June 13, 2013
In the early evening of January 30, 1857, a middle-aged dentist named Harvey Burdell left his townhouse at 31 Bond Street, a respectable if not truly chic section of Manhattan, and set out for a local hotel. Burdell had recently been taking his dinners there, even though he had a cook on his household staff. His relationship with one of his tenants (and a regular at his table), Emma Cunningham, had become strained. Burdell had accused Cunningham, a
34-year-old widow with four children, of stealing a promissory note from his office safe. She in turn had had Burdell arrested for breach of promise to marry, which was then a criminal offense.
Cunningham had become increasingly suspicious of Burdell’s relations with his female patients and with his attractive young cousin, also a resident of 31 Bond Street. Earlier that day, she had grilled one of the housemaids:
“Who was that woman, Hannah, you were showing through the house to-day?”
“That was the lady who is going to take the house.”
“Then the doctor is going to leave it, is he?”
“And when does she take possession?”
“The first of May.”
“He better be careful; he may not live to sign the papers!”
This conversation, which Hannah repeated to police and in a courtroom, would come back to haunt Emma Cunningham. On the morning of January 31, Harvey Burdell was found in his home, stabbed 15 times and strangled for good measure.
She was born Emma Augusta Hempstead in the mid-1810s in Brooklyn. When she was 19, she met and married George Cunningham, a businessman some 20 years her senior, and the two lived in relative style in a rented house near Union Square in Manhattan. But he proved to be less than adept at handling money, and by the time their fourth child was born they had moved back to Brooklyn to live
among relatives. When he died, Emma Cunningham inherited his property (meager), accounts (empty) and a life-insurance policy worth $10,000. She knew that wouldn’t be enough to support her family indefinitely, especially not if she wanted to move back to Manhattan and live as a proper lady.
Using a portion of the money to outfit herself in the latest fashions, the widow Cunningham set about finding a new husband—one who would ensure that she and her children could remain among the ranks of New York’s upwardly mobile middle class. At that time, love, legitimacy and security were difficult to come by for any woman not born into privilege. Emma Cunningham’s search would prove to be more desperate than most.
How and where her path crossed Harvey Burdell’s is unclear, but in the summer of 1855 the pair jaunted to the resort of Saratoga Springs to promenade. By that autumn Cunningham was pregnant and expecting a proposal of marriage; she instead had an abortion, almost certainly at Burdell’s urging, and possibly performed by the dentist himself. She moved her children into 31 Bond Street not as lady of the house but as a tenant,
paying rent to Burdell.
Still, she behaved as though she and Burdell were man and wife—ordering the food, hiring the maids, dining at his table. The breach-of-promise suit, brought in 1856, was a final attempt to get Burdell to legitimize their relationship, which Cunningham had become increasingly anxious to do as she noticed the attentions he paid to other women. The two fought constantly, with neighbors reporting later that shouts and crashes came from 31 Bond almost nightly. Burdell refused her demands for marriage, telling a friend that he would not marry “the best woman living.”
Found among Burdell’s papers after his death was a document that read:
In consequence of the settling of the suit now pending between Emma Augusta Cunningham and myself I agree as follows:
1.1 I extend to herself and family my friendship through life.
1.2 I agree never to do or act in any manner to the disadvantage of Mrs. Emma A. Cunningham.
His associates took this declaration to mean that he and Cunningham had reached some kind of agreement, and so were shocked to learn that Cunningham, two days after Burdell’s body was discovered, presented to the coroner’s office a marriage certificate. Not only was she Burdell’s grieving widow, devastated by his death and horrified that anyone could have such animosity toward her beloved, she announced, she was also the sole heir of his $100,000 fortune and the Bond Street townhouse. She was soon indicted on charges of murdering him.
The press painted Cunningham as a money-hungry schemer. She was sleeping with at least one of the other boarders, it was alleged, and allowing one of her lovers to engage in immoral acts with her 18-year-old daughter. Household staff and neighbors came forward with stories of lurid sexual escapades and elaborate plots to ruin the good name of the dentist who had worked so hard to rise to the ranks of the professional class.
At her trial, the prosecution relied on physical evidence: The murderer was almost certainly left-handed; Emma Cunningham was left-handed. What more was there to debate?
Cunningham’s attorney, Henry
Clinton Lauren Clinton, pointed out that while his client (whom he discouraged from taking the witness stand) did indeed lead with her left hand, so did who knows how many others across the city. What’s more, he said, Cunningham, by this point in her mid-30s, was an aging woman suffering from rheumatism. Burdell had 12 inches of height and a hundred pounds on her—even if she’d wanted to, how could such a delicate creature commit such a physically demanding act?
Clinton’s portrait of Burdell and his relationship with Cunningham was much darker than the initial press accounts. It was confirmed that Burdell had been engaged once before and, on the day of the wedding, demanded a check for $20,000 from the bride’s father, whereupon the marriage was called off. He regularly engaged in sexual activity with his dental patients, preferring girls in their late teens. He owed gambling debts and was parsimonious to the point of cruelty, almost starving his servants. He’d been especially abusive, the defense claimed, to Mrs. Cunningham. Court papers alluded to a variety of sexual assaults, verbal abuse and humiliation. The abortion she’d been convinced to undergo in the fall of 1855 was not her last—several others had occurred in the dentist’s chair. One newspaper claimed to have obtained, from a secret cabinet in Burdell’s office, a jarred fetus—a result of Cunningham and Burdell’s relations.
Whether persuaded by Clinton’s presentation or the fact that there was no physical evidence linking Cunningham to the murder, the jury acquitted her in less than two hours. The wicked woman, the press exclaimed, had gotten away with murder.
There was still, though, the matter of Cunningham’s marriage to Burdell. More than one member of Burdell’s inner circle had challenged the marriage certificate as a fake, and the Surrogate Court was investigating Cunningham’s activities in the months leading up to the murder trial.
Not believing her assertion that Burdell had sworn her to keep their marriage a secret, especially from his own attorneys,
court-appointed State’s Attorney Samuel J. Tilden (future governor of New York and presidential candidate, who was representing the Burdell family) presented to the court a seemingly outlandish scenario: Cunningham was having an affair with another of Burdell’s tenants, John J. Eckel; she had hired a minister who knew neither Eckel nor Burdell and disguised Eckel in a fake beard to match Burdell’s real one, and then she had married Eckel, who forged Burdell’s signature on the marriage certificate. The press took the idea to its logical conclusion: Eckel and Cunningham, drunk on lust and greed, had conspired to murder Burdell and live together ever after on the dead dentist’s dime. (Eckel was never charged with murder, but his case was dismissed.)
Cunningham’s every move was publicly scrutinized—the New-York Daily Times spoke to neighbors who claimed she “constantly had several women in her house; that she would sit in the front parlor, in company with one or more of them, with the blinds and windows open; and thus exposed to the gaze of the over-curious public, would talk to them in the most violent and boisterous manner, gesticulating and preforming various fantastic feats, laughing in triumph, shaking her fist, &c.”
Men of all ages were reported to be entering the house at all hours of the night. Anyone living in New York at the time would have caught the insinuation—the area around Bond Street, being next to some of the city’s most notorious theaters, was widely recognized as a center of prostitution. While there is no evidence Cunningham ever engaged in prostitution, the newspaper coverage had inclined the obsessed public to believe she was that kind of woman.
With a Surrogate Court decision expected in late August, eyebrows were raised as Cunningham began to appear in court looking noticeably fuller around her midsection. Yes, she said, she was pregnant with her late husband’s child. No, she demurred, she would not submit to an examination by any physician but her own.
From her initial pregnancy announcement, whispers grew to the effect that Cunningham was padding her gowns with pillows and faking exhaustion and other symptoms of the condition. In early August, she appeared in public with an infant, hoping to silence the rumors that she’d been anything other than a devoted wife and mother.
Alas, it was not to be, and Cunningham found herself once more in the Tombs and on the front page of every newspaper in the city. While she swore the baby was the product of her marriage to Burdell, she had in fact purchased the baby for $1,000 from an indigent woman, in a plot engineered by District Attorney Abraham Oakley Hall, who had been skeptical of her pregnancy from the start. The would-be mother went so far as to stage a birth scene at her home: “About half past ten o’clock both physicians entered, and in due form Mrs. Cunningham was ‘brought to bed,’ ” reported the New-York Daily Times. “A fictitious afterbirth had been prepared, and a large pailful of lamb’s blood. The bloody sheets of Mrs. Cunningham’s bed and the placenta, stowed away in a cupboard, completed this mock confinement, which had also been systematically accompanied with imaginary pains of labor.”
After Cunningham presented the baby as her own, Hall produced the baby’s mother, and noted a series of small marks that had been made on the infant in the foundling hospital where it had been born. With that, Cunningham’s quest to get what she thought Harvey Burdell owed her was finally put to rest, though baby’s mother did find a way to capitalize on the situation—cutting a deal with showman P.T. Barnum to exhibit the child at his downtown Manhattan museum, where visitors could pay 25 cents a head to gaze upon the infamous infant.
Disgraced and virtually penniless, Cunningham fled to California—where she eventually wed and placed her daughters in respectable marriages. She returned to New York in 1887 to live with a cousin but died that year, an event marked by a small notice in the New York Times. The murder of Harvey Burdell was never officially solved, though modern scholars agree Cunningham was likely involved.
What she wanted from Harvey Burdell was not just his wealth, but also his attention. And in a small way, she has it—in 2007 Benjamin Feldman, a lawyer and historian researching the case, partnered with
persuaded Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to erect two stone markers, one for Cunningham and one for Burdell, to stand side by side for eternity, just as Cunningham, throwing herself onto Burdell’s coffin before at his packed funeral, exclaimed she wanted.
That she got it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to Harvey Burdell. One of his last conversations about Cunningham was with a cousin, who recounted it on the witness stand:
Q: Did he speak very highly of her?
Q: Did he tell you that she was a rich widow?
A: Yes. He said she was lady-like. He said that to have a public outbreak with her, he feared, would injure his business; he said she was a cunning, intriguing woman, and that she would resort to anything to carry out her plans.
Books: Clinton, Henry Lauren. Celebrated Trials (Harper & brothers, 1897); Feldman, Benjamin. Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York (Green-wood Cemetery Historic Fund, 2007); Sutton, Charles. The New-York Tombs: Its Secrets and Mysteries (A. Roman & Company, 1874)
Articles: “The Bond Street Murder: Indictment of Eckel and Mrs. Cunningham,” New-York Daily Tribune, February 23, 1857; “The Widow Burdell Before the Surrogate,” New York Daily Times, March 13, 1857; “Mrs. Cunningham: Is the House Haunted,” New York Daily Times, August 8, 1857; “The Burdell Murder!!: The Burdell Estate Before the Surrogate Again,” New York Daily Times, August 5, 1857; “The Burdell Murder: Scenes in Court. Eckel Discharged,” New York Daily Tribune, May 11, 1857; “A Lurid Tale Revived in Granite,” New York Times, September 19, 2007.
May 29, 2013
It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.
The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion.
Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the history of the New World.
Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the British traveler Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.” For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.
It was hard to conceive of a case more likely to bring vodou, and Haiti, into greater disrepute than the murder that was being punished that Saturday in 1864. The killing had taken place in the village of Bizoton, just outside the gates of Port-au-Prince, and—at least according to the newspaper stories that fizzed over the world’s telegraph wires that spring—it was the work of a wastrel by the name of Congo Pelé, who had sacrificed his own niece in the hope of winning favor from the vodou gods.
Little is known for certain of the affaire de Bizoton. No trial transcripts survive, and the truth (as Kate Ramsey observes in her study of vodou and Haitian law) was long ago lost in a miasma of prejudice and misreporting. The most detailed account of the murder came from the pen of Sir Spenser St John, who was the British charge d’affaires in Port-au-Prince at the time—and St John’s account helped define Haiti as a place where ritual murder and cannibalism were commonplace, and usually went unpunished. The charge proved so influential that, as recently as 2010, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of the capital could still be blamed on a supposed “pact with the devil” that the country had signed by turning to vodou.
For St John, who said he had “made the most careful inquiries” into the murder, the affaire seemed straightforward and hideous. Pelé, the diplomat reported, had been “a labourer, a gentleman’s servant [and] an idler” who had grown resentful at his poverty and was “anxious to improve his position without exertion on his part.” Since he was the brother of a noted vodou priestess, the solution appeared obvious. The gods and spirits could provide for him.
Sometime in December 1863, Jeanne Pelé agreed to help her brother. ”It was settled between them,” St John wrote, “that about the new year some sacrifice should be offered to propitiate the serpent.” The only difficulty was the scale of Congo’s ambition. While “a more modest man would have been satisfied with a white cock or a white goat…on this solemn occasion it was thought better to offer a more important sacrifice.” Two vodou priests were consulted, and it was they who recommended that the Pelés offer up the “goat without horns”—that is, a human sacrifice.
Jeanne Pelé did not have to look far for a suitable victim. She chose her sister’s child, a girl named Claircine, who St John says was 12 years old at the time. On December 27, 1863, Jeanne invited her sister to visit Port-au-Prince with her, and, in their absence, Congo Pelé and the two priests seized Claircine. They bound and gagged her and hid her beneath the altar of a nearby temple. The girl stayed there for four full days and nights. Finally, after dark on New Year’s Eve, an elaborate vodou ceremony was held. At its climax—St John says—Claircine was strangled, flayed, decapitated and dismembered. Her body was cooked, and her blood caught and kept in a jar.
Writing a quarter of a century later, the diplomat spared his readers none of the unpleasant details of the bloody feast that followed; perhaps he calculated that they would not wish to be spared. He also set out the evidence that had been assembled against the Pelés and their associates, together with details of other cases that proved, he thought, that the murder was not an isolated incident.
Before asking whether Claircine really was sacrificed to African gods—let alone whether cannibalism was a normal part of vodou—it may help to know a little more about the place that the religion held in old Haiti. Vodou was, to begin with, the faith of most Haitians. As late as 1860, the country was only nominally Christian; the urban elite may have been more or less Catholic, but the mass of people in the countryside were not. Bible teachings posed awkward questions in a slaveholding society; thus, while the old French colony’s hated “Negro Code” had made it compulsory to baptize new slaves within eight days of their arrival, most plantation owners made no real attempt to Christianize them. Nor was it easy for any religion to take root in the brutal conditions in which most blacks worked. The climate, back-breaking labor and fever killed 10 percent of Haiti’s half-million-strong population every year and severely curtailed fertility. This meant, as Laurent Dubois notes, that fully two-thirds of the slaves in Haiti on the eve of the revolt of 1791 had been born in Africa. They brought with them their African religions, and scholars of vodou believe that its Catholic trappings were implanted not in Haiti, but in the coastal regions of the Congo, where local rulers converted to Christianity as early as the 15th century.
Matters scarcely improved after independence. Most Haitian rulers professed Christianity—they believed it important to identify with the free nations of the west. But they also insisted on a Haitian clergy, not to mention the right to appoint bishops. That the Catholic Church would not concede, with the result that in 1804 a schism occurred between Haiti and Rome. Since there were then no more than three churches still standing amid the rubble of the revolution, and six priests in the entire country, little progress was made in converting the people of the interior in the years before this breach was healed with a concordat signed in 1860.
The handful of clergymen who did serve in Haiti during these years were mostly renegades, Dubois writes: “debauched opportunists who got rich selling sacraments to gullible Haitians.” Vodou thrived in these conditions, and it was hardly surprising that when Geffrard’s immediate predecessor, Faustin Soulouque, was nominated as president in 1847, Haiti found itself ruled by a former slave who was an open adherent of the African religion.
Knowing a little of the effects of the schism, and of Soulouque’s dubious 12-year regime, makes it easier to understand why Fabre Geffrard was so anxious to prosecute the principals of the affaire de Bizoton—and to label Claircine’s killers as vodouists. The concordat signed in March 1860 committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion—and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that…maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.” Under Geffrard, attempts were also made to curb other customs likely to upset the pope: the public nudity that was still common in the interior, and a 99 percent illegitimacy rate that was accompanied (Dubois says) by “bigamy, trigamy, all the way to septigamy.”
Geffrard was equally anxious to distance himself from Soulouque, who in 1849 had made the country something of a laughingstock by crowning himself Emperor Faustin I. He was not the first Haitian emperor—that honor belongs to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had ruled as Jacques I between 1804 and 1806—and although Murdo MacLeod argues that he was a shrewder ruler than most historians allow, he is usually portrayed as a buffoon. Lazy and poorly educated, Soulouque, it was widely believed, had been hand-picked by Haiti’s senate as the most malleable possible candidate for the presidency; unable to obtain a golden crown, he had been elevated to the throne wearing one made of cardboard. Once in power, however, the new emperor derived (MacLeod says) significant “mystical prestige” from his association with vodou. Indeed, it was widely thought he was in thrall to it, and St John noted that
during the reign of Soulouque, a priestess was arrested for having promoted a sacrifice too openly; when about to be conducted to prison, a foreign bystander remarked aloud that probably she would be shot. She laughed and said: ‘If I were to beat the sacred drum, and march through the city, [there is] not one, from the Emperor downwards, but would humbly follow me.’
What all this means, I think, is that vodou became a fault line running through the very heart of Haitian society after 1804. For most citizens, and especially for the rural blacks who had borne the brunt both of slavery and the struggle for independence, it became a potent symbol of old dignities and new freedoms: a religion that, as Dubois notes, helped “carve out a place where the enslaved could temporarily escape the order that saw them only as chattel property” during colonial times, and went on to “create communities of trust that stretched between the different plantations and into the towns.” For the local elite, who tended to be of mixed race and were often French-educated, though, vodou was holding Haiti back. It was alien and frightening to those who did not understand it; it was associated with slave rebellion; and (after Soulouque’s rise), it was also the faith of the most brutal and backward of the country’s rulers.
These considerations combined to help make Haiti a pariah state throughout the 19th century. Dessalines and his successor, Henry Christophe—who had every reason to fear that the United States, France, Britain and Spain would overthrow their revolution and re-enslave the population, given the chance—tried to isolate the country, but even after economic necessity forced them to reopen the trade in sugar and coffee, the self-governing black republic of Haiti remained a dangerous abomination in the eyes of every white state involved in the slave trade. Like Soviet Russia in the 1920s, it was feared to be almost literally “infectious”: liable to inflame other blacks with the desire for liberty. Geffrard was not the only Haitian leader to look for ways to prove that his was a nation much like the great powers—Christian, and governed by the rule of law.
With all that borne in mind, let us return to the Haiti of 1864 and the affaire de Bizoton. There is no need to assume that Spenser St John was a wholly unreliable observer; his account of the legal proceedings that took place that year chimes well with contemporary press coverage. There are a few discrepancies (Claircine is stated in newspaper sources to have been seven or eight, not 12), but the journalists’ accounts are, for the most part, more purple and more partial than the diplomat’s.
What’s most interesting about St John’s account is his admission that the trial was open to criticism. His chief concern was the use of force to beat confessions out of suspects. “All the prisoners,” the diplomat observed, “had at first refused to speak, thinking that the Vaudoux would protect them, and it required the frequent application of the club to drive this belief out of their heads.” Later, hauled up before the judge, the prisoners “were bullied, cajoled, cross-questioned in order to force avowals, in fact to make them state in open court what they were said to have confessed in their preliminary examinations.”
The beatings produced the evidence that Geffrard’s government required, but also at least one disputed confession. It came from one Roséide Sumera, who had admitted to eating “the palms of the victims hands as a favourite morsel,” and whose evidence was vital to the prosecution. Sumera, St John recalled, had “entered into every particular of the whole affair, to the evident annoyance of the others, who tried in vain to keep her silent,” and it was thanks to her testimony that “the guilt of the prisoners was thus fully established.” Yet even St John had his doubts about Sumera’s evidence: “I can never forget,” the diplomat conceded, “the manner in which the youngest female prisoner turned to the public prosecutor and said, ‘Yes, I did confess what you assert, but remember how cruelly I was beaten before I said a word.’ ”
The fact that Roséide Sumera fought for her life in court does not mean that she was innocent, of course. St John remained convinced of her guilt, not least because physical evidence was produced to back up witness testimony. A “freshly boiled” human skull had been found concealed in bushes outside the temple where the ritual had apparently occurred, and the prosecutor also produced a pile of bones and two eyewitnesses who—it was claimed—had not participated in the murder. They were a young woman and a child, who had watched from an adjoining room through chinks in the wall.
The child’s evidence was especially compelling. It was probably at least as important as Sumera’s in securing convictions, not least because it appeared that she had been intended as a second victim. The girl had been found, according to St John’s account, tied up under the same altar that had concealed Claircine; had Pelé not been stopped, he wrote, the intention was to sacrifice her on Twelfth Night (January 5), the most sacred date in the vodou calendar. Even so, the child’s statement was not complete:
She told her story in all its horrible details; but her nerves gave way so completely, that she had to to be taken out of court, and could not be again produced to answer some questions the jury wished to ask.
As for the young woman who had, for obscure reasons, accompanied the girl to the ceremony, her testimony was at best equivocal. She confirmed that the feast had taken place, but according to at least one account, also confessed to eating leftovers from the cannibals’ meal the next morning. The public prosecutor admitted to St John that “we have not thought proper to press the inquiry too closely” in this woman’s case, adding: “If full justice were done, there would be fifty on those benches instead of eight.”
If much oral testimony was debatable, then, what of the physical evidence? That a human skull and several bones were produced in court seems undisputed; that they were Claircine’s, though, appears less certain.
Ramsey suggests that they may have been the remains of some other person—who may have died of natural causes—prepared for some other ritual. (see editors’ note below) And some accounts of the trial are curious in other ways. St John states that the other bones were “calcined” (burned) but still intact, whereas New Zealand’s Otago Witness—in a typical example of the contemporary news coverage—reported that they had been “reduced to ashes.”
As for the allegation, made by St John, that cannibalism was a normal feature of life in 19th century Haiti: the evidence here is thin in the extreme. Writing in The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909, John T. Driscoll charged—without providing details—that ”authentic records are procurable of midnight meetings held in Hayti, as late as 1888, at which human beings, especially children, were killed and eaten at the secret feasts.” Close reading, though, shows that there are only two other “firsthand” accounts of vodou ceremonies involving cannibalism: one from a French priest during the 1870s, and the other from a white Dominican a decade later. Both are unsupported; both are suspect, not least for the claim that both supposed eyewitnesses penetrated a secret religious ceremony undetected, wearing blackface. Unfortunately, both were also widely disseminated. Added to St John’s accounts–which included the charge that “people are killed and their flesh sold at the market” in Haiti, they profoundly influenced Victorian scribblers who had never visited the island. In 1891, observes Dubois, “one writer admitted that he had never actually seen a Vodou ritual, but he nevertheless described [one] in vivid detail–complete with practitioners ‘throwing themselves on the victims, tearing them apart with their teeth and avidly sucking the blood that boils from their veins.’ Each day, he wrote, forty Haitians were eaten, and almost every citizen of the country had tasted human flesh.”
This matters. Ramsey and Dubois, to name only two of the historians who see Claircine’s case as central to Haiti’s history, both argue that it helped to create perceptions that have lingered to the present day. The idea that Haiti was uncivilized and inherently unstable was used to justify an American military occupation that began in 1915 and ran for 20 years; many even today remain convinced that the depressing aspects of the country’s history were products of its innate “backwardness” and not, as scholars of Haiti argue, the real problems that the country faced during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Much, certainly, can be attributed to the crushing burden of debt imposed by France in 1825 as a condition of recognizing independence. This indemnity, which amounted to 150 million francs (about $3 billion today), plus interest, compensated slaveholders for their losses—so, as the Haitian writer Louis-Joseph Janvier furiously observed, his people had paid for their country three times over: in “tears and sweat,” as captive labor; in blood, during the revolution, and then in cash, to the very men who had enslaved them. As late as 1914, Dubois notes, 80 percent of the Haitian budget was swallowed up by interest payments on this debt.
All of which does make the executions of February 1864 a transforming moment in Haitian history–so much so that it was perhaps appropriate that they were botched. Wrote Spenser St John:
The prisoners, tied in pairs, were placed in a line, and faced by five soldiers to each pair. They fired with such inaccuracy that only six fell wounded on the first discharge. It took these untrained men fully half an hour to complete their work… [and] the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings…. They were seen beckoning the soldiers to approach, and Roseíde held the muzzle of a musket to her bosom and called on the man to fire.
Editors’ note, June 12, 2013: The sentence above referring to Kate Ramsey and physical evidence at the trial has been stricken-through because it is incorrect. She made no such suggestion.
Anon. “Horrible superstition of the Vandoux heretics.” Otago Witness, 29 October 1864; John E. Baur. “The Presidency of Nicolas Geffrard of Haiti.” In The Americas 10 (1954); Jean Comhaire. “The Haitian Schism, 1804-1860.” In Anthropological Quarterly 29 (1956); Leslie Desmangles. “The Maroon Republics and Religious Diversity in Colonial Haiti.” In Anthropos 85 (1990); Leslie Desmangles. The Faces of the Gods. Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992; John T. Driscoll. “Fetishism.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia vol.6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909; Laurent Dubois. “Vodou and History.” In Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (2001); Laurent Dubois. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013; François Eldin. Haïti: 13 Ans de Séjour aux Antilles. Toulouse: Société des Livres Religieux, 1878; Alfred N. Hunt. Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988; Michael Laguerre. “The place of voodoo in the social structure of Haiti.” In Caribbean Quarterly 19 (1973); Murdo J. MacLeod. “The Soulouque Regime in Haiti, 1847-1859: A Re-evaluation.” In Caribbean Studies 10 (1970); Albert Métraux. Voodoo in Haiti. London: Andre Deutsch 1959; Nathaniel Samuel Murrell. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural and Sacred Traditions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010; William W. Newell. “Myths of Voodoo Worship and Child Sacrifice in Hayti.” In Journal of American Folk-Lore 1 (1888): Pierre Pluchon. Vaudou, Sorciers, Empoisonneurs: De Saint-Domingue á Haiti. Paris: Editions Karthala, 1987; Kate Ramsey. “Legislating ‘Civilization’ in Post-Revolutionary Haiti.” In Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister (eds), Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; Kate Ramsey. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Spenser Buckingham St John. Hayti, or the Black Republic. London: Smith, Elder, 1889; Bettina Schmidt. “The interpretation of violent worldviews: cannibalism and other violent images of the Caribbean.” In Schmidt and Ingo Schröder (eds). Anthropology of Violence and Conflict. London: Routledge: Routledge, 2001.
May 20, 2013
When the great minds of science gathered at the U.S. National Museum (now known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) on April 26, 1920, the universe was at stake. Or at least the size of it, anyway. In scientific circles, it was known as the Great Debate, and although they didn’t know it at the time, the astronomy giants Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis—the two men who came to Washington, D.C., to present their theories—were about to have their life’s work eclipsed by Edwin Hubble, a young man who would soon become known as the greatest astronomer since Galileo Galilei.
Harlow Shapley arrived from the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, home of the world’s most powerful observational device—the 100-inch Hooker Telescope. A Californian who had studied at Princeton, Shapley came to the Great Debate to advance his belief that all observable spiral nebulae (now recognized as galaxies) were simply distant gas clouds—and contained within one great galaxy, the Milky Way.
On the other hand, Curtis, a researcher at the Lick Observatory near San Jose and then director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, believed that the spiral nebulae existed far outside the Milky Way. In fact, he referred to them as “island universes,” and he estimated that they were much like the Milky Way in size and shape.
After presenting their respective ideas to each other in advance, the two astronomers entered the auditorium that evening and engaged in a lively, formal debate over “The Scale of the Universe.” In essence, they disagreed on “at least 14 astronomical issues,” with Curtis arguing that the sun was at the center of what he believed was a relatively small Milky Way galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Shapley maintained his position that the universe comprised one galaxy, the Milky Way, but that it was much larger than Curtis or anyone else had supposed, and that the sun was not near its center.
Each man believed his argument had carried the day. While there was no doubt that Curtis was the more experienced and dynamic lecturer, the Harvard College Observatory would soon hire Shapley as its new director, replacing the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering. Both men, it would turn out, had gotten their theories correct—partially.
Back in California, a 30-year-old research astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had recently taken a staff position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he worked beside Shapley. Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889, the son of an insurance agent, but at the end of the century his family moved to Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago. A star in several sports, Hubble won a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford. Though he promised his father he’d become a lawyer, he returned to Indiana to teach high school Spanish and physics (and coach basketball). But he remained fascinated by astronomy, and when his father died, in 1913, the young scholar decided to pursue a doctorate in the study of stars at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.
He completed his dissertation (“Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae) and received his PhD in 1917, shortly before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I. It would be said that while he was in France, he taught soldiers to march at night, navigating by the stars. When he returned to the United States, Hubble was hired by George Ellery Hale, the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he set about observing and photographing stars that were thought to be located in the Andromeda nebula within the Milky Way.
In October 1923, Hubble was examining photographs he had taken of the Andromeda nebula with the Hooker Telescope when he realized that he might have identified a Cepheid variable—an extremely luminous star. Hubble thought he might be able, over time, to calculate its brightness. And in doing so, he might accurately measure its distance.
For months, Hubble focused on the star he labeled “VAR!” on the now-famous photograph. He could determine by the star’s varying, intrinsic brightness that it was 7,000 times brighter than the sun, and according to his calculations, it would have to be 900,000 light-years away. Such a distance obliterated even Shapley’s theory on the size of the universe, which he estimated at 300,000 light-years in diameter. (Curtis believed it was ten times smaller than that.)
The implications of a star nearly a million light-years away were obvious, yet Shapley quickly dismissed his former colleague’s work as “junk science.” But Hubble continued to photograph hundreds of nebulae, demonstrating a method of classifying them by shape, light and distance, which he later presented to the International Astronomical Union.
In essence, he was credited with being the first astronomer to show that the nebulae he had observed were neither gas clouds nor distant stars in the Milky Way. He demonstrated that they were galaxies, and that there were countless numbers of them beyond the Milky Way.
Hubble wrote Shapley a letter and presented his findings in detail. After reading it, Shapley turned to a graduate student and delivered the remark for which he would become famous: “Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.”
Edwin Hubble would continue measuring the distance and velocity of objects in deep space, and in 1929, he published his findings, which led to “Hubble’s Law” and the widely accepted realization that the universe is expanding. Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, produced equations that showed that the universe was either expanding or contracting, yet he second-guessed those conclusions and amended them to match the widely accepted scientific thinking of the time—that of a stationary universe. (He later called the decision to amend the equation “the biggest blunder” of his life.) Einstein ultimately paid a visit to Hubble and thanked him for the support his findings at Mount Wilson gave to his relativity theory.
Edwin Hubble continued to work at the Mount Wilson Observatory right up until he died of a blood clot in his brain in 1953. He was 63. Forty years later, NASA paid tribute to the astronomer by naming the Hubble Space Telescope in his honor, which has produced countless images of distant galaxies in an expanding universe, just as he had discovered.
Articles: “Star that Changed the Universe Shines in Hubble Photo,” by Clara Moskowitz, Space.com, May 23, 2011, http://www.space.com/11761-historic-star-variable-hubble-telescope-photo-aas218.html. “The 1920 Shapley-Curtis Discussion: Background, Issues, and Aftermath,” by Virginia Trimble, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, v. 107, December, 1995. http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?1995PASP%2E%2E107%2E1133T “The ‘Great Debate’: What Really Happened,” by Michael A. Hoskin, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169-182, 1976, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_real.html “The Great Debate: Obituary of Harlow Shapley,” by Z. Kopal, Nature, Vol. 240, 1972, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/shapley_obit.html. “Why the ‘Great Debate’ Was Important,” http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_why.html. “1929: Edwin Hubble Discovers the Universe is Expanding,” Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, http://cosmology.carnegiescience.edu/timeline/1929. “The Great Debate Over the Size of the Universe,” Ideas of Cosmology, http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/great-debate.htm.
Books: Marianne J. Dyson, Space and Astronomy: Decade by Decade, Facts on File, 2007. Chris Impey, How it Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
April 15, 2013
It may have been Charles Fort, in one of his more memorable passages, who described the strange discovery best:
London Times, July 20, 1836:
That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.
Seventeen tiny coffins.
Three or four inches long.
In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.
The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:
That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.
April 3, 2013
Bat Masterson spent the last half of his life in New York, hobnobbing with Gilded Age celebrities and working a desk job that saw him churning out sports reports and “Timely Topics” columns for the New York Morning Telegraph. His lifestyle had widened his waistline, belying the reputation he had earned in the first half of his life as one of the most feared gunfighters in the West. But that reputation was built largely on lore; Masterson knew just how to keep the myths alive, as well as how to evade or deny his past, depending on whichever stories served him best at the time.
Despite his dapper appearance and suave charm, Masterson could handle a gun. And despite his efforts to deny his deadly past, late in his life he admitted, under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. It took a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, to get the truth out of Masterson. Some of it, anyway.
William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was born in Canada in 1853, but his family—he had five brothers and two sisters—ultimately settled on a farm in Sedgwick County, Kansas. At age 17, Masterson left home with his brothers Jim and Ed and went west, where they found work on a ranch near Wichita. “I herded buffalo out there for a good many years,” he later told a reporter. “Killed ‘em and sold their hides for $2.50 apiece. Made my living that way.”
Masterson’s prowess with a rifle and his knowledge of the terrain caught the attention of General Nelson Appleton Miles, who, after his highly decorated service with the Union Army in the Civil War, had led many a campaign against American Indian tribes across the West. From 1871-74, Masterson signed on as a civilian scout for Miles. “That was when the Indians got obstreperous, you remember,” he told a reporter.
Masterson was believed to have killed his first civilian in 1876, while he was working as a faro dealer at Henry Fleming’s Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. Fleming also owned a dance hall, and it was there that Masterson tangled with an Army Sergeant who went by the name of Melvin A. King over the affections of a dance-hall girl named Mollie Brennan.
Masterson had been entertaining Brennan after hours and alone in the club when King came looking for Brennan. Drunk and enraged at finding Masterson with her, King pulled a pistol, pointed it at Masterson’s groin, and fired. The shot knocked the young faro dealer to the ground. King’s second shot pierced Brennan’s abdomen. Wounded and bleeding badly, Masterson drew his pistol and returned fire, hitting King in the heart. Both King and Brennan died; Masterson recovered from his wounds, though he did use a cane sporadically for the rest of his life. The incident became known as the Sweetwater Shootout, and it cemented Bat Masterson’s reputation as a hard man.
News of a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota sent Masterson packing for the north. In Cheyenne, he went on a five-week winning streak on the gambling tables, but he tired of the town and had left when he ran into Wyatt Earp, who encouraged him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, where Bat’s brothers Jim and Ed were working in law enforcement. Masterson, Earp told him, would make a good sheriff of Ford County someday, and ought to run for election.
Masterson ended up working as a deputy alongside Earp, and within a few months, he won election to the sheriff’s job by three votes. Right away, Masterson was tasked with cleaning up Dodge, which by 1878 had become a hotbed of lawless activity. Murders, train robberies and Cheyenne Indians who had escaped from their reservation were just a few of the problems Masterson and his marshals confronted early in his term. But on the evening of April 9, 1878, Bat Masterson drew his pistol to avenge the life of his brother. This killing was kept apart from the Masterson lore.
City Marshal Ed Masterson was at the Lady Gay Saloon, where trail boss Alf Walker and a handful of his riders were whooping it up. One of Walker’s men, Jack Wagner, displayed his six-shooter in plain sight. Ed approached Wagner and told him he’d have to check his gun. Wagner tried to turn it over to the young marshal, but Ed told Wagner he’d have to check it with the bartender. Then he left the saloon.
A few moments later, Walker and Wagner staggered out of the Lady Gay. Wagner had his gun, and Ed tried to take it from him. A scuffle ensued, as onlookers spilled out onto the street. A man named Nat Haywood stepped in to help Ed Masterson, but Alf Walker drew his pistol, pushed it into Haywood’s face and squeezed the trigger. His weapon misfired, but then Wagner drew his gun and shoved it into Masterson’s abdomen. A shot rang out and the marshal stumbled backward, his coat catching fire from the muzzle blast.
Across the street, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson reached for his gun as he chased Wagner and Walker. From 60 feet away, Masterson emptied his gun, hitting Wagner in the abdomen and Walker in the chest and arm.
Bat then tended to his brother, who died in his arms about a half hour after the fight. Wagner died not long afterward, and Walker, alive but uncharged, was allowed to return to Texas, where Wyatt Earp reported that he later died from pneumonia relating to his wounded lung.
Newspapers at the time attributed the killing of Jack Wagner to Ed Masterson; they said he had returned fire during the melee. It was widely believed that this account was designed to keep Bat Masterson’s name out of the story to prevent any “Texas vengeance.” Despite the newspaper accounts, witnesses in Dodge City had long whispered the tale of the Ford County sheriff calmly shooting down his brother’s assailants on the dusty street outside the Lady Gay.
Masterson spent the next 20 years in the West, mostly in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro in clubs and promoted prize fights. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a singer and juggler who remained with Masterson for the rest of his life.
The couple moved to New York in 1902, where Masterson picked up work as a newspaperman, writing mostly about prizefighting at first, but then also covering politics and entertainment in his New York Morning Telegraph column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” A profile of him written about him 20 years before in the New York Sun followed Masterson to the East Coast, cementing the idea that he had killed 28 men out west. Masterson never did much to dispute the stories or the body count, realizing that his reputation did not suffer. His own magazine essays on life on the Western frontier led many to believe he was exaggerating tales of bravery for his own benefit. But in 1905, he played down the violence of his past, telling a reporter for the New York Times, “I never killed a white person that I remember—might have aimed my gun at one or two.”
He had good reason to burnish his reputation. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York—an appointment he held until 1912. Masterson began traveling in higher social circles, and became more protective of his name. So he was not pleased to find that a 1911 story in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser quoted a fight manager named Frank B. Ufer as saying Masterson had “made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.”
Masterson retained a lawyer and filed a libel suit, Masterson v. Commercial Advertiser Association. To defend itself, the newspaper hired a formidable New York attorney, Benjamin N. Cardozo. In May 1913, Masterson testified that Ufer’s remark had damaged his reputation and that the newspaper had done him “malicious and willful injury.” He wanted $25,000 in damages.
In defense of the newspaper, Cardozo argued that Masterson was not meant to be taken seriously—as both Masterson and Ufer were “sporting men” and Ufer’s comments were understood to be “humorous and jocular.” Besides, Cardozo argued, Masterson was a known “carrier of fire arms” and had indeed “shot a number of men.”
When questioned by his attorney, Masterson denied killing any Mexicans; any Indians he may have shot, he shot in battle (and he could not say whether any had fallen). Finally, Cardozo rose to cross-examine the witness. “How many men have you shot and killed in your life?” he asked.
Masterson dismissed the reports that he had killed 28 men, and to Cardozo, under oath, he guessed that the total was three. He admitted to killing King after King had shot him first in Sweetwater. He admitted to shooting a man in Dodge City in 1881, but he wasn’t certain whether the man died. And then he confessed that he, and not his brother Ed, had shot and killed Wagner. Under oath, Bat Masterson apparently felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Well, you are proud of those exploits in which you killed men, aren’t you?” Cardozo asked.
“Oh, I don’t think about being proud of it,” Masterson answered. “I do not feel that I ought to be ashamed about it; I feel perfectly justified. The mere fact that I was charged with killing a man standing by itself I have never considered an attack upon my reputation.”
The jury granted Masterson’s claim, awarding him $3,500 plus $129 in court costs. But Cardozo successfully appealed the verdict, and Masterson eventually accepted a $1,000 settlement. His legend, however, lived on.
Books: Robert K. DeArment, Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Articles: “They Called Him Bat,” by Dale L. Walker, American Cowboy, May/June 2006. “Benjamin Cardozo Meets Gunslinger Bat Masterson,” by William H. Manz, New York State Bar Association’s Journal, July/August 2004. “‘Bat’ Masterson Vindicated: Woman Interviewer Gives Him ‘Square Deal,’ ” by Zoe Anderson Norris, New York Times April 2, 1905. “W.B. ‘Bat’ Masterson, Dodge City Lawman, Ford County Sheriff,” by George Laughead, Jr. 2006, Ford County Historical Society, http://www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/batmasterson.html. ”Bat Masterson and the Sweetwater Shootout,” by Gary L. Roberts, Wild West, October, 2000, http://www.historynet.com/bat-masterson-and-the-sweetwater-shootout.htm. “Bat Masterson: Lawman of Dodge City,” Legends of Kansas, http://www.legendsofkansas.com/batmasterson.html. “Bat Masterson: King of the Gunplayers,” by Alfred Henry Louis, Legends of America, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-batmasterson.html.