We’ve finally done it. After decades of professional and amateur sleuths pouring over every available bit of evidence and running through the scenario and suspects, the identity of the serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper” has been uncovered.
And it was all thanks to a 150-year-old shawl that had DNA evidence linking the murders to a 23-year-old barber!
Hold on. DNA? From the 19th century?
If that idea gave you pause, you’re not the only one.
Geneticist Dr. Adam Rutherford had some words about this finding.
Dear all, A thread on bad science: The story doing the rounds about the identification of Jack the Ripper via DNA from a shawl is doing the rounds again.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
The paper in question can be found here, and details how the researchers extracted the DNA from the shawl and matched it to their supposed suspect for the Ripper.
However, there’s a number of issues in calling this definitive.
I asked him if this evidence would stand up in court if the murder had taken place recently, and he said no. So why do we even vaguely consider that 130 years later it would be valid?— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
Dr. Rutherford starts by saying he asked the author of the paper if the technique were applied to a modern murder, would the evidence hold up in court?
The author said no.
Well, the shawl is still important right?
Furthermore, even if it was really present at the murder scene, and bizarrely was kept (none of Catherine Eddowes' other clothes were), and kept unwashed, the way it has been handled since would render DNA analysis cripplingly problematic.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
The shawl is itself a hotly debated piece of evidence. Even if it can be proven to be the same one at a murder scene, the shawl has not been exactly handled with the same kind of attention most evidence would get today.
The modern owner of the shawl himself has been photographed holding it with his bare hands.
There is a significant likelihood of contamination.
As this has been doing the rounds, another Ripper historian has claimed that the shawl was in the back of his cortina for a few years and in his shed - also not great for getting quality DNA off it.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
The paper and much of the news reporting on this study have not talked about how usable the evidence on the shawl is to identify Jack the Ripper.
Modern day forensics require samples to be as uncontaminated as possible, and even then, can come back inconclusive. The fact this shawl is so old, dubious in origin, and has been handled by bare minimum, modern people with their hands throws the findings into question.
Or, as Dr. Rutherford suggests, make them not even worth discussing.
In short, this is terrible science, and terrible history. It doesn't warrant discussion in the popular press, let alone in an academic journal.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
DNA evidence used properly is one of the best methods we have to link people to locations, but it is very possible to get wrong as well. Outside of contamination, making assumptions about where the DNA sample came from can also lead us down the wrong path.
Dr. Rutherford’s analysis struck a chord, as people chimed in with their thoughts on the matter.
Tweet of the day.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
Oof, I've had to review a shroud article. And yes, it's just as shaky as this.— Kristina Killgrove (@DrKillgrove) March 19, 2019
Exactly 👍— David Bartlett (@DB_hereatlast) March 19, 2019
I disagree. From Hell was meticulously researched, and half of the book is footnotes. It is fiction no doubt, but Alan took the research very seriously, working I believe alongside Peter Ackroyd.— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) March 18, 2019
The Whitechapel murders are a horrendous black mark on history that intrigues people to this day. But in the end, we have to remember that it wasn’t some supernatural serial killer that was important, but the loss of five innocent lives, targeted by the mere virtue of society pushing them to the outskirts.