On a January evening in 1857 a man named Harvey Burdell, a physician and dentist of some prominence in New York City, was brutally murdered in his residence at 31 Bond St.; he was stabbed over and again in what a doctor later called a series of "random blows," delivered "without thought or object, only to kill the man." The crime has been thoroughly forgotten for more than a century, but at the time it was regarded, in the words of a newspaper editorial, as "the bloodiest and most awful murder that has startled this City for many years." Now, thanks to the researches of the novelist Jack Finney, the full details of the dastardly deed are available to be savored by a new generation of crime aficionados.
Burdell's murder caused a sensation not merely because of the social position of the victim and the bloodiness of the crime, but because the cast of characters was especially lurid. Burdell himself, a middle-aged bachelor, was widely known as a womanizer; a chief suspect, a 36-year-old widow named Emma Cunningham, took rooms in Burdell's house and had marital and financial designs on him; a fellow suspect, John Eckel, had an ambiguous relationship with Cunningham; her daughter, Augusta, may or may not have been involved in the crime. Sex, violence, notoriety, mystery--the case had it all. Small wonder therefore that, as the coroner's inquest into the case took place in the very house where the crime was committed, newspaper readers followed it breathlessly:
"And then . . . Edward Downes Connery--Coroner Connery--arrived, bringing his son, who was also his assistant, and 31 Bond turned into a different place. Almost immediately, legally or not, Connery made the house a prison for some of its inmates. Thirty-one Bond became a source of sensational news, shouted through the streets every day for weeks, crisscrossing the country by telegraph, moving across the oceans by ship. And finally the house at 31 Bond became a place of inquisition as strange and at times demented as anything yet in Emma Cunningham's life."
Finney spent months poring through microfilmed newspaper accounts of that inquest and the subsequent trial, and he reports his findings exhaustively--more exhaustively, perhaps, than most readers may wish. The murder of Harvey Burdell is interesting, as all such violent crimes are, but it is in no way important; the reader of 1983 is apt to ask, and with good reason, why it is that Finney has gone to such lengths to recapitulate what is, as his title quite accurately indicates, a piece of "forgotten news."
Finney evidently would reply that the story of Harvey Burdell is important precisely because, as a piece of forgotten news, it provides an illuminating example of what captured the public interest in the 19th century--an entirely valid argument, though one to which it is possible to assign excessive weight. He would note, and with good reason, that coverage of the Burdell case in the New York newspapers provides a fascinating study of the uses to which sensationalism and biased reporting can be put. And he most certainly would argue that the 19th century was a period of such limitless charm and fascination that anything unearthed from it can only engage our attention in a rewarding and pleasurable manner.
Finney is in fact infatuated with the 19th century, which he regards as "a wonderful varied time," and a "remarkable century." His great yearning is to visit it: "Physically, literally, go back in time to a New York of the last century, and walk around seeing the sights." Yet though he concedes the century to have been "more than gaslights and horsecars," it is exactly such a view that colors his retelling of the Burdell case and the other, briefer narratives that make up this book. Finney looks back to the previous century with almost childlike innocence and nostalgia, sappily asking: "I wonder if people didn't have a lot more fun, once, than we do now?" Even when he is describing something as gruesome as the wreck of a steamship, he couches the story in cloyingly quaint and jarringly inappropriate images. His 19th century is sanitized and Disneyfied; its resemblance to historical reality is marginal at best.
This isn't to say that "Forgotten News" is without value; readers who can tolerate Finney's self-consciously jaunty prose will find his narratives entertaining. The tale of Harvey Burdell, which takes up about two-thirds of the book, is the best and most interesting of them. But Finney's saccharine vision of what was in fact a difficult and traumatic century deprives his account of any genuine meaning or value.