Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Story:
“31 Bond Street,” by Ellen Horan

(Editor’s note: This week brings the release of 31 Bond Street [Harper], the first novel from New Yorker Ellen Horan, who’s worked as a freelance photo editor for books and magazines. 31 Bond Street fictionalizes a notorious murder case from pre-Civil War Manhattan, which, though heavily covered at the time and pitting two prominent attorneys--Henry L. Clinton and Abraham Oakey Hall--against one another, has since been generally forgotten. In the essay below, Horan recalls how she came to write this book and what she learned about New York and historical investigative procedures in the course of doing so.)

When editor Jeff Pierce invited me to guest blog in The Rap Sheet, I wanted to write about what motivated me to turn this 19th-century murder case into a novel. The story in 31 Bond Street is based on an actual crime. I first discovered this book idea from a newspaper clipping in a print shop. The etching on the page showed a group of people clustered in front of a townhouse on Bond Street, in New York City, where a murder had taken place. A prominent dentist, Dr. Harvey Burdell, had been found brutally slain on his office floor on a Saturday morning in February 1857. The reports said that all the doors had been locked at night, and no one in the household heard a thing. Emma Cunningham, a widow who cared for his house and lived with her two daughters in the top floors, became the prime suspect.

My first thought was that the article must be serialized fiction, which was common in newspapers at the time. But the style was true reportage, which further piqued my interest: here was a vanished and little-known homicide, committed just blocks from where I stood at that moment, staring at the aged clipping.

When I visited modern Bond Street, in lower Manhattan, I found that the elegant row of townhouses and the tree-lined street that Burdell knew had long ago disappeared, and the street was a jumble of warehouses, scrap metal vendors, and garages. The cobblestones were still there and a trace of the townhouse dormers was evident on the sides of a wall in an open lot. I was intrigued by this vanished area of my city, and also by the inhabitants of that historical city, who were mystified by a murder in their midst.

I went to the New York Public Library, with the idea of that intrigue--but also prepared to be disappointed. I am not a patient researcher, and since I was doing this on a hunch or a whim, I expected to quit at the first frustration. At that time, the newspapers were not yet digitized, but microfilm of all the 1857 New York dailies was contained in one cabinet, and I spooled easily through to the date of my clipping. There it was, day after day of front-page coverage of the crime. Going back to the first day that reporters started covering Burdell’s death allowed me to read about the investigation as city dwellers of the time might, with their morning paper over breakfast.

As I read, I became engaged by a number of things. There was the primary mystery: Who killed Dr. Burdell? There was also a questionable romantic involvement between the suspect and the victim. And there was the fascination of stepping back into time, to New York City in the mid-19th century, just before the Civil War engulfed the country. I began to assemble the material I found into narrative non-fiction, but then turned a corner and found myself drawn to the motivations of the characters, to what went on inside their heads, and what kinds of social and political pressures were looming at the edges of their lives. That is the stuff of fiction, and so I embarked on turning this true-life criminal episode into a novel. I incorporated a large amount of the original source material, but narrowed down the narrative threads to two main characters, one for Emma Cunningham, and another for her lawyer, Henry Clinton. Other players and voices emerged and the story took on a life of its own.

Dr. Harvey Burdell and his home at 31 Bond Street, as shown in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 21, 1857.

From the standpoint of criminal procedure, the most notable thing about the murder of Dr. Burdell (referred to in the popular press as the Bond Street Murder), was the coroner’s investigation, which began the morning of the corpse’s discovery. This procedure has since been abolished, but it existed in the United States for decades after the Burdell case and until the 20th century in England. The coroner, an elected official, was the lead investigator of a crime, and he had the power to seize a crime scene and place anyone he wished under house arrest. Witnesses and potential suspects were rounded up and remanded into police custody inside the house, with the overflow going to cells in the local precinct until the investigation was complete. The investigation included each “witness” testifying before a coroner’s jury.

In this instance, the investigation went on for 14 days, and ran amok. Press stenographers were allowed inside 31 Bond Street, to record the testimony. This was an interesting quirk: stenography had only recently been introduced to the United States, to be used for newspaper reporting. The New York Times offered its recording services (men with inkwells, writing shorthand) to the courts, which had not yet hired their own stenographers. Its transcriptions of testimony became the public record, and earned the Times its sobriquet, the “paper of record.” In return for this service, the Times enjoyed press access. In the case of the coroner’s investigation into Burdell’s murder, this proved to be an explosive exchange, for the newspapers were able to print the verbatim testimony of people being queried inside the house. The coroner, Edward Connery, seized his moment in the spotlight and his interrogation tactics were much maligned as being overly theatrical. The testimonies became a peek behind closed doors, into the upstairs-downstairs life of the Burdell household, with lurid insinuations about private lives. Most interesting to me, as a writer, was that in these transcripts, the spoken rhythm and dialogue of the actual characters remained intact. I could hear the voices of some of those people, as they described their lives and the events surrounding the murder.

The investigation included an autopsy, performed inside the house by a battery of doctors. This was a privilege of the wealthy (a morgue autopsy was commonplace for the poor). Microscopes were brought into the house to analyze blood evidence. Looking at blood corpuscles through a microscope eliminated a knife as the murder weapon, for it proved that the stains were from beef blood. It’s hard for us to imagine that these then-new technical advancements astonished the public.

(Left) Emma Cunninghams attorney, Henry Lauren Clinton, who proved himself adept--and lucky--in defending his client.

In those days, medical jurisprudence was a newly formed discipline that applied the knowledge of anatomy and medical science to criminal law. It had only recently been acknowledged that the succession of events could be analyzed by scientific measurements of the crime scene--that the splatters of blood, the depths of the wounds, and the sequence of wounds across the body could help tell a story, not just of the crime, but of the criminal or criminals behind it.

Henry Clinton was the attorney who took up Emma Cunningham’s defense. He became, in fact, an extremely prominent lawyer in criminal and civil practice. He tried many important cases after the Burdell slaying, including the prosecution of New York’s notorious Tweed Ring and the will contests of Cornelius Vanderbilt and A.T. Stewart. At the end of his life, in 1899, Clinton wrote two books: Celebrated Trials and Extraordinary Cases. His analysis of the Burdell murder case, although a dense and legal read, was for me a fascinating peek inside his defense strategies, and became a template for several scenes in 31 Bond Street.

In the factual Burdell murder case, there was no lead “investigator.” The era preceded the professional approach to crime that emerged after the Civil War, with the advent of sleuths and private eyes. By the 1870s, the private detective had become crime’s leading point of view--inspiring a whole new body of popular fiction.

READ MORE:31 Bond Street: New York’s First Sensation,” by Sheila McClear (New York Post); “Scenes from the Burdell Murder,”
by Robert Wilhelm (Murder by Gaslight).

1 comment:

kathy d. said...

This is a fascinating tale and the author's rendition of her research as written here so well, may just compel me to read this book.

I only say that as I don't like to read books based on true crimes, but this may well be the exception.