The story of Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate us for a couple of reasons; for one, Jack was a very early example of the serial killer, and his crimes were particularly brutal. But more than that, the crimes are unsolved to this day - nobody knows who Jack the Ripper was, although there are many suspects. And now one of those suspects may have been proven to be the killer.
At least that's the claim of Russell Edwards, who gave the Daily Mail, a British rag, the exclusive story. Edwards has written a book called Naming Jack The Ripper, out Tuesday, based on DNA recovered from a shawl he bought - a shawl reputed to belong to Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper's victims. Eddowes has a special place in Ripper lore because she was one of two women killed in one night by the maniac, and she was savagely mutilated - her face was cut multiple times, her intestines were pulled out and thrown over her shoulder, and pieces of her kidneys were missing. Two weeks after Eddowes' murder the police received a parcel containing a human kidney and a letter famously signed "From Hell." It's unclear whether the kidney belonged to Eddowes.
It's also unclear whether the shawl belonged to Eddowes. There's no chain of ownership, and the story goes that a policeman took the bloody shawl home from the crime scene, making it so beyond admissable that Scotland Yard refused to display it at their Crime Museum. So it's a bloody shawl with a dodgy history, and Edwards' claims only get dodgier. According to his book he worked with Dr Jari Louhelainen, who developed 'cutting edge' techniques to recover DNA from the shawl. The problems that come here are many - the work hasn't, to my knowledge, been backed up by anyone else, and the source of the DNA is supposedly the killer's semen. It's incredibly unlikely that this material would remain viable for analysis 130 years after the fact, and Dr. Louhelainen claims that the cells he was able to obtain using his 'new method' were actually cells from inside the urethra, brought out during ejaculation.
Testing the DNA collected from the shawl with Eddowes' descendents as well as the suspects', Edwards claims he knows who did the crimes: Aaron Kosminski, a schizophrenic Polish Jew who may have died in an insane asylum. Kosminski has been a popular suspect for years, largely because of vague statements by some officials of the time. It seems likely that the Kosminski allegations were borne out of straight-up anti-semitism and xenophobia (Donald Swanson, chief investigator of the Ripper case, later wrote a statement that doesn't fit with the facts of the case during the investigation, namely that the Ripper was seen by a Jewish witness who refused to ID the killer because he was a fellow Jew. The original investigation reports indicate no one ever saw the face of the Ripper, and the only Jew who might have seen the Ripper at all, Israel Schwartz, was chased off when the mysterious figure shouted anti-semitic stuff at him).
But let's assume for a moment that the DNA evidence is legit. What does it mean that Kosminski's DNA was on Eddowes' shawl? Not a lot, if only because Eddowes was a prostitute, and in the squalid conditions of Whitechapel sex work she could have been carrying any amount of DNA on her clothes. Matters get even murkier when you realize that Kosminski's mentall illness included masturbation, possibly in public. He heard voices, and the voices led him to pick up items off the ground and eat them. He also refused to bathe. It seems that he was not violent, and mostly had the bad luck to be alive at at time when being a little off got you imprisoned. Could Eddowes have been the victim of a creepy, non-violent sex crime comitted by the masturbating Pole? Very possibly.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against the Kosminski as killer theory is the simple fact that Kosminski was walking the streets for years after the Ripper killings suddenly stopped. We'd have to figure out why this man, with no previous violent history, would suddenly commit some of the most brutal crimes of the century and then, just as suddenly, stop.
It's worth noting that Edwards is just the latest in a century-long string of researchers and enthusiasts who claim to have cracked the case (and not even the first person to use DNA to do it - poor Walter Sickert found himself 'convicted' on DNA evidence a decade ago). I don't think we'll ever trult know the truth about Jack the Ripper, and I suspect that, should anyone else try to replicate the tests Dr. Louhelainen conducted they will get different results. At any rate I don't think who did it is even the point anymore; the reason why Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is possibly the best work about the Ripper is because it mostly concerns itself with what the killings mean. Moore based his script on some deeply discredited research, but the truth doesn't matter, it's what the truth means, and how Jack's actions echoed through time, that are everything.