Grave of a Jack the Ripper Suspect

June 27, 2010 — I don't care who really shot JFK, what Coca-Cola’s secret formula is, how the universe came into being, or who wrote the book of love. As you can see, I also don’t care about the Rule of Three. Of all the mysteries and secrets that we banter about on dark Madeira-fueled nights while watching hastily put together cable TV specials on them, I really just want to know who Jack the Ripper was. And I have no good reason for that.

I certainly don’t think the answer would be at all interesting. I mean, in our stories, serial killers are often portrayed as evil geniuses with some type of deranged cultural message, inherently intriguing just for that fact, while the truth of the matter is that in real life they’re pretty much always just dumpy animal trash. Actually, the dregs of dumpy animal trash. Uninteresting as people, barely interesting as aberrations.  We study them to stop them, not because there is anything of value to glean from their existence.

But Jack the Ripper, well, in the midst of all the advancement, reform, and invention going on in the late 1800s, he pretty much dug in his bloody knives and, in the space of just a few months, singlehandedly dragged us all backwards as a species. Suddenly we knew what serial killers were and had to add them to the burgeoning list of despicable things that humanity was capable of producing.

Since that time, he has somehow passed from mere infamy to mythology. We use him regularly in our fictions, and he is still as much a part of contemporary popular culture as Superman, Elvis, and Darth Vader, despite the facts that he prowled some 120 years ago and that in the intervening years we’ve had more than our share of monsters that out-monster'd him. Heck, we've pretty much thrown the entire weight of our anorexic popular culture at the fiend, siccing H.G. Wells, Maxwell Smart, Sherlock Holmes, Johnny Depp, Kolchak the Night Stalker, David Hasselhoff, Captain James T. Kirk, and others on him at one time or another. I think even the Fantasy Island guy got involved once. The tall one.

Sadly, the real story of Jack the Ripper doesn’t involve Starfleet captains and Baywatch stars [Layout – Please made that a call-out]. The real story actually has very few components, although those fragments have spiderwebbed into so many theories, ideas, and exaggerations that there’s no longer any discernible single thread of story and wading into it all just makes you feel sticky and sucked bloodless.

There are basically two facts in the Jack the Ripper murders. One, a bunch of prostitutes were killed in the Whitechapel area of London in the Fall of 1888. Two, we don't know who did it. From there, history and its too-many experts guess that it was a single killer, that there was no one killer, that the killer sent letters and part of one of the victim's kidneys to the media, that the letters were fake and the organ was from a medical cadaver, that he was a media invention anyway, that the nature of the wounds pointed to the subtle skill of a doctor, that the nature of the wounds pointed to the unsubtle skill of a butcher, that he killed five women, that he killed more than five women, that he hated “juwes,” that he was a “juwe.” On top of that, literally hundreds of suspects have been pushed forward over the years. Heck, even Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, has been suggested...badly.

If you ever visit London, you can take an after-dark tour of the streets of Whitechapel and see the spots where the Ripper’s victims were found. You can also visit the graves of some of the victims, if you’re industrious enough. On this side of the Atlantic, other than getting David Hasselhoff's autograph, there’s very little around that allows us to physically access the story. Here’s one, though.

Of the many Whitechapel suspects, a few had American roots. And in this case, when I say suspects, I don’t merely mean random name thrown out by a researcher to sell books a hundred years after the fact. I mean suspects, as in pulled by the scruff of their necks into Scotland Yard and questioned brusquely by someone with a British accent.

One such suspect was Francis Tumblety, notorious children's show host. Just kidding. Comical name, though. Tumblety is buried in Rochester, NY, making his grave one bit of Ripper lore that us Yanks can see firsthand. Well, if we’re near Rochester, anyway.

Tumblety was born sometime in the early 1830s, after which time his family settled in the Rochester area. He was a crazy kind of cat, traveling all over America and Europe impersonating doctors and military men. Apparently he would truck around in an unearned military uniform on a white horse led by a pair of greyhounds, while collecting human uteri and making a nice little fortune selling snake oil. The one picture of him that shows up the most on the Internet depicts a guy in a Sergeant Pepper outfit with a moustache the size of a ferret.

For the reasons outlined above (impersonations, snake oil, ferret moustache) and more, Tumblety regularly got in trouble with the law on both sides of the ocean. On our side, the biggest mark on his rap sheet was being arrested for conspiring in Lincoln’s assassination. In England, it was the Whitechapel murders. Obviously, he was either Mr. Wrong Place at the Wrong Time or legitimately the subject of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

He was cleared of the Lincoln accusation within a few weeks, but he just plum ran from the Ripper one, eventually coming back to the U.S. and somehow avoiding extradition. Some say that’s because he wasn’t really a serious suspect, in addition to the fact that his arrest in London was actually for being homosexual, a crime punishable by imprisonment back then and there, but not one worth pulling someone back across the ocean for.

After dying in St. Louis, MO, in 1903, he was buried in the family plot in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester. The large cemetery can be found on Lake Ave., across the street from Riverside Cemetery. You’ll want the one with the gothic-looking chapel right through the front gates. His grave is pretty easy to find from there. It’s located in Section 13, which is right to the left of the aforementioned chapel if you’re facing it. Right to the left. Got that? Right. Here’s a map, then.

The family grave is marked by a single pinkish urn-topped pillar that, for some reason, is jammed up against the slab of the adjoining Dunn plot. On the pillar, Tumblety’s name is spelled “Fransis Tumuelty,” but that’s the guy you’re looking for. People were less retentive about a lot of things back then, names especially. It also marks him as a “Dr.”, although it seems there was more evidence supporting him being a serial killer than a genuine man of medicine.

A quaint bit of lore surrounds this grave, as well. The legend goes that if you stand above his plot at midnight, facing the stone, and ask, “Are you the Ripper?” then you'll get no answer and feel silly for sneaking into a cemetery at midnight to ask questions of people a century dead. I haven’t tried it though, so take that for what it’s worth.

I admit that visiting the grave of a Ripper suspect who probably was only a weak one at that (and good thing, because who wants their Rippers with ferret moustaches) is a bit of a mundane experience, given the mythology surrounding it. However, I can also tell you that I did that aforementioned after-dark Jack the Ripper tour while in London a few years back. The grisly locations where the bodies of the eviscerated prostitutes were found are now modern office buildings, parking spots, and random bits of asphalt, which, according to my math, is 1.3 million times more mundane than a 100-year-old grave. That said, both are probably more interesting than the identity of the Ripper himself.

(I still want to know, though.)