There's a headline-making item in the news: DNA evidence has revealed the identity of Jack the Ripper. Having written a thriller about old Red Jack, I found this story intriguing, but I'm not sure if I believe it.
First things first. The article appears in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for sensationalistic exaggeration. The person making the claim is an amateur Ripper enthusiast who runs a Ripper souvenir shop and has a book coming out. So right away there are grounds for caution.
Moreover, Ripper aficionados have been down this road before. In 2002 Patricia Cornwell claimed to have used DNA to establish that the Ripper was artist Walter Sickert. Few people have found her evidence convincing. All that Cornwell really established was that Sickert possibly wrote one of the many hundreds of letters purportedly penned by the Ripper. But writing such letters was a minor craze at the time, and everybody was doing it. Nearly all the letters attributed to Jack – and possibly every last one of them – are fake. So even if Sickert did write one, it proves only that he was indulging in a fashionable prank. Besides, he seems to have been in France when some of the murders took place.
In this new case, Russell Edwards argues that a shawl supposedly recovered from a Ripper crime scene contains the victim's blood and trace amounts of DNA (semen) from the killer. Superficially, this sounds persuasive. But I've learned to be wary of such announcements. It wasn't that long ago that the alleged diary of Jack the Ripper turned up, only to be convincingly debunked as a modern forgery.
To gain some perspective, I visited Casebook, a site for dedicated “Ripperologists" the world over. Some commenters were intrigued or even half convinced by Edwards' story, but others raised questions. Among the issues discussed:
1. The shawl was collected by a police constable named Amos Simpson. But Simpson was a member of the Metropolitan Police, and the Ripper case was handled by the City Police, a different department altogether. There are possible explanations for a Metropolitan constable’s appearance at the scene, but no actual evidence that he was there.
2. We are told that the authorities allowed Simpson to simply take the shawl home “to give to his wife, a dressmaker.” This is hard to swallow. Though police procedures were more lax in those days than they are now, I can't see investigators permitting a cop to walk off with a key piece of evidence before it was examined or booked. At other Ripper crime scenes, efforts were made to catalog all items recovered in the area, including very small objects. Would a blood-spattered eight-foot-long shawl really be of no interest to the investigative team? Would they have let any cop, let alone a cop from another department, take it with him to be made into a dress? The only way I can see Simpson taking the shawl is if he concealed it on his person before anyone else came across it, and later lied about having obtained permission. Of course, this might be exactly what happened.
3. Edwards observes that the shawl was a pricey item unlikely to have been owned by the victim, a destitute streetwalker named Catherine (Kate) Eddowes. He speculates that the killer brought the shawl to the scene and left it as a clue. But surely the police would have been equally capable of determining that Eddowes hadn't owned the shawl. If they believed the killer had purchased it and left it behind (for whatever reason), they would have been even more unlikely to let a beat cop walk off with it. After all, they diligently pursued far more slender leads. Again, though, this objection dissolves if Simpson surreptitiously made off with the shawl.
4. Edwards suggests that markings on the shawl indicate the Ripper timed two of his crimes to take place on Michaelmas. “The shawl,” he writes,
is patterned with Michaelmas daisies. Today the Christian feast of Michaelmas is archaic, but in Victorian times it was familiar as a quarter day, when rents and debts were due.
I discovered there were two dates for it: one, September 29, in the Western Christian church and the other, November 8, in the Eastern Orthodox church. With a jolt, I realized the two dates coincide precisely with the nights of the last two murder dates.
The Casebook Ripperologists dispute this, saying that Mary Jane Kelly was not killed on Michaelmas but on the next day. This strikes me as a trivial objection. Kelly probably died early in the morning (before dawn) of November 9; for practical purposes this is a continuation of November 8. Certainly it’s close enough, if we assume that it took some time for the killer to select a victim, await an opportunity, and get up his nerve.
5. It's true that DNA was pulled from the shawl, but it was only mitochondrial DNA, which cannot pinpoint a specific suspect. The best that mitochondrial DNA analysis can do is indicate a pool of suspects. Given the population of England at the time (40 million), it appears that the same mitochondrial DNA could have been shared by roughly 400,000 people. When Edwards says that the two DNA samples were a 100% match with Eddowes’ descendent and with a descendent of the alleged Ripper, Aaron Kosminski, this means only that Eddowes was one of 400,000 people in England who would have matched the blood DNA, and Kosminski was one of 400,000 people in England who would have matched the semen DNA. Of course, the odds of getting a match on both suspect and killer on the same article of clothing would be a great deal lower. And the fact (if it is a fact) that the DNA pool includes Kosminski, who lived in the vicinity of the murders and was a suspect at the time, is certainly of interest. While there may have been 400,000 people in England who also matched the DNA, nearly all of them were presumably living far from Whitechapel.
6. Kosminski was a schizophrenic who was eventually institutionalized, dying in an asylum. He was not thought to be violent; his known criminal offenses were limited to public masturbation. Whether such a disorganized personality could carry out five murders in a crowded neighborhood without being caught is open to question. It's not impossible, of course, and even without DNA, Kosminski is a better suspect than most. I'm not sure he was the "main" suspect at the time, despite Edwards' claims to that effect. As I understand it, there were many possible suspects and no consensus among investigators then or since. (However, I could be wrong.)
7. While Edwards identifies Eddowes' matrilineal descendant by name, he does not provide the identity of Kosminski's descendant, whose DNA swabs were used for comparison. At the risk of being overly suspicious, I would feel better about this evidence if we knew for sure that an actual descendent of Kosminski had been tracked down. People trying to sell books have sometimes been known to tell tall tales.
Overall, Edwards' work is intriguing, and it's possible the mystery has finally been solved. But with so many open questions and grounds for doubt, I'm not jumping on the bandwagon just yet.
Besides … isn't it more fun not to know?