The Affluenza Murder Case That Shocked America 100 Years Ago
The concept that helped Ethan Couch didn't exist yet, but the fact of two justice systems—and some Puritan morality—made for a wild end to a brutal murder case.
Left Image: Ethan Couch after his arrest for violating probation in 2015. Photo via Jalisco State Attorney General's Office. Right Image: Florence Burns sketch from a portrait courtesy Kent State University Press
When people hear the phrase "affluenza," the first thing that comes to mind is Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who avoided prison time despite killing four people while drunk-driving after a psychologist testified he was so privileged he didn’t know right from wrong. But generations of young Americans have found themselves—by virtue of their race and money, among other things—in a position to break the law and get away with it. At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of teenagers in Brooklyn collectively known as the Bedford Avenue Gang (many came from relatively wealthy families) were bucking the restrictive societal norms of their parents. This crew routinely got fucked up, had a lot of sex, and was prone to commit petty crimes.
But things went bad when Florence Burns, a young woman from the neighborhood, had a violent quarrel with one of the Gang, Walter Brooks, on Valentine's Day 1902 at the Glen Island Hotel. Several hours later, Brooks was found dying in a hotel room with a bullet wound in his head. Burns, who may have been pregnant (her parents had kicked her out), admitted to the murder, but the case never got to the grand jury or past the coroner's inquest, even though she had several witnesses against her. The so-called “Unwritten Law," or a Victorian-era tendency for courts to refuse to convict people who committed violence in the name of a woman's so-called virtue, seems to have been a key reason why.
In her new book, The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Virginia A. McConnell explores what happened in decisive and painstaking detail. National headlines of the day read “Brooklyn is a Modern Sodom” and called the situation a “disgusting state of affairs.” But VICE talked to McConnell to find out how technology gave teens more freedom in the early 1900s, how the Bedford Avenue Gang were the jet-setters of their day, what led up to Walter Brooks being killed, and how what we now call "affluenza" led to murder.
VICE: One of the themes that jumped out to me in the book had nothing to do with that fateful night but rather the ways in which teens were socializing. Can you talk about how the world was changing for young people at this time?
Virginia A. McConnell: Technology gave the teenagers and young adults access to places they might not have had earlier. They did not drive, for the most part, as automobiles were not widespread in 1902, except among the very rich and those who had businesses. But they didn’t need cars, because New York City and Brooklyn had an extensive public transportation system, with linkage to Manhattan, Coney Island, etc. The Brooklyn Bridge connected Brooklyn to Manhattan, which made it much easier for them to go to the city for dining or the theater or hotels or dance halls—and then to get back home quicker.
The street cars that went from Brooklyn to Coney Island provided [young people] with access to that magic place, and also Bader’s Road House, which was very close to it. They were out of reach of their parents, as it was about a 30-minute ride to get there. They could be anonymous on the boardwalks of Coney Island and on the beaches there. Coney Island allowed them to dispense with the 19th century protocol of having to be introduced to a member of the opposite sex before you could speak with them. In relaxed atmospheres like the beach, strangers often started conversations with each other.
Another thing that stuck out was just how violent and scam-prone the men in this crew were, despite their ages and wealth.
They spent much of their time drinking in roadhouses, dance halls, and hotels. Girls like Florence Burns smoked in public, which was [effectively] against the law for women back then. The Bedford Avenue Gang of boys was dedicated to seducing the groupie girls who followed them, or raping them if they were not successful, cheating local merchants, and pulling scams on anyone they could trick into falling for them.
Like other kinds of gangs throughout history, this one provided an appealing lifestyle and a social milieu for its members. Florence, who did not enjoy being with her parents and their attempted imposition of what she would consider to be tired old ethics, found a congenial “family” with the Bedford Gang. They accepted her for what she was and did not try to change her. She was allowed to do what she wanted in hanging out with them. Nobody was judging her. Plus, it was exciting to be with them. She said in an article she wrote after she got out of jail that she was just “wild with restlessness” if they did not come calling for her on a given night.
Once the murder happened that night—from what we can tell over a dispute related to their romantic relationship—the facts of who did what seemed pretty clear. Even allowing for relatively Victorian ideas about women and sex out of wedlock, how do you explain the outcome legally?
The judge at the hearing would not allow the testimony of Florence’s own words that indicated her guilt. And I believe those were left out because of the Unwritten Law and the need to find a somewhat legal reason to keep her out of prison and from the death penalty. [The] DA realized that the self-incriminating words were never going to be admitted in court, so although he could get a Grand Jury indictment and proceed to trial, the Unwritten Law would prevent him from getting a conviction.
Can you say more about the Unwritten Law? I don't think most modern Americans have any familiarity with it.
It was a concept that began in the South in the mid-19th century, then eventually worked its way north. It lasted until the middle of the 20th century. It started out as a "permission" for a man to kill a man who had dishonored, raped, seduced, or even ruined the reputation of a woman they were related to or intimately connected with: wife, fiancee, mother, sister, niece. And under these circumstances, if brought to trial, not a jury in the land would convict a man for this murder. But there had to be a sort-of actual legal defense for juries and judges to feel comfortable with acquitting someone on a charge of murder based on the Unwritten Law. Traditionally, these so-called reasons were temporary insanity or self-defense. In fact, the Unwritten Law was often referred to as Dementia Americana.
Eventually, as women entered the workplace and had gained more independence, the "privilege" was extended to them for killing a man who had dishonored them, seduced them, etc. So, when Florence Burns was arrested for shooting Walter Brooks after they had been sexually intimate (maybe even with a baby on the way) and he refused to marry her, the Unwritten Law kicked in.
So does the idea of "affluenza" really apply here? It's not like Burns's wealth was used to justify her actions, right?
“Affluenza” contributed to this murder by a combination of parental indifference on the part of many families and providing the means by which the young people could indulge themselves with alcohol, entertainment, and sex. Not all parents were indifferent to what their children were up to, but a great many of them were. Others were simply overwhelmed by the lack of control they had over their behavior, and some (like the Brookses) were enablers of that behavior. The fact that Florence and Walter were free to go wherever and do whatever they wanted, yet were each incapable of making mature decisions, led to the trouble that landed them in the Glen Island Hotel on February 14, 1902.
There obviously wasn't the so-called Internet outrage that greeted the Couch case here. But it does seem like it shocked and awed by exposing people to exactly what kids were doing.
The exposure of the doings of the Bedford Avenue Gang and their female groupies was a shock to people who lived in the New York City area, especially in Brooklyn. The kids themselves were upset to think that someone in their gang had revealed this information. Some of the parents knew what their kids were up to, but had no control over them. Others were totally clueless, kind of like parents today who say, “My son/daughter would never do drugs!” when it turns out that they are. Adults who had been victims of the various scams and thefts of the gang were glad to see that a spotlight was now shining on this behavior.
The young people in this book had ample spending money, which they supplemented with their various scams. They all wanted to dress in the latest styles, plus they spent a lot of time at roadhouses and restaurants, so they needed a lot of money. Most had allowances from their families and a few of them had jobs. They had access to yachts and private apartments in Manhattan that allowed them to bring girls there for sex and drinking.
Somewhat like Couch, Burns did not seem to enjoy a particularly triumphant life once the dust settled, huh?
The Brooks incident in 1902 colored the rest of her life by putting her in a spotlight. She felt picked on by having the media put her on “Page One” of the newspapers whenever she was caught doing anything. She never accepted responsibility for her criminal behavior, but blamed the media and others. Later, of course, no matter what she was doing, people tended to shun her because of what they thought of as her getting away with murder. So, it was OK for the court to let her go because of the Unwritten Law, but that did not mean that people considered her innocent of murder. So she got kicked out of boarding houses and yelled at on the street.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about McConnell's book here.