Francis Tumblety (1833-1903)
a.k.a. J.H. Blackburn, Frank Townsend
Very little information has been ascertained about Tumblety’s beginnings, his birthplace being the first of many mysteries surrounding this new suspect. According to Evans and Gainey’s 1995 edition of Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer (pg. 188) he was born in Canada, while the most recent edition (1996) of The Jack the Ripper A-Z (pg. 453) lists his birthplace as Ireland. Even the exact year of his birth is still in question. In any event, he was born to James and Margaret Tumblety sometime around 1833, the youngest of eleven children: Patrick, Lawrence, Jane and Bridget (twins), Alice, Margaret, Ann, Julia, Elizabeth, and Mary.
Sometime within the next decade (this date, too, is undetermined), the Tumblety clan moved to Rochester, New York. The city directories first enumerate the Tumblety name (which has various spellings: Tumblety, Tumuelty, Tumility, Twomblety, et alia) in 1844 with Lawrence Tumuelty, listed as a gardener, living at the corner of Sophia and Clarissa streets. The other brother, Patrick, first is seen in the directory of 1849, listed as a fireman at Rapids in Rochester, and living at 6 Andrews. It was recently discovered that Francis’s father (named James, not Frank, as was noted in earlier editions of Evans and Gainey) died on May 7th, 1851.
Our first impressions of the young Francis begin around 1848, when 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. Sometime in adolescence he also began working at a small drug store run by a Dr. Lispenard, said to have 'carried on a medical business of a disreputable kind (Rochester Democrat and Republican, Dec.3, 1888).'
Around 1850 (just before the death of his father), Francis left Rochester, perhaps for Detroit. Here he started his own practice as an Indian herb doctor, which must have prospered since from 1854 onward he always appeared as if of considerable wealth.
He next turns up in Montreal in the fall of 1857, where he again made himself known as a prominent physician. Controversy brewed, however, when he was asked to run in the provincial elections of 1857-8. He declined the offer in what would become typical Tumblety fashion; with a grandiose and overbearing explanation in the local newspaper. But there was more: Tumblety was arrested on September 23, 1857 for attempting to abort the pregnancy of a local prostitute named Philomene Dumas. It was alleged that he sold her a bottle of pills and liquid for the purpose, but after some legal haggling Tumblety was released on October 1. A verdict of ‘no true bill’ was reached on the 24th and no trial was ever undertaken.
In either early 1858 (A-Z, 453) or July 1860 (Evans and Gainey, 258), Tumblety left Montreal for Saint John. In September of 1860, 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.
From there he travelled to Boston, where he began what would be a long-running trademark: he would wear a military outfit and ride a white steed, sometimes leading two greyhounds before him. He didn’t remain long in Boston, however, and would soon travel and work in New York, Jersey City, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and a variety of other cities. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Tumblety moved to the capital and put on the airs of a Union army surgeon, claiming to be friends with President Lincoln, General Grant, and a host of other well-known political figures. 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:
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.
Not long after this the ‘doctor’ was in my room when my Lieutenant-Colonel came in and commenced expatiating on the charms of a certain woman. In a moment, almost, the doctor was lecturing him and denouncing women. 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."
Tumblety next moved to St. Louis, again setting up his ‘medical’ practice, and again promenading himself around the city with arrogant splendor. It was here that another aspect of Tumblety’s character emerges -- his paranoia. He was arrested in St. Louis for wearing military garb and medals he did not deserve, but Tumblety himself took it as persecution from his medical competitors. Soon after her traveled to Carondelet, Missouri and was again imprisoned for a time on the same charge.
It was upon his return to St. Louis, however, that Tumblety received his greatest blow. A poor choice in aliases resulted in his being arrested in connecting with the Lincoln assasination, as he was in the habit of using the name J.H. Blackburn. Dr. L.P. Blackburn was at that time under warrant for an alleged plot to infect the North with blankets carrying yellow-fever. Tumblety was eventually exonerated, but another rumor began that he had at one time employed one of the assasination conspirators. This rumor was dispelled as well. Tumblety subsequently wrote and published The Kidnapping of Dr. Tumblety, a short pamphlet he authored in an attempt to clear his name and re-establish his good-faith with the public. In reality, the book is little more than a series of paranoid ramblings and fraudulent testimonials.
After these fiascos Tumblety wisely chose to lave the U.S. for London in the late 1860s, soon after travelling to Berlin, then to Liverpool in 1874. It was there that he was to meet the not-yet famous Sir Henry Hall Caine (then 21), who was bisexual and almost certainly carried on a homosexual affair with the ‘doctor.’ The two carried on their romance until 1876, when Tumblety returned to New York City. While in New York, Tumblety aroused suspicion through his 'seeming mania for the company of young men and grown-up youths.'
In the years that followed, Tumblety continued to travel across both America and Europe, and raised controversy once again in 1880 when he brought a false suit against a Mrs. Lyons for the sum of $1000, which he claimed she stole from him. Then in October, 1885, his brother Patrick was killed in Rochester when a crumbled chimney landed on him.
Francis Tumblety returned to Liverpool in June of 1888, and once again found himself at odds with the police. He was arrested on November 7th, 1888 on charges of gross indecency and indecent assault with force and arms against four men between July 27th and November 2. These eight charges were euphemisms for homosexual activities. Tumblety was then charged on suspicion of the Whitechapel murders on the 12th (suggested he was free to kill Kelly between the 7th and 12th). Tumblety was bailed on November 16th. A hearing was held on November 20th at the Old Bailey, and the trial postponed until December 10th. Tumblety then fled to France under the alias ‘Frank Townsend’ on the 24th, and from there took the steamer La Bretagne to New York City.
New York officials new of his impending arrival in the city and had the ports watched for the suspect, but to no avail. Many American newspapers reported that Scotland Yard men had followed him across the Atlantic, and it is known the Inspector Andrews did follow a suspect to New York City around this time, though not named specifically as Tumblety.
New York City’s Chief Inspector Byrnes soon discovered Tumblety was lodging at 79 East Tenth Street at the home of 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.'
The situation was tense: all of New York City knew of Tumblety’s whereabouts, thanks to the many newspaper articles covering Byrnes’s surveillance, but there was no legal means of detaining the man. Fear and suspicion rose until, on the 5th of December, Tumblety disappeared from his lodgings once again, eluding the New York police who were watching him so closely. Interest gradually waned as the years dragged on, and Tumblety next appears in Rochester in 1893, where he lived with his sister. He would die a decade later in 1903 in St. Louis, a man of considerable wealth. Tumblety was buried in Rochester, NY.
Such was the life of Francis Tumblety. Interestingly enough, there was absolutely no press coverage in the UK papers, while American papers (especially New York) carried dozens of full-length articles on his arrest and escape (see, for example, an article of December 3rd, 1888 from the Rochester Democrat and Republican). It has been suggested that Scotland Yard wished to keep Tumblety a secret from the press in order to avoid the embarassment of losing their top suspect.
Whatever the case, the story of Francis Tumblety and his connections to the Ripper crimes emerged only a few years ago in 1993, when Stewart Evans acquired what has now become known as the Littlechild letter. It was a letter penned by Chief Inspector John Littlechild in 1913 in response to some questions asked of him by journalist G.R. Sims. The authenticity of the letter has been established by numerous scientific and historical tests, and is not challenged by any researcher.
The letter mentions the name Tumblety as ‘a very likely suspect,’ and provided the first insight into a Scotland Yard suspect whose name was lost for 105 years. Evans continued to research the suspect with co-author Paul Gainey for two years before publishing the first edition of his work, The Lodger, which would be titled in subsequent editions Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer.
The news of this new suspect was indeed one of the most celebrated discoveries of the past decade, and many top-named researchers admit that Tumblety’s case is one of the most persuasive to have emerged in recent years.
Evans and Gainey outline fifteen reasons why they believe Tumblety should be considered a top suspect in the Whitechapel murders:
Still, there are many opponents who believe Tumblety’s status as ‘Scotland Yard’s top suspect’ is poorly deserved. They make note of the fact that Tumblety’s homosexuality would rule him out as a suspect, as homosexual serial killers are concerned singularly with male victims and would be uninterested in female prostitutes.
How popular is this suspect?