Patricia Cornwell (born Patricia Carroll Daniels on June 9, 1956) is a contemporary American author. In 2002 Cornwell made history by claiming to have solved the mystery of the Jack the Ripper murders from the 1880s. The Jack the Ripper murders went unsolved for over 120 years until Cornwell brought her inimitable investigative powers to bear on the case which allegedly proved that the perpetrator was lauded artist Walter Sickert, sending shockwaves through the art world, although her methods have been criticized. Cornwell is also widely known for writing a popular series of crime novels, featuring the fictional heroine "Dr. Kay Scarpetta", a medical examiner.

Biographical information

A descendant of abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cornwell was born in Miami, Florida. Cornwell says that there are numerous links between herself and the main character in her novels, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist. They are both Miami-born, both divorced, both worked in forensic science and both had troubled relationships with their late fathers. (Cornwell's father, Sam Daniels, was one of the leading appellate lawyers in the United States and served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.)

In Body of Evidence, the second of the Kay Scarpetta novels, Scarpetta says that her career in pathology can be traced back to "the terrible crime of my father's death." Cornwell, in an interview with The Times of London, traced her own motivations in life to the psychological abuse she says she suffered from her father, who she says walked out on the family on Christmas Day in 1961. "He was very analytical and had a pristine, sharp mind, but his problem was that emotionally he was unable to connect with people, and could be very cruel," she told her interviewer. A sociopath? the interviewer asked. "I don't know what his diagnosis would be, but he didn’t seem to feel much remorse when he did very harmful things. He wasn’t even nice to me on his deathbed. We knew it was the last time we’d see each other; he grabbed my brother's hand and mouthed 'I love you', but he never touched me. All he did was write on a legal pad 'How’s work?'"[1]

Cornwell told The Times HI that her first interaction with the legal system came at the age of five, when she appeared before a grand jury to give evidence against a neighborhood security guard who "was getting started on some activity that would not have been very good if my brother hadn't ridden up on his bicycle and scared him away."

Soon afterwards, Cornwell's family moved to Montreat, North Carolina, where her mother was hospitalized for depression and the children were placed in the foster care system. By her late teens, Cornwell told The Times, she was anorexic and suffered from depression. Billy Graham's wife, Ruth Bell, encouraged Cornwell to write, she says. “The things that happened to me propelled me in a direction of realizing that I must be able to take care of myself because nobody else was going to,” she said. “I didn't want to feel powerless again. Whether it's being molested at 4 or being in foster homes, you have no control.”

Shortly after graduating from Davidson College with a B.A in English, she married one of her English professors, Charles Cornwell, who was 17 years her senior. Professor Cornwell left his tenured professorship to become a preacher, and Patricia began writing a biography of Ruth Bell Graham. That biography, A Time for Remembering (renamed Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham in subsequent editions) was published in 1983. In 1979, Cornwell started working as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and soon began covering crime. In 1984, she took a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. For six years she worked there, first as a technical writer and then as a computer analyst. She also volunteered to work with the Richmond Police Department. In 1989, Cornwell and her husband divorced.

In the 1980s, Cornwell wrote three novels that she says were rejected before the publication, in 1991, of her first major success, Postmortem. After the success of Postmortem, Cornwell bought five houses and many cars in one year. Then, after an evening out with actress Demi Moore, who was visiting to discuss playing Scarpetta in a film, Cornwell crashed her Mercedes, was convicted of drunk-driving and sentenced to 28 days in a treatment center.[1]

Cornwell has spent millions of dollars buying art, clothing and other materials, and then having forensic tests, including DNA testing, conducted in an effort to prove that the painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. In 2002, she published Portrait of a Killer. Jack the Ripper: Case Closed. Despite her considerable effort in making the case, art historians and Ripperologists consider the case wide open.

After studying the criminal brain for her 2005 book, Predator, Cornwell said she reversed her position in support of the death penalty and concluded that the mind is formed by nature and nurture acting upon each other, which does not mean that someone is chemically doomed to become a psychopathic murderer. In her interview with The Times, Cornwell used similar concepts to describe herself, saying that she was “wired differently”, in a direct reference to her struggle with bipolar disorder. “My wiring’s not perfect and there are ways that you can stabilise that. I have certain things that run in my own ancestry," she told The Times, adding, "It’s not unusual for great artistic people to have bipolar disorder, for example. The diagnosis goes back and forth but I’m pretty sure that I am. I take a mood stabili[z]er.”

As a teenager Cornwell suffered from anorexia, and as an adult suffered from substance abuse issues. In her later years she has quietly been involved in a homosexual relationship with another woman, though she has befriended and supported numerous high-profile Republican candidates and conservatives, including George W. Bush. She became close friends with the family of the Reverend Billy Graham, oftentimes serving as the family's unofficial spokesperson on Don Imus' radio show. Cornwell was particularly vehement about supporting the desires of Graham's elderly wife, Ruth Bell Graham, who wished for the two to be buried together near their home in the mountains of North Carolina, rather than at a "Billy Graham Museum" in Charlotte that was being planned by Graham's eldest son, Franklin.

Cornwell has made several notable charitable acts, including founding the Virginia Institute for Forensic Science and Medicine, funding scholarships to the University of Tennessee's National Forensics Academy, Davidson College's Creative Writing Program, and donating her collection of Walter Sickert paintings to Harvard University.

Her writing

The Scarpetta novels include a great deal of detail on forensics. The solution to the mystery usually is found in the forensic investigation of the murder victim's corpse, although Scarpetta does considerably more field investigation and confrontation with suspects than real-life medical examiners. The novels are considered to have influenced the development of popular TV series on forensics, both fictional, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and documentaries, such as Cold Case Files.

Procedural details are part of the allure of her novels. Cornwell herself worked at a crime lab in Virginia as a technical writer and computer analyst but not in any official medical or forensics capacity. Her attempts to portray herself as an expert in those fields have caused some bad feelings from those who have formal training and licensing, including Kathy Reichs, who is both a board-certified forensic anthropologist and a crime novelist.

Other significant themes in the Scarpetta novels include health in general; individual safety and security; food; and family. Although scenes from the novels take place in a variety of locations around the U.S. and (less commonly) internationally, the city of Richmond, Virginia is featured prominently.

Besides the Scarpetta novels, Cornwell has written three more light-hearted police fictions featuring Andy Brazil, as well as a number of works of non-fiction, including cookbooks featuring Northern Italian cuisine. (The Scarpettas originally came from northern Italy.)

Cornwell is the recipient of numerous prizes for crime writing, including the Edgar Award, Britain's Gold Dagger Award, and the Sherlock Award. [2]


Jack the Ripper

Cornwell has been involved in a continuing, self-financed search for evidence to support her theory that painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. She wrote Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, which was published in 2002 to much controversy, especially within the British art world, where Sickert's work is admired, and also among those who have studied the Ripper case, who criticize her methods and conclusions. See Portrait of a Killer for further information. However, Cornwell denied a Jack the Ripper obsession in full-page ads in two British newspapers. [3], and said the case was 'far from closed'. [4]

Many critics' main concern is that the book assumes Sickert's guilt and then tries to prove it, rather than let the evidence speak for itself. For example, one Ripper website states that “the fact remains that Sickert was in France on the nights of at least four of the five Ripper murders”. [5]

Stephen Ryder provides counter-points to Cornwell's arguments [6], while Joseph Phelan also comments on Cornwell's interpretation of Sickert's art [7] and puts it within the context of his influences.

Litigation surrounding The Last Precinct

Dr. Leslie Sachs, author of The Virginia Ghost Murders (1998), claimed to see similarities between his novel and Cornwell's novel The Last Precinct. In 2000 he sent letters to Cornwell's publisher, started a page on the World Wide Web, and placed stickers on his novel in order to claim that Cornwell was committing plagiarism. Cornwell successfully obtained a preliminary injunction against Sachs. The court ruled that his claims were baseless, and he was prevented from placing the stickers on his book. The court also shut his website down for false advertising and required booksellers to remove the stickers that were already on books. [8].

Sachs left the country so that he could escape the injunction. He continues to charge that Cornwell plagiarized his work and used her influence to subvert justice.


Fiction series

Kay Scarpetta series

Andy Brazil series

At Risk

  • At Risk (2006) ISBN 0-399-15362-4 (originally a serialization for The New York Times)
  • At Risk Two (2007)




  • The First Scarpetta Collection. Postmortem and Body of Evidence (1995) ISBN 0-316-91125-9
  • A Scarpetta Omnibus: Postmortem, Body of Evidence, All that Remains (2000)
  • A Second Scarpetta Omnibus: Cruel and Unusual, The Body Farm, From Potter's Field (2000)
  • A Third Scarpetta Omnibus: Cause of Death, Unnatural Exposure & Point of Origin (2002) ISBN 0-316-72472-6
  • The Scarpetta Collection Volume 1: Postmortem and Body of Evidence (2003) ISBN 0-7432-5580-1
  • The Scarpetta Collection Volume 2: All that Remains and Cruel and Unusual (2003)


  • The only author to receive the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year for Postmortem (1991)
  • Gold Dagger for Cruel and Unusual (1993)[9]
  • Sherlock Award for best detective


  • "I'm not weird, I'm just wired differently", interview by Andrew Billen in The Times, London, December 6, 2005
  • "Best-selling author Patricia Cornwell wins preliminary injunction barring unknown author from creating bogus "scandal" to promote his book "Virginia Ghost Mysteries" by falsely claiming that Cornwell had plagiarized from it." Entertainment Law Reporter, Vol. 22, No. 6, November, 2000.
  • Cornwell v. Sachs, 99 F.Supp.2d 695, 2000 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 10823 (E.D.Va. 2000)
  • "Me, stalkers and my lesbian lover", Irish Independent December 12, 2005 (requires registration).
  • ''"A Family at Cross-Purposes: Billy Graham's Sons Argue Over a Final Resting Place", Laura Sessions Stepp, Washington Post, December 13, 2006
  • Patricia Cornwell Moves To Richmond, Style Weekly, January 31, 2006

External links

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  1. (No Scarpetta movie has yet been made.) In the early 1990s, Cornwell had a lesbian affair, between 1991 and 1992, with a former FBI forensics instructor, Marguerite Bennett. Bennett left the FBI after she admitted that she had lied under oath to protect her husband, FBI agent Eugene Bennett, who had been accused of filing fraudulent expense claims. On May 15, 1997, Eugene Benett was sentenced to 23 years in prison by a court in Prince William County, Virginia, for trying to kill his wife, whom he accused of deserting him for a lesbian relationship with Cornwell. The effort, according to The New York Times, was said to include a plan to kill his wife, collect $1 million in insurance and get custody of the couple's two daughters. Mrs. Bennett testified that she and Ms. Cornwell had two intimate contacts but said the relationship had nothing to do with her divorce.<ref name=