Two things that love to capture the public’s eye are conspiracy theories and unsolved mysteries. 126 years ago, terror reigned in Whitechapel, London, as a murder spree went on. At least five women were murdered in a very grisly fashion. Police investigators at the time were unable to identify the murderer. In September 1888 a letter was sent to the Central News agency, claiming to be from the murderer. It was signed “Jack the Ripper,” giving notoriety to the murders that has lasted for more than a century.
Over the years, conspiracy theorists have come up with many candidates for Jack the Ripper. They run a wide range of possibilities. One man, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, was actually in Newgate Prison at the time the murders occurred: an unlikely candidate at best. Others accused include the noted author Lewis Carroll (who penned Alice in Wonderland among others) and even Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria, who was not even in London when the murders occurred, as well as many other unlikely candidates. Forty-eight-year-old Russell Edwards of London became fascinated with the mystery, and has spent fourteen years looking at the evidence. And he believes that he has finally solved the mystery forever.
Back in 2007, Edwards saw a shawl going up for auction. It was being sold by descendants of acting Sergeant Amos Simpson, one of the policemen who dealt with the murder of Catherine Eddowes. He took the shawl for his wife, but the wife, horrified at its origins, never wore it. It was placed in storage and handed down through the generations, until it was placed on display in a Scotland Yard museum. It went to auction in 2007.
Edwards purchased the scarf, and brought it to Jari Louhelainen for testing. Louhelainen is a biology professor at LIverpool John Moores University. He conducted DNA testing on the shawl, and found a match with the mitochondrial DNA of a living family member of an original suspect.
Aaron Kosminski had immigrated to England in 1881, fleeing Poland’s Russian overlords. Police at the time of the Ripper murders never gathered sufficient evidence to prosecute Kosminski. He was eventually committed to a number of lunatic asylums. He died in an asylum in 1899 from gangrene.
Edwards is now writing a book about his investigation and solution to the crime. There are, of course, many detractors and skeptics. While a healthy amount of skepticism is good, I am a bit bewildered by some of it. In an article in USA today, an American professor, Dan Krane, says “That piece of specific DNA profiling is not the kind of test the general public is familiar with. . .” and “the statistics for that time of test are much less reliable. There’s a greater chance that somebody other than the victim might coincidentally have the same markers.” Granted, testing has improved greatly over the last few years, but many genealogists will be happy to have a conversation with the good professor about what lay people do and do not know about mtDNA testing. And, quite frankly, he seems to be confusing the victim’s DNA with the murderer’s DNA.
In the end, we need to know exactly when the testing was done and how many markers were tested in order to determine how accurate the identification is. And, most likely, that information will come to light in Edwards’ new book. Until then, criticism is useless and likely to make the critic look more foolish in the end.