If you live in the English-speaking world and you pay any attention to scary stories, serial killers, or England, you’ve probably heard of Jack the Ripper, whose legend has become so great that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s fact and what is fiction (and it blends more often than you think). If for some reason you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a quick overview of Jack the Ripper (even if you’re familiar with the Ripper legends, you might want to read this for a little refresher):

Jack the Ripper was the name given to a supposed killer who operated in the impoverished neighborhoods of Whitechapel and the surrounding areas in 1888 London. It is believed he killed and severely mutilated the abdomens of five women, all prostitutes, as well as possibly killing several more women. The killer gained his now-famous name when a letter, now called the “Dear Boss” letter, was sent to the Central News Agency of London, signed “Jack the Ripper” (whether the actual killer sent this letter and others is up for debate). The press  sensationalized the murders and anything even remotely linked to hte murders, and hundreds of people sent in letters claiming to be the killer (some people are really hungry for fame and attention). However, Jack the Ripper was never caught, and his identity has become one of the greatest mysteries of our modern era.

Almost immediately after the murders, Jack the Ripper became a household name and legend, appearing in numerous works of fiction over the years and becoming a sort of boogeyman for the masses. For numerous years, anything having to do with the Ripper would terrify Londoners and call out the police to investigate. And even today, authors (and more than one or two killers) have been inspired by the Ripper murders. In fact, it seems that at least one book a year is released offering a new story or fresh insight into the identity of Jack. People who dedicate themselves to trying to solve the Ripper mystery are known colloquially as Ripperologists.

One such Ripperologist, businessman and “armchair historian” Russell Edwards, claims in his book Naming Jack the Ripper to have finally figured out the killer’s identity through…DNA evidence?

Mr. Edwards book, claiming to have “definitively” identified the Ripper through DNA evidence

Apparently Edwards owns a piece of evidence from the original murders: the bloodstained shawl of Catherine Eddowes, one of the “canonical” Ripper victims, which he bought at auction a couple of years ago. According to his book, he was able to extract usable DNA from the shawl and have it analyzed by a professor in molecular biology at Liverpool John Mores University. Said professor managed to extract not just blood, but semen from the shawl and isolate DNA from his samples. The blood was eventually matched to Eddowes through a descendant of hers, while the semen was matched to Aaron Kosminski, a man suspected at the time of possibly being the Ripper, through one of his direct descendants.

On the surface, this could be credible. Kosminski, a married Plish Jew who emigrated to London with his family to escape the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. He lived in the area where the murders took place, and he was committed to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in 1891 for paranoid schizophrenia, later transferring to another asylum where he died in 1899. However, there is good reason to suspect he might not have been the killer.

Aaron Kosminski, one of the main suspects of the Jack the Ripper murders.

Setting aside how amazing it is to get any workable DNA off a 130-year-old shawl and that the DNA results still haven’t been peer-reviewed by any scientific journal, Catherine Eddowes was a prostitute, so it wouldn’t have been unusual for her to have some semen on her, especially if it was from a man who happened to live in the neighborhood she worked in. And there’s also no evidence to suggest that Kominski killed her or anyone else. We lack a working timeline or any forensic evidence to possibly implicate Kominski or anyone else.  And Kominski himself, although mentally disturbed, was mostly harmless: except for two incidents while incarcerated in the asylums he lived in, Kosminski was mostly harmless. Indeed, some believe he may have been confused for Nathan Kaminsky, also known as David Cohen, another Polish Jew who was himself sent to Colney Hatch in 1888 a month after the last Ripper victim and was said to be violent and antisocial during his short stay in the asylum (he died in 1889).

The truth is, while this DNA evidence may tell us that Kosminski availed himself of Eddowes’ services prior to her death (as did  probably several other men who could all possibly be the killer), we are no closer to identifying Jack the Ripper than we were 130 years ago. Such is the case with famous serial killers who, due to time or design, have left little or no evidence behind of their murders. And that’s even if there is a killer to begin with (some have argued that some of the “canonical” Ripper victims may have actually been the work of other killers, and that maybe only three of the murders, if any, are related).

But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. A good chunk of the appeal from Jack the Ripper is that he’s unknown, that he could be a polish Jew, a surgeon, or even a member of the Royal House. And that means that there’s room for many more generations of Ripperologists and fans to come up with their own theories and stories about who Jack the Ripper is, why he killed, whom he killed at all, and where he ended up. And maybe someday someone will truly, beyond the shadow of a doubt, solve the identity of the Ripper.

Until that day, he’ll stay among the many famous serial killers whose identities are unknown, such as the Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet murderer, the killer of the Black Dahlia, the Servant Girl Murderer, the Axeman of New Orleans–God, how messed up is it that I know all this?

[Thanks to the Huffington Post for most of the information for this article as well as quick references on Wikipedia.]

  1. Very true. Makes for a good story to sell books; however, it would not stand up in court.

  2. Reblogged this on The Haunted Librarian and commented:
    Raises some great points. Jack the Ripper has not been identified.

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