Dr Francis Tumblety was a mysterious individual who came to the attention of the Metropolitan Police in the late 1880s during the manhunt for Jack the Ripper. There were many suspicious circumstances surrounding Tumblety, but could this American doctor have actually been Jack the Ripper?
Who Was Francis Tumblety?
Born in 1833, Francis Tumblety’s humble start to life is something of a mystery. Some sources say that he was born in Ireland, while others suggest he was actually born in Canada. Regardless, we know that he moved to Rochester, New York, with his family within the first decade or so of his life.
As a young adult, he gained employment working at a drug store and was apprenticed to a doctor there. He earned additional money peddling pornographic books on the nearby canal, setting the pattern early on for a dual life, steeped in gloom and deception at every turn.
Tumblety moved around a lot during the 1850s and 1860s, staying in various places across the US and Canada but never truly settling or finding a permanent home for himself. He posed as a doctor on his travels, claiming to have secret knowledge of mystical cures and medicines from India, but it is highly likely that this was simply fabricated in order to drum up more business and interest in his services.
He was arrested in Canada twice – once for performing illegal abortions, then again for the sudden, suspicious death of a patient. In 1865, Tumblety was living in Missouri under the fake name of ‘Dr Blackburn’. However, this backfired spectacularly when he was mistakenly taken for the real Dr Blackburn, who was actually wanted by police in connection with the murder of Abraham Lincoln! As a result, Francis Tumblety was arrested once again.
Tumblety Across the Pond
Sometime in the intervening years, Tumblety moved across the pond - possibly to escape further arrests - and was known to be living in London by the summer of 1888. Once again, he posed as a doctor and peddled his fabricated trade to unsuspecting Londoners.
The police began to investigate Tumblety in August of that year, possibly because he was a Jack the Ripper suspect, and due to the nature of his business. Sadly, the files and notes from the Victorian investigation have been lost over the years, but many Ripperologists have since weighed in to give their opinions on the matter.
Interestingly, at the time, there had been rumours that an American doctor had approached the London Pathology Museum, reportedly in an attempt to purchase the uteruses of deceased women. Could this have been Francis Tumblety, or was it just a strange coincidence? An unusual request at the best of times, a line of enquiry like this would have been taken extremely seriously by detectives at the height of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.
The Police Investigation
Eventually, Tumblety’s luck ran out and on 7th November 1888, he was arrested in London. Although the specifics of the arrest are not known today, we do know that he was arrested for “unnatural offences”, which could have meant several different things. This could also have referred to homosexual relations or rape, as homosexuality was still illegal at the time.
He was released on bail, which crucially, means that he was free and potentially able to have committed the horrific murder of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888. The timeframe fits, and evidently, the police came to this conclusion too, as Tumblety was subsequently rearrested on November 12th and held on suspicion of murdering Mary Jane Kelly.
Released on bail once again on 16th November, Francis Tumblety took the opportunity to flee London. He ran first to France, before returning to the US. Much to the bemusement – and frustration – of police on both sides of the pond, Tumblety did a vanishing act and seemingly disappeared into the ether.
The next few years were a mystery, and Tumblety did not surface again until 1893, five years later. He lived out the remainder of his life in his childhood home of Rochester, New York, where he died in 1903 as a wealthy man.
Was Francis Tumblety Jack the Ripper?
The evidence certainly seems to point towards Tumblety’s guilt, and indeed, the fact that he was arrested multiple times in connection with the Ripper murders suggests that he was certainly one of the police’s top Jack the Ripper suspects.
Today, many of the details have been lost over the years. The original Scotland Yard files are missing, meaning that we do not know why Tumblety was charged – or indeed, what he was charged with in connection to the Whitechapel Murders. However, one thing we can learn from the arrests is that the evidence brought against Tumblety could not have been watertight, otherwise he would never have been released on bail. It seems there was still an element of doubt in the minds of the detectives.
Years later, John G. Littlechild, head of the Special Branch, claimed that Tumblety was indeed a likely Jack the Ripper suspect. He also said that a large dossier had existed, containing firm evidence against the doctor. However, it seems that this file has either been lost or destroyed over the years – if it ever even existed at all. Alternatively, could it still be tucked away somewhere, hidden in Scotland Yard’s archives? The possibility is extremely slim, but the idea of the missing dossier finally reappearing after all these years certainly presents an intriguing prospect.
Additionally, Francis Tumblety also seems to fit the criminal profile of the man behind the Ripper murders. He certainly possessed some degree of medical knowledge, and he was said to have frequently expressed his dislike of women. Known to be self-obsessed and odd, was this enough to cement Tumblety’s guilt? Was this mysterious American doctor Jack the Ripper?
If you would like additional information on Francis Tumblety or any of the other Jack the Ripper suspects, why not book your place on one of our Ripper walking tours? Presenting the perfect opportunity to dig deeper into the fascinating history of one of London’s most notorious killers, learn more about the case and make up your own mind today.