Mark Wells reflects on how the story of Jack the Ripper has evolved over time.
So. The world’s most famous, long running murder saga has at last been solved. Again.
The legend of Jack the Ripper has been running wild, and becoming steadily more complex and confused, since the late summer of 1888, when the bodies of brutally murdered women starting turning up on the streets of Whitechapel, in London’s East End.
The murders of Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, quite likely that of Martha Tabram, and possibly more besides, have been enthralling police and amateur sleuths alike for one and a quarter centuries.
Now, writer Russell Edwards has “solved” the mystery. He obtained a shawl reportedly removed from the scene of the Eddowes murder in Mitre Square. Complex and novel DNA testing has established a link between the shawl, the victim and one long-time suspect, the Polish Jew, Aaron Kosminsky. DNA recovered from the shawl has been linked to descendants of Kosminski and Eddowes alike.
It is not the first time DNA evidence has “solved” the mystery. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell spent a large fortune acquiring paintings by Walter Sickert (her Ripper of choice) and linking DNA from them to that found on the “Dear Boss” letters to the police from Jack himself. Indeed, it was these letters that first gave the killer a name. The only problem: the letters are generally thought to have been fakes, written by a journalist keen to keep the story running. Apparently, the DNA evidence was questionable too.
In fact, there have been numerous solutions to the crimes. A few years back, wealthy Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick filled the frame on the basis of diary evidence. Seems the diaries were also of suspect provenance.
Some of the theories have been fantastic, in every sense of the word. Jack, it seems, was Queen Victoria’s surgeon, acting under Masonic guidance to kill prostitutes who might have spilt the beans about the Duke of Clarence’s back street dalliances. By some accounts, the doctor’s ultimate savagery was intended to destroy all trace of the Duke’s unborn child by Mary Jane Kelly, last of the victims. Problem was though, the surgeon was getting on a bit to be running round the back streets of London, tooled up and deadly, by the time the killings took place. So perhaps the Prince himself was Jack?
Other Jacks have been less glamorous. A cricket-playing barrister come school master, perhaps, who was found floating down the Thames after the last murder. Had his insanity turned him to suicide?
Alternatively, a known serial murderer, convicted of seeing off a succession of wives by poison, usually for the insurance money. But would a poisoner turn knife-man?
How about a strange American quack-doctor? Or somebody collecting female organs for the teaching of… well, who knows what?
A mad Russian? Or – in a lateral move of genius – “Jill the Ripper,” midwife gone wildly off the rails. There are many, many more.
You pays your money and you takes your choice. Theories like this go back as far as the mystery itself. An early suspect was “Leather Apron”, a Jewish tradesman who was pursued by a mob. Another petty criminal gave himself up to police to escape the rabble trying to track him down. The police were not convinced in either case.
Why the interest? The phenomenon known as Jack was clearly a man who had chosen his moment.
By the 1880s, the British press was being snapped up by an increasingly literate public. Working men and women could usually read, they might have a little disposable income and the abolition of the earlier paper tax had rendered newspapers more affordable. Throughout the nineteenth century, printing technology steadily improved until, in early ’80s along came a game-changer, the Linotype machine, a piece of ‘disruptive technology’ comparable to the internet of our times. It made it possible to set type more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Newspapers doubled or trebled in size almost overnight. This was a new information era, provoking a “New Journalism.”
Papers were desperate for copy. They needed a source of good, running stories, preferably easy to cover and in their own back yards, all the better for being cheap, violent and salacious.
Along came Jack. A man (let’s suppose it was) who knew how to kick up a media firestorm. As the run of murders developed, he constantly upped the ante. Tabrams, throat cut, and stabbed in the stomach and groin; Nichols, throat cut and stomach slashed. Chapman, her insides pulled out in a gloomy back yard. Then two in one night, Long Liz Stride and the aforementioned Eddowes. Finally Kelly, murdered in her own room, the stomach churning bestiality of her mutilations plumbing new depths of depravity. It was a tabloid dream come true.
When the murderer took time off, there were still the post mortems, the inquests, the public meetings, the body parts arriving in the post and, of course, those dubious letters.
If, as writer Judith Flanders suggests, the Victorians invented murder largely for entertainment purposes, Jack turned it into an art form. An art form in which, as Russell Edwards acknowledges, the humanity of the victim can be all too often overlooked.
The “Daily Star” had launched only in the January of 1888. It was one of the papers to devote most coverage to Ripper reporting and that paid off in sales, which were boosted by multiple editions every day. By the autumn, it had become the country’s highest circulation evening paper. In the aftermath of a murder, sales rose to quarter of a million, three hundred thousand after the Kelly butchery. Between times, they fell back to 190,000.
But while all this was going on, why did nobody turn the spot light on Kosminsky? In fact, several people did. It seems that, as a credible suspect, Kominsky may have been hiding in plain sight these last hundred years.
Kosminsky was one of the few suspects ever positively identified by an eye-witness, albeit rather belatedly after the event. A hairdresser, living on the edge of Whitechapel, he would certainly have known his way around those parts. He had come with his family to England, fleeing persecution and progroms which had featured rape and violence following the assassination of the Russian Tsar. He once threatened his sister with a knife.
He was one of the few suspects ever to be paid much serious attention by the police. Robert Anderson, later Sir, and a contemporary head of CID, maintained there was no doubt about the killer. He was a Polish Jew, he affirmed, many years later. Another officer later confirmed that Anderson was referring to Kosminsky. Other officers concurred. Years after the murders, Kosminsky himself was languishing in a lunatic asylum, a deranged imbecile who would eat only scraps from the floor and who displayed a complete indifference to personal hygiene.
Why would the police allow him to fade into insignificance rather than bring him to a career climaxing trial? It’s been argued the eye witness was not prepared to condemn a fellow Jew. At the time, the East End of London was crammed with immigrants, many of them East European Jews. The Leather Apron incident had shown how volatile the situation was, and how it was underpinned by anti-semitism. Conviction of a Jew could have sparked unparalleled racial violence. At a senior level, in those days the police were concerned with maintaining public order at least as much as they were with solving crime. A senior officer had already ordered the destruction of graffiti – perhaps written by the Ripper himself – which had indicated a Jewish dimension. Indefinite incarceration in an asylum would have seemed a perfect solution.
For all that, as a latter day suspect, it seems that for most, if not all Ripperologists, Kosminsky lacked appeal in comparison to his more glamorous competitors.
Certainly, none of this is proof either way, as the Ripper’s modern followers are all too quick to point out. While the DNA evidence Edwards describes is plausible, it is also highly technical and innovative. Only a specialist scientist could reasonably express an opinion: it needs peer review.
Edwards’ description of the shawl’s provenance is, perhaps, less convincing. It was probably too expensive to have belonged to poor Kate Eddowes. It could have been brought to the scene by the killer, perhaps to wrap a body part, protect himself from gore or maybe clean off a weapon?
So where has the shawl been all these years? Just how did come to be lifted from the Eddowes murder scene in the first place, by, apparently, a police officer given it as a souvenir? For a while later, it languished in Scotland Yard’s black museum. Nevertheless, if it is proved to contain DNA from killer and victim, that trail becomes irrelevant.
Assuming the Ripper did take it to Mitre Square, it would have been with him at the earlier Stride murder scene in Dutfield’s Yard too: is there any trace of Stride’s DNA? If it was the Ripper’s, and if the Ripper was Kosminski, that could explain how his DNA had found its way onto the cloth. Kosminski was a devotee, the records say, of “solitary vices,” likely to generate such bio-stains.
Edwards’ suggestion of a religious significance to Michaelmas daisy motifs on the shawl is best ignored: it all his other evidence is true, that too is a distraction. Edwards says he wants to concentrate on the scientific evidence, not theory. In this case, he’d do better to follow his own advice.
And what about Kosminsky? He was identified from asylum records in 1987. But was this the real Kosminsky, Ripperologists ask? For Kominsky, should we be reading Kaminsky, confusingly the name of the Leather Apron suspect? Or even a certain David Cohen, listed as such in the records because the authorities found Cohen easier to spell?
The questions go on, the answers hidden deeper and deeper behind a wall of smoke and mirrors. Evidence is not proof, and probably never will be. As Edwards writes, “It seems that after the passage of a certain amount of time, a good case can be made for almost anyone.”
Certainly, the tabloid feeding frenzy in the wake of the Ripper shows no sign of going away. Interestingly, the latest “solution” debuted in “The Daily Mail”, a paper whose reputation for veracity is so toxic, some believe that on those grounds alone, it just can’t be true.
Mark Wells is lecturer in Broadcast/Multimedia Journalism at the University of East Anglia. He is currently Course Director for Broadcast Journalism and the Project Manager of the PSI/EU Interreg project, SeaMedia. “Naming Jack the Ripper” by Russell Edwards is published by Sidgwick and Jackson.