The Horrific New York Murder that had People Convinced The Ripper had Moved
Carrie Brown, a prostitute, was mutilated with an X carved in her body.
On 24th April 1891, the New York police thought they had a Jack the Ripper murder to contend with. The victim was Carrie Brown, and her mutilated body was discovered in room 31, in a filthy lodging house.
Brown was a self-styled actor, but like the Ripper victims, she had worked as a prostitute. Her profession and the violence in the crime led detectives to believe the Ripper had crossed the ocean.
The New York police department boasted that they would catch the London Ripper in thirty-six hours. They lived up to that promise and arrested a suspect within thirty-two. Had they got the right man, though, and was this the British Ripper?
Ameer Ben Ali
Ben Ali was a middle-aged sailor who had previously committed robbery and vagrancy. He was known to his friends as ‘Frenchy’ due to his accent. The evidence pointed to him; the police stated there was a trail of blood from the murder scene to Ben Ali’s room, in a hotel close.
The hotel proprietor stated that Brown had checked into the lodging house with a man in his thirties of foreign descent. Ben Ali fitted this description. Later the same proprietor would change his statement to say it was a light-haired man who was possibly German.
Ben Ali denied knowing the victim and swore that he was innocent of the crime. The evidence against him was sparse. Regardless, after two hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty.
Appealing the conviction
Ben Ali appealed the decision and applied for a pardon, each appeal was denied, and he remained in prison. At this point, the public would have forgotten the case if it had not been for the work of a social reformer called Jacob Riis.
Riis was famous for documenting the poverty of New York slums; he did this in words and images. His book How the Other Half Lives was recognised as a classic. The photos documented the dangerous and degrading conditions of poor immigrant neighbourhoods.
Riis was working for the Evening Sun on the day Brown was murdered. He visited the scene of the crime to document the tragedy. The defence never called him to give evidence, but he insisted that a central part of the case against Ben Ali was false. Namely that there had been no blood trail leading to his hotel room.
To the best of my knowledge and belief there were no blood spots on the floor of the hall or in and around the room occupied by ‘’Frenchy’’ on the night of the murder. — Jacob Riis
This account would be substantiated by Charles Edward Russell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Herald. In a 1931 article in Detective Magazine, he recalled arriving on the scene of the Brown murder with another reporter and seeing no blood between the rooms occupied by Brown and Ben Ali.
In 1893, Ben Ali grew despondent and was moved to the New York state asylum. The Times reminded readers in 1897that the evidence against Ben Ali was circumstantial. Both the French ambassador and the consul general were calling for the man’s release. Riis continued to fight for his cause, and in 1902 the New York governor, Benjamin Odell, commuted his sentence. It is thought on release; he returned to Algeria. Riis had played a pivotal role in getting the authorities to recognise the miscarriage of justice. He died in 1914 of a heart attack.
So who was the New York Ripper
Two suspects were identified as potential perpetrators of Brown’s murder. The first was a seaman who was said to return to his ship covered in blood. The second and more likely was a servant to George Damon.
Damon was a dealer who hired a foreign man who he knew as Frank to work in his stables. He first hired him to do some grading on his property in Cranford. When Frank finished the job, Damon asked him to stay on to work in the stables.
On 24th April, when Damon enquired where Frank was, he was told asleep upstairs in the loft. He had come back from town ‘’ugly’’ and was sleeping it off. Damon left him. Five days later, Frank abruptly left his employment and disappeared into the night. Damon sent a maid to the barn to clear it out. Once there, the maid discovered a bloody shirt and a brass key with a tag attached that had 31 etched on it.
Damon took the key the next day and went to the lodging-house to examine the keys. He found that they were identical. He left the hotel but never told the authorities of his discovery. He may have thought Frank was Ben Ali and had already been apprehended. He may, however, have been hiring illegal workers and did not want to be found out.
He did, however, confide in a friend who ten years later would pass this information on to Governor Odell. This evidence, along with the statement from Riis, convinced him to release Ben Ali.
It is doubtful that the killer of Carrie Brown was Jack the Ripper. New York had their own violent killer who walked free due to their impatience to convict someone, anyone, of the crime.