Recently, scientists have sampled DNA from a shawl believed to be present at the scene of a Jack the Ripper murder. The scientists have managed to trace the DNA to the victim Catherine Eddowes. She was one of the so-named “canonical five”. There were eleven murders between April 3rd 1888 and February 13th 1891. They were all attributed to Jack the Ripper, but many of these were done by the newspapers and were unofficial with tenuous links. The “canonical five” all had similar fatal slashes to their necks.
Catherine Eddowes was the fourth of the five. She died on September 30th 1888. She was one of two women who were murdered that night. Both were linked to Jack the Ripper, but only Eddowes had the familiar slash marks on the throat.
Why is Catherine Eddowes relevant?
Recently, a team of scientists at Liverpool’s John Moores University have been allowed to extract DNA samples from a shawl. It’s claimed to have belonged to Catherine Eddowes. Currently in the ownership of Russell Edwards who bought it at auction in 2007. Edwards – an author researching Jack the Ripper after being inspired by the 2001 Johnny Depp film From Hell – had previously taken mitichondrial DNA from the shawl in order to analyse it using DNA samples from the lineage of Catherine Eddowes.
However, there is a niggling amount of speculation about the shawl’s legitimacy and also how reliable mitichondrial DNA sampling is. Obviously the fact that it contains DNA from Catherine Eddowes suggests it did indeed belong to her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t found with the body. The fact that it was originally linked to Kate Eddowes was because of the testimony of Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson. He was a Metropolitan Police Officer who had been patrolling near the area at the time. The body of Eddowes was discovered by PC Watkins of City Police. Mitre Square – the location of the murder – was in Met Police territory. At that time it would spell trouble if police crossed territories.
This fact also caused problems later on with evidence being destroyed by the Met. They were worried about riots being incited by the Jewish community. City Police wanted to photograph the writing on the wall but were over-ruled by Met officers and had to watch as it was washed away. It’s been reported that the writing said “The Juwes are the men that Will not be Blamed for nothing”. This wasn’t necessarily tied to the case though. Acting Sergeant Simpson wasn’t the only City Officer present in Met territory (Simpson only crossed territory after hearing the alarm of PC Watkins).
Sergeant Steven White of Lambeth Division was also present. He appeared minutes later and it was said that he and three other officers had been watching an alley behind Whitechapel Road. It’s been deduced that they couldn’t have been watching for the Ripper. They wouldn’t have had a clue where he would strike. It’s likely they were monitoring some Jewish radicals. It was known that they were due to riot at the International Workers’ Educational Club by the Hebrew Socialist Movement.
As Acting Sergent Simpson made his way to the crime scene, he found the shawl – either some distance from the body, or with the body – and removed it from the scene. This could have been purposeful or, because he was outside his territory, when he was joined by Sergeant White, they decided to leave the area for fear of reprisals and he simply took it with him in the heat of the moment. Bear in mind they were at the scene of a possible Ripper strike and in the wrong jurisdiction.
Given that we only have the testimony of those officers to say that the shawl is authentic, it adds an element of dubiousness about it. That being said, the DNA testing was positive for Catherine Eddowes.
What’s more interesting is that the researchers also found traces of DNA from Aaron Kosminski.
Born in 1865. Aaron Kosminski was a Polish national who moved to Britain around 1881. It’s suggested he did so with some relatives because of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The assassination caused riotous extermination of Jewish people and many fled the area as refugees. Aaron Kosminski found himself in London living in the downbeat borough of Whitechapel. Reports suggest he made a basic living as a hairdresser but that he didn’t work much. His siblings were more prosperous and it’s likely that he lived off of the charitable acts of his sister.
He was admitted into Colney Hatch Mental Asylum in 1891 – three years after the last Ripper murder of Mary Jane Kelly. He was suffering delusions and schizophrenia; citing that his movements were guided by an instinct that formed in his mind. These instincts would “tell him” what to do. Therefore he would eat bread out of the gutter because he was told to. But would not accept food from anyone for the same reason.
Kosminski was always described as a model patient. He only lost his temper on two occasions that were documented. That’s not to say he wasn’t the killer, though. In fact, the detective in charge of the Ripper investigations – Chief Inspector Swanson – held the belief that Kosminski was the prime suspect. There was even a witness involved and according to the memoirs of Sir Robert Anderson – another investigator involved in the Ripper cases – he recognised him immediately when faced with him. However, he wouldn’t go to trial and testify because he was “also a Jew”. The trial would mean the murderer being hanged and the witness wasn’t prepared to live with that.
Kosminski was released to his brother’s home and remained under surveillance. He later developed mental health issues which is when he was admitted to Colney Hatch Mental Asylum where, it’s reported, he died shortly after.
Why is Kosminski linked to the shawl?
Because Aaron Kosminksi had been previously accused of being the Ripper, DNA was also taken from the descendant of Kosminski’s sister. The tests did yield results, but nothing that would be cemented as evidence. However it was enough for author Russell Edwards to name Kosminski as the Whitechapel Murderer in his book. Interestingly, it was shouted down and criticised because the findings had appeared in the Daily Mail. Also the actual process of testing had been kept a secret. In 2019 the tests were published by the research team at Liverpool John Moore’s University.
The 2014 Louhelainen Study concluded that the shawl contained a 99.2% on the first strand of DNA and a 100% match on the second strand. The matching strands were from DNA taken from a female descendent of Kosminski. This was enough evidence for Edwards. Lifting the privacy five years after the study was conducted has enabled it to gain credibility.
Currently the DNA study is the most solid proof that exists. The memoirs of Sir Robert Anderson suggest that both he and Chief Inspector Swanson believed that Kosminski was the Ripper but they had no categorical proof except the witness who refused to testify.
Smithsonian weighing in
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the test is inconclusive due to Mitichondrial DNA testing being too ambiguous. In an article that throws doubt on the accuracy of the process, they argue that despite the mtDNA supporting the hypothesis that Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper, it can’t be used to accurately name someone. The article explains that mtDNA can only be used to rule people out because thousands of people can share the same mtDNA sequence. Some of the actual study was debunked too, as they used graphs to explain the results instead of the actual findings.
But the biggest red herring is down to the actual origins of the shawl. We only really have Russell Edwards’ word for it that it’s the shawl of Catherine Eddowes. Even if he bought it in good faith, there’s no actual documentation to verify its authenticity. However, as we mentioned earlier, the DNA testing did come back positive for Catherine Eddowes and Aaron Kosminski. One a victim of the Ripper, another a prime suspect.
Is Kosminski Jack the Ripper?
Does this suggest that Jack the Ripper – once named “worst briton in history” – was actually a Polish immigrant? Well it certainly suggests it, but it still doesn’t prove anything. And I, for one, am perversely glad. I like the enigma of the Ripper case. It’s a part of dark British history shrouded in mystery that will likely never be entirely solved.
I do feel sympathy for any descendent of a victim who may feel that they want to know the truth and put a lasting legacy to rest. I do feel guilt for not wanting the victims to be able to rest fully. But I think my wanting of retaining the mystery is due to the era that it happened. I argue with myself that it’s too far in the past to make any decent developments that can’t immediately be debunked. Whoever the Ripper really was, it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out for sure and the possibility of it happening gets smaller by the year.