Ripped From the Headlines: A Discussion About the Latest Jack the Ripper News

Last month, new discoveries about the identity of Jack the Ripper hit the news and, as expected, debate took over about the validity of the claim, specifically the items and processes involved. Coincidentally, the day the story broke I attended a panel discussion entitled "The Science of Justice: A Matter of Opinion?" hosted by the World Science Festival. This event focused on the role of forensics in contemporary justice, mainly in the U.S. with some mention of practices in other westernized nations. Topics included how the practice of forensic science evolved, the phenomenon of false confessions, the validity of eyewitnesses, and the psychology behind our beliefs. The Jack the Ripper news was top of my mind at this event, and it got me marinating some questions. So, as your intrepid blogger, I contacted some of the panelists to get their takes on the latest Jack the Ripper developments, and other related queries...

Before we get started, here is some key information:
  • "Jack the Ripper" is the moniker for a supposed serial killer presumed responsible for the murder of five women (and possibly more) in the Whitechapel section of London during 1888.
  • To date there has been no official attribution of these crimes to any single named individual. Speculation has been rife, including doctors, authors, landed gentry, immigrants, petty criminals, and countless others.
  • U.K. businessman Russell Edwards privately funded his own investigation into the Jack the Ripper case, culminating in the claim that the identity of the murderer is Aaron Kosminski, who was a suspect in the original police investigation. Edwards funded genetic testing of a blood and semen stained shawl alleged to belong to one of the victims, which he purchased at auction. He recently published a book titled, Naming Jack The Ripper, detailing his journey to this discovery. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book...yet.)
  • Dr. Jari Louhelainen of Liverpool John Moores University (UK) conducted the scientific testing.
  • The validity of this announcement is being debated due to issues concerning the provenance of the stained shawl, and the precise scientific processes. The findings have not been published in any peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Ok, let's go...

Dr. Saul Kassin is a psychologist, professor, and the world-renowned expert on "false confessions." When he and I spoke my initial question fizzled out, but the tangential conversation yielded some interesting nuggets about forensic confirmation bias. In speaking with Dr. Kassin, I was hoping to gain some insight into what might have been the psychological motivations for Russell Edwards to make this claim.

I started off with the following:

The claims of the Jack the Ripper identification are being challenged due to the provenance of the stained shawl and the lack of peer reviewed scientific findings. There are the obvious gains in making a claim like this one, money, fame, etc...but in your experience, have you found that there are other psychological motivations for pinning a crime on another person? Particularly when the person making the claim has no real affiliation with the crimes in question, and it's not a matter of deflection from one's own guilt?

This line of questioning essentially led to Dr. Kassin saying, that in his opinion, "There's always a gain, but what it is may not always be easy to see at first." He gave examples of jailhouse leniency, monetary gains, and even instances of satisfying one's own curiosity, and this last example is what led to our conversation about "forensic confirmation bias." Kassin published a paper about forensic confirmation biases in 2013, and summed it up for my purposes as, "if there is a belief that a person committed a crime, all evidence is seen through that psychological filter."

Kassin continued to say that Russell Edwards sounds like a "passionate academic," but that the outstanding questions are, "to what end is he truly wanting to solve the problem, or is he just wanting to prove his own theory? Does he want to solve a problem in open-ended scientific process? Or was he committed to his own hypothesis? What did he do to blind himself to bias so as not to become a part of a problem? Did he take the steps that a real scientist would take to exclude himself from the outcome?"

Exploring these questions as they pertain to Mr. Edwards' efforts and subsequent proclamations, it seems they remain unanswered. Did Russell Edwards approach the Jack the Ripper case as a responsible social scientist? Or, as a passionate hobbyist? Simply, we don't know.

Next up, I emailed with Peter Neufeld. He is a practicing lawyer who specializes in civil rights issues, and a co-founder of The Innocence Project, a non-profit that helps the wrongfully convicted prove innocence through DNA testing. I approached Mr. Neufeld with the following questions:

Your work with The Innocence Project focuses on exoneration. But the questions I have are kind of a twist on that. In a sense, the inverse corollary of the wrongful conviction of a living person, would be the posthumous attribution of criminal behavior to a legally innocent person? As an advocate for the innocent, what is your take on posthumous criminal attribution? What, if any, are the legal implications for posthumous criminal claims?

Mr. Neufeld promptly replied with, "The short answer is that science and truth trump death. If new scientifically valid information comes to light either clearing or implicating someone now deceased, then so be it."

He followed this remark with an invitation to speak more about this topic at a later date. Stay tuned for more on this...Do our rights die when we die?

Finally, I spoke briefly with Eric Siegel, who is the Director and Chief Content Officer of the New York Hall of Science. In his opinion, it wasn't of much concern that Edwards and Louhelainen's findings haven't found their way into a peer-reviewed journal. He said, "A scientific journal is unlikely to take this case since it's merely an application of DNA identification, and that's a mature technology. There's nothing 'new' about the research process, it's simply an identification." He went on to comment about the role of using DNA identification in this case, "The real distinction is the fundamental role of DNA and how it is a fully developed science as opposed to other methods of collecting and analyzing forensic evidence."

We chatted a little more, and since his work spans both art and science, and largely focuses on translating science for a wider general public audience, I wanted to get his take on why Jack the Ripper has such a sustaining cultural legacy? He said, "I don't have a good answer for why the legacy of Jack the Ripper has captured the imagination of the public." So perhaps, I'll leave that question for the psychologists...

Despite these latest identification claims, Jack the Ripper, the character, the legend, and the mystery have become an industry, and it's unlikely that legacy will change. Speculation, doubt, capitalism, and simply the love of a good unsolved mystery will probably keep the debate about Jack the Ripper's identity going for years to come.

And, in closing, lest we forget amid this contemporary conversation that in 1888 five women lost their lives in a brutal and tragic manner. May the victims, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride, Annie Chapman, Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, and any others as yet unnamed, Rest in Peace.