In today’s society, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of true crime, from the never ending stream of documentaries to the countless turning pages of books. But don’t worry, The Strand Magazine is here to point you in the right direction with this week’s new book review. Discover the story behind Florence Wallace Burns and the murder of her boyfriend, Walter S. Brooks, in The Belle of Bedford Avenue by Virginia A. McConnell.
What causes teenagers to run wild and go “bad”? In contemporary America, poor parenting, too much materialism, too little moral wealth, and peer pressure are all factors in some privileged kids running off the rails. In Virginia A. McConnell’s The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York, we learn that young people have been raising hell for well over a century, and that impressions of an innocent, more virtuous past have more basis in popular myth than in reality.
In this highly engrossing true-crime story, McConnell recounts the story of Florence Wallace Burns, a girl from a respectable home who got caught up in a world of sex, scandal, and homicide. The “Bedford Avenue Gang,” a group of young people involved in crimes ranging from petty theft to forgery to date rape, were putting gray hairs on the heads of their parents in early 1900s New York City. Florence Burns ran with the rowdiest of her peers, but her life took a dark turn when Walter S. Brooks, her boyfriend (possibly her fiancé, the exact details have been lost to posterity), was found shot to death in a hotel. (Notably, the hotel was located on land that would later become Ground Zero.) Florence Burns was accused of the crime, but the story took many unexpected twists and turns, even when those involved hoped everything was comfortably resolved.
As the case unfolds, we see Florence Burns dragged into court, benefiting from the “unwritten law” that allowed young women to defend themselves against would-be seducers. No fresh-faced angel, Florence was involved in a series of escapades throughout her life, ranging from a failed attempt to accuse an innocent prison warden of assault, to an effort to parlay her notoriety into a stage career.
The absorbing narrative is unfortunately but unavoidably hampered by the fact that the vast majority of the evidence available is secondary in nature. It is in no way McConnell’s fault that she had to rely on newspaper articles and accounts from true-crime magazines, meaning that the historian is able to replicate the facts of the events but can only theorize as to the emotional truth of the case. Florence Burns left no detailed diaries expressing her mindset, so any genuine, penetrating insight as to what made her mind tick is impossible, and McConnell and her readers can only study the facts and draw their own conclusions.
Ultimately, McConnell does a splendid job of re-creating early twentieth-century New York City and provides the reader with a compelling look at the lives of adolescents with a taste for mayhem and destruction. The Belle of Bedford Avenue is highly recommended for true-crime enthusiasts and those with an interest in New York City history.
The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York
By Virginia A. McConnell
The Kent State University Press