Naming Jack : Whether Modern Day Forensic Techniques can Unmask the Most Famous Serial Killer of All Time



I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid,
Nor yet a foreign skipper,
But I’m your own light-hearted friend,
Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.

This world has seen many serial killers, however, the most mysterious and iconic of all is the man known as Jack the Ripper. Although not the first serial killer in history, the Ripper is, without a shadow of doubt, the most famous serial killer of all times and has since become legend, a mixture of actual facts and folklore that has held captive the imagination of the entire world for over a century. The study and analysis of the “Whitechapel Murders”, known as “Ripperology” has resulted in over one hundred theories with almost as many suspects. Investigations into these murders continue till date, over a century after the killings were carried out.

In analysing the Whitechapel murders, we intend to determine firstly, how much of the Ripper legend is fact, and secondly, whether modern day forensic methods can be used to analyse century old evidence, and put a rest to the legend once and for all. However, solving the century old case might never be possible because, a) all the investigators and suspects associated with the case have since passed away, and b) almost all evidences which had been collected during the initial investigations has either been destroyed, deteriorated or lost.


Over the years, the Ripper case has inspired several works, both fiction and non-fiction which have led to countless theories and a hundred suspects, including Queen Victoria’s grandson – Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, and the former Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. However, no authorities have ever been able to agree on the evidence against any of the suspects, and in fact, most claims and evidence in the case have simply been elaborate hoaxes.

Because of the mystery and chaos surrounding the murders, it is difficult to exactly attribute which period the Ripper was active or even his total number of victims. Allegedly having at least 9-11 victims to his name, the definitely known five victims—Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly—are known by Ripperologists as the “canonical five”. However, lack of evidence and concrete leads, coupled with limitation in forensics, meant that a police investigation into a series of eleven brutal killings with the infamous Whitechapel modus operandi up to the year 1891 was unable to connect all the killings conclusively to the work of one serial killer.


The Ripper’s infamous MO included killing of prostitutes by cutting their throats, following which he would carry out abdominal mutilations, and remove their internal organs. Because of the manner in which the killings were carried out, over 200 butchers, slaughterers, surgeons and physicians were initially investigated. For a brief period, it was even considered that the accused might be a Jane rather than a Jack, however, eye-witness accounts placing a tall, dark man on more than one crime scene put these speculations to rest.

The “Whitechapel Murders” were one of the first instances of criminal profiling of a serial killer, and the criminal profile of Jack is the earliest surviving offender profile. Then police surgeon Thomas Bond was the person to create the criminal profile and he was strongly opposed to the idea that the murderer possessed any kind of scientific or anatomical knowledge, or even “the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer”. Bond belied that, the killer must have been a man of solitary habits, subject to “periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania”, with the character of the mutilations possibly indicating “satyriasis”, more commonly known as “Hypersexuality”. However, like everything else that is known about the killings, most of Bond’s criminal profile remains conjecture as the police never found any strong evidence which could shed light on the identity of the serial killer. In executing a procedural investigation akin to what would have been done today in the 21st Century, more than 2,000 people were interviewed, 300 were investigated and at least 80 people were arrested on the basis of the criminal profile but the police found no leads that could point them in the direction of the killer.

One of the major reasons that police were clueless about the identity of the murderer was the lack of forensic analysis in the investigation of the murders. Although, many experts in various scientific fields regularly contributed to the proceedings of criminal courts, forensic science itself was not an established part of the investigation process and neither was the crime scene preserved in photographs except for that of one of the victims, Mary Kelly. However, doctors and other experts were allowed to examine the bodies of the victims for wound patterns.

What fuelled the already growing legend of the Ripper was a legion of letters received by persons connected to the case between 1888 and 1891 that shook the public and the police alike though, ultimately a majority of the letters turned out to be extremely macabre hoaxes and practical jokes. Hundreds of letters were received by the police and reporters claiming to be from the killer himself, and of all these letters, three letters gained prominence from the point of view of the public, the media and the investigation agencies. As a matter of fact it was through one of these letters known as the “Dear Boss Letter” that the killer came to be known to the world as Jack the Ripper.


Another letter, known as the “Saucy Jack Postcard” contained information that was believed to be compelling enough to not be dismissed as a hoax or a prank. Analysis of the handwriting in the postcard showed that the handwriting in the post card matched the handwriting in the Dear Jack Letter.

The third letter, also known as the “From Hell Letter” was received by George Lusk, who was the Head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter was accompanied by half a human kidney, which was confirmed by a medical examiner. The contents of the letter were disturbing, with the sender claiming to be Jack, and that he had eaten half of the kidney before posting it to Lusk. to-openshawAlthough the letter was treated seriously because of its extremely disturbing contents, a detailed analysis proved that the handwriting in the letter was different from the one in the Dear Jack letter and the Saucy Jack postcard.

The examination of the contents of the “From Hell” Letter were carried out by a Thomas Horrocks Openshaw, who became the next recipient of a letter which was supposedly from the killer, challenging Openshaw to uncover evidence against him.

openshaw-letterThe Openshaw letter was used by author Patricia Cornwell to try to substantiate her claim that Walter Sickert, a modernist painter from Germany was the Ripper. Cornwell claimed that the paper used for the Openshaw Letter had come from the same manufacturers as the paper used by Sickert. However, mitochondrial DNA analysis, as used by Cornwell’s team of experts, is not a definitive test of identity and the sequence found by Cornwell’s team of experts could be from one of over 400,000 individuals which negates the value of any claims that Cornwell made.

In 1992, a man named James Maybrick was accused to be Jack the Ripper based on a diary which was claimed to have belonged to the killers. Maybrick’s diary contained an extremely detailed account of the killings of victims of the Ripper. However, given the nature of written accounts that had surfaced throughout the Ripper investigations, most experts immediately dismissed the diary as being an elaborate hoax.

Tests were carried out on the ink used in the diary to determine its originality, and the findings showed that the ink used in the diary was based on a synthetic dye called nigrosine, which was patented and made commercially available in 1867. However, a detailed analysis of the writing style showed no match to any of the letters which had been received in the past along with factual contradictions and handwriting inconsistencies, and ultimately most “Ripperologists” dismissed the diary as another hoax.


In 2014, a book by businessman Russell Edwards claimed to have solved the case of the “Whitechapel Murders” with the help of modern forensic methods. Edwards claimed in his book that DNA analysis of a shawl which was found next to Catherine Eddows proved beyond any doubt, which of the many suspects in the case was the notorious Jack the Ripper. After getting his hands on the shawl, Edwards had enlisted the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, an expert in analysing genetic evidence from historic crimes. Using cutting-edge mitochondrial analysis techniques, Dr Louhelainen was able to extract 126-year-old DNA from the material and compare it to DNA from descendants of Eddowes and the suspect, a Polish immigrant called Aaron Kosminski, with both proving a perfect match. At the time Edwards’s book was released, Ripperologists stood divided with claims of the initial press releases being cheap publicity stunts, as against the belief that the claims were accurate based on the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA and the fact that Kosminski had been held in a mental asylum prior to his death.

However, within months the claims made in Edwards’s book were disputed based on mistakes made by Dr. Louhelainen that undermined the results of the DNA analysis. An alleged “error in nomenclature” when using DNA database led to miscalculation of the chances of a genetic match between the DNA found on the shawl and the DNA of a descendant of Eddowes, Karen Miller.

An opinion shared by DNA experts such as Alec Jeffereys, Mannis van Oven, Walther Parson and Hansi Weissensteiner claim that if Louhelainen had made an “error in nomenclature” in noting the DNA segment as 314.1C instead of 315.1C, it means that the mutation shared by more than 99% of European descent and makes it impossible to get a conclusive match to any of the Ripper suspects. It seems that the identity of Jack still remains open to discovery.

It has become quite clear to most “Ripperologists” now that given the brazen manner in which the Ripper committed the murders, it would not have been an extremely difficult case to analyse and solve in the 21st Century. However, given the limitations of forensics in the 18th century, and that so much time has passed since, all persons connected with the murders are now dead and most of the evidence that had been collected by the investigation team has either been lost or damaged to a point where only mitochondrial analysis is possible. These shortcomings may very well be the bane that may cause the  the infamous case of the “Whitechapel Murders” to never be solved, and Jack would live forever in memory as the serial killer who succeeded in committing the perfect crime.


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