Jack the Ripper May Well Have Been a Yank - Atlas Obscura
Our new kids' book is on sale! Shop now.

Jack the Ripper May Well Have Been a Yank

31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.

article-imageWhitechapel, London, where the Jack the Ripper murders took place (photograph by This ParticularGreg/Flickr user)

A controversial man makes for a controversial suspect.

2013 marks the 125th Anniversary of the Autumn of Terror. From August 1888 to November of the same year, the five canonical Whitechapel Murders horrified the world, and to this day the identity of Jack the Ripper remains a mystery. Suspects include doctors, authors, a painter, a barrister, Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert, and some even thought it was a woman, dubbing her Jill the Ripper. However one lesser-known and viable suspect was a larger than life Irish American “doctor” by the name of Francis Tumblety.

article-imageBorn the youngest of 11 children in Canada or Ireland around 1833 — the exact date and location are still in question — Tumblety’s parents immigrated to the Unites States when Francis was a child and settled in Rochester, New York. As was a common occurrence at the time, their surname was documented with various spellings including Tumblety, Twomblety, and Tumuelty in census and other records.

As a youth, Tumblety sold pornographic materials to canal boat workers and performed menial tasks at a highly disreputable medical clinic in Rochester. Tumblety then spent his adult years traveling throughout the US and Canada, building his reputation and wealth as a flamboyant and self-aggrandizing “Indian Herbs Doctor,”  and was often in legal trouble. The most serious charges, but no convictions, were the sale of aborting agents to a prostitute and the poisoning death of a male patient in two separate Canadian cities, as well as complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  

Tumblety was purportedly known by many to be a rabid misogynist, loathing all women, but prostitutes in particular. His stated reason was his early marriage to a woman whom he discovered was an active prostitute when he followed her to a brothel. In addition, it was reported by a Colonel Dunham that Tumblety collected “the matrices [uteri] of every class of women” and proudly presented them in glass specimen jars to an all-male dinner party at his home in Washington, DC. However, Dunham’s own questionable reputation casts a shadow of doubt on this claim. A known confidence man and always on the take, Dunham did not make this claim until after Tumblety was already suspected in the killings. Therefore whether the story was valid or simply a ploy for attention and compensation is anyone’s guess, since no other men from this supposed event ever came forward to corroborate.

article-imageStreets of Whitechapel (photograph by Charles Roffey)

Tumblety traveled frequently to London and often stayed in the posh West End hotels. However, despite his wealth, he was known to often “slum” in the unsavory East End. On November 7, 1888 he was arrested and charged with eight counts of gross indecency (homosexual activities) with four other men, and released on bail. Then on November 12 he was arrested on suspicion of the Whitechapel murders. He posted bail again on November 16 and fled under the alias Frank Townsend to France where he boarded a steamer ship and returned to New York City. An investigator from Scotland Yard was sent to New York and Tumblety was hounded by the American press, but no conclusive evidence against him was found regarding Whitechapel, and the gross indecency charges were insufficient cause for extradition back to England. Later, investigators scoffed at his being a likely suspect.

At the time, the entire investigation was in shambles and the beleaguered Scotland Yard was under the world’s and Queen Victoria’s scrutiny. It is theorized by some that in order to save face after letting The Ripper slip out of their grasp, Scotland Yard simply disqualified him as a suspect. However, there are many tantalizing bits of evidence to consider. In addition to his reputation as a woman-hater with some medical knowledge, there is the following:

  • He was in Whitechapel at the time of the murders and they ended after he fled.
  • Stewart P. Evans, a former English police officer turned leading crime historian and author, has been chasing Jack the Ripper since he was a teenager. He was the historical adviser to the film From Hell, and has made countless appearances on television about Whitechapel and other crimes. In 1993 he discovered a letter written in 1888 by Chief Inspector John Littlechild. In response to a query from a journalist regarding a possible suspect by the name of “Doctor D.” Littlechild says he knows nothing of a suspect by that name, but “… amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T. . . . He was an American quack named Tumblety…” After discovery of the letter and years of research, Evans is convinced that Tumblety was indeed Jack the Ripper. He has co-authored a book and his theories were the basis for a television documentary .
  • At the time of the murders, the owner of a boarding house on Batty Street, in the heart of the area where the slayings occurred, contacted the police and reported that a very odd American gentleman, possibly a doctor, had vacated his room leaving behind a blood-soaked shirt, which she gave to the investigators. There is evidence to suggest that Tumblety was the mysterious Batty Street Lodger.
  • Analysis of handwriting samples from the letters Jack sent to Scotland Yard, are said by some experts to match samples of Tumblety’s.
  • Finally, and perhaps most compelling of all: In May 1903 Tumblety, gravely ill with an undiagnosed ailment and sensing his own imminent death, checked into a St. Louis hospital where his personal possessions were inventoried. The ledger lists quite an assortment of expensive pieces of jewelry, including diamond rings and a gold pocket watch, as well as a very peculiar entry: two cheap, imitation gold rings. Similar rings were reported missing from the body of the Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman.

article-imageThe grave of Francis Tumblety (photograph by Andrew Hiltz)

If Tumblety was indeed Jack the Ripper, he took the secret with him to his grave. He never left the hospital, succumbing to heart disease on May 28, 1903. He is buried in his family’s plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York.


Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world. And check in on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter to participate in the daily offerings of unsavory Halloween treats.