Essays, Portfolio

Imagining History through Fiction – The Interpretation of Murder

SPOILER WARNING: I don’t feel like the following contains any major spoilers, but proceed at your own risk anyway.
Source: The Atlantic
There were a few major things that happened in 1909 New York. 1909 was the year when there was the 300th year anniversary of the discovery of the Hudson River, the completion of flight trials for a U.S. Army contract by the Wright Brothers (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, n.d.), and protests by female workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to fight for better wages, working conditions and hours (Global Nonviolent Action Database, n.d.). 1909 was also the year that Sigmund Freud visited New York to deliver lectures at Clark University (Clark University, n.d.). That was Freud’s first and final visit to America. He later commented that he regretted the visit. Jed Rubenfeld took this detail to create a story that “explains” Freud’s distaste for America (Rubenfeld, n.d.).
Set in the short period after the 1890s economic depression, The Interpretation of Murder depicts society amidst the economic and social shift towards an exploitative paradigm. The Balmoral, a fictional apartment building in New York where a lot of the story takes place, was built on the notion that the wealthy could be persuaded to live in apartments rather than houses if the apartments were luxurious enough. These apartments had a range of 8 to 14 bedrooms each and cost $495 a month. That is approximately $12,600 in today’s money (according to this Inflation Calculator).
 There was also controversy surrounding the building and advertisement of The Balmoral. Mr George Banwell, the owner of The Balmoral, had received an advance of $6 million from his investors and appeared to have embezzled none of that money. It all went to a construction firm, which he owned, when it only cost $4.2 million in reality. The building was also falsely advertised to only have a limited number of apartments left available. That increased its allure and made people scramble to secure those apartments. This is an example of unregulated capitalism that progressive reformers in the twentieth century were fighting to gain governmental control over (Rodgers, n.d.).
The book also portrays a cultural shift where a bad reputation was more damaging to business owners than legal incrimination. This is shown in the scene where Coroner Hugel threatened to leak Banwell’s offenses to the press. This was because Banwell refused to follow his terms when he threatened to report him to the judge. This implies that he was confident that the charges would affect him less than negative press would. This was likely the case in real-life 1900 USA.
The pioneers in the reorganization of social life on more deliberate and systematic lines were the architects of the modern business corporation. In the aftermath of the 1890s depression, they undertook to supplant the unstable partnership and credit systems of the past with the forms of the modern corporation: broadly capitalized, more intensely managed, and national in scope and market. The reorganization of Andrew Carnegie’s iron and steel empire by the J. P. Morgan banking house into the mammoth US Steel Corporation in 1901 was a sign of the trends to come. By the 1920s, corporate giants in production, communications, finance, life insurance, and entertainment dominated the economy; the two hundred largest corporations in 1929 owned nearly half the nation’s total corporate wealth.
— Daniel T. Rodgers
The central events in the novel take place against the backdrop of the seeds of corruption beginning to sprout in New York. The book portrays Mayor McClellan as an elected official who, in spite of his party’s association with an organisation that was largely viewed as corrupt, fought an uphill battle against corruption. He chose that stance in spite of the risk of losing the subsequent election. The party that he was in was the Democratic Party and the organisation they associated with was Tammany Hall.

Tammany Hall was a political organisation that had strong control over New York’s Democratic Party in the 1800s. The organisation was also popular with immigrants due to their consistent efforts in providing aid to them. This was a stark contrast to the way the other parties such as the Whig Party treated immigrants as “other”. These immigrants were granted the right to vote, and voted for the Democratic Party. It is unclear whether or not Tammany Hall was as corrupt as it was portrayed to be in the media and by the opposition parties (Masket, 2014). In the book however, Mayor McClellan was hated by (fictional) Tammany Hall due to his “incorruptibility”. This suggests that, at least in the context of the book, Tammany Hall was considered corrupt and a liability to the Democratic Party.

Another thing that is interesting about The Interpretation of Murder is its portrayal of women that does not align with the “damsel in distress” archetype that women in the past were typically portrayed as. Nora Acton is one of the characters that exemplifies this difference. She openly expressed her distaste for Shakespeare, primarily for his portrayal of women. She accuses a man who is fond of Hamlet for adoring Ophelia “only for her docility”. She publicly demands a man to stop abusing a horse. She insists on going to college against her mother’s wishes. She’s unafraid of challenging Dr Stratham Younger’s views and analyses, and she holds on to her truth — that she was sexually assaulted and harassed — in spite of her own father’s efforts to convince her otherwise. When she was in a bind, she used her seemingly innocent charms to gain the upper hand. For all intents and purposes, Nora Acton is a strong female character.

This is noteworthy because 1909 was also the year when female workers protested the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory for its poor working conditions. After enduring problems such as the unsanitary work environment, long working hours and poor wages, the women finally gathered to strike. It was only five months later that they accepted the terms offered by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (Global Nonviolent Action Database, n.d.). These women stood up against a system that tried to keep them down, and they made many sacrifices and compromises that helped shaped our understanding of women’s rights today. While Nora Acton may not have shown the same courage as the participants of the protest, she is a fair representation of how the ways society viewed women were drastically changing in that time.

In today’s political climate, it is just too easy to fall into the trap of viewing the past as either especially great or especially terrible. Both stances are highly subjective. A person of a strict moral code could view the past as the prime of humanity with it’s rules regarding society and social interactions, while a person with a more flexible moral code could view the past as a stain in human history — or vice versa. The Interpretation of Murder does a good job of portraying some of the arguably terrible parts of the past that was filled with corruption and scandal. At the same time, one doesn’t have to look far to realise that these things still exist today. When imagining history, it’s important to remember that context is everything.

 If you would like to see more photographs and descriptions of 1900 New York, I found this amazing blog that I think you should visit: 


Clark University. (n.d.). The Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung lectures at Clark University. Retrieved from Clark University:

Global Nonviolent Action Database. (n.d.). Triangle Shirtwaist Factory women strike, win better wages and hours, New York, 1909. Retrieved from Global Nonviolent Action Database:

Global Nonviolent Action Database. (n.d.). Triangle Shirtwaist Factory women strike, win better wages and hours, New York, 1909. Retrieved from Global Nonviolent Action Database:

Masket, S. (2014, December 16). When party machines turned immigrants into citizens and voters. Retrieved from The Washington Post:

Rodgers, D. T. (n.d.). The Progressive Era to the New Era, 1900-1929. Retrieved from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History:

Rubenfeld, J. (n.d.). Interpretation of Murder – The Freud Murder Thriller. Retrieved from The Interpretation of Murder:

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (n.d.). Demonstrations in Europe. Retrieved from Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum:


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