HISTORY BEHIND THE SCENE What’s the real story behind that historical scene from your favorite TV show or feature film? A semi-regular feature on the Bowery Boys blog, we will be reviving this series as we follow along with TNT’s limited series The Alienist. Look for other articles here about other historically themed television shows (Mad Men, The Knick, The Deuce, Boardwalk Empire and Copper). And follow along with the Bowery Boys on Twitter at @boweryboys for more historical context of your favorite shows.
In 1888, a serial killer terrorized the Whitechapel district of London, leaving a set of disturbingly gory crime scenes which horrified the public and galvanized the press. It was soon believed at least five of the victims (and possibly many more) were killed by the same hand — a shadowy figure referred to as Jack the Ripper. The victims, all women, were Whitechapel prostitutes.
In 1891, the killer struck again in as gruesome a fashion as before. The victim was again a prostitute, a middle-aged woman “of dissolute and intemperate habits” named Carrie Brown who was found murdered in a lodging house on April 24, 1891. The only significant difference to the brutal crimes of 1888 was its location.
Carrie Brown was murdered in New York City.
Jack the Ripper’s alleged ‘New York City spree’ is the sinister pretext for the murder investigation depicted on The Alienist. Investigators in 1896, just five years after the death of Carrie Brown, would have had knowledge of Jack’s possible appearance on the streets of New York.
Of course, nothing has ever been proven that Brown’s death was associated in any way with the 1888 murders in Whitechapel. But that didn’t stop the press from speculating. After all, such twisted, grotesque crime sold newspapers.
The circumstances of Brown’s ghastly murder were indeed extraordinary.
Let’s quote from that defining text of New York City crime folklore — Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury. “The first Jack-the-Ripper murder in New York is said to have occurred [at the old East River Hotel at Catherine and Water streets] when an old hag known as Shakespeare was cut to pieces.”
Brown was known as Shakespeare for her habit of quoting the bard whenever possible. According to Asbury, “Shakespeare always claimed that she had come from an aristocratic family and that in her youth she had been a celebrated actress in England. She supported her contention by reciting, in return for a bottle of swan gin, every female role in Hamlet, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice.”
Her lifeless body was discovered the next morning, stabbed and repeatedly slashed with a cross cut into her thigh.
Below: Brown’s body wore mutilations similar to those found in the Whitechapel killings
From the Evening World the day following her murder: “No crime which has been committed in this city for years has stirred the Police Department to such tremendous activity as the horrible butchery of Carrie Brown, alias ‘Old Shakespeare’ by ‘Jack the Ripper or his double, at the East River Hotel.”
Police chief inspector Thomas F. Byrnes had previously chided Scotland Yard for their inability to catch a killer. Perhaps that’s why there was an immediate arrest in the case — an Algerian man named Ameer Ben Ali (nicknamed Frenchy). He was convicted of the crime and unjustly sent to prison, despite little evidence of his involvement in the murder. (He remained there for eleven years before he was eventually exonerated.)
There were doubts about Ameer Ben Ali’s involvement with the murder from the very beginning — as evidenced by this poem in the Buffalo Morning Express, published a couple of weeks after the murder.
It didn’t matter that, in 1891, Jack seemed to have resumed his murder spree at the very same time in London. It’s unclear whether the London slayings attributed to this singular killer were related to the 1888 murders but newspapers made the assumption anyway. In total, eleven ‘Whitechapel murders’ from 1888 to 1891 are attributed to Jack.
Below: Puck Magazine, published at the Puck Building on Houston Street, speculated on the Ripper’s identity in 1889.
Brown’s murder was not the only one eager newspaper publishers linked to the legend of Jack the Ripper. It happened with such frequency that Twentieth Century Magazine (published in May 1891) attempted to explain the phenomenon. “A little more than a month ago a homicide was committed in New York, the incidents of which were so like those attending the London homicides that the unknown perpetrator of the deed was also called Jack the Ripper. So that the name of Jack the Ripper stands for a person who kills a woman or women and afterword mutilates the body or bodies.”
Jack the Ripper was reportedly seen throughout New York, due to the many eyewitness descriptions of both the London killer which ran in American newspapers and descriptions of the suspected New York killer.
Below: Such headlines ran in the newspapers even before the Carrie Brown murder (New York World, March 8, 1891)
Below: From the Buffalo Evening News (May 25, 1891)
Publishers’ verve in linking any and all grisly murders to London’s killer might have inspired the following letter, sent to the New York Evening World offices on December 17, 1892:
(For those following The Alienist, Bleecker Street is also the destination of choice for that story’s killer.)
In the late fall of 1893, the body of a mutilated woman was found in the East River, and it too, for a time, was linked to Jack the Ripper. “On the hasty examination made last night some marks, taken to be somewhat similar, were discovered, but a thorough examination made this morning shows that they were simply bruises.”
By 1894 people stopped looking for Jack the Ripper in New York although several arrested murderers were described very explicitly as Ripper-style killers. One example from February 3, 1894: “Only a little over two years ago Henry G. Dowd rivaled the fiendish Jack the Ripper by slashing seven intoxicated, but inoffensive men in the Fourth Ward.”