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The New York Ripper
In the fall of 1888, a serial killer terrorized London's East End, butchering at least four prostitutes – the exact number is uncertain – and becoming known as Jack the Ripper. The hapless efforts of Scotland Yard to capture this madman were greeted by hoots of derision from across the Atlantic. Members of the New York Police Department, led by Detective Thomas F. Byrnes, boasted that if Jack the Ripper ever showed his face in the Big Apple, he would be under lock and key within 24 hours. On the morning of April 24, 1891, there were some who believed that history's most notorious serial killer had risen to the challenge.
The East River Hotel, situated in a tough neighborhood on the southeast corner of Catherine and Water Streets, was cheap, squalid, and violent. Rarely a night passed without the police being called to settle some dispute in what locals called "The Hotel Of All Drinks." On one occasion the hotel barman had been taken into custody after he'd attacked a patron with a saber. This was definitely not the Waldort. Mostly the hotel survived by renting out rooms by the hour to the legions of hookers who hustled tricks along the waterfront.
They Called Her 'Shakespeare.'
Carrie Brown was a frequent habitué of the East River Hotel. Although now 60 years of age, gray-haired and wrinkled, she could still entice men into shelling out a couple of bucks for a few minutes of her time. Most were sailors from the nearby docks. If Carrie's physical charms were beginning to wane, she could always fall back on her flamboyantly theatrical personality to attract custom. Locals called her 'Shakespeare,' from her habit of quoting from the Bard when drunk. On the evening of April 23, 1891, Carrie was in particularly ebullient form; after all it was the anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. She got an early start, guzzling beer in the East River Hotel's saloon bar with the assistant housekeeper, Mary Miniter. As the evening wore on Carrie staggered out of the hotel, only to return a short while later with a man about half her age.
At the front desk, Mary Miniter studied the man closely; about 32 years old, five feet eight, slim build, with a long, sharp nose, and a heavy light colored mustache. She noticed he was dressed in a dark brown cutaway coat and black trousers, and wore an old black derby hat, the crown of which was much dented. Gut instinct told Mary that he was foreign, most likely German, a feeling confirmed when he spoke in broken English to give his name as "C. Nicolo." Mary shrugged and made an entry in the greasy hotel ledger under the name "C. Nicolo and wife." Then she handed Carrie the key to number 31, a corner room on the top floor of the four-story building. She watched as the couple lurched toward the staircase.
Next morning at 9.30, another hotel employee, Edward Fitzgerald, was doing a routine check of the rooms. When he knocked at number 31 he got no reply. A second knock produced a similar response. This didn't surprise him; most mornings he had to rouse at least one of the residents from an alcohol-induced stupor. When he tried the door and found it locked he reached for his master key. As the door swung open he froze like a statue.
Carrie Brown lay on the bed, naked from the armpits down. She had been completely disemboweled. Judging from the ugly marks on her neck she had first been strangled, then butchered like a hog. The room looked and smelled like an abbatoir. It all seemed very familiar. The press certainly thought so. Next day's headline in the Los Angeles Times screamed "Jack the Ripper…Believed To Be In New York."
Byrnes had only himself to blame for such overheated newspaper coverage. Now it was time to make good on his boast. The gruesomeness of the murder scene was stomach-churning, remarkably similar in ferocity to the London slayings and, sure enough, Byrnes was quick to make an arrest. The man he placed in custody was an Algerian named Ameer Ben Ali, known locally as 'Frenchy.' Byrnes's swift action prompted the Atlanta Constitution to confidently declare "Jack the Ripper Arrested." Although hotel staff members said that Frenchy in no way resembled the man who had checked in with Carrie, he was held as a material witness because he had spent the night in room 33, just across the hall from the murder scene.
'Third Degree Byrnes'
At the same time, Byrnes posted a description of the wanted man, based on Mary Miniter's sighting. When this failed to produce any substantive leads, Byrnes focused his menacing attention on the unfortunate Ben Ali. Being interviewed by Detective Thomas F. Byrnes was not a pleasant experience. Indeed, some reckon that the term 'third degree,' used to describe the kind of psychological and physical torture meted out to prisoners, came from a pun on his name, i.e. 'third degree burns.'
His trial began on June 24. The chief prosecution expert witness testified that traces of food known to have been eaten by Carrie on the last night of her life were detectable in the blood found in Ali's room. This was junk science. At the time of Carrie Brown's death no scientist on earth could state categorically whether a stain was blood, let alone say what someone had recently eaten by analyzing a mark on the floor. (Positive identification of blood was not possible until 1900 when Paul Uhlenhuth developed his precipitin test). But the expert witness sounded confident enough and the jury swallowed every word.
Whatever the truth of this claim, on April 30, Byrnes announced that "circumstantial facts" implicated Ben Ali in the crime. According to Byrnes, Ben Ali had waited for the mysterious stranger to leave Carrie's room and had then crossed the hall and into her room. The couple had argued and he'd killed her. The main incriminating factor, said Byrnes, was a trail of blood spots leading from the murder scene to room 33, where Ben Ali had spent the night. Byrnes had also found traces of blood on both sides of the door to 33, as if the door had been pushed open by bloody fingers and then closed. Splashes of blood were found on Ben Ali's socks and on a chair in his room. The case looked open and shut, and, three weeks later, the grand jury indicted Ben Ali for murder.
Ben Ali was disastrous on the stand. At times he seemed to understand English, at others he looked helplessly at his interpreter. Throughout he seemed utterly baffled. In the event, on July 3 the jury convicted him of second degree murder, a verdict that infuriated the prosecution who'd been seeking the death penalty. One week later Ben Ali was sentenced to life imprisonment and dispatched to Sing Sing.
It didn't take long for the doubts to creep in.
They were fueled by puzzled newspaper reporters. Jacob Riis, of the New York Sun, had been one of the first on the scene and couldn't recall seeing any kind of blood trail from room 31 to 33. Nor did he see any blood on Ben Ali's door. He shared his doubts with some press colleagues. None of them had seen the blood, either. What they all suspected, though none dared verbalize, was that Byrnes had set up the half-witted Algerian by laying a trail of blood between the two rooms. By 1891 the NYPD's most celebrated detective was notorious for doing anything to ensure a conviction, and Riis and others speculated that Ben Ali had been just another of Byrnes's hapless dupes.
After a few months at Sing Sing, Ben Ali was transferred to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and his case was largely forgotten. Byrnes, meanwhile, was making all kinds of headlines and not for the right reasons. Many wondered how a cop whose annual salary never exceeded $5,000 managed to acquire a real estate portfolio worth millions. And there were lots of whispers about Byrnes's dubious methods of obtaining confessions and evidence. The murmurings became so loud that, in 1895, when future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, took over as head of the New York City Police Commission, one of his first acts was to kick out the corrupt Byrnes.
Pardoned At Last
Not that this did Ben Ali much good. Another seven years would pass before his case began hitting the headlines once again. It emerged that just after the murder, a New Jersey farmer named George Damon, had sworn an affidavit stating that a former employee of his, a Dane who fitted the description of Carrie's companion, had acted strangely just after the killing and had fled the country, leaving some bloodstained clothing and a room key from the East River Hotel. Byrnes, in his determination not to lose face, had buried this evidence, along with the suspicions of the newspaper reporters. Eventually, though, the clamor grew too loud, and on April 16, 1902, Governor Benjamin B. Odell pardoned Ben Ali, citing a strong suspicion that he had been framed by overzealous police officers.
After his release Ameer Ben Ali returned to his native Algeria and vanished into the mists of time. He didn't receive a penny of compensation for his 3,649 days of incarceration. As for Jack The Ripper, in the unlikely event that it was him who killed Carrie Brown, then he proved to be just as elusive in New York as he had been in London. To this day the identity of history's most infamous serial killer remains a mystery.