In the last day, a news story has been going around that an author claims to have solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper. My entire timeline is filled with this fact. The reason people keep sending me links about the news is because I wrote a book called The Name of the Star, which involves the murders of Jack the Ripper recreated in modern day London. (I won’t derail this by talking about my book. If you want to read it, it’s available, and you can read the first 1/3 of it for free here if you want. But you don’t have to. I’m just letting you know.)
Because of this, two years of my life were devoted to reading about Jack the Ripper. I read primary sources and secondary sources. I walked East London over and over, sometimes on Ripper tours, and then by myself. I was proficient enough to go to all the crime scenes without aid of a map, to know where the bodies had been located, to know where the now-demolished buildings and streets were. I’m an ARMCHAIR EXPERT, if you will, and maybe even if you won’t. I don’t have the expertise of a dedicated Ripperologist, but I do all right.
For this reason, I have a lot of interest in this piece of “news” (see how I put it in quotes)—and I want to answer the two hundred people who are writing to me saying, “DID YOU SEE THIS?”
I saw it. Here is the super long-winded answer of what I think about it. Get ready. You did ask. HERE I GO.
There are a few things about this case in general that need to be said before you can address the question of solving it. Jack the Ripper is a popular folk character, almost of mythical proportions. There’s a cartoonish image of the murderer—spooky, tall hat, maybe a cape, taunting the police. He’s an industry—the subject of dozens of books (including mine), movies, tours, haunted houses, television shows, etc. For all of this publicity, the actual, verifiable information about the case is thinner than you might imagine.
If you Google Jack the Ripper, you’ll get a lot of images like this. It’s a bit cartoonish.
The reality is this: there were murders in Whitechapel, a very poor area of London, in the fall of 1888. Some of these murders fell into a very particular and disturbing pattern: the victims were all prostitutes, all female, all at the end of the social scale. The murders were notable for their significant dismemberment, arrangement of body parts, and (in some of the cases) speed. The actual number of murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper” is disputed, ranging from four to eleven, with a general consensus falling with a canonical five: Mary Anne Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. These five murders took place on the 31st of August 1888 (Nichols), the 8th of September (Chapman), the night of September 29th-30th (Stride and Eddowes), and the 9th of November (Kelly).
The name Jack the Ripper comes from a signature on a letter that was reportedly sent by the killer to the Central News Agency of London (dubbed the “Dear Boss” letter). Opinions are divided, but the letter was widely considered to be a fake and written by a journalist. Hundreds of such letters were received.
The involvement of the news media is a huge part of the Jack the Ripper story. At the time, newspapers had just become affordable. There was a sudden push to get lurid stories. And so the Whitechapel murders became a hugely popular topic, boosted by the various (and likely fake) communications from the killer himself.
So there are a number of issues already with the case in terms of who the victims were and how they were related—as well as the known characteristics of the killer, since there was a mix of fact and fiction in the reported accounts. Add to that the fact that the case was investigated by two separate police organizations (the City of London and the rest of London were legally differentiated and the two police departments did not share a lot of information). Add to that the fact that murder investigations in 1888 were extremely primitive. People walked in and out of murder scenes. People took souvenirs. Bodies were taken, in whatever way possible, to whatever place was handy. Only Mary Kelly’s murder scene was photographed, and again, not in a way that even remotely approaches anything we are used to. The police files on the case—the ones that currently exist—are just a small pile of folders. Most of the case material is missing. Police files were not archived carefully. Officers took evidence files on the case as curiosities (some of these have turned up over time). Some of the materials are simply gone—lost to time and circumstance.
In sum, there’s not a lot of established facts to work with. But people do work with these facts all the time. Ripperologists—people from all walks of life who devote their time and talents to investigating this case—have poured over the available materials for over a hundred years. There are no shortage of theories.
Someone “solves” the Jack the Ripper murders on a regular basis. Probably the biggest last public solving of the case was in 2003, when Patricia Cornwell solved the case and identified the painter Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper, also using DNA evidence and her own private investigation. Among people who study the case, Cornwall’s conclusions are generally considered at best inconclusive at best, at worst, ridiculous. (You can read all about her theories, if you wish. She wrote an entire book on the subject.)
Eleven years later, we again have an author and more DNA evidence. Again, the “solving” is presented in terms of someone having just written a book on the subject. The person named as the killer in this case is Aaron Kominski. Kominski is a popular suspect, almost always named in the pool of best known possibilities. (You can see a listing of popular suspects here.) It is thought that Kominski was the person the police in 1888 thought was behind the crimes, but there is some debate on this subject.
The proof being offered now (as I understand it, from my reading of the news articles in the last 24 hours) comes from Catherine Eddowes shawl. The man who claims to have solved the case, Russell Edwards, says he obtained her shawl from relatives of one of the policemen who was on duty the night Eddowes was murdered. This policeman allegedly took the shawl as a gift to his wife. (I just want to stop here and say that I know a lot of you will pause right there and say, “WHO TAKES A SHAWL FROM A MURDER SCENE AND GIVES IT AS S GIFT?” That is a fair question, and one that does require an answer. However, it’s not as crazy as it might sound to us. At the time, clothing was simply more valuable. You didn’t just throw it away. So as super-gross as a crime scene shawl is, yes, there is a possibility that a policeman making little money in 1888 might pick it up as a gift. Yes, it’s still gross, and according the news articles, his wife DID think it was gross and put it in a box.)
So we have one piece of evidence here, and it’s going to be very hard to determine the provenance of that item. It might be her shawl. It might not be. Let’s say it is. How many people handled it? There is a concept in law enforcement called the chain of custody—and it’s all about limiting and identifying who or what has touched a piece of evidence from the moment a crime has happened up until the time that item is examined. This shawl, even if it did belong to Catherine Eddowes, has been floating around for 126 years. And the DNA itself: what’s the quality of the sample? Samples degrade. This is a fun fact I learned when serving as the forewoman of a murder trial. The murder in that case took place in 1989 and I was treated to two days of testimony from experts from the NYPD about what happens to DNA samples that are maybe twenty years old and in modern storage conditions.
There are a lot of questions here, and it will be interesting to hear independent reviews of the case. It could be true—maybe there is something to this. But I think there are a lot of reasons to hang back before applying the solved label to this case. I think this is an great example of how we need to question things presented as facts—when in fact, all we have so far are the claims on someone’s press release. People like to sell books, after all.
Having said that, maybe buy The Name of the Star. At least read the free sample.
Oh, come on. This was a long post. Throw me a bone.
If you want to read more on this subject:
Here is an article from The Smithsonian talking about the quality of the evidence.
If you want to know more about the case, I strongly recommend casebook.org—probably the most complete and carefully curated site on the subject of Jack the Ripper.
In terms of books, there are many to choose from. I’d recommend The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow. It’s widely considered to be one of the very best on the subject.
If you’re in London want a tour, I highly recommend London Walks—and Donald Rumbelow’s tour in particular.