Jack the Ripper book cover

I, The Jury
| published October 14, 2014 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

The world’s most famous serial killer was supposedly never seen by witnesses or police and he was never caught. He struck on several occasions in Whitechapel, London, in the autumn of 1888, committing five grisly murders which have never been solved. Whitechapel was the poorest section of London, its inhabitants were mired in poverty and unemployment and were frequent victims of crime. It was an area of dark, fetid streets and alleys. The killer could easily hide in the shadows, remaining anonymous while stalking his next victim. His victims were all women who frequently engaged in prostitution in order to raise a little money for their next meal or to rent a bed for the night. Their lifestyle rendered them vulnerable and made them easy targets for a predator. The killer struck quickly, wielding a knife, and receded into the Whitechapel fog like a phantom.

The killer is known to history as Jack the Ripper. Recently he has re-emerged from the shadows because a British author claims to have solved his identity. Russell Edwards’ book Naming the Ripper, purports to reveal the killer’s name based on blood and semen samples taken from a swatch of fabric. The book has already stirred controversy since its release September 9. Edwards claims to have solved the identity question while his detractors assert that his evidence is insufficient and too dependent on one DNA test.

The fabric, referred to as both a skirt and a shawl, was allegedly found at the murder scene of Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper’s third victim. According to Edwards, the body was found by policeman Amos Simpson at 1:45 a.m. on the southwest corner of Mitre Square, the site of the murder. Allegedly, the fabric was kept by Officer Simpson and it stayed in his family until the present day. Edwards acquired the cloth at an auction in 2007.

Mitochondrial DNA samples were removed from the cloth and tested by a microbiologist—Jari Louhelainen—hired by Edwards. The samples were said to be extracted from body fluids of Eddowes and the killer. They were then, according to Edwards, compared to DNA samples from living descendants of the victim and the killer’s brother. Mitochondrial DNA is easier to extract from physical evidence because it tends to survive intact longer than nuclear DNA. However, the testing of mitochondrial DNA, inherited from one’s mother, cannot necessarily narrow down a sample to a single person. The same DNA sequence is shared by siblings and their mother and all of a person’s maternal relatives for many generations. Thus, mitochondrial DNA, though useful, is a poor discriminator of individuals relative to nuclear DNA. Dr. Louhalinen was unable to extract nuclear DNA from the cloth due to its age and deteriorated condition.

The swatch of fabric was only tested once by Edwards and Dr. Louhelainen. The results have not been subjected to peer review. For that reason, neither the methodology of the test nor its results can be examined. Subjecting the test to professional scrutiny would reveal if proper protocols were observed and if the results were consistent with accepted procedures. In addition, professional peer review could show the specific nature of the DNA matches with the descendants who were tested by Dr. Louhelainen. There is also the possibility of human error in conducting the tests and in drafting the lab reports. The credibility of the test results is at stake and subject to reasonable skepticism without the benefit of independent peer review.

Another problem with Edwards’ theory is the swatch of fabric itself. In legalese, this means “chain of custody.” According to Edwards, the fabric was found by policeman Amos Simpson at the scene where Catherine Eddowe’s eviscerated body was found. According to Edwards, Simpson may have taken the fabric home so his wife could use it for making a skirt. When Simpson found the cloth, a section of it was soaked in what was supposed to be Eddowes’ blood. No wonder Mrs. Simpson, a dressmaker, declined using the cloth. Then, the cloth allegedly stayed in Simpson’s family until 2007 when Edwards bought it at an auction. In addition, the police evidence inventory from the Eddowes case makes no mention of any loose pieces of cloth or clothing being found at the scene. The cloth found by Simpson also does not match the clothing Eddowes was wearing at the time of her murder.

Edwards theorizes that the killer took the cloth to the crime scene with him and left it behind, either intentionally or by mistake. This theory does not match the killer’s pattern of behavior. Police records make no indication of tangible evidence left behind by the killer—other than the victims’ bodies—at any of the murder scenes. It begs the question of why he would deliberately leave evidence at only one scene. Serial killers tend to engage in a generally consistent pattern of behavior regarding their methods. And speaking of police records, they also make no mention of Amos Simpson being one of the investigating officers at the scene.

An additional chain of custody problem is that numerous people over the years have handled the cloth, potentially leaving their DNA on the cloth and thus contaminating it. The cloth could also have been exposed to other contaminants since we don’t know if it was ever stored with the goal of preserving DNA. This obviously wouldn’t have been done in 1888 by a policeman keeping the sample as a souvenir. In theory, some of the people who handled the cloth over the years could have shared DNA, skewing the accuracy of modern tests. Further, we are supposed to believe that the fabric was never washed or cleaned over a period of 126 years.

After the conclusion of Dr. Louhelainen’s tests, Edwards received an authentication letter concerning the fabric’s provenance. However, the letter is purportedly from David Melville-Hayes, the descendant of Simpson who sold Edwards the fabric. Of course, we can reasonably conclude Hayes would not be able to sell the fabric to Edwards unless both parties assumed it was authentic evidence. I am not suggesting Hayes lied. He might sincerely believe the cloth is legitimate “Ripper” evidence. But his good intentions don’t validate the cloth as viable evidence.

Edwards declined to reveal the name of the Kosminski descendant whose DNA was tested. All he would say is that the person is descended from Kosminski’s brother. I can understand this person’s reticence to have their name publicly known but it merely casts additional doubt on the story’s veracity. I am not convinced that Mr. Edwards has made a solid case against Aaron Kosminski. There is significant reasonable doubt as to Kosminski’s guilt. Mr. Edwards’ entire argument rests on one piece of cloth and thus hangs by a thread.

Jack the Ripper holds a macabre fascination for many people, partly because his identity is unknown and the case is officially unsolved. Do we really want to know the killer’s identity? The subject of Jack the Ripper has become a cottage industry and a source of ghoulish fun for those who are interested in the topic. Will we retain our interest if the killer’s identity is eventually revealed? Jack the Ripper can once again recede into the shadows.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Letter From Hell: Part One; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review: October 5, 2013.

A Letter From Hell: Part Two; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; October 23, 2013.