By Paul Gainey & Stewart P. Evans. Published by Kodansha America, Inc.,1998. Trade paperback edition, 298 pgs.
You’ve pretty much got to be a die-hard ‘Ripperologist’ to even know that Francis Tumblety existed, let alone that this guy’s earned some notoriety as a Jack the Ripper (JtR) suspect. We’re talking about one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, as JtR was the unknown sadist who murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel area of London in the Fall of 1888.
The fact that JtR was never caught has fascinated historians, people in law-enforcement, and just plain true-crime followers (writers, filmmakers, bloggers, etc.) in the 130+ years since his crime spree. The disgusting nature of his crimes, the fact that most, if not all of the victims were or had been prostitutes, that the press was snacking off the news, and that the vicinity of the crime scenes was a overcrowded slum adds to the multi-faceted nature of the Ripper history.
A distinct layer of Ripperology is the matter of suspects. According to the eminent website Casebook: Jack the Ripper (www.casebook.org), there’s about thirty better-known suspects, maybe a third of which make the final cut (ouch). Tumblety might have a spot in that elite circle. After a humble bit of research piqued my interest in Tumblety, I had to get a closer look at this dude.
What spurred Tumblety’s ‘candidacy’ as JtR was the 1993 revelation of the so-called Littlechild Letters of 1907. A Chief Inspector for Scotland Yard, Littlechild worked on the Whitechapel murders. Long after retirement, he corresponded with others interested in the case, and fingered Tumblety for the crimes. All of that is fascinating stuff, involving early Ripperologists, old-book dealers, and long-lost accumulations newly surfaced.
In fact, the authors give a duly comprehensive survey of the entire JtR story. The East End/Whitechapel setting and milieu, the victims, witnesses, the crimes, the police response, the suspects and attendant theories, and a few chapters on Tumblety himself. In a book of twenty chapters, with over 250 pages of text, we don’t get to the Littlechild letters until chapter 15, which names Tumblety for the first time. Only the last four chapters are allotted to him. Since the book’s subtitle specifically alludes to Tumblety (unless there’s room for Cream–bad pun, but he’s another American suspect), why must we wait until the end of the book to find Tumblety?
Admittedly, the very first chapter, which is one of the best, gives a very succinct and pithy account of President Lincoln’s assassination. Why Lincoln? Because Tumblety, cooking up pseudonyms like batches of cookies, gave himself a name that had been connected with accomplices to the 1865 assassination. But we’re plunged into the East End thereafter, and leave Tumblety for about twenty years.
In short, then, this is a good general resource for Ripperologists, but Tumblety is more-or-less a caboose on a long train of thought. That said, although the book’s well-written and structured nicely, there’s a bit too much biographical info on Littlechild, and not nearly enough on dear old Tumblety. Littlechild is here as a source of information; he’s pretty much the inspiration for this book.
But he’s hardly that interesting personally, other than as a dedicated professional, going about his business. We’re not getting him on the stand; so, I’ll stipulate to facts such as: he was born, educated, trained, etc. There are interesting bits on Littlechild’s role in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 debacle and the Stanford White murder of 1906. I wish there were more chapters on Tumblety; such an eccentric guy is automatically interesting, whether he was JtR or just, well, a quack and con-man.
If you haven’t read this one yet, it’s worth a look. It may not add anything new to Ripperology per se, but it’s a resource in itself. The authors makes good use of quotes, and gives us addendums, a long bibliography, an appendix, and there’s a good map and photos. If we just ignore the subtitle, then we can’t complain much. 7/10.