The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Feb. 16, 1902, was dominated with news of the murder of 20-year-old Walter S. Brooks, a young man from Brooklyn who had met some acclaim playing football for Brooklyn Boys High School before going into the dried-fruit business in Manhattan.
All evidence pointed to Florence Burns, a beautiful 19-year old girl from Flatbush who had been having an affair with Brooks for the previous four months. Brooks had tried to break it off with the girl, according to friends, but she had been madly in love with him and resisted every attempt to sever their ties.
The young man was found unconscious in a hotel room at the Glen Island Hotel in Manhattan. Earlier that evening the couple had checked into the hotel as “J. Wilson and wife, Brooklyn, N.Y.”
“The bell boy, who showed them to their room, has identified Florence Burns as the woman who went to the room with Brooks. The identification was complete and positive. He picked her out of a number of other women without the slightest hesitation,” the Eagle reported.
Burns denied having gone to the hotel with Brooks, claiming to have gone home to Flatbush at 6:30 p.m. However, “No one saw her at her father’s home until this morning, and her declaration is the only proof she has,” the article stated.
“The beautiful Brooklyn girl sat unmoved throughout the ordeal of a ‘third degree’ investigation by the police. She was as calm and cool as the big, stern police captain and the iron-hearted detectives who tried to make her confess. If the murder of the man she loved caused any emotion in her heart, there was no indication of it in the almost smiling face or the innocent blue eyes that met her accusers so frankly, yet so firmly,” the Eagle wrote.
Adding to the appearance of her guilt was the testimony of Brooks’ closest friend, Harry Cohen, who said that Brooks had frequently told him he expected the girl to kill him. He said that she had threatened that if he didn’t marry her, he would never marry anyone. ‘Well, Harry, I’m going out to get shot tonight,’ he had said on a recent evening that he went out to meet her.
The body had been discovered by the same bellboy who showed them to their room. He approached the room a little after 11 p.m. because he was concerned about the overwhelming smell of gas emanating from within it. He opened the door to discover the gas turned all the way up and Brooks lying unconscious on the bed. He immediately summoned help.
At this time Brooks was still alive, and amazingly the doctor who came to the scene, Dr. John Vincent Sweeney, did not surmise that Brooks had also been the victim of a gunshot wound, thinking the blood coming from his head was the result of a superficial wound. He simply administered “restoratives” and left him to rest for the night. The next morning, when it was realized his injuries were more serious, Brooks was taken to the hospital. It took the ambulance two hours to arrive, and Brooks died at 11 a.m. (It’s hard to say who was more responsible for Brooks’ death, Ms. Burns or the medical professionals who should have saved him!)
But one crucial piece of evidence was missing from the scene. The revolver was no where to be found.
Over the next few months, other circumstantial evidence surfaced that pointed to Burns’ guilt. A comb was found in the hotel room that an acquaintance claimed belonged to Burns. Also a train conductor swore that she was on his train at about 11:45 p.m. at the Brooklyn Bridge, which would have fit the time frame of the murder, which was believed to have happened around 11 p.m.
But without a“smoking gun,” so to speak, Ms. Burns was released from jail on March 24 of that year, according to an Eagle report. And on May 20, she was exonerated of all charges.
Though there was a lack of legal evidence, the Eagle reported, there was “widespread moral conviction that Florence Burns shot Brooks.”
After the murder investigation was behind her, Ms. Burns tried to take her now recognizable name from headlines to headliner. The Eagle reported she made her vaudeville debut on Dec. 15, 1902, at Hyde & Behmen’s theatre. The Eagle’s review: “A decided failure from every standpoint. She didn’t even gratify the curiosity of the multitude that had jammed itself into the theatre to see her. She was off the stage almost as soon as she got on it. The audience seemed relieved when she left the stage, for her effort was pitiable. She almost collapsed, not from fright, but from sheer inability to go through her act.”
i Compiled by Phoebe Neidl