One of the most vexing true crime cases is that of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper investigations in many ways were the inspirations for numerous improvements in police methodology and the study of serial murderers. The case is a difficult one because Scotland Yard’s files are incomplete, and forged evidence has been brought forward such as the ripper letters and likely the Maybrick diaries. Recently the news of a new book, Russell Edward’s Naming Jack the Ripper has come out, claiming that Jack the Ripper has been identified on the basis of DNA evidence.
There are issues with the source of the DNA (the chain of custody with the shawl linked to the fourth known victim, Catherine Eddowes, is uncertain) and if the researchers used MDNA as some have suggested, the identification is not as ironclad as if it were Nuclear DNA. When the DNA on the artifact is based on comparisons to descendants there are additional issues, as well.
A bigger issue in the title, though, is that the DNA alone is insufficient to identify someone as the Ripper – we don’t know when the DNA transfer might have occurred, it could have been weeks, months or even years before or after the killing took place. This means the DNA in this case is circumstantial evidence.
The real strength of Edward’s book is that it builds on a previous suspect. The various true crime books on the Ripper range from the ridiculous (Prince Albert Victor, artist Walter Sickert, an unnamed midwife typically known as “Jill the Ripper”, and author Lewis Caroll) to those actually suspected and investigated by Scotland Yard. Edwards book identifies the Ripper as Aaron Kosminski. This is actually based on one of the three major suspects named in a 1894 press release known as “the Macnaghten Memoranda,” and more importantly, one of the supervisors in the case, Donald S Swanson noting in a margin note to the memoirs of commissioner Edward Johnson that Kosminski had been identified by an eyewitness.
Swanson’s notes, Edward Johnson’s memoirs and the Macnaghten memorandum have all led two major suspects: Aaron Kosminski and a unknown Jewish man named David Cohen who was identified with one Nathan Kasminsky by Martin Fido in his 1987 work The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper; Fido’s theory was later given credibility by former FBI Profiler John Douglas in The Cases that Haunt Us.
What does all this have to do with apologetics? Atheists will tell you that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and should be discounted without further analysis unless there is forensic evidence. However, if Edward’s book is correct in all it asserts then what it really means is that the forensics, in this case, unearthed additional circumstantial evidence to support the eyewitness identification.
Dismissing any evidence is something that we do at our peril, most notably if we stake our souls on that dismissal.