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.
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|
|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.
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.