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Was a Quack Doctor Jack the Ripper?

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 29.2, March / April 2005

In the never-ending search for the true identity of the elusive Jack the Ripper, a recent extraordinary discovery has attracted the attention of Ripperologists worldwide. It now seems not unlikely that the murderer may have been a suspect hitherto unknown to researchers: an Irish-American quack doctor named Francis J. Tumblety.

The story begins with the discovery of a very important document known as the “Littlechild letter.” This letter, written by former Chief Inspector John G. Littlechild to the journalist George R. Sims in 1913, came to light in a small collection of Sims’s correspondence that was bought in 1993 by Stewart Evans, a police officer himself and a leading authority on the Ripper case. Evans recognized its significance immediately. Littlechild, in fact, had been in charge of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard in 1888, the year in which the Ripper killed his victims, and in that capacity, would have worked in close and regular personal contact with men like Chief Inspector Swanson, appointed by Sir Charles Warren to oversee the Ripper inquiry.

The Disquieting Dr. T.

In his letter, Inspector Littlechild writes: “. . . amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T. . . . He was an American quack named Tumblety and was at one time 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 'Sycopathia 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, France. He shortly left Boulogne and was never heard of afterwards. It was believed he committed suicide but it is certain that at that time, the 'Ripper' murders came to an end.”

Francis J. Tumblety was in fact in London during that fatal autumn of 1888 and on November 16 was brought before the Marlborough Street Police Court charged with homosexual offenses. He posted bail and was ordered to appear at the Central Criminal Court, but he violated bail, fled to France, and there, under the alias Frank Townsend, boarded a steamer bound for New York.

Tumblety was a well-known suspect in 1888, but somehow his existence was missed by researchers until the surfacing of this letter.

As with all of the suspects in the case, there is no concrete evidence pointing to Tumblety, but the plethora of circumstantial evidence, as well as the letter and opinion of such a high-ranking officer, makes Tumblety the most plausible new suspect.

Very little information has been ascertained about Tumblety’s beginnings, and I will draw on the excellent work done at (and based on Stewart Evans and Paul Gainey’s Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer) to draw a profile of the suspect.

Francis J. Tumblety, Jack the Ripper suspect.

Francis J. Tumblety, Jack the Ripper suspect.

His birthplace is the first of many mysteries surrounding him. He was possibly a Canadian, the son of an emigrated Irishman, born around 1833, the youngest of eleven children. His family soon moved to Rochester, New York, where neighbors and acquaintances thought him “a dirty, awkward, ignorant, uncared- for, good-for-nothing boy . . . utterly devoid of education.” He was also known to peddle pornographic literature on the canal boats of Rochester. At some point in his adolescence, he also began working at a small drugstore run by a Dr. Lispenard, who is said to have “carried on a medical business of a disreputable kind.”

Around 1850, Tumblety left Rochester, perhaps for Detroit, where he started his own practice as an Indian herb doctor. He was arrested in 1857 for attempting to abort the pregnancy of a local prostitute. It was alleged that he sold her a bottle of pills and liquid for the purpose, but after some legal haggling, Tumblety was released.

Around 1860, he left Montréal for Saint John, Nova Scotia. In September of that year, he again found trouble when a patient of his named James Portmore died while taking medicine prescribed by Tumblety. In his typical brazen fashion, Tumblety showed up at the coroner’s inquest and questioned Portmore’s widow himself as to the cause of death. The ruse didn't work, however, and Tumblety made a last-ditch attempt at freedom by fleeing the town for Calais, Maine.

It was at this time that Tumblety’s alleged hatred for women became most pronounced, as seen in the testimony of a Colonel Dunham, who was one night invited to dinner by Tumblety: “Someone asked why he had not invited some women to his dinner. His face instantly became as black as a thunder-cloud. He had a pack of cards in his hand, but he laid them down and said, almost savagely, 'No, Colonel, I don't know any such cattle, and if I did I would, as your friend, sooner give you a dose of quick poison than take you into such danger.' He then broke into a homily on the sin and folly of dissipation [promiscuity], fiercely denounced all women and especially fallen women.

“He then invited us into his office where he illustrated his lecture so to speak. One side of this room was entirely occupied with cases, outwardly resembling wardrobes. When the doors were opened quite a museum was revealed-tiers of shelves with glass jars and cases, some round and others square, filled with all sorts of anatomical specimens. The 'doctor' placed on a table a dozen or more jars containing, as he said, the matrices (uteri) of every class of women. Nearly a half of one of these cases was occupied exclusively with these specimens. . . . When he was asked why he hated women, he said that when quite a young man he fell desperately in love with a pretty girl, rather his senior, who promised to reciprocate his affection. After a brief courtship he married her. The honeymoon was not over when he noticed a disposition on the part of his wife to flirt with other men. He remonstrated, she kissed him, called him a dear jealous fool-and he believed her. Happening one day to pass in a cab through the worst part of the town he saw his wife and a man enter a gloomy- looking house. Then he learned that before her marriage his wife had been an inmate of that and many similar houses. Then he gave up all womankind.”

If any of this account is to be taken at face value, it certainly contains various elements that may have contributed to the making of a murderer.

Pursued by Scotland Yard

After a series of brushes with the law (including his being arrested in connecting with the Lincoln assassination) Tumblety wisely decided to leave America for London in the late 1860s. In the years that followed, he continued to travel across both America and Europe, returned to Liverpool in June of 1888, and once again found himself at odds with the police. He was arrested on November 7, 1888, on charges of homosexual activities.

Most interestingly, Tumblety was then charged on suspicion of the Whitechapel murders on November 12, but as we have seen, he fled to France before a trial could be held. New York officials knew of his impending arrival and had the ports watched for the suspect but to no avail. It was reported that Scotland Yard men had followed Tumblety across the Atlantic, and it is known that Inspector Andrews did follow a suspect to New York City around this time.

New York City’s Chief Inspector Byrnes soon discovered that Tumblety was lodging at 79 East Tenth Street at the home of a Mrs. McNamara, and he had him under surveillance for some days following. Byrnes could not arrest Tumblety because, in his own words, “there is no proof of his complicity in the Whitechapel murders, and the crime for which he was under bond in London is not extraditable.”

Fear and suspicion rose until, on December 5, Tumblety disappeared from his lodgings once again, eluding the New York City police, who were watching him closely. Interest gradually waned as the years dragged on, and Tumblety next appeared in Rochester in 1893, where he lived with his sister for a time. He died a decade later in 1903 in St. Louis as a man of considerable wealth and was buried in Rochester, New York.

Facts and Doubts

In conclusion, Evans and Gainey outline fifteen reasons why they believe Tumblety should be considered a top suspect in the Whitechapel murders. Among them:

As convincing as all this appears, however, there are other historians who do not agree with these conclusions. First of all, although Tumblety’s homosexuality could at that time be seen as a strong element of suspicion (Littlechild wrote in his letter: “It is very strange how those given to 'Contrary sexual instinct' and 'degenerates’ are given to cruelty, even Wilde used to like to be punched about”), today things are seen differently. From what is known of serial killers today, Tumblety’s tendencies might exclude him as a suspect; homosexual serial killers, in fact, are concerned singularly with male victims and would be uninterested in female prostitutes. And, according to as noted a Ripper authority as Philip Sugden, Tumblety was fifty-six years old in 1888, far older than any of the men reportedly seen in the company of the victims, and he also seems to have been a man of much greater physical stature than the Ripper. As for evidence, there was never anything of substance that could connect Tumblety with any of the murders.

So it may be that Tumblety had nothing to do with the killings in Whitechapel. Or he may very well have been the actual killer, and new evidence may surface in the future. In truth, however, we have to deal with the fact that after a century of final solutions, the answer to the killer’s true identity may never come to light, and Jack the Ripper could forever remain a mystery.


Massimo Polidoro

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Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at