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Coles, Kosminski and Levy – was there a Victim/Suspect/Witness connection?
Scott Nelson

Reprinted with the kind permission of Ripperologist magazine, where this article first appeared in 2001.

Robert Anderson, the head of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) at Scotland Yard, wrote of a Jack the Ripper suspect, “...and the inhabitants of the Metropolis generally were just as secure during the weeks the fiend was on the prowl, as they were before the mania seized him, or after he had been safely caged in an asylum.” 1

In his 1910 autobiography he also said, “...the only person who ever had a good view of the murderer unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him, but he refused to give evidence against him.”

Further, he says, “In saying he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact... [He was] a loathsome creature whose utterly unmentionable vices reduced him to a lower level than that of a brute.” 2

A Polish Jew suspect was named by Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Chief Constable, CID, in a memorandum dated 23rd February 1894. He described him as “Kosminski, a Polish Jew and resident of Whitechapel... There were many circs [circumstances] connected with this man which made him a strong ‘suspect.’”

Sometime after 1910 retired Inspector Donald Swanson, who headed the Whitechapel Murders Investigation, wrote in the margins of Anderson’s autobiography that Anderson’s Polish Jew suspect was ‘Kosminski’.

Information on Kosminski was passed on to at least two people. The first was Major Arthur Griffiths, who without naming the suspect described him as “A Polish Jew, a known lunatic who was at large in the district of Whitechapel at the time of the murders and who... was confined to an asylum.” 3

The second person was a London journalist named George Sims, who gave further details about the Polish Jew suspect, including the fact that he had at one time worked in a Polish Hospital. 4

In 1987 research established that an insane Polish Jew hairdresser, Aaron Kosminski, was sent to a Workhouse Infirmary in July 1890 and returned there briefly in February 1891 before being confined to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. 5 Thus, Aaron Kosminski was ‘caged in an asylum’ over two years after the last canonical Whitechapel murder in 1888.

Aaron Kosminski

When the 25-year old Aaron Kosminski was confined in the asylum on February 7, 1891, a witness for his certification, Jacob Cohen, described him as dirty, idle, eating bread out of gutters, refusing food, and incoherent. He had also taken up a knife and threatened his sister (it is uncertain whether Cohen mean that Kosminski threatened his own sister or Cohen’s sister).

It is possible that the knife threat could have alerted the police to Aaron Kosminski as a possible Ripper, not because the act in itself was special, but because Aaron was patently insane and was Jewish – there being some evidence that the police thought the Ripper more likely to be a Jew and were consequently scrutinizing them more carefully.

What is important, however, is that if the police suspected Aaron Kosminski of being Jack the Ripper, the surviving casenotes indicate that they did not alert the asylum authorities to this fact. This must be regarded as highly unusual, for surely the police would have warned the authorities to keep Aaron restrained or confined. Yet at no time does he appear to have been physically restrained or separated from the other patients.

The only reasonable explanation for the treatment of Aaron Kosminski in the asylum is that no special measures were taken because none were known to be necessary – the police hadn’t informed the asylum authorities of their suspicions because they had no suspicions at that time; if, indeed, suspicion ever fell on him at all!

Both Anderson and Swanson speak of an eye-witness identification and of the refusal of the witness to give evidence. A point often made in relation to Kosminski is that a witness was not likely to have been required to give evidence against a certified lunatic already confined in an asylum. A certified lunatic would automatically be deemed unfit to plead and would simply have been kept in the asylum. The implication of this is that if the police hoped the witness would testify, then the identification took place before the suspect had been committed.

So, if the identification did not happen after committal to an asylym and if Aaron Kosminski had not been identified before he was committed, the only reasonable solution is that Aaron Kosminski wasn’t the suspect ‘Kosminski’.

Frances Coles

Frances Coles was murdered on 13 February 1891. The following day James Sadler, a seaman, was arrested. Whether Coles was murdered by Sadler or not, there is ample evidence that the police believed the Ripper to be at large when she was murdered. This was one week after Aaron Kosminski was locked in the asylum.

Was Coles a victim of Jack the Ripper? Many people think not – and this certainly was the view of several senior policeman, including Macnaghten and Anderson, who said “The last and most horrible of that maniac’s crimes was committed in a house in Miller’s Court on the 9th of November” 6 as well as Dr. George Bagster Phillips, who opined that the injuries sustained by Coles did not resemble those of the previous victims.

But Dr. Phillips also discounted Eddowes as a Ripper victim. 7 His judgement on the killer’s skill and M.O. and opinions about the killer’s anatomical knowledge may therefore be questionable. His conclusions shouldn’t be discarded, however, because he had the most knowledge of the bodies found in-situ and participated in autopsy examinations on most of the Ripper murder victims.

But it was not an opinion shared by others, among them Swanson 8 and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, who investigated several of the Whitechapel Murders. 9

Swanson had appended Coles name to a list of murders, suggesting that he did not know she was killed by someone else, which puts a certain complexion on his words, “And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London”, followed by “...and he knew he was identified.” Not only does this imply that Coles was a Ripper victim, but that the police, as well as the suspect, knew he was guilty.

Significantly, in the Lloyds Weekly News of February 15, 1891, Sir Edward Bradford, by this time, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, felt convinced from evidence of previous murders in Whitechapel that the murdered woman (Coles) was a victim of the same killer responsible for the Ripper Murders two years previously.

If there had already been a positive identification, why would Bradford, who would surely have known about it, have thought the Ripper to be still at liberty? Several possible explanations have been advanced, but one must consider that Frances Coles was thought to be a victim of the Ripper because no eye-witness identification had taken place when she was murdered and that Aaron Kosminski was not the Polish Jew suspect.

Clues and Ideas

On 17 February 1891 the police attempted to identify Sadler using one of the ‘witnesses’ in the Mitre Square murder of Eddowes on 30th September 1888. 10

According to the Daily Telegraph on 18th February, “Further it is certain that the police are not neglecting the facts which came to light in connection with the previous murders. Probably the only trustworthy description of the assassin was given by a gentleman who, on the night of the Mitre-Square murder, noticed in Duke Street, Aldgate, a couple standing under the lamp at the corner of the passage leading to Mitre-Square. The woman was identified as the victim of that night, September 30, the other having been killed half an hour previously in Berner-Street. The man was described as aged from thirty to thirty-five, height 5ft 7in, with brown hair and big moustache; dressed respectively. Wore pea jacket, muffler, and a cloth cap with a peak of the same material. The witness has confronted Sadler but has failed to identify him”.

Three men had left a club near to where Eddowes was murdered and had passed a passage leading to the murder scene, seeing at the passage entrance a man and a woman talking. These men were Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy and Harry Harris. The latter claimed he’d seen nothing. Levy said he’d only glanced at the couple. Lawende had paid sufficient attention to note the woman’s dress and from it to identify her as Eddowes. He had repeatedly stated that he would not recognize the man.

It is thought that Lawende was the witness brought forward to confront Thomas Sadler.

Would Lawende also have been brought to identify the Polish Jew? There are serious and valid doubts that he would or could have been. To begin with, he had repeatedly stated in 1888 that he would be unable to recognize the man again and this would certainly have invalidated his testimony a couple of years later – his testimony certainly wouldn’t have hanged the suspect, as Swanson claims the witness knew his testimony would.

It must also be observed than any half-competent lawyer would have taken Lawende’s testimony apart, arguing that all he’d seen was a man and a woman talking. He had not seen them go off together. For all Lawende knew, the man could have parted company with the woman moments after Lawende had passed, only for another man, the Ripper, to emerge from the shadows of the passage.

Still Looking

Police suspicions that Sadler was Jack the Ripper were very serious and it was not until March that the police finally realized that he was a non-starter. The case against Sadler had actually fallen apart on February 25, at the conclusion of the Coles Inquest and on 28th February the newspapers reported his acquittal. But as late as 2-3 March Chief Inspector Henry Moore was still attempting to ascertain Sadler’s whereabouts during the autumn of 1888 and at the time of the McKenzie Murder in 1889. On 4th March the newspapers reported that Sadler had been at sea at the time of four of the previous murders. Significantly, there are no police records of Sadler’s identification, surely an important part of the Coles investigation, only the newspaper report. Exit Sadler.

The Eye-Witness

The eye-witness mentioned by Anderson and Swanson was a Jew. Only a few known witnesses were Jews. One was a man called Israel Schwartz, who claimed to have seen a woman he identified as Elizabeth Stride assalted by a man near where she was found murdered. The other was Joseph Lawende.

If the witness was Schwartz, why wasn’t he also asked to look at Sadler? He may have been, of course, but we have not mention of him. And we can discount Lawende because his testimony wouldn’t and couldn’t have hanged anyone.

Of the known witnesses, this leaves only Lawende’s companions, Levy and Harris. Harris claimed that he took no notice of the man and woman and he wasn’t even called to give testimony at the inquest. Joseph Levy declared likewise in his testimony, but his behavior was so strange that his story was questioned in the press. 11

Levy worked as a butcher and as far back as 1869 is listed in the Kelly’s Trade Directories as living at 1 Hutchinson Street. Sometime in 1891 or 1892, Levy’s butchery business suddenly disappeared.

Hutchinson Street was about five minutes walk away from Butchers Row in Aldgate and it is reasonable to suppose that he traded there or knew many of the people who did.

We know from a story told by a City policeman that the City police suspected a man who worked in Butcher’s Row of being the Ripper.

According to Sagar, reported in Reynolds News on 15 September 1946: “We had good reason to suspect a man who worked in Butchers’ Row, Aldgate. We watched him carefully. There was no doubt that this man was insane, and after a time his friends thought it advisable to have him removed to a private asylum. After he was removed, there were no more Ripper atrocities.”

Sagar’s words parallel those of Anderson and Swanson like a tailored glove and it is difficult to think that they aren’t referring to the same person.

So we have Levy trading near to and probably in contact with Butcher’s Row, where a suspect watched by the City Police also worked. Is it inconceivable that Levy could have known that person?

And about the time of the eye-witness identification Levy leaves the home and business he’d run for so many years! Could Levy have left the area because he’d identified the suspect?

We also know that Levy knew a family called Kosminski well enough to be asked to stand nominee in a naturalization application. Paul Begg discovered that Levy supported the application of furrier Martin Kosminski in 1877.

Although no connection has been found between Martin Kosminski and any other ‘Kosminski’, this doesn’t mean that no connection existed.

Another Kosminski?

There are several objections to postulating a different ‘Kosminski’ suspect. Notably, Aaron Kosminski was distinguished by indulging in masturbation and this seems to identify him as Macnaghten’s ‘Kosminski’, who engaged in ‘solitary vices’, and with Anderson’s unnamed suspect who practiced ‘utterly unmentionable vices’. This is a strong objection, as yet not answerable with entire satisfaction. We may ask for example, why asylum staff corrected Aaron’s attacks of insanity to ‘self abuse’ long after he was confined. The police would surely have informed the asylum staff of his sexual mania upon his entry to the asylum.

Another objection is that no other Kosminski(y) asylum inmate has been found in asylum records or in searches of London Death Registers. However, many Jewish people anglicized or otherwise changed their names after they immigrated. The Kosminski family may have been among them and the suspect listed in the asylum records under another and not even Jewish sounding name (witness Harry Harris, who was presumably a Jew like his companions).


We have seen that police inquiries attempted to connect the Coles murder to the Ripper murders of 1888. From this we can assume that the Ripper was still thought to have been at liberty at that time.

It has been argued that no identification of Aaron Kosminski had taken place before his committal and that an identification after committal doesn’t fit the details provided by Anderson and Swanson. From this it has been suggested that Aaron Kosminski was not the suspect.

We have seen that of the known witnesses, neither Schwartz nor Lawende are entirely satisfactory, which would leave only Joseph Hyam Levy as a reasonable candidate.

We’ve seen that Levy behaved oddly enough in 1888 to cause newspaper comment, that he would almost certainly have had links with Butchers’ Row, where we know a suspect worked. We’ve seen that the account of the surveillance on that suspect matches Swanson’s story very closely. And we’ve seen that Levy moved from his long-occupied premises at the same time as he would have called upon to identify a suspect after the Coles murder.

I suggest that after using Lawende in the attempt to identify Sadler, the police learned from Lawende that Levy knew more than he’d revealed. In all probability Lawende was irate at the time of the Sadler identification because of the police pressure he experienced over the past two years and wanted an end to it. I think that Levy had probably recognized the man seen with the woman at the passage, knew him as someone who worked in Butcher’s Row and knew him to be related to Martin Kosminski. Not wanting to implicate Martin Kosminski, he’d refused to give evidence in 1888. In 1891 he is contacted and taken to see a suspect. He recognizes the man, but refuses to give evidence. He then decides to get away and moves.

But who was the suspect? And what had attracted police attention to him? These are things that we don’t know, but the scenario fits better than those which try to fit an identification of Aaron Kosminski to a date before the Coles murder.

Or, just maybe, Aaron Kosminski was an accomplice of another family member. Maybe the arrest of Aaron provided information which led the police to the real suspect?


1. Criminals and Crime: Some Facts and Suggestions, by Robert Anderson, 1907, London: Nesbit, p.3-4

2 The Lighter Side of My Official Life, by Robert Anderson, 1910, London: Hodder, p. 137-9

3 Mysteries of Police and Crime, by Arthur G.F. Griffiths, 1898, vol. 1, London: Cassell

4. Lloyd’s Weekly News, 22 September 1907

5. Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper, by Martin Fido, 1993, Barnes & Noble ed., p. 225

6. Anderson (1910), p. 137

7. Dr. Phillips report 22 July 1889, MEPO 3/140, f. 270

8. Swanson’s report of 10 November 1889 says that the Murders began in Buck’s Row and ended in Miller’s Court (MEPO 3/140 f. 140). After the Coles killing, he added her to his list of Ripper victims. This paper is in the possession of his grandson. Also see his marginal notes in Anderson’s autobiography described in Jack the Ripper, A-Z, by Begg, Fido & Skinner, 1997, Headline, pp. 441-2

9. Morning Advertiser, 30 March 1903

10. Sadler was arrested on Feb. 14th. Coles’ Inquest began on the 15th and recessed on the 16th. Therefore Sadler’s Identification probably occurred on February 17th.

11. The Evening News, October 9, 1888. Discussed in Jack the Ripper: The Uncensored Facts, by Paul Begg, 1988, Robson Books, p. 206-208

Additional Sources:

Kelly’s Directories, various editions 1866-1899
City of London Directories, various editions 1879-1894
1881 London Census Return
Charles Goad’s Fire Plan Map, 1887
Godfrey Edition Ordinance Survey Map of Aldgate, 1873-1894

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