Jack the Ripper: Yours Truly… Aaron the Barber?

You know how they say that there is no “I” in “team”?  Well, there is no “consistent with” without “is.”  But our poor friend “is” (I call him Izzy), well he just loathes being uncomfortably squeezed and packed right in the middle of all those other annoying letters that make up “consistent with.”  And do you know why?  They’re not family, they aren’t even friends.  Oh no.  You see, “is” is most definitely not synonymous with “consistent with.”

Jack the Ripper IS Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who immigrated to England in the 1880s.  At least that’s what Jari Louhelainen of Liverpool’s John Moores University and David Miller of the University of Leeds try to basically say in a March 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Forensic Sciences (surely in order to bolster their 2014 study findings first reported in the British tabloids).  This was the biggest piece of Jack the Ripper news in a long time, in perhaps 130 years!  It spawned at least a quarter of a bajillion articles.  The very crude layman gist of the study is (more or less) this: We got a hold of this scarf, see, and this scarf was like definitely the fourth Ripper victim’s scarf and also there was DNA on it that more or less matched the police’s main suspect, so case solved, booyah!  

Louhelainen and Miller say in the study: “The initial aim of this project was not actually to solve the Jack the Ripper murders” . . . oh guys, are you suggesting you solved it?  Well, let’s see: “All the data collected support the hypothesis that the shawl contains biological material from [the Ripper’s fourth victim] Catherine Eddowes and that the mtDNA sequences obtained from semen stains match the sequences of one of the main police suspects, Aaron Kosminski.”  Gotcha Aaron, game over.  It’s a funny little game they play with their words, how they say things and what they understate and overstate, because all the study truly says is that: Certain mtDNA sequences obtained from “stains that followed the behavior of semen stains” are consistent with mtDNA sequences of one of the main police suspects, Aaron Kosminski, because both sets of mtDNA sequences evidence “a male [who] has brown eyes and brown hair.” 

Now Dr. Richard Kimble didn’t know the identity of his wife’s murderer in the show/film The Fugitive, but he knew the One-armed Man did it.  And we now know, praise heaven, who Jack the Ripper is:  the Brown-eyed Brown-haired Man!

Actually, we don’t know that either.  We neither know that Aaron Kosminski was Jack the Ripper or that Jack the Ripper had brown hair and eyes.  Why?  Is it because the unsolved unprosecuted murder of Catherine Eddowes was more than 130 years ago and there are more Ripper suspects and false and questionable and conflicting evidence and leads than the number of names in a Chinese phonebook?  Well yes, that could perhaps maybe possibly (or even absolutely certainly) be a large reason why.  But we also don’t know those things because of the scientific, logical and practical failings of this new study.

I should point out that I’m nothing even remotely close to a scientist or even an amateur one.  Cheap clickbait articles on Google News are how I get my full and accurate summaries of peer-reviewed science, not fancy journals.  Nor am I a so-called Ripperologist.  I don’t have a horse in this Ripper race and can’t say I know much about the murders at all.  I like cold cases somewhat, I love a good mystery, but I say what good is armchair investigating when you have none of time or resources or access to do much of a proper investigation that could at least convince yourself of something (let alone anyone else)?  Not only do I not have such sufficient access to good solid probative Ripper evidence, but the Whitechapel/London law enforcement really had and still have none either.  Because the murders were in the bloody 1880’s and Sherlock freaking Holmes barely existed let alone many modern means and techniques of murder investigation and analysis. 

So this 2019 Louhelainen and Miller study, what are the major malfunctions?  Well, here is an inexhaustive list of two main problems as far as I can tell:

  1. The provenance of the shawl.  “During the loan, a full Chain of Custody was maintained with limited and secured access to the authors of this paper only.”  Fantastic fellas, that is great to hear.  Now about the custody and integrity of the shawl for the 130 some years prior to the loaning for this study?  Oh, it’s been handled by many different people over the years, including descendants of Eddowes.  Hmmm.  Isn’t that contamination?  Isn’t that less than good?  Dr. Adam Rutherford, a genetics expert and science writer, says, surprise, it’s bad: “The way [the shawl] has been handled since would render DNA analysis cripplingly problematic.” 
    Secondly, Paul Begg, a U.K.-based author who has written six historical books about Jack the Ripper, says “there’s no evidence that a shawl was connected with Catherine Eddowes’ murder anyway.”  The eyewitness account is dubious.  Three men saw an unidentified woman talking to an unidentified man near where Eddowes’s mutilated body was later found.  And only one of those men claims to have gotten a good look at the unidentified mystery man and described him as having brown hair (and to boot, there is no one clear version of this eyewitness partial description).  No shawl was reported to have been found and listed by the police among her effects.  But thankfully, a policeman named Amos Simpson (whose family tradition claims he first found Eddowes’s body), whose patrolling area wasn’t anywhere near the spot where Eddowes was murdered, allegedly found the shawl and did what any good and honest policeman would do with crucial murder evidence, he picked it up and kept it for himself (until his great great nephew later placed it in Scotland Yard’s museum).   Historian Hallie Rubenhold: “[T]here is no historical evidence, no documentation that links this shawl at all to Kate Eddowes. This is history at its worst.”
  2. Mitochondrial DNA’s limitations.  Hansi Weissensteiner, a mitochondrial DNA expert at The Medical University of Innsbruck, says that mitochondrial DNA can’t be used to positively ID a suspect.  It can only rule one out since thousands of other people could have had the same mitochondrial DNA.  Furthermore, some of Louhelainen’s data is shown as graphs instead of the actual complete results.  Forensic scientist Walther Parson says Louhelainen and Miller should transparently publish the full mitochondrial DNA sequences.  Parson humorously remarked, “I wonder where science and research are going when we start to avoid showing results but instead present colored boxes.”
    A Live Science article put it well: “The researchers claimed to have the entire mitochondrial DNA genome, but they only looked at a couple of mitochondrial DNA segments. And they did it at such low resolution, the results could be similar in large swaths of people.”  Now Louhelainen and Miller state in their paper that the Data Protection Act, a U.K. law designed to protect the privacy of individuals, stops them from publishing the full genetic sequences but it’s not clear that is so true and there are other private means to have independent reviewers analyze the results.

Dr. Jari Louhelainen is apparently an expert in historic DNA analysis, I don’t doubt that.  And it is a remarkable first to have DNA analysis related to the Ripper case published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal; I grant that.  But we should all remember that Louhelainen’s studies were commissioned not by Louhelainen’s good and true devotion to justice and history but instead by British author and Ripper enthusiast Russell Edwards who in 2014 published Naming Jack the Ripper.

On the surface and from certain perspectives, I have to say that there’s a lot to like to about thinking or imagining Aaron Kosminski was Jack the Ripper.  Firstly, Aaron was a barber/ hairdresser and would presumably be familiar with a blade.  Secondly, there is police record.  An 1894 memorandum written by Constable Melville Macnaghten named one of three main suspects as “Kosminski” (the forename was not given) and described him as a Polish Jew in an insane asylum.  Macnaghten stated that there were strong reasons for suspecting “Kosminski” because he “had a great hatred of women … with strong homicidal tendencies.”  That’s notable.  And Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, who led the Ripper investigation at one point, also identified “Kosminski” in handwritten notes in the margin of his copy of a police commissioner’s memoirs which claimed the Ripper was “low-class Polish Jew.”  That’s notable too. 

Important policemen related to the Ripper case seemed to believe a “Kosminski” was indeed the Ripper or on the very short list of main suspects.  And long story short, despite some contradictions, yes I agree and firmly believe that the much later identified “Aaron Kosminski” is the only person in all the records that seems to fit this “Kosminski” the Ripper police mentioned.  And at the time of the murders, Aaron apparently lived at an address close to the murder sites.  One policeman claimed that the Ripper had been identified by the “only person who had ever had a good view of the murderer”, but that no prosecution was possible because both the witness and the culprit were Jews, and Jews were not willing to offer testimony against fellow Jews (but another policeman claimed there were no witnesses).  And Aaron Kosminski was not committed to the asylum until years after the murders in 1891.  So there’s some interesting or persuasive circumstantial substance to the Kosminski theory.

But I must maintain serious doubts that Jack the Ripper is Aaron Kosminski.  Everyone ought to.  Again, there are many Ripper suspects and there is much false, dubious and conflicting evidence and leads.  The investigation was frankly one big overwhelming ugly contaminated circus.  And the police did not have many modern means and techniques of murder investigation at their disposal.  And it’s only natural for the proud police to want to think they solved such a truly infamous string of murders.  So for a case this old and this muddled, it’s fair to want DNA evidence to seriously believe in the unprosecuted guilt of an identified suspect.  But this 2019 study fails to provide that.  As Turi King, a reader in genetics and archaeology at the University of Leicester who is known for her work sequencing the whole genome of King Richard III, said: “For all we know, Kosminski was Jack the Ripper, but this paper unfortunately does not tell us that.”

It’s ironic, it seems like only the mystery of Jack the Ripper (and D.B. Cooper, the Loch Ness Monster, etc) fascinates and captivates us, yet we still want the mystery ended.  We want to believe.  We want to believe we’ll arrive at a clear answer.  We’re afraid of the harsh and bitter truth that there will never be consensus conclusions to these cases.  We know DNA can swoop in nowadays and be capable of providing conclusive answers.  We read and hear of such stories all the time.  I know I badly want answers simply because I get so angry when I think an answer presented in a billion news articles is not sufficiently proven.  Maybe these mysteries will be solved.  I don’t really know.  I doubt it, but I don’t know.  But what I do know is that Louhelainen and Miller are clearly smart enough with their Ph.D.s to know that what they’ve done so far is far from enough to settle the contentious Ripper mystery.  They need to stop with the games and get real.  They need to put up (i.e. provide the full genome results and help other scientists test their bold conclusions), or they need to shut up (i.e. accept that they’re tabloid hacks and forever will be as far as Yours Truly goes).  

In closing, if anything, I could argue that this new Louhelainen and Miller 2019 study hurts or taints the case for Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper because there is a potentially strong case for Aaron that sits apart from the dubious and contaminated shawl that may not be connected at all to the Ripper’s fourth victim.  

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