How amateur sleuth used DNA breakthrough to identify Britain’s most notorious criminal Jack the Ripper, 126 years after string of terrible murders
It is the greatest murder mystery of all time, a puzzle that has perplexed criminologists for more than a century and spawned books, films and myriad theories ranging from the plausible to the utterly bizarre.
But now, thanks to modern forensic science, we can exclusively reveal the true identity of Jack the Ripper, the serial killer responsible for at least five grisly murders in Whitechapel in East London during the autumn of 1888.
DNA evidence has now shown beyond reasonable doubt which one of six key suspects commonly cited in connection with the Ripper’s reign of terror was the actual killer – and we reveal his identity.
A shawl found by the body of Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper’s victims, has been analysed and found to contain DNA from her blood as well as DNA from the killer.
The landmark discovery was made after businessman Russell Edwards, 48, bought the shawl at auction and enlisted the help of Dr Jari Louhelainen, a world-renowned expert in analysing genetic evidence from historical crime scenes.
Using cutting-edge techniques, Dr Louhelainen was able to extract 126-year-old DNA from the material and compare it to DNA from descendants of Eddowes and the suspect, with both proving a perfect match.
The revelation puts an end to the fevered speculation over the Ripper’s identity which has lasted since his murderous rampage in the most impoverished and dangerous streets of London.
In the intervening century, a Jack the Ripper industry has grown up, prompting a dizzying array of more than 100 suspects, including Queen Victoria’s grandson – Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence – the post-Impressionist painter Walter Sickert, and the former Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone.
It was March 2007, in an auction house in Bury St Edmunds, that I first saw the blood-soaked shawl. It was in two surprisingly large sections – the first measuring 73.5in by 25.5in, the second 24in by 19in – and, despite its stains, far prettier than any artifact connected to Jack the Ripper might be expected to be. It was mostly blue and dark brown, with a delicate pattern of Michaelmas daisies – red, ocher and gold – at either end.
It was said to have been found next to the body of one of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes, and soaked in her blood. There was no evidence for its provenance, although after the auction I obtained a letter from its previous owner who claimed his ancestor had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there.
Yet I knew I wanted to buy the shawl and was prepared to pay a great deal of money for it. I hoped somehow to prove that it was genuine. Beyond that, I hadn’t considered the possibilities. I certainly had no idea that this flimsy, badly stained, and incomplete piece of material would lead to the solution to the most famous murder mystery of all time: the identification of Jack the Ripper.
When my involvement in the 126-year-old case began, I was just another armchair detective, interested enough to conduct my own extensive research after watching the Johnny Depp film From Hell in 2001. It piqued my curiosity about the 1888 killings when five – possibly more – prostitutes were butchered in London’s East End.
Despite massive efforts by the police, the perpetrator evaded capture, spawning the mystery which has fulled countless books, films, TV programs and tours of White-chapel. Theories about his identity have been virtually limitless, with everyone from Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, to Lewis Carroll being named as possible suspects. As time has passed, the name Jack the Ripper has become synonymous with the devil himself; his crimes setting the gruesome standard against which other horrific murders are judged.
I joined the armies of those fascinated by the mystery and researching the Ripper became a hobby. I visited the National Archives in Kew to view as much of the original paperwork as still exists, noting how many of the authors of books speculating about the Ripper had not bothered to do this. I was convinced that there must be something, somewhere that had been missed.
By 2007, I felt I had exhausted all avenues until I read a newspaper article about the sale of a shawl connected to the Ripper case. Its owner, David Melville-Hayes, believed it had been in his family’s possession since the murder of Catherine Eddowes, when his ancestor, Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson, asked his superiors if he could take it home to give to his wife, a dressmaker.
Incredibly, it was stowed without ever being washed, and was handed down from David’s great-grandmother, Mary Simpson, to his grandmother, Eliza Smith, and then his mother, Eliza Mills, later Hayes.
In 1991, David gave it to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum, where it was placed in storage rather than on display because of the lack of proof of its provenance. In 2001, David reclaimed it, and it was exhibited at the annual Jack the Ripper conference. One forensic test was carried out on it for a Channel 5 documentary in 2006, using a simple cotton swab from a randomly chosen part of the shawl, but it was inconclusive.
Most Ripper experts dismissed it when it came up for auction, but I believed I had hit on something no one else had noticed which linked it to the Ripper. The shawl is patterned with Michaelmas daisies. Today the Christian feast of Michaelmas is archaic, but in Victorian times it was familiar as a quarter day, when rents and debts were due.
I discovered there were two dates for it: one, September 29, in the Western Christian church and the other, November 8, in the Eastern Orthodox church. With a jolt, I realized the two dates coincided precisely with the nights of the last two murder dates. September 29 was the night on which Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were killed, and November 8 was the night of the final, most horrific of the murders, that of Mary Jane Kelly.