A new book by acclaimed Western University historian Monda Halpern explores a sensational 83-year old murder trial in Ottawa in which a wife’s sexual misconduct was the object of greater scorn than the homicide committed by her husband.
Alice in Shandehland, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, is a 308-page book that reconstructs a long-silenced murder case in Jewish Ottawa. When Halpern first heard about it, she was immediately hooked as shootings and murder trials are rare occurrences in Jewish communities. She was also drawn to the tragic love triangle story as a timeless theme.
“The infamous 1932 Edelson/Horwitz murder trial exposes the desire, danger, and despair of both adultery and marriage, all unfolding before the prying eyes of a tight-knit community,” says Halpern, a history professor at Western’s Faculty of Social Science. “Alice in Shandehland reveals serious tensions around ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class, and explores the divergent reputations of Ben and Alice Edelson within an ambitious Jewish community and within a dominant culture that embraced male success and valour during the emasculating 1930s.”
Prominent Ottawa jeweller Ben Edelson and his wife Alice were married for two decades and had seven children, but for years Alice had been having an affair with the married Jack Horwitz. On November 24, 1932, the Edelsons and Horwitz met at Edelson Jewellers to “settle the thing.” Words flew, a brawl erupted, and Horwitz was shot and killed. The tragedy marked the start of a sensational legal case that captured Ottawa headlines, with Ben Edelson facing the death penalty.
Through a detailed examination of newspaper coverage, interviews with family and community members, and evocative archival photographs, Halpern contends that despite his crime, Ben was the object of far less contempt than his adulterous wife whose shandeh – Yiddish for ‘shame’ or ‘disgrace’ – seemed indefensible. While Alice endured the censure of both the Jewish community and the courtroom, Ben’s middle-class respectability and the betrayal he suffered earned him favoured standing and, ultimately, legal exoneration.
“We still often find that a woman’s sexual reputation is on trial in cases that seek to justify or excuse the bad behaviour of men,” says Halpern. “And the middle-class respectability of those men goes a long way to help their cause. Surprisingly, anti-Semitism was not a direct factor in the case, which reminds us that the biases we might expect to see may not be there at all.”
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