DNA is supposed to be the definitive piece of evidence that exposes the true identity of a criminal, but sometimes things go wrong. Jack the Ripper, an unknown serial killer, who murdered at least 5 women on the streets of London more than 100 years ago was allegedly identified by a DNA scientist. Aaron Kosminski, 23, was “definitely, categorically, and absolutely” the man who carried out the atrocities in 1888, at least according to a detailed analysis of DNA extracted from a silk shawl that was found at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes. The only problem is that Jari Louhelainen, the scientist who carried out the DNA analysis, made a fundamental forensic error that fatally undermines his entire case against Kosminski, according to other DNA experts.
Kosminski was a Jew who immigrated to England from Russian Poland in the 1880s. He worked as a barber in the East End of London, an impoverished slum, where the murders of Jack the Ripper were committed. His sister and two brothers also immigrated with him and his mother soon joined them. From 1891 until his death he was institutionalized. He had been ill since at least 1885. He was often emaciated and suffered from auditory hallucinations. He often refused to bath and he had a compulsion to eat any food that was dropped as garbage.
Police named a man with the last name Kosminski (they never supplied the first name) as a suspect at the time. They also stated that the man was institutionalized. There is little if any evidence that connects Kosminski to any of the murders and the reason behind his inclusion as a suspect is unclear. It has been speculated that Aaron Kosminski has been confused with a violent patient at the same asylum named Nathan Kasminsky. There is no record of Aaron Kosminski in any surviving official police documents, though many authors claim otherwise. Kosminski was described as “harmless” in asylum records. The only known incidents of violence were that he brandished a knife at his sister and a chair at a staff member. In addition, Kosminski spoke little English, yet the Ripper lured English victims into alleyways. The killings stopped in 1888, yet Kosminski was not institutionalized for another 3 years.
Louhelainen made an “error of nomenclature” when using a DNA database to calculate the chances of a match. That would mean that his calculations were wrong and virtually anyone could have left the DNA on the victim’s clothing. The error was first noticed by casebook.org, a crime enthusiast’s blog. It has since been highlighted by 4 experts with knowledge of DNA analysis, including Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of genetic fingerprinting and a professor. The error means, according to the experts, that no DNA connection can be made between Kosminski and Eddowes. Any suggestion that Kosminski is the Ripper is merely speculative as it has always been.
Kosminski died in an asylum at the age of 53. The latest interest in Kosminski comes from the book, Naming Jack the Ripper, published this year by Russell Edwards, a businessman. Edwards purchased the shawl in 2007.
“I’ve got the only piece of forensic evidence in the whole history of the case. I’ve spent 14 years working, and we have finally solved the mystery of who Jack the Ripper was. Only non-believers that want to perpetuate the myth will doubt. This is it now – we have unmasked him,” Edwards said.
Edwards hired Dr. Louhelainen, a molecular biologist at Liverpool John Moores University, to carry out a forensic analysis on the shawl. The shawl was allegedly stored unwashed by the family of a police officer. Had the doctor done his analysis properly, following standard practice, he would have discovered the mutation, he thought was rare and connected to Kosminski, is in fact shared by 99% of all people of European descent.
Mannis van Oven, professor of forensic molecular biology at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, Professor Walther Parson of the Institute of Legal Medicine, and Hansi Weissensteiner, one of the scientists behind the computer algorithm used by Dr. Louhelainen all agreed with Professor Jeffreys.
A spokesperson for publishers Sidgwick & Jackson said: “The author stands by his conclusions. We are investigating the reported error in scientific nomenclature. However, this does not change the DNA profiling match and the probability of the match calculated from the rest of the haplotype data. The conclusion reached in the book, that Aaron Kosminski was Jack the Ripper, relies on much more than this one figure.”
Interestingly, in the book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell, DNA evidence allegedly pointed at Walter Sickert as the killer. More than 20 Jack the Ripper suspects have been named by authors, police, and the media over the years. They include James Thomas Sadler, a friend of the last victim. He was arrested for the murder, but later released due to a lack of evidence. It was discovered that he was at sea at the time of the earlier murders; James Kelly who had murdered his wife in 1883 by stabbing her in the neck. He was committed to an asylum, but escaped in 1888, the same year the murders occurred. 40 years later, he turned himself into that same asylum and died of natural causes in 1929; and James Maybrick, a cotton merchant. His wife poisoned him in a sensational and widely believed unjust trial presided over by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, the father of another modern suspect.