When Jack the Ripper Came to New York

Water Street at Catherine Slip

The evening April 23, 1891, The East River Hotel on Water Street was doing a brisk business. Carrie Brown was one of the prostitutes who brought a john there that night. She was well known as “Old Shakespeare” for her English accent and ability to spout Hamlet with enough liquor in her. The john, who was said to be a slim foreigner with a light mustache, signed the register “C. Knick” and was given the key to room 31.

Carrie Brown

The next morning the night clerk noticed that the key had not been returned and went to investigate. That’s when he found Carrie’s mutilated body. She died from being strangled but it was hard to tell from the carnage on the bed. Whoever had killed her had also stabbed and cut her repeatedly.

The newspapers jumped on the crime, with New York Herald writing: “Ghastly Butchery By A ‘Jack The Ripper’. Murder and Mutilation in Local Whitechapel Almost Identical with the Terrible Work of the Mysterious London Fiend. Strangled First, Then Cut To Pieces.” Many quoted Police Superintendent Thomas Byrnes’ boast that if the Ripper had been in New York he would have been caught with 36 hours. In response, the police flooded the area and within days had a few suspects. One was Ameer Ben Ali, known as “Frenchy,” an Algerian who had a room across the hall from Carrie’s on the night of the murder.

The police claimed Frenchy had been found with blood on his socks and under his fingernails, and there was blood stains on the floor and door frame. As he wasn’t seen with Carrie and didn’t match the john’s description, the thought was that he had crept over to Carrie’s room after the john had left and killed her. He was a terrible witness for his own defense, as he didn’t speak English well and lived a disreputable life. A New York Times article wrote, “At times the man was dramatic, at other times tears poured down his cheeks, and at all times his gestures were interesting, sometimes ludicrous. He frequently swore before Allah that he was innocent.” Frenchy was quickly convicted, some say railroaded, on scant evidence to second degree murder. On July 10, 1891, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Sing Sing.

In 1902, the governor of New York pardoned Frenchy. Evidence, including the key from room 31 and a bloody shirt, was found in the room of a Danish farmhand in Cranford NJ who had been absent the night of the murder. Ten days after the murder, the Dane suddenly disappeared. Also Jacob Riis, who had visited the crime site the morning after the murder, claimed that there was no blood on the doorframe or floor between the rooms.

Cranford NJ Farmhouse

Since Frenchy’s release there has been talk that Jack the Ripper did come to New York, leaving after the murder. However, no one has ever been convicted.

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The Horror of Hospital Island

In 1832, a small, 3-acre island in Passamaquoddy Bay began being used to quarantine arriving passengers who were thought to be bringing cholera or typhus  into the United States. There was no drinkable water on the island, so it was brought over by sailboat.

Named “Hospital Island” in 1847, it was especially busy during the Great Potato Famine. Many Irish immigrants died both on route or upon landing and as many as 400 people were buried on the island. A storm in 1869, the “Great Saxby Gale” took off most of the soil on the island, including the cemetery. A report at the time read,” … the sea broke so violently upon the Island, as to make serious inroads on the soil, washing away the earth from the outer edge of the Irish emigrants’ grave yard and uncovering the coffins, in some cases tearing out the ends of the same, exposing the ghastly contents of skull and bones, and in some instances washing them out; even now the curious who visit the Island can see the arm or leg bones sticking out through the soil.”

The bones were scattered along the coast of Maine, with stories told of kids using wash-up skulls for soccer balls. Now the island is supposedly filled with the wailing of spirits, who are never at rest. In 1995, a Celtic cross was erected to honor the dead.

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The President’s Secret Cancer

While presidential lies today seem shocking, it’s actually rather tame in comparison to 1893. In June of President Grover Cleveland second term, the country was in a financial depression. An avid cigar-smoker, Cleveland noticed a quarter-sized bump on the roof of his mouth. He asked his doctor, Major Robert O’Reilly, to take a look. O’Reilly sent anonymous samples to two separate medical organizations. Both came back with a diagnosis of cancer.


Fearful of panicking the nation and Wall Street with news of a terminal illness and a surgery that could kill him, Cleveland decided to keep it a secret. He told the press he was going fishing on his friend Commodore Elias Benedict’s yacht. Instead, six doctors set up an operating room in the yacht’s saloon for the surgery, which took place on July 1st.. Describing the 90-minute operation, one doctor who was there later said, “The entire left upper jaw was removed from the first bicuspid to just beyond the last molar and nearly up to the middle line. A small portion of the soft palate was removed. . . The entire operation was done within the mouth, without any external incision.. .the absence of any external scar greatly aided in keeping the operation an entire secret.”


Casts of Cleveland’s palate in 1893 and 1897

Four days later Cleveland returned from his trip, vacationing at his house in Cape Cod. His trademark bushy mustache and a rubber insert in the roof of his mouth made healing less noticeable. In early August, he addressed Congress, none the wiser, and he lived another 15 years. The public didn’t find out the truth until 9 years after his death.

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No Cure for Greed

Based on his training and background, Dr. Albert Abrams was a really good turn-of-the-century doctor. As a young man, he studied at the Medical College of the Pacific, then in Germany at the University of Heidelberg in 1882, and was awarded an MD at Cooper College in San Francisco, where he later taught for more than a decade. He published a number of articles, including one on the danger of medical fakers, writing “A physician is only allowed to think he knows it all, but a quack. . . is permitted to know he knows it all.” So when did he decide to become what he warned about?


Dr. Albert Abrams, before becoming a fraudster

In 1917, Abrams proposed that diseases had vibrations, which he called Electronic Reactions of Abrams, that these diseases can be cured with the same vibrations. The next year he conveniently created the Dynomizer, a machine that can diagnose any disease with a single drop of blood and later with only a patient’s signature, and the Oscillaclast, a machine that produces the necessary vibrations to destroy any disease. Abrams then licensed Oscillaclasts to technicians he trained, making them sign a contract they would never open the machine. He claimed opening it would upset its delicate balance but in truth he didn’t want anyone to see what was inside his machines. By 1921, there were more than 3000 technicians, many charging patients to cure diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and syphilis, and sometimes all three at once. Abrams, meanwhile, was making millions.


Abrams “curing” diseases in 1923

Gradually, people who weren’t actually cured started filing complaints against Abrams, including a high-profile case where a man who had stomach cancer died. In 1923, a case was brought against Abrams in court. For the court Robert Millikan, who had that year won the Nobel Prize in physics, examined the Oscillaclast machine and wrote “It’s a contraption which might have been thrown together by a ten-year-old boy who knows a little about electricity to mystify an eight-year-old boy who knows nothing about it.”


Abrams escaped prosecution by contracting pneumonia and, unable to cure his own disease, dying in 1924.



Posted in American History Kids, disease, medical quackery

Blackbeard’s Headless Ghost

In May 1718, Blackbeard’s large fleet of pirate ships boldly blocked the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He robbed approaching ships and captured rich Charleston citizens, who he held for ransom.

Afterwards, Blackbeard retreated to his base on Ocracoke Island, where he and his crew threw raucous parties. Fed up, the governor of Virginia hired Lieutenant Robert Maynard to arrest Blackbeard. As Maynard approached the island, Blackbeard responded with cannon fire. Maynard’s crew took a lot of casualties. The rest hid below deck. When Blackbeard boarded the ship, Maynard’s crew attacked. The fearsome pirate was shot five times and stabbed 20 times before finally dying.


Maynard cut off the pirate’s head and hung it on the front of his ship and dumped Blackbeard’s body into the cove. His crew claimed the body swam three times around the ship before finally sinking into the water. His ghost has been supposedly seen searching the empty beaches for his head.


Posted in American History Kids, ghosts, pirates