Patricia Cornwell offers us Walter Sickert as the man who committed the murders in Whitechapel in 1888. He is Patricia's Patsy. But how solid is her research on which her 2017 book, 'Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert', is based?
Reproduced below, in slightly amended form, are five posts I made on the Casebook Censorship Forum in April 2017 which I think it's time to bring home to this site where they can be read in one go.
1. Young Woods
My main interest in reading the new edition of Patricia Cornwell's book was to see if she had managed to correct an absolute Hawley Howler of an error she made in the interpretation of a police report about a theory of a journalist called Harold Ashton regarding four postcards which, she thinks, were sent to the editor of the Morning Leader in 1907 by the murderer of Emily Dimmock (who she thinks was Walter Sickert). Unfortunately, the howler remains firmly embedded in the new edition. Had the author invested a moderate sum in purchasing my book "The Camden Town Murder Mystery", he says modestly, instead of spending her money on paintings, she would have seen where she has gone so embarrassingly wrong.
On the other hand, she has clearly discovered that she wrongly identified the Rising Sun Public House, patronised by Dimmock, as being in Tottenham Court Road when it was actually off the Euston Road. She also appears to have worked out that the so-called "rising sun postcard" was posted by Robert Wood to Emily Dimmock on 9 September 1907 rather than handed to her three days earlier as she originally believed. Other errors, which I pointed out in my 2014 book, remain, however.
And I have noticed what I believe to be one further error in respect of the Camden Town murder which has only really become apparent in the new edition. In the 2007 edition, Cornwell mentioned a letter written by Sickert’s ex-wife, Ellen Cobden, at some point in 1907 (Cornwell does not give the exact date) in which Cobden asked about "poor young Woods" who, Cornwell tells us, was due to face a trial later in the year. Cornwell’s obvious belief is that this was a reference to Robert Wood, who was tried for the murder of Emily Dimmock in December 1907, and that Cobden was aware or suspected that her ex-husband was the real murderer and was struggling with her conscience, fearful that an innocent man would be convicted for a crime that Walker Sickert committed.
On reading the 2007 edition, it did not surprise me that Cobden might have been expressing sadness at the plight of Robert Wood – many people in England during October-December 1907 were convinced of his innocence – although it did seem odd that she would spell his surname as 'Woods' - but in this new edition Cornwell provides some further information. She says there is a further reference in Cobden’s correspondence to 'young Woods' in the summer of 1908 when his case was mentioned in Parliament. This tells me that 'young Woods' could not possibly have been Robert Wood because his case was not mentioned in Parliament during 1908.
It made me wonder if 'young Woods' was, in fact, Lieutenant Henry Charles Woods of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards who, in a highly publicised case, forced a Court of Enquiry at Chelsea Barracks which commenced on 18 November 1907 to investigate allegations of unfair treatment (or "ragging") against him. Woods lost his case and resigned from the army on 18 December 1907. The case was raised in the House of Commons on 3 February 1908. On this date, the Times reported that his father, Colonel Woods, "has sent a letter to every member of Parliament soliciting their assistance on his son's behalf."
On 21 August 1908, it was reported that Colonel Woods had addressed a letter to the prime minister asking his aid in securing a full decision in the House of Commons of his son’s case. I don’t know if the case was raised again in the House in the summer of 1908 but this would appear to be more likely than anything said about Robert Wood.
It may be noted in that a letter written by an unnamed Colonel to a Major Cavendish was produced during the proceedings of the Court of Enquiry which began:
"My dear Cavendish,
Young Woods of your battalion, and also his father, have written to me to give an expression of opinion respecting certain reconnaissance work executed by the former under my auspices."
So there we actually have an independent contemporary mention of Lieutenant Woods as "Young Woods".
At the time of the Court of Enquiry, Lieutenant Woods was 27 years of age (a few years younger than Robert Wood).
I haven’t seen the Cobden correspondence that Cornwell refers to, so my conclusion can only be tentative, but I rather suspect that the mention of "poor young Woods" was to Lieutenant Woods and that Cornwell has misunderstood it.
Patricia Cornwell notes that in his younger acting days Walter Sickert went by the name of 'Nemo', or 'Mr Nemo'. This basically meant 'Nobody' or 'Anonymous' and was not an uncommon pseudonym but the fact that five letters catalogued in the Whitechapel Murders file at the London Metropolitan Archives were signed ‘Nemo’ is enough for Cornwell to assume that they were written by Sickert. She doesn't tell us what those letters say but it is known (from Evans and Rumbelow's 'Scotland Yard Investigates) that one letter from 'Nemo' dated 2 October 1888 suggested the murderer might give his victims sweets, a second, dated 9 December 1888, included the description of two men suspected of the crimes, a third, dated 22 January 1889 referred to two foreigners seen with Rose Mylett, a fourth dated 29 January 1889 referred to those men again and a fifth, dated 16 February 1889, wrote about steamer times. In none of those, in other words, was 'Nemo' claiming to be the murderer. He was offering advice to the police to help them catch the murderer.
If this was not enough, someone signing himself as 'Nemo' had a letter published in the Times of 4 October 1888.
Cornwell quotes selectively from the letter. Firstly this bit:
"The mutilations, cutting off the nose and ears, ripping up the body, and cutting out certain organs – the heart &C"
The interesting element for Cornwell is that the author has referred to the cutting out of the heart, yet it was not until the murder of Mary Jane Kelly in the following month that a heart was actually (supposedly) removed.
Then she quotes this end passage:
"Unless caught red handed, such a man in ordinary life would be harmless enough, polite, not to say obsequious, in his manners, and about the last a British policeman would suspect.
But when the villain is primed with his opium, or bang, or gin, and inspired with his lust for slaughter and blood, he would destroy his defenceless victim with the ferocity and cunning of the tiger; and past impunity and success would only have rendered him more daring and reckless,
Your obedient servant,
October 2 NEMO"
On its own, it’s a little bit odd. If this is supposed to be a letter written by the murderer (Sickert) why is the writer seemingly uncertain about whether opium, bang or gin is the driving force? Would he not know which it is? And what did Nemo mean by "such a man"? Why was Nemo even writing to the Times?
Once we see the parts of the letter that Cornwell omits, everything becomes clear. The letter actually begins thus (underlining added):
"Having long been in India and, therefore, acquainted with the methods of Eastern criminals, it has struck me in reading the accounts of these Whitechapel murders that they have probably been committed by a Malay, or other low-class Asiatic coming under the general term of Lascar, of whom, I believe, there are large numbers in that part of London. The mutilations, cutting off the nose and ears, ripping up the body, and cutting out certain organs – the heart &C – are all peculiarly Eastern methods and universally recognized, and intended by the criminal classes to express insult, hatred and contempt; whereas, here the public and police are quite at a loss to attach any meaning to them, and so they are described as the mere senseless fury of a maniac."
So the rather crucial piece of information that the writer claims to have lived in India for a long time has been completely omitted by Cornwell. Apparently this was not important enough for her reader to be made aware of. But it’s pretty crucial because what Nemo appears to be saying that it is the Lascars who perform mutilations and cut out organs such as the heart.
"My theory would be that some man of this class has been hocussed and then robbed of his savings (often large), or, as he considers, been in some way greatly injured by a prostitute – perhaps one of the earlier victims; and then has been led by fury and revenge to take the lives of as many of the same class as he can. This is also entirely in consonance with Eastern ideas and the practices of the criminal classes."
So when he refers to the villain being high on opium or drink he is referring to this Eastern killer.
Is there any significance that this letter was signed in a name known to have been used by Sickert?
Well the fact of the matter is that 'Nemo' was a very frequently used pseudonym for letters to the editor published in the Times. We find letters from 'Nemo' on a wide variety of topics in the Times on the following dates:
13 Nov 1844
28 Dec 1844
12 July 1845
19 Feb 1846
6 April 1849
31 July 1849
17 Aug 1850
16 Sept 1850
27 Sept 1850
18 Jan 1851
19 April 1852
2 Nov 1852
26 Jan 1853
14 Feb 1853
25 June 1853
20 Sept 1855
4 Jan 1856
24 June 1856
6 Aug 1856
1 Nov 1856
12 Nov 1856
19 Nov 1856
11 April 1857
9 July 1857
15 Sept 1857
18 Sept 1857
22 Oct 1857
26 Oct 1857
24 May 1858
27 July 1858
30 Aug 1860
14 Jan 1861
21 Jan 1861
6 Sept 1861
8 Feb 1862
6 May 1863
9 May 1863
26 July 1864
14 April 1865
27 June 1865
12 Oct 1865
20 Oct 1865
13 Dec 1865
21 July 1867
8 June 1868
7 Oct 1868
27 Oct 1869
24 Dec 1869
4 Jan 1870
19 Aug 1871
28 May 1873
16 Sept 1873
21 Sept 1874
4 Dec 1875
17 Aug 1877
4 May 1880
23 Dec 1880
28 Dec 1880
3 Feb 1881
31 Jan 1882
14 May 1883
2 June 1884
16 Sept 1884
18 Feb 1885
9 May 1885
14 Jan 1887
12 May 1887
19 Aug 1887
31 May 1888
10 July 1888
I think we are on safe ground in saying that all of the above were not authored by Walter Sickert.
It’s actually interesting to note that the letter of 17 August 1850 was about a fight between two women in Whitechapel witnessed by the author, about which, he was told, a police officer had refused to intervene, while the letter of 27 July 1858 was said to have come from the Dardenelles and was about mutilation of Turkish soldiers by the Motenegrins who cut off the noses, lips and ears. As Walter Sickert had not yet been born it is certain that he wrote neither of these 'Nemo' letters but one can only wonder what Cornwell had said if they had been published in 1888 or thereabouts.
Further, there were another three letters from 'Nemo' in the remainder of 1888 alone: On 9 October 1888, about the new German drill book, on 1 November 1888 about Irish Protestants and the Union and on 25 December 1888 about Liberal Unionists and the National Liberal Club. It is inconceivable that Cornwell did not locate these letters – she would certainly have searched for all letters from Nemo in the Times during 1888 – but there is no mention of them in her book.
Although Cornwell claims that the use of pseudonyms by authors of letters to newspapers at the time was rare, this is not my experience and does not seem to be supported by the above.
My conclusion is that Jack the Ripper or no Jack the Ripper, there is no good reason to think that Walter Sickert was the author of the 'Nemo' letter of 4 October 1888.
According to Cornwell, included in a set of "letters attributed to Jack the Ripper at the National Archives" is an undated one signed by a 'Mathematicus'. Actually, the letter is not a JTR letter. It’s a letter from a member of the public suggesting that the Ripper was a tailor due to the fact that 'ripper' and 'buckle' were words used in tailoring. Nevertheless, this letter excites Cornwell because she tells us, unconvincingly, that Sickert was "a Mathematicus technician".
She is also excited by the fact that a letter was published in The Times of 12 September 1888, during the period of the Ripper murders, from someone using the pseudonym 'Mathematicus'. Moreover, a reply to this letter from someone signed as 'Pomingolarna' was published in the Times of Monday, 17 September 1888, which, says, Cornwell, 'happens to be the date of possibly the first Ripper letter where the name Jack the Ripper appears.' She is referring here to a controversial letter discovered in 1988 by Peter McClelland signed 'Jack the Ripper' but, really, a more tenuous connection is hard to imagine, even if the 17 September letter is genuine (which it can't be - see 'Page 103B' here). Although published in the Times of 17 September, the letter from 'Pomingloarna' would have been written at some point between 13-15 September and had nothing to do with Jack the Ripper or the murders.
In fact, the original 'Mathematicus' letter challenged the notion that, due to the lack of different words for numbers in their language,"savages" (aborigines) did not have the mental capacity to appreciate or understand any number greater than four. Hence, with the letter being about numbers, the name of 'Mathematicus' was appropriate. The person writing in response as 'Pomingolarna' said that he (presuming it was a 'he') was writing "from personal experience of the Australian native". 'Pomingolarna' wrote a further letter in the debate about the ability of Australian natives to count on 28 September which was published in the Times of 2 October 1888.
Pomingolarna (or Pomingalarna) is an area on the outskirts of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. Someone called 'Pomingolarna', claiming to have had experience of horses in Australia, had a letter published in the Times of 29 June 1878. A further letter from a 'Pomingolarna' about the rise of Australasian wool was published in the Times of 5 October 1886. Quite possibly the same person wrote all three letters and the name has nothing whatsoever to do with the Tichborne case, with which Sickert had an interest, as Cornwell suggests.
As for 'Mathematicus', this was a fairly common pseudonym for letters in the Times. As long ago as 13 Dec 1786 a letter from 'Mathematicus' containing a mathematics question was published in the Times. Additional letters from 'Mathematicus' on a variety of topics appeared in editions of the Times dated 15 November 1819, 23 September 1835, 22 December 1854, 16 November 1866 and 9 August 1867. 'Mathematicus' also replied to responses to his original letter in the Times which was published in the Times of 18 September 1888.
There is, in my view, absolutely no reason to suppose that the 'Mathematicus' whose letter was published in the Times of 12 September 1888 was Walter Sickert or that 'Pomingolarna' was also 'Mathematicus', replying to his own letter, as suggested by Cornwell.
A letter from a Williams Buchanan of 11 Burton Street about the successful use of bloodhounds in Dieppe to track down the murderer of a little boy in the early 1860s published in the Times of 9 October 1888 (along with a similar one from the same person in the Echo of 2 October 1888, pictured below) is another letter which excites Cornwell.
She wasn’t able to corroborate the existence of the Dieppe murder and the only information she can find about Williams Buchanan is that he was on the electoral roll in 1889/90 at the Burton Street address under the name of William Buchanan.
Consequently, she suspects that Williams (or William) Buchanan was really Walter Sickert playing letter writing games, having created a false identity in real life.
Now it’s fair to say that the British Newspaper Archive was not available when Cornwell wrote her first book but it is available today and it only takes a few minutes to discover that Williams Buchanan was a quack selling a baldness cure which featured in published advertisements in a number of regional newspapers between May 1887 and October 1889. Here is an example from the Leeds Times of 27 October 1888:
PREMATURELY BALD PEOPLE
And those whose hair is weak and “falling” should send at once for my circular (post free). If case undertaken, a cure guaranteed. Scientific treatment. Testimonials from all sorts and conditions of men and women. - Address, Williams Buchanan, B.A. Specialist, 84, Park Street, Regent’s Park, London N.W. Laboratory, 11 Burton-street, W.C.
It is, I think, a little unlikely that Walter Sickert went to such extreme lengths to create a cover story by placing numerous advertisements in newspapers and even creating his own Buchanan’s Petrolia as can be seen in the below example from the Preston Chronicle which ran from 1887 through to 1889:
LADIES and GENTLEMEN whose Hair is Thin or Falling, or who have Bald Patches or Scanty Partings, should use BUCHANAN'S PETROLIA, a carefully compounded preparation, positively guaranteed to produce a Fine Growth of Hair, Beard, Whiskers, or Moustache, within a Month's time, provided the slightest vitality be let in the bulbs or roots.
As a specific for the Hair, BUCHANAN'S PETROLIA has no equal, and it is as harmless as it is effective. It is, moreover, delightfully cooling and refreshing to use, and renders the Hair soft, pliable, and glossy.
even if all other so-called "Restorers" has failed.
Hundreds of Testimonials attest its efficacy.
Mention this paper when ordering.
Post Free (large bottle, 3s, 6d, in stamps.)
WILLIAMS BUCHANAN, 11 Burton St, London, W.C.
I don’t think Walter Sickert is likely to have created a false persona selling a baldness cure, inserting advertisements into northern newspapers between 1887 and 1889. That being so, the letter in the Times of 9 October 1888 has nothing to do with him.
Noting that, along with the body of the limbless female body discovered in the Scotland Yard building on 1 October 1888, was found a bloodstained copy of the Echo newspaper from 24 August 1888, Cornwell took a look at that newspaper, suspecting that the killer might have had it in his possession for a reason. Her suspicions appeared to be confirmed when she found in the Notes and Queries section that someone using the name "W.S." had answered five questions which had been asked by readers of the newspaper in previous editions. According to Cornwell, sending in five answers to queries was "compulsive" behaviour typical of both Sickert and Jack the Ripper even though none of the answers seem to have any connection with subjects of interest to Sickert or anything to do with the murders.
Here are the first two questions answered by W.S. in that edition.
And here are the last three, mixed in amongst three by 'Cacoethes':
Having looked at the Notes and Queries section of the Echo in the period July to October 1888 I can say that there was absolutely nothing unusual about one individual sending in five answers. It was quite common. There was a small group of people who frequently sent in replies (and often multiple replies on one day) to questions asked by readers. This group included individuals using the names or initials "S.R.", "K.", "E.L.G"., "Blennerhasst" and "Peter Tickle" amongst others. We find that "S.R". contributed five answers on both 7 and 8 September 1888 and there are plenty of other examples. On 3 August we find someone signing as "Nemo" supplying five answers (all legal related).
In that four month period we find quite a number of answers provided by "W.S." frequently in response to legal questions:
2 Aug 1888 - lodgers' goods (legal issue).
6 July 1888 - Water company powers.
9 July 1888 - Two answers, about special licences and marriage (legal), and corrects Blennerhasset on 12 July about cost of special licences.
18 July 1888 - Origin of name Whitefriars.
20 Aug 1888 - Pension of the Kaiser's wife (the Kaiserin).
28 Aug 1888 - Two answers regarding food for tortoises and an answer to a question about why Jews disagree with Christianity.
29 Aug 1888 - More on the Kaiserin's pension.
20 Sept 1888 -Effects of the Merchandise Trade Marks Act (says "I know of a large manufacturing cutler in Germany doing an immense trade with our Colonies").
12 Oct 1888 - Bank of England notes (legal position).
18 Oct 1888 - Itching (medical).
23 Oct 1888 - Bills of Exchange.
28 Oct 1888 - Patents.
30 Oct 1888 - Rights of homeowners (legal question).
It is highly probable that the "W.S." who provided all these answers was the same person.
On 6 July 1888, the answer of "W.S." included this statement:
"Some ten years ago I received a similar notice from the New River Company, requiring alterations with a view to constant supply. Being a leaseholder, I caused the very expensive alterations to be made."
So "W.S." was a leaseholder in 1878 (when Sickert was an 18 year old art student) who made expensive alterations to a property. This means we can safely say that W.S. was not Sickert.
5. The Paper Issue
Which Ripper letters are supposed to have been written by Sickert, according to Cornwell? More to the point: which Ripper letters are supposed to forensically match the stationery used by Sickert? It's not very easy to work it out even when you read Cornwell's book.
I will attempt to answer these questions but first I have a few issues with Cornwell's general approach.
Apparently, 392 letters and envelopes supposedly written by the murderer were forensically examined on Cornwell's behalf, of which 59 were found to have watermarks. Now, by my count, Cornwell identifies 14 letters (with 5 different types of watermarks) which match watermarks known to have been used by Sickert.
So my first question would be: what does Cornwell say about the circa 45 letters with watermarks not known to have been used by Sickert? Can we rule them out as being Sickert letters on the basis that he did not use such stationery?
And what about all the hundreds of letters without watermarks? Shouldn't we be concluding that these were not by Sickert? Cornwell certainly does not do this and, in fact, she says she believes that 'the majority' of the Ripper letters in the National Archives were written by the killer (i.e. Sickert).
Cornwell tells us that there were some 1,200 different watermarks in use in the late 1880s with some paper makers producing over 100 different varieties but she doesn't tell us which were the most popular types of paper, which must make a difference to the results. I can't work out if the fact that Sickert is known to have used five different types of watermarked stationery increases or decreases the likelihood that Ripper letters would be found with those same watermarks.
The five types of watermarks used by Sickert in the 1880s according to Cornwell were these:
1. Joynson Superfine
2. A. Pirie & Sons
3. Monckton's Superfine
4. Brookleigh Fine
5. Gurney Ivory Laid
It is the Gurney Ivory Laid paper where Cornwell feels that her expert has found a precise forensic match with Sickert's stationery. But let me deal with each of these in turn.
We are not given much information about the "several Ripper letters" which Cornwell tells us are on this paper. One, we are told, was sent to the City of London police. And two letters signed 'Nemo' are on this paper but we are not told what they say.
A. Pirie & Sons
There are three letters on this watermarked paper. One being the Dr Openshaw letter of 29 October 1888 and the other two both being dated 22 November 1888, one claiming to be from Manchester, the other, says Cornwell, coming from East London which, by a process of elimination, I take to be a letter which starts "I do larf when I hears you have cort me I shall do for two more next Saturday..."
All we have here is a single letter sent to the City of London police in the LMA archive, from a different batch used by Sickert.
Two Ripper letters at the National Archives are said to be written on this paper but no details are given.
Gurney Ivory Laid
This is the crucial paper. Cornwell's expert has found two letters which can be forensically matched to the same quire of paper used by Sickert.
The first of these is a Ripper letter received by the City of London police on 4 October 1888 which has 'doodles and three cartoonish faces on it'. The three, not particularly well drawn, cartoonish faces are of a woman, a hook nosed doctor (whose name Evans & Rumbelow decipher as 'Dr Chambers') and Major Smith, the City of London's Commissioner of Police. Beneath the faces is written: 'Mania for experiments/might find the missing parts here'. In the top right hand corner it says 'lust'. Along the bottom is possibly written 'Killed all 3'. Ms Cornwell doesn't attempt to explain what she thinks Sickert meant by any of this.
The second is a letter postmarked 31 October 1888. All Cornwell tells us about the letter is that it commences "Dear Boss, I am living 129 C Rd...". She rather coyly cuts it short at this point but we learn from Evans & Skinner's Letters from Hell that this letter was addressed to Old Street police station and said:
I am living in 129 C Rd...and I mean to do another murder in PEN Rd to night
Jack the ripper"
As we can see, it's such an innocuous letter that it's hard to understand why someone with Sickert's obvious creative ability would have bothered with it, even if he was trying to hoax the police. Certainly it's not a very convincing example of him as the murderer because there weren't any murders committed on 31 October.
We don't get very many details of the forensic match between these two letters and three of Sickert's letters which are supposed to come from the same small batch. But apparently the matches are in the short-edge cuts, fiber analysis, wire profile of forming surface, weight, bulk and opacity of the sheet and surface finish. Cornwell quotes her expert Peter Bower saying, 'One can only assert that two sheets come from the same batch if everything matches', but she doesn't actually quote Bower as saying that everything does match, although she tells us herself that they do. Well I don't suppose she is making that up but it's a shame we don't hear it in Bower's own words. It worries me that we are not told if there were any control samples used. No report from Bower is included so we don't really know if there are any caveats to his findings or if we are looking at a 100% certain match of the paper.
I have no good scientific reason to doubt the expert findings but it's just that 4 October letter is rather weird, and the cartoons demonstrate no great artistic skill, while the 31 October letter is so dull that it's hard to conceive why an imaginative person like Sickert would have written it (either as a hoax or because he was the murderer).
Certainly, if he was the murderer, and the writer of the 31 October letter, he must surely have written the Dear Boss letter of 25 September. I say this because it is inconceivable that the killer would have adopted the name "Jack the Ripper", as well as the use of the expression "Dear Boss", used by someone whom he would have known was a hoaxer. Yet, not only does Cornwell not tell us that there is any forensic match between the 25 September letter and any Sickert letters but I find it very odd that having caused such a sensation when this letter was published at the start of October, the Ripper was happy to write letters which were ignored and likely to be ignored. Why would he not have written subsequent letters in the same handwriting to prove that they were genuine? Why would he not have written to the same person at the Central News Agency? Why, as with the 31 October example, write to Old Street Police Station? Why not include details which only the killer could have known? Why, to repeat, would he have written such low impact letters?
It's strange that it is only what one might term 'minor' letters that are able to be connected to Sickert which, other than some supposed cartoonish characters on one of the Gurney Ivory letters, don't seem to contain any artwork, let alone good artwork.
On the basis of the very minimal information given in the book about the forensic matching I personally remain sceptical that Cornwell has managed to prove that Sickert wrote any Ripper letters.
8 September 2018