Tumblety: Fact and Fiction

The truth of history takes great research.

Francis Tumblety circa 1870

How amazing would it be if the perpetrator of one of histories most notorious and unsolved crimes, was someone with a significant local connection?

Though 130 years have past since “Jack the Ripper” lurked in the shadows of London’s East End, his crimes are still widely known and have inspired numerous books, movies and theories.

One man on many lists of “Jack the Ripper” suspects is Francis Tumblety, a flamboyant herb doctor who grew up in Rochester, NY and is today buried at Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Francis Tumblety was someone who courted attention. He often dressed in an unusual manner and spent considerable sums of money running large advertisements for his medical practice in the major newspapers of the cities he traveled to. The advertisements brought him great riches, but also the attention of those who were immune to his charms.

Much of Tumblety’s adult life was spent outside of Rochester. He seldom stayed in one place for too long, possibly in part to avoid the complications that often arose from his medical practices and his relationships with men.

In 1888, when the crimes of Jack the Ripper were occurring, Tumblety was in London and in trouble with the law. With his mounting legal problems, Tumblety fled the country under an alias, returning to the states through France.

About that time American newspapers ran lengthy stories on Tumblety, featuring “evidence” of his questionable character, his hatred of women, and the possibility that he was indeed, “Jack the Ripper”.

View Democrat and Chronicle article from 1888.

Prince of Quacks

Thankfully in 2009, author and researcher, Timothy B. Riordan’s book Prince of Quacks: The Notorious Life of Dr. Francis Tumblety, Charlatan and Jack the Ripper Suspect was published.

Over the years numerous books and television programs have selectively chosen facts (and helped popularize some fiction) to create an almost certain profile of the Whitechapel serial killer.

Riordan’s extensive research shows that many of the most damning claims made against Dr. Tumblety come from a single source (one Colonel Dunham), who was not known for his honesty.

While it’s highly unlikely that Tumblety was in anyway involved in the Ripper murders, he certainly led a most interesting life.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879.

On one of Dr. Tumblety’s visits to England, he was fortunate enough to bump in to another gentleman very familiar with Rochester, NY…Frederick Douglass. Whilst Tumblety was something of a braggart, it was not he, but Douglass that wrote of their meeting in a letter to close friend Amy Kirby Post. Tumblety had told Douglass he knew Post and members of her family.

He told me much about himself in a very brief space, for he seemed to have more tongues than ears. I could not get a word in anywhere and you know I am too much in love with my own voice to like being suppressed and overtalked in that way, but enough of Dr. Tomblety. he seemed a good fellow after all.

from a letter of Frederick Douglass to Amy Kirby Post, June 10, 1887