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There Will Always Be Blood: True Crime Writing | The Nation

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There Will Always Be Blood: True Crime Writing

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DOUG CHAYKA

About the Author

Lorna Scott Fox
Lorna Scott Fox is a journalist and translator based in London.

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Who reads stories of true crime? One imagines a furtive audience of sad saps and sadists, trench-coated lurkers and wan shut-ins. Friends reacted with funny looks when I tried to share my pleasure in True Crime: An American Anthology, forcing me to offer a defensive recital of the names on the back cover. Who writes them, then? Bloody deeds are as American as Jesus or money, and often connected to both. Yet it comes as a surprise that so many notable Americans--most, but not all, best known for their fiction--were apprenticed in murder reportage or cultivated a thoughtful sideline in the subject. Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, even José Martí grace the first third of this anthology of fifty pieces. The roster of writers from the twentieth century includes H.L. Mencken, James Thurber and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as Truman Capote and James Ellroy, amid fascinating pros and hacks, forgotten "murder fanciers" and brilliant dabblers.

Thus the charm of the book is that it appeals to both the culture vulture and the plain old vulture in us, while constructing an oblique, perverse history of America. From the day in 1630 when Pilgrim Father John Billington was regretfully hanged for murder so that the new land of Plimoth Plantation could "be purged from blood," blood continued to be spilled in lavish quantities. Observers recorded the spillage from every angle, and the public lapped it up. The collective guilt that cements this ritual is summed up by editor Harold Schechter in his introduction. As Plato, Freud and Durkheim agreed (although one may feel it still hasn't sunk in), "violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out, and being punished for, our own unacknowledged impulses." For catharsis to occur, society needs to read all about it. Here is some of the best that was ever read, in one thick hardcover tome you could brain someone with.

Organized crime figures in just a minority of the selections. And rightly so, because it's ordinary individuals we most want to know about, people like us who suddenly crack. As their stories inch forward through some unremarkable day or life toward a climax announced, or sweep back from the glare of the dock or the morgue in search of a truth that may or may not be uncovered, every detail--the great staple of this genre--acquires symbolic weight. The most haunting pieces slow down time under a spotlight, creating a nerve-shredding suspense. As a sequence, enriched by Schechter's presentation of each author and his or her fait divers, the selections illuminate the changing frameworks for, and attitudes toward, violent transgression. They reflect developments in police work and the justice system, and in journalism itself. Shifting patterns echo back and forth, but a historical evolution of sorts emerges.

In the beginning--according, at least, to Pillar of Salt (1699), by Cotton Mather, who hassled people on the way to the gallows for last-minute professions of repentance--irreligion was the root of all evil. Godless men were led to drink and thence to rape and kill. For Mather, any sins against humanity were the outcome of far graver sins against God, such as Sabbath-breaking. It was an infallible moral code. So what would Mather have made of the pious, teetotal Farmer Yates, who in 1781, as he tells his examiners in what reads like an uncensored transcript, is suddenly commanded by an unidentified "Spirit" to slaughter his beloved family for being "idols"? Vividly reliving the inner struggle of human love with mystic duty, in between enthusiastic pursuits of the victims through the snow, this text stands out as the only perpetrator's narrative in the collection; its anonymous presenter cannot in the end decide whether Yates was stricken by "the effect of insanity" or "a strong delusion of Satan." The old certainties are fraying. Decades earlier, indeed, Franklin had written a wholly secular account for his Pennsylvania Gazette of systematic family cruelty: a couple's torture to the death of the man's daughter by a previous marriage. Too enlightened for the demonic explanation but unacquainted with the ways of the unconscious, Franklin was forced to conclude lamely that "this is not the only Instance the present Age has afforded, of the incomprehensible Insensibility Dram-drinking is capable of producing."

Although the Puritan legacy as a blend of repression and transcendence regularly returns (the messages penned by "Son of Sam," for example, contain kitsch echoes of Farmer Yates), secular morality had largely overtaken metaphysics by the early nineteenth century. For the next hundred years or so, money, ambition and status were the great spurs to crime, and that meant comedy. It's already the essence of the Strang-Whipple case (1827), in the arch account from an early anthology that was one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's favorite books, The Record of Crimes in the United States (1834). When scheming hussy Elsie Whipple entices lumpen lover Jesse Strang to kill her rich old husband, she embodies a demystified Eve the Temptress myth that was repeated, right down to the farce of failed attempts, in the Snyder-Gray case a hundred years later. In that caper, a Queens housewife named Ruth Brown Snyder lured her lover, one Henry Judd Gray, a corset salesman, into garroting her husband and staging his death as a botched burglary in order to collect the double indemnity on his insurance policy. Sex is consistently entangled with class and wealth: showgirls, playboys and prostitutes take turns as victims and executioners under flickering gaslight, and later in flashbulb-bright vignettes.

Cynicism and sentimentality thrive. The first is exemplified by Mark Twain's brisk contempt in Roughing It for the carnival of frontier politics. Desperadoes and saloonkeepers have become the most respected members of society; outlaws run amok, to popular applause and with judicial impunity. In an age of mass communications, King Alfred's rule that a juror be ignorant of a case puts justice in the hands of "ignoramuses." "Why could not the jury law be so altered as to give men of brains and honesty an equal chance with fools and miscreants?" Cloying sentiment drips, by contrast, all over Celia Thaxter's ticktock reconstruction of the 1873 Isle of Shoals murder, when two impossibly good, blond Norwegian women--the writer's maid and her sister--were hacked up for a fistful of dollars by a "dark" and shifty German immigrant they had befriended. (Strangely, it's as close as this collection gets to the black male/white female trope, surely a major issue in US crime history, if only in the form of lynchings--but Thaxter's Manichaean ardor makes up for the omission.) The Puritan gallows declaration has become pretty hollow by this stage, in the words ironically chosen by this corniest of writers: "Then he drew about his evil mind the detestable garment of sanctimoniousness, and in sentimental accents he murmured, 'I'm glad Jesus loves me!'" Thaxter, otherwise a fine poet of place, shows how not to do it. While almost all contributors indulge in some mixture of lip-licking and hand-wringing, the wisest allow such powerful material to express its own poignancy.

Beneath the froth of sensational trials and just deserts for greedy, stupid people, new themes were forming. If a desire for revenge or a spouse's life insurance seemed understandable, indeed amusing, not so the pointlessness of some savagery, or the psychic chasms it implied. "Boy Fiend" (1871) prefigures the alienated young slashers of the next century. At the same time, the business and career metaphor has become a cliché. Ambrose Bierce, whose experience of the Civil War had thoroughly put him off the human race--he fought at the Battle of Shiloh, where nearly 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died during two days of combat--lashed out at both organized and personal crime in Hearst's Examiner. His "Criminal Market Review" from the late 1860s is unusual for its admission that crime is not so much a deviation as the very image of the national economy: "Robberies are looking up; Assaults, active; Forgeries, dull." Taking a swipe at the veiled Californian relish in violence--"Our joy at the mutilation of old Hulton has been deeply unspeakable; our lively interest in the shooting and hacking of and by the Dudleys, Ingham and Miller, has been testified in a novel and interesting manner by a private scalp dance at our own apartments"--Bierce links this to the war. "It pleasantly reminds us of the time when we were a soldier." Then, like Twain satirizing the social worship of "blackguards": "Yosemite is a conceded fiction, and the Big Trees a screaming joke.... But we are handy with the pistol and wield a butcher-knife as deftly as an Indian or anybody."

Such a fury of Modernism is unique in this anthology dominated by conventional narrative. Long before becoming the Koizumi Yakumo who wrote with simple elegance about Japan, Lafcadio Hearn was covering murders in Cincinnati. "Gibbeted" (1876) describes an execution in unsparing physiological detail. The reporter even slips among the doctors to feel the pulse of the condemned after the rope breaks on the first attempt. Tear-jerker and black comedy at once, it makes as effective a plea against the death penalty as did Lincoln's cautionary tale, from his lawyer days, about a murder that inexplicably never happened. (The summary of that case also offers a slice of 1840s provincial life, the more evocative for being entirely expository.)

The Gilded Age was the heyday of the murder trial as theater. From Martí's mesmerizing account of the courtroom antics of political assassin Charles Guiteau in 1881, to Damon Runyon's drawled reports of the Snyder-Gray affair in 1927, showbiz rules. Guiteau was in a class of his own: a religious fanatic with the aspect of "a wild pig" and the talents of a stand-up comedian, who switched between cheeky banter and pouting sulks, shows of spiritual anguish and speeches in affected accents, from the genteel to the vulgar. Other defendants rely boringly on tears, like Mrs. Hossack, who--as Susan Glaspell explained in a serial account of Hossack's trial published in the Des Moines Daily News in December 1900-April 1901--claimed not to have heard a thing while her husband was bludgeoned next to her in bed. But there's always something to speculate about in the pose and costume of the accused as they perform for their lives, and fun to be had from histrionic attorneys and squirming witnesses. The crowd supplies much of the atmosphere. As Martí puts it, "The onlookers rock with gales of laughter; the prisoner shares in the laughter he provokes; the ushers call for silence; and the judge scolds in vain." Courtroom dramas were magnets for novelists and philosophers as well as gawpers, but especially congenial to theater folk. Spotting in the gallery "ladies and gents with dark circles around their eyes," Runyon identifies them as denizens of "the great American stage":

They were present, as I gathered, to acquire local color for their current, or future contributions to the thespian art, and the hour was a trifle early for them to be abroad in the land. They sat yesterday writing through the proceedings and perhaps inwardly criticizing the stage setting and thinking how unrealistic the trial is as compared to their own productions.

The thrills of adversarial justice as a spectacle--among the few that command the fervor of the whole population--are, of course, archetypal and ongoing. But as the anthology progresses through the twentieth century, the gaiety dries up.

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