I’m no Ripperologist, but it would be hard to to have gone online the past week without discovering that, once again, the identity of the world’s most notorious serial killer has been scientifically revealed. This time the Polish hairdresser Aaron Kosminski is the culprit, his DNA having been positively identified on a shawl belonging to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The evidence comes out in a new book by Russell Edwards, and while we’ve been here before — Patricia Cornwell, anyone? — perhaps the case really has been cracked.
Out of curiosity I went down to the basement late last night and dug out Philip Sudgen’s monumental The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, which happens to be the only book I own on the subject, and re-read his chapter on Kosminski. For years following his retirement, Sir Robert Anderson, formerly Assistant Commissioner of the Met, dropped broad hints in his memoirs and elsewhere that the case had been solved and the Polish Jew responsible for the crimes had died in an insane asylum. While he stopped short of naming Kosminski, there is little doubt who he meant.
That seems to make the latest revelation seem anti-climatic. Everybody on the force knew it was Kosminski, if Anderson is to be believed. But Sudgen doesn’t think Anderson is to be believed. He goes to great lengths dismantling the supposed case against Kosminski, even enlisting Winston Churchill (who savaged Anderson’s memoirs in the House of Commons, characterizing the Assistant Commissioner as a self-aggrandizing blowhard). By the time Sudgen is done it’s hard to take Aaron Kosminski seriously as a Ripper suspect. And yet, perhaps Anderson was right all along, despite Churchill, Abberline, Macnaghten — and for that matter Sudgen.
The advantage of being a reader and writer of crime fiction is not needing to rely on anything as pedestrian as scientific testing to arrive at a verdict. The Ripper case, as far as I’m concerned, has been solved ever since the publication of Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in which Dr. Watson catches the celebrated consulting detective in the very act at Miller’s Court. (At least, I think he does. It’s been awhile since I read the book. What I do recall is that Dibdin’s pastiche made an awful lot of sense.)
You may object that Sherlock Holmes cannot have been the killer. He is, after all, made up. He’s just a fictional character. True enough. The thing is, after a hundred and twenty-odd years, not to mention countless books and movies, can’t the same thing be said more or less of Jack the Ripper himself?