Questionable History: The real Jack the Ripper


Contemporary newspapers found the Ripper murders were front page headline material.

There have been at least 30 individuals identified as Jack the Ripper in numerous books, articles and movies in the years since the notorious London Whitechapel murders of 1888.  Five prostitutes within a few months had their throats cut and their intestines torn apart by someone who knew the area intimately and made a clean getaway every time.

Some said the killer must have been a skilled butcher or surgeon, whilst others maintained the cuts and slashes were amateurish.  Some argued he knew the victims personally, whilst others believed he was a complete stranger.  Some maintained the Victorian police had a pretty good idea who the murderer was, but others quoted evidence to show they hadn’t a clue.  The one sure thing about the Ripper is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

Candidates to be the sought-after killer have ranged from illiterate labourers to the very cream of Victorian society.  One movie claimed that the Queen’s personal physician, William Gull, was to blame which ignores the fact that he was already in his 70s and had recently suffered a serious stroke.  Even prime minister William Gladstone has not escaped the finger-pointing on hearsay evidence that he visited prostitutes to satisfy his lust for beatings.  One writer went so far as to claim the real killer was a midwife Jill the Ripper.

Catherine Eddowes meets her grisly doom at the hands of the Ripper.

During the last two years, attention has focused on a 23-year old Polish barber Aaron Kosminski after a shawl belonging to victim Catherine Eddowes turned up.  Apparently, the shawl was collected by the police and later returned to the family.  Sleuth Russell Edwards bought the shawl in 2014 and subjected the cloth to DNA testing.  In 2018 the Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Leeds confirmed the likelihood of Kosminski’s guilt after DNA testing of his descendants and those of the victim.

Or did they?  The universities said the data protection act prevented them from publishing the genetic sequencing of living relatives of either Eddowes or Kosminski, but other specialists said that argument was nonsense.  Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, inventor of genetic fingerprinting, disputed the findings of the universities, pointing out there was no actual evidence the shawl was anywhere near the dead body of Eddowes in any case.  Additionally, some forensic testing dated the shawl to around 1910, over 20 years too late, and added it could have come from anywhere in Europe.

The documentary trail on Kosminski is thin.  There is one reference to him in an asylum’s record book of the 1890s where he is said to be of a violent disposition, but that trait was true of most asylum residents of the era.  He seems to have been released and there is no evidence of his later life or death.  Perhaps the true murderer was William Henry Bury who murdered his wife and was hanged in 1889.  His last words on the scaffold were “I am Jack the …” before executioner James Berry pulled the lever and that was that.  Of course the unfinished phrase might have been “I am Jack the Lad” or even “I am Jack Frost”.  You never can tell.