Could Jack the Ripper Have Been an American?


In the year 1888, the city of London, England was terrorized by a killer who called himself "Jack the Ripper". The mysterious madman prowled the streets of the Whitechapel District in East London and slaughtered a number of prostitutes, carving his way into the historical record as the first "modern serial killer". As the years have passed, the Ripper has held the morbid curiosity of professional and amateur sleuths, armchair detectives and crime buffs alike. Having eluded capture in the 1880’s, his identity has been debated ever since. Not surprisingly, many suspects have been named as the Ripper over the years with the vast majority of them being British. Many readers, who may have only a “bare bones” knowledge of the case, may be surprised to learn that there are those who believe Jack the Ripper may have actually been an American!

One of these infamous suspects lived and died in the city of St. Louis. His name was Dr. Francis J. Tumblety and suspicion about him being the Ripper came about in 1913, a number of years after the murders took place. In a letter dated on September 23, Inspector John Littlechild, head of the Special Branch in England, wrote to George Sims, a journalist about a medical man who may have been the killer. He was apparently replying to Sims about other possible suspects when he wrote:

"I never heard of a Dr. D in connection with the Whitechapel murders, but amongst the suspects, and to my mind a very likely one, was a Dr. T (which sounds much like a D). He was an American quack named Tumblety and at one time was a frequent visitor to London and on these occasions constantly brought under the notice of police, there being a large dossier concerning him at Scotland Yard. Although a "Sycopathis Sexualis" [sic] subject, he was not known as a sadist (which the murdered unquestionably was) but his feelings toward women were remarkable and bitter in the extreme, a fact on record. Tumblety was arrested at the time of the murders in connection with unnatural offenses and charged at Marlborough Street, remanded on bail, jumped his bail and got away to Boulogne. He shortly left Boulogne and was never heard of afterwards. It is believed that he committed suicide but certain it is that from the time the "Ripper" murders came to an end."

And while not all of Inspector Littlechild’s facts were correct, he did make an interesting case toward the American doctor being the fiendish killer. In fact, the idea was so compelling that when the letter resurfaced years later, the theory was later turned into flawed but fascinating book by two British police officers, Stewart P. Evans and Paul Gainey, called Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer.

But was the "medical man" the real Whitechapel killer? Let’s look into the facts and the fancy behind the intriguing suspect.

Francis J. Tumblety was born in Canada in 1833 and moved with his family to Rochester, New York at a very young age. Although uneducated, he was a clever man and became wealthy and successful as a homeopath and a mixer of patent medicines. There is no record as to whether or not these "snake oil" cures worked or not, but it is certain that Tumblety held no medical degree. He did claim to possess Indian and Oriental secrets of healing and good health and he was described as charming and handsome, so its not surprising that he made quite a bit of money in this questionable field.

When not charming customers, Tumblety was said to have been disliked by many for his self-aggrandizing and his constant boasting. He had a penchant for staying in fine hotels, wearing fine clothes and making false claims. Often these tall tales got him into trouble and he left town on more than one occasion just a step ahead of the law.

In the late 1850’s and early 1860‘s, Tumblety was living in Washington and from this period, the first stories of his deep-seated hatred for women began to surface. During a dinner party one night in 1861, Tumblety was asked by some guests why he did not invite any single women to the gathering. Tumblety replied that women were nothing more than "cattle" and that he would rather give a friend poison than see him with a woman. He then began to speak about the evils of women, especially prostitutes. A man who was in attendance that evening, an attorney named C.A. Dunham, later remarked that it was believed that Tumblety had been tricked into marriage by a woman who was later revealed to be a prostitute. This was thought to have sparked his hatred of woman, but none of the guests had any idea just how far the feelings of animosity went until Tumblety offered to show them his "collection". He led his guests into a back study of the house, where he kept his anatomical "museum". Here, they were shown row after row of jars containing women’s uteruses!

In 1863, Tumblety came to St. Louis for the first time and took rooms at the Lindell Hotel. As he recounted in letters, his flamboyant ways did not appeal to those in St. Louis and he claimed to have been arrested in both the city and in Carondelet, an independent city nearby, for "putting on airs" and "being caught in quasi-military" dress. Regardless of his claims, Tumblety most likely caused trouble during these troubled times in the city because of his apparent southern sympathies. In 1865, he was arrested on the serious charge of what amounted to an early case of biological terrorism. Federal officers had him arrested after he was allegedly involved in a plot to infect blankets, which were to be shipped to Union troops, with yellow fever. The whole thing did turn out to be a case of mistaken identity (an alias of Tumblety’s was remarkably close to a real doctor involved) but it’s likely that he would not have been suspected if not for some actions on his part. Tumblety was taken to Washington and imprisoned until the confusion over the plot could be cleared up and was later released. According to British records, Tumblety was then arrested again after the death of President Abraham Lincoln, this time as a conspirator in the assassination. He was again released but this time, his reputation was destroyed in Washington and he fled to New York. After that, he began traveling frequently to London during the 1870’s and 1880’s.

Although there has been much debate over the years as to how many victims that Jack the Ripper claimed, and just when the murders began, it is generally believed that the first killing occurred on August 31, 1888. The victim was a prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols. Her death was followed by those of Annie Chapman and Elizabeth Stride on September 8. On September 30, the Ripper claimed Catherine Eddowes. Organs had been removed from the bodies of both Chapman and Eddowes, including the latter woman’s uterus.

Just prior to the start of the murders, Dr. Tumblety had come to London and had taken lodgings in Batty Street, the heart of Whitechapel and within easy distance of the murder scenes. It is plain that he was watched closely by the police, especially after an incident involving a pathological museum. During the Annie Chapman inquest, police investigators heard information that has created the most pervasive and enduring myth of the Whitechapel murders, that of the Ripper as a surgeon. Only one medical examiner, arguing against all other expert testimony, believed that the killer had expert anatomical knowledge. He was basing his theory on a witness that claimed the killer was hunting for women’s uteruses to sell to an unknown American. This bizarre bit of testimony came about because Tumblety did indeed visit a pathological museum in London and had inquired about any uteruses that might be for sale. He apparently wanted to add them to his collection.

On November 7, Tumblety was arrested, not for murder, but rather for "unnatural offences", which was usually a reference to homosexuality but could also include procuring young girls. He was later released on bail, although when exactly that was has been a matter of debate for many years. According to some records, he was released on November 16 but according to others, he was actually let go on November 8. The entire theory of whether or not he was Jack the Ripper hinges on the date that he was released from jail!

The reason for this is that on November 9, the Ripper claimed his last victim. Her name was Mary Kelly and she was mutilated in ways that cannot be imagined in her own bed. She was butchered beyond recognition and a number of her organs were removed, including her heart and uterus.

If Tumblety was actually released on November 8, then he could have easily killed Mary Kelly. One account of the days following the murder states that he was arrested on suspicion of her murder on November 12, was released without being charged and then vanished from Whitechapel. On November 24, it is alleged that he took a steamer to France and then sailed from France to New York. Scotland Yard detectives were said to have pursued him to New York and while they kept on eye on him, had no evidence to arrest him and could not have him extradited for the still outstanding indecency charges. They eventually gave up and went home.

Those who do not believe that Tumblety could have been the Ripper give a different accounting of the days after Mary Kelly was killed. According to them, Tumblety was not released on bail until November 16. As Inspector Littlechild writes, he was then believed to jump bail and escape to Boulogne with the police pursuing him. From there, he booked passage to New York, where police staked out his lodgings. He escaped them however and vanished. He was not, as far as recorded, further pursued for his part in the killings. With that said, it would have been impossible for Tumblety to be the Ripper. If he were the killer, then someone would have had to copy and exceed his previous work on Mary Kelly while the doctor was still in jail. Most would agree that this seems highly unlikely.

But our story is not quite over. Regardless of what is written about the last days of Tumblety in London, all will agree that after his escape he did end up in St. Louis. He also traveled for a time, avoiding Washington but frequently visiting Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis. He continued to live in hotels and established no permanent residence in any of the cities. In April 1903 though, Tumblety checked himself into St. John’s Hospital and Dispensary at 23rd and Locust Streets in St. Louis. The hospital, which was then located in the old Catlin-Beach-Barney Mansion, provided care for indigents, which is how Tumblety was presenting himself at this time. The hospital is still in operation today as St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, located at Interstate 64 and Ballas Road.

According to accounts, Tumblety was suffering from a long and painful illness, although what it may have been has never been specifically identified. Some have suggested that it may have been a debilitating case of syphilis, the contraction of which might have been cause for his hatred of women and especially prostitutes. Whatever it was though, Tumblety remained at St. John’s until his death on May 28, 1903. However, he was far from indigent when he died. Court records showed that Tumblety left an estate of more than $135,000 when he died, some of which St. John’s managed to recover. The hospital asked for about $450 to cover the room expenses and medical tests for a man who was clearly not poor. The rest of the estate, except for costs to a St. Louis undertaker, went to Tumblety’s niece, Mary Fitzsimmons of Rochester, New York.

Aside from the hospital, there was one other claim to Tumblety’s estate. While the hospital’s costs can be seen as clearly legitimate, the additional claim was quite strange, especially in light of Tumblety’s clear prejudices on the subject. The challenge to a will that Tumblety had written on May 16 came from an attorney in Baltimore named Joseph Kemp. He claimed that Tumblety had written an earlier will in October 1901 that left $1,000 from his estate to the Baltimore Home for Fallen Women... in other words, a halfway house for prostitutes! The claim was thrown out of court but it does provide an interesting final note to the life of a man who has been suspected of being the most famous killer of prostitutes in history!

Tumblety was unquestionably odd and quite possibly deranged, but his insanity and deviousness never reached the bounds of another American Jack the Ripper suspect, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream. He thought of himself as a master criminal and his ego knew no bounds. He seemed to love to do evil and he was said to have revolutionized the concept of murder in the late 1800’s. His motives would later give much in the way of study to crime psychologists and just what he may have done (and when) continues to baffle crime historians to this day. He specialized in the murder of women and perhaps for this reason, and the fact that he was so adept at covering his trail, Cream emerged in John Cashman’s 1973 book The Gentleman from Chicago as a Ripper suspect. And while many have disputed these charges, Cream is worthy of mention as an American connection to the most heinous murders of the Victorian era.

Thomas Neill Cream

Cream was born in Scotland in 1850 and immigrated with his parents to Canada four years later. Though little is known about his early life, his parents were hardworking and decent folks and Cream lacked for nothing when it came to education and comfort. Somewhere along the way though, some twist in his makeup caused him to develop an overwhelming hatred of women. Perhaps it developed in childhood or perhaps later, when he attended McGill University in Montreal to study to be a doctor. He qualified as a physician but years later, the college would remove his name from the graduate rolls to avoid being connected to his crimes.

During his senior year of college, Cream met and seduced a young woman named Flora Eliza Brooks. When it was discovered that the girl was pregnant, Cream performed a crude abortion on her and left Flora permanently scarred and weak for the rest of her life. Her parents, when they discovered what had occurred, forced Cream to marry the girl but he vanished soon after the nuptials and sailed for England in 1876.

In London, Cream enrolled in a post-graduate course at St. Thomas’ Hospital, which was located in the Waterloo-Lambeth section of the city, an area teeming with diseased prostitutes. It is believed that it is here where Cream first came into contact with the whores of London and where he also contracted syphilis. The effects of the disease on his brain have been blamed for his constant thoughts of murder and his psychopathic rages. It’s more likely though that he was simply mad.

Cream returned to Canada a few years later and set up practice in Ontario. He learned that his wife had passed away and while she is listed as having died of consumption, the horrific abortion at Cream’s hands undoubtedly contributed to her early demise. His medical practice was anything but savory and he soon earned a reputation for insurance fraud and performing illegal operations on women, especially abortions. He began a prosperous practice among local prostitutes and young women in trouble until the body of a young hotel chambermaid was discovered in his apartment one night with a bottle of chloroform beside her body. Cream had performed a savage abortion on her and it had failed, claiming her life. He was arrested and despite the evidence against him, the girl’s death was ruled a suicide and Cream was freed.

This would be the first of a series of miraculous escapes for Cream but it would not be the last. He now took his operation to the teeming red-light districts of Chicago. His career as an abortionist found him plenty of new patients among the dirty and sickly prostitutes of Chicago’s Levee districts. He seemed to enjoy inflicting pain on these women but his deviant desires were truly inflamed by the opportunity that sometimes arose to work on proper young ladies who had been compromised. One such woman was Julia Faulkner, who died on Cream’s operating table in August 1880. He was charged with murder but the Chicago authorities lacked proof and Cream was released once again. Detectives suspected that Cream had given Miss Faulkner a poison called strychnine in the guise of a painkiller.

In 1881, Cream struck again. After another abortion on a Miss Stack, she also perished after taking medicine that Cream prescribed and which was also laced with strychnine. Cream attempted to blackmail the chemist that he got the medicine from (some medicines contained a small amount of the poison in those days), stating that if he was paid off, he would keep silent about the bad mixture. The chemist, knowing that he was not at fault, turned the blackmail letter over to the police and Cream was arrested. Again he was tried and again he was turned loose for lack of evidence.

Cream then began marketing a special elixir that he had created and which he claimed would cure epilepsy. Amazingly, he acquired a considerable following of patients who swore by the medicine. Then, into his office one day walked Julia Stott, an attractive young woman who was looking for Cream’s epilepsy cure. Her husband, Daniel Stott, was a station agent on the Northeastern Railway and suffered from epilepsy. Cream began making advances toward Julia and found the woman receptive. She said that her husband’s illness and his advanced age had ruined her sex life.

It’s hard to imagine what could have attracted the beautiful woman to Cream. The doctor was a slight and scrawny man with thinning hair and gold-rimmed glasses through which he constantly squinted. He often gave off an appearance of being from the upper crust though with upscale dress and a bushy mustache that he kept waxed and turned up at the ends. Likely though, Julia’s attraction to him went beyond just looks as she spoke of the doctor as being “insatiable” and stated later that he “ravished” her several times during their first meeting.

Daniel Stott began to grow suspicious of his wife’s frequent trips to Cream’s office and suspected that he was giving Julia more than just medicine on these visits. Not surprisingly, Cream repaid the man’s suspicions by adding strychnine to his medicine and Stott died on June 14, 1881.

Originally, Stott’s death was attributed to epilepsy but for some bizarre reason, Cream wrote to the coroner and stated that a pharmacist was responsible, having given Stott some bad medicine. He suggested that Stott’s body be exhumed. The coroner dismissed the letter, not knowing that Cream was trying to collect on Stott’s life insurance for he and Julia or that Cream has also sent a letter to the district attorney. The prosecutor decided to check into the letter and had the body exhumed. An exam discovered that there was poison in Stott’s stomach, something that would have never been found if not for Cream’s letter!

Cream may have realized his blunder once the letters were sent and he soon fled the city with the widow Stott. They were quickly apprehended by the police. Cream insisted at his trial that Stott’s death had been the pharmacist’s fault but Julia turned state’s evidence against him and testified that she had seen Cream “put some white powder” into her husband’s medicine bottle. This time, Cream’s luck didn’t hold and he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Joliet Prison. He was admitted in 1881 and was regarded as a model prisoner who spoke little to the other inmates and always did as he was told by the officers. Over the years, the only complaints ever filed about him came from other prisoners who claimed to be awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of low, hissing laughter coming from his cell. At such times, he could be found sitting on his bunk, speaking to phantom women that appeared in his cell and promising them slow and agonizing deaths. He created detailed plans of revenge and of what sexual savagery he would wreak should be ever be released.

And then fate reared its ugly head in Thomas Neill Cream’s life again. In 1887, his father died and left his son a sizable sum of money. His accountant and bookkeeper, Thomas Davidson, wrote to Illinois authorities and requested the complete records of Cream’s trial. After studying the case, he became convinced that Cream was innocent of the charges that had sent him to Joliet. He began petitioning for Cream’s release and a number of family friends in Canada took up the cause, perhaps never realizing what sort of man their friend’s son had become. The petitions and letters arrived in Illinois by the bagful and finally, Governor Joseph W. Fifer relented and he commuted Cream’s sentence. He was released from Joliet on July 31, 1891.

Cream immediately went to Quebec and collected his inheritance. It’s likely that the accountant finally realized his mistake. He later wrote: “In my first interview with him, I concluded that he was unmistakably insane.”

Of course by that time, it was too late for the victims that still lay ahead.

Wealthy and free to do what he wished, Cream returned to England. He arrived in October 1891 and took rooms in a boarding house on Lambeth Palace Road, back in the slums that he had once reveled in. He told his landlady that he was at work on his postgraduate studies at St. Thomas’ Hospital but when he failed to see any patients or to keep any sort of office hours, he had to tell her that he had been ill and was no recovering from a strange disease. His eyes bothered him constantly, he explained, forcing him to take large doses of morphine and cocaine. His landlady replied that she hoped his health would improve.

A short time after his arrival, Cream went to work. He began visiting the local prostitutes and began killing them too. He met one such woman, Matilda Clover, just two days after he arrived and she later died from nux vomica poisoning, a liquid that caused vomiting and which was often prescribed by doctors as a tonic. The same fate also befell a woman named Ellen Donworth but as in the past, Cream was not charged with anything.

After a short break from murder, and an even shorter attempt at a love affair with a woman named Laura Sabbatini, Cream poisoned two other women, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell. He would have escaped detection in these crimes too but, as he did in Chicago, he inexplicably tried to place blame for the crimes on someone else. This time, he accused his neighbor of the murders and tried to blackmail him. He told a Walter J. Harper, a medical student who lived in the same boarding house, that he had incriminating evidence against him but that for a large sum of money, he would not notify the police. He wrote a letter to Harper’s father also and told him that his son was a murderer. The elder Harper did not respond, but he held onto the letter. Cream then wrote to the coroner and told him that Harper had committed the murders and that he had proof. He also wrote to John Haynes, a photographer who lived in his building, and told him the same thing. He constantly talked of the two dead women, often shocking his landlady with his vile descriptions of Harper’s alleged crimes.

It was finally John Haynes (after Cream took him on a guided tour of the murder sites) who went to detectives at Scotland Yard and told them of his suspicions about Cream being the killer. At that point, his attempts to blackmail Harper were also revealed and Cream was finally arrested. He went to trial in October 1892, proclaiming his innocence and capturing newspaper headlines across the nation. A number of people testified against him and only a sobbing Laura Sabbatini testified on his behalf. Cream’s tin box that contained vials of poison was placed on display in the courtroom and was later added to Scotland Yard’s infamous “Black Museum”.

There was a strange incident that jarred the proceedings of the trial. A letter was received and was read aloud in court by coroner Braxton Hicks. It read:

Dear Sir.... The man that you have in your power, Dr. Neill, is as innocent as you are. Knowing him by sight, I disguised myself like him, and made the acquaintance of the girls that have been poisoned. I gave them pills to cure them of all their earthly miseries, and they died.... If I were you, I would release Dr. T. Neill, or you might get into trouble. His innocence will be declared sooner or later, and when he is free he might sue you for damages. Beware all. I warn but once.

Yours Respectfully,
Juan Pollen,
alias Jack the Ripper

The mere utterance of the name attached to the letter caused the entire assemblage to gasp, except for Cream, who smiled widely. The letter later turned out to be the work of a crank, as Cream could not have sent it himself from his cell, but it stayed in Cream’s mind until the end of his life.

It only took the jury ten minutes to find Cream guilty and Judge Sir Henry Hawkins lived up to his reputation as the “hanging judge” by ordering Cream to be executed on the gallows on November 15, 1892.

While awaiting execution, Cream talked incessantly to his jailers, mostly insisting to them that he was a great man and that the world had refused to recognize it. He also claimed to have killed many more than he was found guilty of and that he had done them in to end their misery and to aid society, hinting at even darker things than those he had been found guilty of.

On the night before his execution, Cream could be heard moaning in his cell, no longer bragging of his crimes but now protesting his innocence. At dawn on the 15th though, he went calmly to the gallows. He was bound hand and foot and placed on the trap as the black hood was slipped over his head. Cream saved his most dramatic and strange proclamation for last. The lever was pushed to release and the trap, and moments before he plunged to his doom, Cream shouted out: “I am Jack the.....”

The rope cut him off before he could finish and in that split second, Cream created an enigma that has inspired many to believe that he was confessing to having been the killer Jack the Ripper. And in death, Cream became as mysterious as he was in life.

Cream’s last words have plagued both crime historians and “Ripperologists” for years. There have been a number of theorists who have concocted some convincing (and some not so convincing) cases that Cream may have been the Whitechapel killer. Sir Edward Marshall Hall, who had once defended Cream on a charge of bigamy, later wrote that he believed Cream sometimes employed a “double” who used his name and that both men “used each other’s terms of imprisonment as alibis for each other”. Cream had earlier told Hall that he refused to plead guilty to charges against him because he was in prison at the time of the offenses. A check with officials did reveal that a man matching Cream’s description had been in prison at the same time and Cream was released.

Ripper expert Donald Rumbelow has stated that this has led to the suggestion that even though Cream was serving time in Joliet Prison as the Whitechapel murders were taking place, he may have actually been in England. His double could have been imprisoned, or vice versa. As the double had given Cream an alibi for the bigamy charges, Cream then tried to repay the debt by shouting those last words from the scaffold. Others have suggested that the letter that was read at Cream’s trial could have been from Cream’s double, the real Jack the Ripper, attempting to save the doctor’s life.

Unfortunately for those who feel they have solved the Whitechapel murders by pinning them on Cream, the idea of the “doppelganger” is not very convincing and neither is the other theory as to how the good doctor could have committed the crimes from behind the walls of Joliet prison. In some accounts, Cream was able to bribe his way out of the corrupt prison in the middle 1880’s, journey to London, commit the murders and then return to his cell in order to be released in 1891. Author and crime historian Jay Robert Nash personally checked the records at Joliet prison in the late 1970’s and found that the ledger from the era was still intact, although Cream’s personal files had long ago been destroyed in a fire. The ledger states that Thomas Neill Cream, prisoner no. 4374, was imprisoned at Joliet on November 1, 1881 and not released until July 31, 1891. There are also records attached about the commuting of Cream’s sentence by the governor but nothing to indicate that he was ever released. The idea that he bribed his way out of the prison is merely a theory and no real evidence exists to support it.

And perhaps the biggest problem with the idea of Cream being the Ripper is his method of murder. Although he was a brutish and bloody abortionist, his method of dispatching young women was by poison, not the knife. It seems unlikely that he would poison his victims prior to 1888 and then suddenly go on a wild mutilating spree, only to go back to poisoning them again a few years later.

So it seems that we have to look beyond Dr. Cream when seeking the identity of Jack the Ripper. Admittedly the two killers did have some similarities in that both enjoyed killing prostitutes and then writing letters about their deeds to the authorities, but beyond that, the comparisons end -- continuing a mystery that will not be solved anytime soon!

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