Walker Schulte Schneider, MPhil candidate in American History at Fitzwilliam College, looks at how a 19th-century trial reflected uncertainties about politics, science, and race in New York City.
On a somewhat chilly morning in late April 1891, the body of an elderly woman named Carrie Brown was discovered on the top floor on a seedy hotel in lower Manhattan. Brown, who was a prostitute, had been strangled to death and brutally mutilated. The discovery of Brown’s body sent ripples of fear throughout New York City; New Yorkers were keenly aware of Jack the Ripper’s grisly escapades in London and many believed that Brown’s death signaled that the fiend of Whitechapel had crossed the Atlantic to conduct his bloody work in Manhattan.
The murder of Carrie Brown posed a unique challenge for Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes, the top police official in New York City. In 1891, Byrnes was in the middle of modernizing the city’s police force. Over the past decade he had transformed what was an unruly and indolent group of mob-breakers into a professional bureaucracy of crime-fighters who actively worked to protect elite interests and enforce New York’s racial hierarchy. Byrnes was proud of his work, and, when Jack the Ripper was terrorizing London in 1888, publicly criticized Scotland Yard. Byrnes declared that if Jack the Ripper were to ever come to New York City, he would be swiftly caught and brought to justice. Brown’s death provided Byrnes with an unexpected opportunity to validate this assertion.
The discovery of Brown’s body also provided Byrnes with an opportunity to seize power for himself. Control over New York City’s law enforcement landscape was hotly contested between three parties: Byrnes, private detectives, and politicians. Byrnes wanted to maintain his autocratic control over the department; private detectives sought to privatize policing; and corrupt politicians tried to wield the police as their personal fixers. The murder of Brown, therefore, took on elevated importance. If Byrnes could solve the case and bring Jack the Ripper to justice, he would prove himself more capable than Scotland Yard and use this reputation to maintain his power. Should he fail to find Brown’s murderer, it could open up a window for both private detectives and politicians to wrest control away from Byrnes and seize power for themselves.
A week after Brown was murdered, Byrnes arrested an Algerian immigrant named Ameer Ben Ali and accused Ben Ali of killing Brown. Proof of Ben Ali’s guilt, Byrnes claimed, lay in the blood stains that led from Brown’s room in the hotel to the room where Ben Ali had slept that night. Moreover, when Ben Ali was arrested, his shirt was heavily stained with blood. These blood stains became the focus of the trial. In the late 19th century, forensic science was still in its infancy, and while scientific analysis had been used as complementary or circumstantial evidence in previous trials, this was seemingly the first trial in New York City’s history that primarily relied on science as the basis for a conviction. The trial then became not just a question of whether or not the blood stains would show if Ben Ali had murdered Carrie Brown, but also whether or not to give science the authority to determine guilt in a court of law.
Although the majority of the trial focused on the merits of science as direct evidence, the prosecutor’s closing statement focused on Ben Ali’s race. The prosecutor argued that as a dark-skinned immigrant, Ben Ali was biologically and culturally inferior. This meant, he explained to the jury, that Ben Ali was naturally prone to violence and brutality. The 12 white male jurors should assume that the defendant had committed the crime, the prosecutor said, because, as a dark-skinned person, Ben Ali was naturally savage and violent.
In the late nineteenth century, this was not conjecture. The members of the American intellectual and scientific community during this era almost unanimously agreed that black and brown people were less evolved than white Euro-Americans, and, as such, were intrinsically prone to criminality. And this information was not sequestered in ivory towers - the general enthusiasm for science in this age ensured that these “findings” about racial differences based in pseudo-science and anecdotal evidence frequently made their way into popular publications like newspapers and magazines. So, when the prosecutor spoke of Ben Ali’s inferiority, the jury listened with the same solemnity and respect they accorded to the scientific analysis earlier in the trial.
I won’t tell you what if jury decided Ben Ali was guilty or not. I don’t like sharing the ending of this story for two reasons. One, this saga is still unfolding. At this moment, American police departments are still trying to seize authority, science is still increasingly relied upon for crime-solving, and racist myths about black criminality still persist and still inform the foundation of the American criminal justice system. Two, I wrote a blog that follows the daily developments of this case day-by-day (over thirty some days). To learn more about this Gilded Age murder mystery and the fate of Ben Ali, go to newyorkontrial.com and begin reading under the “Past Events” tab. This story not only follows the gripping tale of Brown, Ben Ali, and Byrnes, it also reveals the struggles and soul of Gilded Age New York City. Perhaps it can even shed new light on the current moment and provide new understandings about the history of criminal justice in the United States.