subject) but the book never failed to impress upon me that it was more from the author's opinons/suppositions/conclusions than what the evidence really states and there really isn't much evidence to begin with. Sickert died and there are no traces of his DNA even from the supposed licked stamp. All 'evidence' presented in this book are all so far-fetched. As if collecting bits and pieces of clothing to sew a quilt. This is the first book I have read written by this author and to be honest I find it hard to pick up, even try to read sample chapters of other books she has written. True she may have spent lots of time and money in writing the book but does that make all conclusions she has drawn correct?
this book was very compelling but cornwell did a horrible job of organizing the book. i thought that she made a good case against sickert but i think that she should have lined up all of the evidence agains sickert and other ripper suspects to let us decide who the killer was instead of focusing only on sickert. while the book made him sound like the killer, it was too confusing and winding. she often went on tangents about the minds of seriel killers or subjects related to the killings but not to the mystery of who is jack the ripper. she spend way way too much time on different subjects. i didn't even finish the book because she layed out her case and then tried to prove it within a few chapters.
Although Patricia Cornwall did her homework and spent a lot of money and time into this investigation, I was not convinced that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. I think the evidence is there to support this claim, but the book is poorly organized and confusing. She jumped from topic to topic, went from one year to 20 years in the future and didn't adequately explain how Sickert could be Jack. I read this with great interest, but was annoyed by the lack of organization and the authorial intrusion. She should have just presented the facts and let the readers come to their own conclusions. I think she wanted Sickert to be the killer so strongly that she set about to prove that, not to find the truth. Cornwall repeatedly discusses what would have been done had the murders been committed in the present day. This commentary is not necessary. It is apparent that Jack would have been caught had the police of the 1880s had today's technology at their disposal. Chapter two, in which Cornwall despairs of writing this book, strikes me as very inappropriate and very false. If she did have these feelings, she should have put them into an author's note, not recreated a corny-sounding conversation with her agent. I also had a problem seeing the mysterious images in the Ennui painting. I found a large-sized copy of the painting and still didn't see the mysterious lurking man. The abrupt ending to the book took me by surprise. It as if she decided that was it, she wasn't writing it anymore. All in all, it is an unfocused and poorly organized book. It doesn't prove anything.
I agree with the other reviews: Patricia Cornwell's implication of Walter Sickert as the infamous 'Jack the Ripper' is completely unproven in this work. Ms Cornwell really overdoes it when, in the second chapter, she relates how distressed she was during her investigation into Walter Sickert as 'Jack the Ripper'. It really shows her own oversized ego more than anything. She offers NO conclusive evidence whatsoever as to Sickerts alleged part in the Whitechapel murders. She even ignors her own evidence: In the first chapters she gives Sickerts reason for the killings as his being sexually mutilated; first by conjenital defect, then later by three surguries allegedly to correct said defect. Then in later chapters she reveals that Sickert's first wife divorced him for 'adultry.' I do know that Sickert was widely believed to have fathered several illegitimate children in his life. She does however paint a pretty good picture as to the conditions of life in the East end of Victorian era London and the plight of its residents. Although methinks we can't rely on this picture inasmuch as we also can't rely on her evidence as to the identity of the worlds most notorious murderer. Patricia Cornwell should stick to the fiction that she is apparently known for and leave criminal investigation to those better suited. Don't waste good money on this book. There are far better books on this subject. If you must read it get it from the library. You might find it in the 'fiction' section!
Coming in at about three times the length it deserves, thanks to an enormous amount of general filler information and excessively (and totally unnecessarily) gorey details on the condition of the corpses, supplemented by absolutely unfounded and wild speculation (which almost always ends with a phrase like, 'well, that's speculation on my part.'). The author bases conclusions on presumptions that have been drawn from pure speculation. The book fails to conclusively prove anything, it fails to present any substantively new evidence on the case. It does, however, prove that you can read a large number of primary sources without having any ultimate purpose and without being able to demonstrate anything worthwhile.
This book is pure fiction. Cornwell manipulates the facts of the case to fit her misguided theory. She should be ashamed of herself for muddling history like this. For a factual and thorough examination of the case, read The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden.
A long time Cornwall fan I looked forward to her anaylsis of the Jack Ripper case. However I was very disappointed. The work was circuitious, confusing and illogically laid out. Unfortunately she jumped from topic to topic forcing me at times to go back and re-read a section to see if I missed anything. Her background comments on the social mores and extreme poverty were enlightening. I wish she had complied the material in a more logical manner since it was obvious she worked long and hard on the research. I would have preferred it written in the format usually followed by true crime writers like Ann Rule. A major disappointment
I have read EVER book written by Cornwell, she is my favorite author...unltil THIS. Patricia? What's the deal? I forced myself (out of respect for this author) to read more than half the book. I was SURE she would pull it together but she didn't. Appears she is going the way of other contemporary 'greats', John Grisham to name one that started out strong, ran out of steam (?) and started writing just to get published. Unfortunately, riding on her past achievements and successes. This was nothing more than re-telling the same tired old 'tales' that have been printed before in fact, she admits it. Where's the NEW evidence? Where are the 'facts' that have never been figgured out before? ...They are not there. Throughout the book, I kept looking forward to her usual brilliance but all she did was regurgitate the same old tired details again and again as if that will make them 'facts'. I really hate to see her lower herself to this level. What was it...deadline had to be met? There was nothing new that she brought to the book and again, she repeated over and again the same sensational facts about the fact the victims were prositutes, their body parts, the gross nature of their injuries, etc. It was a bore...no fact...no conclusion. Worst of all, now I hear she's going on the Princess Diana trip (Oh, puleeze! More sensationalism???)) this is one reader that won't buy into that one. This book sounded more like easvesdropping on her therapy session than reading a 'Cornwell' book. Take a vacation, Pat. Your loyal fans deserve more than this drivel.
How an author can write something based strictly on circumstantial, inconclusive evidence and get it published is beyond me. Although the killer may very well have been Walter Sickert, there isn't enough evidence to hold up even in a courtroom of today's prestige. This book is based on thoery, allegation, and coincidence...little fact and too much time-consuming research by Cornwell.
I read tne book to the very end and I understood all her allegations and assumptions. I am not convinced. If her purpose was to point root out the real Jack the Ripper,the allegations presented would not get past a grand jury. I was disappointed with the ending, what happened to Walter Sickert?
Cornwall can definitely write well, but her conclusion is just plain wrong.
Patricia Cornwell lists and explains the evidence available to her and explain who she thinks is Jack the Ripper. A factual and crisp narrative outline the author's hypothesized conclusion. While readers may or may not agree, it is still interesting to see one possibility. Overall, an interesting read.
Very entertaining book. I'd be willing to bet that most of these "reviews" are from the same author. He or she may even be the author of one of the many tomes on this case. Perhaps even....Philip Sugden? Phil....are you posting here? Until the Ripper case is solved beyond all doubt, all books on the subject are just speculation. I realize that many juvenile Ripper "fanboys" have their ideas as to his identity, but the case is still unsolved. I have yet to be convinced by any book on the subject, but they all present some interesting theories. The speculation continues...
I agree with most posters on here. Patricia Cornwell is certainly not the expert on the subject matter and takes a lot liberties in drawing conclusions. If Walter Sickert was still a living man, I would probably find it more offensive than I do. Mostly it was a book I enjoyed reading as a fiction story. I had a limited background in my knowledge of Jack the Ripper and while I would not now say I know the facts any better the outline of the story is more complete.
Found this book hard to read. Tried numerous time and just could not get interested. I couldn't find a way to give it half star Sorry...
I couldn't put the book down, loved evey bit of it
This was a book I enjoyed immensely, I enjoyed reading the facts and the author's idea of what happened. I have enjoyed reading many of Ms. Cornwell,s books including this one, but I am still not convinced that Walter Sickert was the Ripper. He may have murdered women and children, but does that mean he was the Ripper, I don't think so.He may be crazy and strange but a serial killer then why was he not included in any other book I have read? But that being said Ms.Cornwell has turned out another great storyline and wonderful characters.
Cornwell's fingering of Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper is detailed and damning. It won't convince Ripper hobbyists, but one wonders if knowing the answer wouldn't spoil their fun.
This has to be one of the worst postulations regarding the identity of the Ripper that I've ever encountered - and I've encountered a lot. The entire book is wholely disorganized; the majority of the "documentation" on which she bases her theory is opinion and hearsay - not actual facts. There are even some statements regarding Sickert that can (and have) been completely refuted as to locations at certain times, dates, etc. It was an extremely poor attempt at becoming the detectives she obviously vicariously lives through in her fictional novels. She should stick to those and leave history to real psychologists and investigators. One of the worst and most disappointing Christmas presents I've ever received.
This book absolutley blew my mind! How Cornwell was able to connect meaning between Sickert's "blatant" tellings from what he wore to historical meanings (ie: red scarf) is amazing. Notwithstanding his already troubling art and disciperings therein. I loved this book.
The sections in the book that give great dialogue and depth about the murdering of the Unfortunates are quite interesting... But then Cornwell wanders off into nonsense. Although the book is convincing, it could be at tops 200 pages and still plant the idea that Sickert was the Ripper.