|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 48, August 2003. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
For the reigning patricians of New York's Gilded Age, Christmastime must have seemed a yearly apotheosis - an entire worldview reified and reaffirmed in the bright blur of dinner parties and concerts, the gaslit gleam of holly garlands, ornamented evergreens and mahogany paneled banquet halls; a time to assess and enjoy the prodigious fruits of their seasonally sanctioned excess.
And there was, by 1903, a growing American middle-class wholly imbued with the indomitable conviction that all that separated them from some Fifth Avenue fantasy of a Palladian villa or French chateau was a lucky break. They could even, from time to time, rub shoulders with the great captains of industry in the same fashionable hotels and festooned restaurants where, from lofty, vaulted heights, frescoed baccante and nymphs, tumbling gilt-wood cherubs and putti smiled down from painted ceilings and corniced moldings upon millionaire revelers and splurging shop-owners alike.
Then there was the tarnished underside of the Gilded Age the sweatshops and immigrant hovels far removed from the burnished haunts of the Astors and Vanderbilts. It was the New York known to vast legions of its turn-of-the-century inhabitants and at the lowest end of this lowest class dwelt the denizens of the Fourth Ward. Christmas in this district brought little cheer, and, from the dreary, ten-ement-lined docksides, the fantastic jumble of crenelated, turreted, spired and mansard crowned rooftops of Uptown's mansions and skyscrapers must have seemed as far away and strange as Camelot or the Land of Oz.
It remained the same squalid and dangerous warren it had been thirteen years earlier when, in one of the seedy, indistinguishable flophouses fronting the river, an aged prostitute named Carrie Brown was horribly butchered by a killer whom many newspapers and some police suspected was none other than London's infamous Jack the Ripper. Now, just four days before Christmas, 1903, the Yuletide revelry of America's greatest city was riven by shocking but vaguely reminiscent front-page news. For those with faulty memories or too young to recall, the press spelled it out in bold-faced type: "WOMAN SLAIN BY A 'JACK THE RIPPER' The murder was marked by the atrocity which gave the series of Whitechapel murders their world-wide notoriety and was committed within a stone's throw of where 'Old Shakespeare' was similarly killed in 1891." 1
Whatever doleful renown has come to the victims of Jack the Ripper has utterly eluded Sarah Martin. It is safe to say that her name has not been invoked for a century the sparse details of her hapless life can be found sketched in the tabloids and broadsheets published in the bustling days before Christmas, one hundred years ago, but it was her grisly death which made her briefly newsworthy. Sarah Martin was the wife of a deep-sea fisherman named Martin Larson and was a prostitute. We are told that she had been "well known for fifteen years in the part of the city in which she met her death"2 Ironically, she may well have known fellow streetwalker Carrie Brown, alias "Old Shakespeare", murdered in a shockingly similar manner thirteen years earlier and only a block and a half away from the spot where Martin met her end.
The evening of Saturday, December 19, 1903 was chilly, wet and windy, the temperature hovering around 40 degrees when Sarah Martin entered the ramshackle, three-story structure called Kelly's Hotel at 11 James Slip on the southeast corner of Water Street, a short, one block walk from the East River. To the locals and sailors who sometimes utilized the "resort", the Kelly Hotel was more familiarly known as "slaughter house point". Three months earlier, the hotelkeeper, William Keyes, had been murdered there and in the course of recurring police raids, no fewer than 300 women had been hauled away on charges of prostitution. The current titular proprietor, James Kelly, had regularly been arrested for excise violation, but it was well known to the locals that "Sock" Gleason was the real owner of the establishment, preferring to keep a low profile for reasons that might readily be guessed.
Despite the inclement weather, the district was a busy place that Saturday for women like Martin and 'entrepreneurs' like Gleason. The army transport "Kilpatrick" was in dock, disgorging two battalions of the Second Cavalry for a brief respite before proceeding for Manila to participate in that inglorious and protracted struggle dubbed the "Philippine Insurrection" which followed the political vacuum left by the Spanish American War. The troopers had just been paid and were everywhere in evidence: "The Bowery seemed tinted with blue, so many were the uniforms of that color on the street. Chinatown and the Tenderloin, too, had their share of the visitors, many of whom forgot the way back to the Kilpatrick." 3
Martin first entered Kelly's place early in the evening, resting briefly in the back room before again heading out to the streets. By 8pm she had returned, apparently waiting for someone. Outside, the temperature was dropping but the rain wouldn't turn to snow. It was 10 o'clock when the man with the peculiar eyes finally arrived and joined her. He carried two packages. They sat together drinking She, a whiskey, he, a beer and half an hour later, the housekeeper, Jennie Starin, escorted them to a room on the second floor. They had registered as "Carl Nilson and wife".
At some point that evening, Sarah Martin stepped out of the room and, encountering the housekeeper in the hallway, gave her $2 and requested Starin to fetch a bottle of whiskey from the saloon on the hotel's ground floor. Starin returned with the bottle and $1.50 in change and was invited by Martin to linger awhile and share the whiskey with her in the hallway: "How about the man?", asked Starin.
"Oh, he's asleep", Martin assured her. 4
Martin and Starin loitered amicably in the dark corridor, drinking and talking together, sharing the special camaraderie and unspoken empathy of women who would always be poor and desperate. The hotel, the whiskey, the sailor asleep in the room must have, after fifteen years, seemed part of an unremitting cycle. The bottle would soon be empty, Martin would return to her client and before long would again be out on the street where, hopefully, the cold rain had ceased. By Sunday afternoon, the rain was gone but it had turned colder and strong west winds scalloped the surface of the East River, gusting along the waterfront and through the grimy alleys of Cherry Hill in the Fourth Ward. It was after 3pm when James Kelly's wife climbed to the second floor of the hotel and noticed a door ajar in the hallway. Upon looking in, she noticed a woman lying in bed and covered in a blanket. As she entered the room, the housekeeper, Mrs. Starin, followed close behind her, aware that her drinking companion of the previous night was likely in for a stiff rebuke from the hotelkeeper's wife.
After touching the recumbent figure, Mrs. Kelly drew back: "Why, she's so cold!" she exclaimed to Starin. Upon drawing back the covers, the women blanched. Sarah Martin had been butchered: "There were two deep wounds in her throat, apparently made by a straight bladed knife. Across her breast, extending from armpit to armpit, was a gash three inches deep. In her abdomen was a large vertical wound. Minor mutilations followed the last indicated wound."5 These latter targeted Martin's genitalia.
The Oak Street police station soon took on the nature of a jostled bee-hive. A squad of detectives from Headquarters had been summoned and quickly joined up with the Assistant District Attorney, station detectives, the City Coroner and a court photographer.
After completing a thorough search of the crime scene, the police brought witnesses and evidence back to the station and began initiating the manhunt. Given the solid witnesses and evidence, the police felt confident that they were off to a good start. It appeared that the killer had left behind some important clues. In the room where Martin died, detectives found an old pair of shoes and a man's shirt and undershirt saturated with blood. There was also evidence that the killer had carefully washed up. Additionally, they found two discarded sales receipts which showed that the man had purchased a sweater and pair of shoes, explaining why the older pair was left behind. But most significantly of all, they recovered some wrapping paper in which the new shoes had been packaged. On the paper was printed a store's name, "Meigs & Co., Bridgeport. Conn." And, written in pencil, the name, "Fred B Balano".
By Monday, Sarah Martin's body was positively identified by a local woman named "Mother" Orchard. "Mother" Orchard, who was quite notorious in the district, ran her own 'resort' down on Cherry Street and it appeared that Martin had 'worked' for her there. It was ascertained from witnesses that Martin had an assignation with her killer at the Kelly place. None of the witnesses from the hotel had heard a sound from the room, nor had anyone seen the man leave. Police were convinced that he escaped via the window and climbed down from the second floor on the outside of the building.
Across the Long Island Sound, in snowy Bridgeport, Connecticut, New York Detectives McCafferty and Chandler were assisting local police in an attempt to locate a sailor who had purchased a sweater and pair of shoes at a local clothing store, Meigs, & Co. The clerk remembered the man and his poorly repaired shoes, held together with brass nails. He was able to identify them as the ones left behind at the murder site.
Detectives Cronin and Hennessey had simultaneously been dispatched to a familiar sailor's rendezvous on the East River near South Street in order to pursue enquiries. Back at the Oak Street Station, detectives were grilling a Swedish street car conductor who was found drunkenly loitering around the Hamilton Ferry. He generally matched the very detailed description supplied by the staff of Kelly's hotel and was named Elston, a name thought to be close enough to that entered by the killer in the hotel registry to warrant closer scrutiny.
The detective in charge of the Martin case, Inspector McCluskey, was busy at the stationhouse coordinating the investigation when the phone rang at about noon. It seemed Cronin and Hennessey may have hit the jackpot, having detained a Finnish sailor named Emil Totterman down at the headquarters of the Sailor's Union at 27 South Street. He closely matched the witnesses' description and just happened to be wearing a new sweater and shoes. McCluskey's excited phone conversation was interrupted by an officer who said that there was another important call for him from the detectives dispatched to Bridgeport. "Hold the wire, stay there!", shouted McCluskey, who then ran to the other phone. There ensued a brief, somewhat comic episode as Inspector McCluskey scurried back and forth from phone to phone. When he was through, the papers tell us, "he breathed a sigh of satisfaction. On South Street two of his men had, they said, the perpetrator of the murder at Bridgeport the Inspector had the evidence he felt sure would convict this man." 6
The headline of The New York Times for Dec. 22, reassuringly proclaimed; "POLICE SAY THEY HAVE 'RIPPER' MURDERER". The article detailed suspect Emil Totterman's arrest . In addition to being detained while wearing a new sweater and shoes from Meigs Dept. Store, it was discovered that Totterman had recently disembarked from the schooner, Fred B. Balano, on which he had served. This was the name written in pencil on the Meigs & Co. wrapping paper found at the murder scene. It was also disclosed that the police had held back a very important clue from the press. It was now announced that the name, "Emil Totterman," had also been written in pencil on the wrapping paper. Although the evidence seemed overwhelming, Totterman steadfastly maintained that the police had the wrong man.
According to Totterman, he had arrived in New York from Bridgeport at 9:30, Saturday night, by train with two fellow sailors. He claimed to have watched a fireworks display at the Williamsburg Bridge in lower Manhattan, after which he looked for lodgings. At about 10:30, he asked a policeman where he might find a room and was directed to 10 South Street where he found a hotel, staying there through Sunday night. He claimed that he had purchased his new sweater and shoes in Portland, Maine and not Bridgeport.
Inspector McCluskey tracked down the patrolman who had directed Totterman to the South Street hotel, and although Officer Durr corroborated the accuracy of Totterman's overall story, he insisted that the chronology was wrong, having encountered Totterman at about 2:30am on Sunday, and not 10:30 Saturday evening. Durr was quite certain of this, as he came out on duty at midnight and had reported to the station twice before Totterman, whom he positively identified, accosted him. It was determined that Martin had been murdered sometime between 11 o'clock Saturday night and 2:30 Sunday morning. Durr insisted that he could not have encountered Totterman before 2am Sunday.
Two clerks who had waited on Totterman at Meigs Dept. Store positively identified him as the man who had bought the sweater and shoes. Likewise, the staff of Kelly's Hotel was equally certain that Totteramn was the sailor who had accompanied Martin. Everyone had remembered his "peculiar" eyes and was quite sure that they had gotten a good look at the man. It turned out that the name entered in the hotel registry by the killer was Totterman's sailor alias and his handwriting matched that in the registry and the writing on the wrapping paper. Assistant District Attorney Garvan had sent a bloodstained clasp knife, which had been found on Totterman at his arrest, and the bloodstained clothing found at the murder site to Cornell Medical College for analysis, but already felt that he had an airtight case. "I may die for this," exclaimed Totterman, "but if I do I die for someone else." He was remanded to the Tombs Court and charged with being "A suspicious person". Totterman was described as having "blonde hair that looks almost red, and a blonde, drooping mustache. His chin is square and heavy and his hands large. There is a slight cast in his eyes." 7
The next day, he was formally charged with murder and Henry E. Goldsmith was assigned to represent Totterman, who entered a plea of "not guilty". Subsequent to this, Henry Gray, a shipmate of Totterman's attested that he and Totterman had gone to Bridgeport together on Saturday where they patronized Meigs & Co., Totterman there purchasing a new sweater and pair of shoes. From thence, they took the train to New York, arriving shortly before 8 that evening. They parted company downtown.
The Coroner's investigation and autopsy determined that Martin had been strangled prior to having her throat cut and being mutilated. In private correspondence to the Governor of New York, William Travers Jerome, the District Attorney of New York, confessed that Martin "had been mutilated in such a fashion as to suggest the work of a sexual pervert." At the suggestion of a New York newspaper, three leading 'alienists' were brought in by the DA to examine Totterman's state of mind, as the "crime was of such a heinous and horrible nature that it appeared that the prisoner must be mentally unbalanced The three alienists made a careful and elaborate examination of Totterman, and they severally pronounced him perfectly sane."8 The stage was now set to try Totterman for First Degree Murder. New York could put the horrible story behind it and focus on cele-brating Christmas.
The next that readers of The New York Times heard of Emil Totterman was on February 28, 1904, when it declared: "RIPPER MURDERER GUILTY". The verdict could not have come as a surprise to anyone. The case had been overwhelming and the jury took only four hours to reach a verdict. Upon being pronounced guilty of murder in the first degree, his attorney whispered to him that he was sorry the trial had turned out badly; "Totterman shrugged his shoulders and remarked unconcernedly: 'Such is life.'". As he was being led away, Deputy Sheriff Kelly asked Totterman a question that was on the minds of everyone: "But what was your reason for killing that woman?" Totterman replied: "It won't do any good at this time to dig up that, I'd rather talk about something to eat. I'm awfully hungry." Such is the insight we are given into the mind of a killer.
Following the trial, lawyer Goldsmith disclosed to the assistant District Attorney a written and signed confession from Totterman. "His explanation made in this statement for slaying the woman in question was that he woke up and found himself on top of her, and he had a knife in his hands, and he does not understand how he happened to rip her up, but that he did."9 "He said he had never known the woman previous to that night. He said he felt sure the police had worked up a good case against him, consequently he was willing to plead guilty to murder in the second degree, which meant a life sentence."10 Such was the strength of the prosecution, that they turned down the offer and pursued the case as a capital crime. On March 2, 1904, Judge Kenefick sentenced Totterman to be executed in the electric chair within the week beginning Monday, April 16, 1904.
The scimitar curved prow of the USS Iowa sliced through the warm, cerulean waters just off the southern coast of Cuba, effortlessly displacing 12,600 tons of tropical ocean in its roiling wake, the great ship's towering funnels seething a long, ember-flecked pennant of black smoke across the bright, Caribbean sky. She was the newest and biggest battleship in the American Navy and, under a full head of steam, was approaching her maximum speed of 17 knots when Captain Evans put her helm hard to starboard, crossing the bow of the Maria Teresa, the Spanish flagship leading the battle squadron which came on in column order some 2,000 yards away. The Maria Teresa opened fire on the Iowa, which in turn immediately poured a broadside into her oncoming bow. The naval battle of Santiago had begun.
Few military victories have proven more decisive than the engagement which occurred on the morning of July 3, 1898 during the Spanish American War. When it was over, following a relentless American barrage of 9,429 high-explosive shells, the Spanish had lost 323 sailors with 151 wounded and over 1,600 men taken prisoner. All of the Spanish ships were destroyed. The Americans lost one sailor in the battle. For her part, the Iowa had destroyed the cruisers Maria Teresa and Oqendo and participated in the sinking of the destroyers Pluton and Furor. Toward the end of the day's action, she pursued the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya, running her aground on a reef and forcing her crew to surrender.
Somewhere in one of the Iowa's stifling gun turrets, entombed behind several steel inches of Krupp armor, a sailor named Carl Nielson madly worked a 12" gun which poured salvo after salvo into the doomed Spanish fleet. During the engagement, something must have marked his conduct as exceptional and, seven years later, with his life hanging in the balance, its recollection would factor in keeping him alive. By then, he would be facing a death sentence under his real name, Emil Totterman.
More than a year after Totterman was sentenced to die he was still confined in prison awaiting the final decision of the Court of Appeals. He had exhausted all of his legal means to forestall death, and, on May 2, 1905, the appeals court upheld his death sentence he was scheduled for the electric chair the week of June 19. But by June 23, Totterman still sat in Sing Sing prison while strong efforts were being made to convince New York's Governor Higgins to commute his sentence to life in prison. Higgins was considering the request. Ironically, it seems that Totterman had been something of a hero in the Spanish American War during the battle of Santiago: " 'I have learned,' said the Governor, 'that Totterman received three medals for bravery, including a life-saving medal by Congress and a Santiago medal for brave service on the Iowa.'" 11
The incident for which Totterman received his life saving medal may be the one recalled by the Iowa's captain during the battle of Santiago. After the Spanish cruiser, Vizcaya, had been run aground, the Iowa lowered all of her lifeboats to assist the Spanish sailors aboard the burning vessel. Those who had jumped into the sea were being attacked by sharks and many sailors remained aboard the blazing cruiser: "My boats' crew worked manfully in saving many of the wounded from the burning ship. One man, who will be recommended for promotion, clambered up the side of the Vizcaya and saved three men from burning to death. The smaller magazines of the Vizcaya were exploding with magnificent effects."12 The lifesaving medal was established by an Act of Congress in 1874, and was awarded for a rescue or attempted rescue that "must be made at the risk to one's own life and show extreme heroic daring."13 It is ironic and perplexing that the same man who was capable of such selfless heroism as that outlined in the citation could have senselessly slaughtered Sarah Martin. It proved enough, however, to tip the balance in favor of a commutation and, on July 25, 1905, Governor Higgins spared Totterman from the electric chair and commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Following a brief press mention of Totterman's reprieve, he ceased to be newsworthy and the man who sparked one last Jack the Ripper scare dropped from further public notice. We learn from his case file, however, that Totterman's long and disturbing odyssey continued in unexpected fashion. The Sing Sing Prison records show that on August 20, 1916, he escaped and remained on the run for more than eight months, being recaptured on April 24, 1917 and then transferred to Auburn Prison.
Christmas Eve, 1929, witnessed a very different mood from the Yuletide of more than a quarter century before when Sarah Martin's butchered body lay in a New York morgue. In truth, the story of Jack the Ripper loose in Cherry Hill was nothing more than a dark distraction to most New Yorkers in 1903, and for those few in any real danger, just one more peril in the ever-perilous existence in the Fourth Ward. For the vast majority of Americans, this was a far more solemn Christmas than any mere killer could occasion. Two months before, the great Stock Market crash had thrown the nation into financial chaos. Millions upon millions of Americans faced ruin. The great depression had begun. There was little rejoicing in the season and no one took notice of the release of 'Jack the Ripper' - Totterman had been discharged by special commutation and parole on December 24, 1929. The last Christmastime he had seen as a free man, excluding 1916, when he was an escapee on the run, was spent in a turn-of-the-century America which had now passed utterly away. He had entered prison just after the end of the Victorian Age and now emerged at the close of the Jazz Age. The last entry in the prison file for Totterman tells us that, in 1930, he returned to Finland, never to be heard of again.14
It is tempting to speculate about the possible connection of this homicidal sailor with Carrie Brown's killer and Jack the Ripper himself. It is striking how much the murder and mutilation of Sarah Martin resembles that of the Whitechapel victims. Modern criminal psychology tells us that it is rare for a sexual killer (such as Totterman certainly appears to be) to have killed only once. In one article, we are told that Totterman stated he was forty-one years old. This would make him the right age to have been Brown's killer and, perhaps, the Ripper. In another article, we are informed that he was in his early thirties. In all of his official court and prison documents, however, his age is given as 29 in 1904. This would effectively rule him out as both the Ripper and Carrie Brown's murderer, as he would have only been 13 and 16 years old, respectively. It does leave us speculating on the rarity of a killer such as Jack the Ripper, once supposed to have been a unique aberration. Research into mutilation murders by 'sexual killers' have disclosed similar slayings occurring more or less contemporaneously with the Ripper's in France, England, Germany, Nicaragua, Jamaica and the United States. It may be that the most frightening thing we have learned about Jack the Ripper is that he was perhaps not as singular a monster as is commonly believed.Notes
1 The New York Times, Dec. 21, 1903
5 The Chicago Tribune, Dec. 21, 1903
6 The New York Times, Dec. 22, 1903
8 The New York County District Attorney's closed-case file No. 45292 (People vs. Emil Totterman) & the Supreme Court indictment file
10 The New York Times, Feb. 28, 1904
11 The New York Times, June 24, 1905
12 The Naval Battle of Santiago, by Captain Robley D Evans
13 Act of Congress, General Nature No. 71, Section 7
14 Receiving Blotter, Sing Sing Prison, New York County District Attorney's closed-case file No. 45292 & Supreme Court indictment file