Naming Jack the Ripper: A Conversation with Russell Edwards

Russell Edwards is an entrepreneur, author, historian, and licensed psychotherapist from Regent's University, London (2017). Between 2007-2014, Russell dedicated a considerable amount of his time and financial resources to solving the infamous "Jack the Ripper" case, and out of that experience came his book Naming Jack The Ripper. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Russell and below you will find our exchange. My words are in bold, his are in italics.

First off Russell, I wanted to thank you for taking time out of what I'm sure is a very busy schedule to talk a little bit about your research on the "Jack the Ripper" case and your subsequent book Naming Jack The Ripper (Lyons Press, 2014). This is a book I couldn't put down, and the way you interwove the story of the Ripper murders as they are happening with the story of your investigation from 2007-2014 as it was happening was masterful. A little something my readers and friends don't know about me— up until this point is that I'm a major True Crime fan, and because of that, I was really excited to start reading your book which I had heard so much about.

If you could recount briefly what it was that made you so interested in Jack the Ripper specifically: Has this been a lifelong passion ever since you can remember, or was there a definite moment where you suddenly became interested, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

I first visited Brick Lane with my friend in 1989 when we used to visit the Beigel Bake. We were both students and would go for Beigels as part of the East End tradition. He lived in Bethnal Green at the time so it was pretty close. From there, we visited the curry houses of Brick Lane and I felt like it was a second home. When I watched the film ‘From Hell’ [2001, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham] I asked the question: Who was Jack the Ripper and where was this story based? After taking a Ripper tour, I realized that this was on the doorstep of the area I had been for 11 years. That’s where the journey started.

Your research centers around a shawl that was discovered at the scene of the murder of the Ripper's second (or as you contend, possibly third) victim, Catherine Eddowes. In the late 1880s, obviously the value placed on clothing as evidence was very little, as advances in forensic science such as DNA testing wouldn't come about for another century. You note in your book that often the clothes of murder victims during this period would be turned over to the relatives very quickly. In the case of the "Eddowes shawl" however, a police officer by the name of Amos Simpson asked if he could keep it for his wife who was a dressmaker because he thought she would find use for it (she would reject this gift of her husband's, saying more or less "No I don't want that thing, that's gross.") How did you come to possess the shawl 119 years later and what, exactly, is its significance? Did it even belong to Catherine Eddowes?

Back at the time of the murders, police investigations were in their infancy. All evidence was burned, the murder scenes cleaned, so nothing was left. The shawl was given to Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson who was on Fenian duties in Mitre Square. He asked if he could have the shawl and he was allowed to take it. If he hadn’t done this, there would be no evidence left at all. His wife didn’t want it, so it was given to his niece. It was then passed down the family to the final owner, who I bought it off through an auction house in Bury St Edmunds. As it would happen, this is the only piece of evidence left and I happen to be the owner.

At the end of the book you have the shawl tested and the epithelial cells (which line numerous organs, but exit from the urethra during ejaculation) turn out to match Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old Polish Jewish immigrant who had been a suspect early on in the Ripper investigation and who was later committed to an insane asylum where he remained until his death in 1919. You matched him through a woman who was the descendant of his sister Matilda, I believe. But besides the DNA match, what other circumstantial connections are there between the shawl and Kosminski? In the absence of the ability to test the shawl, and without even knowing how important the shawl was, how did the police of the day come to suspect Kosminski? And did anyone from the City Police, Met, or Scotland Yard contact you during your investigation and voice their ideas as to who the Ripper was, Kosminski or otherwise? (I realize now that I've just thrown you three questions in one, but answer what you wish however you wish).

Okay. I have to be careful here as I’m tied to a confidentiality agreement for a huge private project I am undertaking. This is what I can tell you: The two men in charge of the case named him through marginalia and memoirs. During my investigation process, I found that the shawl wasn’t owned by Catherine, but rather the murderer himself. There was traces of semen found on the shawl which could have only been placed there by him. At this stage I can’t give any more information as I’m tied to a contract.

 Russell Edwards, author of  Naming Jack the Ripper , holding up the shawl.

Russell Edwards, author of Naming Jack the Ripper, holding up the shawl.

 Book signing.

Book signing.

No worries. Your book was published with a lot of excitement and fanfare. The London Evening Standard wrote at the time, "The man behind the grisly killing spree in London’s East End has been unveiled as Aaron Kosminski." The BBC said flatly in its very first line of their article announcing the book's publication, "The identity of Jack the Ripper has been revealed in a new book by author Russell Edwards." And Metro, even more extensively, proclaims "The most infamous serial killer in history has been identified as a relatively underwhelming Polish madman called Aaron Kosminski, who was committed to a mental asylum at the height of the Ripper hysteria... The breakthrough came when a scientist, using cutting-edge technology, matched DNA evidence on a shawl found at one of the crime scenes with descendants of Kosminski."

Since then, however, a number of Ripperologists and other academics have criticized your findings, including those cited in the Independent, claiming that Jari Louhelainen, the scientist who carried out the DNA testing, made an "error of nomenclature", and have also said that because so many people had handled the shawl over the past hundred years, that there was no possible way you could extract Kosminski's DNA (even though you matched DNA from the shawl with one of his living descendants).

For me, this criticism seems motivated more by denialism than by genuine scientific concern. It's no secret that an entire "Ripper industry" has sprang up in the East End since the time of the murders, and I get the sense that there's this fear that if the identity of "Jack" is finally revealed, then those tourism dollars dry up. I remember taking a trip to Dealey Plaza on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, and looking around at all the tables lining the street that belonged to various conspiracy theorists selling their pamphlets and self-published books, and thinking "Even if the Kennedy assassination were to be conclusively solved tomorrow, it still wouldn't be. At this point it's been so long that not only have people developed their own theories and become cemented to them, but now they're profiting off of those theories to the point where they'll never accept the truth if it ever were to come out and be something totally different." What makes the conclusion of your case overwhelming regarding this mystery, to me, is the amount of circumstantial evidence that corroborates the DNA results. It would be one thing if you were relying solely on the DNA test, but Russ, you don't. This book is filled with other circumstantial, and even direct, evidence linking Kosminski to the Ripper murders (including a fellow Jew who witnessed one of the Ripper murders positively identifying Kosminski as the Ripper, but refusing to testify against him for religious reasons). So what is your response to your critics about the alleged "error of nomenclature"? And more broadly speaking, do people just not want to let go of the mystery?

Well put. The Ripper world do not want this to be solved as their lives seem to gravitate around this story. We put only one of the markers in the book and I tried to simplify it for the general reader. These people incorrectly latched onto this and gave a false story that we were wrong. I spent a further year with the legal team to take all of these people to court, (including the Independent), however, they could fall back on a statement that it was only their ‘opinion’ and not fact. So, I decided to take the matter further with the latest project (this I can’t talk about). All I can tell you is that we have nailed him 100%.

Even with the Ripper mystery solved— and I do believe you've solved it— I don't think widespread acceptance of the Ripper being Kosminski would affect East End tourism, or the "Ripper legend", to put it a bit crassly. Because even though these were real murders of real women, the nature of the crimes fit in very neatly with the "Penny Dreadfuls" of the day and with the Jekyll & Hyde imagery that took such a strong hold over the Victorian imagination. But in a world that's seen significantly more serial killers since Jack the Ripper— as an American I think of Zodiac, the Black Dahlia, and "The Town That Dreaded Sundown"— why are we still fascinated by him?

The fascination circles around the myth, not the murders. If we were to have a tour of the Yorkshire Ripper, or the Moors Murders, it would be distasteful. I set up a tour to tell the truth. However, I was informed that there was a better way to do this, which is what I’m doing now. The murder scenes in their original state have all long gone now, but the tourist industry thrives on walking around the area that is hardly representative of what it was in 1888.

Russell Edwards thank you very much, it's been a real pleasure.

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You can find Russell's book, Naming Jack The Ripper, on my Recommended page under "History".

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