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Interview: Exploring Bond Street with Author Ellen Horan

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It is the dream of every history buff. Browsing through an antique shop or vintage print bin, one stumbles upon something extraordinary: something valuable to the bank account, perhaps, but certainly valuable to the intellect. Ellen Horan had just that experience. The newspaper clipping that inspired her new novel, 31 Bond Street , was discovered while perusing the bins at a print shop in New York City. The print in question depicted a house at an address where Horan knew there to be no residences. This curiosity sparked a search at the New York Public Library, and the discovery of the murder of the century – the 19th century. In this e-mail Q and A, Horan describes the journey of 31 Bond Street from fact to fiction.

Q: In the acknowledgements, you state that 31 Bond Street “made the transition from non-fiction to a fictional narrative over many years.” Can you discuss this transformation? What was the nature of the original drafts?

A– I originally thought I could piece together the wealth of material in the newspapers into a non-fiction narrative. I had trouble working in that vein, and got stuck. I started to pull out the long explanations of what was happening, and gave myself permission to get inside the character’s heads. It was very liberating. Of course that also gave me license to give internal motivations and thoughts to characters that did not come from any source material. As for narrative non-fiction, I found it very difficult, and I applaud those who master it – The Devil in the White City is a great example.

Q: Pursuing the story of the murder of Dr. Burdell from a chance engraving through the newspaper articles of the time must have been a fascinating journey. Did you also come across primary source records pertaining to the case – police reports, letters, journals, etc?

A– The newspapers encapsulated so much of the primary sources you mention – there were 17 daily newspapers in New York, and the coverage included anything they could get their hands on. At one point the reporters went through the daughter’s drawers and printed poems they had written. As far as personal artifacts belonging to the characters, I do not know of any that survived.
The investigation and trial transcripts were records that were fascinating because they offered examples of the spoken language and syntax of those who testified – the cook, the maid, the coroner, for example. I borrowed from the dialogue and inserted pieces of their actual voices. I also used pieces of the opening and closing speeches of the lawyers. Another important source were the two books by the defense lawyer, Henry Clinton: Celebrated Trials and Extraordinary Cases. His strategy for this case, as he outlined it, was a template for many scenes. His books are pretty dense and legal, but I found his discourses on the case intelligent and forward thinking.

Q: I loved that the book opens from the point of view of John, the houseboy at 31 Bond Street. His story is so vividly told and gives the initial flavor of the New York of the time. How much was recorded about the actual John Burchell?

A– Poor John Burchell was forced to testify over and over again about finding the body – his account is pretty much as I portray it, in the first chapter. Then he was used as a servant boy for the police and investigators, and then forced to testify again in the actual trial (which I spared him in the novel). He supported his mother, who had arthritis and could no longer sew, but after the trial I could not find any trace of what happened to him. History seemed to have lost interest in him after his moment in the spotlight. His fate was left up to my imagination.

Q: In your portrayal of Emma Cunningham, she does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character. How much did the status of women in that time period, and the options available to women for a livelihood influence your characterization of Emma? Also, were there any remarks made about her in the contemporary newspapers that particularly stood out for you?

A–The most astounding difference was how dependent a woman was. If you were not married, there weren’t any paying jobs that could support a woman and her children and provide food and a decent roof over her head. The female wages were just pennies a day. Even a job as a shop girl or a teacher did not afford a living wage. Without the protection of a husband or family, there was a big fall from the middle class or upper middle class life to real poverty. There was very little in between. The other option was to marry your daughters off, so they would have the means to take care of their mother. So Emma Cunningham was grappling with real survival issues, and she didn’t have a lot of time.

Q: Real estate speculation plays a key role in 31 Bond Street. How was the development of the city shaped by questionable land deals?

A–The entire history of Manhattan is shaped by go-go development: when there is a boom, there is rush to build and expand, and when there is a bust it all comes to a standstill. There was an economic crash in October of 1857 (one of several in the early century) that brought speculation (and the entire economy) to a halt – until after the Civil War. This is all very resonant to circumstances today, but it is odd how we never learn the lesson.

Q: The characters of Samuel and Katuma represent groups that tend to be overlooked when viewing Northern society of the time. How prevalent was the danger for African Americans of being sold south from cities like New York?

A– As I read the papers for 1857, I wondered – “where was the Civil War?” This impending catastrophe was looming very close, and yet I was curious how much of its future dimensions were apparent to the every day citizen. The Dred Scott decision was passed in 1857, and was much reported and maligned. But I could not help wondering what it would feel like to discover that the highest court in the land had just ruled that an entire race was, in effect, sub-human. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1854 made the status of Northern or freed African Americans much more precarious than it had been earlier. So things were getting worse. The small news accounts of violence against slaves that I included in the church scene were sprinkled through the newspapers like a “sharp spicing of pepper.” They were quite horrible to read. I wondered how people would feel, reading those in the morning over breakfast.

Q: As a followup to the above question, can you elaborate on the situation of Native Americans in the New York region at that time? We hear very little of that dynamic, so it was an interesting facet of your book.

A– I have a fascination with the natural landscape of the New York region. Native American civilization preceded the Dutch in Manhattan for a millennium. A Native American historian named Evan Pritchard has written about the extent of this very rich culture, but it is astounding to me how little we know about these earliest inhabitants – history always begins with the arrival of the European. Many Northeastern Indian tribes migrated to the West and Canada, and after the Civil War, the American Army went to war against them.

Q: Prior to finding the engraving that inspired 31 Bond Street did your writing interests lie in the area of history or historical fiction?

A– I am a very eclectic reader and not devoted to any particular genre, and I never set out to create any particular genre. I did find that going back in time in New York City, where I live, to be a real draw with this material. It was like an archeological dig, where you peel away layers and find interesting details that let you recreate the domestic lives of the inhabitants. The added experience of living on these same streets was exhilarating. This book is named after the house, and it was the idea of digging around in a vanished building that has a feeling of mystery to it. But in addition, I was very drawn to the legal drama side of this story — and legal dramas, at least in fiction and movies, are structured around the same idea of peeling away at the layers to get to the answers.

Q: 31 Bond Street is an impressive debut. What’s next for you?

A– There is another case that the lawyer Henry Clinton was involved with and it is a natural story for a second book. Writing about the same characters poses difficulties in that you really have to examine how the passing of time and events changes them when you revisit them. But I have other book ideas completely separate from this time and setting, and am eagerly tooling around in several places. I can’t yet predict which one will take root as a next book.

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