Monday, December 27, 2021

RIPPEROLOGIST INTERVIEW

 The December 2021 issue of Ripperologist: The Journal of Jack the Ripper, East End and Victorian Studies contains an interview I gave to How Brown, the proprietor of the website CarrieBrown.net, and Mr. Brown has graciously agreed to allow me to reprint the article on my blog.



THE EAST RIVER RIPPER

THE MYSTERIOUS 1891 MURDER OF OLD SHAKESPEARE

By HOWARD BROWN

 

Recently released by the Kent State University Press was The East River Ripper: The Mysterious 1891 Murder of Old Shakespeare by author George R. Dekle, the first full-length book on the murder of Carrie Brown. Her death has seen much discussion over the years as to whether it was the work of the Whitechapel murderer.

 

“This book will, for the first time, give an accurate history of the East River Ripper case. It will not give an infallible account of what really happened. No history can do that. All history can do is reconstruct an account of what probably happened. The more numerous and reliable the sources, the more meticulous the historian, the more accurate the history can be, and no effort has been spared in making this history as true to what really happened as humanly possible.”- George R. Dekle, from his Introduction.

                Professor Dekle, not only the first crime scholar to have written a full-length book about the 1891 murder of Carrie Brown, the trial of Amir Ben Ali, and the aftermath to this Gilded Age mystery, is perhaps the best person who might have written a book about the case. His legal background separates him from the pack by the very fact that he covers Ali’s trial, and does considerable damage to the long-held belief that Ali was framed by the NYPD, a belief which came about almost immediately after the June/July 1891 trial.

            Professor Dekle provides alternative theories as to who committed the murder, and leaves the casual reader and Brownian researcher the option of choosing which of his alternatives is closest to the truth as to whodunit.

            The book doesn’t shut doors, but rather opens them in terms of encouraging further research into the East River Hotel murder.

The East River Ripper is a must-have book for aficionados of Gilded Age American crime and true-crime devotees of every stripe.

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FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GEORGE R. DEKLE

1: When did you begin your research into the Carrie Brown murder and Ali trial? How much time, from the beginning of the research until the completion, did it take for you to complete the work?

 

Toward the end of 2018 as I was finishing up my last book, Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts, I decided to write a professional biography of the lead prosecutor in that case, Francis L. Wellman. The format would be to give a chronological account of his murder trials, devoting a chapter to each one. I had followed this path once before, when I wrote Abraham Lincoln’s Most Famous Case: The Almanac Trial. Upon finishing The Almanac Trial, I then wrote Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln.

            I started on my project exactly as I did on Prairie Defender. I amassed all the information I could on every murder case that Wellman tried, and then began writing the book. When I hit the second chapter, I said to myself, “This case deserves a book unto itself,” but I forged ahead. When I got to the fifth chapter, I said, “It’s impossible. This case has to be a book unto itself.” Then I really dug into the research on the Carrie Brown case and uncovered a wealth of information that confirmed my opinion. I set aside the professional biography of Wellman and wrote The East River Ripper instead.

                I worked on the book from October of 2018 until January of 2020, at which time I had a completed manuscript. KSU Press accepted it for publication, and for the next six months I worked on responding to the critiques of the peer reviewers, rewriting to address the critiques, correcting mistakes found by the copyeditor, reviewing proof pages, and indexing.

 

2: What was the most interesting part during your research? Scouring the trial transcripts? Reviewing first hand accounts, or something else?

 

The most interesting moments during my research were the times that I found things which had certainly been overlooked by the lawyers trying the case and apparently overlooked by later writers on the case. As I tried to point out in the book, the prosecution didn’t put on nearly as strong a case as they could have, and the defense missed gaping holes in the prosecution case that they might very well have exploited to achieve an acquittal.

 

3: When you give the reader three alternatives to a solution in this case, was it entirely for the reader or are you not entirely convinced an answer or solution is etched in stone yourself.... or both?

 

I talk about some of the principles of evidentiary analysis when I give the three case theories. One really important principle that I had to learn the hard way is: “Don’t get tunnel vision.” Don’t latch onto a theory and defend it at all costs no matter what new evidence turns up. Byrnes didn’t do himself any favors by latching onto the “Frenchy No. 2” theory and not giving up on it until he had established that “Frenchy No. 2” had an ironclad alibi. Then he continued to let the public think that he was looking for Frenchy No. 2 and wound up with egg on the face when he arrested Ben Ali.

            You look at the evidence and devise theories which explain as much of the known evidence as possible. Then you test those theories to see if they hold up under scrutiny. The three theories I advance in the book were what I believed to be the three most plausible theories. Any one of them has a claim to being true, but which is most likely true? In devising the three theories, I looked at all the evidence without analyzing its weight. In choosing among the three theories, I weighed the evidence, accepting what I felt was more believable and rejecting what I felt was less believable. The weighing of evidence is a more subjective process than simply looking to find the existence of evidence.

                Could I be wrong about whether Ben Ali committed the murder? Certainly I could. As Oliver Cromwell wrote to the Church of Scotland, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider that you might be mistaken.” This dictum gave rise to the scientific principle known as Cromwell’s Rule: “Never assign a probability of 1 or 0 to any proposition.” Statistician David Lindley coined the term, and he illustrated it by saying that you should “leave a little probability for the moon being made of green cheese; it can be as small as 1 in a million, but have it there since otherwise an army of astronauts returning with samples of the said cheese will leave you unmoved.”

                Somewhere out there someone may find a piece of evidence that proves beyond peradventure that Ben Ali was innocent. I think it’s unlikely, but it could happen. What I haven’t seen is any evidence whatsoever that the police, the expert witnesses, and/or the prosecutors colluded together to frame an innocent man. The only “evidence” of a frame job that I found was the unsubstantiated allegations in the press that Ben Ali was “railroaded” and Charles Russell’s statement in his highly inaccurate magazine article that there was “something strange” about the blood evidence. These allegations got repeated over time until the acorns of allegation grew into the oak forest of certainty.

                 Sometimes people can get trapped in a web of circumstances indicating guilt that they cannot extricate themselves from, and that may well have occurred in Ben Ali’s case. I handled a murder case once where an idiot kept doing stupid things that made him look guilty. I felt sure I could have convicted him at trial, but I was just as sure that he was innocent. We didn’t arrest him, and a year later we were able to arrest the man who actually did commit the murder. When I was a defense attorney I had a client who accidentally killed his girlfriend and then staged the scene to make it look like a rape-murder and throw suspicion on someone else. He took a manslaughter and turned it into a first degree murder and wound up getting sentenced to life instead of 15 years for manslaughter.

                You get more false convictions from bad luck and bad judgment than from bad police officers.

 

4: If you were a defense lawyer for Ali. what would have been (at least) one strategy you would have undertaken that the trio didn’t, or one that you would have handled better?

 

The prosecution went to trial unprepared. Francis Wellman delivered what seemed like a good opening statement, but it had gaping holes in it where he said things that he could not prove. The defense did not take advantage of these failures of proof. They actually papered over one of them. The prosecution wound up putting on a better case than what they said in opening (but not nearly as good a case as they could have), and the defense responded to that case with experts who could easily have been turned to support the testimony of the prosecution experts. The prosecution fumbled badly in their handling of the defense experts. Instead of using the defense experts to bolster their own experts, they attacked the defense experts.

         The way to defend Ben Ali was to defend against Wellman’s opening statement, not against the evidence presented at trial. In taking that approach, the defense could ignore most of the damning new evidence that hadn’t been mentioned in opening statement and cross-examine the prosecution experts to have them underline all the things that Wellman had said but failed to prove. I would have worked hard to keep Ben Ali off the witness stand. He never looked more guilty than when he was denying his guilt. Wellman butchered him on cross-examination, and that may well have been the turning point of the trial. More times than I can remember I have seen a defendant who was sailing toward a not guilty verdict take the witness stand and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by lying like a cheap clock. Usually it was a client I couldn’t talk out of testifying.

            It might be hubris on my part, but I think I could have gotten Ben Ali acquitted by following the strategy outlined above. I don’t mean by my remarks to disparage the efforts of either side. They both worked hard, and both sides did enough to win the case before the right jury. The problem was that the only truly experienced criminal trial lawyer among the six lawyers was De Lancey Nicoll, and he was only a mediocre trial advocate. The other lawyers were talented, and they occasionally showed flashes of brilliance, but they all needed some seasoning in the trial of murder cases. Wellman was a quick study, and he showed vast improvement in his next case, the Carlyle Harris case chronicled in Six Capsules.

 

5: Our opinion of George Damon, the Cranford, N.J. man who came forward with the key to room 31 approximately a decade after Ali had been in various institutions, is probably the same. What might differ is what reason he had for coming forward. Do you believe this reason was self-serving or altruistic?

 

If George Damon was telling the truth, what else must be true? (1) It must be true that the police had no hope of ever finding out the true identity of “C. Knicklo.” Damon, the only man who knew it, was concealing it. (2) It must be true that the police had no hope of ever finding the key to the death room. Damon was concealing it. (3) It must be true that George Damon valued his personal convenience over the life of an innocent man. Ben Ali stood in danger of death in the electric chair and only Damon could save him. (4) It must be true that George Damon didn’t give a damn about the proper administration of justice. Conclusion: George Damon was the real villain of the tragedy of Ben Ali’s false conviction.

The unspoken theme of George Damon’s testimony, whether true or false, is “I’m a dirtbag.” When someone says, “I’m the kind of guy who will let an innocent man die in the electric chair,” he’s not the kind of guy I’m going to rely on to tell the truth. And he’s not the kind of guy I’m going to expect to act from pure motives. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with post-conviction “exculpatory” witnesses, most of them as a defense attorney. The usual scenario was that the witness came to me and said, “What do I have to say to get the defendant’s conviction overturned?” None of these witnesses were motivated by altruism. I suggested one selfish motive for Damon to fabricate the story of Frank the Disappearing Dane in the book. There may have been others for which we have no evidence.

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HOWARD BROWN is the owner of CarrieBrown.Net, the foremost online archive and discussion site on the Carrie Brown murder.



Sunday, December 12, 2021

THE SUNSHINE STATE BOOK FESTIVAL (JANUARY 29, 30, 2022)

 I just registered as one of the exhibitors at the Sunshine State Book Festival, which is to be held in the Oaks Mall, Gainesville, on Saturday, January 29, 2022, with lectures the next afternoon at the Matheson History Museum. More information on the festival can be found HERE.

I will be featuring my latest book, The East River Ripper: The Mysterious 1891 Murder of Old Shakespeare, but I will have copies of most of my other books, including The Last Murder: The Investigation, Prosecution, and Execution of Ted Bundy and Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts.

If you are a bibliophile (aka bookworm), you won't want to miss this event.




Friday, November 19, 2021

THOUGHTS ON THE KYLE RITTENHOUSE VERDICT


KYLE RITTENHOUSE, WITH HIS HAT ON BACKWARDS,
TRIES FOR "TACTICOOL"

One comment on the Rittenhouse verdict before I give my analysis: To paraphrase the Old Bailey barrister Horace Rumpole, “A criminal trial is a pretty blunt instrument for settling questions of public policy.” The acquittal of Rittenhouse does not mean that the Civil Rights movement is dead. It does not mean that it’s open season for would-be vigilantes to go around shooting people. All it means is that the prosecution failed to prove Rittenhouse guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Let me begin my critique with a digression:

In December of 1946, 5’7”, 130 pound Audie Murphy, who had a baby face and was dressed in a business suit, picked up a 6’2” 190 pound hitchhiker. The hitchhiker shoved a .45 into Murphy’s ribs and attempted to carjack him. When Murphy was ordered to stop the car, he grabbed the man’s gun hand and punched him, knocking him out of the car. Then Murphy went into the ground-and-pound offense and eventually knocked the man out. As the photo at the jail shows, Murphy’s suit was unruffled. We can’t say the same for the carjacker who experienced what Jeff Cooper called “a critical breakdown in the victim selection process.” If Murphy had been 6’2” himself with a scarred face and bulging muscles, the robber probably wouldn’t have attacked him.

MEDAL OF HONOR WINNER AUDIE MURPHY, AFTER SHOWING
A WOULD-BE ROBBER THAT DYNAMITE COMES IN SMALL PACKAGES

If Kyle Rittenhouse had been a muscular behemoth with scars on his face and tattoos on his arms, it is unlikely he would have been attacked. Instead, he was a slightly built, baby-faced youngster who looked like he was not “man enough” to use the semi-automatic rifle he was packing. He had exercised abominable judgement in going to Kenosha, abominable judgement in arming himself with an “assault rifle,” and abominable judgement when he went into harm’s way looking like a wannabe bad guy who had jumped in way over his head by carrying a rifle into a riot. But stupidity is not yet a criminal offense. It's a pity that some police officer didn’t tell him, “Son, you’d better go home before someone takes your rifle away and gives you an AR-15 suppository.”

Rittenhouse was a sitting duck for “tough guys” who might think they could take him down a peg without running the risk of serious injuries. I don’t know what motivated the men who confronted Rittenhouse. They may have acted from motives as pure as the driven snow, but they too were exercising abominable judgement by violently engaging a man armed with an automatic rifle. He may have looked like a wimp, but it doesn’t take Man Mountain Dean to operate the 5.5 to 9.5 pound trigger pull on an AR-15 style weapon.

In a series of confrontations with men exercising judgement as poor as his own, Rittenhouse acted like a youngster who had jumped in over his head, but he followed up his series of bad decisions with a prudent series of acts. He tried to disengage. He proclaimed his lack of aggressiveness, and he ran away. Then he did something unexpected—he fired his rifle in self-defense. When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, two men lay dead and another was critically injured. A Medical Examiner friend of mine once told me "It takes three screwups to make a disaster." There were far more than three screwups in this scenario, and they culminated in a disaster of monumental proportions.

I prosecuted for 30 years, and I defended for two years before that, and I have lost count of the number of homicide cases I prosecuted and defended over the years. I have seen juries acquit on grounds of self-defense in cases where the defendant had done far less to try to defuse and withdraw from a confrontation. If the Rittenhouse case had come across my desk, I would have resisted the filing of charges against Rittenhouse with all my heart and soul and sinew. If I were ordered by my superiors to prosecute the case, I would have told them that I could not. And they wouldn’t have had to ask me why I refused. I would have told them. I would have said, “I believe Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty of murder.” If there had been a law on the books in Wisconsin prohibiting “Stupidity Resulting in Death,” I would gladly have prosecuted Rittenhouse for that, but life is too short and jobs are too plentiful for me to be coerced into prosecuting someone I believe to be innocent of murder.

Thankfully, I don’t believe it would have come to that if the case had come into our office. Both the elected prosecutors for whom I worked were men of sterling reputation and excellent judgment. They would never aggressively pursue charges against someone who had done so much to avoid having to use deadly force.

After I retired from active practice, I taught a class on prosecution at a law school for ten years. One principle I tried to drill into the heads of aspiring prosecutors was this: Sometimes prosecutors do their best work when they resist political pressure and refuse to file iffy charges.

 

 


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

WOMEN'S SPORTS, WOMEN'S SAFETY, AND FUNDAMENTAL FAIRNESS

Caitlyn Jenner, who won an Olympic Gold Medal in the men’s marathon before transitioning to female, just came out against trangendered women competing in women’s sports. This might seem both unenlightened given our recent trend to gender neutrality and unnecessary given the fact that TV shows, TV ads, and in the movies constantly bombard us with depictions of lithe, svelte, beautiful women outdoing males in all sorts of physical activities from combat sports to track and field, and even to opening stuck jar lids. And there are women who have successfully competed at the highest level of sports against men. Babe Didrikson Zaharis comes to mind. 

The current furor over the issue of trangendered females competing against biological females ignores the reason we have women’s sports. I think the reason which can easily be demonstrated by looking at a few sports records to see if women excel men in real life as completely as they do on TV and in the movies: 

NOTE: Boys’ records come from the Florida State High School Activities Association’s record books for weightlifting and track and field. The women’s records can easily be checked on Google.

We see that the only two events where world champion professional women outperform amateur high school boys are the shot put and the discus. Of course, the women are tossing much lighter implements than the boys. 

Let’s use these statistics to perform a thought experiment: What if we jumped in our time machine, went and got these boys at the age and stage of development they had attained when they set these state records, convinced them that they were really girls, and entered them in the 2024 Summer Olympics? They would be competing against world class professional women who had trained almost their whole lives to excel in their sports. How would they do? These amateur teenagers who had been practicing their sport for only a few years would probably bring home a sack full of gold medals. 

We have women’s sports because a person with a woman’s body cannot be expected to compete with people who have men’s bodies in contests of strength, power, and speed. It is a biological fact that is ignored only at the peril of the safety of people with women’s bodies. 

When Cecil decides that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body and gets his gender reassigned to become Cecilia, changing to feminine pronouns when referring to her does not change the fact that Cecilia still has a man’s body. As proof of that proposition, I offer as evidence the y chromosome and the prostate gland, neither of which exist in the bodies of biological females. The y chromosome gives men a number of attributes relevant to fairness in sporting competition—bigger bodies, stronger bodies, more testosterone, and facial hair. 

In contact sports like baseball, basketball, and lacrosse, this is going result in physical injuries to biological females. In collision sports like football, boxing, and MMA it can result in catastrophic physical injuries. 

The main reason I see for allowing trangendered females to compete in women’s sports is the fact that their feelings will be hurt if they are excluded. I have a suggested remedy for the psychological injury that a transgendered woman might feel because she is being excluded from women’s sports—complete gender-neutrality in sports. Do away with men’s and women’s categories in sports and go to two divisions. One division, let’s call it the Y Division, will be open to anyone who wishes to compete, male or female, cisgendered, transgendered, pangendered, or ungendered. The second division, let’s call it the X Division, will be closed to anyone endowed with a y chromosome.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

THE ROLE OF THE PROSECUTOR

Britton Bath Osler

 On May 23, 1895, Britton Bath Osler, the greatest Canadian prosecutor of the 19th century rose to make his final argument in the most sensational murder case that had ever been tried in the courts of Toronto. Arrayed against him on the other side were two of the most distinguished defense attorneys of the age, and they were aided by a man who was arguably the greatest American prosecutor of the 19th century, Francis L. Wellman, who had recently gone into private practice in New York City. Defense counsel, having spoken for almost eight hours, had ended their argument with an impassioned plea to spare the defendants' lives and return them to their wives and aged mother.


In attempting to defang the powerful arguments of his opposition, Osler called upon the jury to be guided by facts, not emotion. He then gave a statement of the role of a prosecutor which should be etched in the heart of all prosecutors everywhere:

"My function is simply to aid you in getting at the truth, and is entirely different from that of the prisoners’ counsel. It is the duty of the Crown' counsel to press home the facts. It is not his duty to present facts with an apology for presenting them against the prisoners. He is to treat the prisoners fairly, rightly; conceal no evidence that comes to his knowledge. He has to aid you in coming to a just conclusion upon the facts, and if acquittal follows and he has done his duty that is all the community asks of him."

William Randall Slaughter, the State Attorney of the Third Judicial Circuit when I began practicing law, made a similar statement when he told me, "A prosecutor doesn't win a case by getting a guilty verdict. A prosecutor wins a case by getting past a judgment of acquittal and getting a jury verdict. Whatever the jury says, the prosecutor has done his job." His language was a little more colorful than what I have reported, but I try to keep things on a PG level.

My next project, if I live long enough to complete it, will be a chronicle of this long-forgotten episode in Canadian legal history. It is, for me at least, a fascinating look at a titanic legal struggle in a court system that is somewhat unfamiliar to modern Americans.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A RETIRED PROSECUTOR'S RANDOM THOUGHTS

It's been a long time since I did any real writing, so I decided to put a book together that collected some of my random musings on different topics from this blog. I venture far afield in my blog, touching on such arcane topics as Greek and Roman military history, chess variants, parapsychology, and a host of other topics that are guaranteed to have an audience snoozing in a matter of minutes. I do, however, sometimes write on criminal law topics and current events. Most of my writing on current events deals with some crime or other that is so prominent in the news that I cannot ignore it. Usually it is a murder. When I write on criminal law topics I cannot help but reminisce about some of my adventures as a prosecutor or defense attorney. When I put this new book together, most of the topics dealt with criminal law or current events, but some essays on other topics slipped in, too. What resulted was a book a little under 200 pages containing 50 essays of varying lengths, from a single paragraph to several pages. I'm putting the book out in both ebook and paperback, but as of this writing only the ebook is online at Amazon.com. The paperback should be up and running in a few days. I gave the book a thoroughly original title: A Retired Prosecutor's Random Thoughts. Here is the table of contents:

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER 1: THE EXECUTION OF TROY DAVIS (September 12, 2011)

CHAPTER 2: FOUR QUESTIONS EVERY PROSECUTOR SHOULD ASK (September 14, 2011)

CHAPTER 3:  REFLECTIONS ON THE LAST MURDER: THE INVESTIGATION, PROSECUTION, AND EXECUTION OF TED BUNDY (September 15, 2011)

CHAPTER 4: ON CALLING THEM LIKE YOU SEE THEM (September 25, 2011)

CHAPTER 5: THE VOWEL THEORY OF CAPITAL LITIGATION (October 24, 2011)

CHAPTER 6: DECIDING TO BECOME A LAWYER (October 28, 2011)

CHAPTER 7: SOME STRIKING SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE CASES AGAINST RICHARD HAUPTMANN AND THEODORE ROBERT BUNDY (January 28, 2012)

CHAPTER 8: MORE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE CASES AGAINST RICHARD HAUPTMANN AND THEODORE ROBERT BUNDY (March 3, 2014)

CHAPTER 9: VERDICT ON THE JAMES OSSUARY TRIAL (March 16, 2012)

CHAPTER 10: A GOOD QUOTE ON THE OFFICE OF THE PROSECUTOR (March 21, 2012)

CHAPTER 11: STAND YOUR GROUND: GET AWAY WITH MURDER (March 23, 2012)

CHAPTER 12: CHANGING THE HIGH SCHOOL CURRICULUM (March 25, 2012)

CHAPTER 13: THE COURTROOM OR THE NEWSROOM? (March 26, 2012)

CHAPTER 14: MEN WHO KILL POLICE OFFICERS (December 21, 2014)

CHAPTER 15: SATANISM, ATHEISM, AND RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE (February 27, 2014)

CHAPTER 16: MARTYRDOM TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH (January 15, 2015)

CHAPTER 17: PROSECUTING POLICE OFFICERS (January 17, 2015)

CHAPTER 18: THOSE WHO SNIPE AT SNIPERS (January 27, 2015)

CHAPTER 19: WHEN WAS JESUS CRUCIFIED? (February 18, 2015)

CHAPTER 20: MEMORIES OF MURDER WEAPONS (May 19, 2014)

CHAPTER 21: THE DOJ REPORT ON THE SHOOTING OF MICHAEL BROWN (April 3, 2015)

CHAPTER 22: JURY DUTY (April 15, 2015)

CHAPTER 23: JURORS AND JURY SELECTION (April 17, 2015)

CHAPTER 24: UNINTENDED AND UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES IN IRAQ (June 5, 2015)

CHAPTER 25: FAITH, REASON, AND SCIENCE (July 3, 2015)

CHAPTER 26: INTERVIEWS INTERROGATIONS AND CONFESSIONS (July 18, 2015)

CHAPTER 27: CHARGING CRIMINAL CHILD NEGLECT (May 20, 2015)

CHAPTER 28: ANOTHER LOOK AT THE GOLDEN RULE (July 22, 2015)

CHAPTER 29: THREE THINGS LITIGANTS DON’T WANT IN A JURY (September 23, 2015)

CHAPTER 30: LOST EVIDENCE (October 26, 2015)

CHAPTER 31: FALSE DICHOTOMIES (October 28, 2015)

CHAPTER 32: PUNDITS, PISTORIUS, AND PREMEDITATION (March 20, 2014)

CHAPTER 33: MERRY CHRISTMAS; メリークリスマス (Japanese); کریسمس مبارک (Persian) (November 29, 2015)

CHAPTER 34: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS VERSUS REALITY IN SAN BERNANDINO (December 3, 2015)

CHAPTER 35: I’M GOING TO BECOME A PROSECUTOR. WHAT SHOULD I READ TO PREPARE MYSELF? (March 11, 2016)

CHAPTER 36: NO APOLOGIES FOR HIROSHIMA (May 19, 2016)

CHAPTER 37: MISSING THE POINT IN ORLANDO (June 13, 2016)

CHAPTER 38: ASSAULT RIFLES: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION (June 13, 2016)

CHAPTER 39:  PASSAGES (June 24, 2016)

CHAPTER 40: PRAIRIE DEFENDER: THE MURDER TRIALS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN (July 13, 2016)

CHAPTER 41 IS SUPREME COURT JUSTICE BRETT KAVANAUGH GUILTY? (October 20, 2018)

CHAPTER 42: ON A PURELY MORAL BASIS, RATHER THAN A PRACTICAL ONE, TO YOU THINK THERE ARE ANY CRIMES/PEOPLE THAT DESERVE THE DEATH PENALTY? (October 25, 2018)

CHAPTER 43: THE WORM TURNS: BABY BOOMERS ARE NOW RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THE EVIL IN THE WORLD (January 27, 2019)

CHAPTER 44: A CHARACTER SKETCH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN (April 24, 2019)

CHAPTER 45: ZAC EFRON PONTIFICATES ON TED BUNDY (May 4, 2019)

CHAPTER 46: MEMORIES OF WOODSTOCK ON ITS 50th ANNIVERSARY (August 8, 2019)

CHAPTER 47: DEFUND OR DISBAND THE POLICE DEPARTMENT? (June 9, 2020)

CHAPTER 48: EXTREMELY INACCURATE, SHOCKINGLY DISTORTED, AND WARPED (June 2, 2019)

CHAPTER 49: RESEARCHING THE EAST RIVER RIPPER: THE MYSTERIOUS 1891 MURDER OF OLD SHAKESPEARE (January 10, 2021)

CHAPTER 50: A STRONG MAN ARMED (September 15, 2018)


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

RADIO INTERVIEW ON "THE EAST RIVER RIPPER"

Yesterday, August 23, 2021, I did an interview on the True Murders radio show with Dan Zupansky. The subject of the interview was my newest book, The East River Ripper.  Here is a link to the interview: TRUE MURDER: THE MOST SHOCKING KILLERS.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

"THE EAST RIVER RIPPER" NOW BEING DELIVERED: AUTOGRAPHED BOOKPLATE AVAILABLE

 


Copies of The East River Ripper are now being delivered by Amazon and, I presume, also by Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. They can also be ordered from the Kent State University Press.

To celebrate the publication of this book, I am offering a free personalized bookplate bearing my signature to anyone purchasing the book. The plate will read: 

"To [your name here]: I hope you enjoy reading The East River Ripper: The Mysterious 1891 Murder of Old Shakespeare as much as I enjoyed writing it. Signed: George R. Dekle Sr."

The bookplate will be 8.5" by 5.5" with an adhesive backing and will fit nicely inside the front cover of the book.

If you would like to have such a bookplate, email me your address and a proof of purchase at bobdeklebooks@gmail.com, and I will send you the bookplate at no cost to you. (An example of a proof of purchase would be a screenshot of the shopping cart for the online bookstore where you purchase the book).

This offer is good through December 31, 2021.

If you would like for me to send you an autographed bookplate

Thursday, August 12, 2021

ADVANCE COPY OF "THE EAST RIVER RIPPER"

I just got my advanced copy of The East River Ripper: The Mysterious 1891Murder of Old Shakespeare, due out at the end of August. Here is a picture of the back cover.



Saturday, July 24, 2021

TRANSCRIBING THE LINDBERGH KIDNAPPING CASE: SUSPENDING THE PROJECT

Some time I embarked on the project of trying to transcribe the 4,000+ pages of the Lindbergh Kidnapping Trial. No good transcript of the trial was readily available, and I thought it would be helpful for those interested in the case to actually read the testimony of the witnesses.

It soon became clear that I had taken on a monumental task for someone who is not the best typist in the world. I stalled at the testimony of the handwriting examiners and took a hiatus of over a year. When I returned to the project, I discovered that the trial transcript had been published on Kindle.

The transcript comes in three volumes, each costing $2.99. I immediately bought the three volumes. Anyone who wishes to have access to the trial testimony now has a simple, inexpensive vehicle for accessing it. For this reason, I am suspending my project of transcribing the trial. 

Here are links to the three volumes:

VOLUME ONE

VOLUME TWO

VOLUME THREE

ROYAL PALM LITERARY AWARD

I just received word that I am a semi-finalist in the Florida Writers Association's Royal Palm Literary Award category of short nonfiction for a book review of mine that was published in the "Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association." You can read the book review here:  http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.2629860.0041.213


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

PUTTING THE FINISHING TOUCHES ON MY NEW LIBRARY

 

MY LIBRARY VIEWED FROM THE SOUTHWEST CORNER


After several months of building, putting bookshelves together, moving furniture, and arranging books, I finally have my new library almost completely finished. The books are arranged in a modified Dewey Decimal order (I call it the Dekle Decimal System), and all that really remains is to update my catalog of books, a chore which I have been neglecting for several years.


MY LIBRARY VIEWED FROM THE NORTHWEST CORNER


For my entire married life I have never had enough room for all my books, and many of them have been kept in boxes in various storage facilities over the years. I've still got some in storage, but all the important ones are now in the new library. It was fun pulling books out of the attic and out of the various storage places I'd put them in and getting reacquainted with them after not seeing them for years.

I began my library when I was in grammar school at Lake Butler Elementary, and I still have a few books from that time period. The oldest, and possibly the most valuable, books I have were originally in the library of Dr. Seeber King of Lake Butler.


MY LIBRARY VIEWED FROM MY DESK

Every Dewey Decimal classification is represented in my library, but some classifications are more heavily populated than others. I have approximately 47 feet of books in the 200's, which cover the Bible, religion, and mythology; 46 feet of books in the 300's, which cover law, crime, military history, and warfare; 23 feet of books in the 800's, which cover literature, poetry, and theater; and 30 feet of books in the 900's, which cover history. The other Dewey Decimal numbers, plus the fiction books, add another 140 feet of books. And finally, my library contains 50 feet of mass market paperback books. That's approximately 336 feet of books. The count is somewhere over 4,200 books. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

THE EAST RIVER RIPPER: THE MYSTERIOUS 1891 MURDER OF OLD SHAKESPEARE

 The publication date for my latest book on the East River Ripper case is fast approaching, so I thought I'd post some of the  pictures that I collected for illustrations which did not make it into the book. 

In summary, the book is about the mutilation murder of a prostitute in a New York City brothel. It would not have been a remarkable case at all except that the mutilations bore a striking resemblance to the handiwork of Jack the Ripper, who was operating in London at about the same time. The New York City Chief of Detectives, Thomas Byrnes, had been quoted in the paper as being critical of the London Police, and it did not sit well with Scotland Yard. 

THOMAS BYRNES

It wasn't long before the NYPD received a letter purportedly signed by Jack the Ripper saying to batten down the hatches, he was coming to New York to see if the New York police would be any more successful at catching him. Then a prostitute known as Old Shakespeare was murdered in the East River Hotel, and the New York papers had a field day criticizing Byrnes for not immediately catching the ripper.


The above cartoon shows a worried Byrnes unsuccessfully trying to solve the case as the amused heads of the London, Paris, and Berlin Police look on in amusement.

When Byrnes finally announced that he had made an arrest the papers, which had criticized him for not making a quick arrest, began criticizing him for making too hasty an arrest. The sentiment was that Byrnes had picked out an Algerian immigrant who went by the nickname of "Frenchy" as a fall guy and was going to pin the murder on him regardless of whether he was actually guilty.

History remembers the case as a false conviction brought about by the collusion of police, prosecutors, and sleazy expert witnesses; and that the defendant's incompetent court-appointed counsel bungled the case away. It was only after an extended crusade by heroic newspapermen that justice was done and Frenchy was pardoned after serving 11 years of incarceration. That's how history remembers the case.

Here are a few problems with how history remembers the case. De Lancey Nicoll, the elected District Attorney who oversaw and helped to try the case, enjoyed a sterling reputation among the bench and bar. Charles E. Simms Jr., the ADA who helped try the case, was also above reproach. Francis L. Wellman, the lead prosecutor, although he was unpopular with the defense bar in New York City, was a well-respected trial attorney in his own right. 



The expert witnesses for the prosecution, Prof. Henry Formad and Dr. Austin Flint, were two of the most well-respected medico-legal experts of the 19th century, and their entry into the case did not occur in such a way as to make it plausible that they collaborated in a conspiracy to frame an innocent man.

DR. AUSTIN FLINT

Modern police officers would have a difficult time fabricating the forensic evidence submitted to the prosecution experts, it is difficult to imagine the ignorant officers of the 19th century NYPD concocting such evidence.

I discuss these issues in greater detail in the book, and I show how an innocent Frenchy could have been a victim of circumstances and his own poor judgment rather than a victim of a police frame-up.

There are other problems with the received history of the case, but I will point them out in future posts.




Wednesday, May 26, 2021

FEEDBACK ON "THE LAST MURDER: THE INVESTIGATION, PROSECUTION, AND EXECUTION OF TED BUNDY"

May 23 was my mumbledy mumbleth birthday, and I got a birthday wish from an unexpected source. Over the past few weeks I have been corresponding with Misha Hajj, a podcast producer who is working on a series of podcasts about Ted Bundy. I helped her obtain a copy of my book on the subject, and she expressed her appreciation with the following letter:


Happy birthday! Thank you so much for all of your hard work during your DECADES as a prosecutor. Thanks to your efforts the world has been saved from the plague of Bundy interviews and books he would have no doubt participated in if still alive. 


Your book, The Last Murder, is hands down my favorite out of the eleven Bundy books I’ve read. Your witty, hilarious and frank account of your role in the Kimberly Leach trial stands no contest to some of the other attempts to cover the case. 

I hope you have an amazing restful day, surrounded by those you love! 

Stay Safe!
Misha Hajj, Host & Executive Producer True Crime Aficionados

Saturday, May 8, 2021

FEEDBACK ON "PRAIRIE DEFENDER: THE MURDER TRIALS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN"

I recently received a nice email from a relative of one of Abraham Lincoln's clients in a case I wrote about in "Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln." He graciously allowed me to publish the letter, which gives some information on the client's life after Lincoln defended him.

Dear Mr. Dekle,

I've really enjoyed reading your book, Prairie Defender, especially the chapter on the Moses Loe murder trial.  I have always had an interest in Lincoln and the Civil War, and a personal interest in this case since Moses Loe was my great-great grandmother's first cousin.  I was also interested to see that you are a fellow Floridian and associated with UF.  I'm a UF grad (1980) with an MA in History.  At one point I considered writing up the Loe case for submission to a historical journal.  Now, I'm glad I didn't, since your account, with your legal expertise, is far more perceptive than anything I could offer.

I think this case is particularly interesting since Lincoln saved Moses's life from the hangman and Moses eventually gave his life for Lincoln's foremost cause of saving the Union, a cause for which Lincoln himself proved to be the ultimate sacrifice.

I hope to visit Moses's grave the next time I am in the Atlanta area.  Last year, while in Chattanooga, I had the honor of visiting the grave of his older brother, Fielding (Fielden) Loe, a Mexican-American War veteran who was also killed in the Civil War.

Thank you very much for your research and your insights.

Regards,
Rodney Dillon, Jr.

Friday, April 2, 2021

THE ROOT OF AMERICA'S FIREARM PROBLEM

The incident that occurred today (April 2, 2021) at the Capitol was a demonstration that firearms are not the cause of the egregious acts of violence that seem to plague contemporary society. A man rammed his automobile into some Capitol policemen and then got out and began stabbing policemen with a knife. One was killed and another seriously injured before officers armed with firearms put an end to his rampage. In the time immediately after the incident, before anyone involved in the atrocity was identified, the talking heads on a certain 24 hour news station wondered what would cause someone to do something like that. Since only the police deployed firearms, there were no calls to tighten gun control, and I heard no calls for automobile control or knife control. I predicted that the perpetrator would have mental health issues, and as the day wore on, it turned out that his Facebook posts revealed a young man in some form of mental torment who had been spiraling down from bad to worse over a period of years

Which brings us to the failure of gun control. It won't stop violence. England has stringent gun control laws, and those laws didn't stop the random acts of violence. The bad guys switched to knives, and now there is an English movement for knife control. If they get the knives under control, the violence prone can switch to axes. When they ban axes, the next weapon of choice might be the claw hammer. 

What causes gun violence? Not guns. I've been around guns all my life and have shot everything from am M79 grenade launcher (which is fun to shoot) to a single shot, rolling block .22 caliber rook rifle (which is also fun to shoot), and no firearm I have ever handled has inspired me to climb a tower and start shooting random passers by. I have never seen or heard tell of a firearm like the one in Terry Pratchett's science fantasy novel Men at Arms, which took control of its possessor and made him commit murder.

I put my finger on the root cause of gun violence in a blog post that I made in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting back in 2012, SANDY HOOK AND GUN CONTROL. The root cause of gun control is the Supreme Court's decision in O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 95 S.Ct. 2486 (U.S.Fla. 1975). O'Connor severely limited the states' ability to involuntarily commit the mentally ill. The gist of this opinion was that mentally ill people cannot be locked up unless they are shown to be dangerous. To put it crudely, just acting weird is not enough for involuntary hospitalization. The Supreme Court put it more delicately, but they were saying the same thing: “May the State fence in the harmless mentally ill solely to save its citizens from exposure to those whose ways are different?” Before 1975 we regularly locked up people who were acting weird but who had never harmed anyone. And I believe at that time we had fewer mass murders. Most of the mass killers of recent vintage ( I’m thinking particularly about the man who ran amok at Virginia Tech) acted weird long before they killed anyone. Under O’Connor, they couldn’t be locked up because they hadn’t harmed anyone, or if they had harmed someone, there was a mental health professional who testified that they were all better now and weren't dangerous any more. I vividly remember one case we had where a man kept committing arsons. He'd get arrested, the doctors would say he was mentally ill, but he didn't need hospitalization, and under O'Connor he'd get put back on the street where--you guessed it, he set something else on fire. He finally "burned out" on his hobby of setting fires, and thankfully he never hurt anyone.

Now, I’m not in favor of locking people up merely because they act weird. Most people who act weird don’t commit mass murders. Just as most people who own guns don’t commit mass murders. 

The relevant Florida standard for involuntary commitment, which is pretty much universal throughout the United States is: 

"There is a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself or others in the near future, as evidenced by recent behavior." Fla. Stat. 394.463(1)(b)2. 

I was a mental health prosecutor for several years, and here's what happens in a typical involuntary commitment: The patient is held for 72 hours and released. I never felt more like I was spinning my wheels and accomplishing nothing than when handling a case with a a patient who was obviously nutty as a fruitcake and in need of treatment, but was turned loose because there was "[no] substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself or others in the near future...." [emphasis supplied].

We had a man once who took off all his clothes in the middle of the night, got a shotgun, marched naked down the hallway of his parents house into their bedroom, announced that his father was the Devil, and shot him to death as he lay beside his wife. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and shipped off to the state mental hospital, and six months later the hospital wanted to turn him loose because he was cured and there was no "substantial likelihood" he would kill his father again. We were able to keep that one locked up.

Time after time these mass shooters turn out to be people with a history of revolving door mental health issues. The Supreme Court needs to readdress their holding in O'Connor and devise some way to allow the authorities to control the mentally ill who are potentially dangerous. The standard of "substantial likelihood [of causing] serious bodily harm ... in the near future" is too stringent a standard, and it allows dangerous people to go untreated and spiral farther and farther down into the abyss of desire to do violence until they act out and we have another tragedy.

The Justices of the Supreme Court are some of the brightest minds in the legal profession. Surely they can devise some means of protecting the rights of the mentally ill while protecting the public from the mentally ill.

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. Just in case they really want my autograph for themselves rather than to sell on ebay, I will send them an autographed picture of the visual aid we used during final argument.



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.