BAY RIDGE – This small book, published last month, features 11 true crimes, some solved, some still “cold”, that took place in Bay Ridge between 1874 up until 1957. Packed with historic details about the neighborhood and the individual time periods (there was a time when parking on streets overnight was new and controversial), it offers a very human glimpse into Bay Ridge history.
We talked to the author, Henry Stewart, about the crimes, and what started his interest. Some of you may know Henry from Hey Ridge, a progressive neighborhood blog, or the Community Board 10, or the Bay Ridge Historical Society, where he is vice president. As if all this was not enough, in addition to his day job at Opera News, he also organizes the Bay Ridge Poets Society.
Which was the first crime story that peaked your interest?
The first one I started working on is the last one in the book, called Patsy Hylan & Dorothy Cameron. It takes place in 1957. I was trying to figure out where this bar called the Melody Room used to be, because it was a favorite hangout of some old Bay Ridge writers; I was just curious.
Eventually I stumbled onto this trial transcript for a crime I’d never heard of, because the killer had been drinking beforehand at the Melody Room. I became engrossed, and ended up reading more than 1,000 pages of it, slowly putting that story together. It just started by accident.
How did one story become eleven?
I didn’t set out to write this book. I’ve actually been working on a more traditional history of Bay Ridge: about the subway and the parks, the old resorts and country clubs, things like that.
While I’d be digging into newspaper archives, every once in a while I’d stumble across an old crime in an adjacent column, and I’d make a note of it and go back to it when I had the time. Eventually I had a whole bunch of these stories and I thought, well, this could be a book! It took a couple of years.
Quite a few child abductions feature in the book – was that random or did they get most press?
Well, it’s probably random, to an extent. One happened very close to the abduction of the Lindbergh baby, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were an uptick in kidnappings around the country at that time, just because of the publicity! Like one more desperate get-rich-quick-scheme during the Depression.
Most of the crimes were solved, but a few, such as the murder of Victoria Muspratt (in 1934), weren’t, and I’d guess by now they’re ice cold. I’d be surprised if local detectives had ever even heard of them – if the 68th Precinct has files going back almost 100 years.
How did you pick which cases to feature? Any you had to leave out?
I ended up using every good story I had. There are a few random murders you can track down in the newspaper record, such as Peter Menaldi’s:
One afternoon, Peter felt his Italian father and brother were menacing his Irish wife, so he went and got his sword and swung it around, and his father shot and killed him. This was in the woods of old Fort Hamilton Village, back in 1862. It’s an interesting anecdote, but there wasn’t quite enough detail in the papers or other sources to flesh it out with a satisfying beginning, middle and end.
I also didn’t want the book to come too far into the modern era, because it’s trickier to report on crimes whose collateral victims might still be around, like the children of the deceased or the parents of the perpetrators.
That said, I’m slowly working on a followup that would focus on crimes from the second half of the twentieth century. It’s tentatively titled The Bad Old Days, and so far I’ve finished two: one about a man who occupied a stretch of Fifth Avenue for a whole day with a grenade, another about a woman killed by a mail bomb. It requires more trips to the library, though, so it will probably proceed more slowly.
Anything else you are working on?
I’m also occasionally editing the manuscript of my more traditional history, tentatively titled How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge, which I hope to publish within a year. But no one is murdered or kidnapped in it.