Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fortune, Fame, and a Ruined Name

In June 1873, nineteen-year-old Frank Walworth shot his father, novelist Mansfield Tracy Walworth, to death in a Manhattan hotel room. The Walworths were a socially prominent Saratoga family long regarded as models of virtue and civic accomplishment. When Frank justified his actions by claiming that his father had threatened to kill his mother, the New York press dug into the family’s past and unearthed rumors of domestic violence, hereditary insanity, and religious fanaticism. The result was a media frenzy that shattered the sanctity of the Walworth name.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Fall of the House of Walworth limns this Gilded Age murder and the warped dynamics that provoked it. It’s partly the grim history of a distinguished yet dysfunctional family and partly a Gothic morality tale of the sort Poe might have conceived.

Mansfield Walworth was an aggressive and pompous narcissist. His novels sold moderately well but did not bring him the mass adulation he craved. Impulsive and constantly chasing get-rich-quick schemes, he repeatedly abandoned his family but exploded when his wife, the former Ellen Hardin, finally left him. Hardin, an intelligent and articulate woman deeply involved in civic affairs, received abusive and threatening letters until her devoted son put a stop to it.

O’Brien betrays his background as a poet. The book abounds with descriptions like the following: “A quantity of blood had splattered the washstand, filling the toothbrush dish and mingling with the soap in the soap dish to form a frothy red foam." Normally this type of cinematic writing is irritating in a nonfiction work, but in this instance it’s strangely in accord with the dark and surreal story.

Walworth history is covered more extensively than Frank’s act of parricide and the ensuing trial, something that might annoy readers who prefer less back story.  But by clearly demonstrating how abuse, psychosis, and murder destroyed a once noble family, Fall of the House of Walworth imparts a chill that a dedicated treatment of the murder alone could not summon.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Big Policeman

The Big Policeman chronicles the career of Thomas F. Byrnes, who headed the New York City Police Department’s Detective Bureau from 1880 until 1895. Among the cases he oversaw or personally investigated were the Manhattan Savings Bank robbery of 1878, the snatching of millionaire merchant Alexander T. Stewart’s corpse from St. Mark’s churchyard, and the Ripper-style murder of aging barfly Carrie Brown in 1891. These and other lesser known investigations are recounted in detail by J. North Conway, whose previous publishing credits include King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America and The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Byrnes joined the NYPD in 1863. When the New York City draft riots broke out that same year, he conducted himself with such courage and tenacity that his superiors took notice. Over the years his bravery and resourcefulness won him accolades and promotions. He was appointed chief of the Detective Bureau in 1880 and soon became the most powerful policeman in the city, revered by the Wall Street financiers whose assets he personally protected and feared by the criminals whom he systematically set out to ruin.
Byrnes was the bane of New York’s netherworld. He compiled the Rogue’s Gallery, a mug shot portfolio presented to witnesses and victims of crime for identification purposes, and perfected the physical and psychological torture known as the ‘Third Degree’. In 1886 he instituted a ‘Mulberry Street Morning Parade’ of suspected criminals before his detectives so that they could remember the arrestees’ faces and connect them with future crimes. That same year, he published a book, Professional Criminals of America.  Author Julian Hawthorn found him so inspiring that he made Byrnes the subject of a series of crime fighter novels.
Byrnes usually got his man (or woman). If evidence was too circumstantial to support a future conviction, he conned confessions out of suspects via mental gimmickry that played on their fears and suspicions. When mind games or verbal intimidation failed, he cheerfully resorted to the Third Degree.  Once the cases went to trial Byrnes, who kept the press in the dark whenever he was on unstable ground, reframed events to make himself look like a hero. Jacob Riis, who was a police reporter for the New York Sun, acknowledged his superior detective skills and called him the "big policeman".
Although he acted like a dedicated public guardian, Byrnes was actually corrupt. His salary averaged less than $5,000 a year, but he managed to bank over $350,000, which suggests that he accepted bribes from those who subverted the law. When questioned about this fortune in 1894 by the Lexow Committee, a probe into NYPD corruption, he attributed it to successful land speculation in Japan and good investment advice from grateful Wall Street financiers. Among those who received this explanation skeptically was Theodore Roosevelt, who became president of the New York City Police Commission in 1895 and compelled Byrnes to resign.
The “Big Policeman” took advantage of his city-wide fame and valuable contacts to open his own successful detective agency on Wall Street, and died in luxury in 1910.
The Big Policeman is an absorbing read, because it contains all the salient details of Byrnes’ most notorious cases. Conway also does a nice job of creating period atmosphere by itemizing other interesting historical events that occurred during the investigations. But there’s surprisingly little said about the shadow side of Byrnes’ police career: the bribes he almost certainly took, and the payments he must have made in turn for his promotions, as insiders admitted that advancement in the NYPD was rarely accomplished on merit alone. While Byrnes is not exactly presented as a paragon of civic virtue, he did have serious ethical flaws (besides tricking and beating suspects!) that should have been thoroughly documented in a book dedicated to his life and exploits.
That said, I enjoyed The Big Policeman and recommend it to those who fascinated by the darker history of Gilded Age New York.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prince of Quacks

Prince of Quacks is the definitive biography of Victorian era herb doctor and charlatan Francis Tumblety, who acquired a posthumous notoriety when Stewart Evans and Paul Gainey named him as Jack the Ripper in their book Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer (1998). The authors based their hypothesis on a letter written in 1913 by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector John Littlechild, who described Tumblety as a “very likely suspect”. Although the majority of Ripperologists (detective-historians who analyze and discuss the Whitechapel murders) were not convinced, author Timothy Riordan recognized the controversial doctor as one of nineteenth century America’s most intriguing figures, and worthy of a book in his own right.

In retrospect, it appears that Francis Tumblety did everything to offend Victorian sensibilities EXCEPT murder five London prostitutes in 1888. He was connected to the Lincoln assassination, charged with peddling abortion drugs, and arrested for homosexual activity. Some of these episodes were well-publicized, but patients still flocked to his offices and bought his herbal remedies because he knew how to beguile the public: whenever he opened for business in a new city, Tumblety took out huge newspaper ads bearing testimonials from leading citizens, and he responded to criticism by publishing pamphlets that ground his detractors into the dust. Even when he wasn’t in trouble, people took notice, as he was fond of riding through the streets in military regalia with two greyhounds trailing him, his chest glittering with medals supposedly bestowed on him by European royalty.

What makes Tumblety so fascinating is that he represented the best and worst of the era he lived in. On one hand he was a wealthy medical professional who hobnobbed with the rich and famous; his name was linked to Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Prince of Wales. On the other, he sold contraceptive and abortion medication and carried on steamy affairs with much younger men. Many of his patients hailed the ‘Indian herb doctor’ (as he called himself) for saving them from painful surgical procedures, but the mainstream medical community derided him as a dangerous quack and tried to put him out of business.

When Tumblety went to England in 1888, his notoriety resulted in his being questioned about the Ripper murders. There was no evidence to hold him and he returned to New York. The American press had a field day over a possible U.S. connection to the bloody crimes; reporters converged eagerly on those who had known Tumblety in Rochester, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities. One of these sources, C.A. Dunham, (a known criminal and perjurer), expounded at length on Tumblety’s supposed hatred of women in general and prostitutes in particular. It was this type of testimony that would prompt Chief Inspector Littlechild to remember the doctor as a person of interest 25 years later.

I bought Prince of Quacks because Tumblety is a local legend in my hometown (Hamilton, Ontario). A walking tour points out a location where he supposedly opened an office after moving here temporarily in July 1856. I’d also heard Timothy Riordan being interviewed on Rippercast, a podcast series about the Whitechapel murders, and been impressed both by Tumblety’s story and Riordan’s mastery of it.

The book is a massive research triumph. Tumblety worked and played in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and his career spanned several decades, so putting together such a complete history was no small achievement. I was pleased to see that this is not another ‘Ripper suspect’ book. The Whitechapel murders are included because Tumblety was questioned about them, but the real focus of Prince of Quacks is Tumblety himself.

A minor criticism: from time to time the narrative is slowed down by excessive and arguably superfluous detail i.e. the newspapers Tumblety advertised in, which editions published the ads, etc. But it doesn’t happen often and readers who aren’t interested in such facts can always skim ahead.

Prince of Quacks is a well-written and compelling look at a forgotten nineteenth century maverick. Francis Tumblety may be the only non-royal Ripper suspect whose life overshadows his tenuous connection to the Whitechapel murders.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From the Ashes of Hannah Bradshaw

As the eighteenth century waned, the Age of Enlightenment settled over Europe, and its impact could be felt as far away as America. One of its byproducts was an explosion of literature with previously taboo themes: social upheaval, ruling class tyrannies, and supernatural influences. The American press catered to the public’s increasingly macabre tastes by printing grisly stories next to war reports and shipping news. One such tale appeared in the January 3, 1771 of the New York Journal.
The Journal informed its readers that on the evening of December 31, a young charwoman visited her employer, thirty-year-old Hannah Bradshaw, in the latter’s Division Street lodging house. Bradshaw was almost certainly a prostitute: author William Dunlap remembered her as being “a woman of large dimensions, masculine person, coarse manners, and notorious in the neighborhood for her boldness, habitual intemperance, and the vices allied to, and engendered by it.” Her nickname, ‘Man-o-War Nance’ allegedly derived from her fondness for sailors and the dives they frequented.
When the two women parted company at seven o’clock, Bradshaw was slightly drunk but otherwise in good shape. She asked her visitor to return the next day to clean her room.
The charwoman dutifully arrived early on New Year’s Day. To reach Bradshaw’s room, she trudged up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the building. When no one answered her repeated knocking, she presumed at first that her employer was sleeping off a spree. But when 11:00 a.m. arrived without a response, she became worried and summoned a male lodger to help her break the room’s window and climb inside. There she saw what the Journal described as “the most shocking spectacle imaginable.”
A charred and smoking hole, four feet in diameter, yawned in the middle of the wood floor. Near its edge lay a leg fragment with the flesh still attached and an assortment of bones, some of which had been reduced to ashes. A blackened partial skeleton lay in the dirt of the crawl space below. The intestines remained intact, as did some flesh on the head, shoulder, and leg. A foul-smelling, greasy matter coated the walls and ceiling, and the heat generated by the strange blaze had even drawn the turpentine from the wainscoting. A rush-bottomed chair was burned on the leg nearest the hole, but nowhere else.
Hannah Bradshaw’s bizarre death appears to be the first (recorded) American case of the phenomenon now referred to as spontaneous human combustion. Whether it exists as described (a human being bursting into flames triggered by internal causes) continues to be a source of debate. In Bradshaw’s case, authorities did not know what to think. An overturned candle holder lay a short distance away from the fragmented body, but it did not appear to be the source of the blaze: the candle burned itself out without harming the flooring. So was she murdered by a client who burned her body afterward, or did she really combust?
It’s interesting to note that Hannah Bradshaw died not long before the dawn of the Gothic novel, which used equally creepy mysteries to chill the reader’s blood. William Dunlap, who recalled her in his written history of New York City, was a close friend of Charles Brockden Brown, the American novelist and pioneer of Gothic fiction. Since the two men almost certainly discussed it, Bradshaw’s death may have been an impetus for the literary genre that made violent death and emotional alienation a staple of popular fiction.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hope Burned Means a Future Lost

The back cover of Brent Laporte’s debut novel Hope Burned promises that the story is “at once as bleak and moving, tense and beautiful as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” The comparison fits: both books are emotionally provocative tales of horror and hope. I’d even venture to say that Hope Burned suggests the dangerous repercussions of child abuse with the same sinister intensity that The Road stresses the importance of a healthy ecosystem to human survival.

A nameless boy endures years of abuse at the hands of his father and grandfather, who keep him isolated and enslaved on their remote farm. The only other human being he ever encountered was a young blond girl whom his guardians / jailers lured to the property and later raped and killed. We know nothing of the boy’s mother, but one surmises that she probably met a similar fate after giving birth. The memory of the girl haunts him for the remainder of his days. When he finally escapes and stumbles into civilization, he is taken in by kind people who finally give him a name- Tom.  Although he grows into a successful and happily married adult, Tom can’t stop questioning what kind of a future he has when his past refuses to stay buried. So he returns to the farm, kills both his father and grandfather, and writes a memoir to help his young son to understand why.

Laporte structured Hope Burned so that it reads like a letter from Tom to his son. It has no chapter divisions, but in this instance such structure might hinder the flow and personality of the prose.  Because Tom presents his story as both an apology and confessional, the reader’s voyeuristic instincts are quickly aroused, making it the type of book that’s consumed in a couple of sittings.
The character of Tom reminds me a lot of Canadian-born Sanford Clark, who was abducted from his Saskatoon home by his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, in 1926. Northcott took the boy to his isolated chicken ranch in California and used him as farm hand and sex slave. During that time Northcott also raped and murdered at least three young boys, setting the authorities on his trail. In 1928 they rescued Sanford Clark, whose testimony ensured his uncle’s conviction and execution. (The entire tragedy later became the subject of a Clint Eastwood film, Changeling.) Clark returned to his native Saskatoon and became a leading citizen, but the memories of Northcott’s victims stayed with him. Like Tom, he always blamed himself for his failure to save them.
This is one novel that I highly recommend to True Crime fans. The people and events have so many real-life equivalents that it’s easy to forget that Hope Burned is fiction and not a survivor’s memoir.