The international press has been abuzz with news that Jack the Ripper may have been identified based on mitochondrial DNA. But there are a number of skeptics out there, and they have some very good reasons for doubting that the findings are going to stick:
1. It’s the freaking Daily Mail.
I get the fact that independent scholarship is expensive, and the people behind this study have to fund their own research expenses. But the Daily Mail isn’t a very credible venue for a scientific article, and if Edwards were serious about having his claims accepted he could have chosen among literally thousands of more credible publications all over the world. Why didn’t he? Maybe it’s because they didn’t offer him as much money (or any money at all), and he had expenses to meet; maybe it’s because most of them can’t compete with the Daily Mail’s circulation; or maybe, just maybe, it’s because they would have checked into his claims more extensively and found something that precluded them from publishing the findings. As of yet, we have no way of really knowing which. But there aren’t many groundbreaking discoveries that started off as an exclusive in the Daily Mail.
2. The claims haven’t been vetted.
I find it unlikely that Edwards and Louhelainen fabricated the results, but the “independent scholar checks mitochondrial DNA, finds something amazing” meme has already been explored, less promisingly, in the recent debate over the Paracas skulls. I’d feel better about this result if it were independently confirmed by affiliated scholars who had more to lose. There is a place for independent scholarship and a place for institutional scholarship, and this is one of those cases where some degree of serious collaboration will be necessary to confirm the findings.
3. The mtDNA has undeniably been contaminated.
The fact that Catherine Eddowes’ mitochondrial DNA was found on the shawl becomes a much less impressive fact when we learn that the shawl has been handled by several of her maternal descendants, and any of them could have accidentally contributed the same mtDNA. If the mtDNA can be directly traced to a patch of blood found on the shawl, that’s one thing—but if it came from somewhere else, that’s another.
Finding Kosminski’s mtDNA in a semen stain on the shawl is much more impressive, and is much harder to explain. Contrary to Ripperologist Richard Cobb’s claim that the stain could be explained by Kosminski’s history with prostitutes in the area, the likelihood that Kosminski’s mtDNA just happened to end up on a shawl that had already been described as an artifact of the murder scene seems prohibitively remote to me. But there’s still another explanation as to how it might have gotten there…
4. Lots of people have the same mtDNA.
On average, 4% of the population shares your maternal haplogroup. Kosminski’s T1a1 haplogroup may have been uncommon in late 19th-century Britain, suggesting a lower percentage match, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that another person with the same maternal haplogroup committed the murder and left biological evidence on the shawl. The case that this is in fact Kosminski’s mtDNA would be strengthened considerably if Edwards were to track down maternal descendants of other Ripper suspects and verify that they do not share Kosminski’s haplogroup.
5. Outside of the mtDNA, Kosminski is not one of the more plausible suspects.
Kosminski was a decent suspect but not, as Ripperologist Marilyn Bardsley points out, the best one:
“The only bit of evidence amassed against Kosminski was a reputedly positive identification by one of the eyewitnesses, mostly likely Joseph Lawende … Kosminski was small and slender of build, which does not fit Lawende’s description of the killer as medium build, nor did Lawende describe the person he saw as a foreigner. Nor did Kosminski possess any [documented] anatomical knowledge. Sugden in his research makes another important point: ‘Kosminski’s incarceration took place more than two years after the Miller Court murder. If Kosminski was the killer, therefore, we have to accept that after committing five or six murders in three months he quietly went to ground and remained inactive for another two years three months.’”
If the case against Kosminski is strengthened—by independent verification of the mtDNA testing and exclusion of the other suspects—then that obviously increases the possibility that some of the 1889-1891 ”non-canonical” murders sometimes attributed to Jack the Ripper may have in fact been committed by the original killer. It also exonerates a lot of people. And it functionally shuts down “Ripperology” as a field of inquiry, which to be honest may be for the best.
But the mystery of Jack the Ripper isn’t going to be solved by a series of ifs; we need a stronger case than one article can give us. And this is the kind of situation where the scrutiny of skeptics is especially valuable; you can’t really verify a theory, be it good or bad, if everybody completely accepts it at face value.