The Witch of New York

The Trials of Polly Bodine and the Cursed Birth of Tabloid Justice


Before the sensational cases of Amanda Knox and Casey Anthony—before even Lizzie Borden—there was Polly Bodine, the first American woman put on trial for capital murder in our nation’s debut media circus.

On Christmas night, December 25, 1843, in a serene village on Staten Island, shocked neighbors discovered the burnt remains of twenty-four-year-old mother Emeline Houseman and her infant daughter, Ann Eliza. In a perverse nativity, someone bludgeoned to death a mother and child in their home—and then covered up the crime with hellfire.

When an ambitious district attorney charges Polly Bodine (Emelin’s sister-in-law) with a double homicide, the new “penny press” explodes. Polly is a perfect media villain: she’s a separated wife who drinks gin, commits adultery, and has had multiple abortions. Between June 1844 and April 1846, the nation was enthralled by her three trials—in Staten Island, Manhattan, and Newburgh—for the “Christmas murders.”

After Polly’s legal dream team entered the fray, the press and the public debated not only her guilt, but her character and fate as a fallen woman in society. Public opinion split into different camps over her case. Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman covered her case as young newsmen. P. T. Barnum made a circus out of it. James Fenimore Cooper’s last novel was inspired by her trials.

The Witch of New York is the first narrative history about the dueling trial lawyers, ruthless newsmen, and shameless hucksters who turned the Polly Bodine case into America’s formative tabloid trial. An origin story of how America became addicted to sensationalized reporting of criminal trials, The Witch of New York vividly reconstructs an epic mystery from Old New York—and uses the Bodine case to challenge our system of tabloid justice of today.

About the author(s)

Alex Hortis, author of The Mob and the City, is a constitutional lawyer and crime historian. He has been interviewed on national television for AMC’s The Making of the Mob and has been a featured speaker at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, the New York Public Library, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He is a former federal law clerk for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and is a graduate of New York University School of Law. Alex lives in Washington, DC. Please visit Alex at


“A fascinating look at the crime and what came after. Hortis covers the material with workmanlike efficiency and a keen eye for courtroom theatrics. As quaint as some of the story’s details may seem, its themes feel remarkably contemporary: We still rush to judgment, resort to stereotyping and fall for all kinds of propaganda. It’s impossible to argue with the book’s thesis: ‘Tabloid justice would, one way or another, alter American law.’”

Kate Tuttle, The New York Times Book Review

“A compulsively readable book. Emphasizes the deep misogynist roots of witch trials, real and metaphorical, and belong firmly within the contemporary examination of the United States’ ongoing and multifaceted satanic panic.”

Ilana Masad, The Washington Post

The Witch of New York reconstructs the events and subsequent trials [of Polly Bodine] in great detail. It is an engaging story, skillfully told. To read The Witch of New York is to understand the ancestry of the current true-crime craze.”

Rachel Lloyd, The Economist

"Through meticulous reconstruction and vivid storytelling, Hortis delves into the depths of the Polly Bodine case, illuminating the shadows of suspicion and scandal that surrounded it."

Staten Island Live

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