Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell (born Patricia Carroll Daniels June 9, 1956) is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popular series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner.

In 2002, Cornwell claimed to have solved the mystery of the Jack the Ripper murders by accusing noted artist Walter Sickert, though her conclusions and methods have been widely criticized.

Patricia Cornwell is also the Director of Applied Forensic Science at the National Forensic Academy.

Early life

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, divorced, and 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. Cornwell later traced her own motivations in life to the emotional abuse she says she suffered from her father, who she says walked out on the family on Christmas Day 1961.

In 1961, 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.

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.

In 1979, Cornwell started working as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and soon began covering crime. Her biography of Ruth Bell Graham, A Time for Remembering (renamed Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham in subsequent editions), was published in 1983. 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 as 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.

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 stabilize that. I have certain things that run in my own ancestry... 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 stabilizer.

As a teenager, Cornwell suffered from anorexia and as an adult suffered from substance abuse issues. 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, often serving as the family's unofficial spokesperson on Don Imus' radio show. Cornwell was a particularly ardent supporter of Graham's elderly wife, Ruth Bell Graham, who wished for her and her husband 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.

She has also played the part of "Denise" in the Matlock episode "The Formula" under the name Patricia Daniels.

Personal life

Cornwell declined for many years to discuss her personal life in interviews, but in 1992, the novelist confessed to FBI agent Marguerite Bennett that she "really had a thing for" Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster. On November 11, 2007, The Daily Telegraph published an interview focused largely on her history and identity as a lesbian, including her marriage to Dr. Staci Ann Gruber. In an April 2008 interview on how Cornwell's life has influenced her writing, in The Times, Cornwell's marriage to Gruber in Massachusetts was also discussed.

A 2008 interview in The Advocate discusses how Billie Jean King helped Cornwell to come to terms with talking about her sexuality publicly. In the interview, she says turning 50 made her see the importance of speaking out for equal rights.

Murder plot

In June 1991, star FBI couple Eugene and Marguerite 'Margo' Bennett befriended Cornwell who was seeking factual information for her Scarpetta series. The couple had been in a relation for ten years, married since 1984, and were parents of two daughters. The following year, Cornwell initiated an affair with the wife, Margo.

In 1996, following discovery of the affair, Gene Bennett was arrested for the attempted murder of his wife, convicted in Prince William County, Virginia, and sentenced to 23 years in prison. That same year, Margo Bennett was dismissed from the FBI for unseemly and illegal activities.

The novelist has denied any responsibility and regret, implying the blame lay at the Bennett's door. Although Margo said the affair was "very special and magical, unique", Cornwell told reporters, the affair "was very brief in every way you can imagine," a dismissal that Bennett says, "hurt my feelings."

The affair is captured in Caitlin Rother with John Hess's book, Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, A Lesbian Love Affair and the FBI Husband's Violent Revenge, although the book appears do differ in some respects from interviews and published sources at the time. Gene Bennett will first be eligible for parole in 2016 at age 61.

Political contributions

Since 1998, Cornwell has donated at least $130,000 to the Republican Party, and has made additional individual contributions to Republican U.S. Senate candidates including George Allen, John Warner, and Orrin Hatch. She has occasionally supported specific Democratic candidates as well, including Hillary Clinton, Nicola Tsongas, Charles Robb, and Mark Warner.

Charitable donations

Cornwell has made several notable charitable donations, 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. 1 Million dollar donation to John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the Crime Scene Academy.


Scarpetta series

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. Cornwell herself worked at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia as a technical writer and computer analyst, but not in any official medical or forensics capacity.

Other significant themes in the Scarpetta novels include health, individual safety and security, food, family, and the emerging sexual self-discovery of Scarpetta's niece. Although scenes from the novels take place in a variety of locations around the U.S. and (less commonly) internationally, they center around the city of Richmond, Virginia.

Brazil/Hammer series

Besides the Scarpetta novels, Cornwell wrote three addtional pseudo-police fictions, the Brazil/Hammer series, set in North Carolina and off the mid-Atlantic coast. Besides the older woman / younger man premise, the books include discomforting themes of scatology, sepsis, and talking animals.


Cornwell wrote a number of works of non-fiction, including cookbooks featuring Northern Italian cuisine. The Scarpettas originally came from northern Italy.


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 and also among Ripperologists.

Cornwell has denied being obsessed with Jack the Ripper in full-page ads in two British newspapers and has recently said the case was "far from closed.

Litigation surrounding The Last Precinct

Leslie Sachs, author of The Virginia Ghost Murders (1998), claimed there were similarities between his novel and Cornwell's The Last Precinct. In 2000, he sent letters to Cornwell's publisher, started a Web page, and placed stickers on copies of his novel alleging that Cornwell was committing plagiarism. The United States District Court of Eastern Virginia granted Cornwell a preliminary injunction against Sachs, ruling his claims were baseless. The court shut down his web site for false advertising and ordered him to stop placing the stickers on his book The Virginia Ghost Murders and required booksellers to remove the stickers already on their copies. Sachs fled to Belgium to escape the injunction.

In May 2007, testifying in a Viriginia court in her libel suit against Sachs, Cornwell stated Sachs accused her in online postings of being a "Jew hater" and "neo Nazi" who bribed judges, conspired to have him killed and was under investigation by U.S. authorities. She hired body guards to protect her against anyone who might believe Sachs' accusations. She asked the court to enforce a broader injunction to stop his online accusations, charging he was engaging in libel and cyberstalking. Sachs chose not to participate in the proceedings.

In June 2007 the federal judge, finding "actual malice" in forty-five false statements by Sachs, ordered the removal of Sachs' defamatory postings until the case was resolved. In December 2007 the court awarded Cornwell $37,780 in damages to cover the costs of defending against Sachs's internet attacks. He also permanently enjoined Sachs from making the defamatory accusations against Cornwell. Sachs again chose not to participate in the proceedings.


Fiction series

"Kay Scarpetta" series

In chronological order.

Andy Brazil series

At Risk / Win Garano series

  • At Risk (2006) ISBN 0-399-15362-4 (originally a serialization for The New York Times)
  • The Front (2008) ISBN 0-399-15418-3


  • Life's Little Fable (1999; children's book) ISBN 0-399-23316-4


  • A Time for Remembering (1983; biography of Ruth Bell Graham; later reissued as Ruth: A Portrait) ISBN 0-06-061685-7
  • Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham, Doubleday, 1997. ISBN 978-0385-48900-3
  • Scarpetta's Winter Table (1998) ISBN 0941711420
  • Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta's Kitchen (2002) ISBN 0-399-14799-3
  • Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed (2002) ISBN 0-399-14932-5


  • 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)



External links

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