The Trials of Mary Polly Bodine

Here again is a case out of the New York area in the mid 1800's. I gander to guess that these sorts of crimes, that I have been blogging about as of late, were not isolated to this area and were likely occurring all over the country. However, the large newspaper companies were located in this region.  California did not join the union until 1848 to which they too had large newspapers but it seems that many cases from the 'middle of the country' likely got lost.

This case is a curious one.  On the night of December 25, 1843 two boys saw smoke billowing from a house in Staten Island New York and alerted people.  It was the home of Captain George Housman.  He was out to sea at the time but he lived in the home with his wife Emeline (nee Van Pelt) and their 20 month old daughter, Ann Elizabeth.  The home was located across the street from George's parents' home.  It was assumed that the home was empty as it was believed that Emeline had gone to visit family elsewhere. Most reports indicate that the idea that Emeline had left came from George's sister, Mary "Polly" Bodine, however there is some indication that it could have come from Polly's daughter, Elizabeth.  Upon extinguishing the fire it was discovered that not only had the home appeared to have been ransacked but that the bodies of Emeline and Ann Eliz were inside.  It seems by reports that the fire must not have burned long since a) they could tell that it was ransacked, b) they were able to discover that there were items missing from the home and c) it was determined that the fire is not what killed the victims but that their skulls were crushed, they had several broken bones and in the case of Emeline her throat was also cut. 

Suspicion immediately turned towards George's sister, Polly.  Almost all the sources that I found really had no clear cut answer as to why suspicion turned to her so quickly other than her reputation.  Polly and Emeline appeared to have a really good relationship.  Officially Polly lived with her parents across the street.  However, when George was gone she often stayed with Emeline because she supposedly feared being along.  When she wasn't staying there she often was not residing with her parents but often in Manhatten (a ferry ride away) living with a man named George Waite.  Polly was officially married to a man by the name of Andrew Bodine and had two teenage children but they had been separated for many years by 1843. This, coupled with the fact that she was all but living with another man to whom she was not married to and the fact she had reportedly had several abortions had given her a bad reputation among residents.  By 1843 abortion had not only been illegal for a few short years, it was highly looked down upon.  

Over the next few days Polly did little to divert attention towards her or change the thoughts of the residents.  With this said, reports of her actions seem a bit odd and confusing.  As the fire started on the night of the 25th it is apparently claimed that Polly was still on Staten Island but supposedly left early the next morning on the ferry.  She reportedly had ordered breakfast with a glass of gin while on the ferry.  She then supposedly spent the morning in Manhatten pawning items reportedly taken from the Housman home. She was at the home of George Waite when someone came and informed her of the deaths of Emeline and Ann Eliz to which she returned to Staten Island around the same time that George Housman was also returning to be informed of the deaths of his wife and child.  This just seems odd to me.  Through all the research, everything says that the fire was discovered on the evening of the 25th, directly across from the home of Polly's parents where it is eluded that she would have been since the claim is she was not in Manhatten, yet there does not seem any reports of her knowing before late morning the next day.  This simply does not make sense to me. There is nothing eluding that there was any indication that she even knew of the fire.  Now, of course if she was on Staten Island and really did leave on the ferry the next morning she would have already known at least about the fire.  Yet reports were that when told at least of the deaths she seemed surprised. It just seems odd that if she was still on Staten Island she would have left at all considering by the families assessment Emeline had taken the baby to visit relatives and George was out to sea so there was noone there other than George and Polly's parents to deal with the issues at hand.  And, if she did commit this murder and fire, why would she wait until the next morning to leave the Island? Ok, maybe the ferry did not run at night.. good point, but would she not have hung around if she was really there? 

Polly was arrested on December 31, 1843, just one week after the murders.  The "investigation" had determined that it was likely that the victims were killed and then the home ransacked.  It was theorized that the perpetrator was looking for $1,000 that George left Emeline before going out to sea.  The money was found where Emeline had hidden it (some reports say it was in an outhouse). There were also witnesses that said they saw a man and a woman outside the home at some point, the man wearing a "Spanish cloak" and that the man left but that the woman had entered the home. Noone seemed to positively identify these people but investigators assumed that it was Polly and George Waite, to whom they also arrested as an accessory to murder.  This again seems odd because by all reports everyone knew each other or were related to each other on Staten Island.  So people see two people they cannot identify yet it is a well known citizen? The investigators indicated they believed the "spanish cloak" was indicative that the couple were trying to disguise themselves.  

There was also a question as to why would Polly, or anyone else for that matter murder the victims and then much later set the fire.  The investigators had an answer for that too.  Their theory was that after initially ransacking the home they did not find the supposed money and went back for another look before setting fire.  Although $1,000 was a lot of money in 1843 a few things stick out about this.  Firstly, most admit that Polly was not in a bad financial situation in which she would apparently need the money.  Secondly, I question why if the $1,000 was the motive that it would have been done so close to George's return. Why would it have not been closer to the time in which he left so more of that money would be available.  Opponents of Polly claim that obviously if Emeline hid the money and Polly did not know where it was that she did not trust her sister-in-law. However, this theory based only and there is nothing else that indicates any issues between Emeline and Polly.  In fact, the fact that it was Emeline who wanted Polly to stay with her when George was gone indicates she had no issue with her.  There was also no indication how Polly would have known about the money unless George or Emeline told her about it and if it was Emeline it would indicate the opposite of those claiming she did not trust Polly.  However, those who believed that not only had Polly committed the crime, but did so for the money, the theory was the money was not found on the first attempt and that when the couple was outside the home it was the second attempt to look for the money to which afterwards the fire was started. 

Strangely for the times, Polly's trial did not begin until June of 1844.  Generally for this era trials were much quicker.  I saw no reason or indication as to why this one took six months to get to court.  The trial was held in Staten Island and ended in a hung jury when one juror refused to convict basically saying he needed four witnesses to convict someone. It has also been reported that George Housman reportedly stated, "I can get another wife. I can get another child. I can never get another sister." For the next trial the prosecutors decided they needed to find a less bias location which again, makes this case much different from those of the time.  Sure there was bias but not all of it was for Polly as much of it was just as much against her.  Even the newspapers had convicted her before the trial let alone, the Van Pelts and their relatives were just as numerous as those related to the Housman's.  

Before the start of the second trial, this time in Manhatten, charges were dropped against George Waite and he was released. This move seems odd considering that during the first trial Polly's defense had all but accused George Waite of the crime. Was he released because there really was not evidence to keep him or was he released so that when the defense accused him they could not tell the jury that obviously the prosecution thought so as Waite was in jail?  Just down the street from the Manhatten courthouse P.T. Barnum had a wax museum.  In those days he was known to make wax figures of famous criminals.  He created one of Polly Bodine.  At the time she was a woman in her early thirties and said to be at least fairly attractive.  Barnum's depiction of Polly was of an "old, evil hag" that Polly resented.

The second trial ended in the conviction of Polly, which seems rather odd considering that many of the witnesses that had previously identified her as pawning items were no longer certain that it had been her. It did not really matter however because her defense appealed and the conviction was overturned.  The only reason I found for this was that they stated the trial was "unfair" but I could not find anything that said exactly why they felt that way.

The third trial was conducted in Newburgh, New York.  In the end she was acquitted.  It was said that she immediately asked her attorney "Now can I sue Barnum?" 

After her last trial Polly moved back to Staten Island and lived quietly and isolated until her death on July 27, 1892 at the age of 82.  It is said the only people who went to her funeral were her two grown children.

This story has two very interesting side notes.  The first involves Polly's husband, Andrew Bodine.  He and Polly had never divorced but on October 27, 1842 he married again.  Not long later his bride ended up dead.  It was rumored that he and a lover had killed her and he was charged with manslaughter although I never found a result of any trial or charges in that matter.  He was also charged with bigamy on April 12, 1843 and was sentenced to two years in jail.  He died in jail on April 29, 1844.

The other interesting tid bit is that while Polly died on July 27, 1892, just a few days later on August 4, 1892 in Fall River Massachusetts another famous crime occurred.... that involving Lizzie Borden.  Like Polly, Lizzie was acquitted (albet after only one trial)and also lived her remaining life as a recluse and dying at an old age.


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