Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mrs. Norr, I Presume?



Some of the newspaper reports stated that she wore her wedding finery; others that she was draped in a black silk shawl. She definitely had new shoes. But what a shock to see one end of a length of rubber tubing in her mouth with the other end attached to a gas jet.

Gas was the means by which many a person took his life during the late 19th century, and the graphic details often appeared in big city newspapers.  Most of the time, the stories were about men: “He had suffered losses. . .” or “Recently he had a reversal of fortune. . .” or, as my friend Mark speculates, many suicides were by gay men who couldn’t go on in the closet or faced unrequited love.

Twenty-one year old Olga Norr killed herself in September 1897 because she could not bear to live without her husband, William, who had died one month earlier.

Newspaper Row, located across from City Hall, around 1900;
from left to right: The World Building, the Tribune Building,
and The Times Building (foreground)

A well-known journalist who wrote for the New York Sun and New York World, specializing in baseball and other sporting news, William Norr’s death from typhoid received a paragraph in the papers. But Olga’s lurid story fit better with the sensationalism of the day.

The family told a convoluted tale.

After William’s death, Olga moved in with his mother on St. Mark’s Place. But she refused to give up the couple’s apartment on East Thirteenth Street, and spent every day there caressing an urn that contained William’s ashes. She intimated to her brother-in-law that she would like to join her husband, which alarmed him. However, she also went shopping with her sister-in-law and appeared to be in a jolly mood, so no one worried too much.

They didn’t realize that Olga’s happy manner was related to her plan to join William.

One day, she secretly bought a cemetery plot, said good-bye to everyone and set off for East Thirteenth Street.

When the police busted the door down, they found Olga on the bed with the urn and a bundle of love letters. Forgive me for doing this and bringing disgrace on you all, but I find it impossible to live without Billy, she wrote in a farewell note.

She left instructions for her own body to be cremated and her ashes mixed with those of William. They were buried in a Beaux-Arts columbarium in Queens. It’s not clear what became of the cemetery plot.

After William and Olga were safely in the columbarium, the mother decided to speak to a reporter from the New York Journal.

It turned out that after William’s death, Olga and her late husband’s family were gathered in the parlor on Thirteenth Street, grieving over his body. The doorbell rang and the mother went to the door. A woman in black stood outside.

“Don’t you know me? I’m Bella, Billy’s wife, and I want to look on his face now that he’s dead.”

The mother shrieked. She wanted only to protect Olga from this horrible woman.

“Oh Bella. Please go away. We thought you were dead. I never harmed you!”

During the encounter, Olga caught sight of Bella in the hallway. “Who is that dreadful creature?” she screamed. “What right has she to look upon his face?”

Olga seized a pistol from her wardrobe and brandished it. The brothers-in-law took it away from her but left it in the apartment. Not too smart.

That afternoon, Olga tried to fling herself off the roof.

So what was the story with Bella? The mother confided that when Billy was younger he took up with Bella, an unsavory person. He wished to bring her home to live with the family. The mother refused, but Billy had a persuasive way about him. Ultimately, Bella lived in her house for about one year. Finally, the mother said they had to go.

Years later, she read that Bella had committed suicide using belladonna. William’s mother assumed finality. After a time, William introduced Olga as his wife, and the family loved her. Now here is Bella Norr, knocking at the door. She told a reporter:

I did not know of his whereabouts until I read of his death in the paper. I did not know there was another wife until I read of this person in the paper. I went to the house to make my claim that I am his wife and want any property he may have had.

When the reporter told Bella Norr that her appearance may have been the cause of Olga Norr’s suicide, she laughed and said, ‘Well I’m his wife, and I’m going to let people know it, and if there’s any property it belongs to me.’”

Most assuredly, William Norr left nothing behind.

He was remembered for a series of sketches of Chinatown which he wrote for editor Charles Dana of The Sun. Apparently, Dana loved Norr’s stories so much that he urged him to publish a book, Stories of Chinatown: Sketches from Life in the Chinese Colony of Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets.

Pell Street, Chinatown, around 1900

When it appeared in 1892, critics noted that Norr had immersed himself deep in the life of Chinatown in order to write the book. In the introduction, Norr himself suggests that he was a regular opium user.

Bizarrely, one of the stories, “’Round the Opium Lamp,” ends with a woman killing herself with gas after her boyfriend has been sentenced to prison.
  
*For more about Chinatown circa 1890, see these posts: March 8 + January 25, 2017

1 comment:

  1. Oh my God, I love this. There are so many treasures in the newspaper archives. Millions of screenplays!
    Oddly, I just posted my play about my grandfather's suicide in a site to site for unknown plays to be found. I don't know if I ever sent it to you, but I will

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