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Jack the Ripper finally ID'ed? Skepticism meets author's claims

An armchair detective and a biochemist claim to have solved the mystery of the Ripper's identity through DNA testing a shawl. But some experts aren't convinced.

Is Aaron Kosminski the real Ripper? Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Has Jack the Ripper finally been unmasked through DNA?

The Internet was abuzz with the possibility over the weekend following a report that the infamous 19th-century serial killer was supposedly identified as Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski, thanks to tests of apparent DNA left on the shawl of one of the Ripper's victims.

The claim came from businessman Russell Edwards, who bought the shawl at an auction in 2007 and turned to a scientist to extract DNA (blood and semen) from the material to compare with descendants of the victim, Catherine Eddowes, as well as to Kosminski.

In 1888, Jack the Ripper terrorized citizens of the Whitechapel district in London by murdering and mutilating female prostitutes. The Ripper was never caught, but the list of possible suspects continues to grow even today.

Now, Edwards has a book coming out, "Naming Jack the Ripper," in which he names Kosminski as the culprit. Kosminski has always been suspected of the Ripper murders, but there was little evidence to connect him to the deaths until Edwards involved Jari Louhelainen -- senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University as well as associate professor of biochemistry from University of Helsinki, Finland.

Though Louhelainen may have impressive credentials, according to The Independent, he has not published his study of the DNA testing of the shawl in any "peer-reviewed scientific journal so it is impossible to verify his claims or analyze his methodology."

Also, with Edwards' book coming out Tuesday, some are speculating that the alleged DNA evidence might just be part of an effort to sell books.

In addition, while many believe DNA evidence to be the ultimate final say identifying criminals, some experts are skeptical of the shawl's authenticity, especially since the letter from a descendent of Sergeant Amos Simpson -- the policeman on duty when the Ripper murdered Eddowes -- could be considered nothing more than a family's faulty legacy.

"It was said to have been found next to the body of one of the Ripper's victims, Catherine Eddowes, and soaked in her blood," Edwards said in the Daily Mail story that kicked off the weekend of Ripper speculation. "There was no evidence for its provenance, although after the auction I obtained a letter from its previous owner who claimed his ancestor had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there."

It also doesn't help Edwards' case that the 2006 documentary, " Revealed: Jack the Ripper: The First Serial Killer" tested the same shawl, before it came into Edwards' possession, and came up with inconclusive results. According to the documentary, the forensic tests did not reveal DNA.

In the documentary "Revealed: Jack the Ripper: The First Serial Killer," the same shawl was tested and proved to have insignificant DNA. Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

"They haven't got anything useful, there's nothing we can use evidentially or even from a skeptic's point of view," John Grieve, Former Commander of the Metropolitan Police in the documentary. "There's nothing helpful out of the DNA, and there isn't likely to be."

Laura Richards, Violent Crime Directorate of New Scotland Yard, added in the documentary, "So that line is pretty much closed."

Is this DNA "evidence" real or just a way to promote Edwards' "Naming Jack the Ripper" book? Amazon

Edwards claims the letter states the shawl has been unwashed and stored for over 126 years in private homes and at the Crime Museum in New Scotland Yard. But as any avid armchair detective knows, DNA analysis can be altered due to cross contamination from multiple owners and handlers.

Even the man who invented the DNA fingerprint technique, professor Alec Jeffreys, isn't yet convinced by the findings.

"An interesting but remarkable claim that needs to be subjected to peer review," Jeffreys told The Independent, "with detailed analysis of the provenance of the shawl and the nature of the claimed DNA match with the perpetrator's descendants and its power of discrimination; no actual evidence has yet been provided."