Sunday, January 10, 2021

WRITERS ALLIANCE OF GAINESVILLE TALK GIVEN ON JANUARY 10, 2021

 

Right after I finished writing my last book, Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts, I decided that it would be a good idea to write a professional biography of Francis Wellman, the man who prosecuted the case.

Francis L. Wellman


My idea was to write a book similar to the professional biography I had written about Abraham Lincoln, Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln.

The plan for the book was simple, I would simply write a chronological account of Wellman’s career in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, devoting a chapter to each murder case Wellman tried.

I simply had to identify his murder cases, research them, and write them up in chronological order.

In identifying the cases, I went to various online newspaper archives and searched for the key words “francis wellman” and “murder.” I then noted the names of the victims and defendants, and searched for their names along with the key word murder to pick up articles written before Wellman was assigned to the case. Doing this, I found reports of 16 murder cases he prosecuted during the four years he was a prosecutor, and 3 that he defended after leaving the office.

I downloaded copies of all available news reports of each case, putting the reports in separate folders. Then I began working through each case chronologically. I would read the news reports of a single case, do the additional research suggested by a reading of the reports, and then write a chapter.

As I progressed along, I kept bumping into stories that were so good they could easily form the basis of a stand-alone book rather than a chapter. I nevertheless forged ahead, determined to write a single chapter on each murder.

Then I hit upon a Jack-the-Ripper style murder that occurred in a brothel in one of New York City’s worst slums. The victim was a prostitute named Carrie Brown aka Old Shakespeare, and the defendant was Amir Ben Ali aka Frenchy. When Jack the Ripper was operating in London, the newspapers asked New York’s most famous detective, Thomas Byrnes, what he thought about the case. He supposedly said Jack wouldn’t last 48 hours on the street before Byrnes had him under arrest. Then Jack sent the NYPD a letter warning Byrnes to get ready, he was coming to New York. Then Old Shakespeare got butchered in the East River Hotel, and the newspapers challenged Byrnes to make good on his boast.


Carrie Brown aka Old Shakespeare

The case was far too big for a single chapter, and far too interesting. It was a story about the American Sherlock Holmes catching New York City’s Jack the Ripper and the case being prosecuted by the nineteenth century’s greatest prosecutor. I was going to have to put my professional biography aside and write a book on this one case. The result was Old Shakespeare and the East River Ripper: A Gilded Age Mystery.

Amir Ben Ali aka Frenchy

Unlike most of the cases I had already written up, I had more to go on than just collected newspaper articles. Wellman had given a full account of the case in his memoirs. But just a little research showed me that there was something very wrong with Wellman’s account of the trial. He neglected to mention that the defendant had been pardoned after serving over a decade in prison; and more than that, he had been pardoned on grounds of innocence.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes


The way Wellman described the facts of the case in his memoirs, it looked to me like an open-and-shut case. Wellman told a story about a man who was obviously guilty, but the National Registry of Exonerations told a far different story of a man who had been framed by corrupt police officers and exonerated after 10 years of false imprisonment by the tireless efforts of heroic journalists. I had to figure out where the truth lay.

I started with Google and Bing, searching for various combinations of the names of the major players in the trial and found a treasure trove of information.

On the Internet Archive, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg I came up with four other memoir writers who could shed light on the matter—Austin Flint, one of the expert witnesses; two reporters who worked on the case, Jacob Riis and Charles Russell; and the papers of the governor who granted the pardon, Benjamin Odell. It took some doing to round up all their writings, but I finally got it done.


Google and Bing also revealed something even better than memoirs and old magazines. I discovered that the Lloyd Sealy Library of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City had a microfilm transcript of the trial. I got it through interlibrary loan.

I also discovered numerous articles and chapters in books which analyzed the case. It seemed that all the analysis was ultimately based on a chapter in the book Convicting the Innocent, published in 1932 by Edwin Borchard, and Borchard’s book was based mostly on the memoir of Charles Russell, published in the October 1931 edition of The Illustrated Detective Magazine. It was no easy task to find that magazine article. Going to WorldCat, the online catalog of books, I was able to identify several libraries throughout the country which had Illustrated Detective in their holdings. It was a matter of corresponding with each of these libraries until I could find one that had the October 1931 edition of the magazine, and getting them to send me a photocopy of the article.

Now I had a hierarchy of sources of differing values.

Primary sources would be the official records of the case, the memoirs of the participants, and contemporary newspaper articles.

Secondary sources would be Borchard’s book and other writings on the case. Most of these writings were explorations of whether or not London’s Jack the Ripper had come to America and committed the murder, and most of them were worthless for my purposes.

How do you determine the worth of a secondary source? Whenever I appraise a nonfiction book, I first look for three things: Does it have an index? Does it have a bibliography? Does it have footnotes or endnotes? The fewer of these three things the book has, the less useful it is. The index tells you where to find specific information in the book. The notes give you chapter and verse of where the information came from, and the bibliography tells you how to find the references.

Even if the book has a bibliography and notes, the notes may be sparse, and the bibliography may be shoddy. For instance, Borchard’s notes and bibliography were so inadequate as to be little better than nonexistent. He even got the title of Charles Russell’s magazine article wrong.

Even if you’ve got what looks like a great bibliography and excellent notes, that doesn’t mean you’ve got a good reference. Pick out a few references and fact check them with the sources cited. If they check out, good. But it still doesn’t mean you’ve got a good source. Suppose your source’s authorities are bad. Suppose the story told by your source doesn’t square with other sources.

Usually, the more sources you have saying the same thing, the more reliable the information is. But that is not always the case. Even if you have multiple sources saying something, they may all be relying on the same ultimate source, and that means you really have only one source for the information.

For example, all the secondary sources that say Frenchy was pardoned, and they all cite Borchard as authority for the proposition that Frenchy was pardoned. When I sent off to the New York State Archives for a copy of Frenchy’s pardon papers, they reported back that they had no record of Frenchy having been pardoned. When I got Governor Benjamin Odell’s published papers and read Odell’s writings on the subject, I discovered that Odell hadn’t pardoned Frenchy! He had commuted Frenchy’s sentence.

I got back in touch with the archives and asked for Frenchy’s commutation of sentence. They sent it right to me. To paraphrase the commutation, it said that Frenchy could get out of prison, but if he misbehaved in the least little bit, he would be sent back to prison for the rest of his natural life. Odell had cited seemingly convincing newly discovered evidence of Frenchy’s innocence as a reason for letting him out of prison. If Frenchy was so innocent, why didn’t the governor pardon him instead of commuting his sentence?

More on sources. Borchard’s main source for the claim that corrupt cops had framed Frenchy was Russell’s magazine article. Checking Russell’s magazine article against the trial transcript and the contemporary news accounts, I found that the article was so shot through with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, omissions, and untruths that it was little better than historical fiction rather than historical fact. That rendered all secondary sources based on Russell’s work highly suspect.

I did find two good secondary sources which put me on to some more invaluable primary sources. Wolf Vanderlinden’s “The New York Affair” and Richard Underwood’s Gaslight Lawyers led me to the New York City Municipal Archives and the actual case file of the District Attorney’s Office.

So how reliable were all these sources? Obviously the most reliable were the official records, but even these documents had inaccuracies.

I’d place the contemporary news accounts on the second tier of reliability, but with these provisos: Two problems stood in the way of 100% accurate reporting. First, reporters seldom understand the nuances of what’s going on in a courtroom and often give inaccurate assessments of the effect of testimony. Second, news media were just as biased back then as they are today, and most of them hated Thomas Byrnes, the American Sherlock Holmes. Depending on which newspaper accounts of the trial you read, Frenchy was either the innocent victim of a crooked cop or he was a demon from the pits of Hell.

Memoirs have their own problems, the two main problems time and agenda.  First, distance in time from the event. The more time between the event and the memoir the more inaccuracy creeps into the account. Francis Wellman’s memoir, written decades after the events suffers from this problem. Second, agenda of the writer. Some memoirists are so agenda-driven that their accounts are more fanciful than factual. Charles Russell was intent on proving that the New York police framed Frenchy and that London’s Jack the Ripper did the killing. In achieving these agendas he didn’t let the truth stand in the way of his narrative.

The value of secondary sources is determined by who their sources are and how careful they are with their research. As I said, most secondary sources are near worthless because they are rooted in Russell’s flight-of-fancy article for Illustrated Detective.

In assimilating all these sources, I used four tools: A dramatis personae, a document inventory, a timeline, and topical outline of important facts. Every entry on the timeline and outline had to be backed up with chapter and verse from a document on the document inventory so that the facts could be properly referenced in the book. These four documents, by the way, are the same tools that I used as a prosecutor preparing a murder case.

My next step was to decide what probably happened and write the book, carefully backing up each important assertion with references to the most reliable sources. Notice that I said “what probably happened.” No historian can tell you what “really” happened. The best they can do is tell you what probably happened; and depending on how good a job they do the probability can be anywhere from 0% to 90%.

Did Frenchy kill Carrie Brown? If he didn’t, kill her, who did? Was Frenchy the innocent victim of crooked cops? Why did the persons in possession of the so-called exculpatory evidence wait 10 years to come forward and help to free Frenchy? Were the journalists who worked to free Frenchy truly heroic? Why did the governor commute Frenchy’s sentence rather than giving him a full pardon?

I try to supply answers to all these questions, but I let readers draw their own conclusions. I give three plausible interpretations of the evidence and let readers decide for themselves which is correct. I tell which of the interpretations I like best, but I won’t be upset if you choose one of the other two. I won’t even be upset if you come up with a fourth interpretation.

The book will be published later this year by the Kent State University Press.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

WRITERS ALLIANCE OF GAINESVILLE

 On Sunday, January 10, at 2:30, I am going to give an online talk to the Writers Alliance of Gainesville on the subject of researching for the writing of nonfiction. As a template for my talk, I am going to walk through my research efforts for my upcoming book, "Old Shakespeare and the East River Ripper: A Gilded Age Mystery," which is to be published later this year by the Kent State University Press. The meeting is open to the public and may be joined by going to the following link: https://writersalliance.org/event/nonfiction-research/?fbclid=IwAR1j8sSz5tcqTGuScMUI5G01GaJ2f_7iXbSI7eKdukueS0X87H88jw_CsvE

Saturday, August 1, 2020

SIX CAPSULES: THE GILDED AGE MURDER OF HELEN POTTS

This evening I received a gold medal from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association for my book Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts.


I also recently received notification that Six Capsules is a finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Award Competition which is held by the Florida Writers Association. The winners will be announced in October.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

REMOVING THE OBELISK: A MODEST PROPOSAL


In February of 1864 a small force of Confederates marched eastward from Lake City to confront a force of Union soldiers marching west from Jacksonville. They met and fought Florida’s largest Civil War battle on February 20, with the Confederate forces emerging victorious and the Union forces retreating to Jacksonville. Approximately 151 Confederate soldiers died defending Lake City that day, and they are buried in Memorial Cemetery near the old football field.

Later in that year General Ulysses S. Grant decided upon a strategy of degrading the South’s war making capacity by destroying the means of keeping the Confederate army supplied. The first phase of this strategy unfolded in May of 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley, which was considered the breadbasket of the Confederacy. Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to the Valley with orders to completely devastate its ability to produce agricultural products. He supposedly instructed Sheridan to render the Valley so desolate that “a crow flying over it would have to carry his own rations.” Sheridan followed his orders to the letter, completely destroying everything of agricultural value in his path. He wrote to Grant:

I have destroyed over two thousand barns filled with wheat and hay and farming implements; over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over four thousand head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than three thousand sheep. This destruction embraces the Luray Valley and Little Fort Valley, as well as the main [Shenandoah] Valley.

In November of that year General William Tecumseh Sherman marched south from the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Georgia, on his famous (or infamous) march to the sea. Saying that he would “Make Georgia howl,” Sherman cut a swath of destruction 60 miles wide and 285 miles long from Atlanta to Savannah.  

Although it was highly unlikely that Union General Truman Seymour would have wrought similar devastation on Lake City had he been successful in reaching the town, contemporary Lake Citians could not have known that, and they must have been very thankful to the men who gave their lives in defense of the town.

For as long as I can remember an obelisk has stood in front of the courthouse in Lake City commemorating the sacrifice of those men who died defending Lake City. It is not a statue of a Confederate general. It merely recites what the men did, who was in charge, and gives a list of some of the fallen. I have no doubt that it was erected at a time of hard feelings toward those “damnyankees” who turned the South into the equivalent of a Third World country, but the war is now more than a century in the past. There are probably more descendants of “damnyankees” living in Lake City than there are descendants of people who lived here during the Civil War. The time for hard feelings should be over.

Some people now want to remove that monument. I say to them that the time for hard feelings should be over. There is a world of difference between an obelisk commemorating men who died defending their hometown from a possible "Shermanesque" destruction and a statue of a slave-trading Confederate general suspected of overseeing the massacre of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow. 

I suggest that the obelisk stay, but that something be added to it. There were other men who died at Olustee that day, and some of them were members of the most prestigious unit of black soldiers in the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Indeed, the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th United States Colored Troops fought the rearguard action which covered the retreat of the Union forces.

There are two blank faces on the base of the obelisk. Why not add a commemoration of the Union troops, black and white, who gave their lives in a cause they deemed just as important and just as noble as defending home and hearth against an invading army?

A tribute to the Union soldiers could go on the blank side of the obelisk visible from the sidewalk. On the blank side facing the shrubs, it might be possible to engrave a few lines from Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:”

"Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.

...

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown."

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

DEFUND OR DISBAND THE POLICE DEPARTMENT?

One morning the Emperor Vespasian was enjoying his breakfast in his palace in Rome when a dog wandered into the dining room. It had something in its mouth, which it carried to the Emperor's table and deposited at the Emperor's feet. The dog's "gift" to the Emperor was a severed human hand. Instead of being horrified, Vespasian was happy. He took the macabre incident as a good omen. The biographer Suetonius wrote of the incident without expressing the least little bit of disgust that a dog could traipse into the Emperor's dining room with a severed human hand. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 8.5.4. 

Why is it that neither Vespasian nor Suetonius was upset by the fact that a dog was running around the streets of Rome with a dead man's hand in its mouth? Because in the the largest, richest, most powerful city in Western Europe it was normal to see rotting human bodies, victims of disease or homicide, littering the streets. Some murderers had the decency to drop the bodies of their victims in the Cloaca Maxima, the gigantic sewer running under the streets of Rome, but others couldn't be troubled to expend the energy necessary to move one of the heavy stone slabs which served as manhole covers for the Cloaca Maxima.

If you wanted the murderer punished, you had to go to court and apply for permission to prosecute the killer. If you got permission, the killer would be notified that a case was pending against him, and it was up to him to decide whether to come to court and answer the charges or simply skip town.

How is it that the bodies of homicide victims could just rot in the streets with nobody to care and no satisfactory way to achieve justice for their deaths? Rome had no police force and no public prosecutor.[*]

Of course, the city fathers of Ancient Rome had enough money to insure their own security, and to Hades with the common people of the city. 

Now it seems that the city parents of many of our large urban areas want to emulate the model of ancient Rome by defunding or disbanding their police departments. I'm sure the city parents won't suffer any ill effects of such a decision, but I expect to see the violent crime rates skyrocket in those localities. 

______________

[*] Rome did have an officer charged with keeping the streets clean, but he had trouble keeping up with the ever-growing litter of dead people and dead animals, not to mention the ever-growing piles of human refuse dumped in the streets. Most Romans living on the upper floors of apartment buildings found it too much trouble to carry their chamber pots to manholes, so they just emptied them out the window. Piping to the Cloaca Maxima was out of the question because P-traps had not yet been invented. If you piped directly into the Cloaca Maxima, vile smells, noxious insects, and rodents could invade your home. And if the Tiber flooded, which it frequently did, you'd have quite a backup problem.