A rich young woman running wild, her boyfriend left for dead in a low-rent hotel room and lurid headlines such as “Brooklyn is a modern sodom” might seem like a contemporary made-for-television movie. But it’s all straight out of history in Virginia McConnell’s latest historic true-crime book, “The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York” (Kent State University Press).
The year was 1902 when Florence Burns, who craved excitement, frequented dance halls, drank in roadhouses and even smoked in public — a truly decadent act — and discarded the standards of her well-to-do family to hang with the Bedford Avenue Gang.
Society was changing with the advent of public transportation in big cities like New York, and young women like Florence now didn’t have to wait to be introduced by a chaperone to “suitable” young men. Instead, she chose gang member Walter Brooks, who was found with a bullet in his head and died the next day.
Ironically, though Florence loved the freedoms of the new century, she escaped punishment for Walter’s death because of old norms of an “unwritten law” that was frequently used to justify murder.
That, said McConnell, kicked in when Walter refused to marry Florence after they’d had sexual relations — hence it was, though unspoken, retribution for his dishonoring her. Taking this into consideration, the prosecutor didn’t even bring charges against her.
If only Florence had learned from this brush with the law, but, alas, she didn’t. And reading about her exploits is a fascinating true crime story as well as insight into a world so much different than ours.
McConnell, a college English instructor at Walla Walla Community College-Clarkston Campus in Washington, is the author of other historic true crime books including “The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age,” which was a 2011 Gold Medal-Independent Publisher Book Award/True Crime Category.
Drawing upon scandalous but long forgotten crimes, McConnell said that at first she didn’t think there would be enough material to write “The Belle of Bedford Avenue."
She had to go beyond what she could find in The New York Times to ferret out more about the case, reading through lots more newspapers, many that were only available on microfilm through interlibrary loan.
“But when I dug into it, there were a lot of interesting items — such as, the hotel's being at Ground Zero and the teenagers hanging out at Coney Island — and then I found the reference to her subsequent incarcerations,” she said, adding that she had to order the microfilm of one of the trial transcripts from the John Jay College, because the topic was so racy that the newspapers wouldn't print it.
“There were times when I’ve expended a lot of energy on a case that interested me, only to have to abandon it because it simply didn't have enough material for an entire book,” McConnell said, describing herself as lucky to have connected with the grand-nephews of Belle’s first husband, who had a lot of information on their great-uncle Tad.
It was also lucky for those of us who like a well-written, intriguing true crime story.