Interest quickly became what Cornwell calls "a crusade." After spending 18 months and $6 million of her own money retracing the Ripper's bloody footsteps, Cornwell believes she has her man: British painter Walter Sickert. Her theory, unveiled in her latest bestseller, the just-published Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, has earned her the wrath of Sickert experts and Ripper buffs alike.
A onetime student of James McNeill Whistler's, Sickert has been called one of the most significant painters in fin de siècle Britain. But Cornwell, who bought 45 Sickert pieces during her investigation, became interested in his artwork for a different reason: Learning that Sickert was once considered a suspect, she examined a number of drawings and paintings he made after the Ripper attacks and thought some looked horrifyingly like mortuary photographs of the victims. With the help of a team of researchers and scientists, Cornwell then analyzed about 250 of the letters purportedly sent to police by the Ripper (although many were considered hoaxes). A few letters, tests showed, bore the same watermarks—and some came from the same 6,000-sheet batch—as stationery Sickert used. "Every time I brought in an expert, my heart would freeze," says Cornwell. "I thought, 'What if they find something that punches a hole in everything I believe?'"
Instead, she says, all clues pointed in the same direction. Mitochondrial DNA retrieved from saliva on several stamps and envelope flaps was found to be shared by just 1 percent of the population—including Sickert and whoever wrote the letters attributed to the Ripper. "If she came back to me with the evidence she had," says John Grieve, Scotland Yard's retired deputy assistant commissioner, "it would be neglect not to act on it."
Others are less convinced, citing evidence that Sickert, who died in 1942 at age 81, wasn't even in England at the time of some of the murders. (Cornwell says her evidence indicates otherwise.) As for the matching stationery and mitochondrial DNA, "she has found that Sickert could have hoaxed one or more Ripper letters," says Stephen Ryder, who runs the definitive Ripper Web site, Casebook: Jack the Ripper. "That's far from saying, 'Case closed.'"
This isn't Cornwell's first brush with controversy. In 1995 she was involved in a real-life police investigation when FBI agent Eugene Bennett tried to kill his wife in revenge for her brief affair with Cornwell. (Bennett is now serving 23 years in prison.) That episode, says Cornwell, gave her the "thick skin" she needs to stand up to her critics. "I would hope they would look into this and find more evidence," she says, "instead of trying to protect a killer."
Already at work on her next novel about forensic pathologist Scarpetta, Cornwell—who shares her 20,000-sq.-ft. gated home in Greenwich, Conn., with four bulldogs and a Boston terrier—is finding her return to fiction a welcome retreat. "I didn't like spending time with such a rotten human being," she says. "With Scarpetta, I get to live with the good guys."
Diane Herbst in Greenwich
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