Scarlet Letter

A forgotten murder reveals our shifting sexual ethics.

The Urban Dictionary defines the word slut as “a woman with the morals of a man,” yet there is no male equivalent for the term. Boys will be boys but girls, apparently, can only be whores, a toxic double standard that is sadly enjoying a renaissance in a new age of cyber bullying. Scarlet letters are now branded with zeros and ones, and anyone looking to do a little slut-shaming has myriad online venues in which to do it, including female-initiated Twitter threads such as #stopactinglikewhores.

Given the rise of digital humiliation, any discussion of society’s skewed perceptions of male and female sexuality is timely, but Monda Halpern’s latest contribution to the discourse suggests it is also timeless. In Alice in Shandehland: Scandal and Scorn in the Edelson/Horwitz Murder Case, Halpern—a professor of women’s and Jewish history at Western University—uses a historic homicide trial to explore culturally specific issues of gender, sexuality and class.

On the evening of November 24, 1931, three prominent members of Ottawa’s Jewish community met in a downtown jewellery store. Ben Edelson, the store’s proprietor, confronted his wife, Alice, and her long-time lover, Jack Horwitz, about their affair. Accusations flew, a gun was drawn and Horwitz was mortally wounded. Ben Edelson was charged with his murder but, as Halpern contends, it was his adulterous wife who stood trial in the court of public opinion.

The book is categorized as Jewish studies and true crime, although fans of the latter genre will likely be disappointed. The emphasis here is on academic argument, not story telling. Within the first four pages, the identities of the victim and killer are revealed, as is the outcome of the criminal trial, destroying any pretence of mystery or suspense. While a crime serves as the book’s illustrative example, it is misleading to suggest that Alice in Shandehland belongs on the same shelf as Helter Skelter or In Cold Blood.

Academics may also take exception to the book. Halpern eschews “conditional terms such as ‘arguably,’ ‘maybe,’ and ‘perhaps,’” claiming such words “can be unsettling and irritating for the reader.” On the contrary, such terms are mandatory, as they flag an author’s opinion masquerading as fact. Halpern believes such words are unnecessary because “the reader will trust in the knowledge and integrity of the author,” asking for the reader’s trust, but not reciprocating it.

Halpern concedes she “had to rely, to some extent, on conjecture,” although that is an understatement. In Alice in Shandehland, the argument rests on speculation and generalizations. The case study raises serious questions regarding anti-Semitism and the portrayal of Jews in the mainstream media, yet the text comes dangerously close to perpetuating certain stereotypes. The problem is the author’s treatment of the “Ottawa Jews” as a single-minded entity. Repeated ­references to “the Jewish community”—five times on one page alone—ascribe a uniform opinion to its diverse membership based on the comments of an isolated few. Halpern paints with a broad brush, as evidenced by phrases such as “like most middle-class Jewish women” or “like many Jewish seniors.” Argument by analogy is only as strong as the underlying premise, and since Jewish women and seniors are not unified predictable organisms, such debate rings hollow. Other shopworn Semitic narratives abound, including “attempting to obscure a tragedy and even erase it from memory is not a strategy emblematic of the Jews.”

Credible sources are equally problematic. Factual content is drawn from newspaper accounts of the trial. These reports supposedly featured “verbatim court testimony”; yet there are no extant trial transcripts with which to compare, calling the assertion into question. Halpern also relies heavily on interviews she conducted with selected members of Ottawa’s Jewish community, an arguably biased sample that includes relatives of the victim and witnesses too young to recall the event first-hand.

The danger inherent in using a case study to illustrate a point is that it must support the argument being advanced. In the case presented here, the opposite occurs. There is little compelling evidence to support the contention that Alice Edelson was publicly shamed or that she suffered greater indignities than her murderous husband. Alice was absent from the courthouse during the trial, and was barely mentioned in the media accounts, yet Halpern reads much into that absence. Furthermore, this supposed social pariah remained happily married to her husband after his acquittal, living and actively participating in the community that allegedly shunned her.

The only documentation supporting the contention is “a lone, unidentified Yiddish article” that disparages Alice as “the most pitiful figure in the tragic triangle.” Without the article’s author, date or attribution, it is hard to give it any credence. In the end, the notion that Alice was publicly shamed seems to exist solely in the mind of the author, which is the definition of fiction, rather than solid scholarship.

The same can be said for the book’s secondary thesis that Ben Edelson was acquitted because the jury followed “the unwritten law … that an incensed husband … could justifiably kill a man who sexually seduced his female kin.” To be fair, the argument is one of inference, but persuasive debate still requires evidence to support speculation. The presentation of Edelson’s murder trial is so truncated and superficial that it is impossible to judge whether he was acquitted because of the unwritten rule, or because of the forensic evidence, or because of his defence lawyer’s “Brilliant, Effective Address.” That Halpern believes it was the unwritten law does not make it so; there is still the burden of proof to be met. Readers, like jurors, must see the full evidence in order to reach informed conclusions.

What the book successfully illustrates is what happens when the worlds of inductive and deductive reasoning collide. The social sciences, including history and Jewish studies, often extrapolate larger conclusions from anecdotes and individual witness statements, while the medicolegal disciplines embrace physical evidence and replicable testing derived from large sample populations. Historians may take informant statements at face value, but the forensic sciences were developed because witness testament is notoriously unreliable. Social scientists wishing to draw examples from the legal realm must play by its rules or risk having their evidence and arguments appear flimsy by ­comparison.

Case in point: the author’s contention that Edelson’s lawyer, Moses Doctor, committed suicide. Halpern bases her assertion on family lore recounted by the lawyer’s distant descendants. Out of curiosity, I retrieved Doctor’s death certification from the Archive of Ontario (RG80-8, 010110-1934, MS 935/483)—a reference not cited by Halpern. It indicates his death was natural, the result of heart failure. Overlooking credible documentation in favour of gossip or hearsay is not best practice in any discipline. At the very least, both sources should have been presented, allowing the reader to decide which to trust.

Speculation is not proof, and one anonymous newspaper quote is not a public scandal. In the end, the only shame evidenced in Alice in Shandehland is the opportunity squandered on a poorly chosen case study.