Jack the Ripper
April 24, 2008
THE CASE AGAINST AARON KOSMINSKI IN THE 1888 MURDERS IN WHITECHAPEL
“Jack the Ripper! Few names in history are as instantly recognizable. Fewer still evoke such vivid images: noisome courts and alleys, hansom cabs and gaslights, swirling fog, prostitutes decked out in the tawdriest of finery, the shrill cry of newsboys – and silent, cruel death personified in the cape-shrouded figure of a faceless prowler of the night, armed with a long knife and carrying a black Gladstone bag.”
Nothing entertains the public more than that of the most sensationally gruesome violence. There are very few instances where the public becomes so enamored with the past than with the case of the Murders committed in Whitechapel in 1888, by Jack the Ripper. While the Ripper’s activities cannot compare to his modern counterparts, like that of the Zodiac Killer, who remains anonymous as well, or John Wayne Gacy. However, the interest in the Ripper has not receded at all. The nature of the Ripper case has been able to keep it alive, in a sense– because people are striving to put all of the puzzle pieces together.
The Ripper’s identity has been the subject of hot debate for over a century now. Different scenarios have been used for many books and movies over the years, and still we are not tired of it. The fact is that there are so many holes in the evidence that has survived, and there is very little consensus on the identity of the perpetrator of these heinous acts of violence against women. It has been the subject of speculation for many years, and may never be conclusively solved. However, there are certain things that we can ascertain from the years of research and tedious labor of scholars and even the amateur detectives. One suspect in particular has been the subject of hot debate in the last few years, the Jewish Immigrant from Poland, Aaron Kosminski.
Kosminski was named a suspect in two different documents, Lady Abernathy’s copy of Magnaughten’s draft report of 1894 and the official version of that in the Scotland Yard’s cases papers, the former being briefer. It names Kosminski as a Polish Jew, who lived in Whitechapel, and describes him as having become insane due to “many years of indulgence in solitary vice.” It also states that “he had a great hatred of women, with strong homicidal tendencies,” and that “he was (and I believe still is) detained in a lunatic asylum about March 1889. (Sugden 399)” The two differ in their last statements Lady Abernathy’s copy read that he resembled the person seen by City PC near Mitre Square; whereas the official version states that “there were many circumstances connected with this man which made him a strong suspect (Sugden 400).”
Nearly 100 years later, a document came to light after the personal papers of Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson’s daughter died, which were passed on to his grandson. In Swanson’s copy of Anderson’s memoirs, which he annotated himself, on page 138, he mentioned that the witness was unwilling to cooperate because the suspect was also a Jew, and continued by saying “after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place.” Additionally, in the last pages in the book, he wrote that after the suspect had been identified, and was aware that he was identified, he had been watched by the police night and day. He then states that the suspect was sent to Stepney Workhouse, and then on to Colney Hatch, an asylum for the insane, and further states that Kosminski was the suspect (Sugden 400).
It was verified that Kosminksi had been committed to Colney Hatch, however the date that Sawnson and Macnaughten said that he had been committed was incorrect, as was the information that he had died shortly after. He entered Colney Hatch in 1891, and lived another twenty-eight years, having died in 1919.
In The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the author Phillip Sugden tries to exonerate Kosminski logically, through a deduction of who the witness was, who he believed was Joseph Lawende, and discrediting his identification. In a revision of his work, Sugden cites a study in which people are largely unsuccessful at sighting and identifying a suspect, and this only gets harder after a significant amount of time passes, in which it had been two years since the murders when the Seaside Home (Sugden 475). However, although the main link that ties Kosminski to the murders has been refuted, it does not rule him out as a possible suspect completely.
Robert House, in his article published in Ripperologist Magazine, “Aaron Kosminski Reconsidered,” goes through the history of Kosminski and the facts of the case, establishing him as a probable suspect based on several theories of psychological profiling and geographic profiling. While his work cannot be regarded as a factual assertion of Kosminski’s guilt, as it is merely conjecture, it is interesting to consider his contentions. While the article lacks strong analysis, it is a place to begin thinking about Sugden’s assertion that Kosminski was not capable of being the Ripper.
House argues that MacNaughten referred to the suspect as having “a great hatred of women, with strong homicidal tendencies”. He goes further to state that “it can be inferred from this that McNaughten had evidence or a statement to that effect which has become lost.” MacNaughten also says there “were many circumstances connected” with him that “made him a strong suspect.” House found it reasonable to assume that MacNaughten had some evidence to this effect, that has merely been lost in time, and that it seemed that he had no reason to be lying. Kosminski’s medical records even reported that there was an incident in which Kosminski threatened his sister’s life with a knife (Sugden 402). Sugden purports that during his extended stay in the asylum there was only one incident where he threatened an attendant, but that overall he was not violent, or that he was homicidal (Sugden 403). While these incidents may not be entirely indicative of his capacity for violence, it cannot be ruled out.
House goes further try and illustrate the possibility that Kosminski’s symptoms were typical among serial killers, by citing that “Aaron’s medical certificate declares that ‘he is guided and his movements altogether controlled by an instinct that informs his mind.” Sugden notes that his medical records said that he had hallucinations of sight and sound (Sugden 404). House ties this to Ted Bundy who said that there was a voice that incited attacks on certain people. This voice, House suggests, would be very much like Kosminski’s aural hallucinations.
Also, Kosminski’s peculiar relation with food, House considers, is consistent with other serial killer’s behavior. Kosminski believed that he was ill, and that he was told not to eat and refused meals, and ate “out of the gutter for the same reason.” While this has been used by Sugden to reinforce his idea that Kosminski was nothing more than indolent and harmless behavior. House notes the case of Richard Chase, who “believed in 1976 that his blood was being turned into powder, from soap dish poisoning, and that this meant that “he needed blood from other creatures to replenish it.” House states that: “both of these symptoms, aural hallucinations and ‘distorted perceptions’ are symptoms of schizophrenia. Numerous serial killers have been diagnosed as schizophrenics.” He goes further to define schizophrenia as beginning in teenagers and young adults, occurring mostly in withdrawn, and individuals that prefer to be secluded. Symptoms include disturbances of thought, both in form and content (see delusion), and disturbances of perception, most commonly appearing as visual or aural hallucinations.” House notes another Murderer, “Warren” from Resseler et al., who was “uncooperative, withdrawn, irritable, resentful and hostile”. House compares this with Kosminski’s medical records that state that he is “incoherent, at times excited & violent,” and “apathetic as a rule”. House goes further to state that he knows of no rule accounting for how serial killers act after being “caged.”
Moreover, House refers to the historical context of Kosminski’s immigration to Whitechapel, in which the Russian occupation of Poland had dire consequences for the Jews of the area. The Pale, in which the many Jews were forced to live. The country in which he lived was very hostile to Jews, pogroms designed to reallocate the wealth that Jews had accrued led to violence, rape, and murder. And while House makes a grandiose gesture to insinuate that it was possible that Kosminski might have even seen his own sisters raped, it goes without saying that what was happening would have a profound impact on a child. While it is possible, it is nothing more than conjecture, yet again. Having little knowledge to build on his formative years, leaves us in the dark.
House also notes that the places that Kosminski probably stayed in were consistent with the geographical dispersion of the crime scenes. Spitalfields was teeming with prostitution and crime, unlike some of the neighboring Jewish areas, and assumed that this was why Spital fields was where the Ripper targeted his victims.
House uses Canter’s “Routine Activity Theory” to make sense of Elizabeth Stride’s murder, which was outside of Spitalfields. Meaning that when the killer feels confident and comfortable “enough to kill with minimal risk” that would explain murders that occur outside the killer’s “normal activity space.” The opportunistic nature of these incidents, “often the result of little to no planning.” This, House states, could perhaps explain the hastiness and inconsistent details with her murder and the others. The site where Martha Tabrum was found was the closest, which could be significant, House contends, citing the FBI statement that serial killers were likely to kill first near their homes.
Kosminski could have definitely could have been Jack the Ripper, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest more than that he could have done it. Though I do not agree with House with a lot of fervor, he was right to question the sweeping generalization that concluded that Kosminski did not have it in him. It is entirely possible that he might have been the killer, but it is just as likely that someone else is. There is not enough known about the information that MacNaughten had about Kosminski to completely eliminate it as a possibility.
The mystery that enshrouds these cases makes it nearly impossible to conclude positively who Jack the Ripper was. This is the very reason why the Ripper still fascinates us, and that’s why I’m sure there will be a few more Jack the Ripper movies that are nothing like the others. The extreme variation in the theories on the Ripper will make sure that someone will continue to fill in the blanks of this miasmic case.
House, Robert. “Aaron Kosminski Reconsidered.” Ripperologist Magazine, March 2005. www.casebook.org/dissertations/robhouse-kosminski.html. April 24, 2008