Over a century and a quarter has passed since the Jack the Ripper mystery took place, yet it still fascinates the world and many have wished for an artefact from the time to help draw links or provide some evidence for forensic purposes, believing that such an artefact could help solve those brutal crimes and put the mystery to bed once and for all.
It has been suggested that one such artefact is Catherine Eddowes’ shawl, but this “Turin Shroud” of Ripperology has been just as controversial as its theological counterpart.
The Jack the Ripper A-Z describes the shawl as being rectangular in shape and made of silk, with a floral print. Fabric experts have tentatively dated it to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The shawl originated from the family of PC Amos Simpson, who reportedly removed it from Mitre Square on 30th September 1888; interestingly, there are stains on the shawl that are believed to be dried blood.
Amos Simpson was born in 1846 and joined the Metropolitan Police in 1868 as Warrant Number 49611. Originally posted to Y Division (Kentish Town), he was transferred to N Division (Islington) in 1886, where it seems he was posted at the time of the Whitechapel Murders. Simpson family tradition holds that Simpson was the first police officer to find the body in Mitre Square and that he took the shawl, presumably as a souvenir.
Whilst no one suggests any deliberate deception on the part of Simpson’s family, this anecdote does pose several problems. Namely that PC Watkins of the City Police was the first to find Eddowes’ body. Furthermore, considering that the crime scene was in City Police’s jurisdiction, and not that of the Met (London having two police forces, one to cover the City square mile and the other to cover the rest of the capital), why would Simpson have been there at all?
There is no record of Simpson being seconded to H Division during the investigation, so it is highly unlikely that he would have been involved. Now, it should be noted that N Division’s southern border was with the City, so there is a possibility that a young PC may have excitedly answered any calls of assistance. We must ask ourselves though; would an officer with 20 years’ experience like Simpson have answered the same calls?
Next, assuming Simpson did somehow find himself in the Square on the night of the murder; would no one have noticed him removing a potentially important piece of evidence (which has never been mentioned in the list of Eddowes’ possessions or any description of her on the night of the murder)? And why would Simpson, an upstanding PC with good character and an immaculate record, commit such a serious offence?
Would Eddowes be wearing such an item in the first place? The shawl is of a good quality and must have been worth a lot of money in 1888. If Eddowes had such an item, would she not have pawned it (instead of Kelly’s boots)? Unless it held some special sentimental value, she undoubtedly would have. Some authors have commented that the item does not appear to be a shawl at all, but a type of tablecloth or table runner (a decorative cloth placed over the “best” tablecloth in Victorian parlours) measuring at eight feet by two feet. So would Eddowes have worn it if it was not a piece of clothing? Again, it is unlikely but not beyond the realm of probability considering Eddowes was found to be wearing or carrying all of her worldly possessions.
Ripperologist Tom Wescott has suggested another possible theory in his work The Bank Holiday Murders. He theorises that perhaps the shawl was the property of Emma Smith who used it to stem her bleeding after she was the victim of a brutal attack; an attack in which she sustained fatal injuries. Alternatively, Wescott speculates that the shawl was connected to another famous crime of the day that today we have no knowledge of.
In 1988, PC Simpson’s descendants cut off two pieces of the shawl which were then framed and displayed in several different shops, including a video shop and an antique dealer’s. These swatches are now believed to be owned by Ripperologists Andy and Sue Parlor. The rest of the shawl was loaned to the ‘Black Museum’ in Scotland Yard in 1991 and remained there for six years until the Simpson family reclaimed it.
In 2006, the shawl was subjected to forensic examination for the Channel 5 documentary, Jack the Ripper: The First Serial Killer. The results of the examination were inconclusive as they could not find usable DNA samples. Further forensic tests were conducted last year for the Jack the Ripper: Prime Suspect documentary, which identified blood and semen on the fabric, but no useable DNA.
In 2007, the Simpson family put the shawl up for sale by auction, but it failed to meet the reserve price. However, the shawl was sold privately to the highest bidder two weeks later and the buyer, we now know, was Russell Edwards.
As well as recently opening a shop selling Jack the Ripper themed souvenirs in Spitalfields, Edwards has also studied the case for twenty years. He now claims to have startling new revelations about the shawl, which he will reveal in his book Naming Jack the Ripper. A recent newspaper piece indicates that Edwards has DNA evidence from the shawl that links it to both Catherine Eddowes and suspect Aaron Kosminski.
We will have to wait for the full story behind these claims, but they are sure to reignite the discussion and debate surrounding Ripperology’s Turin Shroud.