December 16, 2017

The St. Louis “Ripper” connection

Is it possible the infamous British serial killer Jack the Ripper lived and eventually died in St. Louis? One of the suspects in the case did.

That was the point of interest for Webster University graduate student Michael Sandknop, who was looking for a focus for his documentary.

Dr. Francis Tumblety, one of the suspects in the still unsolved and infamous murders, died May 28, 1903 after he checked himself into St. John’s Hospital in St. Louis in early April of that year.

An article about Tumblety and St. Louis sparked the initial curiosity for Sandknop. The documentary will be called “Jack the Ripper: The St. Louis Clues.”

“I created a good body of research and I thought it would be a good documentary to do at some point,” Sandknop said.

That point came when he enrolled in a documentary film course at Webster taught by Kathy Corley. Sandknop began the hunt for information through archives in Missouri. He got in contact with Michael Hawley, an expert on Tumblety. Hawley wrote a book called “The Ripper’s Haunts” about Tumblety as a Ripper suspect.

Webster University graduate student Michael Sandknop gets advice from documentarian Eric Strange. Sandknop is working on a documentary about Francis Tumblety. The film will premiere this year at Webster May 14. BILL LOELLKE / The Journal

Webster University graduate student Michael Sandknop gets advice from documentarian Eric Stange. Sandknop is working on a documentary about Francis Tumblety. The film will premiere this year at Webster May 14. BILL LOELLKE / The Journal

Hawley agreed to help, as well as get Sandknop in touch with Brian Young, who considers himself a Victorian Era historian.

“With their expertise and my knowledge of St. Louis, it came together,” Sandknop said.

Sandknop was at first interested in being a police officer. In order to raise money for college, he became a military police officer. His father did not agree with his decision.

“My dad said, ‘you know, I’m worried about you being a police officer. They become alcoholics, they’re dealing with the worst of society. It’s very dangerous,’” Sandknop said.

Sandknop’s father told him to find a different path. He took a film course at St. Louis Community College that sealed the deal.

When he told his father he wanted to be a filmmaker, suddenly being a police officer did not sound so bad.

“He responded, ‘we should really talk about a career in law enforcement,’” Sandknop said. “True story.”

Sandknop received his bachelor’s degree from Webster in filmmaking and interned at the Television Academy in Los Angeles.

“I worked in the industry, but I never got to the level of direction that I wanted to be,” Sandknop said.

Sandknop is back at Webster to get his master’s degree, hoping to update himself on the new and changing technology and furthering his skills as a filmmaker.

Francis Tumblety

Jack the Ripper is synonymous with the Whitechapel Murders in London between 1888 and 1891. Five of the murdered women are currently linked to Jack the Ripper and took place in Autumn 1888 .

The Irish-born Tumblety came to St. Louis in 1863 after leaving Rochester, New York. Tumblety liked to visit large cities, and St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the nation at that time.

Tumblety was in England at the time of the murders. He was arrested while in England for “gross indecency,” which referred to homosexual acts, illegal at that time in England.

Tumblety’s possible role in the Ripper murders is still being debated today. Hawley said one of the reasons Tumblety became a suspect at the time was because of his unusual misogyny. Sandknop said reseach shows that Tumblety hated certain women, such as prostitutes.

One of the most important pieces of evidence was a private letter dated September 1913 from Chief Inspector John Littlechild to journalist George Robert Sims that pointed to a “Doctor T” as a likely suspect in the Ripper murders.

Dr. Francis Tumblety was one of the suspects in the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in England. He died in St. Louis at St. John’s Hospital May 28, 1903. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Dr. Francis Tumblety was one of the suspects in the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in England. He died in St. Louis at St. John’s Hospital May 28, 1903. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Tumblety fled England as suspicion on him grew. Young said Tumblety eventually made his way back to New York, where Scotland Yard detectives followed him.

“Scotland Yard’s not going to follow someone they don’t suspect of a major crime back to the United States at that point,” Young said.

Tumblety was never indicted. He traveled and kept a low profile until his death.

Sandknop said Tumblety’s history in St. Louis has not been more popular for the community because there was not a lot of reporting on it. The first article he read was only 10 paragraphs and news stations had done only 30-second long stories.

“It’s easy to kind of go, ‘oh, that’s interesting,’ and then that’s it,” Sandknop said.

It was only when Sandknop reached out to Hawley and Young that he was able to find out how to conduct the proper research. Sandknop said that without the two, he would not know where to look.

Hawley said there is still so much about Tumblety and Jack the Ripper to discover, but what has been found out about his life recently will change the tone of the conversation between experts.

“It’s going to shake things up a bit more, which is nice,” Hawley said.

Sandknop said the information he found could elevate Tumblety’s status to the number one suspect in the case.

On Sunday, he received high resolution images of the actual Littlechild letter that was bought by expert Stewart Evans that solidifies what was said. It is not a letter that can be found online. The existence of the letter was something that shocked Sandknop. He also has a deposition from one of Tumblety’s lovers, Richard Norris, taken in New Orleans. In that deposition, Norris mentioned that Tumblety showed him a collection of knives and surgical equipment that is not on another record.

Sandknop said that while his documentary may not solve the case, it will add to the growing conversation. Tumblety equates how the information will be presented in his documentary to a peer review. He just wants to present the right information.

“I believe that presenting these facts is going to lead to Tumblety being taken very seriously,” Sandknop said.

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