Thursday, July 4, 2013

Duel with the Devil

No sooner had Manhattan's municipal water system come into effect when one of its wells became a crime scene.

In January 1800, the body of Gulielma ‘Elma' Sands was found floating in the frozen water of a well in Lispenard's Meadow, a marshy terrain near modern day Soho. She had left her Greenwich Street boardinghouse on December 22, 1799 after telling confidants that she intended to be married to carpenter Levi Weeks, who was a fellow boarder. Instead of a bride, Elma became a corpse in a watery grave and the blame was universally cast on Weeks.

Levi’s brother, Ezra, an influential building contractor, hired three prominent lawyers to defend him: former secretary of the treasury and Bank of the United States founder Alexander Hamilton, one-time senator and future Vice President Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston, who went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court. Although the first two were political adversaries, together with Livingston they formed the young nation’s earliest ‘dream team’.  Four years later Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel, but while the trial ran its course, they cooperated so well that the prosecution never stood a chance.

The trial of Levi Weeks was the first American murder trial to be transcribed for posterity, thanks to the new ‘technology’ of shorthand. Eager for details of the ‘Manhattan Well Mystery’, thousands of people attended the proceedings throughout their duration, which was longer than any other American trial to date. Afterwards, future New York Post editor William Coleman published the transcripts in book format.

Duel with the Devil is not merely about a landmark murder mystery: the book reaches out to explore the social customs and political chicanery of post-Revolutionary War New York. A case in point: Aaron Burr’s water company owned the crime scene, had employed Levi Weeks, and rejected a bid by a relative of Elma Sands. According to the author, Burr himself had “financial relationships” with the court recorder and the clerk and past dealings with the mayor and the judge.

Duel with the Devil is another gem by Paul Collins, who also wrote one of my favourite True Crime books: `Murder of the Century'. Collins, who is already celebrated as NPR's "literary detective", once again reveals his genius as a historian and a detective. His theory on the identity of Elma's killer may be as close to the truth as we can get after 214 years.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Infidelity: the Death of Normalcy

Infidelity (ECW Press, October 2013) is a novel about the proverbial Bad Romance: two people in a relationship that starts out cathartic and ends up corrosive- to themselves and those close to them.

Ronnie, a free-spirited hairdresser and ex-teenaged rebel, is engaged to Aaron, an ambitious caterer who tries to make an honest woman of her. Bored and antagonized by a routine existence, she begins an affair with Charlie, a neurotic  and married writer who is mesmerized by the very brashness that Aaron discourages. They meet in his university office, in Toronto hotel rooms, Bay Street bars, any place where neither is reminded of their respective obligations at home. Their need for one another obliterates all other responsibilities, until the people in their everyday lives- Ronnie’s fiancĂ©, Charlie’s wife and autistic son- become casualties in the ultimate fallout.

Infidelity is gritty and real. It doesn’t have a happy ending, and nor should it, because Charlie and Ronnie aren’t truly in love- they’re seeking an escape from their respective personal demons. The entire novel is a beautifully-written reminder that relationships born out of desperation or rebellion have negative- and often permanent- consequences.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Recollecting the Scattered Dutchman

The murder of William Guldensuppe hasn’t received the same level of recognition as other gruesome killings that took place during the closing years of the nineteenth century. But throughout the latter half of 1897, the people of New York talked about little else.

On June 26th, 1897, some boys out to escape the summer heat found a strange object floating in the East River and retrieved it. It turned out to be a headless and limbless male torso wrapped in oilcloth. The repulsive discovery was initially passed off as a medical student prank, but the conclusion changed to murder after doctors said that the dismemberment lacked the skill of a medical professional. The announcement sparked public interest, but when the missing limbs were found in Harlem soon afterward, intrigue morphed into hysteria. Who was the victim? Where was his head? And who had killed him?

Newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and the aging Joseph Pulitzer turned the mysterious affair into a media circus, driving up the circulation of their respective papers as they competed to solve the case first.  This was the era of the detective journalist, so reporters from both camps schemed, tricked, and stole in order to get names and locate evidence. They were so tenacious that the press arguably deserves the credit for identifying the victim as bathhouse masseur William Guldensuppe and his suspected killers as barber Martin Thorn and midwife Augusta Nack.

Murder of the Century reads more like a detective novel than a work of history, but the author is constantly faithful to the facts and has the endnotes to prove it. Paul Collins, who moonlights as the literary detective on the NPR show “Weekend Edition”, recreates the investigation, trial, and aftermath in a way that keeps the pages turning.

As the author of three historical True Crime books, I can tell you that his task wasn’t an easy one: the ‘Case of the Scattered Dutchman’ was not widely written about after the trial concluded, so the hunt for non-newspaper sources must have been taxing. His persistence uncovered a surprising amount of forgotten details, which he uses to present his own version of how William Guldensuppe was killed, and by whom.

This is not just the story of a love triangle that ended in bloodshed: Collins has evoked Gilded Age America and its merciless tabloid wars, the echoes of which can still be felt today.