With the ferry funnel visible in background, prisoners are taken from Black Maria at the East River 26th St. terminal for trip to Blackwell Island in above graphic pen sketch derived from 1867 illustration. Click to access full, unmodified NYPL copy. Use browser's "back" button to return.
The above image of women at Night Court is derived from a larger 1910 illustration that accompanies a story entitled Sad Human Drama Played Nightly in Women's Court on photographer David Friedman's site devoted to 100-year-old NYT Sunday Magazines. Click above to access full, unmodified illustration copy on his site. Use browser "back" button to return.
|The life and death of the woman known as Mary Bell -- aka Mary Goode (among other aliases including Mary Elliott and Lena Cuen; her actual name likely Mary Elizabeth Butler) -- reads like a Hollywood movie script. The opening scene of the "based-on-a-true-story" script could be set in 1916 NYC with a small group of disparate mourners gathered in the rain around an open, muddy grave as a plain pine coffin is lowered into the ground. |
As the cold December rain raps out a steady beat on the graveside canopy of black umbrellas, the camera zooms in close on each mourner in turn and we hear his or her thoughts in voice-overs recalling individual memories of Mary.
Collectively their narrated flashbacks unfold the tale of a feisty woman who goes from being a hooker herself to being a madam operating her own brothels, paying protection money to corrupt police rings but refusing to become part of a larger crime syndicate or "vice trust," being persecuted by crooked police for her fierce independence, and her then blowing the
The memories' storyline shifts to Mrs. Mary Goode hiding from her persistent persecutors, emerging much later as Mrs. Mary Bell, truly reformed, no longer plying her old trade but now seeking to redeem herself by aiding women, caught up in it, to free themselves from its destructive grip.
The drama draws to a close as her self-sacrifice leads her to disregard her own health issues, bringing on a deadly case of pneumonia. She was only 45 years.
In this example of "truth stranger than fiction," we are informed -- by no less an authority than the New York Times in its Dec. 1, 1916 obituary -- that there really was, in her upstate home community of Ford Edward near Lake George, "a kindly Catholic priest" Fr. Fitzgerald who oversaw her upbringing after she was orphaned at age 8, sending her off to schools. He "had her educated at a business college in Albany."
The El Paso Herald of Dec. 12, 1912 informed its readers that Mary Goode had banded together liked-minded independent "ladies of the night" into an association to appeal to high society matron Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont to give them of the protection of her prestige in their fight against the "vice trust" (crime syndicate) and its police allies. Mary picked Mrs. Belmont because of the latter's leading role in the women suffrage movement. Mrs. Belmont had her contact District Attorney Charles S. Whitman
The governor and the municipal magistrate in our theoretical film script would be, respectively, former DA Whitman and Judge Henry Groehl. Interestingly, Frederick J. Groehl, as an ADA under Whitman, worked with Mary Goode, following up on her investigative leads and readying her as a witness at hearings and trials that brought down the "vice trust." He too was later appointed magistrate by Mayor John Puroy Mitchel. Both Groehls would be appropriate at the graveside scene.
The attendance of the police officer would facilitate telling how Mary Goode was hounded by members of the force after testifying against corrupt policemen, how legitimate landlords and employers turned her away after visits from a few of NY's Not-So-Finest. The participation of the prison keeper would facilitate telling of Mary Bell's visits to the East River ferry terminal to offer help to discharged Blackwell's Island women inmates.
As for the presence of a newspaper reporter in the cemetery scene, he or she could serve to represent the entire press corps in general that covered her charges of systemic police corruption and the trials resulting therefrom. News interest in her story extended well beyond the New York City boundaries as the reproductions on this page illustrate.
As for NYC, the coverage was intense. The NYT itself carried more than a dozen of stories in which she figured (click dates to access on the NYT's excellent on-line archives). Consider that it was only one of many daily newspapers publishing in the city during the early 20th century.
Since some "true event-based" film script writers, like some journalists, may follow the motto of "never letting the facts stand in the way of a good story," the mourners' graveside remembrances of Mary Bell/Mary Goode/Mary Butler might well serve as the vehicle for unveiling her biography. Only a stickler for historical accuracy might rule out such an approach, noting that just the funeral director accompanied her coffin to Calvary Cemetery, Queens, after the requiem mass in the Catholic Church of the Holy Innocents on 37th St. Manhattan, where she had been a communicant in the last few years of her life.
Although some to whom she had been a benefactor were among the 200 or so people who attended the mass, most had simply read about her. None but he went with her remains to the burial. Perhaps the movie opening scene could be rewritten and instead be set inside the church, with the dramatis personae engaged in recalling their memories of her as the solemn rites proceed. Perhaps even one of her female friends could be shown hiding the terrier Peggy inside a bulky coat.
-- NYCHS webmaster
NOTE OF APPRECIATION: We gratefully acknowledge and thank history researcher Jorge Santiago for calling this story to our attention.