On this date in 1896, New York City electrocuted Carl Feigenbaum.
He’d been convicted of slaying the widow from whom he rented a room at eight cents per day … but many at the time suspected his homicidal exploits might also have traced to Whitechapel, under the dread sobriquet Jack.
We can only really be sure of the one murder: on September 1, 1894, he attacked 56-year-old Julianna Hoffman in her room on East Sixth Street, for the possible reason of robbing her. One ferocious slash with his long bread knife nearly decapitated the landlady; the disturbance roused Hoffman’s 16-year-old son who burst in on the assailant — reportedly just as Feigenbaum had his blade poised to begin horribly gouging the corpse. Both killer and witness grappled briefly and then fled from each other; Feigenbaum was arrested before the day was out.
Today you’d call the part of town East Village but back in the 1890s it was Klein Deutschland, with one of the world’s largest concentrations of Germans abroad.
Probing his client for material to use for an insanity defense,* Feigenbaum’s attorney elicited his client’s self-diagnosis that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” That seems interesting.
It emerged that Feigenbaum had left Germany as a merchant mariner, and that profession had possibly seen his boats tied up in the Thames during the pivotal months when the Whitechapel murders took place.
In the Big Apple, the idea of modern crime’s great bogeyman throwing his demonic shadow across their very own dungeons appealed irresistibly, to nobody moreso than Fiegenbaum’s own attorney William Lawton, who reveled in his hypothesis of proximity to evil and made a silly bid for celebrity on that basis. Lawton claimed to have hit upon the Ripper idea as he pondered the meaning of Feigenbaum’s professed impulse to mutilate women.
From the St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, April 28, 1896.
The very day after his client’s electrocution, Lawton explicated the suspected connection to the press, “stak[ing] my professional reputation that if the police will trace this man’s movements carefully for the last few years their investigations will lead them to Whitechapel.” (Lawton is also the sole source of Feigenbaum’s alleged self-incrimination, quoted above: to everybody else Feigenbaum insisted on his innocence far past any possible stretch of plausibility, and even carried that insistence to the electric chair.)
Regrettably, Feigenbaum’s pre-Hoffman movements are obscure to the point where Lawton’s theory is essentially immune to corroboration (or refutation). Even when Lawton dropped his intended bombshell did his hypothesis come in for some public ribbing; the New York Tribune scoffed on April 29 of that year that Feigenbaum now being indisposed to object, all the city’s most troublesome unresolved homicides ought to be attributed to this empty cipher.
Despite the surface similarities of his aborted disemboweling to the infamous London crime spree, Feigenbaum’s case for Ripper immortality doesn’t enjoy much of a constituency today. (Trevor Marriott’s 2005 Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation is a notable exception to the skepticism.)
* Feigenbaum, who had been literally caught red-handed, ultimately did not pursue the insanity defense that was probably his only hope of avoiding the chair because he did not have enough money to hire the expert alienists who would be required to present such a case to the jury. But for a guy supposedly resource-constrained, Lawton does seem to have gone to some trouble to research the possible Ripper connection.