Since London authorities officially closed the book on finding infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper in 1892, the brutal killings of one of the modern era’s first serial murders have become entrenched in public consciousness as the mother of all cold cases. In fact, for over a century, obsessed “Ripperologists” have attempted to solve the grisly murders of five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district and identify Jack the Ripper–with no success.
Elaborate theories have been put forth: that Jack was actually a woman, Jill; that Winston Churchill’s father was the culprit; that “Alice in Wonderland” author Lewis Carrol was actually the killer, a theory that really goes down the rabbit hole; and many more. It’s become something of a cottage industry for true crime writers, but as time has gone on, the likelihood of ever getting an answer dropped dramatically.
That is, until Russell Edwards, an English businessman and “armchair detective,” bought a silk shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims and was handed down from police descendants for generations. It turns out that the shawl had never been washed and still contained valuable DNA.
In 2011 Edwards conscripted a forensic geneticist, Dr. Jari Louhelainen of Liverpool John Moores University in 2011, to analyze the shawl using state-of-the-art technology. Dr. Louhelainen focused on the dark bloodstains, which he said were “consistent with arterial blood spatter caused by slashing.” There was also forensic evidence suggesting that the victim’s kidney was removed and that seminal fluid was present.
Edwards doubted that the shawl belonged to the victim though because nuclear magnetic resonance showed that it originated from Russia many years prior and was of such quality as to be unlikely to belong to an impoverished sex worker. Instead, Edwards theorized that it belonged to the Ripper. Sure enough, mitochondrial DNA taken from the garment matched up with a direct female descendant of a Polish immigrant, Aaron Kosminksi, who at the time was a primary suspect in the case.
The peer-reviewed Journal of Forensic Sciences unveiled the details of the forensic investigation last month and Edwards’ book, “Naming Jack the Ripper,” describes the 14-year journey to find the legendary culprit who, along with H.H Holmes, introduced the modern world to serial killers in the late 1800s.
While Kosminksi got away with the murders, he spent the end of his life in an asylum where he died of gangrene, probably not comprehending that he would become a mythic pop culture villain.
This is certainly not the first time that a new discovery has been heralded as the end of the Jack the Ripper mystery. In 1992 a book surfaced which some claimed was the Ripper’s diary as the author signed off, “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” The book’s authenticity was never fully established and many Ripperologists disputed it, as they did the DNA samples offered up by American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who believed that Jack the Ripper’s letters, which he sent to Scotland Yard, are almost identical to the letters of post-Impressionist painter Walter Sickert.
Unsurprisingly, some Ripperologists have critiqued Edwards’ evidence, saying that multiple people can share mitochondrial DNA signatures and that the forensic evidence could have been contaminated. Edwards, however, believes these critics just want the mystery to go on.
“This is it now,” he says, “we have unmasked him.”