Thursday, April 23: Midnight at the East River Hotel
Just before midnight on a mild spring evening, Mary Miniter was playing cards in the back room of the East River Hotel when she heard the door bell ring. This was a common occurrence at the East River Hotel, a five story brick building at the corner of Water and Catherine Streets in a sordid lower Manhattan neighborhood noted for its similarity to London's Whitechapel slums. The hotel was located near some of New York's docks, and primarily existed to provide beer and beds for liaisons between sailors and local prostitutes. Mary, herself, was a prostitute, and was such a regular customer that the bartender, Edward Fitzgerald, asked her to open the door for him as he tended to thirsty customers. Mary let in an odd pair - an older, grey-haired woman who, by all accounts, had been unmercifully aged by years of plying her trade, and a much younger man (half his companion's age, Mary would later guess), who had a blonde mustache, a dented black hat, and a funny, German-sounding accent. The man politely requested a room for the both of them, bought the woman a ten cent pitcher of beer, and headed up the wooden stairs to Room 31 on the top floor.
Friday, April 24: The Body is Discovered
At around 9 o’clock in the morning, Eddie Fitzgerald walked along each floor of the East River Hotel, banging on every door to ensure the occupants from the past night had vacated their rooms to make space for Friday’s customers. When he got to the top floor, nearly all the rooms had already been emptied out and the doors left open. Only Room 31, at the end of the hallway, was still locked. Fitzgerald knocked once. No response. He rapped his knuckles against the door a second time. Still, nothing. Probably exasperated, he took the master key and unlocked the door. Then, he screamed.
Fitzgerald had opened the door of Room 31 to a grotesque vignette: Carrie Brown’s body lay on its side atop dirty, blood-soaked bedsheets. Her left hand was clutching her chest (several reporters later claimed it was as if she had been frozen in her final moments of agony) and her right hand was twisted underneath her body. Her back was to the door, so it was not until the police arrived on the scene about an hour later that they discovered her entire head had been wrapped tightly in an old white cotton skirt. When they took off the skirt, they saw two huge bruises on her neck that indicated Brown had been strangled. The source of the blood was a massive, gaping wound that ran up from her pelvis to the top of her abdomen. A knife, apparently the one used for the mutilation, had been almost casually discarded alongside the body.
The police flew into action. Immediately, they identified the three people who had witnessed Brown and her companion walk up the stairs the previous night—Fitzgerald, Mary Miniter, and the bartender Samuel Shine—and took them to the Oak Street Station for further questioning. Fitzgerald soon revealed that, a short while after Brown and her companion had gone upstairs, a man only known as "Frenchy" had also requested a room. He was given Room 33, diagonally across the hall from Room 31.
The police spent the rest of the day canvassing the neighborhood for "Frenchy" and anyone else who had occupied the East River Hotel the previous night. At around 10 o’clock in the evening, a local prostitute pointed out “Frenchy” to the police. A plain clothes police officer arrested the person identified, a tall, thin man with a swarthy complexion who, upon being handcuffed, immediately declared, "Me do nothing." When "Frenchy" was brought into the Oak Street Station for questioning, it was discovered that his shirt and stockings were stained with blood. At midnight, the police shooed out all reporters from the station house and escorted their new prisoner to the cell where they would keep him for the night.
Saturday, April 25: American Ripper
On Saturday morning, New York was ablaze with rumors. Almost all of the city’s major newspapers ran headlines declaring that Carrie Brown's murder was the work of Jack the Ripper. According to the papers, the infamous London butcher had certainly arrived in Manhattan after a three year hiatus from his bloody work on the other side of the Atlantic. The press pointed out the eerie similarities between the death of Carrie Brown and Jack the Ripper’s five victims: all of the murdered women were prostitutes, had been strangled and then brutally mutilated, and met their demise in the two cities’ poorest neighborhoods. Although some reporters commented that the incisions made by London’s Ripper were much more surgical and precise than the rough and jagged cuts found on Carrie Brown's body, many New Yorkers panicked, believing Jack the Ripper had come to terrorize Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the police searched frantically for Carrie Brown’s companion—the light haired, German-accented man wearing a dented black hat. Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Thomas Byrnes, the Chief Inspector of the Police Department, chewed on his cigar (as was his habit) and confidently told reporters that Carrie Brown’s companion was undoubtedly the murderer. Byrnes explained that they had arrested “Frenchy” because he was the supposed-murderer's acquaintance and might yield information about the wanted man’s whereabouts. The two were apparently notorious among local prostitutes for their deviant sexual desires and their preference for older, more ragged-looking women. Throughout the day, several men matching the supposed-murderer's description were arrested, but most were let go after being questioned by the police.
As Byrnes puffed his cigar and boasted to reporters that Carrie Brown's companion would soon be caught, a French-speaking detective interviewed “Frenchy.” The nervous prisoner explained in broken French that his name was Ameer Ben Ali, he lived in Brooklyn, and the bloodstains on his clothing were from the menstrual blood of Alice Sullivan, a prostitute whom he had slept with on Thursday morning.
Caught up in the terror that Jack the Ripper had arrived in New York City, very few people seemed to notice that the brass key to Room 31, which was unmistakably engraved with a large 3-1, was reported to be missing from the crime scene and had yet to be found.
Sunday, April 26: The Search Continues
On Sunday, the search for the light haired, German-accented man took on a heightened sense of urgency in Police Headquarters. Haunted by his own words, Inspector Byrnes grew increasingly anxious to catch Carrie Brown’s murderer. In 1888, as Jack the Ripper indulged in his bloody work, Scotland Yard famously failed to apprehend the serial killer. Their inability to catch London’s famous fiend became an international embarrassment and Scotland Yard, which in 1888 was regarded as the best police force in the world, was lambasted by both the press and other police departments. At the time, Byrnes had famously scoffed at Scotland Yard’s incompetency and declared, “I am certain that no such crime or series of crimes would go unpunished here.”
A magazine cover making fun of Scotland Yard's failure to catch Jack the Ripper
New York City had not forgotten those comments, and the Carrie Brown case provided the perfect opportunity for Inspector Byrnes to vindicate his earlier declaration. To Inspector Byrnes, the two parallel murders had become a grisly arena for an international policing competition. Byrnes seemed to think that, if he could catch his Ripper while Scotland Yard had failed to apprehend theirs, then it would anoint him as the best detective in the world.
Only, he, too, could not find his murderer.
Monday, April 27: Uncertainty Abounds
Monday brought unseasonable heat—temperatures reached the mid-eighties in the afternoon—and Inspector Byrnes was sweating. He began the day by adamantly denying he had ever declared the light haired, German-accented man to be the murderer. When a New York Herald reporter pushed back and noted that all of the city’s newspapers had printed some version of that statement, Byrnes angrily snapped at the reporter.
Later in the day, the same question was put to him, and this time Byrnes refused to give any conclusive answer. "The murderer may be ‘Frenchy,’ his cousin, or some other man," the usually supremely confident Inspector grumbled. "Now you know as much as I do about it."
In between the two conversations, Inspector Byrnes seemed to start his investigation completely over from scratch. He re-interviewed all of the witnesses, sent detectives to
Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street
re-visit the East River Hotel (which, since the newspapers reported the murder on April 25, had become a popular destination for morbidly curious New Yorkers), and then had his men seal off Room 31 and Room 33.
Meanwhile, more information was coming to light about his current prisoner, Ameer Ben Ali. Ben Ali had been arrested twice in the past eighteen months: once for begging, and once for biting the arm of a prostitute so viciously he drew blood. When he was brought into the Oak Street Station for questioning on the night of April 24, Ben Ali said he worked at a hotel in Jamaica, Queens. However, when a French-speaking detective handcuffed himself to Ben Ali and traveled to Jamaica in search of Ben Ali’s workplace, the prisoner shrugged and admitted he had never worked in a hotel. In fact, such a hotel did not exist, he casually confessed.
The Elevated Train the detective and Ben Ali rode from Police Headquarters to Jamaica, Queens
As Inspector Byrnes grumbled and Ameer Ben Ali led detectives on a wild goose chase, New Yorkers learned the tragic story of Carrie Brown. She was born Catherine Montgomery in 1835 in England, and came to Salem, Massachusetts at the age of fifteen. There, she met and soon married a well-to-do sea captain named James Brown. Carrie quickly immersed herself in her new lifestyle. She became a member of the Central Baptist Church, dazzled Salem's social scene with her quick wit, and gave birth to two daughters and a son. However, soon after the births of her children, Carrie fell into a depression and began drinking heavily. Her entire demeanor changed, and her life with it. Her happy marriage to Captain Brown began to crumble, she began treating her children cruelly, and despite every effort made by her family and friends, she refused to give up drinking. A few years after the Civil War ended, Captain Brown contracted a fever and died off of the coast of Africa. Their marriage had grown so bitter, and his distrust of his wife so great, that Captain Brown only left Carrie a single dollar. The rest of his property he left to his uncle, to look after until the children came of age.
Depressed, drunk, and dejected, Carrie moved to New York City where she tried to work as a domestic servant. However, her drinking habits quickly got her fired and she turned to prostitution. Carrie became well known in the Fourth Ward neighborhood as "Old Shakespeare," a nickname she earned due to her proclivity for correcting her clients' grammar. Due to her age (she was fifty-six in 1891), she struggled to solicit clients and on April 23, she was completely broke. That afternoon, a fellow prostitute took pity on her and bought her a measly lunch of corned beef, cheese, and cabbage. After wolfing down her meal, Carrie Brown stumbled off into the early evening looking for someone—anyone—willing to pay for her services.
Tuesday, April 28: The Noose Tightens
A series of cool breezes seemed to calm the state of affairs at Police Headquarters on Tuesday. Inspector Byrnes had returned to his normal state—the uncharacteristic brief moment of fluster had passed, and his usual enigmatic and confident demeanor had returned in full force. While some detectives half-heartedly headed out from Police Headquarters to renew their pursuit of the light haired, German-accented man, the urgency that dominated the police department’s activities over the past few days had seemingly lost its grip. Captain Richard O’Connor, the officer in charge of identifying witnesses to Carrie Brown’s murder, exemplified this new attitude. He spent all day sitting in his office, occasionally mustering up the energy to peer out of his window at the reporters in the building across the street.
Unlike the past few days, in which nearly every hour conjured a new sighting or story of the wanted man, no such reports emerged on Tuesday. The people behind the most tantalizing leads were suddenly nowhere to be found. A stout brothel-owner named Mrs. Harrington and one of her prostitutes, a red-haired and freckled woman known as Dublin Mary, had told the police that the supposed-murderer was a regular customer of theirs, and that they could easily identify him. While the police had spoken of this lead several times over the past few days, no one at Police Headquarters mentioned either Mrs. Harrington or Dublin Mary on Tuesday, nor could reporters find the two women to comment on their familiarity with Carrie Brown’s companion.
A completely different story that had also garnered attention recently was that of a Swedish sailor who knew incredibly specific details of the gruesome murder not printed by the newspapers or spoken of on the streets. By Tuesday, it was as if that story had never been heard around Police Headquarters. And the most promising lead—a night clerk claimed a man had stumbled into the Glenmore Hotel (which was only a short walk from the East River Hotel) just after midnight on the night of the murder covered in blood—failed to register even a flick of interest from Inspector Byrnes and his men.
A typical policeman
of this era
The police were keeping nearly all the witnesses to the crime locked up in the Tombs, New York City’s primary house of detention for people awaiting trial. The Tombs were originally built in the middle of Manhattan’s most dangerous slum, the Five Points. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, the Five Points was a bawdy, disease-ridden neighborhood where New York’s poorest citizens were crowded into shabby wooden tenements. Crime abounded and depravity flourished.
The Five Points a decade before the Tombs were built
In 1838, Tombs were erected in the center of the Five Points as a giant, permanent reminder (or wishful thinking) of the police’s power over crime in the city. The Tombs earned its ominous nickname not because of the gallows that it housed in its courtyard, but instead because the building’s eccentric architectural style was supposedly inspired by an ancient Egyptian mausoleum. By 1891, as Byrnes hunted Carrie Brown's murderer, the Five Points neighborhood was long gone (replaced by Chinatown and Manhattan’s Civic Center), but the Tombs remained.
The Tombs, in all its pseudo-Egyptian glory
The only witness not confined to the Tombs was Ameer Ben Ali, who was held in one of the cells beneath Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, a fifteen minute walk uptown of the Tombs. While reporters and the occasional visitor were allowed into the Tombs, a Police Department rule absolutely forbade anyone that was not either Inspector Byrnes or a smattering of his hand-picked officers into the cells at Police Headquarters. The only information that came out of those cells was information Byrnes wanted to share. As Tuesday evening fell, streets of New York began to buzz with rumors: did this mean Ben Ali was Byrnes' man?
Wednesday, April 29: Ben Ali Faces the "Third Degree"
It had been five days since Carrie Brown's body had been discovered, and the New York City Police Department had arrested over one hundred men who matched the description of her companion from the past Thursday night. But, by Wednesday evening, every single one of them had been released. The vast majority of these suspects were not even questioned by the police—more often than not, Inspector Byrnes would take one look, or read a short telegram description, and declare that the man was not Carrie Brown’s murderer.
Instead, the Police Department’s focus seemed to pivot away from hunting a light haired, German-accented man with a dented black hat, and instead toward searching for a man that more or less resembled the current prisoner, Ameer Ben Ali. In Jersey City, detectives arrested a Moroccan immigrant who said he was called “La Arabia” (which was almost certainly a nickname) solely because, according to one detective, the Moroccan “looked exceedingly like a man of blood.” After questioning the man, the detectives found out that “La Arabia” had previously lived in London, and, in a weird stroke of fate, had actually been arrested as a suspect in the hunt for Jack the Ripper. As soon as word of the arrest reached Police Headquarters, however, Byrnes sent over one of his subordinates with orders to release the man. He gave no explanation why "La Arabia" was to be let go.
Since Monday, Inspector Byrnes seemed to dismiss every new piece of information that was brought before him. Instead, his focus was almost solely
The Jersey City Ferry depot in Manhattan
on Ben Ali, who was shackled in a cell beneath Byrnes’ office. Newspapers hypothesized that Byrnes was going to apply his infamous “Third Degree” treatment to elicit a confession out of the terrified Ben Ali.
In the late nineteenth century, as is true today, the best way to ensure a conviction was by a confession. The “Third Degree” was Byrnes’ favorite tool to force confessions from the most hardened of criminals and it became a famous, if not instrumental aspect of the police under his reign. The process was essentially psychological and physical torture. Psychology was a relatively new science at the time, and Byrnes’ use of it for crime-fighting was celebrated around the world as a cutting-edge policing technique. Byrnes delighted in sharing how his “Third Degree” was able to wrench confessions out of the worst murderers, rapists, and thieves. It became so celebrated that a play, and later a movie (both called “The Third Degree”), featured its hypnotic powers.
Detectives preparing a suspect for his "Third Degree" treatment
as Byrnes watches on
It went like this: as soon as a promising suspect was arrested, Inspector Byrnes would have them brought into his office and seated. The poor suspect was never told why they had been arrested. Instead, Byrnes—puffing a cigar that peeked out from under his voluminous grey mustache—would make casual conversation with the man or woman seated before him. During their conversation, the Inspector would subtly encourage the suspect to talk about what they had been doing when the crime was committed. He got them to tell the story several times. If the suspect repeated the same details and wording every time, Byrnes took that to mean the man or woman had made up the story, memorized it, and was reciting their alibi automatically from memory. If Byrnes, through this test, determined a suspect was guilty, then the Inspector would continue making conversation without mentioning the crime. However, as their discussion went on, Byrnes would casually reveal evidence of the crime. The Inspector might use the murderer’s knife to open an envelope, or a handkerchief stained with the victim’s blood to wipe his brow. If the shock of seeing the evidence of their crime before them did not rattle a suspect into confessing, then two detectives would come in and take the suspect down to one of the cells beneath Police Headquarters.
Byrnes often held his suspects in those cells for days at a time without food to induce extreme psychological and physical pressure. After being subjected to this torture, Byrnes’ suspects often confessed to a crime they may or may not had committed. If that failed, Byrnes would roll up his sleeves, put out his cigar, and beat his suspects into confessing. By 1891, the Inspector had secured several high profile successful confessions from murderers and gang leaders through his famous “Third Degree” interrogations. He almost certainly believed that he could easily force a confession out of Ben Ali and, by doing so, earn the moniker of the detective who caught Jack the Ripper.
But he was mistaken.
Thursday, April 30: Bloodstains and Lies
Despite assuredly being tricked, pressured, starved, and beaten in the bowels of Police Headquarters, Ameer Ben Ali did not confess. Nonetheless, at half past four in the afternoon on Thursday, Inspector Byrnes’ right-hand man Inspector William McLaughlin hauled Ben Ali from 300 Mulberry Street to the Court of General Sessions. McLaughlin brought Ben Ali to the chambers of Judge Randolph Martine, who announced Ben Ali was formally charged with the murder of Carrie Brown.
Even though he had not confessed, Ben Ali was still arraigned on the basis of two things: a series of bloodstains that had been discovered in Rooms 31 and 33 of the East River Hotel, and his deviant nature.
When detectives visited the scene of the crime around noon on April 24, they noticed a pool of blood by the side of
A map of Lower Manhattan with the some of the case's important locations
the bed with some imprint, like a footprint, and the bloody marks of several fingerprints on the door. The detectives also swore that there were tiny—barely discernible, they said—spots of blood that formed a trail from Room 31 to Room 33, across the hall. They claimed that the door to Room 33 had blood marks on both sides, and the chair, bedding, and floor in that room were all also stained with blood. The District Attorney, DeLancey Nicoll, who had met McLaughlin and Ben Ali in Judge Martine’s chambers, explained to Martine that the bloodied stains had been cut out of Rooms 31 and Room 33 when the rooms were sealed on Monday, April 27. Nicoll then disclosed to the judge that the prosecution intended to prove the blood found in the East River Hotel was identical to the blood that the police had initially noticed on Ben Ali’s clothing, and the blood they later discovered that was under his fingernails.
The floor plan of the fifth story of the East River Hotel. On the night of April 23, Carrie Brown and her companion stayed in Room 31, while Ben Ali stayed alone in Room 33
This development surprised many of the reporters who had been covering the case since its beginning. A few of them—including the famous muckraker Jacob Riis—had been in Room 31 and Room 33 the day after the murder. Other than the bedding underneath the corpse, none of them remembered seeing any bloodstains in Room 31.
The second part of the murder charge against Ben Ali was his deviant nature. The prisoner was well-known among the prostitutes of the East River waterfront as a sexual pervert, who frequently bit and beat women. According to Nellie English, a prostitute who had once consorted with Ben Ali, it was his habit to take women to the East River Hotel, have sex with them, and then leave the room to prowl the hallways late at night. If Ben Ali heard a door close (signifying that a prostitute’s companion had left), he would go into that room and rob the woman as she was getting dressed.
Chambers Street (the Court of General Sessions is the darkly-colored building behind the horse-drawn fire brigade)
Carrie Brown was one of the few East River prostitutes who would still sleep with Ben Ali despite his vicious reputation, and he had been seen in her company several times in the days leading up to her murder.
Then, Nicoll discussed the matter of Ben Ali's lies. Ben Ali lied to the police several times: he claimed he had not slept in the East River Hotel on the night of April 23 (he had), he said he worked at a hotel in Jamaica (he later admitted he was a fruit-seller in Brooklyn), and swore he did not know the prostitutes who had come forward to identify him (to a woman, they all said they knew him, and many had slept with him at some point in time or another).
Throughout this meeting, Ben Ali kept professing his innocence to Judge Martine through a translator. A former prosecutor himself, Judge Martine listened to Ben Ali’s desperate pleas with little sympathy and assigned him counsel from the firm of Levy, House, and Friend. After the meeting had concluded, Inspector McLaughlin took Ben Ali by the arm and led him back to Police Headquarters, where he was returned to his cell underneath the building.
Friday, May 1: Ben Ali Shares His Life Story
Friday was a dull, grey day. It was a little cold for mid-spring and occasional bursts of rain chilled New Yorkers who were unlucky enough to be caught outside when the skies decided to open up.
In the morning, two of Inspector Byrnes’s detectives traveled to the Queens County Jail. The sheriff of Queens County had written to Byrnes and informed the Inspector that he had a couple of prisoners who had information about Ameer Ben Ali.
Earlier that year, Ben Ali was arrested for vagrancy (he was caught begging and faking a broken arm) and had been sent to the Queens County Jail. The two prisoners, David Gilloway and Edward Smith, had been locked up with Ben Ali for several months. Gilloway and Smith claimed that, when he was thrown in jail, Ben Ali had smuggled in a knife which matched the description of the weapon found next to Carrie Brown’s body. On top of that, the two men swore that Ben Ali had a vicious personality and once even tried to stab another prisoner with the knife.
At 5 o’clock in the evening, Ben Ali was transported from Police Headquarters to the Tombs. He was confined to Cell No. 63, where he was to remain until his trial. An hour after he was put into the cell, the lawyer Emanuel Friend (of Levy, House, and Friend) arrived at the Tombs along with an interpreter to meet with Ben Ali. However, instead of discussing the details of the case, Ben Ali told Friend his life story.
The murderer's knife (top) compared to the knife Ben Ali had in the Queens County Jail (below)
Ameer Ben Ali was a tall, thin middle-aged man. By all accounts, he had exceptionally long limbs, and his arms and legs often stuck out an extra six inches or so beyond
the hems of his clothing. His right arm was decorated with several tattoos. A Christian cross was featured above an Islamic crescent on one side of his forearm. On the other, he had two portraits: one of himself in military regalia and one of a woman, ostensibly his wife.
Through the interpreter, Ben Ali told Friend that he was born in a mountainous village in northern Algeria and was a member of a Berber tribe. He explained it was not his tribe’s practice to acknowledge dates and, as such, had no idea of his exact age or in what years the major events of his life had occurred.
Around 1870, Ben Ali said he joined a French provincial regiment and fought on behalf of his colonial overlords during the Franco-Prussian War. He was wounded twice during the war – once in the shoulder and once in the leg. He stayed in the French Army for nearly a decade after, and then joined the crew of a fruit ship that traveled between Africa and South America. After several years of transatlantic voyages, Ben Ali decided to leave his wife in Algeria to move to Brazil and try his luck. However, he struggled to make ends meet. A few years later, in either 1888 or 1889, Ben Ali immigrated to Brooklyn where he took a job as a fruit seller.
Two sketches of Ben Ali
He had been selling bananas—despite the occasional jail sentence—ever since.
When he had finished telling Emanuel Friend his life story, Ben Ali looked the lawyer in the eyes and once again proclaimed his innocence. This display thoroughly convinced Friend, who left the Tombs that night determined to see his client go free.
Saturday, May 2: Inspector Byrnes' Revolution
Ameer Ben Ali was probably unaware that he was caught in the middle of a revolution. Since 1880, Inspector Thomas Byrnes had been transforming the New York City Police Department from a glorified drinking club into the international standard of a modern police force.
Byrnes was born in Ireland in 1842, and, as a young boy, moved with his family across the Atlantic to a New York City tenement—those dilapidated wooden structures that housed Manhattan’s poorest and most down-trodden inhabitants. As a teenager, he joined a local volunteer fire company. When he was nineteen years old, he enlisted in Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s “Fire Zouaves” regiment to fight in the Civil War. Byrnes’ service did not last long and he left the war behind as soon as he was able. After the war, the Inspector would chuckle and admit his greatest military accomplishment was running from the battlefield just as fast as anybody else.
When Byrnes’ enlistment was up in 1863, he returned to New York City and became a patrolman at the Mercer Street Station. He was steadily promoted over the next fifteen years, and, in 1878, he gained city-wide fame when he caught the burglars of the Manhattan’s Savings Bank who had made off with millions of dollars. That bust earned him the job of Inspector and he was placed in charge of the city’s Detective Bureau in 1880.
The flamboyant uniforms of the "Fire Zouaves"
Over the next eleven years, Byrnes completely transformed the Police Department. He centralized its bureaucracy and placed himself at its beating heart. He incorporated the relatively new science of photography and popularized the idea of the mugshot (Byrnes had a “Rogues’ Gallery” in Police Headquarters that featured the portraits of over five hundred of the city’s most notorious criminals). And he created policing networks that spanned both the country and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1891, Byrnes was in near-constant communication with most major American police forces and several European departments as well.
But Inspector Byrnes’ greatest achievement was earning the trust of New York City’s elite. Before his appointment as head of the Detective Bureau, the wealthiest New Yorkers often favored the services of private detective agencies over the police force. There was even a widely-held belief among Wall Street financiers that the police were more likely to steal their money than they were to protect it.
The "Rogues' Gallery" in Police Headquarters
In order to earn the trust of these citizens, Byrnes turned the police into the ultimate protectors of elite interest. He established a satellite
office in Wall Street with telephones connected to every bank (the first use of telephones in the Police Department), so that he was quite literally only a phone call away for bankers. Byrnes also instructed his detectives to ditch their usual uniforms, and, in an effort to directly appeal to elites, dress like gentlemen by donning natty suits and hats. Byrnes, himself, was known to ditch his Irish brogue for an upscale English accent when talking to a financier or industrialist.
Byrnes posing in the lobby of Police Headquarters
The Inspector also acted as a personal fixer for New York’s rich. He would often exchange favors (breaking a strike, quieting a rowdy son-in-law, covering up a scandal) for stock tips. Through this, he became close friends with Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., among others. When Byrnes retired in 1895, his net worth was over ten million dollars (in present value) and his most prized possession was an invitation to a dinner held in his honor by the New York Stock Exchange.
Although he was almost fifty in 1891, Inspector Byrnes still possessed the muscular physique of a younger man, and always carried himself so that he was never an inch shorter than his full height of 5’11”. He had spent the past eleven years building the police force in his formidable image, and he was not about to let a murder of a prostitute dent his sterling reputation.
Sunday, May 3: The Baltimore Trunk Tragedy
On Sunday, a May cold spell seemed to momentarily pause the investigation into the murder of Carrie Brown. Ameer Ben Ali spent the entire day in his cell, alternatively dozing on his cot or staring wistfully out into the hallway. Inspector Byrnes had escaped the city and quietly retreated to his weekend home, a riverside estate in Red Bank, New Jersey. Despite the lack of new developments, New Yorkers simmered with excitement. The city had not seen such a high profile murder case since 1887, when Byrnes solved the mystery of the Baltimore trunk tragedy.
On January 22, 1887, a tin-covered trunk arrived in Baltimore. No one came to collect it and it sat untouched for four days. On the fifth day, the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh began to emit so strongly from the package that the police were called. The trunk was brought to a local station house and forced open. Inside, lay the torso of a young man. His legs and left arm had been cut off and neatly packed alongside the rest of his body. He had been decapitated, but his head was not included among the grotesque contents of the trunk.
Since the trunk had come from New York City, Byrnes was notified and he sent down several detectives to identify the body. The corpse was quickly discovered to be that of August Bohle, a German butcher from Brooklyn. Almost immediately, Byrnes focused his attention on Bohle's roommate, a former saloonkeeper named Edward Unger. Two detectives were sent to arrest the man and were under strict instructions to not inform him why he was being apprehended. Without saying a word, the two detectives picked up Unger, handcuffed him, and silently brought him to Inspector Byrnes’ office.
Byrnes' house in Red Bank, where he
spent his Sunday
The Inspector, a cigar casually held in his mouth, stared at Unger in silence for several minutes. Then, Byrnes abruptly ordered his detectives to take Unger to the cells below and lock him up with little food. The former saloonkeeper spent the entire night underneath Police Headquarters.
The next day, Unger was brought into Byrnes’ office again. Spread out on the Inspector’s desk lay the instruments of the crime: the bloody hammer that had been used to strike the fatal blow, the rubber cloth on which Bohle’s body had been placed, and the knife and saw that had been used to dismember the German butcher. Byrnes did not acknowledge their presence, but instead initiated a strange parade.
In walked Bohle’s and Unger’s landlady, who pointed at Unger, identified him as Bohle’s roommate, turned around, and walked out of the office. Unger tried to talk to her as she left, but was quickly silenced by a detective. As soon as the landlady had gone, the detectives brought Unger back to his cell. A half hour later, the same process occurred again, but this time it was a different acquaintance who came in, pointed at Unger, identified him as Bohle’s roommate, turned around, and walked out. This process was repeated at thirty minute intervals for the next several hours with different people who knew both Bohle and Unger coming in one after the other. By the end of the day, Unger—who had kept his composure since he entered Police Headquarters—began to crack.
Unger was then left alone in his cell for the next thirty-six hours. Late in the evening of the next day, after he had fallen asleep, Unger was roughly shaken awake and pushed into a dimly lit hallway. As Unger stepped out of his cell, he tripped. When he looked down to see what had caused him to stumble, he realized he had caught his foot on the tin-covered trunk that had held Bohle’s mutilated body. Unger recoiled, but managed to compose himself and took a few steps down the hallway. That's when Byrnes emerged from the shadows. The Inspector held up half of Bohle’s coat and calmly asked Unger if he knew where the other half of his murdered roommate’s coat was. This rattled Unger so deeply that a detective put a sympathetic arm on his shoulder and told him it was okay to sit down. Unger gratefully collapsed on a sofa. But when he looked down, he nearly fainted. He was sitting on the same blood-stained sofa on which August Bohle had been murdered.
Sketch of Edward Unger
Unger was so traumatized he had to be carried back to his cell. The next morning, he confessed to murdering Bohle, cutting up his body, and packing it in a tin-covered trunk that he sent down to Baltimore. Within a month, Unger was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree (at the last moment, his lawyers successfully convinced the jury the killing was partially in self-defense) and sentenced to twenty years in Sing Sing prison.
New Yorkers had not forgotten the spectacular fashion in which Byrnes had applied his famous "Third Degree" treatment to solve the Baltimore trunk tragedy and they were expecting a similar level of theatrics for the Carrie Brown case. For every day that Byrnes failed to get a confession out of Ben Ali, New Yorkers grew less and less certain that the Algerian was the guilty man.
Murderer's Row in the Tombs, where Ben Ali
spent his Sunday
Monday, May 4: Mr. House Fires the First Volley
After a quiet couple of days, Frederick House started the week with a lot of noise. House (of Levy, Friend, and House) was the lead defense attorney for Ameer Ben Ali. Like his partner, Emanuel Friend, House passionately believed his client was innocent. When he spoke to a reporter about the case on Monday afternoon, he bridled with righteous anger from behind his steel-rimmed spectacles.
House sharply pointed out three glaring holes in Byrnes’ case. The first hole was the obvious difference in appearance between Carrie Brown’s companion and Ameer Ben Ali. The two men didn’t look alike in the slightest—the companion was light complexioned and probably of central European descent while Ben Ali was dark-skinned and of North African descent. Moreover, the first man was reported to be short, around five and a half feet or so, and Ben Ali was at least six feet tall.
A sketch of Carrie Brown's companion (left) compared to one of Ben Ali (right)
House then moved on to the second weakness: “Why, too, if Mr. Byrnes knew our client was the murderer, did he scour the city and country for weeks after other persons…?” To House, it made no sense that Byrnes arrested Ben Ali yet declared Carrie Brown’s companion to be the murderer, then conducted a massive and unfruitful manhunt for that man, only to turn around and accuse Ben Ali of the crime.
Mr. House saved his strongest point for last. “Why was it, again,” he asked rhetorically, “that intelligent reporters did not see those bloody tracks leading across the hall from room No. 31 to room No. 33, or, at least, the marks of their erasure had they been obliterated before? And how was it,” he continued, “that they failed to notice that No. 33 had the appearance of a slaughterhouse as Byrnes now says it had?” House was, of course, responding to Byrnes' claim that a trail of blood linked Room 31, where Carrie Brown and her companion spent the night, to a blood-soaked Room 33, where Ben Ali slept. While Byrnes swore this was definitive proof of Ben Ali's guilt, several reporters who had immediately followed the police to the crime scene had no recollection of seeing a blood trail between the rooms nor any blood in Room 33.
House finished his mini lecture by questioning why a trial date had still not been set. If Byrnes had the evidence of Ben Ali’s guilt like he claimed he did, House asked, then why not go ahead with the trial?
Byrnes had his reasons. He was most likely using this interim to smooth out his relationship with the District Attorney's Office. The history between Byrnes and the D.A.’s Office had not always been amicable. In fact, at times, it had been downright hostile.
In 1884, the New York City District Attorney Peter Olney had hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency (a private detective firm) to arrest Fredericka Mandelbaum, Manhattan's premier buyer and seller of stolen goods. Mandelbaum stood well over six feet and purportedly weighed close to three hundred pounds, yet she had managed to avoid the grasp of the police for nearly a decade. She operated with complete impunity out of a dry goods store on the corner of Clinton and Rivington streets. Mandelbaum's unique ability to simultaneously openly operate—if not flaunt—her criminal empire while staying out of the grasp of the authorities earned her the nickname, “Fredericka the Great.”
Olney was fed up with the Police Department’s inability or unwillingness to take down Mandelbaum, so he secretly hired the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons enlisted a “stool pigeon,” a low-class criminal informant, to sell Mandelbaum a stolen piece of black silk. A few days later, an undercover Pinkerton agent bought the same piece silk off of the criminal empress and then arrested her for selling a stolen good.
One of Mandelbaum's extravagant dinner parties, whose invitations were so coveted that some police officers even attended. "Fredericka the Great" is seated at the far right.
The Police Department was completely shocked by Mandelbaum’s capture. Inside Police Headquarters, Inspector Byrnes was infuriated. He viewed Olney’s secret employment of the Pinkertons as both a betrayal and a declaration of war.
Olney had not stumbled into this operation naively; he knew he was provoking Byrnes. When asked why he had opted to hire private detectives instead of use the police, the District Attorney shrugged and said, “The police should be taught a lesson.”
During Mandelbaum’s trial, her lawyers (who, coincidentally, were the same firm that represented Edward Unger) claimed that Mandelbaum was merely a pawn in a massive power struggle between the District Attorney’s Office and the Police Department for control of New York City. The ruse worked. Attention shifted to the tension between the prosecutors and the police. As Olney and Byrnes glowered at each other, Fredericka Mandelbaum quietly slipped out of New York City and fled to Canada, where she lived peacefully and without interference from the law for the rest of her life.
A cartoon of Mandelbaum escaping as Olney (left) and Byrnes (right) argue
The Mandelbaum catastrophe was almost certainly very much still on Byrnes’ mind as he prepared for the trial of Ben Ali. He needed his relationship with the new District Attorney, De Lancey Nicoll, to work flawlessly for this trial. Inspector Byrnes had put too much on the line with this case. He could not afford another disaster.
Tuesday, May 5: Mr. Carnegie's Music Hall
On Tuesday evening, as Ameer Ben Ali sat on his cot in the Tombs, Andrew Carnegie’s newest project—a music hall on 57th street and Seventh Avenue—opened its doors for the first time. Despite the unusually chilly temperatures, five thousand people braved the weather to attend the Music Hall’s opening night. Carriages lined up well over a quarter mile down 57th street and, one-by-one dropped off well-dressed New Yorkers at the building’s glowing entrance. Although seats had sold out a week earlier, plenty of Manhattanites still bought standing room tickets at the door. Over two thousand people jostled shoulders with one another to find just enough space to crane their necks and catch a glimpse of the stage at the center of Mr. Carnegie’s Music Hall.
They were not disappointed. The hall was brilliantly illuminated by
Carnegie Hall in 1891, the year it opened
four thousand electric lights, a nearly unheard of luxury in the Gilded Age. Indeed, the interior was so brightly lit that some audience members later claimed to suffer from temporary blindness. The night began when four hundred singers clad in black and white took the stage and belted out a few ceremonial hymns. Then, the Episcopalian Bishop Henry Potter gave a blessing which was apparently so long and boring that Mrs. Carnegie began to noticeably fidget in her box above the main door. The audience, therefore, experienced a collective wave of relief when the bishop finished with a droning "Amen," and the music could begin. Out from the wings stepped the guest of honor, a tall, grey-haired man who gave a few awkward, jerking bows to acknowledge the thunderous applause that greeted him. As soon as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky grasped the baton, however, his entire demeanor changed. It was the Russian composer’s first performance in the United States, and he dazzled as the New York Symphony Orchestra performed his “Marche Solennelle,” a triumphant and festive tune that was perfectly appropriate as the musical crown jewel in the Music Hall’s inauguration ceremony.
Andrew Carnegie’s Music Hall (it would not be known by its modern name, Carnegie Hall, for some time), was not just an extraordinary gesture of individual charity. It was an attempt to end one of the many wars for authority that fiercely raged across the island of Manhattan in the late nineteenth century. The particular conflict into which Carnegie was wading was over who controlled New York’s social scene. In the 1880s, the descendants of the old mercantile families that had been in the city for generations—names like Astor, Roosevelt, and Schuyler—had their position atop the social hierarchy threatened by the scores of rich financiers and industrialists who had made their wealth in the past decade or so. The old mercantile families responded by making traditional New York social institutions even more exclusive so that Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Goulds could not buy their way in.
The old guard's Academy of Music which held eighteen boxes (left) compared to the new guard's
Metropolitan Opera House (right), which held seventy
One of the most prominent symbol of the old guard’s grip on society was the Academy of Music opera house on 14th street. There were only eighteen boxes, and they were all owned by mercantile families who were so intent on making these boxes into a symbol of their social authority that they turned down William Vanderbilt (son of the famous Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt) when he offered $30,000 (nearly $775,000 in present value) for a single box. Spurned, Vanderbilt gathered other members of the nouveau riche and, along with William Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan, financed a new venue, the Metropolitan Opera House. The Metropolitan Opera House was a wild success and within a few years, forced the Academy of Music to crumble. However, who controlled New York's orchestra scene was still up for debate in 1891, and the Music Hall on 57th street was Andrew Carnegie’s best attempt—as a member of the newly-monied class—to answer the question of social control in New York City once and for all.
As the ancient knickerbocker families and the nouveau riche flung their millions at each other and into the city, members of the middle class were at war with themselves. In 1891, the New York City middle class was predominantly comprised of Irish and German (both foreign-born and first-generation) Manhattanites. The middle class was divided into three political camps: socialists, independent (or Swallowtail) Democrats, and Tammany Hall. While all of these groups formed uneasy and short-lived alliances with one another at some point, they were trying to achieve fundamentally different versions of New York City. The socialists wanted a city ruled by its working classes; the independent Democrats sought to put educated, reform-minded individuals in charge of Manhattan’s municipal apparatus; and Tammany Hall was a notorious political machine that did everything it could to control City Hall and use that power to line its pockets with ill-gotten gains. The Republican party of this era was primarily a
Protestant, upper class endeavor that detested all three of the middle class political divisions. The chaotic political battles in Gilded Age New York City were so multi-faceted and confusing that they made its social warfare seem simple by comparison.
Not long after Mr. Carnegie opened his Music Hall, each and every one of these warring factions would find themselves drawn to a new battleground: a courtroom on Chambers street, where an Algerian immigrant named Ameer Ben Ali was to be tried for the crime of brutally murdering Carrie Brown.
Wednesday, May 6: Ben Ali in the Bowery
On Wednesday, cries of "Jack the Riiiiiiiiipper" probably pierced through the regular din of the Bowery, Gilded Age New York’s most vibrant and notorious thoroughfare. Dime museum managers, the professional descendants of P.T. Barnum (who had just died on April 7), did their best to attract crowds under the shadow of the Third Avenue "El" train as they promised to faithfully show exactly how Ameer Ben Ali brutally murdered Carrie Brown.
The Bowery originally gained prominence as the main path in and out of the Five Points, which lay just west of the street's southern end. As a two way road to New York’s center of depravity, the Bowery quickly developed a seedy reputation of its own. By 1891, it had become Manhattan’s
Painting of the Bowery at night
entertainment hub. Saloons, theaters, and dime museums spilled out from underneath the elevated train tracks and delighted those seeking a strong dose of hedonism.
Throngs outside some of the Bowery's houses of entertainment
The Bowery offered a full menu of experiences for locals and tourists alike. Most establishments along this artery usually offered at least one variety show a night. During these, the audience was regaled by mind-blowing gymnastics, bawdy song-and-dance routines, racist minstrel shows performed in blackface, circus acts like sword eating and fire breathing, comedic skits that satirized life in New York by mimicking an Irish brogue or a Fifth Avenue strut, boxing matches, and displays of human curiosities like supposedly ancient humans and "bearded ladies." Should these acts fail to fully enthrall their audiences, many of the Bowery’s establishments housed easily-accessible brothels in their backrooms.
When Gilded Age New Yorkers hankered for something a little more upscale, they went uptown to Madison Square Garden, where, depending on the night, you could attend an
Annie Jones, perhaps the most famous "bearded lady" of the late nineteenth century; note the photo was taken at 888 Bowery, NYC
extravagant performance of "Hamlet" or enjoy a three ring circus. If you found yourself humming a tune, you could go to Tin Pan Alley, the area surrounding Union Square, to buy the sheet music for one of the era’s wildly popular mass-produced, melodramatic, and formulaic songs. If you were in need of something a little more original, a song could be written for you in a matter of minutes. For New Yorkers who wanted to escape Manhattan, there was Coney Island to the east, one of the earliest American amusement parks offering beaches, boardwalks, roller-coasters, and relaxed behavioral standards.
Should a trip to the Bowery, Madison Square Garden, Tin Pan Alley, or Coney Island fail to satisfy New Yorkers’ need for the spectacular, they often turned to detective novels, one of the era’s literary innovations. In these, you could read about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or, if you were looking for something a little more local, the dramatized exploits of Inspector Byrnes, who cowrote a series of his own semi-autobiographical tales with the help of Julian Hawthorne, son of The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Like nearly everything that touched the island of Manhattan, Ameer Ben Ali and the murder of Carrie Brown were quickly commercialized and spectacularized.
The cries of "Jack the Riiiiiiiiipper" were not to alert the police to another bloody murder, but rather advertisements for sidewalk exhibits put on by Bowery dime museums with larger-than-life images purporting to show how New York’s own Jack the Ripper had viciously murdered “Old Shakespeare.”
When Frederick House, Ben Ali’s lawyer, tried to have these exhibits shut down, several dime museum managers countered by offering to pay Ben Ali handsomely if he came to work for them as a human curiosity. Their job offers came with only one condition: they would pay Ben Ali a small fortune every week... Should he be acquitted.
Thursday, May 7: Tribute for Tammany
The seediness of the Bowery flourished thanks to an elaborate network of corruption called the Tribute System. The Tribute System was fairly simple. A police officer—casually referred to as a bag man—would dress in plain clothes and walk into an illegal establishment, like a gambling den, a brothel, or a saloon opened on a Sunday (it was illegal for most places to sell alcohol on Sundays). The cop would then join a game of poker, ask for a prostitute, or order a beer. Once his request was completed, the officer flashed his badge and politely suggest the owner pay a monthly payment for "P.P." (police protection) if the establishment wanted to stay in business. If the owner protested, the officer ditched the niceties, pointed his revolver at the owner’s head, and demanded the money for "P.P."
Sketch of the interior of Barney Flynn's Bowery saloon (based on the name, it most likely enjoyed Tammany protection)
Every month, the bag man would collect payments and deliver them to his boss, the precinct captain. The captain kept some for himself, gave the bag man a slightly smaller share, and sent the rest up to his superiors at Police Headquarters. Even the Police Commissioners (the four civilians appointed by the mayor to oversee the department) received a cut. This was a lucrative business; the Tribute System brought in $400,000 ($11,000,000 in present value) every year to be divvied up by police officials.
For the owners of these establishments, the monthly payments for "P.P." were usually a small price to pay to keep their illegal gambling dens, brothels, and saloons open and bustling without the possibility of police interference.
The Tribute System was also political. The businessmen and police officers involved in the city-wide corruption network were mostly Irish-American Tammany Hall members. This meant that illegal Tammany
businesses paid Tammany police officers for the privilege of being able to operate with impunity, while the police shut down their non-Tammany competitors.
Remarkably, Inspector Byrnes seemingly never partook in the Tribute System. While nearly every other police officer in the city could be bribed, Byrnes resisted temptation. One criminal was so frustrated by Byrnes that he even publicly complained to a newspaper: "I don’t know what kind of man Byrnes must be; we can’t touch him with money."
Now, Byrnes probably had no need to sully his good name by involving himself in the Tribute System. He didn’t need the money. He was, after all, receiving absurdly valuable stock tips from his wealthy financier friends named Gould and Vanderbilt. When he retired from the force in 1895, having only been a police officer for his entire life, Byrnes was worth nearly $350,000 (or, $10,500,000 in present value).
While Byrnes didn't really care about the Tribute System, he absolutely hated Tammany's political influence over the Police Department. Not only were most of the rank-and-file affiliated with the hall, two of the Police Commissioners (who were, technically, his bosses) were also Tammany members. These two—Charles F. MacLean and James J. Martin—kept promoting Tammany police officers, so that most of the high-ranking officers were loyal to MacLean and Martin instead of Byrnes. This infuriated Byrnes. The cigar-chomping Inspector had tried to sever these political connections a few times over the past several years, but Tammany was simply embedded too deeply. Disgusted by
Tammany Hall's Headquarters on 14th Street
its influence, Bynes publicly and frequently referred to Tammany Hall as "an evil of large dimensions."
His hatred for Tammany did not go unnoticed by the notorious political machine. By 1891, Tammany Hall had trained its sights on taking Byrnes down.
Friday, May 8: Jacob Riis Walks to Work
On a clear and cold Friday morning, Jacob Riis left his gabled, two-story house in Richmond Hill, Queens and began his daily commute to his office at 303 Mulberry Street. Riis was probably not walking with his usual vigor. He was the police reporter for The Sun and had been covering the Carrie Brown case since its inception, but nothing of note had happened for a few days.
A lack of development was no reason to show up late to work, however, and Riis continued on his trek to 303 Mulberry Street, the building directly across from Police Headquarters that served as the hub for the New York's police reporters.
Riis fancied himself the “boss” reporter of 303 Mulberry Street, and with good reason. He had been a journalist pretty much since he arrived in New York City from Denmark, and had been covering police news for the past fourteen years. Riis was known for his ability to consistently ferret out stories that both amazed and terrified New Yorkers. While other reporters patiently waited for official statements from the police, as soon as Riis heard of a crime he practically sprinted to the crime scene. One time he even tried to sneak along in a police
carriage, but, to his disappointment, was discovered and deposited on the street as the carriage rumbled on.
During his daily commute to 303 Mulberry Street, Riis walked through “The Bend,” the most notoriously squalid tenement neighborhood in New York City. Tenements were flimsy wooden structures with barely any light or ventilation. Greedy landlords packed recently arrived immigrants who were desperate for housing into tiny, prison-like apartments inside. In 1891, “The Bend” was home to the worst of the worst.
The Bend (left) and a tenement yard (right); both photographs were taken by Riis
As Riis walked through "The Bend," six-story creaky tenements rose above him on either side of the dirty cobblestoned street. When he looked left or right, he saw mazes of unpaved narrow alleyways spilling out between these buildings. Crisscrossing wires covered in the day’s laundry blocked out much of the sunlight, and cast large swaths of the area into a constant state of artificial darkness. Since the living conditions inside tenements were so miserable, “The Bend’s” inhabitants spent much of their time in the streets and alleys. Riis walked past peddler carts that formed improvised shopping aisles, wooden boards which were propped up on barrels to make counters, and sidewalks that were home to shady banks and employment offices wedged between grocers and tobacco bureaus. There was a constant buzz of noise; a careful listener could occasionally make out strains of Yiddish, German, and Italian which floated just below a thick, oppressive layer of that particular stench which comes from too many people crowded into too small of a space.
Riis was a muckraker: he was both fascinated and horrified by New York City’s tenements, and his daily walks through "The Bend" inspired him to expose well-to-do New Yorkers to the horrors of tenements. He hoped that his work might inspire reform-minded elites to focus their efforts on the poverty rampaging in these neighborhoods. However, mere words could simply not capture the squalor and hopelessness he saw everyday, so Riis taught himself photography. After a few mishaps (he set his house on fire twice and self-immolated once), Riis mastered the camera and in 1890 published his first, and most famous, book: How the Other Half Lives, which brought the grim realities of tenement living into the parlors of wealthy New Yorkers and is now widely considered to be the founding text of photojournalism.
Riis had dedicated his career to identifying and exposing the injustices of the world. He had met Inspector Byrnes many times and deeply respected him as a well-intentioned crime-fighter. But, as Riis walked to work on that cold May
morning, he was almost certainly playing back the events of the past two weeks in his head. He had been one of the first reporters at the East River Hotel on April 24. He saw no trail of blood across the hallway and no evidence of blood in Room 33. Yet, he trusted Byrnes. Even though Riis had made his mark as a fierce critic of Gilded Age New York, the Danish reporter believed the Inspector was a good man who did his job to the best of his ability.
But where was the blood?
All of this and more was probably banging around inside Riis’ head as he pushed
Riis (back corner) in his office at 303 Mulberry Street
open the door to 303 Mulberry Street, stepping inside toward another grueling day covering the New York City Police Department.
Saturday, May 9: Friends in Brooklyn
For days, Ben Ali had been asking the police to locate his friends in Brooklyn. Ben Ali tried to give directions to his apartment, but all he could manage to describe was that he used to live near a police station on the Brooklyn side of the ferry to Battery Park.
"Go there and find my friends," Ben Ali pleaded. "One was born in Tunis. People call them Turks, but they were my friends and they speak my language. Besides they have known me for a long time, and they know that I work and would not kill anybody. One of the men is named Jenalli and the other is named Bozieb. Jenalli lives where I stay and he knows where Bozieb is. Please bring Jenalli to me."
The ferry depot in Battery Park, to which Ben Ali was referring
The detectives who heard this plea just smiled. Ben Ali’s cry for help was said in startlingly good English for a man who had claimed he could speak none for the past three weeks. To the police, this just further proved the Algerian immigrant was a liar and a fraud.
To the lawyers of Levy, Friend, and House, these men—Jenalli and Bozieb—were potentially helpful witnesses who could testify to Ben Ali’s good character and provide counter-evidence to the prostitutes' claims of Ben Ali's violent
tendencies and sexual perversions. But, after a couple of days of searching all over Brooklyn, they could not find Ben Ali’s friends.
The challenge of finding these two men then fell to an unlikely candidate: the police reporter for the New York Herald. Unfortunately, his or her name has been lost to history. Newspapers rarely included bylines in the late-nineteenth-century, so unless a reporter gained extraordinary fame the way Jacob Riis had with How the Other Half Lives, they remained fairly anonymous to the New York public.
Frustrated by the lawyers’ inability to find Ben Ali’s friends—and perhaps inspired by Riis’ famous investigative journalism exploits—the reporter set off to locate Jenalli and Bozieb on a rainy Saturday. After a few hours of asking locals about a fruit stand run by Turks (the reporter remembered Ben Ali had admitted he worked as a fruit-seller), the enterprising journalist finally found a fruit stand off of Columbia Street. A man standing nearby gruffly mentioned that the two Turks who ran it lived on the second-floor of a tenement across the way.
Columbia Street; note the unfinished Brooklyn Bridge in the background
After climbing a set of creaky wooden stairs, the reporter knocked on the door of the street-side second floor
apartment. A tiny, elderly man of North African or Middle Eastern descent answered the door. He introduced himself as Jenalli. Here was Ben Ali's long undiscovered friend and roommate. When the reporter explained that they had come to inquire about Ben Ali, Jenalli invited them into his apartment, explaining "Ameer Ben Ali me know... He my friend." Inside the apartment were two more people, a red-haired woman who was Jenalli’s wife, and Bozieb, Ben Ali's other friend who spoke very little English.
With Jenalli’s wife acting as a translator, the reporter explained what had happened to their friend. The trio was shocked. They hadn’t seen Ben Ali for three weeks and had no idea what had befallen their missing roommate.
Soon, anger and disbelief replaced shock. "He was generous and very kind to children and would give them all his pennies,' explained Jenalli’s wife. "He was never known to insult a woman. If a man insulted him or hit him he would fight, but then who wouldn’t? He was a kindhearted man and I am sure he never killed anybody."
Bonzieb was particularly distraught by the news. He mustered the full force of his English-speaking abilities to declare, "Ameer Ben Ali no kill someone. He was bon homme, very good. He drink trop sometimes, but never want fight. Ben Ali not kill a woman, jamais, jamais, jamais."
They were all fiercely adamant about Ben Ali’s innocence and offered to testify to his good character. Jenalli even followed the reporter onto the street, declaring, "If Ameer Ben Ali kill woman the big American President Father can take me and cut my throat."
Sunday, May 10: Dr. Weismann's Infamous Mouse Experiment
On Sunday, a man only referred to as a "well known criminal lawyer" reached out to the New York Herald. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the lawyer wanted to talk with the newspaper about something that had been eating at him ever since the news of Ameer Ben Ali’s arrest had been printed.
Ben Ali had been originally identified as "Frenchy," a violent and deviant predator who stalked prostitutes along the East River waterfront. But, the lawyer pointed, "Frenchy" was a very common nickname in New York City in 1891. Most of the city’s "Frenchys" were of North African or Middle Eastern descent. So, the lawyer concluded, this could be a case of mistaken identity; the police could have accidentally arrested Ben Ali in connection with the crime when they had meant to arrest a different, dark-complexioned man called "Frenchy."
Mistaken or confused identities among immigrants were fairly common in Gilded Age New York City. In the late-nineteenth-century, rapidly globalizing markets forced hundreds of thousands of European peasants to migrate to the United States in pursuit of better job opportunities. Most of these immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe; waves of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, and Russians had been flooding into Manhattan neighborhoods like “The Bend” since the mid-1870s. Not all the newcomers came from Europe, however. Thousands of Chinese immigrants had also begun to call New York home, while many black Americans moved to northern industrial centers, especially Manhattan, as they fled the violent and oppressive Jim Crow laws of the southern United States.
A colorized photograph of the Lower East Side, the vibrant intersection of New York's immigrant populations
These immigrants were met with racialized animosity in New York. Anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Chinese, and anti-black sentiments polluted the air and poisoned the city’s wells. Nearly all of these second-wave immigrants—including the southern and eastern European ones—were considered non-white, and Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers feared this new presence could degrade American society.
The basis for this fear was supposedly "scientific." Before 1889, the prevailing theory among the nation’s leading biological scientists was that the different races of humans were, in fact, different species that had evolved separately from one another. For many years, the belief among the nation’s scientific community was that Anglo-Saxon Americans could cultivate "American" habits in immigrants that would then become inheritable traits.
However, this belief was shattered in 1889 when a German scientist named August Weismann demonstrated learned traits were not inheritable by showing mice whose tails had been cut off did not, in fact, then give birth to short-tailed mice.
This set off a panic among the American scientific community. Weismann’s experiment proved that non-white immigrants could not be “improved” with Anglo-Saxon guidance. This refueled waves of racial hatred and distrust across the United States, and many of the nation’s leading scientists in the early 1890s warned that immigrants could corrupt and degrade Anglo-Saxon Americans.
As a dark-skinned immigrant, Ben Ali was subjected to both anti-black and anti-immigrant discrimination. Although Gilded Age New Yorkers were divided as to whether or not Ben Ali had murdered Carrie Brown, they were united in assuming Ben Ali was prone to savage behavior and deviant sexual desires because he was black. It didn't matter that Ben Ali was from a Berber tribe in North Africa, Manhattanites saw him as black. The inhabitants of the East River waterfront called him "black Frenchy" and a "black scoundrel." Even the newspapers referred to Ben Ali as "repulsive looking," "a regular cur," and "half stupid, half animal," among other racial epithets.
Systemic racism had socialized Americans to mention Ben Ali's supposed-savagery and race in the same breadth. To most white Gilded Age New Yorkers, common prejudices told them that Ben Ali, as a dark-skinned immigrant, was easily capable of committing such a violent and brutal crime like the murder of Carrie Brown.
Monday, May 11: Whispers at the Coroner's Office
On Monday, at long last, the cold spell broke. Although New Yorkers were still robbed of the pleasure of a spring sun, the cloudy skies did not stop temperatures from almost reaching ninety degrees in the mid-afternoon.
Monday also brought Ameer Ben Ali some company. In the afternoon, Jenalli made his way to 25 Chambers Street, the office of Levy, House, and Friend. Mr. Levy then took the little old man to see his friend Ben Ali in the Tombs. Ben Ali
was elated to hear of Jenalli's visit and practically bounded into the counsel room. Jenalli was also very happy to see Ben Ali, and the two greeted each other by bowing, then placing their left hands over their hearts, touching their nose with their forefingers, and bowing again. Ben Ali and Jenalli spent the next hour happily chatting together—sometimes even laughing—and when the visitation time was up, Ben Ali earnestly thanked Mr. Levy for bringing his friend to him.
In the evening, the Herald reporter who had originally located Jenalli escorted him back to his apartment in Brooklyn. On the ferry, Jenalli helped fill in more of his friend's story. The old man explained, in broken English, that Ameer Ben Ali was thirty-five years old and had a wife named Tiamena, as well as a son named Mohomet and a daughter named Fiara, all of whom lived in Algiers. Jenalli also explained that Ben Ali not only didn’t kill Carrie Brown, he had no idea who did, but had been cheerful in their meeting because he trusted that the authorities would soon recognize his innocence.
The corner of Centre and Chambers Streets; the office of Levy, House, and Friend was inside the building in the foreground on the right (which is now the site of the city's Surrogates Court building)
Although Ben Ali was in a good mood on Monday, Frederick House was, per usual, furious. At a quarter past two in the afternoon he and Emanuel Friend had gone to the coroner’s office for the Coroner’s inquest—a judicial proceeding to determine the cause of death of Carrie Brown and the first step toward a trial. They were expecting to appear alongside District Attorney De Lancey Nicoll, a jury, and whatever witnesses Nicoll procured. Coroner Louis W. Schultze was to preside over the entire procedure. However, when Ben Ali’s lawyers pushed open the door to the coroner's office, they were surprised to find only Schultze and Nicoll’s secretary, H.W. Unger, waiting for them.
Unger informed House and Friend that the District Attorney was seeking to postpone the Coroner’s inquest. Nicoll needed more time to put together a case that not only identified the cause of death as murder (a fairly obvious conclusion), but that showed Ben Ali was the murderer.
This infuriated House, whose steel-rimmed spectacles shook with anger as he angrily explained to Coroner Schultze that this delay was illegal. They could not postpone the inquest, House snarled, without a jury, witnesses, or a stenographer present. Moreover, House continued, the postponement would directly hurt their case.
“The prosecution in this case have the treasury of this great city behind it,” he complained. “We are conducting the case at considerable expense to ourselves and we will never get back a dollar of it. This delay is not fair to us.”
Schultze coldly ignored House's plea and scheduled the inquest for Wednesday. He had heard the rumors.
For the past week or so, it had been whispered in the hallways of Police Headquarters that deep-pocket opponents of Inspector Byrnes were helping fund the defense of Ben Ali so that Byrnes could be humiliated in court.
The identity of these potential donors was unknown. There were a lot of parties that wished ill on the Chief Inspector. The money could be coming from the city's socialists and communists who hated Byrnes because he was a tool of elite interests and a ruthless strike-breaker. The money could also be coming from Tammany Hall, since Byrnes was the lone obstacle in their way of having complete control over the Police Department. Even Scotland Yard, seeking to humble Byrnes, could have been the source of the rumored funds.
No one knew who may or may not be helping fund Ben Ali's defense, but the mere presence of these rumors were enough to sink House’s plea. He was going to have to play by the District Attorney's rules.
Tuesday, May 12: A Cast of Characters
On the eve of the inquest into the murder of Carrie Brown, a savvy New Yorker might have taken some time on that cool Tuesday morning to think back and consider all of the different characters that had thus far played a role in the case. If he or she made a list of these individuals, it would have looked something like this:
Ameer Ben Ali: the man charged with the murder of Carrie Brown; an Algerian immigrant who was alleged to be a vicious sexual predator by the prostitutes of the East River waterfront and defended as a kind and gentle soul by his friends.
Andrew Carnegie: the Scottish-born industrialist who built a new Music Hall to help New York's nouveau riche seize control of the city's social scene.
August Bohle: the young man who had been viciously murdered, dismembered, and shipped to Baltimore in a trunk by Edward Unger in 1887.
August Weismann: a German biologist who proved learned traits are not inheritable, and accidentally refueled anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiments in Gilded Age New York City.
Carrie Brown: the murder victim; an elderly prostitute who had once been a happy mother of three in Salem, Massachusetts and then was driven into financial desperation by her alcoholism.
Charles F. MacLean & James J. Martin: two Police Commissioners (and civilian bosses of Byrnes) that were both staunch Tammany Hall members.
David Gilloway & Edward Smith: two prisoners who had been locked up with Ben Ali in the Queens County Jail; they both swore that Ben Ali owned a knife that was nearly identical to the murder weapon.
De Lancey Nicoll: the District Attorney of New York City and the man in charge of the prosecution against Ameer Ben Ali.
Dublin Mary & Mrs. Harrington: two prostitutes who claimed Carrie Brown’s mysterious companion was a regular customer of theirs.
Edward Fitzgerald: the night watchman and bartender at the East River Hotel who assigned Ben Ali a room on the night of April 23 and discovered Carrie Brown’s body in the morning of April 24.
Edward Unger: the murderer of August Bohle who confessed after being subjected to Byrnes' "Third Degree" interrogations.
Fredericka Mandelbaum: the criminal empress who escaped while Byrnes and former District Attorney Peter Olney argued with each other in 1884.
Jack the Ripper: the uncaught London serial killer who was rumored to also be the killer of Carrie Brown.
Jacob Riis: the Danish muckraking journalist who dedicated his life to exposing injustices and was covering the Carrie Brown case for The Sun.
Jay Gould & Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.: two wealthy industrialists who were close personal friends of Chief Inspector Byrnes.
Jenalli & Bozieb: Ben Ali’s friends from Brooklyn who swore to his good character and (mostly) gentle nature.
"La Arabia": the Moroccan immigrant who was arrested as a possible suspect in London for the Jack the Ripper murders and was also briefly detained in Jersey City for the murder of Carrie Brown, but was released without explanation.
Levy, House, and Friend: the attorneys assigned to defend Ben Ali.
Frederick House: the spectacled and passionate lead defense counsel.
Emanuel Friend: the assistant defense counsel.
Mr. Levy: the third defense counsel.
Louis W. Schultze: the city’s coroner who was assigned to oversee the inquest.
Mary Miniter: a prostitute and regular customer of the East River Hotel who opened the door and let in Carrie Brown and her mysterious companion around midnight on April 23.
Nellie English: a prostitute who had once consorted with Ben Ali and claimed it was his practice to wander the hallways of the East River Hotel late at night and rob other prostitutes.
New York Herald reporter: the enterprising and anonymous journalist who discovered Jenalli and Bozieb.
Peter Olney: the former District Attorney who hired Pinkerton private detectives to publicly humiliate Byrnes.
Randolph Martine: the former prosecutor-turned-judged before whom Ben Ali was arraigned.
Richard O'Connor: the Oak Street Station police captain who was the first policeman on the scene in the East River Hotel.
Samuel Shine: the main bartender for the East River Hotel.
Thomas Byrnes: the Chief Inspector of the New York City Police Department; an ambitious man, Byrnes had reorganized the entire police force in his own image and staked his reputation on his transformation of the police into a supposedly world class crime-fighting organization (although he allowed plenty of corruption and other forms of malfeasance to flourish).
William McLaughlin: an Inspector; Byrnes' right-hand man.
Sixth Avenue and Broadway
The newly-erected Statue of Liberty
Fifth Avenue mansions of elites like Carnegie, Gould, and Vanderbilt
Tenements along Elizabeth Street
The Plaza Hotel
The Manhattan skyline in 1891
Wednesday, May 13: The Inquest Begins
On a sunny spring Wednesday, Ameer Ben Ali was brought out from his cell in the Tombs, handcuffed to a police officer, and taken in a carriage uptown to Coroner Schultze’s office on the corner of Second Avenue and 8th Street. When the carriage rumbled to a stop in front of the building at half past ten in the morning, a crowd had gathered on the corner. Men, women, and children all jostled with one another to try and get a glimpse of New York’s own Jack the Ripper.
Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, Ben Ali was led out of the carriage, past the crowd (which included several dime museum managers ready to make good on their offer of employment should Ben Ali be acquitted), and brought to the coroner’s office on the second floor. Eight prostitutes from the East River waterfront were already sitting in the front row. Each of them eyed Ben Ali with suspicion as he was placed inside the prisoner’s pen. At around eleven o'clock, Frederick House and Emanuel Friend arrived. Instead of sitting in their designated seats, they elected to join Ben Ali in the prisoner’s pen until they were called before the coroner.
F.W. Wellman, an Assistant District Attorney who was conducting this segment of the judicial proceedings on behalf of the District Attorney,
The corner of Second Avenue and 8th Street (far left)
began the inquest by calling Mary Corcoran to the stand. Corcoran, the East River Hotel’s housekeeper, did not offer much new information. She merely testified that on the night of April 23 Carrie Brown had been drinking in the side room, then left, and returned with a man around midnight.
Second was Captain Richard O’Connor, the commander of the Oak Street Station, and one of the first policemen on the scene. O’Connor swore that he noticed a trail of blood between Room 31, where Brown had been murdered, and Room 33, where Ben Ali had spent the night. O'Connor claimed he saw three bloody finger marks on the door to Room 33, just below the door handle. He then added that he also noticed two blood spots—one the size of an average man’s hand, the other slightly smaller—on the bed inside. When pressed by House, O’Connor explained that he had not originally noticed the blood stains, but rather saw them when he returned to the East River Hotel after meeting with Chief Inspector Byrnes. The bloodstains were cut out by Captain William McLaughlin, Byrnes’ protégé, and taken to Police Headquarters that evening, O'Connor explained.
Richard O'Connor (left foreground) testifying as House (spectacled on the far right) questions him
Sergeant Michael Crowley then testified that he had noticed Brown’s pockets and cotton purse had been turned inside out, as if someone had gone through them.
After Crowley came Detective Jeremiah Griffin. Griffin swore that while he did not see any bloodstains on April 24, he did notice them when he returned to the East River Hotel on April 25.
Frederick House immediately jumped on this. Excited, the spectacled lawyer pointed out to Schultze and the jury that Griffin claimed he saw the bloodstains on the day after Captain McLaughlin had supposedly cut them out. Schultze noted the contradiction and carried on with the proceedings.
Next up was Eddie Fitzgerald, the night watchman for the East River
Hotel. Fitzgerald acknowledged he had assigned a room to Ben Ali on the night of April 23, which was a well-known fact, but then divulged that, while sweeping the floors at around five the next morning, he noticed Ben Ali sneaking out through the side door. Fitzgerald noted that Ben Ali had tried to keep his face hidden while leaving. When Mr. Wellman, the prosecutor, tried to make more out of this fact, Fitzgerald shrugged and explained that a lot of men left the hotel in that fashion, though the young night watchman did think Ben Ali’s departure seemed exceptionally strange.
Fitzgerald also provided a brief moment of levity during the otherwise somber inquest. When asked what his role at the East River Hotel was, Fitzgerald proudly told Mr. House that he was the hotel’s “First Broom.”
“Is there a second broom?” House inquired.
“No,” replied Fitzgerald sheepishly. The courtroom erupted in laughter. When an interpreter explained what was so funny to Ben Ali, even the prisoner laughed heartily.
The final witness was Dr. Cyrus Edson, the city’s Sanitary Superintendent, who testified that he found corpuscles (tiny cells mostly found in blood) that resembled those found in human blood on Ben Ali’s clothing and in the dirt that had been scraped from under his fingernails. While he didn’t swear that it was human blood, Edson did emphatically declare he was almost certain that it was.
Throughout the entire proceeding, Ben Ali barely moved. He quietly sat still in his chair and watched the entire inquest with a cool indifference that he maintained even when his bloodied clothes were presented as evidence
After Edson testified, Coroner Schultze, Ben Ali, Mr. Wellman, Mr. House, Mr. Friend, and the jury piled into carriages to go downtown and examine the scene of the murder. The crowd had grown even unrulier since six hours earlier, and when Ben Ali arrived, the onlookers, trying to see or touch Ben Ali, pressed so forward that they almost tipped over the prisoner's carriage as he boarded it. When the carriages arrived at the East River Hotel, Ben Ali was greeted by another crowd, this one significantly angrier. Several women shook their fists at the Algerian as he was led into the East River Hotel.
The jury examining Room 31 at the East River Hotel
Once the jury was satisfied that they had seen what they needed to see, Ben Ali was loaded into the carriage and brought back to the Tombs. The inquest would be continued the next morning.
Thursday, May 14: The First Verdict
Thursday marked three weeks to the day since Carrie Brown had been murdered. Around mid-morning, Ameer Ben Ali was collected from his cell in the Tombs, handcuffed to a police officer, and brought in a carriage to the coroner’s office on the corner of Second Avenue and 8th Street.
A crowd even larger than the one yesterday greeted his carriage. Nearly three hundred people had gathered to jeer and leer at the prisoner as he shambled from the carriage and into the building. It was immediately evident to the onlookers that Ben Ali did not possess the same cool indifference he had the day before. Today, he looked unsure and scared.
The proceedings opened with Frederick House, lead counsel for the defense, cross-examining Dr. Cyrus Edson, the man who had testified yesterday about the blood found on Ben Ali’s clothing and under his fingernails. House seized his opportunity with Edson and fired a withering barrage of questions at the Sanitation Superintendent. Edson capitulated under this verbal assault and admitted that the blood corpuscles (which he had so confidently declared were of human blood yesterday) could feasibly be from several animals. House also forced Edson to reveal that the doctor did not know if the bloodstains on Ben Ali’s clothing were old or new, and so could not definitively say that they were from the night of April 23.
Assistant District Attorney F.W. Wellman then proceeded with his witnesses, and called a veritable “who’s who” of the East River waterfront to the stand. Two additional staff members of the East River Hotel—Mary Miniter (who had let in Carrie Brown and her companion on the night of April 23) and Thomas Thompson, the hotel’s manager—were interviewed first and merely corroborated what was already known about the case. Wellman then called several of the local prostitutes to the stand. First was Alice Sullivan, who swore that when she walked past Ben Ali and Carrie Brown on the night of April 23, she overheard Ben Ali tell Brown, “Sleep at the Fourth Ward Hotel to-night.” Wellman probably quickly turned to the confused jury and explained that the
A (very) rough newspaper sketch of Alice Sullivan (right) and Mary Ann Lopez (left)
East River Hotel used to be called the Fourth Ward Hotel and many of the waterfront’s regulars still referred to it by its former name.
Next, a large woman with an exceptionally deep voice named Mary Ann Lopez was questioned by Wellman. When asked if she recognized the defendant, Lopez sniffed and responded, “Yes sir, he is the gentleman what bite my arm.” Lopez then went on to explain that after she had consorted with Ben Ali, he tried to steal back the dollar he had just paid her. A scuffle ensued and Ben Ali sank his teeth into her arm. To strengthen her story, Lopez held up a meaty forearm to show the jury the mark where Ben Ali had bit her.
Wellman also examined a few policemen. The first, Detective Sergeant Frink, explained that the reason Detective Jeremiah Griffin swore he saw bloodstains after Captain William McLaughlin supposedly cut them out was because McLaughlin didn’t cut out all of the bloodstains on April 24. When asked if there were any blood stains remaining on the top floor of the East River Hotel, Frink assured the jury the rest of the stains had been cut out since.
A Brooklyn detective then testified that he had arrested Ben Ali for larceny on January 7 of that year. When he searched Ben Ali, the detective found a knife on the Algerian that was very similar to the one left at the scene of the crime.
The passionate and spectacled Frederick House
After the detective's testimony, David Gilloway, Edwin Smith, and Theodore Miller—all of whom had been inmates with Ben Ali in the Queen’s County Jail—were interviewed. They swore that they saw Ben Ali with a knife very much like the one found next to Carrie Brown’s body. Edwin Smith even produced a drawing he had made of the knife Ben Ali allegedly carried with him in jail.
When Mr. House cross-examined him, however, Smith admitted that the warden of the Queen’s County Jail had shown him a newspaper sketch of the knife found next to Carrie Brown’s body before the warden asked Smith to draw a picture of Ben Ali's knife.
To wrap up the day, Dr. Edson was called back once more to show the jury Ben Ali’s bloodied clothes one more time. That concluded the long witness list for the inquest, and, at five minutes past four o’clock in the afternoon, the jury withdrew to deliberate. While the jury was out, Ben Ali’s nerves returned. Someone had given him a cigar which he smoked contentedly while he chatted with several reporters who spoke to him in French.
He did not enjoy his cigar for long. A mere twenty-two minutes after they had withdrawn to deliberate, the jury returned. It was their belief, the foreman declared, that Carrie Brown had died of asphyxiation at the hands of Ameer Ben Ali.
At this news, Ben Ali howled and began to sob uncontrollably. His emotional display was so intense that no one questioned how he understood what the foreman had said, considering Ben Ali claimed to not speak any English.
Eventually, a French-speaking reporter got to him and informed Ben Ali that this was only an inquest, it had very little to do with the actual trial. This calmed down the Algerian; he mistakenly thought that he was going to be immediately dragged from the courtroom and beheaded, so finding out that was not to be his fate was immensely relieving news.
Ben Ali was then escorted from the coroner's office by Captain McLaughlin and Captain Richard O’Connor on either side of him. The crowd outside had now swelled to over five hundred strong. When Ben Ali emerged out of the building, those spectators became so unruly trying to either catch a glimpse of the prisoner or steal a feel of his coat, that six detectives had to beat people back with their long wooden club. This created barely enough space for McLaughlin, Ben Ali, and O’Connor to squeeze through and hurriedly jump into the backseat of a carriage which pulled away just as the crowd pushed through the detectives in their mad dash to get to Ben Ali.
The carriage was stopped by another mob
A carriage like the one McLaughlin, Ben Ali, and O'Connor rode in back to the Tombs
screaming to see Jack the Ripper on 6th Street, but several detectives were able to beat back the angry crowd and the carriage continued on its journey. After a long, rumbling ride sandwiched between the two large detectives, Ben Ali was deposited back into his cell in the Tombs, where he was to be held without bail until the trial.
Back at the coroner’s office, Frederick House was so enraged by the decision that he could not be interviewed. Instead, the cooler-headed Emanuel Friend addressed reporters on behalf of Ben Ali and his counsel. “This inquest has simply been a farce and means absolutely nothing,” Friend said. “I do not think that this man is guilty and I feel sure that he will be acquitted.”
It Is Now A Waiting Game
Four days after the coroner’s jury declared Ameer Ben Ali guilty, a Grand Jury took up the next stage of the judicial proceedings. On May 18, Ben Ali was indicted for murder in the first degree. The charge consisted of four counts:
Ben Ali assaulted, choked, suffocated, and strangled Carrie Brown to death
Ben Ali tied Carrie Brown’s skirt around her neck and strangled her to death
Ben Ali stabbed Carrie Brown to death with his right hand
Ben Ali killed Carrie Brown by some other means currently unknown
The four counts were designed to legally ensnare Ben Ali. Now, his lawyers could only have their client acquitted by showing Ben Ali did not kill Carrie Brown.
The next day, Ben Ali was arraigned before Recorder Frederick Smyth, a gruff Tammany judge, who scheduled the jury selection to begin on June 24. After several days were dedicated to picking the right men to try Ben Ali, opening arguments began on June 29.
How Gilded Age New Yorkers might have spent their weekend waiting for the trial to begin: strolling in Central Park
Since there were no developments during this monthl-long interim, the story will now fast forward to the first day of the trial, which is where it will be picked back up after this weekend.
Trial Day 1: A Powerful Promise
At exactly ten twenty-nine on June 29th, Recorder Frederick Smyth walked into the upstairs room of the Court of General Sessions and settled into his seat. When he had found a comfortable enough position, he rapped his gavel, and began the trial of Ameer Ben Ali.
The jury selection process had been a long and boring one. Both sides sifted through over two hundred possible jurors before settling on an agreed-upon twelvesome. F.W. Wellman led the selection for the prosecution and only accepted jurors who were willing to convict based on circumstantial evidence (as opposed to a confession or an eye witness account) and who had no bias against capital punishment.
In a strange twist of fate, the jury was overwhelmingly German either by birth or by parents. Frederick House and Emanuel Friend were dismayed by the outcome. Ever since they had been assigned as Ben Ali’s counsel, House and Friend had loudly protested that the companion of Carrie Brown, a German accented man, was the murderer. If the defense was looking for an exceedingly sympathetic audience for that explanation, this was not their ideal jury.
A trial in the Court of General Sessions with Recorder Smyth presiding (seated, far right)
But the jury members swore to be fair and unbiased, so the trial began on a warm Monday morning in late June. Ben Ali arrived at the Court of General Sessions a little after ten o’clock. A crowd of over a thousand people, trying to catch a glimpse of the accused, gathered outside to await his arrival.
Ben Ali was dressed in a suit borrowed from Mr. House and—although the pants were so short on him that they revealed his ankles completely—the defendant looked cool and self-assured. However, as Ben Ali walked down the aisle and into the prisoner’s pen, his knees knocked loudly together, betraying any air of confidence he had attempted to conjure.
The courtroom was absolutely packed. Before Smyth took his seat, newspaper reporters and lawyers mingled with one another chatting about the case. Emanuel Friend walked over to a clump of reporters and boasted that Ben Ali would be proved innocent, but the loudest voice in Ben Ali’s corner, Frederick House, was nowhere to be found.
Ben Ali greeting Smyth with a salaam
Right before Smyth sat down, House entered the courtroom. He had been bedridden for weeks and had to lean on the shoulder of a friend to make his way to his seat. When he collapsed into his chair it was clear that he was still very unwell. His lips were bone white and his skin was a yellow-greenish tone, but the lawyer eyes lit up when he saw Ben Ali.
So did the prisoner’s. Ben Ali’s uneasiness melted away when he saw House. He grabbed his counsel's forehead and, weeping, gently kissed it. This caused House to begin to cry and tears streamed down from his steel-rimmed spectacles which he hurriedly and embarrassedly tried to wipe away in order to prepare for the day ahead. Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes, who had taken a seat opposite from Ben Ali, watched the whole scene unemotionally and tapped his glasses against his knee impatiently.
When Recorder Smyth called Ben Ali before him, the defendant recognized the judge with a traditional salaam. He placed his hands to his forehead and then bowed deeply.
Smyth regarded the Algerian coldly and curiously. One reporter noted that Smyth observed Ben Ali’s greeting and tears the same way "an entomologist might observe a new and strange bug." The judge, as was his duty, was not going to be swayed by emotion appeals.
After a few introductory remarks, Smyth instructed the jury to quickly go visit the East River Hotel and see the scene of the crime for themselves before the opening arguments. Their journey took a little under an hour. They returned and found their seats again just before noon, when F.W. Wellman began his opening argument for the prosecution.
"The first law of God and man," Wellman began, "is this: 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.'" Wellman then painted a vivid picture of Ben Ali's depravity. The prosecutor walked the jury through all of Ben Ali’s transgressions: his arrests for vagrancy, assault, and larceny; his lies throughout the investigation; and his sexual deviancy. Although Wellman was an eloquent speaker, his argument couldn't find any rhythm thanks to House and Friend. The two defense attorneys kept springing to their feet (which took considerable effort for House, whose ragged breathing made him almost impossible to understand) to object to Wellman’s allegations of Ben Ali's misdeeds. Recorder Smyth angrily overruled every single one of the defense’s exceptions and became visibly more and more annoyed by each new “Objection!”
Undeterred by the interruptions, Wellman pressed on and punctuated his opening remarks by proclaiming: “Science is able to decide this case.” He
Assistant District Attorney F.W. Wellman
promised that microscopic tests conducted by two medical experts—Dr. Henry Formad and Dr. Austin Flint—showed the blood on Ben Ali’s clothes and under his nails was mixed with intestinal contents that contained traces of cabbage, corned beef, and rhubarb; the very same items Carrie Brown had eaten before she was strangled and her lower intestine slashed open. This blood analysis, Wellman concluded, was definitive proof of Ben Ali’s guilt.
After Wellman finished his sensational opening argument, he called several witnesses to the stand. After a civil engineer gave an overview of the floor plans of the East River Hotel, Wellman summoned several familiar faces. The housekeeper Mary Corcoran (who was cloaked in a smell so pungent that Wellman and House were forced to examine her from several yards away), Captain Richard O’Connor, Detective Michael Crowley, and the prostitute Mary Miniter all repeated their testimonies from the Coroner's Inquest in mid-May.
Then, Coroner Schultze and two policemen from the Oak Street Station testified that while there had been reporters in Room 31 the day Carrie Brown’s body was discovered, the blood on the scene was untouched. Therefore, Wellman explained to the jury, the trail of blood from Room 31 to Room 33 and the bloodstains in Room 33 could only have been made by the murderer, and not some overeager journalist.
Captain O’Connor also produced Ben Ali’s shirt, a yellow striped flannel with holes in it where the bloodstains had been cut out, and the murder weapon. He passed them to the jury, who examined the two items for themselves. When the jury had satisfied their curiosity, Recorder Smyth proclaimed the trial adjourned and scheduled it to resume the next day at eleven o’clock in the morning.
Trial Day 2: Pointed Exchanges
Frederick House marched into the courtroom on Tuesday morning ready for battle. Although he still had not recovered his strength, Ameer Ben Ali’s lead defense counsel looked more grim and determined than yellow and green. A few minutes after House arrived, Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes sauntered into the upstairs room in the Court of General Sessions. As he made his way to his seat, Byrnes chatted with a few clusters of people, shook Recorder Frederick Smyth’s hand, sat down, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he stared off into space. The trial on which he had placed so much importance seemed to be the last thing on his mind. His day dreaming was interrupted when Ben Ali entered the courtroom. The prisoner approached the bench and recognized both the judge and jury with a salaam, kissed House on the forehead (both defendant and defense attorney remained dry-eyed this time), and escorted himself to the prisoner’s pen.
A reporter's sketch of Ben Ali kissing House on the forehead
Although access to the courtroom was heavily restricted, there were still so many people packed into the upper floor of the Court of General Sessions that, by lunchtime, the building’s new elevator had broken from over-use.
Tuesday's proceedings warranted its overflowing audience. The day began when Assistant District Attorney F.W. Wellman called the East River Hotel’s broom sweep, Edward Fitzgerald, to the stand. Fitzgerald—a stout twenty-one-year-old with short red hair and an abundance of freckles—confidently reiterated his story of letting in Ben Ali late at night on April 23. The defendant asked for a room so Fitzgerald gave him the key to Room 33 and a candle for the night. Fitzgerald then described how Ben Ali left the hotel early on Friday morning. “He sneaked along,” said the witness. When he was pressed for further detail, Fitzgerald stood up and demonstrated how Ben Ali had stooped his shoulders and hid his face as he walked out of the hotel.
During this performance, House noticed that Fitzgerald was wearing a new dark purple suit and he asked the young man where he had acquired such a nice get-up. Fitzgerald’s confident demeanor crumbled. The broom sweep bowed his head and quietly admitted that the District Attorney’s Office had purchased the suit for him. He had been in the House of Detention awaiting the trial since late April, he explained, so he wrote to their office asking for some clothes to replace his tattered garments, which were worn out by months of living in a cell.
Samuel Shine, the hotel’s bartender, corroborated Fitzgerald’s testimony and then added—as an aside—that Ben Ali was not alone in his early departure. The prisoner was one of five or six men who had left the hotel around five in the morning on April 24, but Ben Ali was the only one who had strangely snuck out, claimed Shine.
Then, Deputy Coroner William T. Jenkins took the stand. Dr. Jenkins testified that Carrie Brown had died of strangulation, and had been cut open after her death. As he was describing how the old prostitute had been murdered, the deputy coroner passed around two photographs of her corpse. When Ben Ali looked at the photographs, his brow furrowed and he turned the pictures in his hands to view them from different angles. If the courtroom audience was hoping this might reveal a sign of his guilt, they were disappointed. The prisoner did not display any other emotion than pure curiosity as he stared at the blue-tinted photographs.
After Dr. Jenkins stepped away from the stand, police officer Adam Lang and Captain Richard O’Connor were called. Both men repeated what they had said at the Coroner’s Inquest about their conversations with Ben Ali when he was arrested. Wellman pointed out to the jury that their testimonies revealed Ben Ali understood and spoke much better English than the Algerian let on.
The language theme continued when Detective-Sergeant George Aloncle was examined. Aloncle—a French-speaking detective who reported directly to Byrnes—was the man who asked Ben Ali, in French, where he had gotten the blood on his shirt from. Ben Ali had told Aloncle that the blood on his shirt came from when he slept with a woman in Jamaica, Queens, but later shrugged and admitted to the detective that he had lied. The blood on his shirt, said Ben Ali, actually came from a woman named Alice Sullivan whom he had slept with on the morning of April 23.
The East River waterfront, where Carrie Brown, Alice Sullivan, Mary Ann Lopez, and Nellie English plied their trade
Alice Sullivan was next called to the stand. Sullivan was a large woman with chin hairs so prominent that they could be seen from several rows away. She swore that she had not bled on Ben Ali’s shirt, as she had not been on period when she had slept with Ben Ali. This caused the dignified lawyers present to all blush heavily, and both Wellman and House agreed to quickly move on.
Sullivan then explained she bought Brown a corned beef sandwich and some cabbage on April 23 because the older prostitute had not eaten for several days. It was traces of this meal that Wellman and the prosecution swore could be identified in the bloodstains on Ben Ali’s clothing and under his nails.
When Sullivan was cross-examined by House and Emanuel Friend, she admitted that she had been to jail several times for an impressive variety of offenses including drunkenness, theft, and prostitution. Friend seized on this last offense. When he tried to press her on her career as a prostitute, Recorder Smyth interrupted him.
“That will do,” said the judge gruffly, “The description given is enough.”
Friend shrugged and responded respectfully, “Probably the honorable Recorder has more experience in that line than I have.”
“What did you say?” bellowed Smyth, red in the face with anger. The Recorder leaned forward and, his eyes blazing, peered down at Friend. “What was that you said?”
“Oh,” stammered Friend, suddenly aware he had just suggested Smyth was intimately familiar with New York’s prostitution scene, “I merely said the honorable Recorder had more experience in the law than I had.”
This placated Smyth, who grunted and leaned back in his chair as the blood in his face slowly returned to its normal levels. Friend breathed a very audible sigh of relief and quickly signaled that he had no more questions.
Then, Mary Ann Lopez and Nellie English testified and reiterated what they had sworn at the Coroner’s Inquest. Lopez showed the jury the pink, semi-circular scar on her meaty forearm that was from Ben Ali’s bite, and English described how Ben Ali had left their bed in the East River Hotel in the middle of the night and went door-to-door robbing prostitutes as they dressed. Like Sullivan, both women also admitted they had been arrested many times.
Wellman next interviewed the three Queens County Jail inmates who claimed Ben Ali had snuck in a knife. When Wellman asked them to describe the Algerian’s knife, the Assistant District Attorney positioned himself so that he stood between the defense attorneys and the witnesses. Then, as Wellman pressed the inmates for what Ben Ali’s knife in jail looked like, he picked up the murder weapon
The view of Chambers Street and City Hall Park from
the Court of General Sessions
and slyly dangled it in front of the witnesses so that they could plainly see it while the defense attorneys could not. After staring at the knife in Wellman's hands, the three inmates’ descriptions of Ben Ali’s jailhouse knife—to a man—perfectly described the murder weapon as well.
Lastly, John Connor, the Brooklyn detective, testified that when he arrested Ben Ali in January he discovered a knife on the prisoner’s body that also looked just like the murder weapon. When Connor reached into a bag to show the jury the knife he had confiscated from Ben Ali, House leapt to his feet and in one breadth shouted “Objection!”
“I don’t know what all this is about,” protested Smyth.
“Well I do,” House smugly replied.
Smyth then snapped back: “Perhaps you will take my place here.”
“I’d like to,” snarled House.
“I object,” Wellman protested.
After this sharp exchange, as Smyth and House glowered at each other, the Recorder adjourned the trial for the day. When the gavel fell, House made a bee line to the stenographer’s table and demanded he review the minutes line-by-line, pointing out where his hundred-plus objections from the day had been missed or had not been properly noted. As people filed out of the courtroom, anticipation lingered in the air. Tomorrow, it was murmured, would feature Wellman's scientific experts. Tomorrow, the prosecution would bring the full brunt of their case against Ben Ali.
Trial Day 3: The Final Assault
Word had quickly spread that the third day of the trial was going to be the prosecution’s strongest. By ten forty-five on Wednesday morning, the crowd outside the Court of General Sessions had grown so large that Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes—despite being one of the most recognizable men in the city—had to shove and elbow his way through the throngs of people to get inside. Ameer Ben Ali faced no easier path. It took the full efforts of the two deputy sheriffs bracketing Ben Ali to force their way through the crowd so that the defendant could enter the courtroom.
As he had done the past two days, Ben Ali recognized the judge and jury with a respectful salaam and then walked to the prisoner’s pen. On the way over, he quickly stopped and kissed Frederick House’s forehead before taking his seat.
Once the courtroom was settled and Recorder Frederick Smyth had officially resumed the trial, F.W. Wellman, the Assistant District Attorney, called Mary Harrington to the stand. Mary Harrington was the brothel-keeper of 49 Oliver Street—early on in the investigation, she had come forward with the claim that she could easily identify Carrie Brown’s companion, but had not been heard from since. She did not mention the light haired, German accented man during her testimony. Instead, she said Ben Ali had visited her establishment twice: once to sleep with Alice Sullivan (who had testified the day before that she was not the cause of the blood on Ben Ali’s shirt) and once to sleep with Dublin Mary. Harrington swore Alice Sullivan was not menstruating on the morning of April 23. If Ben Ali claimed so, Harrington said, then he was a liar.
One of Harrington’s ladies, Dublin Mary (whose real name, it was learned, was Mamie Healy), testified next. Dublin Mary swore that Ben Ali was particularly fond of Carrie Brown and the two had been drinking together the day of the murder.
Then, Wellman interviewed Captain William McLaughlin who testified for over an hour and a half. The Captain walked the jury through the details of the case from the discovery of Brown’s body through to the trial. McLaughlin knew more about the investigation than anyone in the New York City Police Department, except maybe Byrnes himself.
This was because McLaughlin was Byrnes’ protégé. The Chief Inspector had
Mary Harrington (right) and Dublin Mary (left)
no sons to call his own (he was blessed with six daughters instead), so he had taken McLaughlin under his wing in the early 1880s and had been training McLaughlin to be his successor and right-hand man for the past decade. McLaughlin delivered for Byrnes. Speaking in a cold, matter-of-fact manner, McLaughlin painted a damning picture of Ben Ali by discussing the defendant’s fondness for Brown, his bloodstained room in the East River Hotel, his bloodied clothes, and his misleading lies.
After McLaughlin finished, the trial recessed for lunch at one thirty in the afternoon. When proceedings resumed, Chief Inspector Byrnes was called to the stand. Hearing the Inspector's name instantly resuscitated the audience's attention, which had been lost during a rather dry morning of testimony. Now, energy rippled through the courtroom. Lawyers and reporters sat up straight in their seats and positioned themselves to get the best view of Byrnes.
The Inspector strolled up to the witness chair with six thick blue envelopes under his arm. As he untied the red strings which sealed the packages, he explained to the jury through his thick grey mustache that these envelopes contained various items from the investigation which had been stained with blood.
District Attorney De Lancey Nicoll
A portion of the bed from Room 31, parts of Ben Ali’s shirt, the dirt from under the prisoner’s nails, scrapings from the East River Hotel’s hallway, and a fragment of the Room 33 door, amongst other items, were encased in the thick blue envelopes. Byrnes handed the packages to the clerk and then returned to his seat directly opposite from Ben Ali.
This signaled the beginning of the prosecution’s final assault against Ben Ali. At twenty minutes to three in the afternoon, District Attorney De Lancey Nicoll—who had thus far been silent for the duration of the trial—placed a hand on Wellman’s shoulder and stood up. This was his case now.
“Dr. Formad,” cried out the clerk.
As several court officials wheeled in a large blackboard, Dr. Henry Formad took the
stand. Formad was thickly bearded and spoke in a vague European accent (onlookers couldn’t agree if it sounded more French or Russian). He was a Professor of Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania, head of the school’s laboratory, and an expert in human blood. Formad had been studying human blood since 1867, he said, and held various eminent positions that reflected this expertise. He was the Senior Coroner’s Physician for the City of Philadelphia, a Fellow of the College of Physicians, and the President of the Pathological Society. He had written several books on the subject, conducted fourteen thousand autopsies, and testified in over fifty different murder cases.
On June 20, he explained, he had been invited by District Attorney Nicoll to come analyze the various bloodstains from this case alongside Dr. Cyrus Edson, New York’s Sanitation Superintendent, and Dr. Austin Flint. The three doctors individually conducted a series of chemical, spectroscopic, and microscopic tests.
Out of the twenty different items he examined, Formad claimed that fourteen of them contained an identical mixture of intestinal contents and blood. The fourteen items all showed traces of digested and undigested animal meat, starch, and
other vegetable matter. When the jury struggled to understand the specific details of his analysis, Formad stood up and sketched out the various cells he had seen in the bloodstains.
After an exhausting two hours of testimony, Formad concluded that it was his belief the mixture of blood and intestinal contents found on these items—those belonging to Carrie Brown, the East River Hotel, and Ben Ali—all came from the same source. Finished, Formad went to stand up to return to his seat, but a juror motioned to Smyth that he had one final question.
“There are a good many things you understand that we don’t understand,” began the juror. “Now, professor, you have said positively ‘I swear that this and that this is the case.’ Would you be willing, upon those statements, to risk
Dr. Formad drawing cells on the blackboard
your own life?”
“Yes I would,” replied Formad quickly and emphatically.
This concluded Formad’s lengthy testimony. Once the doctor had returned to his seat, Recorder Smyth demanded the trial add an evening session. Smyth had other municipal commitments next week, he explained, and needed this trial to wrap up by Monday. However, he allowed the jury and lawyers to break for an dinner recess before resuming for the evening session.
Once dinner had finished, Wellman interviewed Dr. Austin Flint, Formad’s partner in the blood analysis. Flint repeated much of what Formad had already sworn, and added that the mixture of blood and intestinal contents also contained tyrosine crystals stained yellow by stomach bile, which meant that they could have only come from the small intestine. Then Nicoll asked Flint if the blood on the bed in Room 31 and the blood from the other items came from the same source.
“It either came from the same person, or it came from inside the small intestine of a person who had eaten exactly the same things, and whose food had ceased the process of digestion at exactly the same stage,” concluded Flint. What he could not determine, he admitted, was what exactly that person (or people) had eaten.
Dr. Austin Flint
Flint’s examination ended at seven forty-five in the evening, and, after three days, the prosecution rested their case against Ameer Ben Ali. As the weary defense attorneys stood up to leave the courtroom, Smyth stopped them. The defense was to make its opening argument tonight, he explained. Astonished, Mr. House begged for a postponement until tomorrow. It was so late, he explained, and the defense would ensure that it’d finish making its case by Thursday evening. Smyth had none of it. The defense’s opening argument was to be made tonight or not at all, he shot back.
Exhausted, Mr. Levy rose to make the case for Ben Ali’s acquittal. Levy explained the defense would rest on four propositions. One, the prosecution failed to prove that Carrie Brown’s companion from that night was not the murderer. Two, the prosecution failed to prove Ben Ali knew Carrie Brown was in the East River Hotel on the night of April 23. Three, the prosecution failed to
prove Ben Ali had actually spent the night in Room 33—he had been given the key, yes, but no one saw him go into the room. And four, the prosecution failed to prove that there was any motive for the crime.
When Mr. Levy finished, Recorder Smyth mercifully adjourned the trial until Thursday morning. While tired lawyers and reporters stood up, rubbed their eyes, stretched, and left, Ben Ali stayed put in his seat. For the first time during the trial, the Algerian looked visibly shaken. The authoritative testimonies of Formad and Flint—explained to him by a translator—had rattled Ben Ali.
As people began to file out of the courtroom, Ben Ali hunched over and softy cried into a cotton handkerchief. After a few minutes of lonely desperation, two detectives came over, handcuffed him, and escorted the prisoner back to his cell in the Tombs for the night.
Trial Day 4: Ben Ali Testifies
The fourth day of the trial drew the largest crowd thus far. When Recorder Frederick Smyth was informed how many people had come to watch the defense’s witnesses—which featured, most prominently, Ameer Ben Ali himself—the judge decided to move the day’s proceedings from the small upstairs space that had hosted the first three days of the trial to the massive courtroom downstairs, which was more than twice the size of the original courtroom.
It still wasn’t big enough. The hallways and even the stairwells of the Court of General Sessions building were quickly packed by curious onlookers, hoping to overhear a snippet of testimony or catch a glimpse of Ben Ali.
Whereas yesterday’s crowd only required two deputy sheriffs to walk Ben Ali to the courtroom, three men were now needed to escort the defendant into his own trial. Once all of the necessary participants had pushed their way into the courtroom, Smyth took his seat, rapped his gavel, and began the day’s proceedings.
The defense called their first witness, James Hilland, to the stand. Hilland was the constable who had searched Ben Ali when the Algerian was admitted to the Queens County Jail. Earlier in the trial, three of Ben Ali’s fellow inmates had testified that the defendant had a knife in jail. The defense examined Hilland because the constable swore he had carefully searched Ben Ali but found no knife. When Hilland was cross-examined, he promised he had searched Ben Ali quite carefully—extra carefully, in fact. Hilland thought Ben Ali “looked more fierce than an ordinary man,” so he had meticulously searched the prisoner for weapons a couple of times.
After Hilland stepped down, Mr. House called Ameer Ben Ali to the stand. The defendant rose uneasily at first, but picked up confidence as he walked toward the witness stand. After a few unsure steps, he straightened his spine and carried himself proudly at his full height of over six feet. He even seemed to reclaim a glimpse of his old soldierly swagger by the time he reached the chair. The defense had found a translator, a cigar dealer named Emile Sultan, who trotted up after Ben Ali and sat nearby.
When Ben Ali sat down, he leaned back deeply into his chair, but hunched his shoulders and neck forward so that his chin hovered over his chest. After Ben Ali had settled into his seat, Mr. House began the examination and directed the
Ameer Ben Ali testifying
defendant to tell his life story to the jury. Looking directly at each juror in turn, Ben Ali (through Mr. Sultan) explained how he was born into a Berber tribe in northern Algeria, served in the French Army for eight years and suffered two wounds, then was honorably discharged and traveled to Brazil in search of work. When he found none, he sailed to New York City and had been working various jobs ever since.
After Ben Ali finished telling his life story, and Mr. House was satisfied that his client had depicted himself as an honorable and gentle man, the spectacled attorney slowly and deliberately asked Ben Ali: “Did—you—kill—Carrie—Brown?”
Mr. Sultan could not finish translating House’s question before Ben Ali leapt to his feet. He flung his arms in the air, raised his eyes upwards, and began wailing in Arabic. The veins in his temples bulged and big tears rolled down his cheeks as he screamed desperately and defiantly.
Ben Ali's passionate declaration of innocence
Ben Ali continued flailing his arms and yelling in Arabic until the red and blue plaid shirt he was wearing became soaked with tears and sweat. Smyth squirmed in his seat and tried to calm down the defendant with a unfeeling “Shh, shh” and F.W. Wellman, the Assistant District Attorney, looked around the courtroom awkwardly and pleaded to anyone who would listen: “Stop him, stop him.”
After five or so minutes, Ben Ali, now exhausted, collapsed back into his chair. When House asked what Ben Ali had said, Mr. Sultan, shrugged and explained—from what he could make out—Ben Ali had declared, over and over again, that he was wholly innocent and begged God to save him.
Then, Ben Ali stood up again and, with an imploring look, began earnestly talking to the jury in Arabic. “He says,” translated Mr. Sultan, “I am innocent; I never killed no woman,” and, “I don’t know her and I don’t kill her.”
House looked sympathetically at Ben Ali who, following some unspoken direction, almost instantly soothed himself and promptly sat back down in his chair. House directed the courtroom clerk to pass the murder weapon to Ben Ali and asked the defendant if he recognized the footlong, black-handled knife.
Ben Ali held the knife between his thumb and forefinger as he examined it from behind his fully extended arm. The Algerian looked cautiously and curiously at the weapon for a few seconds, as if he were afraid it might leap from his hands and attack him at any moment, before adamantly denying having ever seen the knife before.
Satisfied, House then asked Ben Ali: “How did you get the blood upon your shirt and upon your stockings?”
Before Mr. Sultan could translate, Ben Ali began to answer his attorney in Arabic—betraying the fact that he clearly understood what House had asked in English. Ben Ali explained that he had gotten the blood on his shirt after consorting with a woman in Mrs. Harrington’s basement brothel. The blood on his stockings, he shrugged, was probably from the old war wound in his leg.
Emanuel Friend then chimed in. “Is that the woman?” he asked, pointing to Alice Sullivan, the fuzzy-chinned prostitute. At this, Ben Ali relapsed into his hysterical fit. He did not know the woman at all, explained Mr. Sultan. Ben Ali looked straight at Sullivan with wide eyes and asked, through his translator, “Do you know me? Have you ever seen me? Have you ever been with me?”
After that, Levy, House, and Friend had no further questions for their witness.
District Attorney De Lancey Nicoll then began his cross-examination. Despite Nicoll’s fairly clear cut questions, Ben Ali quickly started contradicting himself. At one moment, for example, he claimed he had bitten Mary Ann Lopez during a dispute over a dollar. A few minutes later, however, Ben Ali denied ever knowing Lopez and claimed he certainly had never bit her.
As Ben Ali realized he was contradicting himself, he slowly began to panic. The defendant’s whole body became consumed by trembles that were so violent even Jacob Riis—who was sitting a few rows away—noticed the palpable fear coursing through the defendant. Ben Ali’s hysteria became even more acute once Nicoll was able to get him to admit that the murder weapon lookalike knife that Brooklyn Detective John Connor had found on Ben Ali was, indeed, Ben Ali’s.
At one point during the midst of Nicoll’s questioning, Ben Ali cried aloud in Arabic. Mr. Sultan explained that the defendant had screamed: “Oh, good men, don’t hang me!” By the end of his cross-examination, however, despondence had overtaken the Algerian. As the questioning wound down, Ben Ali stood up, faced the jury, flung his arms over his head once more and, according to Mr. Sultan, cried: “If you want to kill me, you may kill me!”
When Nicoll indicated to Smyth that he was through
The murder weapon (above) and the knife Connor found on Ben Ali (below)
with the witness, Ben Ali—seemingly broken by over five hours of testifying—shambled back to his seat. The Algerian took one last imploring look at the jury before collapsing in a puddle of tears and hand-wringing beside his attorneys.
The defense then called their own experts to cast doubt on Dr. Henry Formad’s and Dr. Austin Flint’s testimonies that the mixture of blood and fluid found on Carrie Brown’s bed and Ben Ali’s clothing, as well as other items, had all come from the same source.
Dr. Huidekoper was primarily a veterinarian, a fact that Nicoll made fun of by asking Huidekoper the names of the dogs and horses he had examined
The defense called Dr. Rush Huidekoper, Dr. Paul Gibier, Dr. Justin Herold, and Professor Henry Mott to the stand, in turn. While the prosecution had paid their experts, the defense’s four medical experts had agreed to testify on their own volition—a fact which Mr. House did not fail to emphasize.
The four scientists explained that the fluid found mixed with the blood might not have been intestinal fluid. Its contents—especially the tyrosine crystals—could feasibly have come from another part of the body. Moreover, Huidekoper added, the mixture of blood and fluid might have been contaminated by the general filthiness of the East River Hotel or the many morbidly curious tourists who had visited the murder scene. If that was the case, then the contaminated mixture of blood and fluid could give off the appearance of being from the small intestine without actually originating from there. Huidekoper also mentioned, seemingly as an aside, that it was his firm belief the wound on Carrie Brown’s abdomen was made by a person with their left hand. He would not swear that it was made by a left-handed person, however.
Despite their uneasiness with the definitiveness of Formad’s and Flint’s
testimony, each of these four witnesses went out of their way to declare their utmost respect for Formad and Flint. Those two doctors were, according to the defense’s experts, the most authoritative voices in the field of blood analysis and had surely conducted an accurate analysis, but may have slightly overstepped in their conclusions.
When the last expert, Professor Mott, stepped down from the stand, Mr. House stood up and informed Recorder Smyth that the defense rested its case.
District Attorney Nicoll then called back two witnesses. The first, Dr. Flint reaffirmed his earlier testimony that the mixture of blood and fluid could have only originated in the small intestine and his less-experienced colleagues were misguided to question his conclusions.
The second, Detective Sergeant Michael Crowley said the candle in Room 33—where Ben Ali had spent the night of April 23—had been burned down to 7/8th of an inch. Crowley detailed how he took a similar candle and timed how long it took that candle to burn down to 7/8th of an inch. It took just over an hour. That meant, Nicoll explained, that Ben Ali had not blown out his candle until one in the morning despite arriving in his room around midnight. Nicoll turned to the jurors: why would a man who claimed to have only gone to the East River Hotel to sleep let his candle burn for so long?
House strongly objected to the entire testimony. Ben Ali could have easily fallen asleep while his candle was still burning, he angrily protested. House then turned to Recorder Smyth. He declared the entire testimony was irrelevant and demanded it be stricken from the record. Like so many earlier instances, Smyth swiftly and sneeringly overruled House’s objection.
That ended the proceedings for the day. It was seven-thirty in the evening. As Smyth rapped his gavel and adjourned the trial for the night, the Recorder informed the courtroom that he would see them for closing arguments at eleven the following morning.
Trial Day 5: The Verdict is Reached
On Friday, the entire city seemed to be holding its breath. Even the weather appeared to be waiting anxiously. Ominous grey clouds lurked on the horizon as a heavy still air draped over anyone who dared walk outside.
The trial itself was ready to reach a conclusion. Both sides of lawyers rushed through the lone testimony of the day, Deputy Coroner Dr. William Jenkins. Jenkins swore that the gash in Carrie Brown’s stomach could have feasibly been made by someone with their right hand, which contradicted Dr. Rush Huidekoper’s suggestion that the wound could have only been made by someone with their left hand. This put to bed any last ditch effort by the defense to direct attention away from the right-handed Ameer Ben Ali and toward a possibly left-handed murderer.
After Dr. Jenkins stepped down from the stand, Emanuel Friend instructed the judge, Recorder Frederick Smyth, to acquit Ben Ali. Smyth shook his head no, so Frederick House shakily rose to his feet.
The yellow green pallor from the first day of the trial had returned to his face. Indeed, House looked even more sickly than he had five days ago. After taking a second to gain control of his ragged breath, House placed his hand on Ben Ali’s head—whether to stabilize himself or to comfort his client was unclear—and began his closing statement. House used no notes and, despite his rapidly deteriorating physical condition, spoke with an eloquence and heartfelt passion that was talked about for days after the trial had concluded.
The spectacled lawyer began by quoting Assistant District Attorney F.W. Wellman’s opening line from the trial, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Speaking alternatively in a whisper and an uncomfortably loud voice, House, at
House summing up for the defense
the mercy of his own breath, said: “And I quote it to you also, gentlemen. 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' this innocent man.”
House then began to dismantle the circumstantial evidence the prosecution had piled against Ben Ali. The prostitutes who had sworn to Ben Ali’s sexual deviance, his thievery, and his fondness of Carrie Brown were degradable creatures and criminals who could not be trusted to tell the truth, he said.
Any and all evidence that came from these women was, as House proclaimed, “A lie, a damnable lie!”
House then addressed the matter of the bloodstains.
“If the defendant had been guilty,” House asked the jury, “would he not have made away with the stained shirt?” Why would Ben Ali wear the evidence of his guilt for a full day after he allegedly murdered Carrie Brown? Moreover, House added, the eminent experts for the prosecution were not even sure if they were examining human blood. There just wasn’t enough evidence to convict, House explained. There were too many questions left unanswered.
As he got paler and his voice more uneven, House turned back to the matter of the light haired, German-accented man who had taken Carrie Brown upstairs on the night of April 23. The prosecution had not successfully proven that he had not murdered Brown.
“It was by his hand,” House exhaled strenuously to catch his breath, “his hand alone that Carrie Brown was laid in cold death! You know it gentlemen! In your hearts you know it.”
That all but concluded House’s closing argument. He had summoned the last of his energy to defend Ben Ali and nearly collapsed as he made his way back to the table. The spectacled lawyer was so weak by the end of his speech that he had to be half carried, half dragged by Mr. Levy out of the courtroom.
The Sun's sketch of Carrie Brown's companion
Ben Ali watched House’s limp body make its way down the aisle with great sadness. Despite the language barrier, the prisoner seemed to understand the passion with which House had defended him. Once House, now basically drooped over Levy’s shoulder, exited through the courtroom’s doors, Ben Ali turned back and looked around the room with sheer, wide-eyed terror. He had lost his greatest ally.
It was then District Attorney De Lancey Nicoll’s turn. For as eloquent as House had been, Nicoll was stilted and jerky. He read from his notes, stammered, and lost his place so frequently that he appeared to nearly lull Recorder Smyth to sleep.
However, none of this seemed to bother Nicoll, who carried on with an air of self-assuredness that was almost laughably out of tune with his performance.
Nicoll began by explaining to the jury that Ben Ali was a depraved and violent being.
“I say, when you take into consideration the origin of this man, the fact that he is a native of an Arab tribe that has no respect, as we understand it, for human life,” that Ben Ali was a “a man of wild passions, of inordinate desires and uncontrolled impulses, when all of these are considered,” said Nicoll, “it seems to me he is precisely the kind of man from whom you would expect, and of whom you would expect, a crime of this sort to be committed.”
After that, Nicoll ran through all of the evidence the prosecution had piled up against Ben Ali. Ben Ali's fondness for Carrie Brown, his history of beating and robbing prostitutes, his knives, and the bloodstains on his clothing and in his room were all discussed one-by-one.
This took a couple of hours. When Nicoll finally finished discussing every piece of evidence, he turned to the jury and confidently declared: “And upon that evidence, gentlemen, which we have presented to you, the prosecution confidently rely that you will discharge your duty toward the People of the State of New York, and vindicate their violated law.”
It was around five o’clock in the evening when Nicoll finished. Smyth permitted a recess for dinner, and the trial reconvened an hour and a half later. When the trial resumed, the Recorder summed up the case for the jury, and, as he was finishing, reminded the jury of Ben Ali’s lies and how much more eminent the prosecution’s scientific experts were than the defense’s.
To conclude the charge, Smyth explained the possible verdicts. The jury could find Ben Ali guilty of murder in the first degree (premeditated and deliberated), murder in the second degree (neither premeditated nor deliberated), manslaughter, or not guilty.
At five minutes to eight, Smyth closed the charge and turned the case over to the jury. As the jurors began to march out of the courtroom, Mr. James Shipman—the same juror who had brazenly asked Dr. Henry Formad if the doctor would stake his life upon his testimony—asked politely and gravely if the trial might be adjourned until Monday. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, Mr. Shipman explained, and he did not want to miss the festivities should the deliberation run long. This question initially took Smyth by surprise, but the Recorder quickly regained himself and denied the request. Mr. Shipman marched out, disappointed, to join his fellow jurors.
The deliberation lasted over two hours. As the jurors weighed Ben Ali’s fate, the defendant paced back and forth in the prisoner’s pen muttering phrases in Arabic. After half an hour, he sat down on the bench inside the pen, leaned against the cage, crossed his legs, and lit up a cigar that a sympathetic onlooker had given him. As Ben Ali smoked his cigar, Emanuel Friend talked nervously with some associates. Nicoll pretended to read a newspaper. Byrnes sat perfectly still with his arms folded, staring expressionless at the floor. No one dared to leave the courtroom until the jury returned.
At precisely five minutes to ten, the jurors marched back in. As they took their seats, a flash of lightning lit up the otherwise dim courtroom. The drumming of thunder could be heard in the distance. The ominous grey clouds had finally left their position on the horizon and rolled over Manhattan. A verdict had been reached.
Emanuel Friend fetched Ben Ali from the prisoner’s pen and brought him to the front of the room.
“Gentlemen,” the clerk asked the jury, “have you agreed upon a verdict?”
“Yes sir,” replied the foreman of the jury.
“Do you find the defendant guilty or—”
“Guilty of murder in the second degree.” The clerk had not even finished his question.
For a moment, there was absolute silence in the courtroom. Even the thunder had paused. Then, the crowd began to buzz angrily. The same look of disappointment played on the faces of Friend, Nicoll, and Byrnes. After a minute or two, Friend loudly vowed to appeal. Nicoll quickly collected himself and shook Wellman’s hand triumphantly. Byrnes, realizing that murder in the second degree meant Ben Ali would be spared the electric chair, was overheard muttering behind his thick grey mustache: “This man deserved to die.”
De Lancey Nicoll
Ameer Ben Ali
Recorder Smyth rapped his gavel to regain control of the courtroom. He turned to the jury. “You have been intelligent, faithful, and, I believe, have rendered a verdict in a satisfactory manner.”
“I am free to say,” he continued with a slight huff, “I believe the verdict is about right.”
With that, he rapped his gavel once more, and declared the trial of Ameer Ben Ali to be officially concluded. A crowd immediately thronged around Ben Ali. The prisoner looked puzzled. During all of the excitement and confusion of the verdict, no one had thought to explain Ben Ali’s fate to him. Mr. Emile Sultan, the translator, fought his way through the crowd and explained to Ben Ali he had been convicted. He would live, said Mr. Sultan, but would most likely go to prison for the rest of his life.
Ben Ali did not react to that news. Instead, he continued staring straight ahead, into nothing, until he was handcuffed to a deputy sheriff and escorted out of the courtroom. Just before he reached the doors to leave the courtroom, Ben Ali turned around and looked directly at Smyth. As he stared at the Recorder, Ben Ali muttered something in Arabic under his breath until the deputy sheriff, undoubtedly unnerved by Ben Ali's unnatural calm, jerked him forward and forcibly led the prisoner back to his cell in the Tombs.
Epilogue Part 1
On Tuesday, July 28, Ameer Ben Ali was moved from the Tombs to Auburn Prison, a grim upstate correctional facility. Ben Ali considered himself lucky. Eleven months earlier, in August 1890, Auburn Prison had hosted the United States’ first ever execution by the electric chair.
That was not to be Ben Ali’s fate. The jury’s decision that the murder of Carrie Brown had not been premeditated saved Ben Ali from the electric chair. Instead, he was to be imprisoned for life.
Ben Ali did not take kindly to prison. He seemed to hate his fellow prisoners and rejected their overtures of friendship. He began to keep more and more to himself and sank deeper and deeper into melancholy.
A year and a half into Ben Ali’s imprisonment, all of Frederick House’s and Emanuel Friend’s attempts to appeal his case had been denied. Ben Ali was condemned for life. By 1893, his melancholy increased to such an extreme degree that, in January, he was declared insane and transferred from Auburn to the Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
When House heard the news, the spectacled lawyer shook his head sadly.
“Frenchy is crazy,” House admitted sympathetically. “He is better off where he is than were he at liberty.”
Ben Ali’s behavior in prison seemed to confirm House’s diagnosis. In 1898, Ben Ali flew into a rage-filled frenzy and viciously attacked William Greef, a seventeen-year-old fellow inmate, with an oaken potato smasher. Ben Ali hit Greef in the head several times before he was pulled off of the bloodied teenager.
Despite Ben Ali’s attempted murder of Greef, the angry buzz that began when the jury foreman announced “Guilty of murder in the second degree” never quite died down. The murmurs that Ben Ali had not received a fair trial stubbornly persisted. Eventually, these murmurs reached the ear of the French Consul General in New York City. Ben Ali, as an Algerian, was technically a colonial subject of France so the Consul General assigned Ovide Robillard, a French attorney, to investigate Ben Ali’s case.
Robillard soon amassed over five thousand signatures for a petition to pardon Ben Ali due to insufficient evidence, but it was rejected twice. Governor Frank Black and Governor Theodore Roosevelt both told Robillard they refused to interfere with the court’s decision.
Robillard realized he needed to find what Levy, House, and Friend could not: proof of Ben Ali’s innocence. Despite their passionate defense of Ben Ali, his attorneys had evidently not thought to approach the journalists who had covered the case. Robillard did not make the same mistake. He interviewed several newspaper reporters—including the indefatigable Jacob Riis—who had arrived at the East River Hotel before the police on the morning of April 24, 1891.
The reporters each swore to Robillard that when they had arrived at the murder scene, there was absolutely no trail of blood in the hallway
from Room 31 (where Carrie Brown had been killed) to Room 33 (where Ben Ali had slept), nor on door of Room 33, nor on the furniture inside. Lest there be any doubt about their observations, they agreed to sign sworn affidavits.
Robillard’s investigation then led him to George Damon, a wealthy New York businessman. Damon owned a countryside estate in Cranford, New Jersey, where he employed several farmhands to manage his house and property. Damon told Robillard that, in 1891, he hired a light haired, German-accented man of average height known only as “Frank.”
On April 23, Frank had the night off and went into Manhattan for the evening. Although he came back to the farm the next morning, the farmhand suddenly disappeared a few days later. Damon swore he had not heard from nor seen Frank since.
Recently, Damon had gone into Frank’s room above the stables to clean it out. When Damon moved a few pieces of furniture, he noticed a small bundle. Inside the bundle was a blood-soaked shirt and pair of trousers. As Damon unfurled the bloodied clothes, he discovered a small object.
Beneath the stained clothes, the light haired, German-accented man had hidden a brass key attached to a tag unmistakably engraved with a large 3-1.
The key found above Damon's stables
After this discovery, Robillard quickly assembled his newly-unearthed evidence, the requisite legal paperwork, and the backing of five thousand plus signatures (including that of the French Consul General), and presented the new Governor of New York, Benjamin Odell, with a petition for the pardon of Ameer Ben Ali.
When faced with the evidence from Damon’s farm, the newspaper reporters’ affidavits, and the significant pressure coming from the French Consulate, Odell was easily convinced.
On April 16, 1902, Governor Odell pardoned Ameer Ben Ali. The Algerian had been wrongfully locked up for ten years, nine months, and ten days.
A few days later, Ben Ali was transported from the Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane back to New York City. There, he boarded a steamer—paid for and arranged by the French Consulate—and began his long journey home.
Epilogue Part 2
When Thomas Byrnes was informed of Ameer Ben Ali’s pardon, the old Inspector shrugged.
"I’ve nothing to say about that," he replied gruffly. "The governor can pardon whom he likes. It’s nothing to me."
It had been an eventful eleven years for Byrnes since Ben Ali’s trial. In 1892, he was promoted to be Superintendent of the Police Department and tasked with eradicating the Tribute System, the Tammany Hall-encouraged network of corruption that plagued the city’s police.
Byrnes’ appointment came too late, however. The Tribute System was too deeply embedded by 1892. In fact, the Police Department’s corruption actually worsened under Byrnes despite his best efforts. In 1894, the city elected a reformist Republican mayor who worked with other reformers to initiate a state senate investigation into the Tammany Hall-dominated police force. The investigation revealed the corruption that infected the department from top to bottom and many top police officials were indicted as a result.
Byrnes somehow managed to escape the committee’s investigation, but could not survive the political sentiments of the city. The new reformist government brought in four brand new Police Commissioners, including the hard-charging Theodore Roosevelt. Fairly or not, Roosevelt associated Byrnes with the old corrupt regime and forced the Inspector to quietly resign in 1895. Roosevelt accomplished what Tammany Hall, Socialists, Anarchists, and New York’s criminal underworld all could not: he released the city from the ironclad grip of Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes.
Byrnes ended his historic thirty-two year career in the New York City Police Department quietly and without fanfare. After Roosevelt’s fellow commissioner Andrew Parker informed Byrnes that his time was up, the Inspector walked back to his office, grabbed his hat, umbrella, and a few mementos, and left Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street forever.
By 1895, Byrnes had become a very rich man. The stock tips from Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. had paid off, and Byrnes seemed to enjoy his retirement mightily. He wrote several books about his years in the police force, played golf, took up yachting, and—once cars were invented—motoring as well. He died peacefully in 1910 in his townhouse at 318 West 77th Street surrounded by his wife, daughters, and faithful right-hand man, William McLaughlin.
Inspector Byrnes in retirement
After Ben Ali’s trial had concluded, Frederick House lay bedridden for several days but eventually recovered from his illness. His legal practice would not make such a recovery, however. The firm of Levy, House, and Friend never regained the level of relevance it had achieved during the summer of 1891 and slowly faded into obscurity. The firm was not even mentioned as part of Ovide Robillard’s successful attempt to secure a pardon for Ben Ali. Although they defended some other low-grade criminals after Ben Ali, it seems the law became of second interest to them: Mr. Levy quietly let the practice crumble, Emanuel Friend became an avid socialite, and House dedicated most of his efforts to the new National Cycling Association as its first vice president.
Despite largely having been outshone by Frederick House during Ben Ali’s trial, De Lancey Nicoll continued serving as New York City’s District Attorney until 1893. Afterwards, he returned to private practice and became Joseph Pulitzer’s favorite attorney, and successfully defended Pulitzer from charges of libel in front of the United States Supreme Court.
Nicoll’s courtroom ally, Frederick Smyth, was equally as successful post-trial. Although he lost his re-election campaign to be Recorder of New York, Smyth was elected to the New York Supreme Court in 1895, and served on it until his death in 1900.
De Lancey Nicoll as
Joseph Pulitzer's attorney
Ben Ali’s two friends, Jenalli and Bozieb, were not heard from again. There was never any explanation given as to why Levy, House, and Friend did not call them as witnesses during the trial. Their testimony of Ben Ali’s good character could have potentially nullified the various accusations of sexual deviance and violence hurled at Ben Ali by the prostitutes of the East River waterfront. Instead, it was as if the two men just disappeared.
Jacob Riis continued his fight against injustice for the rest of his life. He became a close companion of the new Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and an able assistant in Roosevelt’s quest to clean up vice in New York City. Despite his increasing popularity fueled by his various books and speaking engagements, Riis never forgot about the poverty he witnessed on his daily walk through “The Bend.” In 1897, Riis used his fame to lead a massive fundraising effort to replace the dirty thoroughfare with a park, now called Columbus Park, specifically designed to be a space for immigrant children to play.
Riis died in 1914 and, sadly, his work on behalf of New York’s poorest citizens was quickly forgotten until an archivist for the Museum of the City of New York rediscovered his photographs in the museum’s basement in the late 1940s. The Museum of the City of New York then held a special exhibit reintroducing Jacob Riis to the city he loved.
The East River Hotel continued operating for a couple of years after the trial of Ben Ali, but could not shake its morbid reputation as the site of Carrie Brown’s brutal murder. It was forced to close in 1894 and was torn down shortly thereafter.
After Inspector Byrnes’ resignation, the disintegration of Levy, House, and Friend, the success of Nicoll and Smyth, the disappearance of
Columbus Park (then called "Mulberry Bend Park") in 1898
Jenalli and Bozieb, the death of Jacob Riis, and the demolition of the East River Hotel, Carrie Brown and Ameer Ben Ali were all but forgotten. The story of New York’s own Jack the Ripper slipped out of the city’s collective consciousness just as quietly as it had entered into a dingy hotel in lower Manhattan right before midnight on a mild spring evening in late April of 1891.
New York on Trial
Neither Ameer Ben Ali nor the light haired, German-accented man were ever heard from again. In all likelihood, Ben Ali safely disembarked the steamer paid for by the French Consul General and was reunited with his wife and two children in Algiers. The light haired, German-accented man was never caught. Despite the discovery of the bundle containing his bloodied clothes and the key to Room 31 of the East River Hotel, law enforcement authorities did not open an investigation into the New Jersey farmhand known as “Frank.” After 1902, these two American Rippers—one innocent, one guilty—simply vanished from the historical record.
The murder of Carrie Brown and the trial of Ameer Ben Ali reflected the struggles of an emerging metropolis. Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes—in a mad dash to prove that the upstart New York City was more advanced than the traditional world power London—led a frantic and lopsided investigation. He ignored promising leads and real clues in favor of framing a vulnerable individual. During the trial, De Lancey Nicoll and Frederick Smyth joined Byrnes in choosing to sacrifice Ben Ali so that a sense of order might prevail. To those in charge of Gilded Age New York City, the façade of control was more important than the pursuit of justice.
This story also revealed New York was a city in transition. In the late nineteenth century, New York began incorporating science as a tool to structure society. The trial of Ameer Ben Ali was the first murder trial in the city’s history decided on the basis of scientific analysis. Byrnes was the first policeman in the United States to begin incorporating science into policework—he popularized the psychological “Third Degree” treatment and the method of analyzing photographic portraits (later known as mugshots) to identify criminals. Jacob Riis was one of the first reporters to successfully combine photography and journalism. And, more sinisterly, New York’s intellectuals used “science” to reinforce and maintain systemic racism.
The various individuals involved with this trial—ranging from the destitute prostitutes who strolled the East River waterfront to the multi-millionaires who fed Byrnes stock tips—showed that New York was truly a city defined by its extremes. Ben Ali was one of hundreds of thousands of newly-minted New Yorkers who were forced to live in decrepit tenement neighborhoods cast in a constant state of artificial darkness while the rich Manhattanites who accused him of murder danced until dawn’s first light in Fifth Avenue mansions.
During the trial, as Ben Ali nervously wrung his hands, Frederick House argued himself sick, and Byrnes quietly stared into nothingness, Gilded Age New York City bared its soul. Inside the Court of General Sessions, Carnegie Hall patrons jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with dime museum managers from the Bowery; newly-arrived immigrants were interviewed by members of ancient knickerbocker families; Tammany Hall Democrats leered as labor union socialists plotted; the grimness of the Tombs tried to deter the anarchy of the Five Points; science was exalted as reality was discarded; and the search for New York’s own Jack the Ripper became an exhibition of the city itself.
This has been New York on Trial.
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