The other day I spent some of my morning playing around on the Book of Face when it seemed everyone was going bonkers. Not only had the OSU Buckeyes lost but apparently someone figured out who Jack the Ripper was. And they used SCIENCE to figure it out! Wow! Needless to say I was very excited. As a history nut and a science junkie I couldn’t wait to see how they did it. And then I read the news about it and became sad.
“With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888 Wikipedia
I would like to start out stating that I am NOT a Ripperologist. I didn’t even know that was a word until learning about it watching the show Whitechapel. Why am I stating this right off the bat? Because it seems part of the marketing campaign for this book has included an automatic jab at anyone who will dissent in its findings. Claiming that Ripperologists will not accept the conclusions because they have a financial stake in the matter. I’d wager that they are actually seeing a nice influx of income at the moment thanks to this book. Regardless of their perspective on its conclusions.
The basics are this: DNA was found on a scarf which had belonged to Miss Eddowes, the 4th apparent victim of Jack the Ripper. According to the news reports and this video, her DNA from blood and organ fluids was found as well as his DNA. **I may have missed it but it seems to be implied that his DNA was recovered from semen stains?** These were traced to modern descendents and relatives of the individuals to confirm not only the identity of Eddowes but also of a man named Aaron Kosminski. Mr. Kosminski had been considered a suspect at the time but was not held or tried. Many people were considered suspects at the time. The presence of his DNA is touted as “proof” that he killed this woman, and therefore is Jack the Ripper. I have a few thoughts about this…
They used Mitochondrial DNA for their work and this is great for molecular analysis. It doesn’t change much over time (i.e. little genetic variation) which is why it’s been so useful for looking into our ancestral roots. That’s great! You can look at the mtDNA and figure out who is related to who. .
But here’s where I would like to address a few concerns. Let’s break down a few of my problems with what I’ve read about the matter thus far:
DNA degrades over time. The DNA that would have been available for analysis was likely in poor shape. Yes, there are methods of analyses which allow for testing of older and degraded samples, but it can increase the amount of error observed. DNA from far older sources has been used to great effect in other fields such as archaeology, but this is always a point that never seems to be brought up.
It’s a big assumption that the presence of his alleged DNA on the scarf is only indicative that he came into contact with the scarf. How do we know it occurred during the time of the killing? Did they know each other? Those who are more familiar with Ripper lore than I may know some answers to these questions.
Chain of custody issues aside, it’s difficult to make a solid determination and certainly not possible to “prove” that Aaron Kosminski murdered this woman. We certainly cannot conclude that, even if he did murder Miss Eddowes, that he also murdered the other women as well.
Mr. Kosminski may have been admitted to a “string of lunatic asylums” but this is hardly evidence against him. Admitting criteria were far different back then. Someone with a trisomy disorder (Down Syndrome, etc) would have been held.
Granted, I have not read the actual book as it has yet to be released and many of my doubts and concerns may very well be addressed within its pages. However, I do proceed with a large amount of skepticism.
Don’t get me wrong. I find this fascinating and I look forward to checking the book out from the library when it is released. This sort of thing really excites me and I just absolutely love it. But, as I’ve learned over the years, by bringing science to the pop culture realm, we lose sight of some of the basic scientific principles we operate by.