The 1843 Polly Bodine Murder Case

Mary Housman Bodine was accused of murdering her sister-in-law and small niece on Staten Island, New York. In her day she was the most notorious woman in America. She was tried three times in a classic case of American jurisprudence. But did she do it?

Fire!!!

On Christmas night, 1843, at 9:00 flames curled out from under the closed shutters of the George Housman house. Two boys returning from a skating party sounded the alarm. Fire was a serious matter in this society. Houses were built of wood, and there was little in the way of organized fire companies.

More than 20 people rushed to the burning house from neighboring houses and from the nearby tavern. Daniel Crocheron and Abraham Muller broke down the door. Abraham Housman, George's father, and others crowded into the kitchen. Out in the cold, dark yard stood a circle of onlookers.

Murder!!!

Isaac Kruser took a stick and began poking through the smoldering pile in a corner. At a closer look, he went screaming bloody, blue murder into the night. The baby daughter's skull was crushed. Emeline Van Pelt Housman's throat looked to have been cut. Her left arm was broken in two places. There was a jagged wound along the forearm. Emeline's skull also had been fractured. Her right wrist wore a black silk kerchief tied in a sailor's knot. The bedclothes were stained in blood.

Christmas Eve, 1843, was a Sunday. Captain George Housman was away in Virginia for seed oysters on a run he made regularly sailing his coastal schooner, the "Whig." His sister, Polly Housman Bodine, his wife, Emeline Van Pelt Housman, and their 20 month old daughter, Ann Eliza, all three, when he was away, slept together in a bed in a corner of the kitchen. In the custom of the day, in warmer months, the bed would be moved into a bedroom, but winters were hard on Staten Island, New York, and the kitchen was where the wood stove burned continuously.

Through the winter nights, the windows were tightly shuttered against the cold. Polly was not currently living here at her brother's house, but across the street at her father's, where her teenaged daughter, Eliza Ann Bodine, was fast asleep. Emeline was fearful when her husband was away and Polly came over to keep her company. Emeline had pleaded with George to take $1,000 he kept in the house to his mother's for safekeeping, she was so afraid of robbers breaking in.

If we were to take Victory Boulevard, then called the Richmond Turnpike, to Richmond Avenue, then at the Church road and turn north just short of Travis, known then as New Blazing Star, we would soon pass a cemetery to the left where lies Emeline Van Pelt Housman and her baby daughter, Ann Eliza. A quarter mile beyond we would cross over Forest Avenue, then the Old Place road, to where the Church road made a gentle curve off the straightaway that turned into the Morning Star road. About this intersection of three roads, Old Place, Church, and Morning Star, was located the small settlement of Graniteville, named for the nearby quarries.

On the Church road, (the church in the name of the road being the Port Richmond Dutch Reformed Church, founded in 1695), just along that curve in Graniteville, is where the Housman families lived in the year of the murders. Tunis Van Pelt baptized a daughter, Maritje, at the Dutch Church in 1695. The Housmans were latecomers to the Island from Bushwick, Long Island, Johannes having baptized his daughter, Anitje, November 23, 1718. The Bodines were French Huguenots who intermarried with the Dutch and English settler families, as did everyone else on the rural island in New York Harbor. All three families were farmers and watermen in the way of the place.

It was the intermarriage of these families over a century and a half that caused much of the delay, confusion, and notoriety in the Polly Bodine Murder Case. When Polly was arrested for the murders, almost everyone who lived there was related in some degree or other to both the accused and the victims. George Housman didn't help matters when he said, "I can get another wife. I can get another child. I can never get another sister." The immediate Housman family was to stand by Polly until the bitter end. The Van Pelts were deeply wounded at what they viewed as the coldness of the Housmans. The Bodines took one side or the other, Polly's husband having separated from her years before and having died in the interim.

As for the rest of the old families, well, Staten Island was torn asunder.

By Tuesday morning, the town was near panic, believing an unidentified killer was on the loose. Loaded muskets stood at the ready in house after house. Safety meetings were held at Gaylord's Tavern. Women and children, illogically given the circumstances, were kept to their homes. The first whispers against Polly began and multiplied, reaching the ear of District Attorney Lot Clark.

Christmas Eve morning, the Sunday before, Polly dressed and left Emeline's house for breakfast with her family. A little while after Polly had gone across the street, Matilda Rourke, 14, who lived about 250 yards away, saw Emeline in her yard and carrying firewood into the house. Other neighbors saw Emeline throughout the day, passing before the unshuttered windows. At 5:00 in the evening, Eliza Burbank, who lived next door to the Abraham Housmans, saw a woman she thought was Emeline come out Emeline's front door. Shortly after this, Polly's daughter Eliza Ann went over to see if Emeline wanted her to stay the night. When there was no answer at the door, Eliza Ann went home to say that Emeline must have gone to the Van Pelts' for Christmas.

Early in the morning on Monday, Christmas Day, John Thompson, a 13-year-old cousin, knocked on Emeline's door. His grandmother was sick and the boy had been sent to borrow pills. He attempted to see through the keyhole, but couldn't, and began kicking at the door. Polly came out of her father's house dressed to go to the City. She told John that Emeline had gone to her own father's house for Christmas and to stop kicking that door. John saw Polly walk to the corner and board the stagecoach for the ferry.

For the rest of Christmas Day, 1843, until four in the afternoon, the house stood quiet. At that time, William Richardson, a half-mile away neighbor, rode his horse past Emeline's house. He saw a woman he did not know standing in the yard and with her a man wearing a Spanish cloak and a cap. As Richardson rode on, the other man left through the gate. The woman turned to go into the house. Richardson knew Emeline and the woman he saw was not Emeline Housman. As for Emeline's closer neighbors, they saw a shuttered, they thought empty, house. Like the Abraham Housman household, the neighbors assumed Emeline had taken her daughter to spend Christmas with her family, the Van Pelts.

Polly's 16-year-old son, Albert Bodine, was working at a drugstore on Canal Street in Manhattan. Albert was a live-in apprentice to George Waite, a druggist who practiced medicine and dentistry. Polly had gone to visit her son and his employer, her lover, for Christmas. Polly later claimed to have spent the entire day and night at Waite's, but Albert would say he did not see his mother after 4:00 Monday afternoon. A Manhattan milliner would say that Polly Bodine bought a hood with two green veils on the afternoon of December 25. Two pawnbrokers would testify that a woman wearing a hood and two green veils pawned that same day a piece of silverware bearing the initials "EH."

A chambermaid on the ferry, Catherine Hawkins, later claimed she served a drink of gin and a piece of pie to Polly Bodine at 6:00 AM on Tuesday, December 26, 1843. Polly seemed quiet that morning, sitting in a darkened part of the boat. "I thought it marvelous that a woman would ask for gin," Catherine Hawkins testified. Another witness claimed he saw Polly at the Tompkinsville ferry landing that morning. He knew it was Polly, he would say, "by her long, hooked nose."

Freeman Smith, a Housman cousin, arrived at George Waite's drugstore at 10:00 on Tuesday morning. Polly broke down at the news of the murders and left for Staten Island with Smith. Incredibly, George Housman had docked his schooner this very morning at a Hudson River pier. As Polly and Smith made their way to the ferry from Waite's drugstore, her brother was walking toward the Battery. They met on the boat and George Housman was informed his wife and child had been battered to death, his house set afire.

The new widower, too, would run through the Graniteville rumor mill. There was talk of intruders. But public attention never left Polly for long, and never would.

Polly was arrested on New Year's Day following a coroner's inquest held at Gaylord's Tavern. She was taken to the county jail in Richmondtown, where George Waite was already in custody. Waite had been arrested at the ferry on the Staten Island side once he'd heard of the suspicion against Polly. On January 2, 1834, Polly delivered a near full-term stillbirth and named George Waite the father.

Polly was brought to trial for the first time on Staten Island in the summer, beginning June 23, for the murder of Emeline Housman. Richmondtown was thronged with crowds. Special boats carried the curious from Manhattan and from New Jersey to Staten Island, and extra stagecoach runs to Richmondtown.

Needless to say, with the public uproar and the family ties, the trial ended in a hung jury. But for the second trial, a Staten Island jury could not be seated, "in consequence of local and family interests, etc." George Waite was quietly released from jail where Polly remained. The next trial of Polly Bodine for the murder of Emeline Housman was held in March of 1845, before a Manhattan Jury.

Manhattan in 1845 was now the circus Staten Island had been the previous year over the Polly Bodine Murder Case. P. T. Barnum installed a wax figure of Polly in his Museum on Broadway near Fulton Street, only a short distance from where Polly was on trial for her life. Polly was represented by Barnum as "The Witch of Staten Island" and was shown hacking poor Emeline and her baby to death. Crowds flocked to see her effigy in Barnum's Museum as they clogged the streets outside the courthouse. The newspapers had a field day and several editions a day passed quickly out of the hands of newsboys as tout New-York read all about it.

The Manhattan trial lasted 3 weeks, a very long trial for the day. The judge's charges were reprinted in the "New-York Herald" and took four full columns. During this trial, several witnesses changed their stories and the pawnbrokers were unable to identify Polly. Nevertheless, the Manhattan jury returned a guilty verdict.

The State Supreme Court invalidated the 1845 Manhattan verdict of guilty, agreeing to 27 of 29 exceptions brought by the defense, and ordered a retrial. For the Manhattan retrial, six thousand potential jurors were called in New York County; four thousand were interviewed; and ten, that is 10, were found to be unbiased.

There would be no second Manhattan trial, just as there had been no second Staten Island trial. A second change of venire was ordered for what was now the fifth jury call to hear the Polly Bodine Murder Case, this time in Newburgh, Orange County, New York. In April of 1846, the Orange County jury was set to hear the case against the accused murderess.

The Newburgh, New York jury in April of 1846, came up with an unequivocal and very fast answer to the question of the guilt or innocence of Polly Bodine: Innocent.

The remaining charges were dropped and Mary Housman Bodine, known as Polly, was set free after two and a half years in jail facing the gallows. She returned home to Staten Island where she set up housekeeping with her two children, supporting her family as a nurse. She died on July 27, 1892. Her children alone, Albert and Eliza Ann, formed her cortege.

The Polly Bodine Murder Case remains unsolved today and the trials remain a classic in American jurisprudence.

© High Speed Ventures 2011