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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Has DNA evidence identified Jack the Ripper? I doubt it. (UPDATE!)

There's a story going around that Jack the Ripper has finally been identified, via DNA on a shawl belonging to one of the Ripper victims, Catherine Eddowes. Jack, we are told, was Aaron Kosminski, a Polish immigrant who has always held a high place on the list of suspects. Semen on the shawl matched the DNA of a Kosminski relative....allegedly.

My first problem with all of this is that I never liked Kosminski as a suspect. Some years after the crimes, a policeman connected with the case said that a witness had identified Kosminski but refused to testify against "a fellow Jew." I never bought that story, primarily because we heard nothing about it from Inspector Abberline, whose case this was. Abberline would have known.

Still, Kosminksi has long remained a popular suspect. Maybe too popular. Identifying Kosminski as Jack is a bit like identifying Mark Felt as Deep Throat. BORRRRRING.

For the straight scoop, head to Casebook, the number one forum for Ripperologists. The "group mind" in that place will quickly find the holes in any weak argument. And that's just what they have done -- in record time.

One possible problem comes to us from a commenter named Robert:
The papers keep talking of descendants but as far we we know, Aaron had no descendants. Of course, members of his family may have done. I think Chris Phillips has spoken to some of them. Naturally it's understandable that the Kosminski family member prefers to remain anonymous, especially if the Press are going to talk of Aaron's descendants.
This line of inquiry is taken further by a commenter called Prosector:
I have not yet had an opportunity to read the book by Russell Edwards but as someone who deals in DNA on a daily basis perhaps I can make a few cautious observations.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down in the female line. Although it is possible to analyse the mtDNA of a male it will have been acquired from his mother. Therefore for any comparison of the putative mtDNA from the Eddowes shawl with present day relatives to be valid they must be related in an unbroken female line to common ancestors of either Kosminski or Eddowes as the case may be. I don’t know if that is the case with either Karen Miller or the anonymous relative of Aron Kosminski but if there is any descent through the male line it would immediately and irrevocably invalidate the comparisons.

The only way to prove with 95% confidence (the normally accepted level of statistical proof) that the samples on the shawl came from either Kosminski or Eddowes would be by a direct comparison with samples known to be from either of them. As far as I know such samples are not available. Even then, as in the Cornwell comparisons, there is only a between 0.1 and 10% chance that matching samples came from the same individual. Given a gap of at least 4 generations to common ancestors of either Eddowes or Kosminski, the chances of being able to say with certainty that the mtDNA is definitely that of either of them is even smaller. The population of London in 1888 was about 5 million and therefore a ‘perfect’ mtDNA match with someone alive at the time would mean that it could have come from anywhere between 5,000 and 500,000 other Londoners.

Then there is the question of the epithelial cells. Edwards asserts that they came from Kosminski’s urethra. The urethra is lined with squamous epithelium but so is the skin, the nose and the mouth. Anyone touching or even breathing on the shawl could, and most probably would, have left such cells behind.

Finally the kidney cell. I have a good deal of experience of histology. I certainly could not identify a single cell as having come from a kidney. I would need a cluster of tens or hundreds of such cells to be able to identify their origin as being the kidney.
Another problem:
I can't believe that Kate was ever near this shawl - unless it was to admire it on someone else. As previously observed, there is no mention of a shawl among her belongings and I think a shawl would have been mentioned at the police station. I gather that neckerchiefs were taken as a matter of course from prisoners and surely a shawl would come into this category. If she did own such a shawl, surely it would have been pawned before Kelly's boots. The whole story of a policeman taking it home to his wife is ridiculous. In the first place, anything from the crime scene was evidence and no senior policeman would have allowed a junior officer to make off with anything to do with the murder. I can also imagine any wife's reaction to "here you are, dear, nice shawl, took it off a murder victim, just give it a wash to get rid of the bloodstains and it will be as good as new!
I agree with many here, that the provinence of the so called "shawl" is speculative to say the least. How would a Metropolitan policeman get hold of it on the crime scene outside of his jurisdiction before anyone else registred it, especially since it took some time for the Met police to hear the news about the murder? And why take the risk of such a criminal act?

It doesn't make sense.
Are you starting to smell the odor of fish? Me too.

Update. The discussion on Casebook continues apace, as one might expect. There is considerable debate as to whether Eddowes owned a shawl, because no such item was entered into evidence. A policeman named Amos Simpson (allegedly the first constable on the scene) is said to have nicked the shawl as a souvenir early on. This allegation which strikes me as unlikely: What kind of policeman would do such a thing?

However, a shawl does exist, although it is not now all in one piece. Some say that the "shawl" was actually a table covering (and too valuable to have been owned by Eddowes). So to be accurate, let us say that there exists a very old piece of cloth which its present owners call a shawl, and which they believe was once owned by Catherine Eddowes.

This cloth has been carefully examined before, in connection with a well-done 2005 Australian documentary on Jack the Ripper.

This documentary concentrates on a suspect called Frederick Deeming, put to death in Australia in 1892 for the murder of his wife. He is said to have confessed to the murders of Eddowes and Mary Kelly just before he was hanged. For years, it was thought that Deeming could not have been the Ripper because he was in prison at the time of the crimes in 1888. New research indicates that he was a free man in that year, although he seems to have spent most of that time in South Africa.

The 2005 documentary is on YouTube, here -- and it's worth watching. At the 29 minute mark, the shawl makes its appearance. A little bit later on in the program, the shawl is carefully checked by scientists for DNA evidence.

Bottom line: These scientists pronounce the shawl too contaminated to offer DNA evidence that would identify the killer.

No semen stains -- from anyone -- were found in 2005. So what has changed since then?

(By the way, there's also a story that Deeming corresponded with Eddowes. Very doubtful. Where would she receive mail?)
I think the biggest difference between 2005 and now is that all they used back then was a swab. Louhelainen used a technique called vacuuming which was initially used for sucking bacteria off food until an FBI agent had an epiphany when the device was described to him. Louhelainen tweaked it a bit I think, but one can safely assume that it is more precise than swabbing.
Well, maybe. But the connection between Eddowes and the "shawl" remains unproven, to my eyes.

I'll also need to know how they traced Kosminki's DNA. Turns out he did have a sister. But it would be necessary for that sister have had a daughter who had a daughter -- and perhaps SHE had a daughter. There needs to be an unbroken female line.

Previously, I've seen no proof (or even serious allegations) that Jack had sexual relations with his victims.

I've also been persuaded by those who argued that Jack had some medical knowledge. The books I've read made Kosminki out to be just a thuggish, uneducated nutcase.
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