Saturday, November 27, 2010

Murderous New York

Fourteen of the fifty two stories and book reviews at Murder by Gaslight concern murders that took place in the state of New York. That’s 27%--higher by far than any other state. Why so many 19th century murders in New York? One reason is very simple, by 1800 New York was the most populous state in the union and New York City was the largest city in America.

But it was more than just population; New York was very good at publicizing its murders. New York City’s “penny press” of the 1830s learned quickly that nothing sold newspapers like a good murder. The murders of Helen Jewett, and Samuel Adams received heavy press coverage in New York that was picked up by newspapers throughout America. “Yellow Journalism” at the end of the century had Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World competing with William Hearst’s New York Journal for lurid details of murder cases like those of Evelina Bliss and Domenico Cataldo.

And it wasn't just journalist. The murder of New York cigar girl Mary Rogers was the inspiration for Edgar Alan Poe’s Mystery of Marie Roget. There were at least two fictionalized versions of Helen Jewett's murder serialized in national publications.The Colt/Adams murder was mentioned in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

New York State was fertile ground for cultivating controversial and sometimes violent political and religious groups. Manhattan’s political machine, Tammany Hall, produced congressman Dan Sickles who shot Phillip Key. Tammany was also responsible for the murder of Bill The Butcher Poole of the Native American or “Know Nothing” Party. The kidnapping and probable murder of William Morgan by Freemasons in Batavia, New York, led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party. At Mount Zion, one of New York’s many religious communes, Robert Mathews (known as the Prophet Mathias) was accused of murdering Elijah Pierson.

So here, in chronological order, is a sampling of the 19th murders of New York State. There are more to come.

William Morgan - September 1826

Whipple/Strang – May 7, 1827

Elijah Pierson – July 28, 1834

Helen Jewett– April 9, 1836

Mary Rodgers – July 25, 1841 (Body found in New Jersey)

Colt/Adams – September 17, 1841

Bill The Butcher Poole – February 24, 1855

Richardson/McFarland – November 25, 1869

Edward Rulloff – August 17, 1870

James Fisk – January 6, 1872

Carrie Brown – April 24, 1891

Maria Barbella – April 26, 1895

Book Reviews:

Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York

Murder and Mayhem in St. Lawrence County


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