Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prince of Quacks

Prince of Quacks is the definitive biography of Victorian era herb doctor and charlatan Francis Tumblety, who acquired a posthumous notoriety when Stewart Evans and Paul Gainey named him as Jack the Ripper in their book Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer (1998). The authors based their hypothesis on a letter written in 1913 by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector John Littlechild, who described Tumblety as a “very likely suspect”. Although the majority of Ripperologists (detective-historians who analyze and discuss the Whitechapel murders) were not convinced, author Timothy Riordan recognized the controversial doctor as one of nineteenth century America’s most intriguing figures, and worthy of a book in his own right.

In retrospect, it appears that Francis Tumblety did everything to offend Victorian sensibilities EXCEPT murder five London prostitutes in 1888. He was connected to the Lincoln assassination, charged with peddling abortion drugs, and arrested for homosexual activity. Some of these episodes were well-publicized, but patients still flocked to his offices and bought his herbal remedies because he knew how to beguile the public: whenever he opened for business in a new city, Tumblety took out huge newspaper ads bearing testimonials from leading citizens, and he responded to criticism by publishing pamphlets that ground his detractors into the dust. Even when he wasn’t in trouble, people took notice, as he was fond of riding through the streets in military regalia with two greyhounds trailing him, his chest glittering with medals supposedly bestowed on him by European royalty.

What makes Tumblety so fascinating is that he represented the best and worst of the era he lived in. On one hand he was a wealthy medical professional who hobnobbed with the rich and famous; his name was linked to Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Prince of Wales. On the other, he sold contraceptive and abortion medication and carried on steamy affairs with much younger men. Many of his patients hailed the ‘Indian herb doctor’ (as he called himself) for saving them from painful surgical procedures, but the mainstream medical community derided him as a dangerous quack and tried to put him out of business.

When Tumblety went to England in 1888, his notoriety resulted in his being questioned about the Ripper murders. There was no evidence to hold him and he returned to New York. The American press had a field day over a possible U.S. connection to the bloody crimes; reporters converged eagerly on those who had known Tumblety in Rochester, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities. One of these sources, C.A. Dunham, (a known criminal and perjurer), expounded at length on Tumblety’s supposed hatred of women in general and prostitutes in particular. It was this type of testimony that would prompt Chief Inspector Littlechild to remember the doctor as a person of interest 25 years later.

I bought Prince of Quacks because Tumblety is a local legend in my hometown (Hamilton, Ontario). A walking tour points out a location where he supposedly opened an office after moving here temporarily in July 1856. I’d also heard Timothy Riordan being interviewed on Rippercast, a podcast series about the Whitechapel murders, and been impressed both by Tumblety’s story and Riordan’s mastery of it.

The book is a massive research triumph. Tumblety worked and played in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and his career spanned several decades, so putting together such a complete history was no small achievement. I was pleased to see that this is not another ‘Ripper suspect’ book. The Whitechapel murders are included because Tumblety was questioned about them, but the real focus of Prince of Quacks is Tumblety himself.

A minor criticism: from time to time the narrative is slowed down by excessive and arguably superfluous detail i.e. the newspapers Tumblety advertised in, which editions published the ads, etc. But it doesn’t happen often and readers who aren’t interested in such facts can always skim ahead.

Prince of Quacks is a well-written and compelling look at a forgotten nineteenth century maverick. Francis Tumblety may be the only non-royal Ripper suspect whose life overshadows his tenuous connection to the Whitechapel murders.