Dateline: 7th September 2014

Jack the Ripper 'Identified by DNA' as Aaron Kosminski

A British businessman has sensationally claimed to have finally broken the riddle of Jack the Ripper's identity. Writing in the Daily Mail, 46 year old Russell Edwards has told how he purchased a shawl said to belong to Catherine Eddowes - the Ripper's 4th canonical victim. He submitted the bloodstained garment to a series of tests performed by DNA expert Dr Jari Louhelainen, an expert from Liverpool John Moore's university.

These tests according to Edwards proved conclusively that the shawl belonged to Eddowes and that the killer's blood was also present. Were that not enough, he then claims that tests carried out against descendants of Ripper suspect Aaron Kosminski showed that the his DNA was also present on the shawl.

To students of the case - who have seen many false dawns in the mystery - this might appear to be yet another tiresome yarn of the kind spun by Patricia Cornwell, who claimed in 2002 to have identified the painter Walter Sickert as the culprit through similar DNA analysis.

She used DNA found on one of the Jack the Ripper letters to "match" against Sickert. Her theory was soon blown apart by experts who knew that there was no actual evidence that the Ripper had ever actually penned any of the infamous missives. Secondly, mitochondrial DNA is an unsatisfying method of matching, and much less than 100% accurate.

In Edwards' case, much of his story depends on two factors: did the shawl truly belong to Catherine Eddowes, and how reliable was the DNA match?

The Shawl

No piece of forensic evidence is known to survived from the Ripper case. Even some of the famous letters only survive in facsimile and no weapons, clothing or other items that would form part of a modern investigation were ever kept. The Ripper crimes occurred at a time when science was used only tentatively. Of the 5 canonical Ripper murders - that of Mary Jane Kelly - was something as simple as crime scene photography deployed.

As such, Edwards' claim that he has the shawl of one of the victims seems outlandish at first blush. His story rests on the veracity of the provenance given for the shawl - which he purchased for an undisclosed sum at auction in 2007. The seller was given as the descendant of one of the investigating officers who had kept the shawl as a memento.

Edwards' claims thus rest on the proof offered by the DNA analysis of the bloodstains and the certitude of the match against Eddowes' descendants.

The DNA

After 126 years, during which the shawl was not kept in the conditions demanded by forensic archiving, two major effects will have occurred. Firstly, the DNA itself will have degraded enormously. Secondly, the chance of contamination is vast. In 126 years, innumerable people will have handled the shawl - any of whom could have left their DNA on the shawl.

These two factors lead to the DNA analysis being carried out on fragmentary pieces of mitochondrial DNA, which was extracted by novel techniques.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherently less certain as a match than full DNA testing. While sufficient for geneaological tests, it is rarely used in criminal cases because of the many uncertainties that surround it. It was partly because of her reliance on mitochondrial DNA testing that Patricia Cornwell's case was eventually dismissed.

Conclusion?

It is too early to say whether these claims are as strong as Edwards' claims. Naturally, his story was publicised just ahead of the publication of his book, so the story will only be tested fully in the upcoming weeks, months and years.

Data Files

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