Who knew there was a link between the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and a slew of brutal murders by the mysterious and still unidentified 19th century serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The link is a single man: Francis Tumblety. Arrested by American police in 1865 as a suspected plotter against the life of Lincoln. And then detained by British police 23 years later because it was believed he might be Jack the Ripper.
Neither charge stuck. But how incredible that in one lifetime, this very odd man and rampant self-publicist managed to be implicated in two of the worst crimes of that century.
FIND OUT MORE: What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?
The world of Jack the Ripper
This week, I’m being interviewed for a TV documentary on Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who terrorised Victorian London. His identity has never been revealed since his spate of vicious murders of women in 1888. Notoriously, the Ripper eviscerated these poor souls removing their organs and leaving their bodies in an almost unrecognisable state.
The gruesome story has gripped the public ever since. It happened at a time when the police were still a relatively new institution that hardly commanded widespread respect. Indeed the cops were mercilessly ridiculed for their handling of the case.
And it was also a period when our modern mass media was emerging. Sensationalist newspapers with pictures for a working-class readership that pushed aside stuffy, dense periodicals only browsed by the upper classes. This was the first stirrings of infotainment.
Into this new world – and largely created by it – came Jack the Ripper. The newspapers slavishly followed the police investigation and published all the salacious details of the most recent killing. The butchered women acquired a fame in death that they had never known in life. The police were only too happy to share new clues and show off their questionable detection skills.
Jack the Ripper suspect Francis Tumblety
Given the way in which the Ripper’s victims were seemingly dissected and emptied of their organs, some have wondered whether the killer was a surgeon. Or at least somebody with a little medical training.
Enter the story Irish American fraudster and exhibitionist Francis Tumblety. Already a figure known to American journalists as a charismatic charlatan and fraudster. Incredibly, implicated briefly in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, he was then cleared, until years later he was accused of being Jack the Ripper.
An astonishing thought that England’s most prolific serial killer could have been an American!
Who was Francis Tumblety?
When Tumblety was arrested in 1888 in London suspected of being the Ripper – he was no stranger to the American media. Indeed, American journalists and police may have tipped off their counterparts in London about him.
Tumblety was a ‘quack’ doctor who for decades in the United States and Canada had sold duff cures for pimples and conducted illegal abortions. Known as the ‘Indian Herb Doctor’, he would announce his arrival in a new city with much fanfare brandishing approving commendations from global heads of state and other famous people including the author Charles Dickens.
He seems to gone through periods of making a considerable amount of money selling quack cures. And even conning his way into an American military college to deliver a medical lecture to young recruits. On this occasion, he displayed his disturbing collection of uteruses in jars – which also featured in his shop. It was this rather bizarre assemblage of women’s body parts that would raise suspicions during the Ripper enquiry in London. But that was in the future.
From the 1850s to the 1880s, Tumblety practised his career as a wannabe doctor at a time when desperate people would pay for any kind of cure. Sometimes he would practice ‘medicine’ in Canada and then skip over the border to the United States when he had to move again after being found out.
A newspaper report in May 1865 claims he ‘cleared’ about twenty thousand dollars while presenting himself as a doctor in Toronto. That is an astonishing amount of money for the time and would have made him a wealthy man.
Tumblety moved from city to city in the United States and hopped back and forth across the Atlantic, staying for periods in England, for two reasons. One was that every so often his so-called cures were exposed as garbage and he fled his furious patients. Second was repeat arrests for ‘gross indecency’, which was basically the Victorian way of describing homosexual acts – same-sex encounters. To avoid prison or worse, he would make a quick getaway.
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From Abraham Lincoln to Jack the Ripper
And so, Tumblety found himself in the working class East End of London in 1888 just as Jack the Ripper was doing his worst. The tall American in a ‘slouch hat’ seems to have attracted attention. But the evidence against him as a potential candidate for being Jack the Ripper was pretty slim. A letter discovered in 1993 and written by a retired police inspector in 1913 details the case against “Doctor T”.
By our standards, it’s incredibly homophobic and circumstantial. The argument – if it can be called that – runs along the lines that – oh well, Tumblety was a known homosexual. They can often be sadistic in their sexual practices – with an example given in the letter. Tumblety hates women. And he has a collection of uteruses. Ergo – he is Jack the Ripper.
This interest in female body parts and his alleged outspoken hatred of women was enough to convince the London police to arrest Tumblety. There was also a long string of convictions going back to his youth. He was, in the eyes of law enforcement, a serial criminal. So why not a serial killer?
From Lincoln’s killer to Jack the Ripper
During the course of their investigations, London police would have been made aware by American cops that Tumblety had been arrested back in 1865 in relation to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This followed the testimony of a male teenager who had worked as an errand boy for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
He alleged that Tumblety, known at this time as the “Indian Herb Doctor”, had a very intimate relationship with Booth. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – everybody knew what that meant!
Yes…yes…even in 19th century America.
A newspaper report I include below from the time also implicated Tumblety in an “intimate” relationship with David Herold – also a Lincoln plot conspirator who, like Booth, would be executed by hanging.
The notorious Tumblety
What I find very noteworthy about the report is its description of Tumblety as a “notorious” figure already well known across the United States. He certainly wasn’t publicity shy. But this high profile would land him in very hot water twice in his life with the prospect of hanging from a noose as a plotter against Lincoln and the slayer of women in London.
The nature of his business meant that he was part doctor and part showman. Whenever Tumblety set up in a new city with his quack cures, he would ride down the street attired in a strange military uniform including a spiked helmet on a white steed with a hound running at his die. Sometimes with a boy dressed as a native American handing out leaflets. He must have been quite a sight!
But Tumblety aroused hostility and news of his sexuality can’t have helped. Even though he was cleared of any involvement in Lincoln’s assassination, it’s hard to ignore the smear that he and Booth were “intimate”. And the heavily hinted amorous link to one of the other conspirators.
Taking things an audacious step further forward – it has also made others ponder whether Lincoln himself was gay. This was first mooted a hundred years ago.
The fact Lincoln shared his bed as a young man with a friend called Joshua Speed divides opinion with some saying – yep, gay – and others retorting – no, that’s just what chaps did back then. In 2004, a new claim surfaced that Lincoln had a same sex relationship with his bodyguard David V. Derickson.
Back in the 1920s, an early biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg found “streaks of lavender” in the president’s life story. The thought that crossed my mind was whether Lincoln could conceivably have ever made contact with any of the plotters on the theatrical ‘scene’ prior to his assassination.
Tell me what you think!
Jack the Ripper AND Lincoln assassin?
It is incredible to consider that Tumblety could be arrested in his lifetime for two of the most notorious crimes in history: the assassination of President Lincoln and the killings of Jack the Ripper. But he was able to avoid prosecution on both occasions.
Was he a victim of prejudice or misunderstanding?
Well, yes in part. But Tumblety was also an inveterate conman. An utterly untrustworthy individual. He sold hokum to the gullible making considerable amounts of money according to contemporary reports. But always being rumbled at some point.
Tumblety had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consorting with Booth as this man decided to kill Lincoln. And hanging out in Whitechapel as a murderer stalked its streets.
Coincidence? You decide.