|A Ripper Notes Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripper Notes. Ripper Notes is the only American Ripper periodical available on the market, and has quickly grown into one of the more substantial offerings in the genre. For more information, view our Ripper Notes page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripper Notes for permission to reprint this article.|
By Scott E. Medine
On 17 November 2002, I attended the Patricia Cornwell Lecture at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The cost for attending the lecture was $50 per person and the proceeds went to the UT Forensic School. For those of you who may no know, the Anthropology Department at UT is the home of the infamous "Body Farm." The Body Farm is a facility that studies the decomposition of human bodies. Bodies are placed in various controlled environments and the rate of decomposition is monitored. The results of their research has helped law enforcement agencies the world over in determining time of death.
Patricia Cornwell's choice of the UT School of Forensics as being the host of her lecture and recipient of good will is fitting. She has consulted the staff on numerous occasions and she has even named one of her books "The Body Farm." As promised, she entertained a few questions after her lecture. The lecture was sold out - 500 people - and most of them appeared to be devout Cornwell fans. The first thing I noticed was the armed security. The body guards were all dressed in suits, but I could tell they were armed by how they were standing and the bulges under their arms that were visible in their suits and were a little obvious. I am sure they were just Knoxville police assigned to a special detail.
Whenever a celebrity is attending a public event, armed security can be expected; however, there is a big difference between Patricia Cornwell and J-Lo! I tried to wonder why would she have armed body guards? Who could possibly care that best selling author Patricia Cornwell was appearing in Knoxville, Tennessee? She evidently feels her life is threatened. I thought maybe she had a stalker; after all, every celebrity does seem to have one. After about five minutes into the talk, I realized why the armed thugs were present.
It was at this point in the lecture that she took a big shot at everybody who studies the case. She called all students of the case "camouflage wearing Klingons" looking to get her. She also stated that friends of hers in the FBI alerted her to the possibility that Ripperologists were "lying in wait" for her. So if you are reading this article, take notice that George Bush and Dick Cheney are both placing you under surveillance. One would think that after 9/11 the FBI would have more on their plate to worry about than a few people who are interested in a 114 year old string of cold case homicides. . . although it does make me feel a little important to know that the FBI groups us together with Al-Qaeda. Maybe we can get Osama bin Laden to front us nine million dollars to investigate the case!
She walked onto the stage like a rock star playing in front of a home town crowd. She was wearing a blue wind breaker with FORENSICS written in bright yellow across the back (the jacket, she later stated, was given to her by the UT School of Forensics). After the applause died down, she opened the lecture by saying "The reason we were able to catch this son of a bitch is one word. . ." With that, she stepped out from behind the podium turned around and dramatically threw her arms into the air, above her head. She then started pumping her arms and fists downward, pointing to the yellow FORENSICS on her back. The crowd once again erupted into a riotous standing ovation, and I found myself waiting for The Rock to come out and lay down some WWF smack on a wimpy Walter "The Painter" Sickert lookalike!
As the talk progressed, she called Donald Rumbelow sick. Even though she didn't mention him directly by name, she obviously alluded to him, mentioning the "sick people profiting off the murders by taking people on Ripper walks and drinking beer afterwards. Can you imagine someone going on a Bundy or Dahmer walk or a Beltway Sniper Walk?" I hope she never goes to New Orleans, where everything ghoulish - vampires and ghosts to cemeteries and voodoo rituals - has a special walk! I have to admit that this rubbed me the wrong way. Ms. Cornwell seems to forget that she has made a good living at profiting off of murder. She also fails to realize that because of her celebrity status, her book will bring in far more money than Donald Rumbelow, Martin Fido, Paul Begg. Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner combined will ever make off of their books, TV appearances, consultations, lectures and Ripper walks. She reminds me of pop musicians and professional athletes who claim they do their things for love of music or their sport. If this is true, then why am I paying outrageous prices for CDs and ball game tickets?
She appeared to have her fans eating out of her hand. She presented her circumstantial case, and most there bought it like an Armani suit at a thrift store. She spoke mostly on the Whitehall Mystery, but came out with a smudge of egg on her face. She first spoke about workmen finding the body and stating they said it was there two days before they unwrapped it, as they thought it was tools. The arm found in the Thames was matched to the body, etc. . .then she said the authorities stated the body had been dead approximately five weeks. She then said she thought the authorities were off on their time of death, as there were maggots and dried blood under the body. To prove her theory, she called the head of the UT Forensic School (who is a good friend of hers) to the microphone, and he gave his spiel on the forensics of establishing time of death. He put the time of death at. . . approximately five to six weeks.
Cornwell then proved that math was not her strong point. She stated that a newspaper clipping from the "Echo" was found under the silk wrapping of the body, dated 24 August 1888. She tried to do some quick down-home ciphering and then asked the audience for help. Everyone decided that 24 August to 3 October was about. . .five to six weeks. The head of the UT School then said the authorities probably just read the newspaper clipping!
Brushing off her embarrassment, she claimed the Whitehall Torso was the smoking gun for Sickert, and that this was the one case in which she could put him at the scene of the crime. She researched the paper clipping and found that on 24 August 1888, five letters were written to the editor and signed simply, "W.S." She insisted that it was Sickert who wrote the letters to the editor, thereby giving the police a clue to his being the killer by attaching the newspaper clipping to the body.
She then asked if there were any police or former police officers in the audience. I raised my hand, and I was the only one to do so. She then asked me if I was right; I told her, not really. "It would be enough to focus the investigation on Sickert, bring him in and question him and keep him under surveillance, but it is not enough to arrest him." She was speechless for a moment, and then replied, "That figures; the one detective in her and he shoots me out of the water." She later admitted that any good detective would have questioned that evidence. I believe she wholeheartedly thought I was going to agree with her.
She then went to questions, taking only five, and passing over me three times before saying, "Well, I guess I better let you ask your question." I then brought out the misspellings of PC Thain and Stewart Evans' names in her book. At the mere mention of Stewart, she almost had a massive coronary, and I was accused of being someone sent by the Klingon Empire! She stated Stewart was "mean" to her (I know it sounds childish, but that's her word, not mine), claimed the misspellings were her editor's fault and would be corrected.
I then asked about Sickert being in Dieppe during the murders. She said that because he was affluent. He could afford the freedom to come and go (as I expected she would say). After that, she took one more question from a person asking about mtDNA excluding any of the other suspects. Cornwell danced around the question in a very political way, stating that there is no mtDNA of any of the other suspects to compare her ballyhooed evidence to. She noted, however, that the mtDNA samples are not "conclusive" that Sickert was the Ripper, but are just another compass needle pointing to the "fact."
She also stated, in answer to a fan's earlier question, that she is planning a paperback update of "Portrait of a Killer" with updated research. She claims she can match the Pirie watermark to Sickert and Sickert alone, because it matches the lot number that the paper was cut from. Basically, she believes that she has convincing evidence that Sickert wrote at least three or four letters - although she claims 90% of the letters were written by him - but she still falls way short of putting the knife in his hand!
The good news is that people were coming up to me after the lecture. They were interested to know if I was writing a book and when it would be out. I told them that my book, like Cornwell's, would not be a history of the case and should not be used alone. I told them that Cornwell's book and mine should be used in conjunction with the other notable books on the subject. They asked which books should they buy, and I told them to start with ones that are not biased to any certain suspect. I told them to buy Sugden's "Complete History" Evans and Skinner's "Letters From Hell" (which, incidentally, Cornwell told everyone is a book they should buy) and the "A-Z." Her book may indeed spark an interest in the books that are already out there, and any authors with books due out in the next two years could enjoy some of the notoriety her book has brought to the case as well.
The furor around "Portrait of a Killer" reminds me of the movie "Beloved" based on a book by Toni Morrison. Four or five years ago, Morrison was a little known African-American author and university professor. Then Oprah Winfrey got hold of "Beloved" and used it in her book club. Suddenly everyone had to have the book - which is a rather hard read, as it is a ghost story told in 19th century slave narrative. After Winfrey made it into a movie, all of her fans flocked to the theatre. After the first initial assault by Oprah's fans - who for the most part didn't understand what the hell was going on - all was forgotten and the movie quickly disappeared. After the smoke cleared, all that were left were Morrison fans and scholars. Likewise, I feel that once Cornwell moves on to another project, then all will return to normal.
Maybe we can get her involved in the JonBenet Ramsey case.