Jack the Ripper, the famous UK criminal from the 19th century, was a Polish hairdresser, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. However, a historian and a geneticist contradict the research method and state that the study has many unknowns.
Jack the Ripper is famous for the mutilation and murder of five women (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly), in the Whitechapel area of London, between 31 August and 9 November 1888.
One of the victims, Catherine Eddowes, was killed by the murderer on the morning of September 30, 1888. Arrived at the crime scene, Sergeant Amos Simpson is said to have found a 2.4-meter long silk shawl, which belonged to the victim. The scarf passed from one generation to another in the policeman’s family until 2007, when it was sold to Russell Edwards, a businessman who published the book “Naming Jack the Ripper”. Edwards put the shawl at the disposal of Jari Louhelainen, a molecular biology expert at John Moores University in Liverpool, UK. He, along with David Miller, an expert in reproduction and seminal fluid at the University of Leeds, analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (the genetic material transferred from the mothers) taken from the shawl.
Subsequently, it was compared with samples from the descendants of Catherine Eddowes and a descendant of Aaron Kosminski, a barber of Polish origin who at the time of the murders was 23 years old. Aaron Kosminski was on the list of key suspects at the time, but, in the absence of evidence, he was not convicted. In fact, no one was convicted or charged with the five murders.
The analysis showed that the genetic material taken from the scarf corresponds to the descendants of Eddowes and Kosminski. It also pointed out, according to the researchers, that the killer was a man with brown hair and brown eyes, traits that matched the descriptions made by witnesses at the time.
“Although these characteristics are not unique, they fully support our hypothesis,” researchers said in the study published on March 12th in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. It is not known how common were the people with brown eyes and brown hair in 1888, but in England today blue-eyed individuals are the most predominant, note the researchers.
These results were initially made public five years ago in Edward’s book. The results of this research have been challenged ever since. Several scientists, including Sir Alec Jeffreys, who invented genetic fingerprinting, argued that research was flawed and that anyone could LEAVE that DNA on the shawl, not necessarily the murderer.
The enigma of Jack the Ripper’s victim shawl
The recently published study raises many question marks. One is related to the fact that the silk shawl belonged to Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.
At the time, London had two police forces. Most of the murders Jack did, took place in the area under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police Service, a force operating through Scotland Yard. But Eddowes was killed in an area supervised by London City police.
Sergeant Amos Simpson worked for Scotland Yard and it’s unclear why he handled the Eddowes case since the mystery of the crime had to be resolved by London City police, says Paul Begg, a British historian, and writer who published six books on Jack the Ripper. Moreover, Simpson’s patrol area was not close to the one where Eddowes was killed. “It sounds strange that he left his area to get to the scene of the crime and get the shawl,” said the historian.
“There is no evidence that the shawl was associated with the murder of Catherine Eddowes. Effectively, the origin of the shawl is extremely wrong,” said Paul Begg for Live Science.
Next, he raised the question marks about the presence of the eyewitnesses. Three men who came out of a club saw a woman talking to a man in the same place where Eddowes’ mutilated body was found shortly after. But it’s not known if that man and that woman were actually Jack the Ripper and Catherine Eddowes. “At the same time, only one of the three witnesses could see well the mysterious man to whom Catherine Eddowes was talking,” Begg also said.
Turi King, an expert in genetics and archaeology at the University of Leicester, who is very well known for his work in sequencing the entire genome of King RICHARD III, argues that the genetic analysis of the shawl is not convincing.
The shawl passed from one generation to the next, thus being around many people over the years, which means that their DNA ended up on the scarf, contaminating it, explained King – who did not participate in the study.
“It is only necessary to breathe near the scarf and the DNA reaches it,” the expert said.
In the study, researchers are extremely vague in how they performed the analyses. “It is important that scientists describe their method of analysis clearly to allow other researchers to assess and try to replicate the results,” King said. Furthermore, it is strange how researchers took into account a maternal descendant of Kosminski, given that men cannot transmit mitochondrial DNA (a recent study showed, however, that mitochondrial DNA can also be transmitted by the Father). At the same time, citing confidentiality reasons, the authors of the study did not say how the descendants were linked to Eddowes and Kosminski (although the name of the descendant of the Polish Barber was made public in 2014), nor did they publish the mitochondrial DNA sequences of these people. On the other hand, when he researched Richard III, King used genetic evidence from two actual relatives who gave their consent the mitochondrial DNA to be made public.
Researchers said they had the entire genome of mitochondrial DNA, but they analyzed only a few segments of it at a low resolution, which makes the results similar to many people.
“At a low resolution, there could be thousands and thousands of people who share the types of mitochondrial DNA that they found. Statistically, is not strong evidence that there is a match with a relative, who might have breathed or not on the shawl,” said King. “For all we know, Kosminski was Jack the Ripper, but this study does not certify it,” the expert concluded.
The identity of Jack the Ripper, a source of inspiration for many books and films, has sparked many questions and theories among historians, scientists, and policemen in the last 130 years.