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Ameer Ben Ali

Sentenced to life in prison in 1891 for the mutilation murder of a prostitute in New York City, Ameer Ben Ali was exonerated and released 11 years later based on the identification of an alternative suspect and an affidavit from a prominent journalist suggesting that a trail of blood linking Ben Ali to the crime had been planted by the police.

Sixty-year-old Carrie Brown was found strangled and mutilated on April 24, 1891, in a room she and a man about half her age had checked into the night before in the East River Hotel in Manhattan. Speculation soon was rampant that Jack the Ripper had arrived in New York—a notion readily discounted because the evisceration had been exceedingly clumsy, in contrast with the surgical skill notable in the London murders. But the very idea that an imitator, if not Jack the Ripper in person, might be loose in New York transformed a crime that would have received little attention into a press sensation. Newspapers were quick to remind Thomas F. Byrnes, the New York Chief of Detectives, that he had chided Scotland Yard 18 months earlier for failing to catch Jack the Ripper, boasting that if the crimes had occurred in New York, “the murderer would have been caught long ago.”

A protracted investigation stood to embarrass Byrnes, who enjoyed international renown for solving big cases promptly. And by April 26, two days after Brown’s body was found, it appeared that her case would be no exception when Byrnes issued a written directive saying: “General Alarm!—Arrest a man about five feet nine inches high, about 31 years old, light hair and mustache, speaks broken English.”

George Frank was an alias for Ameer Ben Ali, an Algerian sailor in his 30s who had a criminal record for nothing more serious than vagrancy. Ben Ali, who also was known as “Frenchy,” was not the man who had checked into the hotel with Brown on April 23, but he had occupied a room across the hall. He had been in custody as a material witness to the crime since the day after it occurred. Moreover, except for the fact that he spoke broken English, he did not fit the description Byrnes had released on April 26; he was taller and had dark, not light, hair.

Byrnes soon revealed to reporters that the “circumstantial facts” consisted of a trail of blood leading from the victim’s room to the room Frenchy had occupied, and that blood had been found on Frenchy’s shirt, socks, and under his fingernails. At the trial, which was held June 26 through July 3, 1891, the various blood spots were the primary evidence. District Attorney DeLancey Nicoll called three chemists who testified that the blood contained traces of partially digested food, suggesting that it had come from abdominal stab wounds Ben Ali allegedly had inflicted on the victim.

Ben Ali’s court-appointed lawyers, Fred House and Abraham Levy, called expert witnesses who contradicted state experts’ conclusions regarding the blood, but failed to call any witnesses, including newspaper reporters, who would have testified that there had been no trail of blood. Ben Ali took the stand in his own defense, testifying, “I don’t kill her, I don’t know her.” By all accounts, he was a terrible witness.

Despite the deficiencies in the defense, the jury, after deliberating two hours on July 3, refused to convict Ben Ali of first-degree murder, carrying a death sentence, but rather convicted him of second-degree murder, carrying a life sentence.

Ben Ali insisted that he was innocent and had been framed by Byrnes—a claim that journalist Jacob Riis believed. As a police reporter for the New York Sun at the time of the crime, Riis was among the first newsmen to arrive at the scene and he knew first-hand that there had been no trail of blood.

When appeals failed, Ben Ali became despondent and, in 1893, he was moved from Sing Sing to the New York State Asylum for Insane Criminals at Matteawan. Riis continued to champion Ben Ali’s innocence, while House, Ben Ali’s defense lawyer, said Riis was wasting his time and, even if he were to prevail, “Frenchy is crazy and is better off where he is than at liberty.”

By the turn of the century, however, Riis had built a reputation as a writer, photographer, and reformer that no doubt was instrumental in attracting other influential persons to Ben Ali’s cause, among them Jules Cambon, the French ambassador to the United States, and Frederic R. Coudert, a prominent lawyer and Columbia University trustee.

They and others retained a well-known New York attorney, Paul Fuller, to represent Ben Ali. In 1901, Fuller obtained a significant affidavit from George Damon, a prominent resident of Crawford, New Jersey. The affidavit stated that a Danish servant in Damon’s employ had been away from home the night of the crime and that Damon later discovered blood-stained clothing and a key from the East River Hotel in the man’s room. Damon had turned the evidence over to authorities and did not know what became of it, but the servant apparently left the country.

Based on that affidavit and another from Riis disputing Byrnes’s claim that there had been a trail of blood, Governor Benjamin B. Odell, Jr., granted Ben Ali a full pardon. He was released on April 22, 1902, just three days short of the 11th anniversary of his arrest. A short time later, he left the country, presumably for France.
- Cara Settipani and Rob Warden
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1891
Race/Ethnicity:Don't Know
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct