The Run-about Doctor and the Ripper


            Francis Tumblety is an American Jack the Ripper suspect.  He has a history of constant travel, and many of his moves take him to locations correspondent to the Ripper murders in both place and time.  He had bad luck with aliases as well as location.  He liked to play at being a doctor, as well as pretend to be in the military.  There are, however, contradictions to his case.

For most of his life, Francis Tumblety was an enigma.  Even the date of his birth is uncertain, though he is thought to have been born around 1833 (Casebook).  His parents were James and Margaret Tumblety, and they had eleven children, Francis being the youngest.  We do not know exactly where the family was living at the time of his birth, but within ten years they were residing in Rochester, New York.  Tumblety’s father died in 1851.

Tumblety never had a very good reputation in his youth.  As a child, his neighbours described him as a “dirty, awkward, ignorant, uncared-for, good-for-nothing boy” who was “utterly devoid of education” (Casebook).  He was known to sell literature of a lewd nature along the Rochester canal.  During his teenage years, he worked at a small drug store.  The owner of this store was thought to have “carried on a medical business of a disreputable kind” (Casebook).

Sometime around 1850, Tumblety left Rochester, probably for Detroit, and began to practise as an Indian herb doctor.  He appeared to be very wealthy.  From here, he began to travel to varying locations.  History next finds him in Montreal in 1857, as a physician.  He was arrested in September of that year for selling pills and liquid medicine to a prostitute to help abort her pregnancy.  There was no trial, and Tumblety was released on the first of October.  He then left Montreal for St. John.  In 1860, a man died while taking medicine Tumblety had prescribed for him.  Because of this, Tumblety fled to Calais, Main, and then to Boston. (Casebook)

While in Boston, Tumblety began to gallivant around the city dressed in a military uniform.  He also took to riding a white stallion or walking with greyhounds, to complete his austere, military air.  His stay in Boston was short-lived, though, as he continued to move about the country, going as far as California, before moving to the capital during the Civil War, claiming to be a surgeon for the Union Army.  At the capital, he claimed to be friends with Lincoln, General Grant, and many other big-name men of the time.  He eventually moved to St. Louis, still claiming to be a doctor.  He also continued to parade in his military garb, as he had in Boston.  He was eventually arrested for impersonating military personnel and wearing medals he did not earn.  Instead of taking this as a warning, Tumblety took this as persecution from his medical competitors in town, and he was arrested on the same charge in Carondelet, also in Missouri. (Casebook)

It seems Tumblety decided to use the alias of Dr. Blackburn when he returned to St. Louis.  Because of this, he was arrested for aiding in the Lincoln assassination, since a certain Dr. Blackburn was believed to have been involved.  The two had different first names, but this was still an unfortunate choice of aliases on Tumblety’s part.  After this mishap, Tumblety took to a port and shipped out for London near the end of the 1860s. (Casebook)

After a trip to Berlin as well, Tumblety eventually landed in Liverpool in 1874.  Here, he met Sir Henry Hall Caine, who was twenty-one years old at the time.  He and Tumblety, now about forty, are thought to have become romantically involved.  This relationship lasted until Tumblety returned to New York in 1876, and Tumblety returned to Liverpool in June of 1888.  During this time, he gained a reputation for “seeming mania for the company of young men and grown-up youths” (Casebook).  He was also arrested for gross indecency and assault against four men between July and November of 1888, though these charges were actually euphemisms the authorities used for homosexual relations.

In the middle of November, Tumblety was charged as a suspect of the Whitechapel Murders (Casebook).  He then fled to France under the alias “Frank Townsend,” and then back to New York.  While in New York, Tumblety was watched at his lodgings by Inspector Byrnes, but Byrnes could not arrest him because “there [was] no proof of his complicity with the Whitechapel Murders, and the crime for which he was under bond in London is not extraditable” (Casebook).  Scotland Yard is thought to have followed him across the Atlantic as well, and the New York City police had been warned of his flight.  They failed to catch him in port, however, just as Scotland Yard had failed to capture him on his flight to Liverpool, where he had boarded the steamer that took him back to America. (Casebook)

During this time, an old woman in Liverpool claimed she had had a very strange man lodging in her house and believed him to be an American.  He had a habit of going out at night and was very strange.  He had left the Sunday of the day Mary Kelly was murdered and had not returned.  There was a similar story in a lodging near Berner Street (Evans & Gainey 116).  This lodger had left behind some key articles that led the police to inspect in Liverpool as well.  Among these belongings was a leather bag the man supposedly rarely went anywhere without.  In this bag, along with clothing and other personal belongings, was found “prints of an obscene description” (Evans & Gainey 116).  These along with a bloody shirt were important clues to the police.

There were also conjectures from at least two sources that the murderer changed clothes or into a coat after the murders.  John Lardy claimed to have followed a strange man, who appeared to be an American, that was consorting with prostitutes.  Lardy claimed that he and a friend followed the man for quite a ways, then lost him, finding him again and noting that he had donned a large overcoat and a different hat (Evans & Gainey 124-125).  Doctor Bond made a report on the murders by analysing all of the information collected by the police.  He also suggested that the murderer probably wore and overcoat to cover his bloodstained clothing (145).

If Tumblety was the murderer, he was never caught for it.  He next appears in Rochester in 1893, living with his sister.  He died in St. Louis in 1903 (Casebook).

While Tumblety is considered a very likely suspect, I have to admit that there are several details that contradict this notion, as well as a few factors that are not as concrete as they may seem.

First, the factors I mentioned as being flimsier than they first appear.  I noticed a correlation between the lodger’s bag containing “obscene prints” and Tumblety’s peddling of pornographic literature during his childhood in Rochester.  This is a very fragile relationship because pornography was and is much more commonplace than society would like to think.  It has been around since ancient times, with many examples appearing in ancient Greek artwork as well as that of other ancient civilisations, though it only began to emerge in its modern sense in the Victorian Era.  While probably uncommon at the time, it is not surprising they found such pictures in a traveler’s belongings.

Tumblety’s running from place to place also stands out.  This is also not surprising but does not necessarily indicate a guilty conscience.  There is evidence that he was not completely right in the head, as well as evidence of an onset of paranoia.  His running from place to place and town to town may have been merely to escape this paranoia when he could not rise above it, as he may have tried to do in parading around in a military uniform, pretending to be a greater figure than he truly was.  His playing doctor without any notation of formal training may have just been the acts of a very deranged man.

Considering Tumblety was an American, it is difficult to believe that he could have been the killer.  Mad or not, it makes no sense that someone would cross an ocean to kill, especially when the victims fall under such a generic category as “prostitutes.”  All he would have to do is visit a large city, such as Boston or New York or St. Louis, which Tumblety did frequently in his flight from place to place.

Another contradiction is Tumblety’s homosexual relations.  Why would a man attracted to men kill women?  A common trend among serial killers is that they attack those of the gender they are attracted to.  If Tumblety was a homosexual, he would have killed men, not women.  And just because he sold pornographic literature does not mean he read it himself, and there is also no mention as to the orientation of said literature in the first place.  It was simply described as obscene.

It would seem that Francis Tumblety was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he was when he was under the alias of “Dr. Blackburn.”  A good case is presented against him; however, there are several flaws that simply cannot be overlooked.  He was a deranged and paranoid man with a string of bad luck.


Works Cited

“Casebook: Jack the Ripper – Francis Tumblety.” Casebook: Jack the Ripper – Main. 27 Apr. 2009 <;.

Evans, Stewart, and Paul Gainey. Jack the Ripper First American Serial Killer. Lanham: Kodansha America, 1998.


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