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Jack the Ripper: Not solved yet Jul 14

The Times ventures as close as it can to closing the case with the headline Official: Jack the Ripper identified:

Chief Inspector Donald Swanson kept quiet for years but in retirement, frustrated that the murderer had escaped justice, could not resist scribbling notes in the margin of his boss’s memoirs, naming the man that they both believed had become the world’s most famous serial killer.

The suspect in question turns out to be Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who lived in Whitechapel, and this isn’t the great revelation portrayed in some of the papers today. Kosminski has been a suspect amongst Ripperologists for many years – the excellent Casebook website says he was first suggested as the killer in 1894 – and there is little new information in Swanson’s notes to prove Kosminski’s guilt. As the BBC says:

Polish-born Aaron Kosminski is not a new name among the countless suspects identified by police, journalists and historians down the years.

He became a suspect after he was allegedly spotted at the scene of the murder of Elizabeth Stride, believed to be the Ripper’s third victim.
Historical researcher Keith Skinner, an expert on the Ripper murders, says there are inconsistencies in Mr Swanson’s notes, such as his claim that Kosminski died at Colney Hatch in the 1890s.

In fact, he died at Leavesden Asylum, in north London, in 1919.

Kosmiski may have been guilty of the Ripper crimes (or of another attack to which he has been linked), but then, as now, it was all to easy to jump to the conclusion, in an area of high immigration, that the Ripper was One of Them rather than One of Us. This was aided by a notorious piece of graffito that accompanied the murder of Catherine Eddowes. It read:

The Juwes are
The men That
be Blamed
      for nothing.

The layout is sourced from this very detailed article evaluating Kosminski, which goes on to say:

The intended meaning of this sentence was the subject of much debate at the time of the murders. Sir Charles Warren admitted that the message was difficult to interpret, and speculated that its author was a foreigner. “The idiom does not appear to be English, French, or German,” he wrote, “but it might possibly be that of an Irishman speaking a foreign language. It seems to be the idiom of Spain or Italy.” In other words, Warren believed that the phrasing indicated the graffito was not written by a native English speaker. The favored interpretation at Scotland Yard, by Abberline and others, was that the graffito was a deliberate attempt by a non-Jew to cast blame on the Jews for the murder: in other words to say, “The Jews never accept blame for anything”.

I tend to the opinion that the identity of the Ripper will not – and cannot – ever be proved, and while the whodunnit element is intriguing and attention-grabbing, it is not all there is to the Ripper murders. Those investigating the case are uncovering the social history of the Victorian East End, the development of forensic policing, and the social attitudes of the people at the time.

Some more good articles about Kosminski: here, here (both on the Casebook site), and here.

2 Responses

  1. 1

    Kosminski is also evaluated as a suspect in Philip Sugden’s definitive ‘Complete History of Jack the Ripper’, and dismissed. The Swanson marginalia were published in 1987 in the Telegraph, so the Times article offers nothing new to “Ripperologists”. That Swanson was so definite about Kosminski’s identity adds some weight to the case that he was the Ripper, but there is no available evidence factually linking Kosminski to any of the murders. Sugden prefers George Chapman as the chief suspect.

    Anyway, we have all been told that Walter Sickert was the Ripper, as Patrica Cornwell definitively proved to her own satisfaction (if no-one else’s) in her hubristically titled ‘Case Closed’.

  1. […] Last week’s story about Aaron Kosminski piqued my interest and so at the weekend I watched Jack the Ripper, a three hour long 1980s TV adaptation of the story, starring Michael Caine. While taking care in places to feature lots of detail from the time, for the sake of drama it also takes some significant liberties with the truth and, like most dramatisations, has to identify a culprit (whose identity was somewhat given away by the order in which the cast was billed). Caine does well enough, but it can’t be said his protrayal of Frederick Abberline is any more realistic than Johnny Depp’s. […]