And for my next book…putting the trial of Adelaide “Addie” Burns in context

I have set aside for now my planned second book, Meet Me at the Counter: A Life in Diners, to focus on a book contextualizing the trial of Addie Burns, her life and the lives of the key players within Connecticut society of the time. In this and a subsequent essay, I will begin to lay out an argument for why I think Addie Burns was really tried – concluding with a careful reexamination of New London’s Bradley Street itself, a street so reviled by town Brahmins, “when the city finally cleaned up the neighborhood in the 1920s, the street was renamed North Bank Street in an effort to erase memories of its unpleasant past.”[1] The half of what was once Bradley Street that remains – a non-descript section of Atlantic Street, perhaps 500 feet in length, flanked by parking garages – shows how thoroughly this past was erased, for better or for worse.

A quick reminder: Adelaide “Addie” Burns, who we only recently learned was my wife Nell’s paternal grandfather’s first wife, ran a brothel at 5½ (later renumbered 41) Bradley Street in the first decade of the 1900s. Early on the morning of January 15, 1907, a young man named John McNulty accompanied a 15-year-old New Haven, CT girl named Mary “May” Burns by train to New London then the short walk to Addie Burns’ house. On January 19 and 26, May Burns had sexual intercourse with two never-identified men, for which she was presumably paid. Under Connecticut law at the time, and despite being out of town with then-husband Clarence H. Broley during the nights in question, Addie Burns was guilty of statutory rape as the procurer of the underaged May Burns for the explicit purpose of working in her brothel. After a week-long trial so exciting “[t]he [Norwich] superior court room was pulled off its hinge by the crowd”[2] seeking entrance, the jury took just 30 minutes to find her guilty. Judge Ralph G. Wheeler, who had resigned as mayor of New London in March 1893 to become a Superior Court judge, sentenced her to 12-20 years in prison; she served a total of 9½ years before being paroled in July 1918.[3]

That Addie Burns was guilty – not only of operating a brothel, but also of statutory rape – was never in doubt. What shocks me, though, is the severity of the sentence: perhaps an expert in early-20th-century Connecticut law can explain why her primary defense attorney, Jacob Goodhart of New Haven,[4] did not have her plead to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduced sentence. Wheeler made no secret of how severe he thought the punishment should be: on January 6 – the day after she was arrested – Addie Burns pled “not guilty” in front of Wheeler, who then “stated that the penalty might be thirty years in prison.”[5] This was after State’s Attorney Charles Hadlai Hull, who had just turned 25 the previous October, tried to set bail at $20,000 (~$607,890 in 2021[6]); Wheeler lowered it to “only” $7,000 (~$212,800), though it was later increased to $10,000 (~$303,945).

Tellingly, Wheeler earned praise from the establishment-friendly Norwich Bulletin for being…

…the only town leader in memory to succeed “in cleaning up the vile resorts in the Bradley street section,” which had become a “stench in the nostrils of decent people,” concluding that the fight against vice must be continued until the city is “rid of the dens that have given to New London the odious distinction of being the wickedest city in New England.”[7]

These evocative words were not written on a separate and distinct editorial page – for the simple reason the Bulletin did not have one – it was interspersed with other news items, as was this screed, published just a few days after the arrest[8]:

To my untrained eye, Wheeler presiding over this case is an obvious conflict of interest – though, again, I seek expert help. The post-trial series of raids upon “houses of ill repute” in various Connecticut towns[9] suggests this trial was part of a larger assault on what many town leaders deemed vice and wickedness. For it was not just a single brothel operator these men sought wanted to remove – it was Bradley Street itself. In fact, as soon as Wheeler issued his sentence, Harriet “Hattie” Thayer, to whose brothel at 11 Bradley Street May Burns had been taken by Grace White in March 1907, fled New London. The Bulletin opined in a “news” article that she was unwilling to “face the music” after Hull, who led the prosecution of Addie Burns, “promised an interesting time in the red light district.”[10] Then, in April, town leaders essentially declared victory – at least over the brothels; as we will see, this celebratory tone was premature.[11]

Still, the trumpeted cleanup of Bradley Street in the spring of 1909 began with the arrest – two full years after the “assault” on May Burns – of Addie Burns; she was to be made an example of. An online obituary notes Hull bore “the stamp of his Puritan ancestry” and “was a member of the finance board of the city of New London.” Wheeler, a Democrat in a state dominated by Republicans,[12] himself traced his ancestry in what is now the United States back to 1654. Addie Burns was thus tried and prosecuted by two exemplars of what could be termed the Connecticut aristocracy: white northeastern Protestant – generally Congregationalist – Yale-College-educated men.

Moreover, while Addie Burns was clearly guilty under the law of operating a brothel and of employing an underaged girl as a sex worker, she was also a successful and purportedly “quite wealthy”[13] entrepreneur. Despite this, however, an “attachment” was put on her house just after the trial; Louis Elfenbein, who operated a saloon at 60 Bank Street – and lived with his wife Sarah and their five children at 192 Bradley Street – worried he would not be paid $450 (~$13,678) by Addie Burns due to “the great expense incurred by” her trial.[14] Still, at a time when few women owned property outside of inheriting it from her husband, she appears to have owned the house at 41 Bradley Street.

One could argue this financial success was Adelaide Burns’ “real” crime. Indeed, Hull made clear his contempt for women like her in an interview he conducted three days after the trial, as Goodhart started the appeals process: “To see the women of her kind in the court room was enough to call out anyone’s disgust. They spoke about their ‘business’ without flinching; never winked.”[15] Unmentioned, of course, are Adelaide Burns’ investments in legitimate New London businesses. Hull also hints darkly about other crimes associated with 41 Bradley Street, but I find no evidence this was anything other than talk.

**********

For my planned book, I see three broad contextual threads:

The approximately 5,500 Connecticut men who died in the Civil War – and the thousands more gravely wounded – whose wives, sisters, daughters and mothers now needed to support themselves at a time when, outside of domestic service and factory work, few economic opportunities existed for them.

In fact, one consequence of the Civil War was a dramatic increase in prostitution; Nashville, TN actually legalized it for the duration of the war, issuing “certificates of soundness” to “Public Women,” as women sought ways to “earn an income after their male family members went to war.”

The surge of immigration that began with the Irish potato famine of 1845-49, continued with overlapping waves of Chinese, Italians, Slavs and Jews, and ultimately ended with the highly-restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.

My first book – Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own – directly addresses the last of these waves: both of my paternal grandfathers, and all of paternal great-grandparents, were born in the vast the vast Jewish expanse on the western edge of the Russian Empire called the Pale of Settlement, arriving in Philadelphia between 1891 and 1913. New London experienced a similar influx of new residents: while its population hovered around 10,000 between 1860 and 1880, it rose rapidly to 13,757 in 1890 and 17,248 in 1900.[16] By 1910, the population had begun to level off at 19,659,[17] though this is essentially a doubling in just 30 years.

The ongoing struggle between these primarily Catholic and Jewish immigrants and what I dubbed the “Connecticut aristocracy.”

The anti-alcohol/anti-saloon temperance movement perfectly exemplifies this: while New London had only one Catholic church and only one synagogue in 1907 (out of 15 houses of worship, including four Baptist and three Congregationalist churches), it had five Temperance Societies. Curiously, heavily urban Connecticut and Rhode Island – 67% and 76% Catholic, respectively – were the only states to reject Amendment XVIII,[18] suggesting New London was a “small town” Protestant tile in an urban Catholic mosaic.

As we will see in the next essay, these three threads are woven together on Bradley Street, which I reconstructed using the 1906 and 1907 New London city directories, checking all mentions of Bradley Street against data from the 1910 United States Census (“1910 Census”).[19]

**********

In the remainder of this essay, then, I explain how the Civil War might have led the Burns sisters – Sarah and Adelaide – to become brothel owners, followed by Sarah’s only daughter.

Isaac E. Burns was one of seven children born, probably in Greenwich, CT in either 1835 (1850 US Census) or 1839 (1860 US Census), to Richard Burns and Mary Miles Burns. His paternal grandfather James Burns was born in Connecticut on March 6, 1774; this is far back as I have been able to trace Isaac’s ancestors. Isaac married Sarah J. – who eludes attempts to trace her, besides when and where she was born[20] – around 1855. Isaac and Sarah had four children, beginning with Samuel H. around 1856; the latter appears in the 1860 US Census but not the 1870 US Census, suggesting he died in the interim.[21] Evaleneh/Evelyn was born in Bridgeport in October 1858, followed by Sarah E. “Sally” in Greenwich on May 12, 1861 and Adelaide in Bridgeport in February 1863. As of 1860, Isaac E. Burns was a farmhand in Greenwich with a total estate of $50 (~$1,652); he does not appear in the 1870 US Census. While I found Civil War enlistment and muster records for Isaac’s older brother Leander and younger brother Charles H, I have yet to find any for Jay/John – the oldest Burns brother, who was about 35 when the Civil War started in 1861 – or for Isaac. Still, if 20-something Isaac E. Burns died (or deserted without trace) in the latter half of the Civil War, as is certainly plausible, this would have left Sarah J. Burns to raise four young children on her own.

It is thus possible that the “Sarah Burns” sentenced to 10 days in prison on June 28, 1864 for being an “inmate” of the “house of ill repute” run by Sarah McKennan at 253 Commerce Street in Hartford, CT is Isaac’s widow.[22] This, of course, begs the question of who was caring for her children. Sarah J. Burns disappears from the public record between the 1870 and 1880 US Censuses, leading us to assume she died. Her middle daughter Sarah married John Beck in 1878; the following February, Evelyn W “Eva” Beck was born, the only grandchild of Isaac and Sarah Burns I have yet located. I cannot find Evelyn in the 1880 US Census, so it is possible she had married as well;[23] she then married John Beck’s brother George H. in Bridgeport in 1889. That leaves Adelaide; as of June 8, 1880, she was living in what was then called the Connecticut Industrial School for Girls[24] in Middletown – just south of Hartford.

The next time we see a Burns sister, Sarah Beck is being arrested in Perrin’s hotel in Derby in September 1890, charged with adultery with a man named Edward T. Sullivan.[25] John and Sarah Beck divorced the following January, with John awarded custody of 12-year-old Eva (presumably on grounds of “morality”),[26] though Sarah continued to use the surname Beck until she married Edward J. Fahey on December 20, 1899. At the time of the arrest, Sarah and John operated the “Ross House” in Milford – between Bridgeport and New Haven – while John ran the “club house” in Westville, a neighborhood on the western edge of New Haven.[27] These appear to be hotels with bars, as they required liquor licenses;[28] I find no evidence they were anything more than that.

Just four years later, however, John and Sarah – still divorced as far as I can tell – jointly operated the “Switch house” brothel in the Yalesville neighborhood of Wallingford,[29] then a “bagnio” in Norwich in 1897,[30] very likely with Adelaide.[31] These are the earliest public records of brothel ownership by a Burns sister I can find – were they following in the footsteps of their mother, building upon experience running hotels, or simply doing whatever it took to survive? Contemporary newspaper accounts of Addie Burns’ trial suggest there was also a brothel run by Sarah Burns/Beck in Bridgeport. The house run by “Sally Beck” at 29 Wall Street in that city, which was raided on June 16, 1894, could easily be this house.[32] However, a man named Joseph Hutton – also arrested that day – is alleged to be her husband, for which I find no evidence. That year was also the first time “Miss Addie Burns” is recorded by the New London city directory living at 5½ Bradley Street in New London, along with her husband Clarence H. Broley, which was renumbered 41 in 1905.

Which brings us to the daughter of Sarah and John Beck. On November 9, 1897, 18-year-old Eva Beck was accused by John Campbell of Commerce Street in Hartford “of taking $40 [~$1,322] out of his trunk…and when she denied it he struck her in the face, knocked her down and kicked her. Tuesday night he met her and beat her again.”[33] Campbell’s brutal assault resulted in two black eyes. This is the same Commerce Street on which “Sarah Burns” had been arrested 33 years earlier. On the following April 5, Eva Beck was arrested in Hartford and jailed for 15 days for “night-walking;” we learn from one newspaper account that her mother Sarah as a blonde.[34] One year later, 20-year-old Eva had her own “disorderly house” at 246 State Street – it was raided on May 18, 1899[35] – just west of the Connecticut River and only four blocks south from 253 Commerce Street.

As of 1899, then, the only female descendant of Isaac E. and Sarah J. Burns who did not operate a brothel was Evelyn – now married to George Beck, who operated a fruit business in Bridgeport before moving into the hotel business in Norwich and New London. I surmise, for now, that a combination of experience and necessity led Sarah Beck, Adelaide Burns and Eva Beck to choose this way to make a living.

**********

This brings us full circle back to Bradley Street. In the next essay, I address this street’s (misleading) reputation by closely examining geography, economics and demography.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] Ruddy, John J, 2000. Images of America: Reinventing New London. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, pg.13

[2] “Addie Burns Bonds Increased $3,000.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), January 23, 1909, pg. 5

[3] “ADDIE BURNS FREED BY STATE PAROLE BOARD.,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), July 6, 1918, pg. 8

[4] Curiously, Goodhart had defended Addie’s older sister Sarah – then known as Sally Beck and married to John Beck, her first of three husbands – in September 1890 against an adultery charge. “FORFEITED A $500 bOND.,” The Journal (Meriden, CT), September 30, 1890, pg. 8

[5] “MURDER IN THE FIRST DEGREE.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), January 7, 1909, pg. 7

[6] Using this online calculator.

[7] “New LONDON’S WATCHDOG OF THE TREASURY.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), February 6, 1909, pg. 9

[8] Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), January 9, 1909, pg. 9

[9] “Houses of ill fame raided by the police.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), March 19, 1909, pg. 7. One of the women arrested in Norwich was Viney Malady, former housekeeper and sometime prostitute at 41 Bradley Street.

[10] “Selecting jury for murder trial.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), January 30, 1909, pg. 7

[11] “WHAT MUNSEY HAS DONE FOR NEW LONDON,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), April 24, 1909, pg. 9

[12] In the previous three presidential elections (1900, 1904, 1908), Connecticut had voted about 5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole – the GOP had won all three elections – while it had a Republican governor for all but four years since 1878. Election data, as always, from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of US Presidential Elections.   

[13] “APPEAL WILL BE TAKEN TO SUPREME COURT.,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), February 2, 1909, pg. 5

[14] “Addie Burns’ Place Attached,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), February 1, 1909, pg. 1

[15] “APPEAL,” pg. 5

[16] 1907 New London city directory, pg. 336. Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011

[17] 1911 New London city directory, pg. 380

[18] Okrent, Daniel. 2010. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner: New York, NY, pg. 105.

[19]Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.

[20] The 1860 US Census suggests she was born in New York in 1839/40, while the 1870 US Census says Connecticut in 1835/36. Greenwich is just east of the New York/Connecticut state line, which may account for the confusion.

[21] His headstone in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Norwich lists no dates. His niece, Eva Beck Reardon, would be buried next to him in March 1910.

[22] “POLICE MATTERS,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), June 29, 1864, pg. 2

[23] By the same logic, Sarah J. Burns may simply have remarried between 1870 and 1880, new surname yet to be learned – though the housing of Adelaide in the Connecticut Industrial School for Girls still suggests otherwise to me.

[24] Sometimes written as “for Friendless Girls”

[25] “FORFEITED A $500 BOND.”

[26] “OF LOCAL INTEREST,” The Journal (Meriden, CT), January 15, 1891, pg. 5

[27] “MRS. BECK ON TRIAL.,” The Morning Journal-Courier (New Haven, CT), September 30, 1890, pg. 4; “THE CREDITORS AFTER HIM.,” The Morning Journal-Courier (New Haven, CT), August 14, 1890, pg. 3

[28] “STRATFORD,” The Newtown Bee (Newtown, CT), June 26, 1891, pg. 6. Curiously, when E. W. Kowing assumed control of the Ross House in August 1891, his house in Stratford was taken over by Fred Perrin of Derby – in whose hotel Edward Sullivan and Sarah Beck had been arrested the previous September. “STRATFORD,” The Newtown Bee (Newtown, CT), July 24, 1891, pg. 6

[29] “SWITCH HOUSE RAIDED,” The Journal (Meriden, CT), June 3, 1895, pg. 1

[30] “WALLINGFORD NEWS,” The Morning Journal-Courier (New Haven, CT), October 23, 1897, pg. 2

[31] On October 2, 34-year-old Adelaide Burns married 22-year-old Clarence Henry Broley in Norwich. Did they meet in the Burns brothel?

[32] “WALLINGFORD NEWS,” The Journal (Meriden, CT), January 16, 1894, pg. 1

[33] “Police Court Cases.,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), November 11, 1897, pg. 4. See also “Arrested For Assault.,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), November 10, 1897, pg. 6.

[34] “CITY AND VICINITY; HAPPENINGS AND INCIDENTS OF A DAY AND A NIGHT,” Record Journal (Meriden, CT), April 6, 1898, pg. 8. “A blonde woman, who said she kept a road house in Yalesville, represented herself as the mother of Eva, and wanted possession of the girl.”

[35] “Disorderly House Raided.,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), May 19, 1899, pg. 9

2 thoughts on “And for my next book…putting the trial of Adelaide “Addie” Burns in context

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