Inspector Thomas Byrnes, head of the Detective Bureau of the New York City police at the end of the 19th Century, had no love of mystery. For Inspector Byrnes, solving crimes was a simple matter of applied common sense, and no-nonsense police work. In 1888 with London in terror and Scotland Yard baffled by the Whitechapel murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper,” Inspector Byrnes told a reporter that if someone committed such murders in New York, police would have him ”in the jug in 36 hours.” When Bowery prostitute, Carrie Brown, was found murdered and mutilated on April 24, 1891, the headlines screamed “Jack the Ripper has come to America.” And, true to his word, Inspector Byrnes had a man in custody the next day. Never mind that it was the wrong man. Whether or not Jack the Ripper killed Carrie Brown – as some theorist still believe— there is no question that the Ripper influenced the investigation and prosecution of her murder.
Date: April 24, 1891
Victim: Carrie Brown a.k.a. "Old Shakespeare"
The New York City newspapers were quick to point out the similarities between this murder and those in the Whitechapel section of London three years earlier, attributed to “Jack the Ripper.” Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes, head of the Detective Bureau and acting Superintendent of Police, quickly and unequivocally stated that this murder was not the work of London’s Jack the Ripper. But Byrnes was under intense pressure to find this killer. He had previously asserted that a series of Ripper-like murders would be impossible in New York City. In an effort to avoid the hysteria surrounding the Whitechapel murders, he personally headed up a massive investigation to find Carrie Brown’s killer.
Carrie Brown was an aging prostitute—at least 57 years old, some sources say over 60. In her youth she had been a successful actress and her habit of quoting the Bard when drunk had earned her the nickname “Old Shakespeare.” In 1891 she was living the subsistence life of an East Side whore, turning low-priced tricks hoping to make enough money for whiskey and a place to sleep. When a choice had to be made, drink took precedence. More than once she had spent the night behind bars in Blackwell’s Island for being drunk and disorderly.
The afternoon of April 23, Carrie told her friend and fellow prostitute, Alice Sullivan, that she hadn’t eaten for three days. Alice bought her a cheese sandwich at a nearby saloon, and that evening they both had corned beef and cabbage at a Christian mission. They separated then to ply their trade. Alice last saw Carrie Brown around 8:30 with a man she knew as Frenchy. She was later seen with another man, Isaac Perringer, who was also known as Frenchy. The housekeeper at the East River Hotel, Mary Minter, saw Carrie with her last customer of the night who she described as
“about 32-years-old, five feet eight inches in height, of slim build with a long sharp nose, and a heavy mustache of light color. He wore an old black derby hat, the crown of which was much dented.”
Around 2 a.m., his work finished, the killer left room 31, locked the door and took the key with him. Trailing drops of blood he started down the stairs. About halfway down he changed his mind and went back upstairs all the way to the roof. He then climbed to the roof of the building next door, the Glenmore Hotel, another East Side flophouse. He then went down the stairs and into the lobby and asked the night clerk, Mr. Kelly, for a room.
Kelly later gave a description of the man that matched Mary Minter’s description of Carrie’s last customer. He noted that the man’s hands and clothes were smeared with blood and added that the man had a pronounced German accent. He wanted a room but had no money so Kelly sent him away.
The next day, when a hotel employee made the gruesome discovery, a frantic message was sent to the Oak Street Police Station. Several detectives and a quite a few reporters hurried to the East River Hotel, to the most horrifying crime scene any of them had ever seen.
Mary Healy, who had been drinking with Carrie Brown the night before, and Mary Minter were taken into custody for questioning and protection against the killer returning to silence the witnesses. They told police about seeing Carrie with a man called Frenchy and, with little else to go on, the police began rounding up suspects named Frenchy.
In the end all of the Frenchys were released except Frenchy No. 1. His real name was Ameer Bin Ali, a French speaking Algerian, who had been staying in room 33 of the East River Hotel, across the hall from the murder scene. Though it hadn’t been seen by reporters that morning, the police claimed there was blood on his door and doorknob, both outside and inside.“The people depended upon to give it were a drunken lot, without enough intelligence to remember how the man looked.”
- The Ripper’s victims were strangled with bare hands, then had their throats cut. Carrie was strangled with her clothing, throat not cut.
- The killer never left the knife behind before this.
- In previous cases the knife was long and sharp, possibly a butcher knife or upholsterer’s knife. This was a sharpened table knife.
- Only one other victim, Mary Kelly, was killed indoors. In Kelly’s case he used the extra time available to completely eviscerate the body. Though he had plenty of time with Carrie, the mutilation was minor in comparison.
- None of the victims had any symbolic marks like the 'X' slashed on Carrie Brown
- Carrie Brown would have been his oldest victim by at least ten years.
Surprisingly, there were several Jack the Ripper suspects in the New York City area on April 24, 1891:
Severin Antoniovich Klosowski a.k.a George Chapman
Severin Klosowski was born in Poland and moved to England in 1887 and worked as a barber in the East End of London, where the Ripper murders took place. By 1891 he had moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1892 he was back in London. There he poisoned three wives and in 1903, was convicted and hanged. When Chapman was arrested, Scotland Yard detective Frederick Abberline reportedly said to the arresting officer, “You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!” Klosowski must have been a suspect at the time, but there appears to be little evidence that he did the Whitechapel murders or Carrie Brown’s murder. Among those who believe Carrie Brown was killed by Jack the Ripper, he is the prime suspect. The book, The American Murders of Jack the Ripper by R. Michael Gordon makes this case.
Jack the Ripper in America,” offers less than conclusive evidence that Kelly was Jack the Ripper and killed Carrie Brown.
Tumblety was a flamboyant American quack doctor who was arrested in the States for performing abortions and poisoning some of his patients. Due to confusion over one of his aliases, was arrested and briefly held as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination. He left for Europe shortly after and arrived in England in 1874. In England he was arrested several times for homosexual activities and on November 16 he was arrested on suspicion of the Whitechapel murders. While released on bail, awaiting his hearing, Tumblety fled to New York. The police and press knew he was coming and met him as he disembarked the steamer in New York. He was not arrested because, as Inspector Byrnes said, “there is no proof of his complicity in the Whitechapel murders, and the crime for which he was under bond in London is not extraditable.” Nevertheless, he was watched closely by police and reporters. On December 5th 1889 he disappeared and was not seen again until 1893, living with his sister in Rochester, NY. He could have easily been in or near New York City on April 24, 1891. Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer, argues that Tumblety was Jack the Ripper.
The most farfetched tale of Jack the Ripper in America comes from Robert Graysmith’s book The Bell Tower: Jack the Ripper in San Francisco. He claims first that the San Francisco murders of Minnie Williams and Blanch Lamont, were done by Reverend Jack Gibbons, pastor of Emanuel Baptist, not Theo Durrant who was hanged for the crime. Pastor Jack was born in Scotland and came to America in 1888. Graysmith asserts that Pastor Jack was Jack the Ripper. He even states that in 1891 Pastor Jack was serving at a church in New Brunswick, New Jersey and could have killed Carrie Brown.
Dr. Thomas Neil Cream
Dr. Thomas Neil Cream, though not a serious suspect, should also be mentioned for his American connection. Cream was born in Scotland and raised in Canada and traveled back and forth across the Atlantic several times. He was an abortionist and a serial poisoner who was arrested in London and sentenced to hang. He is considered a Ripper suspect because, allegedly, on the gallows, before being interrupted by the noose, he said, “I am Jack…” Neil Cream was serving time for murder in Illinois’s Joliet prison between 1881 and July 1891 so he could not have been Jack the Ripper or the killer of Carrie Brown. Some say, however, that he had a double who was serving his sentence, leaving Cream free to kill.
The trouble with Jack the Ripper/Carrie Brown theories is that they tend to be cases of the tail wagging the dog. The authors start with the assumption that the Ripper killed Carrie, and then go looking for a likely killer among the Ripper suspects. The best suspect for Carrie Brown’s murder is not necessarily the best Ripper suspect. If Jack the Ripper was actually someone less glamorous but more likely – David Cohen, for example— he could not have killed Carrie Brown. Cohen was a psychopath with a hatred of prostitutes and “strong homicidal tendencies” who lived in Whitechapel and was committed to an asylum shortly after the last murder. He was never in America. The test for any murder theory should be "would it hold up in court?" None of these would.
There has been an attitude, both then and now, that serial killings and motiveless murders were something new and rare, first appearing at the end of the nineteenth century. This explains the obsession with trying to pin every mutilation murder, either side of the Atlantic,on the same anonymous Londoner. It is also why people, who really should know better, refer to H.H. Holmes as “America’s first serial killer” (or even Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer) The fact is, these killers have always been with us, everywhere in the world.
“We’ve speculated that stories and legends about witches, werewolves and vampires…may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend such perversities.”
At the end of the nineteenth century America and Europe were in the midst of a communication revolution. The telegraph was a mature technology, telephones were becoming commonplace, and newspaper syndication carried stories around the world. With the yellow journalists of the time competing for lurid details, no sensational murder would ever again stay local. They were now news not legend.