24 Jul 2008
If you like reading about life in the 19th century, crime, New York City, then you should seek out Jack Finney’s “Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Stories.” If you like all three subjects, that’s an order.
It’s risky for me to write about “Forgotten News,” because then I have to pick it up, and then I have to read a sentence, which leads to another sentence, and then an hour has passed and I haven’t written a line and although it makes me feel guilty, I don’t want to stop. That’s how good a book it is.
There, with Finney by your side, he’ll reveal stories that are at times familiar, strange, uncanny, and just plain weird.
None of these you’d see nowadays. Maybe we’re more self-conscious. Maybe there are too many cameras, and we fear looking foolish. Few people did back in the 19th century, and that’s something I miss.
“Forgotten News” is a scrapbook, with long and short stories and a few pages in between of short-shorts, all lavishly illustrated with contemporary woodcuts from “The New York Times,” “Harper’s Weekly,” “Leslie’s” and others.
Most of the book is taken up with two stories: “The Crime of the Century,” the murder in 1857 of Dr. Harvey Burdell in his office/home on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, and the sinking of the Central America, a steamship that went down off the coast of Florida. Both stories were extensively reported; at a time when newspapers were the sole medium of transmitting information, they had to provide in-depth, detailed stories.
While the Central America story is a fine piece of reportage, I’m much more enamored of the Burdell case, and here Finney walks us through the story with the assurance of an accomplished raconteur. He shows us Saratoga Springs, where the confirmed bachelor met Emma Cunningham, a thirtyish widow with five children and an eye for marriage. He documents Emma’s determined path into the doctor’s life, moving into rented rooms in his three-story house (starting in the attic and moving down, through her machinations, to his second-floor suite); her bizarre machinations to eliminate any female rivals; her attempts to entrap him into marriage, first by pregnancy (miscarriage), then by a lawsuit for breach of promise.
When all that failed, she introduced into the household another boarder, John J. Eckel, a tall, bearded man, stronger than Dr. Burdell and at least ten years younger. For reasons known only to Burdell, he felt threatened. An acquaintance of his said the doctor told him that “there was some damned cut-throat fellow about the house, and he did not like him.”
In the weeks leading up to his death, he would tell many people about his fears. But he did nothing. Finney looks at several of the good doctor’s actions and conclude that, at heart, he was a weak fellow, full of bluster but not of brawn.
Which is why he was found, in his office, strangled and stabbed.
The day after the murder, the grand jury, composed of men yanked from the street and meeting in Dr. Burdell’s parlor, accused Emma Cunningham of murder. The murder and trial was reported extensively in the papers, complete with verbatim transcripts of all the testimony, and while Mrs. Cunningham was found not guilty, the story did not end there.
Along the way, Finney expands on the various incidents, major and minor, and places us there. Through it all, we can feel his deep yearning for a time machine that would transport him there, where there seemed to be more time to spend with each other, and where there was always something interesting going on. Where the pope rides in a special train car lavishly carved in wood by Italian craftsmen, with the papal mitre on top. Where during the holidays, there are highjinks on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Where postal employees moving to a new building make it an elaborate, torchlit ceremony, a public spectacle.
Or, as Finney wrote in his foreword: “It was a wonderful varied time, the last century; and if this book can help you visit it with anything like as much pleasure as it’s held for me, then it was worth the three years I never dreamed it would take me. It was worth it anyway.”