But haven’t they used DNA to identify Jack the Ripper?

When the Ripper murders happened in the fall of 1888, police had very little to use in the form of forensics. This was before fingerprints – and long before DNA – at a time when murder victims were rarely even photographed at the scene of the crime. It was also at a time when people thought that taking good, close-up photographs of people’s eyes would reveal the last thing they had ever seen. Forensics in 1888 definitely did not look like an episode of CSI.

But we’re in the 21st century now, and we do have access to a lot of forensic technological advances. DNA was first used in a criminal investigation in 1986, and since then advances mean that we could certainly test the Ripper’s DNA – right?

Well, so far two people have tried.

If you’ve only read one book about Jack the Ripper, chances are it’s Patricia Cornwell’s 2002 Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. Here she is on the back, examining a document carefully while wearing clean white gloves to apparently indicate she’s in an archive. Known for her fiction, especially her series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell decided to use her personal wealth to investigate the Ripper crimes. Her research, which was updated first in a Kindle single and in a 2017 follow-up book, directed her toward accusing artist Walter Sickert as having been Jack the Ripper.

Although Cornwell did buy a number of Sickert’s paintings – and have to defend herself against accusations of wantonly destroying them in her search for evidence – her source of the Ripper’s DNA came from some of the Ripper letters. (We’ve talked about those before …) By swabbing the flap of the envelope and the stamp, Cornwell hoped to collect the Ripper’s DNA to compare it directly to Sickert’s.

There are a couple issues here, in spite of how cool she might look on the back cover of the second book in her Matrix-style coat. First, her methods assume that the Ripper himself licked the stamps and the envelopes. This means both that the letter wasn’t handed over to an employee who sold the stamp and did the honors, and that the Ripper actually wrote the letters. And second, because of the age of the letters, only mitochondrial DNA could be tested. At best, mDNA showed that Sickert could not be excluded from the tens (or possibly hundreds) of thousands of possible people who could have licked the envelope. Cornwell’s experts told her she had narrowed the Ripper down to about 1% of the Victorian British population, and in her book she translates this as indicating that yes, it was Sickert.

So mDNA from the likely hoax Ripper letters not excluding Sickert from the possible thousands to have licked it does not prove that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. (Cornwell also has the difficulty of explaining how her chosen Ripper was meant to be in France at the time of the murders, on top of her theory that Sickert wrote most, if not all, of the Ripper letters himself. As an artist he was apparently amused by disguising his handwriting.)

The second example, most recently hitting headlines as the results were published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, involves a shawl. This shawl was supposedly removed from Catherine Eddowes’ possessions after her murder and never officially recorded as having belonged to her. A police officer is meant to have taken it as a gift for his wife (since somehow it avoided being covered in blood) but then, mysteriously, the shawl passed from hand to hand and traveled through the decades … without ever having been washed.

In 2007, Russel Edwards bought the shawl at auction, believing the story of its provenance when other Ripper scholars present scoffed at the idea. Like Cornwell, he had DNA tests run, this time checking for matches to two people. (Again, note the CSI-style photographs.) Edwards concluded that the blood found on the shawl could indeed have come from Catherine Eddowes, and that the semen did not exclude his personal choice for Ripper, Polish barber Aaron Kosminski.

But we’re left with the same sorts of issues. Edwards’ expert, Jari Louhelainen, was also limited to testing for mDNA. His results were like the ones Cornwell was given: they did not exclude the people Edwards was looking for, but it’s hardly a conclusive test when it only narrows the pool down to some thousands (again, in a range that might be from tens to hundreds). The shawl itself, like the letters, is questioned, since there’s no trail that actually connects it to Catherine Eddowes and it has a lot of traits that mean it probably didn’t belong to her. (The dye was not water-fast, for example, making it an unlikely possession of a woman who frequently slept rough. On top of that, Eddowes’ boyfriend had just pawned his boots so they could eat, while she supposedly hung on to this elaborate shawl long enough to die wearing it.)

Edwards’ book came out in 2014 and I spent a week greeting people with “Yes, I know about the shawl.” The journal article came out in 2019 and I gave a talk on Jack the Ripper and the limitations of these DNA tests to hopefully cut down ont he number of people who asked me about it. These books certainly sound good, with all this talk about 21st century science and the greatest criminal mystery of all time, but, in spite of their expense and the photo opportunities, these tests are far from conclusive.

No, DNA evidence has not identified Jack the Ripper.

Why do we call him “Jack the Ripper”?

It’s not a real name. Usually we call serial killers by their real names, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Sure, there are exceptions – we still call Dennis Rader “BTK” or Gary Ridgway “The Green River Killer” because more people know their nicknames than their real names, but their real names usually make it in there somewhere.

Jack the Ripper doesn’t have a real name.

The writing on the Saucy Jacky postcardThis is a replica of a postcard that was sent to the Central News Agency on October 1, 1888. It’s come to be known as the “Saucy Jacky Postcard,” and there are a couple interesting things about it. First, it wasn’t sent until very late that fall – after (at least) four murders had been committed and people were already talking and reading about the crimes. The second is what it says:

I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. Had not time to get ears off for police thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.
Jack the Ripper

This postcard – well, the real one; not the replica that comes in Jack the Ripper: The Casebook by Richard Jones – gave the killer his name. Before this, he was known as the Knife or the Whitechapel Fiend.

Reverse of the Saucy Jacky postcard with the address showing

Here’s the address on that postcard. It was sent to the Central News Agency in London, not to any police station. Instead, the sender picked a news distribution service known for sensational stories and undercutting competitors. Basically, if someone wanted this postcard to become front-page news … and, perhaps, to revive a flagging story and sell more papers … this is where that person would send it. Letters had already been sent claiming to have been from the killer – the postcard references them – but this one was the first to be signed with “Jack the Ripper.”

At the time, police claimed they knew that a journalist had sent the postcard, but they didn’t give any names. In 1931, Fred Best, who worked for one of the newspapers, claimed that he and a colleague sent the postcard. It regenerated interest in the story, certainly, and gave the killer his name – but it also opened the floodgates for more “Ripper letters.”

More than 300 letters were sent – to the police, to newspapers, and to the Central News Agency – claiming to be from the killer. There are entire books devoted to these letters, like Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, and stories of young women being arrested for being caught sending them. The letters are interesting, having both kept the murders in the news and given the killer his name … but are any of them real?

The most likely answer is “no.” They’re written in different handwriting, with different levels of penmanship and grammar. With known cases of people writing and posting their own “just for fun,” its highly unlikely that any of the letters were ever touched by the real killer. The possible exception is the one with the return address “From Hell,” likely a familiar phrase even if you’re not familiar with the letters … but that is a story for another time. 

We call him “Jack the Ripper” because that was the name that stuck in the headlines, and no one was ever caught to give Saucy Jacky his real name. Hundreds of people have been accused, though. Do you have a favorite suspect?