Claim: The identity of notorious murderer 'Jack the Ripper' has finally been definitively established.
Origins: In September 2014, the British press (and then the American press) trumpeted the news that the notorious case of late
Russell Edwards claims Aaron Kosminski, a 23 year-old Polish immigrant who ended up dying in an asylum, was "definitely, categorically and absolutely" the man behind the grisly killing spree in 1888 in London's East End.
Edwards said a blood-stained shawl he bought in 2007 after an auction in Bury
"I've got the only piece of forensic evidence in the whole history of the case," he said. "I've spent
"Only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt. This is it now — we have unmasked him."
Case closed? Not nearly, say many skeptics.
For starters, the claimant behind this big reveal, Russell Edwards, is the latest in a long line of authors hawking books in which they claim to have definitively identified the "real" Jack the Ripper, and so Edwards' announcement was timed to publicize his forthcoming book Naming Jack The Ripper. This is a commercial effort, not a case of an impartial, solid, evidence-based forensic or historical discovery being announced through publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Moreover, the claim for Aaron Kosminski as Jack the Ripper is based on a DNA analysis of a shawl said to have been taken from the body of Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper's victims. But the provenance and integrity of that shawl are far from certain:
Richard Cobb, who runs Jack the Ripper conventions and tours, told the Times that the shawl had been touched by many people over the years, which made any DNA samples less reliable.
"The shawl has been openly handled by loads of people and been touched, breathed on, spat upon," Cobb said.
The UK newspaper The Independent also noted that:
When other labs have worked on the ancient DNA of important samples, such as the DNA extracted from Neanderthal bones or the remains of the Romanovs, the last Russian royal family, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid the possibility of cross contamination.
They have also worked on "blind" samples to ensure they do know which sample they are analysing in order to avoid unwitting prejudice, and have even carried out duplicate blinded experiments in two different laboratories to replicate each other's work.
None of this, as far we know, has been done in this case.
"An interesting but remarkable claim that needs to be subjected to peer review, with detailed analysis of the provenance of the shawl and the nature of the claimed DNA match with the perpetrator's descendants and its power of discrimination; no actual evidence has yet been provided,"
In any case, as Sir Alec pointed out: "If I remember correctly when I visited the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard, Kosminski was long regarded as by far the most likely perpetrator."
The Independent subsequently reported that the DNA analysis referenced above was so flawed that it was useless as evidence:
The scientist, Jari Louhelainen, is said to have made an "error of nomenclature" when using a DNA database to calculate the chances of a genetic match. If true, it would mean his calculations were wrong and that virtually anyone could have left the DNA that he insisted came from the Ripper's victim.
The apparent error, first noticed by crime enthusiasts in Australia blogging on the casebook.org website, has been highlighted by four experts with intimate knowledge of DNA analysis — including Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of genetic fingerprinting — who found that Dr Louhelainen made a basic mistake in analysing the DNA extracted from a shawl supposedly found near the badly disfigured body of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes.
They say the error means no DNA connection can be made between Kosminski and Eddowes. Any suggestion therefore that the Ripper and Kosminski are the same person appears to be based on conjecture and supposition — as it has been ever since the police first identified Kosminksi as a possible suspect more than a century ago.
Even if everything Edwards claimed were true, it still wouldn't definitively establish that Aaron Kosminski was Jack the Ripper; only that he had contact with one of the Ripper's victims. And as that victim, Catherine Eddowes, was believed to have engaged in casual prostitution, Kosminski might have left DNA traces on her clothing because he was a client of hers, not because he was her killer.