Shot and Gassed

Did socialite Florence Burns kill her lover?

Richard J. Goodrich
Jan 8 · 14 min read
Florence Burns.
Florence Burns.
Florence Burns. The Evening World, July 12, 1902. Public Domain.

winter evening in Brooklyn, February 1902. John Earl, the night man at the Glen Island Hotel, watched as the front door opened and a young couple walked in from the cold night. The man was handsome, six feet tall, and retained the solid musculature of a varsity high school athlete. His companion, slightly younger and shorter, was a beautiful blonde with a slender build.

They wanted a room. Earl was in the business of renting rooms. He pushed the ledger across the counter to the man, who recorded their names as “J. Wilson and wife, Brooklyn, NY.” A key and cash changed hands. A bellhop, George Washington, led the couple to room 12A, at the back of the hotel, second floor.

Washington touched a match to the mantles of the gas lights. They flared and began to burn brightly. He took a final look at the woman before closing the couple in the room. She was striking.

An hour later, the couple rang their room bell. “I would like a lemon soda,” the woman told the bellboy when he answered the summons. She was, he later recalled, partially undressed.

When he returned with the drink, she opened the door a crack and flung out a “naked arm” to take the glass. Washington would see no more of her that evening.

Near midnight, George Washington smelled gas. He walked the corridors of the second floor, sniffing for the source. It seemed to be coming from room 12A. He turned the doorknob. It was unlocked. When he shoved the door open, a surge of raw gas washed over him. The lights were off, but the toxic fumes hissed from the jets. Washington hurried across the room and flung open the windows. He called downstairs for the night clerk.

By the time Earl arrived, the gas had dissipated. The men lit the jets. The flickering flames drove back the shadows to reveal “J. Wilson” stretched across the left side of the bed. Dressed only in his underclothes, Wilson was alive but unresponsive. Earl sent for a local physician, John Vincent Sweeney.

Dr. Sweeney, after examining the young man, declared that he was fine. He was just groggy, perhaps from alcohol or the effects of the gas. He had a blood clot behind his right ear, but it was undoubtedly the result of a fall. The only thing to be done, declared the doctor, was to let him sleep it off. A good night’s rest and he would be fine.

He wasn’t.

At 7:00 AM, the hotel management sent a bellboy to knock on “Wilson’s” door. When the occupant failed to respond, the staff entered the room. Wilson was unconscious. Blood had soaked his pillow and bedding.

Another call went out for Dr. Sweeney. When he arrived at 8:00, he was shocked by the amount of blood. He probed the wound and discovered a bullet. The man had been shot. The hotel called for an ambulance, but it took two hours to arrive. Eventually, the victim was transported, but help had come too late. At 11:00 AM, he expired in the Hudson Street Hospital.

Police detectives quickly resolved the first mystery — the victim’s true name. Papers found in his clothing identified him as Walter Brooks, age 22. The police contacted his father, Thomas Brooks, who hurried to the hotel, and then accompanied his son to the hospital. He was at the boy’s bedside when he died. “I am not surprised,” said the father, afterward. “I have expected this for a long time. My boy has been in trouble with girls before this and I expected this would happen.”

“A girl named Florence Burns has made threats against my son.”

A second witness also suggested the police should begin their investigation with Florence. Harry Cohen was Brook’s business partner — the two young men had opened a firm that handled commissions for the produce industry. When the police arrived at the office, Cohen quickly identified Brook’s companion as Florence Burns.

Brooks, Cohen said, had been wildly infatuated with Florence. He had even tried to persuade his minister, Rev. Robert Rogers of the Church of the Good Shepherd to marry them. Ardor had cooled when the clergyman refused. Florence had moved out of her parent’s home and was living in a boarding house (which Brooks paid for). Her landlady told the police that the couple spent the last couple of weeks quarrelling. The relationship was coming apart.

On Friday morning, Cohen and Brooks travelled to Paterson, New Jersey for business. On the train ride back, they met two young women. Rather than changing trains in Newark, they persuaded the girls to accompany them to a hotel, where they rented rooms. Cohen and his girl parted first. He caught the train back to Brooklyn, where he found Florence waiting in their office. “I told her that Brooks was still in Newark, and wouldn’t be back until late,” he said.

“Well, I’ll wait anyway,” replied Florence. She settled into an office chair, determined not to move until she saw Walter. It’s my last day in New York, she explained to Cohen. I am going to Detroit tomorrow.

Walter returned, earlier than Cohen anticipated. He was nonplussed by his amour’s presence. It’s her last night in town, he told Cohen. I want to give her a blowout before she leaves.

“I left them in the office together,” Cohen told the police, “after making him promise to meet me later. I suppose they went out somewhere and had dinner before going to the Glen Island Hotel.”

“He told me that she had several times made threats that if she didn’t marry him he would never marry anybody. He would have married her if I hadn’t prevented him. At first, he was infatuated, but I told him that he could not marry a girl like her and he took my advice.”

Florence Burns

With two fingers pointing at a suspect, the police wasted no time tracking Florence. Although she had been staying in a boarding house, they found her at her parent’s home.

“Are you Miss Burns?” asked Detective Colby when the young woman opened the door.

“I am.”

“Miss Florence Burns?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I want to talk with you.” The two police detectives followed the woman into the house.

Inside, Florence denied any knowledge of what had happened at the Glen Island Hotel. “I understand that I am charged with shooting Walter,” she said, but I cannot see how that can be. I left him yesterday afternoon at 6:30 and went home. I got to Flatbush at about 7 o’clock and found that my father and mother had gone to the theatre, and my little sister was asleep. I went upstairs to my room, on the top floor, and retired. No one saw me that night.”

“Where is Walter,” she asked, in an apparent afterthought.

The detectives found her alibi unconvincing. They escorted Florence to the Church Street Police Station in Manhattan. There, she was subjected to the third degree but remained preternaturally calm as detectives tried to shake her story. Not even a positive identification by the bellboy, George Washington, who shouted “That is the woman” when he saw her, rattled her composure.

In the face of intense questioning, Florence refused to give any ground. She had not seen her lover since early the previous evening. If he had been killed, the police should look for another suspect.

The Press Investigates

By this time, the local newsmen had excavated most of the couple’s love story. Florence and Walter met four months before the tragic events of February 14, 1902. They fell in love and spent most of their free time together. Ultimately, they decided to get married, a move that Walter’s father opposed. “I had nothing personal against the young woman,” claimed Thomas Brooks. “So far as I knew her, she was an honest, upright young woman. I knew nothing against her reputation, but I was unalterably opposed to my son getting married. That was all there was to it.”

In Thomas’ opinion, Walter was simply too young to take on the responsibility of married life. He was beginning to prosper in his career as a commissions broker, and it made sense to achieve financial stability and maturity before marrying.

Shortly after their talk, Florence became ill. Walter, arguing that her sickness was his fault — she had caught her cold while the two were out on a date — begged his father to take the girl into their home until she recovered. Thomas agreed. “I told him he could invite the young woman to my house to stay with us until she got well. He did and she came here and stayed with us for two weeks. We got our own doctor to attend her and prescribe for her and there was no more to it. She got well and went away.”

But there was more to it. The illness only appeared to deepen the couple’s infatuation. They continued to plan their wedding. “She cast a spell over my boy,” claimed Thomas’ mother, “and he could not resist her. Yes, she hypnotized him and then killed him.”

When Thomas Brooks realized that his son had not abandoned his intent to marry, he visited Florence’s parents, hoping to recruit them as allies. “They did not agree with me that the young folks ought not to get married. In fact, they told me that they thought they ought to be married.”

Brooks ultimately confronted his son and declared his objections. Young Walter, overpowered by the force of his father’s arguments, ultimately agreed to break off his relationship with Florence. But was he sincere in his agreement?

His mother was disconsolate. She had expected the relationship to bear an evil crop, and now she was left to tend the harvest. “That woman murdered my boy,” she shrieked. “She knows I idolized my boy and she did her best to take him away from me and now she has done it.”

“I hope she will go to the electric chair for it.”

A Boy of Sterling Character?

Despite the wonderful character testimonies offered by his parents, the New York press quickly determined that Walter Brooks was not a man of exemplary character. He was a companion of a “gang” of eight or ten young men — sons of good families — who had engaged in many wild, lawless acts in the city. “These young men are the best dressed in Brooklyn,” commented one unidentified witness. “They all wear diamonds and part their hair low on the left side. They carry canes as large around as a table leg.”

“It is the main object and ambition of each one of these young men to ruin as many young women as possible,” continued the witness. “To come down to cases, I know of one occasion when seven of these young men were at the Aqueduct race track. They saw a young woman whom they knew in the grandstand, called her out to one of the stables, and there held a wild and shameful orgy.”

In addition to the corruption of the young women, the source also noted that they forged checks, defrauded tailors, cheated at cards, and looked for “suckers” to foot their restaurant and hotel bills. After a week of digging, and near-daily documentation on the front pages of Brooklyn’s newspapers, the public became convinced that Brooks hadn’t been a choir boy.

But did he deserve to be murdered?

Florence on Trial

On February 22, 1902, a preliminary trial before Judge Mayer of the Court of Special Sessions began. The purpose of this hearing was to determine if the prosecution had enough evidence to arraign the girl and hold her for a jury trial. Unfortunately, the first day was unpromising. As Florence calmly listened, John Earl, night clerk for the Glen Island Hotel, offered his account of the evening.

He claimed that Brooks and a young woman arrived at the same time as two other couples. In the hurry to get the three groups checked in, Earl paid little attention to Brooks’ companion.

Assistant District Attorney George Schurman pressed the witness, but Earl could not offer a positive identification. “I saw them come up the stairs, the man and the woman,” he said. “I didn’t notice the color of her clothes, but my impression is that they were black. I think she wore a dark veil. My attention was distracted by two other couples who were there. I cannot say whether the woman was tall or short.”

Earl’s refusal to identify Florence was a blow to the prosecution. Prosecutor Schurman put points on the scoreboard the next day, however, when George Washington, the bell boy, made a positive identification. He claimed that Florence had been in the room with Walter. He had seen her clearly after he lit the room’s lamps. “I was looking her straight in the face when I spoke to them,” he testified.

Florence’s attorney, Foster Backus, questioned this identification. “Didn’t you tell them [the police investigators] that you wouldn’t know her?”

“I believe I said I couldn’t identify her by the view I had on the office floor. I didn’t tell anybody that I wasn’t close enough to see her,” replied Washington.

“How did you describe the girl you saw at the hotel?” asked Backus.

“I said that she had dark hair, a big black hat, a veil, a jacket that fitted tight at the waist. I told them she was tall and nice-looking, with a small mouth and that she wasn’t what you might call a real white person; but she was a little dark.”

“Now, George Washington,” warned Backus, “this is George Washington’s birthday, and in memory of the day I want you to tell me truthfully if you didn’t tell Mr. Krotel the woman wasn’t what you would call a white woman.”

“No, I didn’t put it that way,” answered Washington. “I said she wasn’t a real clear white person.”

Although the bellhop’s identification was damaging, Attorney Backus told reporters that it had been positive for his client. Washington — although he later denied it — seemed to have indicated that Brook’s companion had not been a white woman. Moreover, Florence had blonde, not dark, hair.

On the other hand, the bellhop continued to insist that the girl sitting at the defense table was the woman he had left alone in the room with Walter Brooks.

Foster Backus fought his case diligently. During the examination of Doctor Sweeney, he advanced the theory that Brooks had committed suicide and someone later had stripped the clothing from his body and stolen the gun. Dr. Sweeney seemed unconvinced, as was the local press.

Detective Reardan, who had conducted the initial interviews with Florence after she was brought into the police station, landed important blows on the defence team. Reardan testified that when he had asked Florence why there was no money found in Brooks’ pockets, she had seemed surprised and said, “That [racial expletive] got the money.”

Reardan explained that he interpreted this to mean that the bellboy, George Washington, who was African-American, had stolen the money when he discovered the body. If she actually said this, it was a damning slip: she wouldn’t have known that Washington was black if she hadn’t been in the room that night with Brooks.

Defense Attorney Backus did receive some surprising help from Judge Mayer. When Reardan explained to the court how Washington had identified Florence in the police station, Mayer became upset. According to Reardan, when they brought Washington into the station for an interview, he had seen Florence sitting at a desk, and had immediately cried, “That’s the lady.”

“Are you positive?” asked Reardan.

“Yes, positive,” replied Washington.

Reardan then secured two other women and led them into a room with Florence to allow the bellboy to formally identify the accused. Attorney Backus had just begun to attack this procedure in his cross-examination when Judge Mayer intervened: “You can continue on that line if you like,” said the Judge, “but I desire to notify you and the District Attorney that I regard this so-called second identification as absolutely and utterly worthless.”

“It was a ridiculous proceeding,” continued the Judge. “The idea of having this defendant stand up with two women admittedly dissimilar for purposes of identification by this bellboy after he had already seen her alone is absurd and ridiculous.”

“Well,” replied a gratified Attorney Backus, “if that is the view you take, I will cut this part of the examination short.”

In addition to muddying the water about the bellboy’s identification, Backus also succeeded in establishing that the police and prosecutor had not allowed him or Florence’s father to see her during the early stages of her interrogation. In Backus’ view, she had been denied her constitutional right to consult with her attorney.

The Final Act

The hearing now slipped into a strange rhythm. Due to Judge Mayer’s busy trial schedule, he could only grant time on Saturdays for further testimony. The case limped along on a weekly basis, giving Brooklyn readers six days between installments to chew over each new development. Spectators packed the courtroom on the assigned hearing dates; two ministers attended each session, supposedly gathering material for future sermons.

On March 15, Walter’s mother took the stand and treated the audience to a display of maternal histrionics. When she was handed the watch found with the body, she pressed the cold steel against her face, listened to its ticking, kissed its crystal face, and then collapsed in a dead faint.

Revived, she also identified a comb found in the room as belonging to Florence. “Florence Burns told me she would kill my son if he did not marry her,” swore Mrs. Brooks. “Then I told her that if she killed Walter, I would kill her.”

Later, when Florence was staying in her home, she had vanished one afternoon. Mrs. Brooks later asked the girl where she had been. Florence allegedly replied, “I have been to my home to get father’s pistol to kill your son.”

Despite her dramatic testimony, Mrs. Brooks did not satisfy the court with her reliability.

Judge Mayer’s Doubts

With each passing week, it became clear that Judge Mayer was unhappy with the way the investigation had been conducted. George Washington’s identification of Florence had been tainted. At the March 22 hearing, he argued, at length, with the prosecution, stating that all of the testimony from the investigating detectives was suspect. After Florence had been arrested, claimed the judge, she should have been charged before a magistrate, in accordance with Section 378 of the Charter of the City of New York. The police had no right to question Florence before proper procedure had been followed, and he was inclined to regard all of her reported testimony as inadmissible.

“Foster L. Backus, counsel for Miss Burns, might as well have been in Brooklyn as in the courtroom today,” wrote the reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “From the time the argument was begun Mr. Backus sat in his chair silently while Justice Mayer argued at great length with Assistant District Attorney Schurman.”

Although the prosecutor fought his corner gamely, the reporters read the judicial tea leaves and began to forecast acquittal.

In this instance, the pundits were right. On Saturday, March 23, 1902, Justice Mayer discharged Florence Burns. Although he admitted that a grand jury would have probably indicted Florence based upon the prosecutor’s evidence, that body would not have had the advantage of hearing the defence case. The defence’s objections to the evidence were so cogent that it was unlikely that a jury would find the girl guilty. Consequently, concluded Burns, he would release Florence from jail. As Mayer announced his decision, a “storm of cheers” filled the courtroom. The crowd was clearly with the young woman, who fanned herself placidly. “She was yawning,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “as if very tired of the justice’s decision, at the very moment he declared her freedom. Verily, she is a wonderful girl.”

The District Attorney, frustrated by the decision, vowed to strengthen the elements of his case that had displeased the judge, and then bring Florence before a grand jury and a trial. In fact, neither happened. Florence Burns, most probably the murderer of Walter Brooks, walked free, accompanied by the applause of a smitten crowd.

Sources: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 16–Mar. 24, 1902; Buffalo Courier (NY) Apr. 3, 1902; New York Times, Mar. 25, 1902; Times Union (Brooklyn), Feb. 15, 1902.

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Richard J. Goodrich

Written by

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

Chameleon

Chameleon

A true crime publication, giving voices to those who no longer have theirs.

Richard J. Goodrich

Written by

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

Chameleon

Chameleon

A true crime publication, giving voices to those who no longer have theirs.

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