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The Witch of Staten Island: Polly Bodine

On Christmas night of 1843, a house fire was noticed by two boys who were coming back from a party late at night. They called the police, who showed up with the entire town and their fire brigade. Once the fire died down, investigators found two bodies inside the house. Emeline Houseman, and her infant daughter. But, to the horror of everyone there, it seems that they didn’t die in the fire. Emeline’s arm was broken in two places, her skull was fractured, and her throat had been cut. There was also, weirdly enough, a piece of black silk fabric tied around her wrist in a sailor’s knot. The infant daughter had had her skull crushed. Their clothes were also stained in blood.

It was quickly determined that several items had been taken from the home including several pieces of silverware (engraved with the letters EH) + a watch among other things, the fire having been set to conceal the murders

Emeline Houseman was married to a sailor, Captain George Housman. He was immediately cleared because he was sailing somewhere off the coast of Virginia for oysters.

Emeline, reportedly, always hated when her husband was away. She sent him with all their bulk cash they kept in the house because she was terrified that robbers would break in.

To help make her feel better, George’s sister Polly would stay with Emeline and her daughter when her brother was away and help keep her company.

Polly had a bit of a reputation in the town. She’d been recently separated from her husband, something that was extremely taboo at the time, and moved herself and her two children back home to her parents house, which was right across the street from her dear brother George and his wife Emeline.

In addition to being separated, she was also having an affair with a pharmacist in town named George Waite, and she was also extremely pregnant at the time. Yeah, there’s a lot of George’s, it’s annoying. And confusing.

What I’m saying is that Polly already had a bit of a reputation against her, and after these murders were committed and no immediate suspect was announced, the whispers began saying that Polly was responsible.

Somehow, this reached the District Attorney, and by New Year’s Day she was in the Richmond County Jail. George Waite was already in custody, and on January 2nd, she gave birth to a stillborn baby, and confirmed that Waite was the father. Because the baby was born stillborn, the press definitely used this as “confirmation” of her guilt. 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 trial started in June, and was a complete and total circus. Extra ferries were ordered, reporters from around the country were sent to cover it, including one Edgar Allan Poe.

So, during the trial, this is how multiple people testified events unfolded.

Polly left Emeline’s house for breakfast with her family on the morning of Christmas Eve. After she’d left, 14 year old Matilda Rourke said that she saw Emeline carrying firewood into her house. Other neighbors report seeing Emeline throughout the day.

At around 5:00 at night Polly’s daughter Eliza Ann went to see if Emeline wanted her to stay with her that night, but there was no answer.

Early Monday morning, Emeline’s 13 year old cousin came by to see if she had any pills that could help his sick grandmother. There wasn’t any answer, and he started to kick the door. At this point, Polly came out of her house and yelled at him to stop. The cousin said that she then walked down to board the stagecoach for the ferry.

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, and 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 shop owner 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.

Charges against Polly included murder + arson. The strong doubts of a single juror resulted in a hung jury for the first trial. 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, before a Manhattan Jury.

The next trial of Polly Bodine for the murder of Emeline Housman was held in March, before a Manhattan Jury.

Manhattan was now the circus Staten Island had been the previous year over the Polly Bodine Murder Case.

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 either in May or July 27, 1892. I keep finding different dates for this day.

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