Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper?

Last November, I poked a little fun at Patricia Cornwell's Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper -- Case Closed, which overstated its claims to have "proved" that Jack the Ripper was painter Walter Sickert. As I wrote at the time:
In forming my own opinion of Cornwell's account, I ran across a description of a lecture Cornwell gave on the subject:

"She walked onto the stage like a rock star playing in front of a home town crowd. She was wearing a blue wind breaker with FORENSICS written in bright yellow across the back (the jacket, she later stated, was given to her by the UT School of Forensics). After the applause died down, she opened the lecture by saying "The reason we were able to catch this son of a bitch is one word. . ." With that, she stepped out from behind the podium turned around and dramatically threw her arms into the air, above her head. She then started pumping her arms and fists downward, pointing to the yellow FORENSICS on her back. The crowd once again erupted into a riotous standing ovation, and I found myself waiting for The Rock to come out and lay down some WWF smack on a wimpy Walter "The Painter" Sickert lookalike!"

Well, no. there are significant critiques of Cornwell's theory, but for me the most salient point is that she simply overhyped her findings to an extraordinary degree. She has come up with clever and well-reasoned arguments that rebut the classic arguments used to exclude Sickert, and a novelist's insight into character that she brings to construct a picture of Sickert that would be consistent with him being Jack the Ripper. In sum, she makes a plausible enough theory that Sickert could have been the Ripper. And from that, she concludes that she has proven his guilt. Well, no. She has written a lively, if tendentious, account of the case against one possible suspect, and has weakened certain of the arguments that purported to conclusively exclude him. That's not nothing, and had she not ballyhooed her claims so much further, well, I might have even tried a couple of Scarpetta novels.

But it's a long way from "catching this son of a bitch," even if her ultimate conclusions were to be vindicated. Because Walter Sickert died in 1942, aged 82 years. He's beyond catching, now, by Cornwell's efforts, or by anybody else's.
There now is a more serious attempt to prove the identity of the Ripper, this time actually using forensics:
Leaving aside for a moment that Kosminski, who was 23 when the murders took place and died in a lunatic asylum at the age of 53, was already a leading candidate for the murders, what exactly is this new evidence that so definitely nails him as the culprit?

It turns out to hinge on an old shawl that Mr Edwards bought in 2007 at an auction in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. He claims this large piece of cloth was found at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper’s victims, and has a letter to “prove” it from a descendent of Sergeant Amos Simpson, the policeman on duty the night Eddowes was killed who had claimed the abandoned shawl for his wife.

Horrified by the blood-soaked wrap, Mrs Simpson never wore or even washed it, but stored it away where it became a family heirloom to be passed down the generations until it was sold to Mr Edwards.

Leaving aside, again, whether we can believe the provenance of this crucial piece of evidence, or that it was never washed, or Mr Edwards’ assumption that the shawl was left at the crime scene not by Eddowes – who was far too poor to own such an expensive item – but by the Ripper himself, what links the cloth with Kosminski and the murder?

It turns out that Mr Edwards has been able to track down living descendants of both Eddowes and Kosminki and found that their DNA sequences match DNA samples recovered from the shawl, presumably from the blood of Eddowes and the semen of Kosminski.

The scientist who performed this remarkable feat is Jari Louhelainen, a molecular biologist at Liverpool John Moores University. Unfortunately, he has not so far published his study in a peer-reviewed scientific journal so it is impossible to verify his claims or analyse his methodology.

****

Dr Louhelainen may be satisfied that he has found the culprit, but many other scientists are not, including Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented the DNA fingerprint technique 30 years ago this week.

“An interesting but remarkable claim that needs to be subjected to peer review, with detailed analysis of the provenance of the shawl and the nature of the claimed DNA match with the perpetrator's descendants and its power of discrimination; no actual evidence has yet been provided,” Sir Alec told The Independent.

In any case, as Sir Alec pointed out: “If I remember correctly when I visited the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard, Kosminski was long regarded as by far the most likely perpetrator.”
The article is right to hedge its bets; the question of provenance is not negligible--although the police were spectacularly careless with evidence and even erased without photographing a graffito that might have been the work of the murderer. (Rather than re-hash the errors of the police, I'll refer you to Cornwell's account; her critique of the investigation is probably the best part of her book. Donald Rumbelow's account is less snide but also quite unsparing.) So the notion that the cloth could have been taken by an officer,and never washed--well, it requires a mammoth stroke of luck, but, if Edwards and Louhelainen can verify that they avoided cross-contamination and that the sources of the descendants' DNA are in fact descendants of Kosmisnki and Eddowes (two pretty big ifs), they might have something. Something quite big in fact.

Or, it could just be The Ripper Diaries Redux.

This time, as Sir Alec is quoted, the suspect is one deemed to be a likely, if not the most likely, by experts.

Time will, no doubt, tell.

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