Naming Jack the Ripper is the title of a new book hitting shelves September 9th, and it claims to solve some of the most haunting murders since the nineteenth century. Though theories — conspiracy and otherwise — have circulated about the true identity of Jack the Ripper’s string of gruesome murders in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, so far no direct evidence has been able to link one identity in the intervening 126 years. The new book claims the true killer was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish-born hair dresser who has long been included in the official suspect roster, using recovered DNA evidence.
Between September and November 1888, five women were brutally murdered in the impoverished Whitechapel district. (Though many stories of Jack the Ripper claim eleven victims, frequent unrest and violence in the city may have inflated the number of murders attributed to The Ripper. Police reports believe the serial killer could only claim five.) These five women were all found with slashed throats and mutilated abdomens, which the killer had removed internal organs from before abandoning the bodies.
When businessman Russell Edwards purchased a shawl directly connected to one of the crime scenes (and its victim) in 2007 — a shawl that Ripper enthusiasts debate the authenticity of — he did so with the idea that he may be able to find new evidence and unravel the historic case with the help of DNA testing (after watching Johnny Depp’s film From Hell). The shawl allegedly belonged to Catherine Eddowes, Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim, and was only at auction because it had passed into private hands from the police evidence files. The shawl had supposedly survived all these years without ever being cleaned and still bore blood and bodily fluids from the crime scene.
Edwards contracted the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a leading expert in genetic evidence and senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University, to both extract and examine genetic material from the century-old fabric. The only genetic comparisons the duo were able to make involved tracing the matrilineal genetic data — contained in mitochondria, our cells’ symbiotic power stations — left behind with samples they obtained from both a descendant of Eddowes and a descendant of Kosminski’s sister (who would have shared maternal genetic information with the serial killer). It was through these comparisons that Louhelainen directly linked Kosminski’s DNA with cells on the shawl as well as the victim Catherine Eddowes.
Though the evidence pointing in Kosminski’s direction is presented strongly, keep in mind that criminal historians, researchers and passionate Ripper experts have been proclaiming new “positive identifications” of Jack the Ripper on an almost yearly basis. The news of the identification premiered exclusively in the UK’s well-known tabloid Daily Mail this Sunday, and while it has spread like wildfire on the web and in Ripper enthusiast communities, already questions are being asked about validity by scientific and journalistic communities.
Let’s approach this like real forensic scientists. First, the authenticity of the shawl is in question. Second, the genetic analysis that Dr. John Moores conducted relied on evidence that should have long since degraded — 126 year-old skin and sperm cells. To get around this, Moores invented his own method, which isn’t explained. Third, none of the new Jack the Ripper evidence has been published, reviewed, or critiqued by outside experts. Lastly, Edwards chose to make a gigantic historical reveal a book deal, without covering his bases with outside experts first. If we were Scotland Yard, we would definitely be excited, but skeptical.
We can’t wait to see how the forensic community reacts to Edwards’ claims in the weeks to come. Even if the mystery of Jack the Ripper is finally put to rest — Kosminski has been dead since 1919 — we suspect the Ripper’s legend will continue to inspire storytellers for years to come.