Adam Rutherford calls the Jack the Ripper identification “a joke”

This morning I reported on a genetic analysis of the identity of Jack the Ripper, arrived at by analyzing DNA from sperm and bloodstains on a shawl found at one of the murder sites. I didn’t think much of the paper, but Adam Rutherford, a respected geneticist and author, thinks even less. In fact, he thinks the paper, and its identification of Polish butcher Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper, is pure garbage.

Adam emailed me this conclusion as well as a list of his objections, and I asked if those objections were anywhere on the Internet where I could direct readers. His full answer, with all his objections, is indented below, quoted with permission. Since Adam knows a lot more than I about this case, I defer to him and will put a link to this post in the earlier one.

Unfortunately, it’s only in my book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes. It’s in the chapter about Richard III, which is the high bar for cold case forensic DNA identification; the shawl, I argue, is the low point.

We are considering releasing that chapter, but in the meantime, I’m happy for you to post these comments below.

* The provenance of the shawl is fully unverified. There is literally no evidence that a historian would consider even vaguely acceptable that the shawl was at the murder scene or belonged to Kate Eddowes. The claim, which is unverified, is that the duty sergeant (who was not at the crime scene nor was it on his beat) took it from the evidence collection – all her other clothes were burnt – and it was kept, unwashed, for the next century, by various people and in various places (one amateur Ripper historian told me it was in the back of his car for several years, and then in his shed).

* It was bought at auction by Russell Edwards, a man inspired to ‘solve’ the crime after watching the Johnny Depp film From Hell.

* Louhelainen claims to have found epithelial cells, and got DNA out of them. However, the amount of contamination is overwhelming. Apart from its history, Russell Edwards is pictured holding the shawl with bare hands in the Mail on Sunday, AND whilst trying to ID Eddowes’ descendants with whom to compare DNA, they also were in the same room and may have handled the shawl.

* None of that matters anyway, because the mtDNA allele they claim in 2014 is the basis of the +ve ID was mis-labelled. They had it as 314.1C – which is rare, but it turned out to be 315.1C which is a SNP at a frequency of about 90% in Europe.

* Louhelainen claimed a 1/290,000 estimate based on the 314.1C, which is impossible because the database it was drawn from only has 34,617 entries – I got this from none other than Alec Jeffries. I can’t see this corrected in the new paper.

* I interviewed Louhelainen and asked him if he thought the evidence was sufficient if the murders had happened this month, and he said no. ‘it wouldn’t be conclusive in a modern court’ is what he said.

* None of this is corrected in the new paper as far as I can see, which is shockingly bad: the methods contain no primers, or verification of descent, as you say. The display of the alleles is shall we say, unusual.

* Incidentally, there is no evidence that any of the women killed by Jack the Ripper were sexually assaulted or molested in any way. He is not known to have been an emitter. If Eddowes was working as a prostitute, it is quite possible that any semen might be from any one of her clients. While we’re speculating, it’s quite possible that Kosminski was a client. He died after some very serious longstanding mental health issues in an asylum, the cause of his insanity being ‘self abuse.’

The whole thing is a joke. There isn’t a historian or curator on Earth who would consider the provenance of the shawl acceptable. what follows is just bad science. How it made it through peer review is a mystery too.

There you go. That’s not a grain of salt with which to ingest Louhelainen and Miller’s paper, but a mountain of it.

10 Comments

  1. rickflick
    Posted March 19, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    What a revolting development this is. We gone from very unlikely to absolutely never.

  2. merilee
    Posted March 19, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Strangely enough I was in the middle of reading this very section of Rutherford’s book when you put up your earlier post on the subject. What is the significance of this? (Wooooooo)

    • Posted March 19, 2019 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Snap! I only just read that chapter on Sunday. Wooo!

  3. Posted March 19, 2019 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    …cuppa tea anyone? I’ve read A Rutherford’s ” A Brief History…” and enjoyed it. At the conclusion I had this amused prevading thought, jeeze, the English really NEEDED to do alittle outbreeding! i can claim to be a part of that ‘programme’ funny enough. That though is opening a can of worms, colonising the planet by force and all but not to mislead, the book is not about that.

  4. Posted March 19, 2019 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    There’s a back story. The Sun backs Brexit. The the appeal of Brexit is based on dislike of European immigrants. Many of these immigrants are prudish.

  5. Posted March 19, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I read Rutherford’s book too, and enjoyed it.

  6. Posted March 19, 2019 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Goodness, I don’t blame Rutherford in the slightest for his strong condemnation of that “evidence”. It’s well-earned. The contamination issue alone would be enough to invalidate the claims being made, and when so much else is going wrong too…

    This is a reminder that, no matter how good a new forensic technique is, it can always be botched simply by human error. Although you have to wonder if it’s incompetence in this case, or even potentially fraud.

    Thanks for posting, Jerry! Always good to read articles like this.

  7. Posted March 20, 2019 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    I wish Adam Rutherford would come down off that fence…

  8. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Late to the party, but I read Dominic’s damning comment on the other thread that the shawl textile might not be from the period. (I assume experts would need to examine the shawl itself instead of photos, like standard diagnosis – still …)

    So I don’t want to read the paper for once, no need. Context also from published works that Louhelainen seems to work in forensics and Miller with most anything.

  9. Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I’m here because I tumbled down a wikipedia hole, after watching a BBC programme: Jack the Ripper – Case Reopened.

    That programme identifies Kosminski as JtR, based on geography (he lived within the area of the killings) and an account of his mental health history; that he was incarcerated because he stabbed his sister. It made no mention of the shawl, DNA etc.

    The programme’s geography angle is in my view weak. It theorises that serial killers don’t travel far, and makes the classic mistake of assuming our forbears to be not as smart as us. I reckon people in the 1880s were perfectly capable of leaving false trails. Without that, there’s very little evidence, and all of it circumstantial.

    At one point, they eliminate a suspect with an american accent, because JtR was heard speaking, and no mention of an accent was made – well, what about Kosminksi – did he even speak English? If he did, might he not have had a very strong E European accent?

    I wonder if the programme makers started with the DNA theory, and looked for other evidence to support it, despite it being trashed by AR and others.

    Is that not how conspiracy theories are propagated? Reverse hypothesis?


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