A Fresh Look at a Sensational 1843 Murder Case and Its Fallout

THE WITCH OF NEW YORK: The Trials of Polly Bodine and the Cursed Birth of Tabloid Justice, by Alex Hortis

The story began with a fire: On Christmas night in 1843, a Staten Island teenager spotted smoke coming from the white house owned by Capt. George Houseman. After he raised the alarm, men drinking at the local tavern came running to help put out the blaze. The captain was away at sea, but the men made a grim discovery in the burned-out kitchen: the bodies of Emeline Houseman, 24, and her toddler daughter, Ann Eliza.

Suspicion soon fell upon Mary (Polly) Bodine, née Houseman, the dead woman’s sister-in-law. For one thing, Polly, 33 at the time of the fire, had already strayed from the conventions of the era. Born into the comfort and stability of one of the island’s most prosperous families, she blossomed in what was then an idyllic and still mostly rural setting just a ferry ride away from bustling Lower Manhattan, which had exploded in population in the first decades of the 1800s. Following an early marriage to an abusive drunk named Andrew Bodine, Polly returned to her parents’ house with her son and daughter. Now she was “a single mother on an island of gossips,” writes Alex Hortis in “The Witch of New York,” his fascinating look at the crime and what came after.

It’s not just that Polly was different. She was also carrying on an affair with George Waite, an apothecary who had hired her teenage son, Albert, as his assistant. As Hortis points out, this was a profession with a “slightly nefarious reputation,” and indeed, Waite and others provided the drugs that women could use to end pregnancy. (Abortion was legal in the state of New York until 1845, when a new law criminalized the procedure and made women vulnerable to prosecution.) Still, Hortis writes, once Polly was identified as a suspect in the murders of Emeline and Ann Eliza, “the public would judge Polly’s character as a woman and her fate would turn on the outcome.”

Later it would be rumored that Polly had become pregnant by George multiple times, and that he had provided the necessary means to end each one — except the last. At the time of the murders, Polly was around eight months pregnant. After attending the funeral, at which Emeline’s father, John Van Pelt, declared to his side of the family that she was “the murderess,” Polly fled, despite her condition and the cold, snowy weather. She surrendered on New Year’s Eve, and a few days later delivered a stillborn baby in her cell.

This part of the narrative — the fire, the suspect, the police — is really just throat-clearing before Hortis reaches the book’s major topic: how an ascendant new institution, the tabloid press, both reflected and fomented public opinion (and prejudices) in a way that swayed justice itself.

As Polly and George sat in jail awaiting trial, reporters and editors at The New York Herald, The New York Sun, The New-York Daily Tribune and others sharpened their pencils. They knew already that “murder mysteries that involved female victims or an element of sex sold newspapers” and the upstart Herald (founded just a few years earlier) quickly got to work on Polly, publishing a woodcut that emphasized her gaunt features and long nose. This visual shorthand, coupled with The Sun’s publication of a hoax confession shortly after, established the archetype through which American readers could understand the crime: Polly was a witch.

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