Jack the Ripper Was Jewish? That Makes It Even Scarier

Should the murders now being attributed to Polish Jewish immigrant Aaron Kosminski be read in the context of the horrors he witnessed in Eastern Europe?

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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From the 2001 film 'From Hell,' based on the story of Jack the Ripper.
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

So Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

I confess that my first reaction to the breathless reports in the press was a shrug. It’s not exactly late-breaking news - we are talking about 1888, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized London, brutally murdering at least five prostitutes in a killing spree.

It must be the bloody details - throats slashed, internal organs torn out, bodies gruesomely mutilated - along with the ongoing mystery of his identity, that have turned subsequent generations into “Ripperologists,” people obsessed with the details of the case. It is one of this breed, a man named Russell Edwards, who now asserts that Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jewish immigrant - a mentally ill former barber - was "definitely, categorically and absolutely" responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders.

Edwards’ claim revolves around a blood-stained shawl he bought at auction in 2007 and spent the subsequent 14 years examining, matching blood on it to a descendant of the murdered prostitute and a semen stain to the DNA of Kosminski’s descendants. The “100 percent DNA match” that resulted proves the Ripper’s identity, he says. Beyond the spin, the discovery is far from definitive and there are plenty of skeptics. Edwards is, after all, hawking a book on the topic, and the proprietor of a Jack the Ripper themed paraphernalia shop in London.

Eyebrows have been raised as to why he didn’t bring his findings for independent scientific review before trumpeting them in the popular press, and in any case, DNA tests are not infallible.

But what if Edwards is proven right and one of history’s most notorious villains was indeed this member of the tribe, who was always a prime suspect? For legitimate historical reasons, Jews feel reflexive twinges of worry and concern when one of their ranks is proven responsible for wrong-doing. Jews have been blamed for so much they haven’t been responsible for, and with such awful consequences, that the idea of horrific charges actually being proven true is all the more terrifying.

Such fears might have actually been partially responsible for the fact the case wasn’t solved in 1888. The murders occurred at a point when high unemployment and a housing shortage made many Londoners especially resentful of the immigrants who had fled Russia and Poland and now crowded the streets of the East End.

A website devoted to Jack the Ripper (there are several - who knew?) recounts that many in London were all too eager to assume the dreaded murderer was a Jew - and that police had actively feared that if Kosminski was charged, riots and other anti-Jewish violence would ensue:

“When the Whitechapel murders confronted the East End of London with a new type of crime, unprecedented in its barbarity, the gentile population were only too willing to blame the murders on the immigrant community. Spurred on by press xenophobia they came to the conclusion that an Englishman could not be responsible, and were more than happy to seek vengeance against the community that had already become their scapegoats for virtually all the other ills that blighted their everyday lives.”

To this day, that fear hasn’t completely evaporated. No sooner did the news of Edwards’ discovery break, than there were stories that Kosminsky's relatives - who are keeping a low profile -- and British Jews in general weren’t thrilled about the repercussions. The timing of the news far from ideal, with the Israel-Hamas conflict having taken its toll, leaving the community feeling especially vulnerable. As my colleague Anshel Pfeffer has reported, anti-Semitic incidents doubled in Great Britain last month - synagogues had windows broken, “child killers” sprayed on their walls and Jews were harassed in the street and vilified at Gaza solidarity rallies.

Add to that the fact that the crime may have had its roots in Jewish history.
In an in-depth follow-up on the revelation, the Daily Mail relates the details of Kosminski’s life before he came to Great Britain.

“He was born near the old Russian-Polish border in 1864 or 1865, when anti-Semitic laws were driving Jewish communities into ghettos - forbidden to grow food, use Hebrew or build synagogues, they were being starved out of existence.

Young Aaron was an unwanted child, born much later than his brothers and sisters, when his mother was 46. The family shared one mattress, and it is thought the boy was sexually abused, probably by his stepfather.

"Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, waves of ‘pogromy’ — the Russian word for devastation - were unleashed. Just as in Nazi Germany 60 years later, the Jews were blamed for everything, and extremist mobs were sent by special trains to obliterate the ghettos, in what would today be termed ‘ethnic cleansing.’ These armies of thugs burned, looted and pillaged Jewish towns. Rape was commonplace, and any man who tried to intervene would be beaten to death.

Stories spread of women committing suicide by throwing themselves from rooftops to escape the rapists. Babies were butchered in their mothers’ arms.

"Kosminski, then in his mid-teens, must have witnessed unspeakable horrors. He and his family fled, struggling across Europe until they arrived penniless in London in 1882. It was this traumatic background that fuelled his mental collapse, and that triggered his obsession with rape and disembowelment, acted out as Jack the Ripper.”

Even if it can someday be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kosminsky committed these murders, the reasons why will surely remain shrouded in mystery.

We will never really know if Kosminsky the Ripper – if such a creature existed - was simply a run-of-the-mill lunatic, or if his terrible deeds were the result of what he suffered in Eastern Europe.

Wouldn’t be ironic, though, if the anti-Semitism that Jews fear might result from the revelation that Jack the Ripper was Jewish - were part of the reason the crimes were committed in the first place?

The 'Nemesis of Neglect': Jack the Ripper depicted as an embodiment of social neglect. in a Punch cartoon of 1888.

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