Wednesday, March 3, 2021

AUTOGRAPHS

For most of my life I have puttered along in relative obscurity, unknown outside my hometown and outside my profession. Back between 1978 and 1980 I had Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame as the lead prosecutor in the Lake City murder prosecution of Ted Bundy. Every once in a great while someone would ask me about the case, and I would gladly share my reminiscences. I even wrote a book about the case, hoping that other lawyers who might someday be confronted with such a case could read the book and learn from the mistakes we made during the prosecution. 

Being a non-celebrity is perfectly fine with me. I get uncomfortable when people start paying attention to me. One of my favorite poems is Emily Dickenson’s “I’m Nobody—Who Are You?” The way I remember the poem is not quite the way she wrote it, but I like my version better: 

I’m nobody, who are you? 
Are you nobody, too? 
How dreary to be somebody, 
How public, like a frog, 
To croak away the livelong day 
To an admiring bog. 

Starting about 18 months ago, there was a spate of documentaries on Ted Bundy, and for some reason many of the documentarians wanted to interview me. I have never turned down an invitation to talk about one of my cases, so I got a good bit of face time on some of the documentaries. This stood in stark contrast to the news coverage of the time and the early documentaries that came out on Bundy in the 1980’s. At that time the Lake City case was virtually ignored by the media. People would ask me if I was in any of those documentaries, and I would tell them that if they paid close attention, they might catch a glimpse of the back of my head in a courtroom scene or two. 

Now, however, things were different. My main agenda for appearing on these documentaries was to counter the pop culture narrative that Ted Bundy was the second coming of Professor Moriarty. I tried hard to spread the news that Ted Bundy was nothing but a garden variety dirtbag who happened to have a pretty face, the gift of gab, and a slightly above average IQ. 

I failed, but there was an unintended consequence of appearing on these documentaries--I had become a movie star! Whoopee! I even had a page on the IMDb! In case you missed the irony, I’m being sarcastic. I mentioned earlier that I get uncomfortable when too much attention is paid to me. I became very uncomfortable with one aspect of this newly acquired attention. People started sending me pictures of Ted Bundy and asking for my autograph on them. 

When I got the first letter, I sat on it for several weeks trying to decide whether to ignore it. I finally decided that the cover letter seemed sincere, so I signed a couple of pictures of wanted posters and booking photos. I stopped short at signing pictures of just Ted Bundy. Answering that letter didn’t open a floodgate of letters seeking autographs, but I’d estimate that I got about one letter per month after that. Always there were booking photos and wanted posters, and always there were photos of just Bundy. I would sign the booking photos and wanted posters and send them back with a cover letter explaining my refusal to sign a photo of just Bundy. One of the photos was a picture of him standing in open court grinning like a mule eating briars. I’d rather have my fingernails ripped out with rusty pliers than sign something like that! 

Feeling guilty for my refusal to sign all the pictures, I began to enclose a 4x6 photo of Bundy taken at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler the day after he got the death penalty in our case. My father was the Institutional Inspector at RMC back in 1980, and he got the photo for me. I’d sign that photo and explain its significance and say I’d enclosed it to make up for not signing all the proffered photos. Here's the photo:
The "A" at the beginning of his inmate number means this picture was taken on his second trip through RMC for his second conviction in the state of Florida. 

I occasionally run my name on Google, Bing, and a couple of other search engines just to see if anyone out there is libeling me, and that’s how I discovered I was on the IMDb. Over the years I’ve found some incredibly asinine things written about me, most of them knee slappingly funny. Tonight, however, I saw something that made me angry. 

Somebody had sold one of the wanted posters that I autographed on ebay for $499.99. There was a promise that the wanted poster would be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity attesting that I personally signed the poster in front of a representative of the seller. The representative must have been hiding behind the curtain in my home office when I signed it. I’m not sure how he got into the house through the locked door without being detected by our security system. [I’m being sarcastic again.] 

I’m not sure whether I ought to feel sympathy for the person who paid almost $500 for an autograph that he could have gotten for the price of sending me a letter containing a postpaid envelope. I feel like he was hoodwinked worse than I was. But it’s hard to generate sympathy for anybody who could be dumb enough to pay that much money for the signature of a non-celebrity like me on the picture of a dirtbag like Ted Bundy. 

As George W. Bush once tried (and failed) to say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I am not signing any more wanted posters or booking photos of Ted Bundy. In the future, anyone sending me photos of that nature to be signed will have them returned unsigned. On the outside chance that they really and truly want my autograph for themselves rather than using it to fleece someone else, I will enclose a signed copy of this blog post and a signed copy of the title page to my book The Last Murder: The Investigation, Prosecution, and Execution of Ted Bundy.

Monday, February 15, 2021

REVIEW OF LINCOLN'S LAST TRIAL

The "Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association" just published a review by me of a book entitled "Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency." Here is a link to that review:"Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency," by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

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