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Forensic Case Files: Jack the Ripper Finally Identified?

Apparently this is debunking science month here at Skeleton Keys. Last week, we looked at the bad science that led archeologists studying the Viking invasions of England to incorrectly identify the sex of buried remains. This week, I want to talk about the recent announcement that Jack the Ripper has been identified more than 125 years after the final murder took place. Several people asked my opinion on this case, and while I’m not an expert on Ripper mythology, I’m happy to tackle the scientific aspect of this announcement.

On September 6th, a story broke on the Daily Mail naming a Polish hairdresser, Aaron Kosminski, as Jack the Ripper (read the original story here). Russell Edwards, a self-appointed ‘armchair detective’ purchased a shawl supposedly found with the body of Catherine Eddowes, the fourth Ripper victim discovered on September 30, 1888. He approached Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, in hopes of recovering forensic evidence from the scarf to connect the killings to Kosminski. Kosminski had been one of the six main suspects at the time of the murders and Edwards ‘became convinced Kosminski was our man’. (Jen’s note—please keep in mind my opening explanation from last week’s article on the Viking shieldmaidens about how objective science proceeds. Convincing yourself of the end result before you begin is not a good start).

Upon examining the scarf. Louhelainen found traces of blood splatter and semen. Louhelainen extracted DNA from both using a supposedly novel technique called ‘vacuuming’, and, once again, mitochondrial DNA was used to determine the genetic line of the sample. A female descendant of Eddowes provided a DNA sample for comparison and was a perfect match to the blood spatter. A similar descendant of Kosminski (a mysterious, unnamed female whom Edwards claims to be protecting by leaving in anonymity) provided a sample which also resulted in a perfect match to the semen sample.

On this data alone, Edwards declares that Kosminski must be Jack the Ripper.

So where does this claim go off the rails for me?

  • The DNA was identified by a novel technique, one that has never been vetted or peer-reviewed in any way (although Louhelainen’s layman’s description of the technique is so basic that there must be more to it than simply soaking the fabric in buffer and sucking it back out again; that hardly seems like a novel technique as it’s fairly close to how we extract cheek swab DNA from filter paper). So where is the proof to the scientific community that this protocol actually does what Edwards claims? Scientific data is rigorously examined through a the process of peer review—a paper is written for an established scientific publication, then that paper is reviewed by fellow scientists in the field who will either accept the paper with revisions (I have yet to see a paper that doesn’t have even a few small comments on aspects to be fixed) or reject the paper. When that paper is published, it has been written with a Materials and Methods section so detailed that anyone reading the paper should be able to exactly replicate the procedure to get the same results given identical starting materials and conditions. But instead of Louhelainen writing a peer-reviewed article on the technique and its results, Edwards has written a layman’s book with no oversight to the scientific process. I can’t believe results only viewed by a privileged few. The entire study cannot be published as ‘data not shown’.
  • Assuming this is a legitimate technique, it has tested the DNA found on the shawl of one of the five victims only. This only proves contact with one of the victims and doesn’t scientifically link him to any of the others.
  • While the victim’s DNA was extracted from blood, Kosminki’s DNA was extracted from semen. This proves sexual contact of some kind, but in no way actually puts the knife in his hand. For all we know, when Kosminski left Eddowes following that encounter, she was alive and well. The DNA evidence also provides no information about timelines—the sexual encounter could have been minutes, days, weeks, or months before or after Eddowes’ death.
  • At the time of Eddowes’ death, Kosminski lived with his two brothers, both of whom would have had identical mitochondrial DNA from their mother. So perhaps it was not Kosminski’s semen, but instead, that of one of his brothers?
  • Kosminski’s descendant seems to be shrouded in mystery and apparently Edwards (and the descendant?) wish it to remain that way. As a result, no one else could possibly double check the results of the testing since they have no sample with which to compare the DNA extracted from the semen sample.
  • Call me cynical, but I'm suspicious of any science that comes out as a ‘perfect match’. Science almost never works out that way. Yes, mitochondrial DNA only passes down through the female line, but, over time, DNA naturally mutates and drifts and it is unlikely that 125 year old DNA would be identical to a modern sample. Within a 97 – 99% match, absolutely. But a perfect match? And to have two perfect matches, one to Eddowes’ descendant and another to Kosminski’s? Well… you get my drift. Science is simply not that exact. And once again, we can’t see the results ourselves to have a real opinion on it.
  • The Daily Mail article shows the scientists at work in the lab. Now, I realize this is an inside baseball kind of point, but I work down the hall from the lab of Dr. Hendrik Poinar, a world famous ancient DNA specialist who not only sequenced the Woolly Mammoth genome, but is currently working on Black Plague deaths in an effort to identify Y. pestis as the causative agent. I know the conditions his people work under—an ultra-clean room under negative pressure and enhanced personal protection (to keep the samples clean vs. protecting the lab worker in this case). Yet Louhelainen and his people are shown unrolling the scarf in a typical biosafety level I wet lab, next to an unrelated specimen and other various pieces of lab equipment and anatomical models. Add to this the fact that the scarf was handled by many people over the years (and supposedly never washed) and I’m not convinced that any starting material they collected was uncontaminated.
  • The provenance of the shawl itself has been called into question. Supposedly found at the scene with Eddowes’ body, it was never reported or entered into evidence. Instead, one of the investigating officers removed the bloodstained shawl to give to his wife as a gift. The wife was so horrified by the gift that she put it away and it was then handed down through four or five family generations before being sold to Edwards. But there is no official record of it ever being part of the original murder scene.

My biggest problem with this whole announcement—besides actually naming Kosminski as the Ripper when there is zero proof that he killed even this one woman—is the lack of data. Science works as a transparent system. Show me the DNA gels and then I’ll maybe be on board, but only as far as a DNA match goes. As far as I’m concerned, the identity of Jack the Ripper remains undetermined.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



Forensic Case Files: Viking Shieldmaidens, or How Forensic Anthropology Changed Our View of History

Nineth century Viking burial with sword and knife from Memorial Park, Islandbridge; Dublin, Ireland.It’s not very often that I rant about science, but, oh boy, the story that caught my attention this past week totally set me off. As a career scientist, my day job is all about having a hypothesis and then setting out to prove (or disprove) it. Sometimes you don’t get the results you thought you’d get, but, as I tell my grad students, your results are your results. They’re not wrong, they just are. If you included all of the appropriate controls and conducted the experiment properly at least twice, then this is the truth of the science. You don’t convince yourself of something; instead, the data leads the way to the study’s end result. This is how objective science works. Period.

Recently, researchers at the University of Western Australia decided that previous research teams weren’t being specific enough in their study of Viking remains. The research concerned graves found in England dating back to Viking invasions prior to the 10th century. It was believed that the overwhelming proportion of Vikings migrating to England at the time was male, with only a very few females in the party, often identified as camp followers. But personal and place names from the area as well as modern mitochondrial DNA relating back to that time implied that there must have been more women present than originally thought. Shane McLeod (currently at the University of Sterling) decided to study that disconnect more closely.

Previously, when examining remains within Viking graves, archeologists sexed the occupants simply by their grave goods—the presence of buried weapons indicated male remains, while females were identified by a traditional oval brooch. Some of this research was done before the science of osteology became well-established, but some publications dating into the 21st century still use grave goods as the only method of sexing remains. Despite having the knowledge at their fingertips to sex the remains based on well-established osteological markers—sex determination from either the skull or the pelvis—they based their conclusions that Viking invaders/warriors were comprised only of males from a superficial examination of the graves.

However, when the University of Western Australia team went back to actually examine the bones themselves, they determined that a full fifty percent of Vikings buried with weapons were actually women. Surprise!

A hundred years ago, it was not possible to use forensic anthropology techniques to determine skeletal age because the science was in its infancy and wasn’t understood to any great extent. But today, there is absolutely no reason to make gender-biased assumptions instead of stating scientific fact because the research team is only looking at part of the picture. Now, to be fair, sometimes remains are degraded because of age and weathering, but for remains with clear osteological markers, there is no excuse for not completing a full examination. In this case, out of the 14 skeletons examined, 6 were determined to be female, 7 were determined to be male, and only 1 was indistinguishable due to degradation of the remains.

Many saw this result as the battle cry of the Viking shieldmaiden. While the fact that some of the women were buried with weapons isn’t conclusive evidence of those same women fighting on the battlefield, the lack of grave weapons is also not conclusive that a particular woman was not a shieldmaiden. That part of the story is yet to be resolved. However, what is clear is that the current overwhelming view of men as the only Viking invaders of England is not correct. Thanks, forensic anthropology, for clearing that up!

Photo credit: Carrie Morgan


State Police Crime Lab Tour: Ballistics

In this final installment of my tour of the Springfield Massachusetts State Police crime lab, we’re going to cover ballistics. Lieutenant John Crane was our guide through the world of ballistics, which was an eye opener for me and my daughters who are all gun control-loving Canadians. In fact, when we told Lieutenant Crane that we’d barely ever seen guns and had certainly never held one, he immediately handed us several different ones. Maybe not a big deal for the Americans in the crowd, some of whom consider guns a daily part of life, but it definitely was a surreal experience for us!


  • The ballistics division has three primary roles:

1) Respond to shootings, reconstruct the scene, and collect all firearms’ evidence.

2) Test evidentiary firearms.

3) Compare fired items.

  • A ballistics officer will go to a victim’s autopsy to retrieve the evidence as it’s removed from the body. This maintains chain of custody.
  • The unit responds to all suicides by firearms simply for practice and to learn new ways for bullets to behave inside the human body.
  • Springfield has a population of 150,000. There is approximately 1 gun crime/week, and 15 - 20 murders/year are gun related. This number would be higher, but Springfield is home to one of the country’s top trauma hospitals (Bay State) and they save many victims who would likely die in other locations.
  • The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) is the AFIS equivalent for cartridge cases. It helps identify the cartridge, but it doesn’t actually put the gun in any one individual’s hands, so it has limited use.
  • There is only a 3% chance of successfully identifying a fingerprint from a gun. It is not possible to pick up a print from the textured grip, only from the barrel or the magazine. But the hot gases produced during firing can destroy the fingerprint and will absolutely destroy any DNA that might be on the firearm.
  • The ballistics division has three different ways to test-fire a gun for comparison of either the bullet or casing to the recovered evidence:

1) The snail—a very large metal box with an inner, snail-like curl. The bullet is fired into the box and circles through the curl to fall out, spent, at the end. The bullet gets flattened and is of no use for comparison, but the cartridge pops clear, so this is an excellent method for cartridge matching.

2) The water tank—a ten-foot long metal box filled with water with a firing tube at one end. Bullets up to .50 caliber can be fired into the tank, but hollow points bullets can’t be tested since they break apart only a foot or so into the tank. Otherwise, it’s an excellent firing tool for most handguns. Most bullets only go a few feet into the tank before falling to the bottom. Advice from the ballistics officer, Lieutenant Crane—if you’re being shot at, jump into the nearest body of water because it’s like firing into cement. (Jen’s aside—Mythbusters has confirmed this).

3) The cotton box—an eight-foot long metal box filled with rolled cotton, separated in one-foot dividers of cardboard, and with a firing tube at one end. When a bullet is fired into the box, it spins through the cotton, picking up strands until it becomes enmeshed in a ball of cotton and stops. When the bullet is retrieved, it’s in absolutely pristine condition for direct comparison. This is the only way to test fire hollow point bullets.

  • The ballistics officers use a two-headed Olympus microscope with an attached digital readout for performing evidentiary comparisons (see above photo). Lieutenant Crane was kind enough to go through a comparison for us and even showed us the evidence from a fatal shooting just the week before. When comparing evidence, officers like to have two different areas of agreement, but one extremely strong area of agreement will be sufficient if that’s all they can get. A minimum of two people have to check the evidence to agree with the match.

All in all it was a fascinating tour and I definitely got some new ideas for upcoming novels. Thank you once again to Detective Lieutenant Holleran, Sergeant Heffernan and Lieutenant Crane for taking the time to introduce us to their real world forensics!

Photo credit: Jack of Spades

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques: http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? Sto by http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/2014/09/auction-item-36-jen-j-danna-books.html and bid for your chance to find out long before everyone else. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!


State Police Crime Lab Tour: Evidence and Criminalistics

It’s part two of our series based around my tour of Springfield’s Massachusetts State Police crime lab. Today, we’re talking about evidence handling in the lab as well as criminalistics. And stay tuned at the end of the post for some important information on how you can get your hands on an advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, book five in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, months before it becomes commercially available.


  • Most evidence is dropped off by the investigating officer, but some municipal police departments have evidence officers whose job it is to deliver evidence. This can be problematic since the investigating officer is not present if the technician has any questions about the information on the forms accompanying the evidence.
  • Once there, new evidence labels are added and detailed to maintain the chain of custody.
  • Any drugs that come in are immediately heat-sealed before being stored.
  • All evidence is temporarily stored in the evidence room before being sent out to the appropriate lab or testing facility. Case numbers on the box or envelope are in the format of: xx(year)-xxxxxx(case number). Some cases I saw were from ‘80s or ‘90s (cold cases) but most are from 2013 or 2014.


  • For me, criminalistics was a typical wet lab, and very similar to my own.
  • They process clothing, sex assault kits, weapons, all biological samples (i.e. blood, saliva or semen), and gunshot residue. They also carry out blood stain pattern analysis on scene or on evidence brought into the lab.
  • The lab contains a separate room with several alternative light sources. These light sources can be used to visualize human biological fluids like saliva, sweat, semen which all fluoresce. Contrary to most TV crime shows, blood does not fluoresce under alternative light sources. In fact, it tends to darken and be less visible.
  • The lab has special test cards to indicate the likely sample type of biological fluids. However this can’t be used for confirmation as there are several well known false indicators. For example, the test for semen gives false positives for mold and feces; while saliva can also be found normally in breast milk and feces.
  • Blood is tested in situ in the field by swabbing the substance and transferring it to filter paper. Several chemicals are added; if blood is present, the filter paper will immediately turn blue. If there is no immediate reaction, then the substance is not blood.
  • All DNA samples are processed only at the Maynard lab location.

Next week will be the final post in this series as we delve into the science of ballistics. See you then!

Photo credit: JustGrimes and University of Michigan

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques: http://seymouragency.blogspot.ca/; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? This is your chance. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!


State Police Crime Lab Tour: Fingerprinting and Tread Analysis

Climbing a mountain was pretty neat, but another highlight of my recent trip to Massachusetts was a tour of one of the regional Massachusetts State Police Crime labs. Many, many thanks to Detective Lieutenant Michael Holleran for making this tour of the Springfield lab happen. Detective Lieutenant Holleran was kind enough to be my technical advisor on fingerprinting past and present when we were writing TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, and he went to the trouble of setting up the tour, and then drove all the way across the state to meet and stay with us the entire time. Once again, we couldn’t write what we do without the generous help of the officers and staff of the Massachusetts State Police!

I was going to include all the information about the tour in a single blog post. But when the ever-stalwart Ann came back to me this ‘this blog post is toooooooo long’, I decided it needed to be cut into manageable chunks because this is very dense information. So, today, we’re going to cover crime scene services in the lab, primarily fingerprinting and casting. Next week will cover evidence handling and criminalistics. And then in our final week, we’ll cover ballistics, the largest section and truly deserving of a post of its own.

Detective Lieutenant Holleran (Crime Scene Services), Sergeant Ken Heffernan (Crime Scene Services), and Lieutenant John Crane (ballistics) took us through the Springfield crime lab that serves not only the Massachusetts State Police, but also many of the surrounding municipal forces. All three men are troopers who do everything in their area of the lab—they go out to the crime scene, gather evidence, and then return to the lab to analyze it. There are currently eight officers in the Springfield crime lab that are part of fingerprinting and crime scene services, and three officers in ballistics. All biological work in the criminalistics and biologics units, and much of the other testing (drug chemistry, arson, DNA, alcohol testing, and trace evidence) is performed by civilian forensic scientists.

Fingerprinting (part of Crime Scene Services): 

  • All fingerprint evidence is handled in a designated fingerprint lab.
  • Officers use a defined flowchart of test protocols to run on each print, starting at the top and working their way down, stopping after the first successful print development. Multiple tests can be run on the same print as long as the designated order is followed.
  • UV light sources can be used to visualize prints on non-porous surfaces. Some prints can only be visualized and photographed this way; when they are chemically developed, no print appears.
  • AFIS databases are accessed using MorphoTrak software. Massachusetts is the first state to link directly to the FBI database via third party software. Sergeant Heffernan ran one of his current cases for us—a break and enter with a fingerprint picked up through the mesh of a window screen. It took nine minutes for the resulting multi-point comparison match.
  • Even after a positive AFIS result, the print must be confirmed by the human eye. In total, 3 officers must agree on the comparison for it to be considered a positive match.
  • In the past, inked fingerprints have been standard, but over the last 10 years, live fingerprint scanning has gradually spread throughout the state. Troopers have live fingerprint scanners out in the field to be able to scan prints in situ instead of having to transfer evidence back to the lab. This kind of mobile fingerprinting also allows for faster identification of any deceased persons on scene.
  • Live fingerprint scanners reject bad prints, but a good inked print will always have better resolution than a live scan, so troopers are still taught how to do classic inked prints by the Crime Scene Services officers since most troopers take their own perp prints out in the field.

Tread Analysis (part of Crime Scene Services):

  • Casts are used to identify both shoe treads and tire tracks.
  • Casts are taken using Denstone®, a dental stone used for impressions because it has only 0.1% shrinkage with drying. Due to its ability to maintain its shape and size, it can be used for direct comparisons between the cast and the actual shoe or tire.
  • Sergeant Heffernan feels that shoeprints are the most overlooked evidence and could be used much more effectively. For instance, the unique wear on shoes as well as any individual markings can be used to conclusively identify footwear present at the scene.
  • There is an extensive tire tread database available for comparison. There is also a database for shoes, but it’s expensive because there are so many different types of shoes, and it must be constantly updated.

We’ll be back next week with a trip through the evidence room and the criminalistics lab. See you then!

Photo credit: Jessica Newton Photography

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

Naples, Florida (July 2014) - The Seymour Agency has announced it will be hosting a fundraiser to support the Literacy Council Gulf Coast through a national online auction taking place during the month of September. Industry editors, agents, and authors have donated critiques, phone chats, and goody packages as prizes.

Everyone deserves the time and means for the luxury of reading. Literacy Council Gulf Coast works with underprivileged youth and adults to provide quality literary education needed to function in today’s society.

The online auction will go live in phases on September 1, 2014 and bidding will end on September 30, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. with the largest bid received winning.

If you are not interested in the items up for auction, please consider a cash donation through CrowdRise. CrowdRise is a convenient way to donate money to charities.