The Staten Island of 1843 was much different than how it is known today. Back then, it was a small, maritime community of only 10,000. Here is where the Van Pelt Houseman family lived. George Van Pelt Houseman was a wealthy oyster merchant who lived with his wife Emeline and their 18-month-old daughter, Eliza.
Christmas Goes Up in Flames
On Christmas night, George was away on business while Emeline and their daughter stayed home. However, this Christmas night was far from merry. That night, two boys returning home from a party when they saw the Van Pelt Houseman home engulfed in flames. Neighbors rushed to the house attempting to rescue them as it continued to burn. The bodies of Emeline and Eliza were eventually recovered, but the condition of their bodies was discovered, their home became a crime scene of a live murder mystery.
Under normal circumstances the cause of death would likely be ruled as smoke inhalation. However, when investigators found the bodies there were clear signs of foul play. They were found with shattered skulls, broken bones, and Emeline had her throat cut. It was believed that the fire was intentionally set to be used as a cover for the murders.
A Suspicious Neighbor
Shortly after the investigation began, police already had a prime suspect. Witnesses said George’s sister, who lived across from them, Polly Bodine, was seen at the scene of the murder shortly before the fire. She was a divorcee with two children who was having a relationship with a doctor named George Waite. Neighbors were quick to turn on her as she had a very suspicious background. Others said they saw her on a ferry departing for Manhattan the next morning and saw her trying to pawn items from the victim’s house. The most incriminating piece of evidence discovered against Bodine was a letter she sent to Waite, telling him she needed an alibi for the night in question. She was arrested that New Years Eve.
Trial After Trial
The following trial became a media circus. Most newspapers did not give Bodine the benefit of the doubt. While there was plenty of evidence incriminating her, police struggled to find a motive. Her first trial ended in a hung jury. Looking to find a less biased jury, the second trial was held in Manhattan. However, the new venue only attracted more onlookers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star of this murder mystery show. Bodine earned the nickname “The Witch of Staten Island” after P.T. Barnum had a wax figure of her put in one of his museums down the street of the trial, depicting her as a much older, wretched figure, butchering her sister-in-law. Polly was found guilty in this trial, but the verdict was overturned. Her third trial took place in Newburgh, where her lawyers were able to successfully challenge the testimony of several witnesses. After two years in jail Bodine was finally acquitted.
Despite the acquittal, the media continued to hound her after she returned to Staten Island where she lived the rest of her life as a hermit. Although public opinion was never on her side, the case officially still remains one of New York’s most notorious unsolved murder mysteries.
Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!