"Using a Dollhouse to Reconstruct a Murder, 77 Years Later"
By James Barron
Cynthia von Buhler figured the simplest way to make sense of a Depression-era murder that intrigued her was to reconstruct the crime scene.
She wanted to be able to look at it from every angle, to manipulate the lamp post on the corner or the sleek sedan parked at the curb. She hoped that recreating everything in minute detail would help her understand why the trigger had been pulled, not once but twice — and whether the racketeer known as Dutch Schultz was somehow behind the deed.
So, she built a dollhouse. The victim’s bakery is on one level, his bar on another and his blood-spattered body in the street outside. All of it was reduced to the scale of a three-and-a-half-foot-high structure with a little neon sign that says “open.”
The victim, Frank Spano, was shot on March 14, 1935. A newspaper article that misspelled his last name as Stano said there were two witnesses, both teenagers: Mr. Spano’s son, Dominick, and a boy whose father was taken into custody.
Ms. von Buhler, an artist and performer who has written and illustrated several children’s books, has spent thousands of hours researching the shooting and what prompted it. There is a deep-seated reason for her fascination with this case: “Frank Spano was my grandfather.”
Ms. von Buhler maintains that Dutch Schultz — real name Arthur Flegenheimer — figured in the story in several ways. She said he had owned a speakeasy near her grandfather’s bar and had bootlegged liquor during Prohibition, as had her grandfather. She also suspected that the gunman, John Guerrieri, a neighbor of her grandfather’s, was Mr. Flegenheimer’s barber.
Mr. Guerrieri admitted to shooting Mr. Spano, but the charges were dismissed a month later. Ms. von Buhler said Hulon Capshaw, the city magistrate who signed the dismissal papers, also had ties to Mr. Flegenheimer.
The accusation from the Manhattan district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, in 1938, was that Mr. Capshaw had been “intimidated, influenced or bribed” by the Tammany Hall leader James J. Hines or his aides to further Mr. Flegenheimer’s interests. Mr. Capshaw was later removed from the bench and disbarred. Mr. Hines was convicted in 1940 of providing protection to Mr. Flegenheimer’s gangsters.
All that prompted Ms. von Buhler to dig deep into a chapter of family history that had gone unrecorded and unexplored through the generations: “a complicated tale of bootlegging, Mafia, infidelity and murder,” as she described it.
No one who was still alive could explain the motive for the shooting. An unresolved feud? An unpaid debt? Ms. von Buhler’s grandmother, who died in 1983, “took these secrets to her grave,” Ms. von Buhler wrote in an account of her research. Dominick Spano also said nothing before he died.
Ms. von Buhler dredged up the autopsy report on her grandfather and combed the municipal archives for other clues: police reports, court documents, newspaper articles. But she wanted to bring the case to life in a way that tattered, yellowed files could not. She had read about the dollhouse dioramas of crime scenes assembled in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress turned amateur criminologist. She decided to follow her lead and build the setting in miniature.
Ms. von Buhler bought “the beginnings of the structure” on eBay. She did some remodeling and did the plaster work — “I’m really good with plaster” — and the painting, the intricate tile work and the installation of the tiny furniture herself. She also made all the dolls with clay and real human hair.
She used the dollhouse as the set for a graphic novel, “Speakeasy Dollhouse,” with photographs of the shooting as she imagined it. She even made a separate diorama of a coroner’s office with a tiny body under a tiny sheet on a tiny gurney, with a toe tag bearing her grandfather’s name in tiny letters.
The graphic novel, in turn, became the basis for a theatrical piece, which Ms. von Buhler calls an “immersive play” because she involves the audience in the action. She is also writing a fuller account of the shooting — “pulp nonfiction,” she called it, “a true story told in a pulp-fiction style.”
Along the way, Ms. von Buhler realized that some elements of the information that had been passed down in the family were wrong. The family story was that Mr. Spano had been shot in an apartment in the Bronx, where his club and bakery were, near Arthur Avenue. But the shooting took place in Manhattan, on East 48th Street.
“I think they all knew each other,” she said. “Maybe Dutch Schultz got Guerrieri to do the murder by telling him his wife was having an affair with my grandfather. And then you find out in the end the magistrate was corrupt — and was connected to Dutch Schultz. That’s the clincher. But my grandfather died before that had been revealed.”
Cynthia von Buhler's images from the graphic novel, Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Bloody Beginning:
For additional press about Speakeasy Dollhouse click HERE.