Catherine Eddowes, Aaron Kosminski, and the Question of a Shawl

Imagine my initial surprise and delight this weekend when I saw the headline that Jack the Ripper had been identified as Aaron Kosminski from DNA gathered left on a shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes. Then I read the article and saw the source of the news: The Daily Mail, which, okay, maybe, but then the claim started to look bad when it was mentioned that, oh, yeah, Russell Edwards, the current owner of the shawl, has a book coming out this week called Naming Jack the Ripper.

Ripperologists have known about the existence of the shawl for years. Supposedly, the shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes was plucked up from the scene by one of the police officers, Amos Simpson, who thought it might make a lovely gift for his wife. It turns out his wife wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of wearing a murder victim’s bloody shawl and the piece of clothing was kept stored away for many years and became a sort of family legend. Edwards acquired the shawl and submitted it for DNA testing at a private lab. The blood tested positive as Catherine Eddowes’s and was matched with mitochondrial DNA from one of Eddowes’s female descendants. There was something else on the shawl, which the lab determined was semen, and that semen, the lab concluded, belonged to no one other than Aaron Kosminksi, one of the men investigators suspected at the time of the murders.

Eddowes - Contemporary Illustration

A contemporary illustration of Eddowes. Image via Daily Mail.

There are many questions about the provenance of the shawl and whether or not this is a true artifact or some elaborate hoax (remember the Maybrick diary, anyone?) or someone with tunnel vision chasing after windmills because he or she can finally prove who Jack the Ripper was. Both author Lyndsay Faye and Ripperologist Melanie Clegg, who have studied the case extensively and penned novels about it, have written that, while the finding is interesting, there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

Faye states:

[L]et’s try to do the best sciencing we can when it comes to the deaths of these innocent women.  They were already used as fodder to sell newspapers during the Victorian Era—let’s just try to be certain we aren’t leaping back on that bandwagon.

Clegg herself takes the same attitude, in her quote from a post below:

For me, the Ripper case is an interesting piece of social history and a chance to really scratch the surface of the Victorian London and see what lies beneath. Unmasking the Ripper is not something I have ever had ambitions to do, but I am, on the other hand, pretty keen to make the names and lives of his victims better known and understood. Even if the case was absolutely and definitely closed today, then I think we would still need to talk about the social history aspect of the murders, because even the most cursory look at the terrible conditions endured by the women preyed on by the so called Ripper, many of whom were on the streets due to the breakdown of marriage, lack of opportunities and estrangement from their families, serves as a reminder of why we need a welfare state to protect and support the vulnerable people in our own society.

Of course, there is no doubt that the results from the DNA tests need to be reviewed and checked for accuracy, and other sources like The Independent are much more cautious when reporting the claims.

To be honest, I myself am not sure of what to make of this new claim. It’s great that we’re able to apply modern science to try and close what really is a Victorian cold case, but we also have to remember that late Victorian law enforcement didn’t have the knowledge of crime scene preservation or even the access to the investigative science that we do now. Development of fingerprinting as an investigative tool was still a few years away and the studies of psychiatry and psychology still had a very long way to go. Many of the crime scenes were contaminated by investigators, curious onlookers, and zealous journalists. Remember how Sherlock Holmes sometimes scolded Lestrade that the police had ruined his crime scene and that he should have been called in earlier? Yeah, think of it like that.

Further, we can only go by the information given to us by the investigators of the time. It’s been over a hundred years, and some of that information may be missing. What we do have may be clouded by the biases and beliefs of the actual investigators, and the information from the memoirs of the investigators might be embellished or inaccurate simply because of a lapse in memory concerning something that happened so many years ago. And it’s been proven that eyewitness testimony can be very hit or miss, so we don’t even know if the information given by witnesses is all that reliable.

I suppose what leads a bad taste in my mouth is the seeming desire of the parties involved in this to try to turn a profit from their supposed findings. It’s one thing to study the case and write a fiction or nonfiction book or two about what you have found and what you’ve theorized so that other people can access this information and come up with their own opinions. It’s quite another thing to have a huge press release in the Daily Mail declaring that you have definitively proven the identity of Jack the Ripper using DNA and the case can be closed once and for all. Sure, those involved should be able to have a forum in which to explain their results and how they came to their present conclusions, because this allows for open discussion and study and might interest other people in the case and its social ramifications…and of course they should be able to profit from it. But there’s a difference between reaping a reward for the time you spent studying something and formulating conclusions and blatantly profiteering from the deaths or five or six women who were just scraping by because people at the time didn’t care enough about those who were on the fringes of society. Like Faye and Clegg have stated, we need to be very careful not to “jump on the bandwagon” and help those who might not have the best motives profit from the senseless murders of five or six women who didn’t deserve to die as they did and who should have had a better chance in the world than what they were given.

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