In a recent post I discussed the much-hyped news that the identity of Jack the Ripper had finally been revealed via DNA analysis of an old shawl purportedly found at one of the murder scenes. I also discussed objections raised by so-called "ripperologists" – dedicated aficionados of the unsolved Ripper murders, who have learned to be skeptical about such revelations.
Since then, I've had the opportunity to read the book that started all the commotion, Naming Jack the Ripper, by Russell Edwards. The book clears up a number of things, but it also raises more questions, leaving the story as yet unresolved.
Those who are interested in getting into the controversy in depth are advised to check out this ever-growing thread at the website Casebook.org, dedicated to ripperology. At last count, the thread had grown to more than 4,200 comments, all pertaining to Edwards' claims and possible counterarguments. Naturally I can't cover all that detailed material here. What I'd like to do is focus on two specific facts, one of which may help substantiate Edwards' theory, and another that may cause problems for it.
One of the biggest obstacles to the acceptance of Edwards' ideas is the provenance of the shawl itself. Did it actually come from one of the Ripper crime scenes? Ripper experts have expressed doubt because no such item was reported by the police. In his book, Edwards includes a list of all items found on the person of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes, the woman who is said to have been found with the shawl. No shawl is mentioned. But he then adds a quote from "a press report in the East London Observer," which said: "Her dress was made of green chintz, the pattern consisting of Michaelmas daisies." He adds that other periodicals repeated this detail.
The disputed shawl, which is about eight feet long, has a pattern of Michaelmas daisies. Now, a shawl is not a dress. But in the confusion and darkness of the crime scene, when the police were doing their best to keep onlookers back, it's at least possible that a reporter glimpsed the shawl covering part of Eddowes' body and mistook it for a dress. If it was indeed the same item, then its absence from the official list would indicate that it disappeared somewhere between the crime scene and the mortuary.
According to family lore associated with the shawl, Acting Sgt. Amos Simpson of the Metropolitan Police Department was allowed to take the shawl with him to give to his wife, a dressmaker. When I first heard this, I was extremely skeptical that the police would be so lax in their procedures as to allow a potentially vital piece of evidence to be carried off. But one of the commenters at the Casebook site made the point that in those days, the clothing of murder victims was routinely burned; after all, given the primitive forensic techniques of the day, there was no way to extract any useful evidence from such items. If this is true – and it sounds right – then it is conceivable that the police did allow this rather valuable piece of fabric to be salvaged rather than burned. The shawl was of good quality, stained with an expensive dye apparently made from natural materials. It's easy to think that someone would prefer to see it in the hands of a dressmaker than simply consigned to the furnace. It's also not impossible that Sgt. Simpson's wife, upon receiving the shawl, declared that she wanted nothing to do with the gory, bloodstained garment.
Crucial to Edwards' case is the idea that the shawl was not laundered in all the years that it remained in the family's possession. How plausible is this? As it turns out, it's quite believable. The primitive blue dye used on the shawl would have bled and washed away if it became wet. Accordingly, the only way to clean the shawl was to beat it like a rug and air it out. It would not have been washed — indeed, it could not have been washed, because if it had been, the dye (still very much visible) would have come off. Apparently it was never cleaned at all, just stuffed away in a storage container — a lucky break, inasmuch as it retained DNA that would otherwise have been lost.
So far, so good. There are other issues involving the provenance of the shawl, such as Simpson's presence at the crime scene that night when his normal jurisdiction was miles away. Edwards suggests possible scenarios that seem reasonably plausible to me, but which strike many of the Casebook people as unpersuasive. I'm not going to go into all that.
What I do want to cover is the biggest potential problem with Edwards' case that I've come across so far. It involves the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis performed on the bloodstains visible on the shawl. Edwards reports excitedly (he has a tendency to get a bit worked up) that a segment of mtDNA from the blood matched that of a matrolineal descendant of Catherine Eddowes, and that it
had a sequence of variation which gave a match with the mtDNA of [Eddowes' descendant] Karen Miller only and did not match any of the other control samples. The variation is known as a Global Private Mutation, a rare gene variation that is usually found only in a single family or a small population. According to the database of the Institute of Legal Medicine and based on the latest information available, the variation that both Karen's DNA and the DNA from the bloodstains on the shawl shared has a frequency estimate of only 0.000003506, in other words, it is present in only 1 in 290,000 of the world's population.
To put the genetic variation discovery into context, it means that as the United Kingdom currently has a population of around 63,750,000, Karen Miller is one of only around 223 people in the country who possesses this genetic variation. If that ratio was the same back in 1888, when the UK population would have stood at about 36,000,000, Catherine Eddowes, whose blood (also containing that variation) appears to be on the shawl, would have been only one of about 136 people in the country with that variation. [pp. 203, 204; italics in original]
He goes on to estimate that Eddowes would have been one of no more than a dozen people in London to fit this profile at the time.
This is strong stuff. If indeed the blood on the shawl can be narrowed down to only twelve people, one of whom is a known Ripper victim, it would be pretty conclusive evidence that the shawl was originally found on or with her body, however it ultimately came to be removed.
But the devil is in the details. The DNA expert who conducted these tests wrote his own report, in which he stated
One of these amplified mtDNA segments had a sequence variation which gave a match between one of the shawl samples and Karen Miller's DNA only; i.e. the DNA sequence retrieved from the shawl did not match with control reference sequences. This DNA alteration is known as global private mutation (314.1C) and it is not very common in worldwide population, as it has frequency estimate of 0.000003506, i.e. approximately 1/290,000. [p. 205]
But here's the thing. A couple of the dedicated ripperologists on Casebook looked into mutation 314.1C and found that it seems to be merely a variant nomenclature for mutation 315.1C — and 315.1C is not uncommon at all. Far from being a rare mutation confined to a relative handful of people, 315.1C is distributed throughout 99.2% of the population!
As the online investigator who tracked down this discrepancy wrote,
It appears that something has gone badly wrong with the analysis here, and obviously the quoted figure of 1 in 290,000 can't be accepted without further explanation.
As of now, that's where the matter stands. If 314.1C really is identical to 315.1C in all but name, and if 315.1C is common to nearly all of us, then the "global private mutation" does not narrow the field at all, and the claimed identification of the sample with Eddowes is on much shakier ground (though at least she is not ruled out).
There are other questions pertaining to the analysis of skin cells purportedly matching the Ripper suspect, Aaron Kosminski, but for me, the 314.1C thing is the biggest issue right now. It is hard to believe that a distinguished DNA expert could make a mistake so elementary that non-experts could catch it simply by Googling the relevant term. On the other hand, there seems to be no getting around the fact that 314.1C and 315.1C are one and the same sequence.
Until this is cleared up, the status of Edwards' ballyhooed "discovery" remains in doubt. And old Red Jack continues to mock us all ...
And hey, if you've read this far, you may be interested enough in the Ripper to read my novel about a modern-day connection to the case: