De Tomanzie, Ethens (1841–86), doctor, politician and impostor, claimed variously to have been born in Africa, Brazil, India, Cuba and Burma. Nothing is known about his family background or true birthplace. He once admitted in court that he had been a barber in New York prior to coming to the United Kingdom; this is all that is known about his life prior to 1863, when he first appeared in English records as a lecturer on slavery and the American civil war. Travelling around England, Wales and Ireland under the name James C. Thompson from 1863 to 1870, he claimed to be an escaped slave who had lived, variously, in Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans and Richmond, Virginia. He also claimed to be studying with a Dr Miller in Manchester in preparation for travelling to West Africa to teach the local people cotton production and Christianity. It is doubtful whether any of this was true. In all likelihood, he was of African descent and was one of the many impostor ex-slaves capitalising on the British and Irish fascination with American slavery.
At St John’s Church in Liverpool in November 1865, under the name Ethens Tomanzie, he married Mica Mary Ayres, the daughter of William Ayres, an English gardener and horticulturalist. They had one daughter, Minnie Matilda Tomanzie, born in 1871. De Tomanzie also had at least one illegitimate child, Theresa Tomanzie, born in Derry in 1873 to Ellen Feeney.
De Tomanzie first appears in Irish records in 1869, lecturing under the name Signor de Tomanzie in Waterford, Drogheda, Omagh and other towns. He settled in Derry in 1870 and conducted business there as an herbal doctor until his departure from the town in 1877. Known locally as ‘The Signor’, he claimed a medical degree from the fictitious University of Sella, India, and adopted the identity of a ‘Hindoo’ healer. His principal residence was at 3 Church Wall, near Bishop’s Gate – a large, three-story house adjacent to the Derry walls. Here he operated the Botanical Medical Dispensary, which advertised herbal cures for ailments such as rheumatism, neuralgia, and diseases of the skin, eyes, throat, chest, urinary tract and nervous system.
During his Derry years, de Tomanzie acquired considerable wealth and status, despite opposition in some quarters. He was present on public platforms and at large civic gatherings, including gatherings of the Apprentice Boys, who became his political allies. Opposition came in two forms. First, licensed doctors opposed him as a quack, although they did not at this time launch legal challenges to his practice. Second, he was sometimes the target of racist abuse. In 1870 he was charged with disorderly conduct during a fight on Carlisle Road with a labourer named Edward Magee, and during the hearing he complained of frequent insults from the ‘lower class of the Irish’. When he attended public meetings, he was often the object of abuse and heckling, although it is unclear whether this was due to his racial difference or because of his predilection for pompous and loquacious speechifying.
In November 1876 de Tomanzie won election to the Londonderry Town Council for the South Ward, becoming, as far as can be ascertained, the first person of colour ever elected to Irish municipal government. He ran on a platform of municipal reform and opposition to the town’s political establishment. It was rumoured at the time that he was a member of the Apprentice Boys, but there is no firm evidence of this. He did take part in Apprentice Boys events, however, including an 1871 march led by William Johnston (qv) of Ballykilbeg, Co. Down, in defiance of the Party Processions Acts, which banned sectarian marches. This was a period when the working-class protestant members of groups such as the Apprentice Boys and Orange Order were at odds with the protestant elite over the latter’s perceived failure to defend protestant interests. Men such as William Johnston and the flamboyant Belfast solicitor John Rea (qv) (whom de Tomanzie once visited in jail) became folk heroes for their willingness to stand up for working-class protestants in courtrooms, council chambers and on the streets. De Tomanzie’s electoral appeal seems to have stemmed from his ability to connect with the constituency that supported Johnston and Rea, although whether people voted for him because they believed he would be an effective advocate for their interests, or simply to send a message to the conservative protestant elite, is uncertain.
Once elected, de Tomanzie took his duties on the Town Council quite seriously and his attendance record at council and committee meetings was better than many of his colleagues. His chief concerns were fiscal responsibility and justice to working-class ratepayers. Among his most important causes was the plight of the inhabitants of the Rosemount district on the western edge of town, who were being charged high municipal rates but receiving few services in return. In council votes, he usually sided with the reformers against establishment interests, a stance that often put him on the losing side. He had an especially acrimonious relationship with the mayor, Sir William Miller, a prominent Conservative and, perhaps not coincidentally, a registered doctor.
De Tomanzie left Derry abruptly in May 1877. He claimed to have been called away to join ‘the Medical Staff at the Seat of War’ but did not indicate which war this was, or where it took place. It is possible that the real reason was that he was afraid of being unmasked as an impostor. His election to the Town Council had brought him national and international attention and, as he became more prominent, questions began to circulate about his true identity. Skeptics pointed in particular to his ‘un-Hinduish name, which, as one ‘Old Derryman’ in Calcutta wrote in a letter to the Londonderry Sentinel, ‘is quite impossible for a Hindoo, there being no ‘Z’ in any of their languages’ (12 Apr. 1877). De Tomanzie’s defence was that his father was European and his mother Indian but, as questions mounted, he may have felt the game was up. An auction of his belongings after his departure from Derry suggested he had amassed considerable wealth there: items for sale included Brussels tapestry carpets, ‘magnificent’ oil paintings, Chinese ornaments, Egyptian and Venetian vases and a pianoforte.
By 1879 de Tomanzie had resurfaced in Liverpool, having abandoned herbal medicine for more modern methods. He practised principally among the working classes under the auspices of the Liverpool Artisans’ Medical Society. During this period he patented a hernia truss and a flytrap and claimed to have invented an ‘electro-voltaic belt’ that cured rheumatism and disorders of the nerves. Now claiming a medical degree from Burma, he became known as ‘The Black Doctor’, possibly an allusion to the popular play of that name, a staple of the minstrel stage. In Liverpool he became the target of concerted efforts by medical professionals to interfere with his practice. In 1882 the Liverpool Medical Defence Association brought charges against him for issuing fraudulent death certificates. He was found guilty and imprisoned for two months in Walton Prison. In 1885 de Tomanzie brought a libel suit against Dr Thomas Pennington, whom he accused of sending hundreds of letters and circulars to de Tomanzie’s family, acquaintances and neighbours calling him a ‘black scoundrel’ and accusing him of seducing a servant. Pennington was able to prove his innocence in court, and the real culprit was never identified. The cost of this suit forced de Tomanzie to declare bankruptcy.
In 1886 de Tomanzie was accused of murdering a woman named Elizabeth Twist during an abortion procedure. A trial at the Chester assizes in February acquitted him of the charge, but the strain of bankruptcy and court costs seems to have ruined his health. He died in Liverpool in May 1886 at the age of forty-five and was buried at the Liverpool Necropolis. The cause of death was determined to be brain fever.
De Tomanzie’s election to the Derry Town Council was a singular occurrence in nineteenth-century Ireland. His prominence – the wealth he accumulated, the causes he took up and the status he attained – is a reminder that nineteenth-century Ireland was not an entirely insular society. People of many ethnic backgrounds passed through the country (especially, but not only, in port cities such Derry), and many others came to call the place home. De Tomanzie’s career was undoubtedly sui generis, but less unusual was the mixture of acceptance, fascination and hostility that he encountered as a person of colour seeking a place for himself in Victorian Ireland.