Sunday, January 31, 2010

And the Oscar for Best Actress of 1824 goes to... Sarah Drew

On October 3rd, 1824, two men were crossing the London Field, near Hackney, when they heard a woman calling for help. Investigating, they found maidservant Sarah Drew standing beside a shallow pond, muddy and wet up to her chest. She exclaimed that she had been accosted, robbed, and thrown into the water. The men escorted her to a nearby pub, where she told a fantastic tale. 

Over a week ago, she had seen a strange man hovering around the silk manufactory where her master worked, but thought little of it until some valuable silks disappeared. The police took Sarah with them to some known thieves' resorts, but she denied seeing the mysterious stranger in any of them. The officers advised her to follow the man if she saw him again, and find out where he lived or worked so that he could easily be located and arrested.

Sarah attended evening church service on October 3rd, and claimed that she was on her way home when she saw the wanted man walking across London Field. She followed him as directed, but did not get far before she was grabbed by two men (presumably the thief's confederates) and dragged to the pond where she was later found. She said that they stole her purse before heaving her into the water and leaving her to drown.

A local rowdy named Edward 'Kiddy' Harris was eventually identified by Sarah as one of her attackers. Harris had an alibi- his wife and children swore that he had been home all evening on October 3rd. But Sarah told her story so convincingly that a jury convicted him, and he was executed at Newgate in February 1825.

Later that year, Harris' attorney James Harmer published a pamphlet called The Case of Edward Harris, who was executed at Newgate for robbing and ill-treating Sarah Drew. This document, which is available in the Google Books online library, makes a powerful argument for Harris' innocence. Apparently the police officers who took Sarah on a grand tour of the thieves' dens actually pointed him out to her and suggested that he was a bad enough character to be the robber. She looked at him closely but denied that he was the man. Then she somehow ended up in a pond, and accused Harris of being one of the abductors.

Harmer suggests that Sarah Drew might have become a little too adventurous with some young men, and tried to save her reputation afterward by claiming that she had been attacked. When found at the pond, her head  and shoulders were not wet, which they should have been had she been thrown violently in. Her shoes, which she said she had kicked off during the struggle, were neatly positioned when found. To complete the ruse she needed a dyed-on-the-wool villain, and Edward Harris, who had a criminal record, was made to order.

As he was ascending the scaffold steps, Harris bemoaned his fate to reporters. "Oh Gentlemen, tell them (meaning the public) that I die innocent; I am murdered; I am, so help me God! as I am a dying man. I know I have been a wicked man, and a fighting man, and all that, but of this I am innocent."

If he was, then Sarah Drew was not. And in 1820s England, that would have been reason enough for her to concoct a lie so terrible that it sent a man to an early grave.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

E-Reader Home Invasion

Don't let the title of this post mislead you. My place wasn't broken into by a legion of self-aware Kindles. But I did consciously invite the e-publishing revolution into my home when I purchased a Sony PRS-300 E-Reader earlier this month.

I will always have a soft spot for books, and never stop buying them. Few things thrill me more than the delivery of a big box from Amazon or Chapters. But now that e-readers have dropped in price, more bibliophiles are taking a chance on them and discovering that they like the option of carrying a virtual library in their pockets and purses. As a working writer, I have to be sensitive to trends that affect publishing, so I bought Sony's basic reader at my local Best Buy and began my new learning curve.

Because I live in Canada, the Sony product was the logical choice for me. Until recently, Amazon's Kindle was not available here. That has since changed, but at a price, so to speak: the device ships from the USA and incurs some hefty customs fees when its value is declared at the border. I opted for economy and convenience.

The PRS-300 is Sony's lowest-priced reader, and doesn't have the bells and whistles that the more expensive models offer, such as a touch screen and audiobook support. That was fine by me; I was primarily interested in the reading experience.

This unit utilizes E Ink screen technology that makes digital pages resemble their paper counterparts. The font size is adjustible, a nice option for those who prefer large print, and the pages are turned via a multidirectional button beneath the screen. The bookmarking feature 'tags' pages for later perusal, and each time the machine powers on, it remembers where you left off during your last reading session.

Not bad. But what what I really appreciated was access to thousands of public domain books in Google's database, digitized in a reader-compatible format and available for free download through Sony's online store. Many of these are vintage crime stories like those I have blogged about in the past. Another portal on the Sony site lets me log into my local library account and check out e-books from the hundreds of available titles. 512 MB of onboard memory permits the storage of up to 300 books at a time, making it possible for me carry a wealth of reading and research material in my purse. I love it.

A week and a half has passed, and I don't regret my purchase. It has added a whole new dimension to the literary experience, and judging from the fact that e-reader sales continue to climb, they are no  longer a fad item. Some will decry the threat, however weak, to the beloved physical book, but as a writer I'm happy to see that the love of reading is alive and well in the Digital Age.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scotch Pebbles for Lovesick Girls

This weekend I found another true crime gem in the Internet Archive’s Open Source Books collection: The Tryal of Mary Blandy, Spinster: For the Murder of her Father, Francis Blandy, Gentleman. Years ago I read about Miss Blandy in an anthology about murderous women, but until now had never come across any primary documents about the case.

Born in 1720 to solicitor Francis Blandy and his wife in Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, Mary enjoyed advantages seldom available to women at that time: her doting father saw to it that she was well educated and did not want for anything . When her mother died and Francis Blandy did not remarry, Mary, an only child, became the sole heiress to a small fortune. Although she was intelligent, articulate, and modestly attractive, it was probably her future inheritance that attracted Captain William Henry Cranstoun in 1746 and made him propose marriage even though he already had a wife back in Scotland.

Cranstoun promised to have his marriage annulled, but Francis Blandy suspected that he was merely a fortune-hunter and objected to the match. Soon Mary received a present of Scotch pebbles (agates) from Cranstoun, along with a powder supposedly for use in cleaning them. This powder, however, ended up in Francis Blandy’s food in gradually increasing doses.

As she worked on eliminating the one obstacle to her imagined happiness, Mary was not as subtle as she thought. The servants saw her stirring something into her ill father’s tea and gruel, and observed a gritty white substance in the leftovers. They reported their suspicions to the neighbors and even Blandy himself. The aging lawyer’s response was surprisingly sympathetic: he referred to his daughter as a “poor lovesick girl” and added, “I forgive her—I always thought there was mischief in those cursed Scotch pebbles.” When he finally died on August 14, 1751, the authorities moved in and placed Mary Blandy on trial for parricide.

The trial testimony was published in pamphlet form, and is available for download. Medical authorities such as Dr. Anthony Addington (father of future Prime Minister Henry Addington) believed that Blandy had died from arsenic poisoning. When the servants testified that they had seen Mary adding a white substance to her father’s food, she and her lawyers knew that denial would be useless. So she admitted that she had done so, but argued that what she had administered was not arsenic, but a love powder intended to make Francis Blandy regard Cranstoun in a more favorable light. Cranstoun had sent it to her, she said, and if it HAD been poison, she was completely unaware of the fact.

The jury did not believe her. They agreed with the prosecution, which pointed out that even after the ‘love powder’ made her father dangerously ill, Mary did not stop mixing it in his food. While she was under house arrest pending her removal to Oxford Castle prison, she had also hinted to the servants that she was planning to flee the area, which an innocent person would not have done.

While awaiting execution, Mary wrote her own account of the tragic affair, titled Miss Mary Blandy's Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun. She also exchanged letters with another condemned woman, Elizabeth Jeffries, who had killed her master with help from her lover. When a respectable matron visited Mary in her cell and gently chided her for corresponding with such a depraved person, she accepted the rebuke in polite silence but said afterward, "I can't bear these over virtuous women. I believe that if ever the devil picks a bone it is one of theirs."

On Easter Monday 1752, Mary Blandy was hanged outside of Oxford Castle prison. One of her last requests was that she not be hanged too high off the ground, “for the sake of decency.” Although most hanging victims died via slow strangulation, Mary apparently lost consciousness soon after being turned off the ladder and died without a struggle.

After Mary was convicted, William Cranstoun escaped to the European mainland, and died in Flanders on 2nd December 1752.

Mary Blandy killed for love. In the end, she also died for it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Before the year is out....

This morning I awoke at five, and was at my desk by five-thirty. I've always been an early riser, especially during the week, but weekends I usually doze until at least six-thirty. Maybe this is a sign that 2010 will be so packed with writing projects that a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call will become the norm.

2009 certainly ended on an auspicious note. In October I started a new job as a technical writer for a large engineering company. This position strengthened a habit that I've been cultivating for a long time: producing quality copy on demand, without yielding to the vagaries of mood or personal drama. Let's hope that by performing well at my day job, I'll increase and improve my writing output in other areas.

I'm working on a few projects at the moment. One is an article for Rick Mattix's On The Spot Journal about William Howe and Abe Hummel, the legal 'dream team' of the New York underworld from 1869 until 1907, when the District Attorney succeeded in shutting their firm down. Gangsters, showgirls, prizefighters, and philandering bluebloods kept Howe and Hummel on retainer as an operating expense. Some of the stunts they pulled are unbelievable even by today's standards: Hummel once discovered an error in procedure that liberated 240 of Blackwell Island's 300 inmates in a single day. Howe, representing a gangster who had murdered another thug and dumped the dismembered body in the East River, convinced the jury that his client's seven year old girl had actually done the bloody deed. They're so gloriously bad that I'll be sorry to see the research end.

The Dopey Benny Fein project is still in progress. Geoff Fein, Benny's grandson, has been wonderful to work with, but the  research itself is taking time because I'm focusing on primary sources, and the requisite legwork is considerable. Benny's activities during the 1920s remain a mystery, although I've come across a few references to drug-related arrests. If anyone reading this blog has additional information, please contact me.

I'm still working with Franklin Abrams on the Our Gotham project. Some new webisode scenes have been filmed, namely the tense confrontation between Kid Twist Zweifach and the Bottler, who is determined to prevent Twist from seizing the profits of his popular stuss game. I've posted two screen shots below: the first shows Zweifach (played by Franklin) in profile, while the second is a re-enactment of Twist's first, menacing visit to the Bottler's den. Franklin is a first-rate actor who practically summons the spirit of these early gang leaders whenever he steps in front of the camera.

Expect some interesting trips to old New York in the coming year! And more on the Dope!