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Ellen Horan on “31 Bond Street”

31 Bond Street is the kind of book that sucks you in from the beginning, planting you in 1857 New York, where Dr. Harvey Burdell has just been savagely killed in the middle of a stormy night and the prime suspect is his beautiful and mysterious lodger, Emma Cunningham. Based on a real incident, it’s billed as “a novel of murder, innocence, and power,” but it’s so much more than that. Filled with history, scandal and politics, the story will keep you guessing as you promise yourself “just one more chapter,” and it will keep you thinking long after you’ve finished the book. I loved 31 Bond Street, and couldn’t wait to get the inside scoop about it from author Ellen Horan. Here’s what she had to say:

I was captivated by 31 Bond Street from the first page, and was intrigued by the fact that it was based on a true incident. How did you originally hear about the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell, and why did you think it would make a great piece of fiction rather than covering the event as non-fiction?

I discovered this in an old newspaper clipping in a print shop and became curious. I went to the microfilm of newspapers for 1857 to follow up. (See my essay, “The Story Behind the Book,” on my website  for more detail of that exploration.) I discovered that the coverage of this case was extensive, spanning many months of front-page treatment. I was captivated by the amount of detail that about the people, the townhouse at 31 Bond Street, and also politics and world affairs, as glimpsed through a daily newspaper.

I originally thought I would do a narrative non-fiction, by stringing together the case and including quotes and snippets from the actual newspaper accounts and court testimony. I really got bogged down and found myself going in circles. The case itself went around in many different circles. Then, I began trying to get behind the real character’s motives and personalities, pondering “what made them tick.” That is the stuff of fiction — so that was a turning point. I shifted gears, which allowed me to be more expressive, and use more literary devices and language to try and capture the mood and flavor of the times.

Dr. Burdell’s murder has been called “the most celebrated crime of the 19th century.” What specific aspects do you think make it so compelling?

This murder case was certainly called the “The Crime of the Century” at the time it was happening. There are many reasons: it occurred in a prominent part of town, and became a peek into the upstairs/downstairs world of the upper middle class. The murder took place in a closed house, at night, and the investigations were recorded in the newspapers from the now defunct “coroner’s house arrest” of the witnesses and suspects, all of which captivated the citizens of the city. Then there was a sex scandal — or romance — as well as three attractive women: Emma Cunningham and her two daughters. So you had a brewing sensation from the very start.

But, remember, this case was largely forgotten by the 20th century. Imagine if a hundred years from now, no one was aware that Nicole Brown was murdered in a similarly brutal fashion. The reason it was forgotten, I believe, is that very shortly afterward, the Civil War consumed the country, and local crime was eclipsed by a flood of war reporting. Also, the archiving of the news in those early days was not very efficient, and there were very few indexes that survived that listed the breadth of this case. The only way to get the scope of what was written about this trial was to review the newspapers one by one.

Were there questions about the case that you felt needed answers or at least more discussion? How much of your story is based on fact?

The main question I kept asking myself, once I became immersed in reading the daily newspapers, was the question “Where was the Civil War?” It was looming just three years away. 1857 started out as a boom year, and people were very preoccupied with all that comes with that: fashion, entertainment, real estate and financial speculation. But I pondered the deeper and more divisive issues at the heart of the war — and wondered how much the average citizen was aware of this impending catastrophe that was about to erupt.  I read some recent historians on the Civil War years in New York City, and I found that many of the attitudes in the North and South were not as black and white as we now assume. Life was more ambiguous — slavery had been an accepted norm for over a century. It appears that in the pre-Civil War period, there were pro-Slavery and pro-Southern factions in New York City politics. And I built some of these racial and political tensions into the story of the book.

I love books where the setting is so authentic, you feel like you’re right in the middle of that place. Reading 31 Bond Street, I forgot I was sitting on my couch in San Diego; in my mind, I was firmly entrenched in 19th century New York and could almost feel the stormy weather and hear the horses clopping down the street and the newsboy announcing the day’s headlines. How did you capture that so vividly? What kind of sources did you use for reference?

I love to hear that a reader loses their sense of time and place. In a way, all fiction takes us to another reality, and lets us live in it for a while. My goal was to achieve a feeling of verisimilitude, so that 1857 felt “contemporary.” I strove to be true to the details of life in that specific year by using descriptions of fashions, household, cultural practices and other details of contemporary life in 1857. I tried to put blinders on, and be precise to that particular year, finding references as to how people lived then. I found details in the daily newspapers and popular fiction written at exactly that time. One example is that in reading popular fiction, I picked up on how widespread drug use was: drugs like opium and morphine were widely available as over-the-counter pharmaceuticals (there were no legal restrictions) and were used and dispensed for any number of household remedies. Laudanum is an “opium tincture,” and is highly addictive, and was used commonly in middle class households for “nervous disorders” in women.

I also read classic writers of that time, i.e: Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, and their biographies. The lawyer, Henry Clinton, wrote books about his trial cases, and they became an important source. A lot of dialogue was captured in the trial transcripts so it was fascinating to hear some of the characters’ own words—the maids and daughters for instance, when they testified.

Emma is a fascinating character. Tell me a little bit about your feelings toward her.

Emma Cunningham appeared as an ambiguous character from the beginning and there was huge debate about her character. I found that the most persistent theme in her actions was her desperate need to keep a roof over her head, and her maternal drive to set her daughters up for an economically stable future. For a woman, this was almost exclusively done through marriage, and as a middle-aged woman, she knew that her time was running out. Without a financially secure husband or family, the descent from the middle class was rapid and very real. And poverty was the norm for unprotected women. It was a descent that must have terrified her, and there were very few social protections or comforts at the poverty level. Life was quite cruel at the bottom.

Were there other characters that were particularly interesting to you, for better or worse?

Henry Clinton fascinated me because his actual strategies in this case seemed so intelligent and forward thinking. He wrote two books about his cases: Extraordinary Cases and Celebrated Trials. They are rather dense and legal reads, but a sense of his strong intelligence and ambitious drive comes through. Early on, I was very inspired by his real life character, and he is a main narrative voice in the book.

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, nailing the manners and morals (or lack of) of New York society during pretty much this same period in history. With this book, you definitely join her ranks. What surprised you about the different classes then?

Thank you for the comparison! It is very flattering. But one thing to keep in mind is that Wharton wrote about New York society a full half century later. (She didn’t die until 1937.) Her New York is late-Victorian, and of course we all love the stratified social dramas in her novels. But a lot changed in that half century. I found that this earlier period was a bit looser, not quite as stilted — New York was a smaller town then, the rich weren’t quite as immensely wealthy or as insulated as they became during the later Gilded Age. There were certainly dramatic economic differences then (as there are today) but there was still an exuberant street culture that seemed to be enjoyed by all. People of all types seemed to mingle quite a bit, and as the city was growing rapidly, it had a very colorful, vibrant and fast paced feeling.

The book is so rich in bringing to life huge issues like racial conflict, sexism, political corruption (which are all still going on today in a variety of ways). Was there a specific message you really wanted to get across about any of these subjects?

Once they popped up in my narrative, I was particularly fond of the characters that were least represented by traditional history: the little servant boy, John; the ex-slave Samuel; and the Native-American Lenape, New York born, Katuma. As a novelist, I wouldn’t want to state any message — a fiction writer should be careful not to sermonize, as it would no longer feel like a smooth narrative.  But I do think you noticed what I did — that in many ways, the same issues and conflicts are still with us today. We haven’t truly solved many of these social conflicts; we have often only inherited their outgrowths. And I do believe that by looking backwards, we can listen more closely to some of the overlooked voices of the past to find new directions. In that way, history has an enormous amount left to show us.

Are there any other cases you’d like to explore in a book? What can we look forward to next from you?

There is another case that I mention in the postscript to the book, involving Henry Clinton and Abraham Oakey Hall. The time period is 15 years later, and the fictional narrative would focus more centrally on the couple Henry Clinton and his wife Elisabeth.

I like to think of 31 Bond Street as an archeological dig. Digging into the past history of a lost house is much like the work physical archeologists do. I have several ideas beyond those that are based in 19th century New York, but who knows what will take root? I hope to have to the opportunity to write many more!

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

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