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Jack the Ripper, One of Us? No, Thanks.

Was Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious murderers of all time, and the subject of more than 125 years of ongoing investigations into his identity, Jewish? This allegation, as old as the crimes themselves, was given new life with the publication in September of Russell Edwards’s book “Naming Jack the Ripper,” the latest in a long line of books claiming to have cracked the ultimate historical whodunit.

While others have pointed accusatory forefingers at numerous celebrities (see sidebar), Edwards’s suspect is Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jewish hairdresser and violent lunatic who spent the last three decades of his life in an asylum. Edwards asserts that he has proved Kosminski’s guilt by conclusively matching DNA on a shawl found near one of the victims, Catherine Eddowes, to the genetic fingerprint of one of Kosminski’s living relatives. Edwards’s assertions have been disputed vigorously, with a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent reporting that the scientist who did testing for Edwards made a serious error.

Image by Wikimedia Commons

As early as 1894, Kosminski was named as a suspect for the butchering of five prostitutes in the East End of London in 1888. The search for the murderer led not only to scapegoating the vibrant East End Jewish community, but also to important contributions to the case by Jewish lawmakers and volunteers.

Blaming Jews for the Ripper murders began almost immediately in 1888. After the murder of the Whitechapel prostitute Annie Chapman, whose body was found mutilated, suspicions centered on a Jewish boot finisher, John Pizer, known as Leather Apron, rumored to have treated prostitutes violently. Angry mobs searched the streets for Pizer, but he was found to have a solid alibi.

Next, an anti-Semitic butcher alleged that the murderer was a shochet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer. The East End Jewish leadership succeeded in getting a police surgeon to state publicly that “he has examined the knives used by the Jewish slaughterers” and was “thoroughly satisfied that none of them could have been used.”

The London East End at that time was home to more than 100,000 Jews, bolstered by a recent influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Accusations of murderous culpability came on top of hostility to Jews seen as taking away jobs and housing from non-Jews. The Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s oldest Jewish newspaper still in existence, observed at the time that public displays of prejudice “forcibly brought home to us the genesis of the anti-Jewish outbreaks which still occasionally occur abroad, and which were not unknown in England in ancient times.”

Scapegoating the Jews was also a product of the belief that, as the newspaper The Jewish Standard put it, “the brutality shown exceeds anything that could have been committed by an Englishman.” The suspicion of a Jewish Jack the Ripper led a correspondent for the London Evening News to comment that he overheard “slanderous and insulting remarks towards the Jews” on the streets of Whitechapel.

At the same time, the Jewish community took active steps to apprehend the Ripper. Half the members of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, a volunteer group patrolling the streets at night to find the killer, were Jewish; the first reward for the killer’s apprehension was offered by Samuel Montagu, the Jewish Member of Parliament for the East London district of Whitechapel. The Jewish Board of Guardians volunteered to assist Scotland Yard with a planned house-to-house search of Whitechapel.

Mysterious graffiti found on September 30, 1888, reinforced suspicions that a Jew was responsible. That night, the Ripper struck twice. Louis Diemschutz, steward of the International Working Men’s Educational Club, a center for Jewish radicals and unionizers, found the first victim, Elizabeth Stride, whose body had not been mutilated, as he was returning to the center. After the Ripper killed Catherine Eddowes less than an hour later, one constable found a scrap of bloody cloth in the entrance of a nearby apartment building. Above that garment, “The Juwes are not the men that will be blamed for nothing” was written on the wall in chalk.

When news of that discovery reached Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren, he ordered that the graffiti be erased to prevent “an onslaught upon the Jews” — and he destroyed it himself, as his subordinates refused, believing that Warren was eradicating key evidence. To others, the words were a clear reference to Diemschutz, blamed by the Ripper for disrupting his sadistic butchery (as his first victim didn’t have any mutilations.)

As months passed without any more murders by the same hand after the Ripper’s final killing in early November 1888, suspicions that he was really Jewish receded. But then Sir Robert Anderson, the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation department during the murders, claimed in his memoirs (published in 1910) that the Ripper “and his people were low-class Polish Jews.” Anderson accused the Ripper’s “people” of covering up his identity and of refusing to give him up “to Gentile justice.” His allegations were critiqued vigorously in The Jewish Chronicle. In a letter to the paper, Anderson somewhat backed off: “I am happy in reckoning members of the Jewish community in London among my personal friends.”

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the notes of another high-level Scotland Yarder were made public, bringing a Jewish suspect back to the limelight. Assistant Chief Constable Sir Melville Macnaughton joined the Yard in June 1889, after the last Ripper murder. He identified three suspects, including Kosminski, a Polish Jew and resident in Whitechapel. “He had a great hatred of women, specially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies,” Macnaughton wrote while cautioning that “no shadow of proof could be thrown on anyone.”

Because of the lack of actual proof of his guilt, Kosminski was discounted as a likely candidate for decades — until 1987, when a copy of Anderson’s memoirs was found. It contained handwritten margin notes by a chief inspector overseeing the Ripper case, indicating that an eyewitness identified Kosminski as the Ripper.

In his 2011 book, historian Robert House considers it plausible that anti-Semitism played a role in Kosminski becoming the Ripper, as Kosminski’s family fled Russian pogroms in 1881. “Most people who become serial killers had a history of witnessing violence, either in the home or in the community,” he writes. Kosminski was born in Poland in 1864 or 1865, and moved to England with his family as a teenager. Not much is known about his life in London, apart from the records of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, to which he was confined in 1891. The records say that he became a lunatic as a result of self-abuse, and that some time prior to his admission he was reported to have threatened his sister with a knife.

Locked Away: Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in London, where Aaron Kosminski spent the end of his life. Image by Wikimedia Commons

Like Anderson, House suggests that the Jewish community could have had a motive for concealing the Ripper’s identity, even though he knows of no evidence that anyone did so. “[A] Jewish witness would certainly have been aware of the potential consequences if it came out that Jack the Ripper was a Jew,” he writes, adding that the Jews worried about the threat of pogroms.

To date, experts still disagree about whether Kosminski was the Ripper. As more than two years passed between the last Ripper killing and Kosminski’s incarceration, an explanation for ending the killing spree remains elusive. Some Scotland Yarders pointed at other suspects, and disagreed about whether there was actually an eyewitness.

Speculation about Kosminski’s guilt in recent years has been fodder for anti-Semites. Following the publication of Edwards’s book in September, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Kosminski’s descendants feared anti-Semitic reprisals for their ancestor’s alleged crimes.

However, Edwards’s findings are based on mitochondrial DNA, which is not unique to the Kosminski family. They have not been independently verified, nor has someone objective been made privy to the identities of Kosminski’s living relatives. Moreover, as The Independent reported in October, testing errors disprove Edwards’s position that the DNA extracted from the shawl can be definitely linked to Ripper’s victim Eddowes. The police list of Eddowes’s possessions did not mention a shawl, according to Donald Rumbelow, author of “The Complete Jack the Ripper.”

And, writes Rumbelow, since it’s been a 126-year-long investigation, there’s another problem: The garment “has allegedly not been washed in 126 years, and must have been terribly contaminated.”

Lenny Picker, an attorney, has lectured on the Ripper case.

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