A great deal of Across the East River Bridge was inspired by real people and locations. I thought readers might be interested in a little background. So read on for historical context, suggested reading, and a whole lot of photos.
I first became interested in Gilded Age Brooklyn about five years ago when I happened upon Marge Piercy’s fantastic novel Sex Wars. The novel is about the strange intersection of the women’s suffrage movement, the anti-obscenity movement, and an adultery scandal. It’s based very closely on a true story.
The short version of the story starts with Victoria Woodhull. She was an advocate for free love, but what this meant was that she was an advocate of freedom of movement for women—she wanted women to have the right to choose their sexual partners, but marriage at this time was often a more practical endeavor. (For more on this, check out the fascinating blog Advertising for Love which looks at Victorian matrimonial personal ads.) Woodhull and her sister were entrepreneurs as well; among other things, they became the first female stock brokers and published their own newspaper. Woodhull crossed paths with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and was briefly seen as a new hope for the women’s suffrage movement because of her ability to draw attention to herself. (She gave a speech before Congress and argued, among other things, that if the Constitution granted suffrage to all citizens, and women were citizens, women have the right to vote, no Constitutional amendment required). In 1872, she stumbled upon a scandal involving Henry Ward Beecher, a wildly popular preacher and abolitionist. He’d had an affair with the wife of one of his parishioners. Woodhull saw this as evidence that Beecher also supported her ideas about free love, and she published details in her newspaper. At the same time Anthony Comstock was waging a campaign to eliminate obscenity, and his focus was on banning obscene materials from going through the mail. When Woodhull published details of the Beecher affair, Comstock had her arrested. Then the cuckolded husband sued Beecher and a sensational trial ensued. Beecher was ultimately exonerated.
To me, this remains a bizarre and fascinating interlude in American history. I’ve read a few biographies of Woodhull—Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith is a good one—and I’ve been wanting to write about her for a long time. She gets shoehorned into Across the East River Bridge a little, since she’s the subject of Finn’s research, but I did get to write about her into the mystery of my otherwise fictional ghosts. She’s really an interesting woman.
For more on the Beecher scandal (or NYC history generally) I highly recommend the Bowery Boys Podcast (here’s their episode on Beecher). The podcast is great, one of my favorites, and they cover a pretty wide range of subjects relating to New York history.
Shortly after I moved to Brooklyn in 2006, I got laid off from my job. I was out of work about three months, and in order to keep myself from going crazy, I did a lot of walking and exploring in Brooklyn. That included one day walking over to the Brooklyn Historical Society, which has a small museum in Brooklyn Heights. (Although they’re the obvious inspiration for the historical society that Troy works for in the novel, Troy’s historical society is a bit of a ramshackle operation, which is less true in real life. The BHS has a great website if you have any interest in Brooklyn history, and the staff there is friendly; the time I visited the museum, I was given a nice tour of the place, and they’ve got some neat stuff in their collections.)
The building itself looks like this (click on any of the photos to enlarge):
When I visited, the woman who worked at the front desk gave me a pamphlet for a Brooklyn Heights historical walking tour, which was a lot of fun if you, like me, are a big history nerd. Brooklyn Heights is also a really pretty neighborhood and a great place to walk around.
This is the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, Henry Ward Beecher’s pulpit. There’s a statue of him in the churchyard:
The church is on Orange Street, which is where I chose to put the fictional Brill House. There are a number of Victorian red brick houses on the street, any of which could have the same historical significance and/or ghosts that the Brill house does:
If you keep walking along Orange Street, as Troy and Finn do in the novel, you end up at the northern entrance to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which is one of my favorite places in the city. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty are really not to be missed.
They are currently doing some restoration work on the bridge, as you can see here in this photo I took in June.
Of course, in the 1870s, the bridge was also under construction.
The promenade itself is basically a long walkway with benches facing the East River.
If you go to the southern end of the Promenade and walk away from the river, you end up on Montague Street, which is one of the arteries of the neighborhood, lined with shops.
My photos don’t really do it justice, but one of the things I like about Montague Street is that it still has a bit of an Old New York vibe. And, for contrast, I love this photo of Montague Street (and the original Brooklyn Academy of Music) in 1903:
Finn and Troy visit a number of different locations in Brooklyn.
Troy goes to the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Chapter 1.
This is my local library branch, in fact. I wish I could have taken photos inside because the lobby is gorgeous—lots of marble and airy natural sunlight—but when I was there the other day, a security guy stopped me as soon as I got out my camera.
The library is right at Grand Army Plaza, which is dominated in the center by the Soldiers and Sailors Arch:
[Psst. Grand Army Plaza is also featured in Kindling Fire with Snow.]
Troy brings Finn to meet a spiritualist in Victorian Flatbush, or the contemporary neighborhood of Ditmas Park, which is full of old (and very expensive!) homes like these:
Ditmas Park is, I think, currently undergoing something of a renaissance (or it’s gentrifying, I should probably say) and Cortelyou Road is super cute with some really great bars and restaurants. I only went there for the first time a few months ago (there’s a bar there that did monthly beer and cheese tastings this summer—yes, beer and cheese, two of my favorite things!).
I based the occult shop where Troy buys exorcism supplies on the shop described here.
There’s a scene toward the end of the novel in which Finn and Troy get lost in Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s an easy place to get lost; it’s huge and full of winding pathways. It’s also the final resting place of a number of notable historical figures. These photos are from a trip I took there a few years ago; I’m including photos of some of the graves mentioned in the novel:
I’m told also that there are haunted properties all over the city, too. I don’t have much actual first-hand experience with this, but my brother lives in an apartment building in Crown Heights that used to be a hospital, and he’s pretty sure the elevator is haunted.
And here’s a great article from the Awl on murder and mayhem in Brooklyn Heights.
A few other notes:
Some information on homosexuality in the late 19th century came from George Chauncey’s excellent book, Gay New York.
Some other historical background on Brooklyn in this period came from David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge.
And, of course, a lot of the book came from my own imagination. I own any historical inaccuracies.