Readers and writers: Return to a riveting trial of the 1840s — and see its impact today

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Polly had fled into sleeting rain, leading a low-speed chase through the back paths and forests of Staten Island. She was eight months pregnant, cold and wet, and accused of murder. —  from “The Witch of New York”

We’re introducing you today to “The Witch of New York: The Trials of Polly Bodine and the Cursed Birth of Tabloid Journalism.” Written by former Minnesotan Alex Hortis (Pegasus Crime, $29.95), it is a riveting account of the sensational trials of the first American woman put on trial for capital murder that could have led to her execution by hanging.

Alex Hortis, (Courtesy of the author)

New York’s Staten Island was a sparsely populated, forested place in the mid-19th century. It was quiet until Christmas night, 1843, when the home of Capt. George Houseman in Granite Village was set on fire. In the rubble neighbors found the mostly charred bodies of Houseman’s 24-year-old wife, Emeline, and their infant daughter, Ann Eliza, under a bed in the kitchen. There were defensive wounds on one of Emeline’s arms and other evidence showing she might have been tied up.

The new “penny press” rushed to accuse the victim’s sister-in-law, Mary “Polly” Bodine, of the crime. She was the last person to see the mother and child alive and her main accuser was Emeline’s father, John Van Pelt.

So begins the involving story of Polly Bodine, igniting a high-profile media circus featuring rival newspapers that tried to outdo one another in sensational reporting, including publication of a woodcut showing Polly leaving the kitchen where the victims were presumably burning.

“…the origins of tabloid justice — defined in this book as sensationalized and ethically problematic media that affects legal proceedings — can be traced back to the Polly Bodine case,” Hortis writes. “Tabloid justice would, one way or another, alter American law.”

The first of Polly’s trials was held in 1844 on Staten Island, where the Houseman and Van Pelt families were among the richest and most respected residents. It ended in a hung jury. The second, in Manhattan in 1845, brought a murder conviction. That trial fascinated high society women who dressed in their best to attend, treating it like a gala theater party. Polly’s conviction was then vacated on appeal by the New York Supreme Court, leading to the final trial in 1846 in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City. There, she was finally acquitted. In all, Polly spent more than three years in jail cells.

Hortis, who grew up in St. Cloud and graduated from Macalester College, defines the penny press as “the first mass-produced newspapers meant for ordinary New Yorkers.” The leading competitors were Moses Yale Beach’s Sun and James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald.  “The Sun repeatedly ran rumors and weakly sourced stories about the defendant,” the author said in an interview sent by his publisher. “(The Herald) devoted considerable resources to covering every aspect of the case, and provided accurate daily reports of the trials. Nonetheless, the Herald unleashed a flood of prejudicial coverage attacking Polly Bodine.”

Polly herself was proud of the fact that she came from Staten Island’s founding families and was one of the prettiest women. But she was unconventional and that worked against her in the minds of many citizens. Married as a teenager, she left her alcoholic husband and returned to her family home. She drank gin and had an affair with George Waite, her son’s boss at an apothecary shop in Manhattan. She was pregnant with Waite’s child when the murders took place and her stillborn baby was delivered in her jail cell.

The prosecution argued that Polly committed the murders to steal from her sister-in-law $1,000 that had been left by her husband before he went to sea. But everyone in Polly’s family knew that money was kept in another household. For both prosecution and defense, the hole in the scenario was that coroners couldn’t be sure about the murders took place. If it was before or after Christmas Eve, Polly was off the hook. If it was Christmas Eve, she had no alibi.

During her trials Polly became gaunt, leading the Herald newspaper to depict her as a witch. She was most angry when that great conman P.T.  Barnum, never one to let compassion stand in the way of profits, advertised a full-sized likeness of her depicted as a witch in his American Museum.

She was obsessed by Barnum’s wax witch,” Hortis writes. “She knew that every day streams of New Yorkers paid their quarter to gawk through a glass partition at what the American Museum billed as ‘a faithful representation of the celebrated POLLY BODINE.’ The three-dimensional, waxen monster had made a circus freak show out of her.”

Others in this colorful cast of characters include Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman, both of whom reported on the case, and James Fenimore Cooper, whose last novel (“The Ways of the Hour”) was inspired by Polly’s case. The author explains how coverage of the three trials led to the birth of contemporary true-crime writing and was the basis for what would become the Associated Press.

Hortis, a graduate of New York University School of Law who lives in Maryland, worked for James B. Jacobs, expert on the American Mafia, with whom he co-authored research articles. His first book, “The Mob and the City,” was about Mafia control of gay bars in New York.

It takes talent and plenty of research to write a nonfiction book like “The Witch of New York,” in which some information is repeated three times. But Hortis keeps it interesting for the reader through storytelling that includes day-to-day details that make the scenarios come to life — the looks of the courtrooms, dresses of the elegant New York ladies, the way Polly’s family stood by her, the backgrounds and appearances of lawyers for the prosecution and defense, and reporters writing their stories aboard swift boats that were carrying them from Staten Island to their Manhattan offices during the first trial.

Underlying the legal story are the 19th-century mores reflected in the penny presses, including Polly being viewed as a “fallen woman” and antisemitism in the way Jewish pawnbrokers were perceived when they testified that a woman who looked like Polly pawned some of the dead woman’s possessions.

Polly’s case was complicated and Hortis does a masterful job of telling a true crime story that keeps the reader guessing. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review

After almost four grueling years of trials, Polly lived quietly in comfort provided by her son until she died in 1892 as “the most infamous woman in America.”. She had outlived almost everyone involved in her trials, and her son and daughter were her only mourners.

Did Polly Bodine kill the sister-in-law and niece she loved? Did she need money badly enough to commit murder? Where was she on that Christmas Eve?  How much did the penny press influence the prospective jurors called for Polly’s trials?

Hortis lets readers make up their own minds. He doesn’t have to hit us over the head to realize that in 2024 we are still grappling with tension between some media and justice.

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