Patricia Cornwell vs. Jack the Ripper
Author offers her theory in 'Portrait of a Killer'
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Patricia Cornwell thinks she has gotten her man.
Roughly 18 months after an invitation to Scotland Yard, and approximately $6 million of her own money later, the author of the wildly successful Kay Scarpetta series of crime novels ("The Body Farm," "The Last Precinct") has brought the fruit of her investigative experience to bear on the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper.
Cornwell is no stranger to criminal cases, as her somewhat polymathic background confirms. A former crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer, she spent six years in the Richmond, Virginia, medical examiner's office, where the work was not merely clerical, she writes: "I scribed for the forensic pathologists, weighed organs, wrote down trajectories and the sizes of wounds ... helped undress fully rigorous people who rigidly resisted our removing their clothes ..."
So Cornwell already had an interest in cases resembling the Ripper crimes -- the series of 1888 murders of London prostitutes that has resisted resolution and become the template for many modern serial killer stories -- and went at the Ripper's trail with all the psychological and forensic tools she could muster.
She acknowledges the difficulties of conducting a forensic analysis of scattered, 114-year-old evidence, but she thinks she can offer the most accurate possible guess of the identity of the infamous British murderer.
Her choice: Walter Sickert, an eccentric 19th-century English artist. A contemporary and acquaintance of Whistler and Degas, Sickert's prodigious output included a series of lurid and violent pictures of women being assaulted.
Not enough evidence? Cornwell also says she's got DNA results to prove she's got her man.
What began as a passing interest burgeoned into an opportunity for applying modern investigative techniques to archival evidence, and from there into "something none of us ever, ever would have imagined," she said in a brief telephone interview in the midst of a whirlwind launch PR blitz.
Teaming up with her colleagues at the Virginia Institute for Forensic Science and Medicine (which she helped found with a personal endowment of $1.5 million), she performed a sort of institutional, investigative cross-pollination between the Institute and the British government, focusing primarily on approximately 250 letters attributed to the Ripper.
Cornwell was invited to Scotland Yard in May 2001, ostensibly on a research mission for another Scarpetta novel, when she met Deputy Assistant Commissioner (and Ripper expert) John Grieve, and the two began discussing the case. Curiousity, it seems, got the better of her. She decided to bring her own abilities to bear on the case, partly for moral reasons, partly to "give me an opportunity to showcase forensic science and medicine."
She used various tacks. She got daggers of the time and tested them on meat; she looked at trajectories of blood spatters; she went through officers' reports, though that wasn't easy, since in English police practice of the period, most reports were destroyed upon the officers' retirements.
Cornwell wanted to focus on DNA evidence in the Ripper's papers, but soon found something more.
"We never thought we'd find all these artistic mediums and watermarks and paper matches -- we weren't looking for that at all, we were simply looking at DNA," she said.
The art of detection
Comparison of the Ripper notes and original Sickert papers, drawings and paintings, led Cornwell to one single salivary DNA match between one document from each category. The match was based on mitochondrial DNA, which she claims makes for a more accurate signature within the nuclear material -- at least as well as can be expected, given the amount of elapsed time and lack of further available evidence (Sickert was cremated upon his death in 1942).
The author and her investigative team also sifted through a steadily increasing pile of archival material, to which the author contributed by purchasing Sickert's artwork and writings as they became available. Part of her profile of Sickert (the speculative nature of which she readily admits) evolved from careful examination of Sickert's drawings and paintings, many featuring brutal depictions of female nudes.
She also painstakingly analyzes the style and content of the voluminous body of alleged Ripper material, in which the killer taunted and insulted the police, calling them "clever men" and "fools."
Interestingly enough, analysis of the Ripper's writings dispels previous notions that the Ripper's pathology was focused entirely on women, Cornwell maintains. "Sickert had a contempt of all people," she states. "He thought he was smarter than everybody."
Then, too, is the matter of other unsolved homicides of the period in the English countryside, as well as in a French coastal town, which Cornwell also began to investigate. Cornwell is convinced that Sickert only ceased killing in Whitechapel when the heat grew too great, but by no means gave up his newfound hobby.
"I am suspicious that he also killed children," she explains. "There is a sort of pedophiliac interest that went along with [Sickert's love of] music halls."
A controversial mystery
Naturally, Cornwell's book has already raised argument from other Ripper theorists.
Scott Wilcox, the curator of prints and drawings at the Yale Center for British Art -- which has several Sickert works -- told The Associated Press he disagreed with the writer's interpretation. And Michael Gordon, author of "Alias Jack the Ripper: Beyond the Usual Whitechapel Suspects," is even more blunt: "She could not be farther from the truth," he told the AP, saying that the Ripper didn't write the letters Cornwell analyzed.
Cornwell's book claims 99 percent certainty that Sickert was the Ripper, although also concedes, "This is only the beginning. ...These [tests] could go on for years as the technology advances at an exponential rate."
Cornwell is not the first to suspect Sickert as the Ripper; that she readily credits to Scotland Yard. She appears to be the first to have gone to such lengths, however, and the application of her extensive resources (scientific and financial) continued the investigation where previous efforts had tapered off.
"You've got to remember that this is not an active case with Scotland Yard, that Jack the Ripper would be dead by now," she said. "Even though there's no statute of limitations on homicide, police aren't going to be running around trying to work a case that isn't relevant to what's going on right now."
As to why she pursued this cold case, she credits the same drive that prompts Kay Scarpetta to solve crimes. "There's a lot of philosophical and other reasons that I thought it was important to pursue this to -- well, it's not even to the end, it's just as far as I've gone with it," she said. "I felt that it was my moral obligation to continue down that path, because I just can't let him get away with murder even if he is dead and cremated."