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The Danish Farmhand

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  • The Danish Farmhand

    The story of the “Danish farmhand” was brought up in another Carrie Brown thread. I thought I would write something here about this suspect.

    I first wrote about the Danish farmhand in my article The New York Affair Part 3 (Ripper Notes #19, July, 2004) and concluded at the time that it did indeed sound almost too good to be true. I particularly wondered why the “farmer” took ten years to come forward with his information and how it was that he appeared at just the right time to help Ben Ali’s cause. Since that time I have done more research into this story.

    A campaign to obtain clemency for Ben Ali began in July of 1893, some six months after he was declared insane and moved from Sing Sing to Matteawan Asylum. The then Governor, Roswell P. Flower, refused to pardon the Algerian and the matter seems to have been dropped by Ben Ali’s lawyers. At the request of the French Consul Ovide Robillard, a New York lawyer of French background, took up the case and tried again in November of 1897 but Governor Frank S. Black also refused to grant a pardon. The same thing happened in March of 1900 when Governor Theodore Roosevelt informed Robillard that “no new evidence had been introduced which would warrant any clemency.” Just over one year later, however, Robillard came up with new evidence to exonerate his client.

    On 23 May, 1901, the story broke that Robillard was making another attempt at freeing Ben Ali and that he now had some very intriguing information provided by an unnamed New York businessman who was quickly identified as 59 year old George Damon, the owner of a foundry which manufactured equipment and supplies for the printing industry. The story told by Damon was that about a month before the murder of Carrie Brown (one source says 3 days before) he had gone down to Castle Garden, the then entry point to the Port of New York, and hired a man named “Frank” to work at his country home in Cranford, New Jersey (not on a farm). He didn’t know the man’s last name but he thought he was a Dane and that he might have been a sailor. Damon seems to have been afraid of “Frank” and stated that he was “of a sullen disposition, and altogether a dangerous customer to handle.

    At 6 o’clock on the morning after the murder of Carrie Brown (24th April, 1891) Damon went into his stables, where “Frank” had his room, but was warned by another of his employees not to disturb the Dane. He was told that “Frank” had been out all night and had only arrived home late that morning and that he was asleep. The businessman was told that “Frank” was acting “exceedingly ugly.” Five or ten days later (one source says the next day) “Frank” unexpectedly left in the middle of the night. When a maid was sent to clean “Frank’s” room she apparently found a bloody shirt and, some sources say, a pair of blood stained pants. A brass key with a tag stamped with the number 31 was also found, reportedly in the pocket of the pants.

    The newspapers were filled with coverage of the Brown murder and Damon knew that his hired hand had been away from home on the night in question, that he seemed to fit the description of the killer, and that the murder had occurred in room 31 of the East River Hotel. In order to check his growing suspicions Damon and one of his city employees, a clerk named Charles Bremman, went to the saloon in the East River Hotel where they were able to compare “Frank’s” key with the hotel’s keys. According to the men they matched.

    George Damon kept the key but let the matter drop after discussing it with a friend, one John Lee, who advised him to say nothing. Eventually either the key was given to a lawyer friend who was interested in the Ben Ali case or the story was mentioned to one of the lawyers “who was chiefly instrumental in convicting “Frenchy” (possibly Assistant District Attorney Charles Simms), either way the story soon reached the ears of Robillard.

    There are some interesting points to keep in mind. George Damon was a well off businessman who was owner of the Damon Type Founders Co., Inc. (also known as Damon & Peets Co., Damon Peets Co. and George Damon & Sons over its history) and who had some standing in the business world. He therefore had something to lose if it turned out he was lying. Along with his affidavit there was also the affidavit of his clerk, Charles Bremman, who supported Damon’s story of going to the East River Hotel, which was only blocks from 44 Beekman Street where Damon Type Founders Co. was located, and of comparing the key with those of the hotel. The fact that the keys to the hotel were kept on a rack behind the bar adds support to Damon and Bremman’s story. Moreover, Damon’s friend, John Lee, also signed an affidavit stating that Damon had told him the whole story back in 1891. It was also stated that the key was taken up to room 31 in the East River Hotel, by whom is unclear, and that it opened the door.

    But why did George Damon wait ten years before he came forward? His stated reasons were various: he didn’t want to get involved; he was afraid that “Frank” might harm his family; he thought that Ben Ali was probably better off in jail with a roof over his head and three squares a day and that, regardless of his innocence in the Brown murder, he probably deserved to be in jail for something.

    Was “Frank” the murderer of Carrie Brown? Impossible to say with any certainty now but the tale was important enough, along with other evidence, to help get Ameer Ben Ali the pardon he deserved.