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BAG OF BONES by J. North Conway


The Sensational Grave Robbery of the Merchant Prince of Manhattan

by J. North Conway

Pub Date: May 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7627-7812-6
Publisher: Lyons Press

The final installment of the author’s true-crime trilogy about New York City in the Gilded Age.

Conway (The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America's First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective, 2010, etc.) tells the story of the life and death of “The Merchant Prince of Manhattan,” A.T. Stewart, the father of the American department store, who was, at the time of his death, the third richest man in the United States (behind William Astor Sr. and Cornelius Vanderbilt). A hard-working Irish immigrant, Stewart eventually grew his fortune to $40 million but was never accepted by New York's elite—despite two landmark retail outlets and his massive Italian marble mansion, “considered one of the most ornate and elaborate private homes in America.” Two years after his death in 1876, his body was stolen from the family crypt. "Not only did the grave robbing cause a national sensation,” writes Conway, “it also led to one of the most notoriously bungled police investigations in New York City's history.” Judge Henry Hilton, Stewart's friend, was directed to sell off Stewart's businesses, but he ran them into the ground within six years. Eventually Stewart’s wife exchanged $20,000 for a bag of bones she hoped were her husband’s. Hilton also impeded the police investigation, which never got off the ground, and may have committed fraud in the form of Cornelia’s will, which named him as a significant benefactor. In support of his story, Conway uses numerous headlines and portions of articles from newspapers of the era. The device is occasionally clunky and leads to a repetitive, though generally engrossing, narrative.

A quick read about a gruesome crime with a twist at the end—will appeal mostly to die-hard fans of historical true crime.