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.
In 1935 the novelist Edna Ferber (Show Boat, Giant) was scathing about the “Isn’t this divine” set that thronged the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, alleged raptor of the Lindbergh baby. Ferber represents a new, feeling awareness of trauma. “Guilty or innocent,” she wrote in the New York Times, “this man, when he was 17, his bones not yet a man’s bones, his mind not yet a man’s mind, saw and knew fear, agony, ruthlessness, murder, hunger, cold. He was a German soldier in the war and a product of war.” This kind of sensibility aroused the scorn of H.L. Mencken. Invoking the endlessly paroled Baby Face Nelson, he sneered: “Of such sort are the abysmal brutes that the New Penology tells us ought to be handled more tenderly. They are not responsible, it appears, for their wanton and incessant felonies; the blame lies upon society.” Though Mencken’s gripe was with liberal attitudes to career crime, this divergence inaugurates a recognizable contemporary world: one split between those who seek the causes of wrongdoing in poverty or abuse, and those who would string up sociologists and therapists alongside their clients.
The debate was not made simpler by the growth of a violence that seemed arbitrary, or at least bearing no relation to America’s twin mainstays of God and mammon. As Schechter says, “The human community, finding itself under assault from within, searches desperately for a framework or context to explain the apparently unexplainable.” But what? Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the first “rampage,” by a quiet World War II vet who gunned down twelve people on a New Jersey street in 1949, sticks to external facts with a velvet neutrality about unfathomable crises. The gunman gets home, a reporter from the Camden Evening Courier calls and there’s an unhelpful glimpse into his mind:
Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.
The veteran answered. “I don’t know. I haven’t counted. Looks like a pretty good score.”
“Why are you killing people?”
“I don’t know,” came the frank answer. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”
I don’t know. The story ends: “Men and women kept saying: ‘We can’t understand it. Just don’t get it.'” Bewilderment all around is a repeated note from now on, perhaps the most authentic in such cases; “Superman’s Crime,” a clinical rationalization of the Leopold-Loeb crime published in 1965, seems unarguable and yet inadequate. In the era of postwar prosperity, more young killers begin to display the affectless nihilism we know so well. Take Charles “Smitty” Schmid, an early groover with pancake makeup and an unhealthy hold over the teens of Tucson: boredom, car culture and the glamour of decadence run through Don Moser’s dark article for Life about the young serial killer. Boredom above all. And a kind of lostness, for the parents had no idea what their kids were up to, while the police “continued to assume that the [dead] girls had joined the ranks of Tucson’s runaways”–caught up in the drifting lifestyle that defined the fate of the Black Dahlia years before.
Somewhat surprisingly, the police always get good press. Frantically trying to solve the Dahlia mystery, “during one three-day period, [Sergeant Brown] never got around to changing his shirt.” This note of commendation is from Jack Webb’s The Badge: True and Terrifying Crime Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, From the Creator and Star of Dragnet (a book that changed the life of 11-year-old James Ellroy); Schechter’s introduction to the piece doesn’t mention that Webb and Dragnet were tools for cleaning up the LAPD’s image. It’s true that Thomas Byrnes, a New York City police detective and the author of Professional Criminals of America (1886), is credited with inventing the interrogation method of the “third degree,” yet in general the honest cops are always trying to get their man, only to see him sprung by Tammany Hall or the New Penologists. If a confession is ever tortured out of anyone, it’s the sheriff’s doing. In True Crime, the principal instance of police misbehavior occurs when impatience with staking out Alice Crimmins, the “Medea of Kew Gardens Hills,” leads them to tip off jealous lovers, flatten tires and assist in the destruction of clothing.
A distinct late twentieth-century thread is the inability to cope with change. Nice fundamentalist boy blows himself up because his sweetheart has gone to college; upwardly mobile hillbilly shoots filmmaker he thinks is out to exploit the picturesque misery of the Appalachians. The old America’s friction with the new is marvelously suggested in Gay Talese’s “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range,” published in Esquire in 1970 and based on an interview with the old-timer George Spahn, who ran the movie sets and then the ranch where the Manson tribe briefly settled. Talese focuses mostly on Spahn’s rootless, resourceful life, emblematic of millions of others. Now he is blind, so that the new arrivals are sensed as voices and smells. He was mystified by spiritual nuggets from Charlie and intrigued by the girls’ submissiveness despite their education, so unlike the women he’d known; but as the air turns into “a blend of horse manure and marijuana,” even the wranglers start speaking with an irritating softness and “describing him as a ‘beautiful person.'” When the crowds and cameras arrive, “lighting up the rickety Hollywood sets, it was like old times”–and when they’ve gone, the wranglers are still whispering. (For a horrible postscript to hippiedom, see Truman Capote’s prison interview with Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil, who brags to Capote about fame, cool and white power.)
This is one of several episodes in True Crime that stand out as documentary literature, over and above the sanguinary aspect. Zora Neale Hurston’s report for the Pittsburgh Courier on the trial of Ruby McCollum, during the late Jim Crow era, is remarkable not just in the absence of any other reflection on racism but for its painful collage of registers and moods. McCollum has shot a white physician. The judge disallows all testimony that might expose the systemic truth of her sexual bondage to the victim, the very relationship being denied by the prosecution as “unthinkable!” And the black community sides with “that nice Dr. Adams,” partly because of Ruby’s middle-class status; mostly out of a fearful, obsequious caution, unflinchingly ventriloquized.
For some hilarious horror, there’s the reconstruction by Edmund Pearson, in the sophisticated spirit of the Roaring Twenties, of an 1870s “wayside tavern” trap in Kansas–an imported Gothic setup (those German immigrants again), complete with curtain behind which one member of the family lurked with a sledgehammer, while another beguiled the traveler with what we’d call New Age nonsense. Here is one of two cases in which innocent washerwomen are mistaken, years later, for murderesses who got away.
Great historical writing like Pearson’s builds off the core gore to bring place and period to life, and it’s unforgettably done in the finest selection of all, by the author and diplomat John Bartlow Martin (President Kennedy’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic). Schechter tells us that Martin wrote at one time for mass-circulation magazines, “powerful stories on…muckraking subjects [that] led, in a number of cases, to major public policy changes.” Published in 1950, “Butcher’s Dozen” explores the ravaged underworlds of Depression-era Cleveland in hallucinatory prose that chronicles the appearance of surgically dismembered bodies whose butcher was never found and, though he operated in a blasted landscape where “people prowl all night,” never even glimpsed–but not for want of looking. “The detectives often took two or three hundred hobos off a big freight train; each was a suspect, each a potential victim,” and the long, fruitless hunt is as riveting as the characters it flushes out around the blank space left by “that almost unknown creature, a master criminal…. The greatest murderer of all time.”
The Butcher lives eternal: no catharsis there. Or as Lincoln ruefully said of his own unsolved mystery, “a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax.” Loose ends are as appropriate in life, of course, as they are annoying in fiction, yet many of these stories do describe a perfect arc from buildup to denouement, and subsequent artists couldn’t resist them for what they said about the soul of society and the astounding strangeness of people. It turns out that some of our culture’s most iconic products were written by reality before becoming novels or plays, and then, more lastingly, films: Psycho, Rope, Double Indemnity: the originals are all here. Farmer Yates inspired an early novel; Anita Shreve used the Shoals tragedy in a late novel; “Smitty” was the model for Joyce Carol Oates’s wonderfully named Arnold Friend; Glaspell followed her report on the Hossack murder with a one-act feminist play, inspired by the case. Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy on a boy who drowned his pregnant girlfriend in a lake, causing a collective gasp when nine years later the story was replayed, with added sexual delirium, in the case of Robert Allen Edwards, which Dreiser dubbed “the Real American Tragedy.” Life, like art, runs periodically short on ideas.
The closing piece, “Nightmare on Elm Drive” (2001), is by Dominick Dunne, developing his Vanity Fair work on the Menendez brothers. If the result is diligent but dull, it’s surely, in part, because print had already ceased to be the default medium, for crime as well as proper news. Today, more Americans get their information online than from the papers, and 70 percent get it from TV–which garbles instant updates on scandals that once rolled, not quite as hot but a great deal more polished, off the presses. Yet it’s clear from this collection that the bedrock for the whole edifice of stylish, literate crime reportage (with that essential dash of low thrills) was the once-captive public of numberless Couriers, Gazettes and Enquirers. Murder will out, but maybe no longer as such a bloody great read.