A wanted poster for Jack the Ripper, who was also known as Leather Apron.
Image courtesy of the British Museum
In the late 1800s, Victorian England was mesmerized and horrified by a series of brutal killings in the crowded and impoverished Whitechapel district. The serial killer, who became known as “Jack the Ripper
”, had murdered and mutilated at least five women, many of whom worked as prostitutes in the slums around London. None of these murders were ever solved, and Jack the Ripper was never identified, although investigators interviewed more than 2,000 people and named more than 100 suspects
. Now, 126 years after the murders, a British author, who coincidentally has just published a book on the subject, is claiming that DNA analysis has revealed the identity of the notorious killer. DNA is often thought to be the “gold standard” of human identification techniques, so why is there so much skepticism surrounding this identification?
Statue of King Henry IV at Pont Neuf in Paris
In an earlier blog entry
, I wrote about the ill-fated Louis XVI, the French king who was famously beheaded along with his wife, Marie-Antoinette, during the French Revolution in 1793. Witnesses to the execution dipped handkerchiefs in the king’s blood and kept them as souvenirs of the common people’s rebellion. In 2010, scientists published the presumptive DNA profile of the king, obtained from one of these bloody handkerchiefs (1). Shortly after this profile was published, doubters surfaced, arguing that scientists could not say with certainty that the blood was that of Louis XVI. Clearly, more work was needed to identify the source of the blood. Recently, additional work was published (2,3). The most recent data (3) were presented at the International Symposium on Human Identification
; these newest data cast doubt on the identification of the remains of not one king, but two.
By now, you’ve seen the headlines. The bones that scientists found buried under a car park in Leicester, England, have been identified as those of the last Plantagenet king of England: Richard III. For those of you who might be new to this story, archaeologists identified and excavated the most likely burial spot for Richard III, under a car park near the Leicester City Council building, and unearthed a human skeleton with skeletal abnormalities similar to those of Richard III. Geneticists were called in to perform DNA analysis to determine if these bones were those of the English king. The DNA findings were just recently released. Now that scientists can say beyond a reasonable doubt that these bones belong to Richard III, we are learning new things about the ancient king. Continue reading
John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer who sexually assaulted and murdered 33 boys and young men in the 1970s in Chicago, Illinois. The killing spree stopped only when he was arrested in 1978 after the parents of his last victim contacted police with critical information that implicated Gacy in the boy’s disappearance. He was tried, convicted and in 1994 executed for his crimes. Of the 33 victims that police found buried in and around his home, only 25 could be identified, leaving eight victims nameless and eight families to wonder if their missing loved one died at the hands of this evil man. When all available means of identification were exhausted, these eight sets of remains were buried but not forgotten.
In 2011, these remains were exhumed and the victim’s DNA analyzed to try to provide clues as to their identity. Continue reading
On April 15, 1912, the Royal Mail Ship Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. Only 712 of the 2209 passengers survived. Within days of the disaster, the Mackay-Bennett was dispatched to recover the victims, one of which was a boy estimated to be 2 or 3 years of age. Efforts to identify the boy were in vain, although there was some evidence to suggest that the child was Gösta Leonard Pålsson, a 2-year-old Swedish boy who was washed overboard shortly before the Titanic sank. However, when no one identified or claimed the boy’s body, he was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia with a headstone that was dedicated “to the memory of an unknown child”. The boy would have remained unknown too except that one of the families requested an exhumation and examination of the boy’s remains almost 90 years later.
Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, 19 July 1916
On July 19, 1916, British and Australian forces launched a diversionary attack on heavily fortified German front lines near the tiny village of Fromelles in northern France to try to divert German resources from the Battle of the Somme, which was taking place only 50 miles to the south. Many men fell as they tried to cross the unfavorable ground between Allied trenches and the German fortifications. More than 5,500 Australian troops and 1,500 British soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the two-day battle, making this Australia’s most costly battle of World War I. After Allied commanders refused a truce offered by the Germans to retrieve the fallen soldiers, the Germans recovered the bodies, loaded them onto a train, then transported them the short distance to Bois de Faisan, known as Pheasant Wood in English. Up to 400 of these bodies were buried there in five of eight hastily dug pits, then covered with the heavy clay soil and forgotten. These graves were lost to history until recently. Continue reading