Could a snake oil salesman be Jack the Ripper?
May 25, 2015
Sara Marie Hogg
I FINISHED MY CALL to my brother-in-law by explaining my recent writing projects. Then, he said something that threw me off-guard.
“I have met a writer here in St. Louis that claims to know who Jack the Ripper really was. He lived right here in St. Louis. I can’t remember his name but the writer’s name is Donna something. She does not write under that name though. She uses a pen name and she has written a book about the subject.”
He had my attention when he said Jack the Ripper. He knew of my interest in weird subjects and my late sister, his wife, had the same interests. We often traded books and had many conversations about these off-beat subjects. She was a psychiatric nurse and had more than a passing interest in the workings of the human mind. She had even worked at the spooky old Jefferson Barracks for a time.
“Don’t worry about dredging up names. I will get on the computer and figure it all out,” I said before hanging up, and that is exactly what I did, almost immediately.
I have been an amateur Ripperologist for years. When the Literary Guild offered a book about the subject in 1988, I couldn’t wait for my order to come in the mail. It was a good choice. Donald Rumbelow’s, JACK THE RIPPER, The Complete Casebook ended up being a bible for amateur Ripperologists. It was the first time I had seen actual photographs of the victims. It had not even crossed my mind that there would be any. It would make sense, though. Police investigation was undergoing a renaissance at the time, no doubt with much inspiration from the popular tales of Edgar Allan Poe and a wave of other detective stories. Photography was something that could now be added as a valuable tool for investigation.
I was familiar with all of the Ripper candidates and what experts had to say. In more recent news, in an article in the September 6, 2014 edition of the London Daily Mail, it was revealed that Russell Edwards had decided that he could name the Ripper. He had come in possession of a shawl was found with one of the victims. He had it tested for DNA by Dr. Jari Louhelainen. This type of DNA testing had only recently become available as a tool. According to him, they were able to get a sample and tested it against the DNA of living family members. He went so far as to name Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper, claiming to close the case for all time. I am still on the fence concerning his conclusion, and open to other evidence.
For years, M. J. Druitt was thought the most likely candidate, although there were over six people whose names kept cropping up due to their hatred of women, means and opportunity, and evidence such as that provided by handwriting experts. Druitt threw himself in the river, a suicide, before they could do a thorough investigation of the man.
As I searched on the internet for the writer my brother-in-law mentioned, and the St. Louis man she had written about, I became more and more intrigued and dumbfounded. Why wasn’t this man ever mentioned before? Why hadn’t I ever heard of the guy?
Francis Tumblety was an Irishman who came to America with his family during the great potato famine. They were very poor and he was the youngest son of ten children. The family had to split up when they got to America to even survive, so Francis ended up living with an older brother in Rochester, New York—the brother was not doing well, but had semi established himself. Francis was pretty much a street urchin who tried to earn what money he could with odd jobs. He got no school education. What he learned, he learned on the streets.
Young Francis Tumblety had the remarkable good fortune to be taken under the wing of several different snake oil salesmen. They called themselves doctors, which was allowable at the time, and sold patent medicines. Francis was a gofer for these people and handed out printed advertisements, but he was ready and willing to learn from them. He learned showmanship. He learned about concocting the substances and how to package them. He learned bedside manner. One of the men who tutored him called himself an expert on Indian medicine.
During this time in America, people were turning away from the standard medical treatments of the time which involved awful procedures such as bleeding, unnecessary surgeries and mercury treatments. They began turning to herbalists, instead. It was a time that was ripe for the success of quack doctors. Tumblety seized the opportunity. He left home at age seventeen and set himself up as a doctor in Detroit. He was quite successful. He sold concoctions known as “Tumblety’s Pimple Destroyer,” and “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills.” To say he was a flashy dresser would be an understatement. His clothing, often of a military nature, was ostentatious. He wore a thick, dark, walrus-y moustache from the first time he could grow it.
Tumblety had to move about a lot to stay one step ahead of the law. Before he moved to a new area, he filled the local newspapers with ads about his medical practice, describing himself as “a great (and famous) physician.” Sometimes he used an alias. He chose the choicest, ritziest locations for his offices and his patients, including women, loved him. He was very convincing and must have been a great actor because he was later found to be a misogynist of the highest degree.
Tumblety had medical practices in Rochester, Detroit, Canada and yes, in St. Louis on Olive Street. He was so well-off that he traveled to Europe many times and did actually live in a rental in Whitechapel during the time of the Ripper killings. He had motive, means, and opportunity for the crimes. In fact, he fled Whitechapel to France when he learned the Metropolitan Police might be interested in talking to him about them.
Other interesting things about Tumblety include the fact that when he was younger he had worked at the infamous Lispernard Hospital in Rochester. It had a reputation for performing strange gynecological operations and providing “cures” for sexual temptation.
Once, Tumblety had some men friends over to dinner and proudly displayed specimens of the female anatomy pickled in jars of formaldehyde. Where did he get these oddities? That has always been a big question. Did he procure them himself or swipe them from the hospital he worked in? He bragged to his guests that the specimens came from “every class of woman.”
He was a known homosexual and much of his trouble with the law did not involve his medical practices at all, but stemmed from his homosexual activity or from accusations made by other men. He was arrested many times, but could always pay his way out, or secure the best legal defense.
He claimed to have met Charles Dickens, King William and Louis Napoleon in his travels, and Abraham Lincoln of all people.
On May 5, 1865, Tumblety was even arrested in St. Louis and taken to Washington as one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. It is true that he was an acquaintance of David Herold, who was charged with the crime, but Tumblety was not part of the plot and was released.
In his later life, Tumblety lived for awhile in Rochester and Baltimore, then, he returned to St. Louis for his final years. He often liked to go to the Plateau Hotel in Hot Springs and live it up. He once claimed that seven thousand dollars worth of diamonds and cash was stolen out of his room there at The Plateau. He died in St. Louis in 1903 of a heart condition. His body was returned to Rochester for burial in the family plot.
If you find this man as fascinating as I do, you may wish to read the fictional book, JACK THE RIPPER IN ST. LOUIS by Fedora Amis, or, you may find the factual book, PRINCE OF QUACKS by Timothy B. Riordan more to your liking. Riordan’s book is a well-researched biography. Tumblety, not known for being humble, wrote his own flowery autobiography and published several editions.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental.