Real history figures play key parts in the Belle Bannon mystery-thriller series, and from time to time the blog will offer a vignette of one such character who will either directly or sometimes posthumously provide key clues to Belle as she attempts to solve a mystery and save the day.
Maria Hovenden Halpin
The Sundance Revenge (Belle Bannon book 1)
Maria Hovendon, born in 1838, was the daughter of a Brooklyn cop. She grew to just under five foot eight inches, very tall and statuesque for a woman of her era. She had blue eyes, a thin waist and a “womanly figure.” As a young woman she married Frederick Halpin,Jr., a bookbinder, and had two children: Freddie, born in 1863, and Ada in 1865.
Frederick contacted tuberculosis (then called consumption), a disease with an 80 per cent mortality rate. He died in 1870 leaving Maria, at thirty years old, with two children under seven. She worked as a saleslady at the Iron Palace, a New York City department store. Less than a year later, Maria was offered an opportunity to leave New York and assume a more prestigious position at a new store opening in Buffalo, then the fourth largest city in the country. She temporarily left her daughter with her late husband’s family and took Freddie to Buffalo. There she flourished in her new position. Her fluency in French and her statuesque beauty made her very popular with the social set. She joined St. John’s Episcopal Church, and her social standing grew.
Certain rules of grieving prevailed, and Maria followed them to the letter. For an extended period of the a widow not only had to wear black, but also a veil. After an appropriate time passed, Maria graduated to the second stage—no veil, but dark colored clothing containing elements of black.
Some time later, a mutual friend introduced her to Grover Cleveland, then the Sheriff of Erie County, and Cleveland subsequently made his desires know to court her. She checked with her friends at the church who assured her that Cleveland was a good, honorable man.
On December 15, 1873, Maria still lived with her son, Freddie, at a rooming house on Swan Street. That evening she left her residence and walked down Swan Street on her way to a birthday party. She ran into Cleveland who lived only a few blocks away. Cleveland invited her to dinner. She initially refused and explained that she was expected at the party. Cleveland, by all accounts a charming man, persuaded her to join him, and the had an enjoyable dinner at the Ocean Dining hall, a well-known restaurant featuring great seafood, steaks and an extensive wine list.
Cleveland walked her back to her room, and after a chaste kiss, according to Maria, suddenly grabbed her, threw her on the bed, and “had his way with her.” When she threatened to go to the police, he threatened to ruin her. She swore never to see the man again.
That changed two months later when she found out she was pregnant. Cleveland confided to a minister that the encounter was consensual, and he wasn’t sure he was the father as Maria had been having many relations with other men, a charge Maria vehemently denied. Maria had to leave her job. Cleveland offered a bare stipend to help out. On September 14, 1874, Maria gave birth to a baby boy at Buffalo’s only hospital for unwed mothers. The doctor who delivered the child was a friend of Cleveland’s, Dr. James King. She named the child Oscar.
Fearful that the event could ruin his political career, Cleveland arranged with Dr. King to declare Maria insane. King and two other men ripped the child from Maria’s arms, and sent her to an asylum. King ultimately adopted the baby and changed its name to his own. (The child would later grow to become a prestigious obstetrician in Buffalo.)
When Cleveland ran for president, his opponent found out about Maria and the child, and tried to use the rape allegations against Cleveland. Cleveland countered by paining Maria as a lunatic, a drunk and a whore. Cleveland won the election. Maria later left Buffalo, disgraced and heartbroken. She subsequently remarried, but the shame of the events in Buffalo followed her wherever she went.
She died on February 6, 1902 in Rochester, New York. Her last words allegedly were: “Let everything be quiet. Let me rest.”
In The Sundance Revenge Maria left a diary that Belle ultimately discovers and leads her to a key clue as to who is responsible for a string of murders during the Sundance Film Festival.
Can you imaging what would’ve happened today in a #metoo environment?
A principal source of my research into Maria’s life came from Charles Lachman’s book, A Secret Life: The Lies and scandals of President Grover Cleveland (Skyhorse, 2011). Lachman’s book, while non-fiction, reads like a thriller, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland.