More than a century ago, Jack the Ripper was roaming the streets of London, terrorizing one of the city’s most downtrodden areas with his heinous crimes. Since then, the horror of the Ripper’s killings has continued to haunt people around the world – perhaps in part because no one has ever figured out the notorious culprit’s identity. But the mystery may have finally been solved. And it’s all thanks to a fascinating clue that may have been left behind by one of his victims – along with a little help from modern forensic techniques.
London during Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror was a very different place to its 21st-century incarnation. Immigrants from Ireland, Russia and Eastern Europe had flooded into the city in the late 1800s, where they principally ended up in East End neighborhoods such as Whitechapel. With more and more people cramming into this section of London, then, housing and working conditions had plummeted, and extreme poverty was rife.
Inevitably, such dire circumstances bred desperation in these parts of London. Whitechapel in particular became a hotbed for robbery, alcoholism and violent crime. Many women turned to prostitution to make money, too, with authorities estimating that there were 62 brothels in the area in 1888. All the while, though, other Londoners looked down on Whitechapel. And the emergence of Jack the Ripper only added to the district’s abhorrent reputation.
It remains unclear just how many victims Jack the Ripper tallied during his heinous spree. Violence and abuse were not uncommon in Whitechapel at this time, after all. Of the 11 slayings in the neighborhood between April 1888 and February 1891, however, most criminologists think that five were carried out at the hands of the infamous killer. But just who was Jack the Ripper?
Well, to begin with, the serial killer earned his name from his gruesome modus operandi. Yes, Jack the Ripper would slash and mutilate the women whom he murdered – sometimes from head to toe. And at first, given the way in which he would cut out his victims’ organs, some theorized that the Ripper may have had some sort of medical or surgical knowledge.
Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Mary Jane Kelly and Elizabeth Stride are all believed to have lost their lives at the hands of Jack the Ripper. And evidence suggests that after the serial killer’s supposed first slaying – of Nichols on August 31, 1888 – his crimes became increasingly gruesome. Stride’s death is the only exception; authorities believe that something may have interrupted her murderer in the midst of the intended mutilation.
And, understandably, London Metropolitan Police used plenty of resources in the effort to find the culprit behind these violent crimes. They had officers on the ground in Whitechapel, for instance, going door to door and asking residents if they knew anything. Detectives also gathered forensic evidence from crime scenes and spoke with potential suspects – either to eliminate these individuals from the inquiry or to press them with more questions.
In addition, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s Criminal Investigation Department at the time, Robert Anderson, enlisted help from Thomas Bond, who was the police surgeon. Specifically, Anderson wanted a written report that speculated on Jack the Ripper’s medical skills, background and potential motives. And Bond’s resulting criminal profile is the earliest known record of such an investigative tool.
According to Keith Skinner and Stewart Evans’ 2000 work, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, Bond hypothesized that the Ripper did not have any surgical knowledge. In fact, in the medical professional’s opinion, the killer didn’t even possess the expertise of “a butcher or horse slaughterer.” Bond did, however, believe that the murderer kept to himself, while succumbing to “periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania.”
On top of this, Bond theorized that the Ripper may have had a “homicidal impulse from a revengeful or brooding condition of the mind” or that “religious mania may have been the original disease.” Ultimately, though, the police surgeon stated that these last two bits of conjecture seemed unlikely.
Some other potential theories about Jack the Ripper developed outside of Bond’s profile, however. Because most of the crimes happened at weekends or during holidays, some speculated that the culprit held a normal job during the week. It’s possible, too, that the murderer lived in Whitechapel and simply killed when he could. Others wondered, by contrast, if the serial murderer came to the neighborhood for kicks but actually lived in a better area of the city.
Of course, the Jack the Ripper case was subject to speculation precisely because his story had made its way into newspapers around the world. Consequently, then, each reader may have had their own idea of who this murderer was. And while the Ripper was not the world’s original serial killer, his crimes do mark the first time that such a spree made international headlines.
In fact the press not only sensationalized Jack the Ripper’s crimes, but they also helped solidify his nickname – of which there was in fact once more than one. First, The Manchester Guardian – now The Guardian – identified the murderer as “a notorious character known as ‘Leather Apron.’” But while some media outlets subsequently ran with this sobriquet, other newspapers waved it off as speculation.
However, the “Leather Apron” moniker soon faded into obscurity. That’s because on September 29, 1888, Scotland Yard received a mysterious letter from a person claiming to be the serial killer and which threatened a further crime. Then, when some details did indeed fit the next kill, authorities began to believe in the message’s authenticity. Notoriously, the author is thought to have signed off the note with an appropriately grisly name: Jack the Ripper.
So, once a newspaper published the letter for all of London to see, the infamous serial killer became known as Jack the Ripper. And the graphic nickname only stoked the intrigue and mystery surrounding his crimes. The fascination with the Ripper has yet to dissipate, in fact – largely because no one ever faced charges for the five gruesome murders that he supposedly committed.
Finally, in late 1888, Jack the Ripper’s horrific killing spree is believed to have come to an end. And in the aftermath of those crimes, there was a positive: change came in East London and its many overcrowded neighborhoods as a result. In just 20 years, in fact, the majority of the city’s most notorious slums had disappeared. After clearing out the residents, officials had had many of the buildings destroyed.
But even with the apparent end to the murders, Jack the Ripper didn’t disappear from people’s minds. Instead, the shrouded figure of an unknown serial killer took on a nightmarish persona. Children began picturing him as the bogeyman, for instance. And later, movies imagined what he might look like, too, often presenting the cold-blooded killer in normal clothes – showing him ostensibly as an average man with a very dark secret.
Of course, no one could actually portray Jack the Ripper with any sort of accuracy. All fictional imaginings of the killer were just that; no one knew his true identity. And while, over the years, experts have tried to reopen the case and test some of the evidence using DNA analysis, these efforts have been to no avail. For example, the first letter that Scotland Yard received as well as the others that followed all provided inconclusive results through genetic testing.
But according to a recent forensic discovery, the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s true identity may finally have been solved. It all started in 2007, when businessman Russell Edwards attended an auction in Bury St Edmunds, England. And he had his eyes on a particular item: a blood-stained shawl that is said to have belonged to Catherine Eddowes. Eddowes, of course, was one of the Ripper’s five alleged victims.
And according to Edwards’ 2014 account in the Daily Mail, the shawl appeared “far prettier than any artefact connected to Jack the Ripper might be expected to be.” In spite of the accessory’s blood stains, you see, it also possessed a “delicate pattern of Michaelmas daisies.”
But the shawl is believed to have another connection to the Jack the Ripper case beyond its potential link to Eddowes. According to Edwards, an ancestor of its previous owner “had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there.” And though this claim hadn’t been substantiated, the businessman was still determined to get his hands on the item. Edwards knew, in fact, that the gruesome relic would be his – even if it came at a hefty price.
All Edwards wanted to do with the shawl, he said, was “somehow to prove that it was genuine.” He failed to contemplate what else it could reveal, though. “I certainly had no idea that this flimsy, badly stained and incomplete piece of material would lead to the solution to the most famous murder mystery of all time,” he claimed.
But everything changed for Edwards once he enlisted the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, who is an expert in assessing the DNA evidence that’s left behind after historic crimes. Louhelainen agreed to analyze the shawl in 2011. And much to Edwards’ surprise, the expert uncovered many unexpected secrets.
First, Louhelainen examined the stains on the shawl. And according to Edwards, the geneticist confirmed that they aren’t your average blood specks. It appears, you see, that the marks are “consistent with arterial blood spatter caused by slashing – exactly the grim death Catherine Eddowes had met,” Edwards added. But Louhelainen’s research didn’t stop there.
Next, Louhelainen used ultraviolet photography to illuminate any further secrets that may be invisible beneath the glow of normal bulbs. And with this method, he discovered an unexpected bit of DNA: seminal fluid. Yet although the geneticist reminded Edwards that “more testing was required before any conclusions could be drawn,” the businessman nevertheless felt thrilled by the potential new evidence.
And if these possible revelations weren’t enough, Louhelainen’s examination rounded out with a final discovery that may further tie the shawl to Eddowes: a potential kidney cell. Since it’s believed that Jack the Ripper slashed the organ from Eddowes’ body during the woman’s murder, it would make sense for such a piece of DNA to appear on her garment.
With all of this genetic information potentially revealed, then, Louhelainen had to extract some of it for further analysis. But the geneticist couldn’t use cotton swabs, as is the norm today. With such an old piece of evidence, you see, he instead had to rely on a technique that’s known as vacuuming. And so, using a pipette, Louhelainen gently gathered DNA from the fabric without damaging its historic threads.
Next, Edwards said that he tracked down a descendant of Eddowes: Karen Miller. After the woman handed over a DNA sample, Louhelainen then compared the information revealed to the six other samples that he had gathered. And remarkably, Miller’s profile proved to be “a perfect match,” according to Edwards. To him, this was clear evidence that the shawl had belonged to Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim.
Owing to this positive news, then, it seemed possible that the seminal fluid on the shawl may be that of Jack the Ripper. So, Louhelainen carefully removed the DNA in the hope that he’d find surviving cells. And in 2012 with the help of another expert, Dr. David Miller, he supposedly found the evidence that they had been seeking. Now, all that they needed was a suspect with whom to compare the killer’s genetic code.
With the extensive research completed, Edwards had a suspect in mind – one whom the Metropolitan Police had once honed in on. Hairdresser Aaron Kosminski had lived a mere 200 yards from the spot where Elizabeth Stride, Jack the Ripper’s third victim, had met her fate. And there, he had shared a home with his sister and two brothers. However, all had not been well for the 23-year-old.
Edwards explained, “What is certain is [that Kosminski] was seriously mentally ill. [He was] probably a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered auditory hallucinations and [was] described as a misogynist prone to ‘self-abuse’ – a euphemism for masturbation.” Edwards went on to say that the hairdresser had lived out his life post-investigation in mental institutions.
The coincidences, it seems, were too much for Edwards to ignore. “I became convinced Kosminski was our man and was excited at the prospect of proving it,” he wrote. To proceed, then, he tracked down a descendant of the hairdresser’s – this time a distant relative of his sister – to gather the DNA that was required for a scientific comparison.
The process, however, proved to be a difficult one. As Edwards described, “Amplifying and sequencing the DNA from the cells found on the shawl took months of painstaking work.” But the end result, he said, made the challenges all worth it. “Seven years after I bought the shawl, we had nailed Aaron Kosminski.” According to Edwards, he and Louhelainen had found a “perfect match.”
Edwards first shared his remarkable story in 2014. In 2019, however, it made waves once again when the team’s research appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. And the piece – which was co-authored by Louhelainen and Miller – made public the findings related to the shawl. Through the article, the scientists reiterated their belief that one-time suspect Kosminski had been the killer all along.
In a press release from Leeds University, Miller claimed, “I was able to identify body cells that were consistent with the presence of seminal fluid on the shawl and which enabled us to match DNA with the descendants of one of the suspects: Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski.” Plus, he and Louhelainen explained how they’d determined that the blood had belonged to Eddowes.
Yet while Miller, Louhelainen and Edwards all appeared to finally have the answer to an enduring mystery, not everyone who read the study felt as enthused about the team’s findings. According to Rolling Stone magazine, some criminologists argued that there is no evidence of the shawl having been present at the scene of Eddowes’ murder. They also alleged that the DNA evidence that had been used to link Kosminski to Jack the Ripper was inconclusive.
No one can deny, on the other hand, that Kosminski showed up on the list of potential suspects at the time of the original investigation, since the police notes include his name. Plus, an individual apparently came forward to allege that they had seen the man assault a woman who would later become a Jack the Ripper victim. Said witness later changed their mind about testifying, however, so the potential murderer may have walked free.
Eddowes’ shawl itself, meanwhile, also attracted some attention from skeptics. For one thing, some have claimed that the fabric appears too delicate and high-quality for a prostitute to have carried around – especially one who, just 24 hours before her death, had sold the shoes on her feet. But once again, there appears to be a logical explanation to place the wrap at the scene of the crime.
As it turns out, the shawl’s fibers trace back to St. Petersberg in Russia, which of course puts the garment far out of Eddowes’ reach. But Kosminski had immigrated to London from Poland – a country that was under Russian control when he had left. This bit of history means that the young hairdresser may very well have had access to the beautiful textile.
So, it seems, the mystery has not been solved – according to the skeptics, at least. However, as far as Edwards is concerned, he has completed the task upon which he chose to embark in 2007. As he wrote in the Daily Mail, “I wanted to provide real answers using scientific evidence. I’m overwhelmed that 126 years on, I have solved the mystery.”