THE STRANGE TALE OF FRANCIS TUMBLETY
On May 28, 1903, a very strange man died in St. Louis. His name was Dr. Francis J. Tumblety and he had a passionate hatred for women, surgical skills and happened to be in London, England in 1888 – at the same time that the mysterious killer known as “Jack the Ripper” was killed prostitutes in the city’s East End. Was Tumblety, as some believe, Jack the Ripper?
In the year 1888, the city of London, England was terrorized by a killer who called himself “Jack the Ripper.” The madman prowled the streets of the Whitechapel District in East London and slaughtered a number of prostitutes, carving his way into the historical record as the first “modern serial killer.” As the years have passed, the Ripper has held the morbid curiosity of professional and amateur sleuths, armchair detectives and crime buffs alike. Having eluded capture in the 1880s, his identity has been debated ever since and scores of suspected have emerged, with a number of Americans among them. Many St. Louisans have been surprised over the years to find that one of the suspects lived in St. Louis and died there 15 years after the murders in London stopped.
London’s Whitechapel District in the 1880s
Suspicion by police officials that Dr. Francis J. Tumblety may have been Jack the Ripper came about in 1913, a number of years after the murders took place. In a letter dated on September 23, Inspector John Littlechild, head of the Special Branch in England, wrote to George Sims, a journalist, about a medical man who may have been the killer. He was apparently replying to Sims about other possible suspects when he wrote:
I never heard of a Dr. D in connection with the Whitechapel murders, but amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T (which sounds much like a D). He was an American quack named Tumblety and at one time was a frequent visitor to London and on these occasions constantly brought under the notice of police, there being a large dossier concerning him at Scotland Yard. Although a “Sycopathis Sexualis” [sic] subject, he was not known as a sadist (which the murderer unquestionably was) but his feelings toward women were remarkable and bitter in the extreme, a fact on record. Tumblety was arrested at the time of the murders in connection with unnatural offenses and charged at Marlborough Street, remanded on bail, jumped his bail and got away to Boulogne. He shortly left Boulogne and was never heard of afterwards. It is believed that he committed suicide but certain it is that from the time the “Ripper” murders came to an end.
And while not all of Inspector Littlechild’s facts were correct, he did make an interesting case toward the American doctor being the fiendish killer. In fact, the idea was so compelling that when the letter resurfaced years later, the theory was later turned into flawed but fascinating book by two British police officers, Stewart P. Evans and Paul Gainey, called Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer.
But was the “medical man” the real Whitechapel killer? Let’s look into the facts and the fancy behind the intriguing suspect.
Dr. Francis Tumblety, photographed in the pseudo-military garb that he was so fond of
Francis J. Tumblety was born in Canada in 1833 and moved with his family to Rochester, New York at a very young age. Although uneducated, he was a clever man and became wealthy and successful as a homeopath and a mixer of patent medicines. There is no record as to whether or not these “snake oil” cures worked or not, but it is certain that Tumblety held no medical degree. He did claim to possess Indian and Oriental secrets of healing and good health and he was described as charming and handsome, so it’s not surprising that he made quite a bit of money in this questionable field.
When not charming customers, Tumblety was said to have been disliked by many for his self-aggrandizing and his constant boasting. He had a penchant for staying in fine hotels, wearing fine clothes and making false claims. Often these tall tales got him into trouble and he left town on more than one occasion just a step ahead of the law.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Tumblety was living in Washington, D.C. and from this period, the first stories of his deep-seated hatred for women began to surface. During a dinner party one night in 1861, Tumblety was asked by some guests why he did not invite any single women to the gathering. Tumblety replied that women were nothing more than “cattle” and that he would rather give a friend poison than see him with a woman. He then began to speak about the evils of women, especially prostitutes. A man who was in attendance that evening, an attorney named C.A. Dunham, later remarked that it was believed that Tumblety had been tricked into marriage by a woman who was later revealed to be a prostitute. This was thought to have sparked his hatred of woman, but none of the guests had any idea just how far the feelings of animosity went until Tumblety offered to show them his “collection.” He led his guests into a back study of the house, where he kept his anatomical “museum.” Here, they were shown row after row of jars containing women’s uteruses.
The Lindell Hotel in St. Louis, a haven for Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War
In 1863, Tumblety came to St. Louis for the first time and took rooms at the Lindell Hotel. As he recounted in letters, his flamboyant ways did not appeal to those in St. Louis and he claimed to have been arrested in both the city and in Carondelet, an independent city at that time, for “putting on airs” and “being caught in quasi-military” dress. Regardless of his claims, Tumblety most likely caused trouble during these troubled times in the city because of his apparent southern sympathies. In 1865, he was arrested on the serious charge of what amounted to an early case of biological terrorism. Federal officers had him arrested after he was allegedly involved in a plot to infect blankets, which were to be shipped to Union troops, with yellow fever. The whole thing did turn out to be a case of mistaken identity (an alias of Tumblety’s was remarkably close to a real doctor involved) but it’s likely that he would not have been suspected if not for some actions on his part. Tumblety was taken to Washington and imprisoned until the confusion over the plot could be cleared up and was later released. According to British records, Tumblety was then arrested again after the death of President Abraham Lincoln, this time as a conspirator in the assassination. He was again released but this time, his reputation was destroyed in Washington and he fled to New York. After that, he began traveling frequently to London during the 1870s and 1880s.
Although there has been much debate over the years as to how many victims that Jack the Ripper claimed, and just when the murders began, it is generally believed that the first killing occurred on August 31, 1888. The victim was a prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols. Her death was followed by those off Annie Chapman and Elizabeth Stride on September 8. On September 30, the Ripper claimed Catherine Eddowes. Organs had been removed from the bodies of both Chapman and Eddowes, including the latter woman’s uterus.
Just prior to the start of the murders, Dr. Tumblety had come to London and had taken lodgings in Batty Street, the heart of Whitechapel and within easy distance of the murder scenes. It is on the record that he was watched closely by the police, especially after an incident involving a pathological museum. During the Annie Chapman inquest, police investigators heard information that has created the most pervasive and enduring myth of the Whitechapel murders, that of the Ripper as a surgeon. Only one medical examiner, arguing against all other expert testimony, believed that the killer had expert anatomical knowledge. He was basing his theory on a witness that claimed the killer was hunting for women’s uteruses to sell to an unknown American. This bizarre bit of testimony came about because Tumblety did indeed visit a pathological museum in London and had inquired about any uteruses that might be for sale. He apparently wanted to add them to his collection.
On November 7, Tumblety was arrested, not for murder, but rather for “unnatural offences,” which was usually a reference to homosexuality. He was later released on bail, although when exactly that was has been a matter of debate for many years. According to some records, he was released on November 16 but according to others, he was actually let go on November 8. The entire theory of whether or not he was Jack the Ripper hinges on the date that he was released from jail.
The reason for this is that on November 9, the Ripper claimed his last victim. Her name was Mary Kelly and she was mutilated in ways that cannot be imagined in her own bed. She was butchered beyond recognition and a number of her organs were removed, including her heart and uterus.
A gruesome crime scene photo from the Mary Kelly murder.
Was it the work of Dr. Tumblety?
If Tumblety was actually released on November 8, then he could have easily killed Mary Kelly. One account of the days following the murder states that he was arrested on suspicion of her murder on November 12, was released without being charged and then vanished from Whitechapel. On November 24, it is alleged that he took a steamer to France and then sailed from France to New York. Scotland Yard detectives were said to have pursued him to New York and while they kept on eye on him, had no evidence to arrest him and could not have him extradited for the still outstanding indecency charges. They eventually gave up and went home.
Those who do not believe that Tumblety was the Ripper give a different accounting of the days after Mary Kelly was killed. According to these sources, Tumblety was not released on bail until November 16. As Inspector Littlechild writes, he was then believed to jump bail and escape to Boulogne with the police pursuing him. From there, he booked passage to New York, where police staked out his lodgings. He escaped them, however, and vanished. He was not, as far as recorded, further pursued for his part in the killings. With that said, it would have been impossible for Tumblety to be the Ripper. If he were the killer, then someone would have had to copy and exceed his previous work on Mary Kelly while the doctor was still in jail. Most would agree that this seems highly unlikely.
But our story is not quite over.
Regardless of what is written about the last days of Tumblety in London, all will agree that after his escape he did end up in St. Louis. He also traveled for a time, avoiding Washington but frequently visiting Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis. He continued to live in hotels and established no permanent residence in any of the cities. In April 1903, though, Tumblety checked himself into St. John’s Hospital and Dispensary at 23rd and Locust Streets in St. Louis. The hospital, which was then located in the old Catlin-Beach-Barney Mansion, provided care for indigents, which is how Tumblety was presenting himself at this time. The hospital is still in operation today as St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, located at Interstate 64 and Ballas Road.
According to accounts, Tumblety was suffering from a long and painful illness, although what it may have been has never been specifically identified. Some have suggested that it may have been a debilitating case of syphilis, the contraction of which might have been cause for his hatred of women and especially prostitutes. Whatever it was, though, Tumblety remained at St. John’s until his death on May 28, 1903. However, he was far from indigent when he died. Court records showed that Tumblety left an estate of more than $135,000, some of which St. John’s managed to recover. The hospital asked for about $450 to cover the room expenses and medical tests for a man who was clearly not poor. The rest of the estate, except for costs to a St. Louis undertaker, went to Tumblety’s niece, Mary Fitzsimmons of Rochester, New York.
Aside from the hospital, there was one other claim to Tumblety’s estate. While the hospital’s costs can be seen as clearly legitimate, the additional claim was quite strange, especially in light of Tumblety’s clear prejudices on the subject. The challenge to a will that Tumblety had written on May 16 came from an attorney in Baltimore named Joseph Kemp. He claimed that Tumblety had written an earlier will in October 1901 that left $1,000 from his estate to the Baltimore Home for Fallen Women --- in other words, a halfway house for prostitutes. The claim was thrown out of court but it does provide an interesting final note to the life of a man who has been suspected of being the most famous killer of prostitutes in history.