The DNA community had some exciting news this past week about the identity of Jack the Ripper, notorious serial killer of prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888. In total, there were 11 murders potentially linked to Jack the Ripper, with 5 being considered the most likely to be positively his victims. He slit the throats of his victims, in some cases disemboweled them and mutilated their faces.
While there were many suspects and much speculation, the identity of the murderer was never established. Among the suspects was one 23 year old Polish immigrant, Aaron Kosminski. Aaron worked and lived in Whitechapel and was reportedly seen with one of the victims, but incriminating evidence was not given by the witness and he was released. In 1891 he was committed to an insane asylum, probably a paranoid schizophrenic, where he eventually died. He heard “solitary voices” and indulged in “unmentionable vices” which typically means activity of a sexual nature.
Last week, the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, ran a “world exclusive” article that Jack the Ripper has actually been identified as Aaron Kosminski utilizing DNA evidence found at the scene of one of the murders, that of Catherine Eddowes.
The reader’s digest version of the DNA part of the story is that a shawl was found with Catherine when she was murdered, although there is no evidence that the shawl was hers. It’s believed that the killer left the shawl for some unknown reason.
The first problem with this story is that there is no proof that this shawl was indeed found with the body. Catherine was so poor she reportedly hawked her shoes the night before, and the shawl in question was worth more than the shoes. She has also just been released from jail for drunkenness before she was found murdered, and no shawl was mentioned by anyone. Just the same, that doesn’t mean the shawl didn’t exist, and there is powerful DNA evidence, if it’s accurate, suggesting that this shawl was found exactly as stated, with Catherine’s body.
Russell Edwards purchased the blood-soaked shawl at auction, the shawl purportedly being found by a policeman the night of the murder and taken home to his wife, a dressmaker, who put it away unwashed. Edwards hoped to somehow use the shawl to prove it was not only authentic, but to identify Jack the Ripper.
Edwards contacted Dr Jari Louhelainen, a leading expert in genetic evidence from historical crime scenes who combines his day job as senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University with working on cold cases for Interpol and other projects. He agreed to conduct tests on the shawl in his spare time.
He was able to extract DNA from some of the blood on the shawl and eventually managed to obtain mitochondrial DNA results.
Edwards managed to track down an individual, Karen Miller, who descends from the same matrilineal line as Catherine Eddowes, her three times great-granddaughter, and the mitochondrial DNA matched. This is interpreted as confirming the identity of the blood on the shawl as that of Catherine.
Herein lies the second problem.
The article states that they “managed to get six complete DNA profiles from the shawl” and that they were “a perfect match.”
I’m assuming, here, and I passionately hate to assume, because we all know what assume does…but I’m assuming that they are referring to mitochondrial full sequences here, all 16,569 locations on the mitochondria. It would have been very helpful had they stated exactly what they tested.
They also don’t tell us what haplogroup they are working with. If this is haplogroup H, it’s possible to have hundreds of “exact matches” because haplogroup H, itself, comprises almost 50% of Europeans today. Of course, if they managed to sequence the entire mitochondria, the results would likely fall into a subclade, and some subclades are very rare, even within haplogroup H.
Because haplogroup H is so large, there is a great deal of diversity within H, and many of the subclades are small. Furthermore, some people have no “unusual markers,” and those people tend to have many more matches than people who do have “unusual markers.” Unusual markers are those mutations that have probably occurred in a family line and are not generally found in the majority of those of that particular subclade.
By way of example, here are the results from someone who is a member of haplogroup V, from eastern Europe. They do not fall into a subclade of V and they have several extra mutations and one missing mutation compared to what is typically found in haplogroup V participants.
This individual has 3 full sequence matches, two of which are exact matches, but neither of those lead to the same ancestor. This is a rather typical situation, not out of the ordinary.
The Ripper’s DNA
Another discovery on the shawl was that of semen, possible evidence of the Ripper himself. They enlisted the help of Dr. David Miller who found surviving epithelium cells, a type of tissue that coats organs, in this case, thought to have come from the urethra during ejaculation.
Here a quote from Dr. Louhelainen about the DNA findings from these cells.
“Then I used a new process called whole genome amplification to copy the DNA 500 million-fold and allow it to be profiled.
Once I had the profile, I could compare it to that of the female descendant of Kosminski’s sister, who had given us a sample of her DNA swabbed from inside her mouth.
The first strand of DNA showed a 99.2 per cent match, as the analysis instrument could not determine the sequence of the missing 0.8 per cent fragment of DNA. On testing the second strand, we achieved a perfect 100 per cent match.
Because of the genome amplification technique, I was also able to ascertain the ethnic and geographical background of the DNA I extracted. It was of a type known as the haplogroup T1a1, common in people of Russian Jewish ethnicity. I was even able to establish that he had dark hair.”
Here is the third problem.
This description seems to combine two types of sequencing. Now, that’s not a bad thing, it’s simply confusing. Based on the haplogroup of T1a1, we know that they sequenced mitochondrial DNA and that they did in fact manage to sequence it to the full sequence level. How do we know this? Because each mitochondrial haplogroup is designated by certain specific mutations. In this case, the final 1 of T1a1 is indicated by location 9899 in the coding region of the mitochondria – so in order to designate this individual as a member of haplogroup T1a1, they had to sequence the coding region. Again, we presume (the cousin of assume – with the same consequences) that they were able to successfully sequence the entire mitochondria.
Now for the fly in the ointment, I have not found this haplogroup in Russian Jewish people. In fact, the clients who I have done DNA Reports for who fall into this haplogroup are not Jewish – none of them, nor do they have Jewish matches. Neither does Dr. Behar identify this as a Jewish haplogroup in his founding mother’s paper. Nor is this identified elsewhere as a Jewish haplogroup. Of course, this Daily Mail article has no sources, so we can’t independently verify what was said, but it looks like this assertion of T1a1 typical of Jewish people may be in error.
However, from his discussion, we can also tell that additional sequencing has been done on the DNA retrieved, because you can’t determine traits like hair color without autosomal sequencing. Therefore, if the descendant is truly related to Jack the Ripper, then at least part of their autosomal DNA should match as well, and that was not addressed. If the autosomal DNA does not match, at least in part, then it calls into question the conclusions drawn by the mitochondrial DNA match.
We know that Kosminski was born about 1865 if he was 23 in 1888 when the crimes were committed. The DNA matches a descendant of his sister. Let’s assume, for purposes of argument that his sister was born about the same time. And let’s use the standard genealogy generation of 30 years. This means that the sister’s child was born in 1895, her child in 1925, her child in 1955 and maybe yet another child in 1985. That’s a total of 6 DNA transmission events to a common ancestor, being the parents of the Kosminski siblings. Therefore, Kosminski is the great-great-uncle to the child born in 1955. Therefore, the individual born in 1955 should share about 6.25 of their autosomal DNA with Kosminski. If they don’t, then there’s a problem.
If they do, then why didn’t the article tell us that. This information would, in essence, seal the deal – well, assuming all of the other presuming is remedied.
Is It True???
First, let me state that in science, I’m always very, very skeptical of publication via newspaper or internet, especially publication via tabloid. This has been fraught with problems. Debbie Kennett has covered this repeatedly on her blog. Another example is the announcement of Pict DNA being identified – published and never proven. I know of other cases in which DNA evidence is intentionally twisted, inaccurately, to fit the intentions of the publishing entity. So, yes, I’m a rabid skeptic without provable evidence.
I want to see this assertion go through the verification process with a second, reputable, lab. By reputable, I mean one not associated with any of these other questionable assertions. Then, I’d like to see the results published in an industry accepted journal. Yes, that takes time, and yes, there are questions to answer, but the resulting paper carries with it credibility that is impossible to obtain otherwise. Unfortunately, publishing results in a tabloid paper immediately causes me to question why they would have made that choice if they had solid proof.
Ok, now that I’ve said that, I want to address the question at hand. Is it true? Might it be true?
I’d like to make two points. First, while I used random examples of mitochondrial matching, this isn’t a random situation. This is a known individual in both cases, with known and I’m assuming, provable, genealogy to both Catherine Eddowes and to Aaron Kosminski. We’re not looking at random matches here and we’re not looking for a common ancestor. We know who the common ancestor is in both of these situations and we’re looking for matches to confirm that identity. This, by the way, is exactly how our armed forces identify remains of soldiers and repatriate them to the family. This uses the exact same premise – that we’re not looking for random matches, but for a match with a known family member of known provenance – with possibly, hopefully, family line mutations.
Now, let’s use a bit of math, which is sometimes, but not always, my friend.
I’m going to use two examples, haplogroup T1a1 and haplogroup J1c2f because it’s mine and I have easy access to those results. We know that the mitochondrial DNA attributed to Kosminski is T1a1 and we’ll just let mine stand in for Catherine Eddowes.
In the Family Tree DNA data base, haplogroup T represents 8.06% of the participants and haplogroup J, 7.77%. As of September 8, they have a total of 43,329 full sequence mitochondrial DNA results in their data base. I calculated the number of members of each haplogroup based on that percentage and then I checked the corresponding DNA project at Family Tree DNA. Then I checked to see how many occurrences of the subgroups of J1c2f and T1a1 were found and calculated the percentage of haplogroup J and T they represent. The total subgroup percentage is the percentage of J1c2f and T1a1 of the entire FTDNA full sequence population.
|% FTDNA||# Members||Hap Project #||#J1c2f/ T1a1||% of Hap Proj||Total % subgroup|
London’s population was estimated to be 1 million in 1800 and 6.7 million in 1900, so let’s use the figure of 6 million for 1888 as an estimate.
Of 6 million people, you would expect to find 600 people carrying haplogroup J1c2f and 7200 people carrying T1a1. Therefore to find two of those individuals whose DNA is found on the same scarf, who have a forensic tie, or a suspicion of a tie, is astronomically small.
If math is my friend today, we would multiple values of each haplogroup in the population together to find the odds of finding both in one place.
That would be .0001 times .0012, which equals 1.2e-7 which means, 0.00000012, in other words, about one in 1.2 billion. The population of the world in 1875 was calculated to be about 1.3 billion
So, assuming their work is accurate, and assuming that this isn’t a huge elaborate hoax, it’s very likely accurate, and Jack the Ripper is very probably Aaron Kosminski.
Where’s the Beef???
Remember the old Wendy’s refrain, “Where’s the Beef?’’
Well, I want to believe this story, especially since it’s such a feel good fairy tale story involving a Jack the Ripper hobbyist and DNA, of course. But I’m really left waiting for some kind of corroboration. Was it Carl Sagan that said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Well, they do and I really hope the authors will subject their findings to peer review and authenticate their claims. If this isn’t true, it’s a hugely elaborate and well-planned hoax perpetrated probably to sell a resulting book or movie which should, if that is true, be named “Jack the Ripoff.”
I want this to be true, and I want the authors to make a believer out of me. I want no presumes or assumes left standing. So….where’s the beef???