By now, many people have become fascinated with the Gilded Age -- the period in the late 1800s when industrialization led to rapid economic growth and opulent riches for business magnates. Leading that list were the Vanderbilts, who made their fortune in transportation -- steamboats and railroads.
But Kay Adams of Fayetteville and Nancy Pennington Markey of Newport, R.I., found themselves completely sucked in by another tale of the time, a less golden moment in the Gilded Age.
The true story of Benjamin Burton's death and the lives of the infamous Dorsey sisters has all the makings of a compelling novel -- the career ambitions of two Black men in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation, an advantageous marriage, betrayal in a prominent family, imprisonment.
But most of all is the central question of whether Burton's death was a suicide or murder.
It has been divisive for Newport in the century since, due not to race and class issues, but because half of folks in town thought it was murder and the other half thought it was suicide, says author and attorney Nancy Markey. Even after all this time, the official record hasn't been corrected to what Markey and Adams found in the historical evidence and research they poured through.
When Adams convinced Markey that the story she found needed to be a book, what motivated her most of all in writing a narrative version was the hope that it would expose the truth once and for all.
Their true tale told in literary style resulted in publication for Narratively and the Smithsonian Magazine, and the pair of authors sold their rights to the story. Whether it will become a show, a movie, or something else is yet to be determined, but Markey sees more public interest in the tale already.
She and Adams will discuss Burton and the Dorseys at the Fayetteville Public Library on April 30.
THE REAL-LIFE PEOPLE
Allen Dorsey was not only on track to become one of the first Black surgeons in the U.S. in the 1880s, only 20 years after the Civil War, he was highly educated, musically gifted and incredibly charismatic.
"Allen was singular in his time -- brilliant and talented," Markey says. "He was on this trajectory and path, well-known and successful, and could maybe change the world."
He'd be a household name had he not murdered his father-in-law, she and Adams agree.
Dorsey was attending medical school at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Medical School when he ran out of money and didn't want anyone to find out. He thought no one would be the wiser about his financial troubles since he was marrying Maria Burton in June 1885. Benjamin Burton, his father-in-law, was one of the wealthiest Black men in Rhode Island. The money from the dowry would help pay the final year's tuition by the time it was due in October.
But in the ensuing summer, as Allen lived with Benjamin Burton and his daughters, he declined to take the sorts of work in hotels nearby that he ordinarily might have. Burton grew disgusted with Dorsey's perceived laziness and as a result didn't give him the promised money.
Dorsey's new wife Maria was caught in between, trying to convince her father to pay the dowry. She also said something to Dorsey that made him think there was a large insurance policy on her father.
Once the patriarch was found dead in the family's kitchen, a bullet to the head and another to the chest, a bit of chewed bread still in his mouth, the questions began. Dorsey claimed to be ill in bed upstairs. Maria claimed he shot himself.
The divisiveness starts with enormous public shock at the accusation that Allen Dorsey could be responsible for killing Benjamin Burton.
"Nobody could believe he could kill anyone," Markey says. In court, Dorsey had lots of recommendations and character references.
"But we do learn later that he was a nefarious individual," Kay Adams says. "While he was successful, he had strong sociopathic traits that become evident."
Markey's not sure if the shooting was a result of ambition, pride, greed or some other factor, but she was drawn to the plain fact that if Dorsey, his wife and her sister hadn't confessed, they would have gotten away with murder.
"And they very nearly did," Adams says. "There's still a huge amount of people who think they're not guilty."
Even the two attorneys who battle it out in the courtroom have reputations that make their own dynamic a David-and-Goliath affair, making the story interesting for its many threads and sub-plots.
Markey and Adams spent 18 months researching the facts before they committed any words to paper, and the longer they study the case, the more information they find. It's convinced Adams that it could easily be a mini-series.
Nancy Markey and Kay Adams met as fifth-graders at Root Elementary School in Fayetteville and have remained good friends ever since. They were on the same debate team in high school and then were sorority sisters at the University of Arkansas. They both lived in Connecticut for a time, and during that phase Adams introduced Markey to her husband. Even as their life paths took them physically far apart, they stayed close.
Markey was a flight attendant for 10 years before earning her law degree and going to practice primarily public sector labor law, which she still does. Adams had a career in residential lending, and before her retirement six years ago was senior vice president for a local lender.
During the pandemic, Markey was grieving the death of her father and went to visit Adams. While there, she showed her an article about Benjamin Burton.
"She asked me, 'Would this make a good story?' and I told her, 'I think it's a great book,'" Adams says. "While it was a very scandalous story at the time, it was published nationwide in newspapers and (now) nobody talks about it. The murder victim was a predominant citizen of his time."
The article referenced the Dorsey sisters, which launched the friends into the research process that led them to Allen Dorsey. Aside from coverage of who went to jail and a couple articles when one of them was pardoned, the rest was lost to history. It wasn't even clear from those initial news reports that the family was African American, something else they found curious.
"I knew I couldn't write a creative book; my strength is nonfiction," Markey says. "But Nancy is a creative force. I can write a factual sentence. She can bring it to life with the turn of a phrase."
The friends first wrote a historical fiction novel together, but when they saw a contest announced by Narratively, they knew they would be searching for a true crime story. Markey had entered contests with them before and remained on their email list, which is how they learned of the opportunity.
"We thought we'd put it together and see if it sticks," Adams says. She knew Nancy had the chops for it, with her degree in history and her experience researching Newport. "She found the story ... (and) I got sucked into that pretty easily."
They saw Narratively's call for stories a week before it was due, and the main challenge was whittling the story from 85,000 words down to 3,000.
"It was a very complicated tale, very detailed," Markey says. "I said, 'Why don't we write -- it has to be nonfiction, we have to prove everything you say -- write a 3,000 word version, gutting the story (leaving just) the backbone."
Luckily when the editor responded, he asked that it be fleshed out more, basically doubling the length of the contest prompt. Even still it only touches the surface of the intricate story.
A GOOD MATCH
While writing the Burton story together in the pandemic, Nancy and Kay drove the distance to be together for writing. They feel more productive when they're face-to-face, though they're not against passing Google Docs back and forth in a pinch.
Based on the very positive feedback they received, the two are still writing long-form narratives from other stories of Newport in the Gilded Age. They plan to release an anthology, 10 of these other tales, using the same formatting that they did for the Smithsonian, where everything can be verified through their research. Readers can then read the original documents themselves through hyperlinks in the story.
"There's a readership out there," Adams says. "We stumbled onto stories and we dig into them. ...When we get going, we feed each other's enthusiasm."
Now they fly to each other or meet in a separate destination, such as a recent writing trip they took to Belize.
"We don't go to Newport to see the beach," Adams says. "We start at 7 a.m. and crank (it out) all day long. ... then we give assignments and work on things on our own (to review) for the next trip."
In these intensive writing retreats, the friends will go back and forth over a word. They have the computer read it aloud to them as they turn it over and over in their minds, and they're sure that for this reason a neighbor or two have surely thought they were a little crazy. But with their shared perfectionist tendencies, it's just part of the creative process for them.
For now, the authors have been told that a production company has interest in the Burton tale. Though anything's possible at this point, if it turns into a movie, they would be happy.
"We'd love it" if it did, Adams says. "In many ways, it's like sending your kid to college. They're on their own now, and we hope that at some point (the company) sees the same value in it that we did."
But the larger hope is for truth to prevail.
"We'll never get rich off of it, but it was important that the story got told," Markey says. "Newport town hall ... hasn't corrected the record. It bothered me that they didn't ... and that it perpetuates the incorrect information; back then to kill yourself was taboo."
The original goal was to get it on shelves in local libraries, and already the reach has extended further than that. But in the meantime a very real reward is being reaped.
"We enjoy digging up untold stories and giving a glimpse into the life and time period," Adams says. "To me, the joy is getting someone to read it. Like 'Oh wow, I never knew about this.'"
You can find “A Gilded Age Tale of Murder and Madness” on Narratively.com, where an audio version is also available. It’s also published in the Smithsonian Magazine:
The co-authors completed a historical fiction novel based on the story and now they are in the process of writing an anthology of long-form narratives highlighting little-known crimes that occurred in Newport, R.I., during the Gilded Age.