Tuesday 28 May 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Jack the Gay Ripper?

Can there be any serial killer more well known than Jack the Ripper? In fact, many modern serial killers are often labelled “Ripper”, the most notorious being the Yorkshire Ripper.

Is there any doubt that the fascination the world has with Jack the Ripper boils down to two things – the gruesome details of the murders, and the mysterious identity of the Ripper himself. Many people have looked at the original suspects and proposed new ones, but still the question remains – who was Jack the Ripper?

Among the original suspects was an eccentric gay “doctor” called Francis Tumblety. Before I discuss the Ripper connection I’ll give a brief life-story of Tumblety and then see what evidence has been put forward to suggest him as being the Ripper.

Francis was born in Ireland, some say in Canada to Irish parents. The family was living in the USA before 1850. Francis left home at the age of 17 and appears to have got a job as a bookseller (and probably also a porn distributor). When he moved to Detroit he exploited America’s growing craze for patent medicines by setting himself up as a qualified doctor. His only true medical experience was working as a drug store assistant as a teenager and later working as a porter in an abortion hospital.

It may have been his hospital experience which gave him a fascination for female body parts – not women, just their body parts. He was vehemently sexist and misogynistic. In particular he has a morbid fascination with the uterus and kept a large collection of them and other female body parts preserved in glass jars. One of his most eccentric traits was his joy in showing off his collection to his guests at the male-only dinners he hosted.

Like most of the self-proclaimed doctors who peddled cheap patent medicines Tumblety was no more than a quack doctor. In Boston he was accused of being responsible for the death of a patient, but he escaped prosecution (unlike that other quack doctor I mentioned two weeks ago, “Dr. Maxwell”, aka Hugh Brooks).

By 1874 Francis Tumblety was living in Liverpool, where he is said to have had a rather stormy gay relationship with a toy-boy called Hall Caine (later Sir Hall Caine, writer of popular Victorian novels).

In summer 1888 Tumblety moved to London, just before Jack the Ripper’s first official victim was murdered. He was arrested in November on charges of gross indecency with four men. He jumped bail and fled to France under an alias and eventually made his way back to America. There he lived with his sister and niece and died 110 years ago today on 28th May 1903.

So why did he end up on the Jack the Ripper suspect list?

In 1913 a senior detective from the Ripper case wrote to a journalist saying that Tumblety was once a suspect. Police knew of his political sympathies with the Fenians, an Irish nationalist movement, and thought he might cause political trouble. They watched his lodgings for several weeks. After the first Ripper murder his landlady gave the police a blood-soaked shirt from Tumblety’s otherwise tidy room. This seems to have been the point from which Tumbelty became a Ripper suspect. There were others, but there wasn’t enough evidence against any of them to make an arrest.

Opponents of the Tumblety-Ripper theory say that he doesn’t match any of the descriptions of the men last seen talking to the victims, mainly because of a photo of Tumbelty shows him sporting a huge distinctive moustache which the witnesses never mentioned. Several points here – the photo could have been taken at any time and not at the time of the murders, he could easily have trimmed his moustache for a while; and there’s no proof that the man witnesses saw talking to the victims was their murderer.

Opponents also say that Tumblety was in jail on charges of gross indecency when the last murder took place. Not so. Tumblety was bailed after his arrest and free to roam the streets of London again when the murder occurred.

Supporters of the Tumbelty theory point out that the murders began shortly after he arrived in London and ended after he fled to France. And how did he come by his collection of preserved uteruses? Opponents are not convinced that he had enough surgical expertise to commit the Ripper murders. He could have picked up some surgical knowledge from his time in the abortion hospital. Tumbelty also had a known hatred of prostitutes, much more so than his general misogyny, and the victims were working as prostitutes.

When he jumped bail Scotland Yard pursued him to America – the only time they bothered chasing anyone who was only charge with gross indecency. Why? And why did they ask New York police for a sample of his handwriting? You don’t need someone’s handwriting to charge someone with gross indecency.

The evidence for and against Francis Tumbelty is circumstantial, as it is with the other suspects. There’s lots of books and websites devoted to Jack the Ripper, so I advise you have a look at them yourself before you make up you mind. I’m not sure myself in I can call Francis Tumblety Jack the Ripper. But if he wasn’t then it’s a case of a “Life of Brian” syndrome – he seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


  1. this guy may be related to me in some way.

  2. You've made some very valid points about Tumblety. Kudos for also pointing out that the evidence, as with Ms. Cornwell's suspect (Sickert) is/was circumstantial. For the definitive answer on whom Jack The Ripper was, read 'They All Love Jack' by Bruce Robinson. I've read both Ms. Cornwell's & Mr. Robinson's tomes thoroughly and, I find Robinson's to be the most convincing. Either way, both books are a Bloody Good Read.