Jack the Ripper And The Case For Scotland Yard's Prime Suspect
Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard's Prime Suspect
Author: Robert House
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (May 3, 2011)
The book comes with a stunning cover that shows the steeple of St. Mary’s Church, Spitalfields overlaid with twisted tree branches that might almost mirror the fractured nature of Aaron Kosminski’s mind. The book contains some bravura research by Robert House and his researcher, Chris Phillips, who have marshalled all of the available genealogical information on Kosminski and his immediate family as well as on the various businesses with which the Kosminskis were associated and where the businesses and the various family residences were located. Some of the Polish birth certificates for the Kosminskis were previously published by House in Ripperologist (Robert House, "The Kozminski File", Ripperologist no. 65, March 2006). The author publishes background information on the conditions in Poland that led to the emigration of Jewish families as the Russian Tsarist state tightened control over Poland following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Jews who were complicit in plots against the state were executed and others persecuted and subject to pogroms. Of course, when the Eastern European Jews flooded into London’s East End they only exacerbated already crowded and poor conditions in the area, as recounted by the author.
Around 100 pages of the book are given up to a solid recounting of the facts of the Whitechapel murders and the text is supplemented by three nice sections of illustrations which include appropriate photographs of Kosminski documents and locations in Poland and the East End, and of documents and other items related to the murders.
As Robert House writes, three top Scotland Yard officials say Kosminski was a leading suspect: Sir Melvin Macnaghten, in his memorandum of 1894 (though naming two suspects, Druitt and Ostrog, to which he seemed to give equal weight), Sir Robert Anderson, in his 1910 memoirs, The Lighter Side of My Official Life, in which he indicated that an unnamed poor Polish Jew was his leading suspect; and Sir Robert’s subordinate Chief Inspector Donald S Swanson, who states in handwritten annotations to his boss’s book, made at an unknown date, that the suspect that Anderson means was “Kosminski” but without mentioning that suspect’s first name, which might leave some room for doubt whether Aaron Kosminski was in fact meant.
Although House favors Aaron Kosminski as a suspect, he admits that not all the facts hang together, even if we grant that the story of an attempted identification of the man by a Jewish witness who recognised the suspect but would not testify unfolded just as Anderson and Swanson indicate. Indeed, the author strongly points out the problems of researching this suspect: “Researching the life of Aaron Kozminski has proved to be a difficult undertaking. There is no known photograph of him, and what documentation has survived is riddled with apparent contradictions. . . . Overall, one gets the impression of a man who seems to have barely existed at all.”
House goes on to note, “Although he was arguably Scotland Yard’s top Ripper suspect, there is no dossier on him in the extant police files on the case. . . . Admittedly the explanation for this is probably an innocent one, because many of the files were lost, destroyed or ‘borrowed’ over years.” He then says darkly, “Was it merely an accident that files on Kozminski were ‘lost?’” Included among the lost information is 16 years of files for Kosminski’s stay in Leavesden Asylum, and he says, “One begins to wonder whether this vanishing act was by design. . .” Is this paranoia on the author’s part—or is there reason to be suspicious about this absence of records on this major suspect? The lack of files is explicable, though. There are no files on any suspects, for whatever reason.
As part of his account of the case, House discusses the Dear Boss letter, the Saucy Jack letter, and the Lusk (“From Hell”) letter that came with the half a kidney allegedly from fourth canonical victim Catherine Eddowes. The author appears to side with those former Scotland Yard officials who thought that Dear Boss and Saucy Jack were journalistic inventions.
Perhaps more interesting and pertinent is his treatment of the Goulston Street graffito which is often dismissed by today’s Ripperologists as a piece of coincidental graffiti not written by the murderer. House by contrast seems to indicate that it could well have been left by a Jew such as Kosminski. He notes that in Eastern Europe the Jews were blamed for the killing of the Tsar and for pogroms in which they themselves were the victims, and then were blamed in early September 1888 for the Ripper crimes with the scare over “Leather Apron”—a clearly Jewish suspect. He writes, “In 1888, an East End immigrant Jew might very well have said ‘We are being blamed for nothing!’” As for the bloodied piece of Eddowes’ apron found below the graffito, he notes, “the apron was deposited along themost direct route toward Aaron Kozminski’s home on Greenfield Street.” A short chapter on “Geographic Profiling” makes the point that given that Kosminski lived in the neighbourhood, this would have given him easy access to all of the murder locations.
In the end, Robert House sensibly makes no definitive claim for Kosminski’s guilt. He states, “Our knowledge remains too fractured, and there is too much room for reasonable doubt.” House’s point that because Kosminski was first admitted to Mile End Old Town Workhouse on 12 July 1890 “presumably. . . because he was exhibiting signs of insanity” leaves open the possibility that Kosminski was not insane during the time of the most famous Jack the Ripper murders: August to November 1888.
This review originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 120, May 2011. Copyright © 2011 Ripperologist.