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Charmed Life

He Knows Jack

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/10/2002

Meet Francis Tumblety. A flamboyant quack doctor and herb-pill peddler with a penchant for white horses and faux military garb. A milquetoast misogynist who collected uteri in jars and is said to have called women "cattle." A dandified huckster with a droopy mustache who may have lived in Baltimore for as long as a decade before his death in 1903. Oh, and one more thing: This colorful character might have been Jack the Ripper.

I first "met" Francis Tumblety courtesy of Christopher George, a Baltimore-based writer, historian, and dedicated "Ripperologist"--one who has made a study of the vicious and never-solved murders of five London prostitutes in 1888. George and I had previously crossed paths when I was writing about another of his historical interests, the War of 1812. He recently e-mailed me about a "Jack the Ripper Weekend"--basically, a Ripperologists convention--he was organizing at a Linthicum motel April 19 to 21. My Charmed Life bells went off, and soon enough George--along with reams of Ripper materials and a gruesome amputation knife (a modern version of the killing instrument Jack might have used)--was in my living room to talk Tumblety, serial murder, and, most improbably of all, his musical adaptation of the Ripper saga.

George, 54, sports a scruffy gray beard, glasses, and an accent that smacks of his Liverpool birthplace. (His great uncle, he says, used to chastise an errant local paperboy named Paul McCartney.) Editor of a medical journal by day, the expat Briton (now a U.S. citizen) devotes his off-hours to historical research (he's written two books of local history and and pens a column for the Woodberry-based Urbanite magazine). He says he first caught the Ripper bug in the '70s, but he didn't really get sucked in until he came across the teeming Ripper Web site a few years back. Today, he has his own Ripper site (www.casebook-productions.org) and co-edits the quarterly journal Ripper Notes.

The gruesome slayings in the gaslit underbelly of Victorian England have spawned more than 200 books and dozens of movies, and new theories and suspects emerge all the time. "There so much garbage in the Ripper field it's kind of hard to separate the facts from the legends," George says. But then, debunking and debating is what Ripperologists like to do best.

Dozens of candidates have been put forth, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll and members of the British royal family. Tumblety didn't emerge (or perhaps, re-emerge) as a suspect until 1993, when an English Ripper researcher discovered a 1913 letter written by a Scotland Yard chief inspector that named him as a "very likely" suspect. Much of the Ripper community (including George) agrees with that assessment--the faux doc was the top suspect in a recent poll at Casebook.org.

Tumblety was in London at the time of the slayings and was arrested there for "acts of gross indecency"--Victorian-speak for homosexual activity. There is ample evidence that Tumblety disliked women, and though he was not a real doctor--George calls him a "pills and potions man, an Indian herb doctor"--he might have had enough anatomical knowledge to perform the gruesome disembowelments (one victim had her kidney removed). Finally, the phony physician left for Paris shortly after the fifth Ripper victim was found--coincidence?

Tumblety was a footloose figure. Various accounts have him born in the 1830s in Dublin, Canada, even Maryland. It is known that Tumblety was in Baltimore around the turn of the 20th century because he had a will made here in 1901. (Two years later, he drew up a second will wherein he left $10,000 to Baltimore's Cardinal James Gibbons.) And a Ripper-phile recently found Tumblety listed in the 1900 U.S. census as living at 218-220 Liberty St. (a downtown address that today is home to a law office that handles criminal and personal-injury cases).

"We're not sure how long he lived here--it might have been as long as a decade," says George, who plans to painstakingly peruse microfilmed Baltimore newspapers looking for Tumblety cites. (Tumblety did make the papers in 1865, when he was arrested as a suspect in President Lincoln's assassination; it turned out to be case of mistaken identity.)

The eccentric "pills and potions man" does not figure in Jack: The Musical, George's lyrical adaptation of the Ripper crimes. Three years ago, through a Ripper Web site, George hooked up with Erik Sitbon, a French composer seeking a lyricist for an English-language show about the case. Thus began a yearlong trans-Atlantic collaboration that resulted in Jack being recorded in Paris by a passel of European vocalists in October 2000. George was on hand to witness his lyrics come to life, and a CD of Jack was released last spring.

If savage serial murder seems an odd subject for a musical, George is not apologetic. "There are a number of somber subjects that have been made into musicals," he notes, listing Titanic and Les Misérables as examples. "We're not off-base here. The story has tragedy, passion, and also love." Others have felt the same--a quick Internet search turned up three more musicals on the same subject. (And let's not forget Saucy Jack, the Ripper rock opera that fictional heavy metalists David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls contemplate writing in This Is Spinal Tap.)

Jack gives the story a thoroughly fictional framework, positing the crimes as the work of a journalist who kills to create his own great scoop. George says he and Sitbon are "just about ready to sign a contract" with a Belgian producer to put the musical on European stages, and there is talk of adapting Jack to the screen. (George thinks it would be perfect for the flamboyant style of Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann.)

Fact or fiction, the 114-year-old murders continue to fascinate. George says 60 folks are already signed up for his upcoming Ripper Weekend; a 2000 convention he organized in New Jersey drew 75. The debate rages on in books and films and online over who slashed up that quintet of London ladies of the night, with numerous Ripperologists claiming to have proven the identify of Jack (or Jill--it's been suggested that a woman might have wielded the knife).

"But then, it's just as likely the Ripper could have been some nobody no one has ever heard of," George says with a wan smile. "Just some very sad man who came out at night."

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