The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 2

We have here been examining the strange death in 1914 of Lulu Bailey of Hempstead, N.Y.

“The centre of every gaze,” began the report in The Times on July 4, “in a crowd that packed the courtroom of Coroner Corodon Norton” was on Florence Carman, the wife of Dr. Edwin Carman. It was in his home office, of course, that Mrs. Bailey met her untimely end on an otherwise pleasant summer evening a few days before.

The Bailey murder had become the talk of the town. Wild rumors about the shooting, about Dr. Carman’s illicit love life, about a mysterious “woman in white,” about even the internal organs of the deceased, were in constant motion around town. By the time the coroner called to order his inquest, the airless courtroom — its only window was kept shut — was a sultry mob scene of smug cops, mealy reporters and local busybodies. The resulting heat and tension eventually caused Mrs. Carman to go all woozy and led the authorities to start booting folks from the gallery.

Outside in the July sunshine, there were growing rumbles that the police and the coroner had made a hash of the investigation, in part because there was no suspect and the murder weapon had not been found; but mostly because the doctor and most of the authorities were cozy members of the nearby Elks lodge. Mr. Norton’s inquest was supposed to be the first cannon shot across the bow of such discontent.

Dr. Carman at inquest  (LOC)

Dr. Carman at the inquest. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The hearing’s climax came late in the afternoon. A witness, a farmer named George Golder, had told the police he had seen a “woman in white” in the office immediately before the crime. Scuttlebutt was that the mystery woman was, in fact, Mrs. Carman herself. This was a potential blockbuster: She had told the police she was in her room at the time of the shooting, and said several times that she had never seen the victim, “dead or alive.”

The coroner, in a bit of stagecraft worthy of an episode of “Perry Mason,” arranged for Mrs. Carman and her sister to enter the back of the courtroom to see if Mr. Golder could tell Mrs. Carman from a sack of potatoes.

“There was a breathless silence, as the crowd leaned forward to catch the words that should identify the ‘woman in white.’”

Mr. Golder didn’t flinch. He fingered Mrs. Carman without hesitation.

For Mrs. Carman’s part, having apparently been caught in a bold lie, she didn’t flinch either. She left the courtroom without saying a word.
She maintained that cool and collected demeanor all the way to the end.

Through her indictment — which surprised observers because it was for murder. Through countless leads and blind alleys, which reporters trampled one another to follow every day in the papers (including a woman in Buffalo who assured everyone she was the murderer — just before killing herself). Through months spent in the county jail, albeit in special quarters decorated with geegaws from the Carmans’ luxurious home.

Mrs. Carman stayed calm through it all, even after her longtime maid, who had hewed to the family line, finally broke down and told the police that she had seen a determined Mrs. Carman go out the back door moments before the fatal shot. And moments later come back in, declaring, “I shot him!”

Her calm seemed to ooze from every pore, and was trumpeted on every newsstand when the trial began in October.


Carman jury  (LOC)

The first trial’s jury. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The whole grim story was recounted in tedious detail, and the jury deadlocked over two days. Finally, jurors told the judge it was no use. They could not agree.

The air seemed to rush out of the courtroom. The prosecutors were ashen. The defendant was stunned. When the judge finally dismissed the jury, Mrs. Carman began to cry. She was acquitted, but “disappointed,” she said.

As you might have guessed, she quickly rallied. While the district attorney dithered, Mrs. Carman posted $25,000 bail and went for a ride in the country. She had a big meal. She received parties of visitors. She resigned her membership in the local suffrage club. And she boldly challenged the authorities to try again.

Even as her husband’s car puttered along the ruts of rural New Jersey, the district attorney obliged her. The husband of the victim, William B. Bailey, told reporters that he and his in-laws would “do anything in our power to convict this woman.”

In May, they reconvened for a morbid reprise.

Perhaps the only time Mrs. Carman ever lost her composure, through lurid accusations, through tedious court hearings, most of all through rumors of her husband’s infidelity, was on the last day of testimony at the second trial.

Prosecutors asked her if she had ever watched her husband through the window Mrs. Bailey had been shot from. Of course, Mrs. Carman had, when she confronted her husband after he kissed a nurse. But in the courtroom, in the crush of a humid spring afternoon, she faltered.

She asked, “Which time?”

The prosecutor pounced. “Did you look twice?” he shouted.

By now, everyone in the room could see that Mrs. Carman was trembling. All day her answers had been clear and sharp. Now she was stammering.

Was she really going to admit that she had done it?

Improbably, she blurted: “Believe me, if I had done it, I would never have gone to the same window!”

For whatever reason, the prosecutor let her up off the mat. Maybe he thought she had said enough. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. In any case, acquittal, and a robust applause from the courtroom gallery, quickly followed. The jury this time was out for not much more than an hour.

Seven months earlier, Mrs. Carman had been crying in the courtroom. Now she was denying rumors that she planned to make a tour of the vaudeville circuit.

And almost a year and two murder trials later, Long Island was still no closer to understanding the strange death of Lulu Bailey.