Was Aaron Kosminski Jack the Ripper? Case closed?
Has the Jack the Ripper case been solved using DNA evidence? In Russell Edwards’ Naming Jack the Ripper (September 9, 2014), he claims that DNA evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that Aaron Kosminski, a popular Jack the Ripper suspect, was the infamous killer of at least five prostitutes during the Victorian era. Edwards reached his conclusion based on DNA collected from a shawl reportedly found next to the body of Catherine Eddowes, who was discovered in Mitre Square in the City of London on September 30, 1888, with her throat cut, abdomen ripped open, and the left kidney and part of the womb removed. Of course, claims of solving the 125-year-old murder mystery have surfaced many times before. Still, if confirmation of the DNA evidence comes forth, Kosminski certainly moves to the top of list as the primary Jack the Ripper suspect.
The discovery of Catherine Eddowes shawl
Russell Edwards, an amateur ripperologists, purchased the shawl in March 2007 at an auction in Bury St. Edmunds after noticing the shawl was patterned with Michaelmas daises, indicative of the Christian Feast of Michaelmas which was a popular holiday during the Victorian era. The Christian Feast of Michaelmas was celebrated annually in the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 29 and November 8, two quarter dates when rents and debts were typically due. Edwards says he noticed that both dates coincided with days during which two of Jack the Ripper’s victims were murdered. September 29 was the night on which Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were killed, and November 8 was the night of the final, most horrific of the murders, that of Mary Jane Kelly.
Edwards reasons that the shawl was not owned by Catherine Eddowes, who was poor and could not have afforded such a frivolous piece of clothing, but rather was brought to the scene by Jack the Ripper himself. The shawl was reportedly collected as evidence in the Eddowes murder and taken by a police officer, Sergeant Amos Simpson, who had been present at the murder scene. The shawl remained in the family for over 100 years until it was finally sold by its owner, David Melville-Hayes. Incredibly, the shawl had been stored without ever being washed (reportedly, the Simpson’s wife thought the gift was macabre and never wore it).
Catherine Eddowes shawl is examined for DNA evidence
To reach his conclusion, Edwards first examined the shawl using infrared photographic analysis which showed dark stains on the shawl to be arterial blood spatter – consistent with the way Catherine Eddowes had met her end (throat cut). Next, he used UV photography which revealed a set of fluorescent stains consistent with the characteristics of semen. This provided Edwards enough reason to believe expensive DNA analysis should be conducted on the clothing. According to the Daily Mail UK:
“It was impossible to extract DNA from the stains on the shawl using the method employed in current cases, in which swabs are taken. The samples were just too old. Instead, he used a method he called ‘vacuuming’, using a pipette filled with a special ‘buffering’ liquid that removed the genetic material in the cloth without damaging it.”
The DNA sample was far too old to use genomic DNA (the “primary” DNA used in modern-day criminal investigations). Instead, mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA), which is passed down through the female line and survives far longer, was used. DNA collected from the shawl was compared to the DNA of Karen Miller, a three-time great granddaughter of Catherine Eddowes. The DNA samples matched perfectly. This was the first time any physical evidence had been conclusively tied to the Jack the Ripper murders.
Next, DNA tests were conducted on the semen traces found on the shawl. Surviving cells were found that were believed to be from the epithelium, a type of tissue which coats organs. In this case, it was likely to have come from the urethra of Jack the Ripper during ejaculation. DNA from the shawl were compared to DNA collected from a young Australian female descendant of Aaron Kosminski, one of the primary suspects in the Jack the Ripper murders. Again, the DNA matched perfectly. It appeared as if Aaron Kosminski was the infamous Jack the Ripper.
Aaron Kosminski – a primary Jack the Ripper suspect emerges
In 1894, Sir Melville Macnaghten, then Chief Constable, wrote a confidential report in which he named the three top suspects. Although some information concerning the suspect that he believed most likely to have been Jack the Ripper had been available before the turn of the century, the name of that suspect was not made public until 1959. Macnaghten’s suspect was M.J. Druitt, an attorney turned teacher who committed suicide in December 1888, shortly after the last canonical Jack the Ripper victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was killed.
Over time, more details from Macnaghten’s report emerged. The name of Macnaghten’s second suspect was confirmed as Aaron Kosminiski (sometimes misidentified as Severin Klosowski) in the early 1980s when a researcher came upon Donald Swanson’s personal copy of Robert Anderson’s book of memoirs. Both Swanson and Anderson were officers who participated in the Ripper investigation. Anderson had written in his memoirs (which appeared for the first time in 1910) that the police knew who the Ripper was. According to Anderson, Jack the Ripper was a Polish Jew who had fled Russia and the early 1880’s and was put away in an insane asylum shortly after the Jack the Ripper crimes ended. The report further indicated that the prisoner died shortly after his incarceration (Kosminski died in the Leavesden Asylum for Imbeciles on March 24, 1919, from gangrene).
No other officer supported Anderson’s allegation, and Swanson’s notes seem to question his superior’s claims rather than support them. Historical records, however, show that Aaron Kosminski was a real person and was indeed placed in an insane asylum. His records, however, showed him to be a docile and harmless lunatic hairdresser that heard voices in his head and would only eat food from the gutter. Kosminski was 23 years old when the murders took place and living with his two brothers and a sister on Greenfield Street (now Brownfield Street and Greenfield Road), just a short distance from where the third victim, Elizabeth Stride, was killed and only a few blocks from the site of the Martha Tabram murder, an earlier horrific killing that many suspect to be Jack the Ripper’s first victim.
The history of Aaron Kosminski as a Jack the Ripper suspect
Who was Aaron Kosminski?
Aaron Kosminski was born in the Polish town of Kłodawa in Congress Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. His parents were Abram Jozef Kozminski, a tailor, and his wife Golda née Lubnowska. In 1881, he immigrated to England with his family, and moved to Whitechapel, an impoverished slum in London’s East End that had become home to many Jewish refugees who were fleeing economic hardship in eastern Europe and pogroms in Tsarist Russia. His sister and two brothers also left Russia and lived in Whitechapel and his widowed mother later emigrated and joined them there.
On two occasions in July 1890 and February 1891, Kosminski was placed in Mile End Old Town workhouse because of his unruly behavior. On the second occasion, he was discharged to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, where he remained for the next three years until he was admitted on 19 April 1894 to the Leavesden Asylum. Case notes indicate that Kosminski had been ill since at least 1885. His insanity took the form of auditory hallucinations, a paranoid fear of being fed by other people that drove him to pick up and eat food dropped as litter, and a refusal to wash or bathe. The cause of his insanity was recorded as “self-abuse”, which is thought to be a euphemism for masturbation. His poor diet seems to have kept him in an emaciated state for years; his low weight was recorded in the asylum case notes. By February 1919, he weighed just 96 pounds (44 kg). He died the following month, aged 53.
It is believed that Aaron Kosminski had two elder brothers, Isaac and Woolf, who for some unknown reason, changed their last names to “Abrahams” at a later point in time. Isaac ran a successful tailor’s business at 74 Greenfield St. (in the Mile End area of Whitechapel) from 1886 to sometime before 1892. Opposite their shop at no. 74 was no. 16, the former home of Kosminski’s married sister, which was listed as “unoccupied” in the April 1891 census, and from which Aaron was returned to the Workhouse “with his hands tied behind his back” on February 4, 1891.
Aaron Kosminski becomes a Jack the Ripper suspect
An 1894 memorandum written by Sir Melville Macnaghten, the Assistant Chief Constable of the London Metropolitan Police, named one of the suspects as a Polish Jew called “Kosminski” (without a forename). Macnaghten’s memo was discovered in the private papers of his daughter, Lady Aberconway, by television journalist Dan Farson in 1959, and an abridged version from the archives of the Metropolitan Police Service was released to the public in the 1970s. Macnaghten stated that there were strong reasons for suspecting “Kosminski” because he “had a great hatred of women … with strong homicidal tendencies”.
In 1910, Assistant Commissioner Sir Robert Anderson claimed in his memoirs The Lighter Side of My Official Life that the Ripper was a “low-class Polish Jew”. Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, who led the Ripper investigation, named the primary suspect as “Kosminski” in notes handwritten in the margin of his presentation copy of Anderson’s memoirs. He added that “Kosminski” had been secretly watched at his brother’s home in Whitechapel by the police, that he was taken with his hands tied behind his back to the workhouse and then to Colney Hatch Asylum, and that he died shortly after. The copy of Anderson’s memoirs containing the handwritten notes by Swanson was donated by his descendants to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum in 2006.
In 1987, Ripper author Martin Fido searched asylum records for any inmates called Kosminski, and found only one: Aaron Kosminski. At the time of the murders, Aaron apparently lived either on Providence Street or Greenfield Street, both of which are close to the sites of the Jack the Ripper murders. The addresses given in the asylum records are in Mile End Old Town, just on the edge of Whitechapel. The description of Aaron’s symptoms in the case notes indicates that he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Macnaghten’s notes say that “Kosminski” indulged in “solitary vices”, and in his memoirs Anderson wrote of his suspect’s “unmentionable vices”, both of which may match the claim in the case notes that Aaron committed “self-abuse”.
Kosminski was described as harmless in the asylum. He brandished a chair at an asylum attendant in January 1892 and threatened his sister with a knife, but these two incidents are the only known indications of violent behavior displayed by him during his illness. The “canonical five” killings that are most frequently blamed on the Ripper ended in 1888 but Kosminski’s movements were not restricted until 1891.
Evidence supporting Aaron Kosminski as Jack the Ripper
Was “Lipski” really “Kosminski”?
The murder of Catherine Eddowes occurred on the same day, and only a few hours after the murder of Elizabeth Stride, another commonly accepted Jack the Ripper canonical victim. The events surrounding these murders provided more detail about Jack the Ripper than any of the other murders.
The most important witness to have seen Elizabeth Stride, in the 30 minutes before her body was discovered in Dutfield’s Yard, was a Hungarian Jew by the name of Israel Swcharz. He turned into Berner Street at around 12.45 am and noticed a man walking ahead of him. The man stopped to talk to a woman who was standing in the gateway of Dutfield’s Yard. Schwartz was later emphatic that the woman had seen was Elizabeth Stride. Since it is likely that Israel Schwartz witnessed the early stages of Elizabeth Stride’s murder and is therefore possibly the only person ever to have seen one of Jack the Ripper’s victims in the act of being murdered, his statement is worth close scrutiny (despite the fact that he spoke no English and therefore gave his evidence through an interpreter).
According to Scwharz, the man was about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, aged around 30 with dark hair, a fair complexion, a small brown mustache. He had a full face, broad shoulders and appeared to be slightly intoxicated. As Schwartz watched, the man tried to pull the woman into the street, but then spun her around, and threw her onto the footway, whereupon the woman screamed three times. Israel Schwartz appears to have believed that he was witnessing a domestic attack, and so crossed the road to avoid getting involved.
As he did so, he saw a second man standing, lighting his pipe. As Schwartz passed him, the man who was attacking the woman called out, apparently to this second man, the word “Lipski” at which point the second man began to follow him. Schwartz panicked and began to run and had managed to lose his apparent pursuer by the time he reached the nearby railway arch. This second man, Schwartz said, was about 35 years old, around 5 feet, 11 inches tall, had a fresh complexion, light brown hair, a brown mustache, and wore a dark overcoat with an old, black, hard felt hat.
Various explanations for the shouting of the word “Lipski” have been offered. Many believed that the second man was calling the name of the killer in order to warn him that someone was approaching. From a distance, “Lipski” could easily be a shortened or misheard form of the name “Kosminski”.
The writing on the wall – “The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing”
The Metropolitan Police, more commonly known as Scotland Yard, was responsible for crimes committed in all the boroughs of London except the City of London proper. The single square mile in the heart of London known as the City of London had its own police force. When Catherine Eddowes was killed, it was in their territory, and this brought the City of London into the Ripper case. It is believed that the rank and file of the two forces got along and worked well together, but there is evidence that the seniors in each force did not. One of the splits between the leadership of the two forces was over graffito found in Goulston Street on the night of the “double event” – the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. A piece of Eddowes’ apron, which the Ripper used to wipe off his knife, was found by a constable near a doorway that had a chalked message over the door. This message, “The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing”, may have been written by the Ripper and the City police officers wanted to photograph it. Warren felt that leaving it until it was light enough to be photographed might cause riots against the Jews living in Whitechapel whom the bigoted English residents already believed were responsible for the murders. Warren would not even compromise by erasing or covering up the word “Juwes” only.
What the message meant has been highly debated among researchers. Many thought it was the Ripper’s attempt to redirect suspiscion towards London’s Jewish community. If Kosminski was indeed Jack the Ripper, we now know that this message was much more – it was a taunt aimed at the police forces and an admission that a member of the Jewish population (Kosminski was a Polish Jew) was killing women in London.
The Martha Tabram murder
In addition to the commonly accepted five “canonical” victims, there is much evidence pointing to the first Jack the Ripper victim being Martha Tabram who was murdered Tuesday, August 7, 1888. The attack on Martha Tabram had been a frenzied one. Thirty-nine stab wounds pepper-dotted her body from her throat to her lower abdomen. Dr. Killeen later told the inquest that the killer had used two different blades, the majority of the wounds having been inflicted with an ordinary pocketknife, whilst a deep wound to her breast had been dealt by “some long, strong instrument”. Significantly, her killer had targeted Martha’s throat and lower abdomen, just as the Ripper would later do with his victims.
FBI experts note that that the first attack in a serial homicide is likely to occur closest to the offender’s home. It is quite possible that Martha Tabram, murdered in the early hours of August 7th, 1888, on the dark, first floor landing of George Yard Buildings, was the first victim to die at the hands of Jack the Ripper. If this is the case, it is worthy to note that, as FBI experts predict, she was killed only a few blocks from Aaron Kosminski’s Greenfield Street residence. The red circle in the map below shows where Martha Tabram’s body was found. The green circle shows the location of Aaron Kosminski’s resident on Greenfield Street.
Geoprofile map shows Aaron Kosminski’s residence falls right where Jack the Ripper was believed to live
I’ve written before how geographical profiling has been used to suggest the location of Jack the Ripper’s residence. The geoprofiling model works because most criminals operate in predictable locations, usually not too far from their home or place of work, but despite working in a somewhat-define area, criminals also set up a “buffer zone” around their homes within which they avoid committing crimes of any sort. The model had been previously used to track down the serial rapist Clive Barwell.
Below is a geoprofile map showing the probable locations of Jack the Ripper’s residence. As you can see (indicated by the green circle), Aaron Kosminski’s home does indeed fall within one of the high-probability areas suggested by former geographical profiling predictions. In fact, his place of abode lies directly centered between the canonical Jack the Ripper victims.
Kosminski and the International Working Men’s Educational Club
When Elizabeth Stride’s body was found in Dutfield’s Yard next to the International Working Men’s Educational Club at 1.00 am on September 30, 1888, the building was sealed and all members within were questioned and searched. Club steward Louis Diemschutz had found the body and appeared at the inquest along with co-members. For some time, IWMEC members were suspects in the Elizabeth Stride murder. As mentioned above, the Elizabeth Stride murder was likely the only Jack the Ripper murder to have produced a witness to the event and the one in which a shout that sounded like “Lipski” (or “Kowminski”) was heard by the witness. Could Aaron Kowminski have been a member of the International Working Men’s Club? Yes, it is quite likely that he was.
The Working Men’s Club was a three-story property located at 40 Berner Street (now Henriques Street) and served specifically as a meeting place for Polish/Russian Jewish social democrats and more generally as a social-setting meeting place for neighborhood residents. The club was spacious with a capacity of over two hundred people and contained a stage. Here amateurs performed, mostly in the Russian language, plays by well-known Russian revolutionists. From historical records, we know that Kosminski was indeed a Polish Jew, and it can certainly be inferred that coming from a family that fled Russia to London, he was likely a support of social democracy too. The fact that the club was located only a few blocks from his home further supports the theory that Kosminski frequented the club.
Note: The building was subsequently used as a shop and was demolished in 1909 along with neighboring properties to make way for LCC School (now Harry Gosling Primary school).
Problems with the Aaron Kosminski theory
mtDNA – good enough for a conviction?
The finding of mitochondrial DNA on a shawl believed to be owned or worn by Catherine Eddowes is not as impressive as it sounds. We know that the shawl had been passed down through many generations of Eddowes maternal descendants. To find mtDNA on the shawl is not only unsurprising – it is expected. mtDNA is shared by maternal descendants and would certainly been left on the shawl by any of the generations of Eddowes descendants who maintained possession of the shawl. What Edwards fails to point out is that although DNA from squamous epithelium tissue (the proclaimed source of the DNA tissue he tested) could have come from Kosminski’s urethra, this particular type of cell tissue is also found in the skin, nose, and mouth – yes, anyone who touched or even *breathed* on the shawl would have left mtDNA behind.
As far as ntDNA evidence “convicting” Kosminski of the crimes, according to the FBI, “since mtDNA is maternally inherited and multiple individuals can have the same mtDNA type, unique identifications are not possible using mtDNA analyses.”
Aaron Kosminski’s incarceration in an insane asylum
Many who submit Kosminski as a primary suspect point out that the murders suddenly stopped after Kosminski was placed in an insane asylum. In fact, it was fully two years after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly (the last canonical Jack the Ripper victim who was killed on November 9, 1888) when Kosminski was incarcerated in the Leavesden Asylum for Imbeciles (in 1891). Still, it is believed that Kosminski was a primary suspect in the murders and may have had his “routine” disrupted by close police scrutiny (his brothers even changed their last names shortly thereafter).
Was there ever really a shawl?
When given sufficient consideration, the thought that a policeman could sneak away key evidence (the shawl) and present the bloody evidence to his wife as a gift seems outlandish. In addition, case documentation never mentions a shawl in the official list of evidence (although ripperologists have known about the rumored shawl since 1991). Furthermore, it was known that Eddowes pawned her husband’s boots shortly before her murder (a mustard tin found on her body contained the pawn shop ticket). Would she truly have pawned her husband’s shoes before pawning an elaborate (expensive) and frivolous shawl?
Finally, Amos Simpson, the police officer who reportedly discovered and kept the shawl, was a PC Constable for the Metropolitan Police. During the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, the City of London Police had jurisdiction over the Eddowes’ murder after City policeman PC Edward Watkins discovered the body. If Simpson was indeed a Metropolitan policeman, this would indicate that Simpson would have had to have been well out of his jurisdiction when he secreted away (or asked for permission to take) the 8-foot-long bloody shawl.
Who is Russell Edwards?
It is worth noting that the author of Naming Jack the Ripper has much to gain from his proposed theory, not only in terms of profits from his book but from his personal business. Edwards owns a Jack the Ripper memorabilia and tour shop (“Jack the Ripper – The Official Store” or “The Official Jack the Ripper Store”) located at 7 Toynbee Street, in Whitechapel, London which must surely be seeing booming business after his groundbreaking revelation was released to the public.
Dr. Jari Louhelainen explains how the DNA evidence was processed
Dr. Jari Louhelainen explained how the DNA evidence was collected and processed.
To extract DNA samples from the stains on the shawl, I used a technique I developed myself, which I call ‘vacuuming’ – to pull the original genetic material from the depths of the cloth. I filled a sterile pipette with a liquid ‘buffer’, a solution known to stabilize the cells and DNA, and injected it into the cloth to dissolve the material trapped in the weave of the fabric without damaging the cells, then sucked it out.
I needed to sequence the DNA found in the stains on the shawl, which means mapping the DNA by determining the exact order of the bases in a strand. I used polymerase chain reaction, a technique which allows millions of exact copies of DNA to be made, enough for sequencing. When I tested the resulting DNA profiles against the DNA taken from swabs from Catherine Eddowes’s descendant, they were a match.
I used the same extraction method on the stains which had characteristics of seminal fluid. Dr David Miller found epithelial cells – which line cavities and organs – much to our surprise, as we were not expecting to find anything usable after 126 years.
Then I used a new process called whole genome amplification to copy the DNA 500 million-fold and allow it to be profiled. Once I had the profile, I could compare it to that of the female descendant of Kosminski’s sister, who had given us a sample of her DNA swabbed from inside her mouth.
The first strand of DNA showed a 99.2 per cent match, as the analysis instrument could not determine the sequence of the missing 0.8 per cent fragment of DNA. On testing the second strand, we achieved a perfect 100 per cent match. Because of the genome amplification technique, I was also able to ascertain the ethnic and geographical background of the DNA I extracted. It was of a type known as the haplogroup T1a1, common in people of Russian Jewish ethnicity. I was even able to establish that he had dark hair.
Dr Jari Louhelainen is a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University and an expert in historic cold-case forensic research.”
Who was Amos Simpson and how did he obtain the infamous shawl?
According to ripperologist researchers, Amos Simpson was born in 1847 at Acton, Sudbury, Suffolk. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1868 and was posted to Y Division (Kentish Town). In 1881 he was promoted to Acting Sergeant and in 1886 he was posted to the N Division (Islington). Simpson retired sometime around 1893 and he died on April 10, 1917, at Barrow Hill, Acton.
A family tradition has it that Simpson was on “Special Duties” with two or three other men and was the first policeman to find Catharine Eddowes’ body. He is also supposed to have found her shawl which he picked up and kept. The first mention of the ‘shawl’ appeared in the 1991 book, Jack the Ripper: The Mystery Solved. At one time, two cut out and framed pieces of the ‘shawl’ were displayed in a video shop in Clacton. The rest of the ‘shawl’, the part that was analyzed for DNA evidence by Russell Edwards, was in the possession of a local antiques man David Melville Hayes to whose family the shawl belonged having devolved from his great-great-uncle the aforementioned Amos Simpson. The shawl was again researched by the Parlours and Kevin O’Donnell for their 1997 book The Jack the Ripper Whitechapel Murders.
The shawl was put up for auction at the premises of Lacy Scott & Knight in 2007. The shawl was listed as “lot 235” and described as a “late 19th century brown silk screen printed shawl” with the provenance given as this:
“According to vendors’ family history this shawl is purported to have belonged to Jack the Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes, and was removed from her body by his great, great uncle Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson who was based near Mitre Square in the East End of London. However, there is some controversy surrounding the authenticity of this story and interested parties are advised to do their own research before bidding. The shawl spent some time in The Metropolitan Crime (Black) Museum, and in 2006 was subject to inconclusive forensic testing for a programme on Channel 5.”
This shawl is now in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum having been placed there by Simpson’s great great nephew. It is a silk screen printed shawl with a dark green background, brown edges and a pattern of flowers on it. Coincidentally, the description of the shawl resembles the description of Eddowes’ dress which the East London Observer (10 Oct 1888) described as “made of green chintz, the pattern consisting of Michaelmas daises”.
A section of the shawl has been cut out, reputedly because it was blood-stained. Southeby’s were asked to give a date for the shawl, and they guessed that it was made around about the early 1900’s but said that dating such things was difficult.
UPDATE 10/20/2014: Jack the Ripper sleuths say, “Stop, not so fast!” It seems as if the DNA evidence provided by Dr Louhelainen may include an “error of nomenclature”. In other words, a “typo” blows the whole finding out of the water. In the book, the good doctor says:
“This DNA alteration is known as global private mutation (314.1C) and it is not very common in worldwide population, as it has frequency estimate of 0.000003506, i.e. approximately 1/290,000.”
Ignore the geek-speak and focus on the “global private mutation” number: “314.1C”. As it turns out, that number is incorrect and should be “315.1C”. One digit – does it make that much of a difference? In fact, that single digit completely reverses the finding. If Dr. Louhelainen had followed standard forensic practice, he would have discovered the mutation was not rare at all but shared by more than 99 per cent of people of European descent. It looks like the Jack the Ripper case is still open!