Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America

August 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm (books, Crime, History, True crime, True crime narratives)

truecrimea  Let’s just stipulate this  up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.

Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well  who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character.  As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.

William Bradford writes:

This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.

It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.  garfield2

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uewb_07_img0467  Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:

….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.

Among the sermons Mather preached was one of  particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.

Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.

Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?

Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter

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There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.

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Further adventures in true crime

July 20, 2014 at 2:14 am (books, Crime, Film and television, Mystery fiction, True crime, True crime narratives)

[The first post in this series is Adventures in True Crime, Part One.]

In the course of reading and doing research in the area of true crime, I’ve become fascinated by the way in which actual crimes have served as the basis for fictional narratives. There are quite a few examples of  this phenomenon in the literature of suspense and crime fiction – more than I had originally thought. So I decided to come up with some sort of schematic to help organize this information into a coherent form. Another part of my purpose here is to note instances where true crime narratives also exist.

I wanted to include two of my favorite films as well. And of course there’s plenty of relevant material on YouTube. Even an opera made it into the mix!

With the help of my computer whiz husband, I’ve created this grid. The tables were generated by Microsoft Word, and in the process of importing into the blog, I encountered a number of problems with spacing, some of which I was able to correct, but not all.

The project is not quite finished, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Hannah Willix, New Hampshire, 1648 Drawn from a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, dated June 4, 1648. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-05-21/news/vw-2453_1_strange-death-of-mistress-coffinFrom a blog entitled My Maine Ancestry – http://mymaineancestry.blogspot.com/2012/03/unsolved-murder.html :My 10th Great Grandmother was murdered in New Hampshire in May or June of 1648. Her name was Hannah (or Annah) Willix. She was traveling from Dover to Exeter when she was attacked, robbed and her body “flung” into the river. I found a document online called “New Hampshire Homicides 1630-1774” that contains this information: Hannah “was founde in the [Piscataqua] River dead; her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing – 1991http://youtu.beRHjr7sjFvhA********************mistreeecoffin

 

 

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder by James Yates of his wife and four children in 1781 in Tomhanick, NY “An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J————– Y———– Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” Anonymous article appearing in The New-York Weekly Magazine, July 20, 1796* Wieland: or The Transformation: An American Tale, By Charles Brockden Brown – 1798   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieland_%28novel%29

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder of pregnant mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell, in Fall River, Mass., in 1832 Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder, and Justice in Early Industrial New England, by David Kasserman – 1986 1005 The Tragedy at Tiverton, by Raymond Paul – 1984418I+wd8hnL  averyAvery’s Knot, by Mary Cable

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Murder of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen by Louis Wagner at Smutty Nose, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, in 1873 “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter, for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine* http://seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve – 1997

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Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
Eight unsolved murders, primarily of African American servant girls, in Austin, Texas, in late 1884 and 1885 “Capital Murder” by Skip Hollandsworth, in Texas Monthly, July 2000: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/capital-murder A Twist at the End, by Steven Saylor – 2000

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Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of New York City resident Mary Rogers in 1841 The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder, by Daniel Stashower – 2006{82058D59-B209-4940-B155-5047C8D14163}Img100 “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” short story by Edgar Allan Poe – 1842 http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/rogetb.htm

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of John Hossack in Iowa, in 1900 “The Hossack Murder,” by Susan Glaspell, in the Des Moines Daily News, 1901*midnight-assassinMidnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf – 2005 “A Jury of Her Peers,” short story by Susan Glaspell – 1917http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html
Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, in Herkimer, New York (Adirondacks) -1906 Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon – 1986 An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – 192564481  theodore-dreiser-an-american-tragedyA Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly – 2003*********Film: A Place in the Sun – 1951 http://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw8

An American Tragedy: opera by Tobias Picker – 2005   http://youtu.be/2Um_jfEpjD0

 

Actual Crime: True Crime Narrative: Fictionalized Version:
The murder of Albert Snyder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in New York City – 1927 “The Eternal Blonde,” by Damon Runyan, from Trials and Other Tribulations – 1927*Included in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum – 2010 Double Indemnity by James M Cain – 1938****Film: Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel, with Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay – 1944 http://youtu.be/yKrrAa2o9Eg
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http://youtu.be/vN9THMXxndw

*Included in True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008

 

 

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Adventures in True Crime, Part One

June 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm (Crime, True crime, True crime narratives)

Why are we drawn to true crime narratives? The ready-to-hand answer to this question might be that we are by nature prurient creatures whose morbid curiosity can only be slaked by the rich helpings of horror and misfortune served up by these stories. While there may be some truth to this explanation, I don’t believe that it is the whole truth.

I was recently asked by my friend and fellow Usual Suspect Pauline if I might be interested in teaching a course in the literature of true crime. The course would be offered at a lifelong learning institute that has a local campus. (Pauline herself has been teaching there for a number years.) As soon as this proposition was put before me, my mind started to race: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher! Fatal Vision! The Executioner’s Song! The Devil in the White CityMidnight in Peking! The Poisoner’s Handbook! And, inevitably, In Cold Blood.

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Truman Caopte in the Clutter home. The starkness of the surroundings seems to emphasize the horror and pathos of what took place there.

In addition to these, in the past several months I’ve read three notable true crime titles: Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston, The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter, and Blood Royal by Eric Jager. All three belong to the subgenre of historical true crime and though all were in varying degrees engrossing. I’d have to say that my favorite was Blood Royal, a book that combines elements of medieval history, crime, and detection to create a riveting narrative. It will rank as one of my best reads of this year, for certain.

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So my mind is racing, filled with the myriad possibilities and approaches to such an undertaking, not to mention the sheer number of books to consider. For the first time, the vastness of the field became apparent to me. Where to begin? How to place limits?

With Pauline’s help, I eventually settled on a book to use in the (prospective) course: 41HY7VYB7FL

With this decision made, everything else began to fall more or less neatly into place.

to begin with, I decided to highlight several of the 20th century’s more notorious crimes, as referenced in this collection.. There’s “The Black Dahlia,” subject of an essay written by Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, the man who created Dragnet and became a pioneer of realism in television police dramas.

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In “Eternal Blonde,” Damon Runyon describes the murder trial of former lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. In the heat of their affair, Snyder convinced Gray to help kill her husband for the insurance money. They had to make it look like an accident, so that they could get twice the amount in the payout. In insurance speak, that’s called double indemnity.

Sound familiar? It should:

double-indemnity-landscape-x4

Double Indemnity ,  a classic noir novel, was inspired by the Snyder-Gray case. In 1944, it became one of the greatest noir films ever made. The following clip, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. The screenwriter was Raymond Chandler, and the rapid fire one liners were written by him, not Cain:


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In the fifties and sixties, Dorothy Kilgallen was a panelist on a popular television quiz show called What’s My Line. Most of us who watched the show back then knew her only in that capacity. She was in fact an accomplished journalist who write about show business as well as politics and crime. Her piece in the True Crime anthology is called “Sex and the All-American Boy,” and all I can say is, read it for yourself. Tone, style, content – she absolutely nails it!

Dorothy Kilgallen

Dorothy Kilgallen

The eponymous all-American boy is one Robert Allen Edwards. In 1934 Robert found himself embroiled in a classic love triangle. The competing love interests were Freda McKechnie, the girl next door in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and Margaret Crain, who resided with her parents in Aurora, New York. Freda became pregnant. Robert said he’d marry her, but he desperately did not want to.

One evening, Freda suggested that Robert take her to a lake for a swim….

A young man with two girlfriends. One of them becomes pregnant and insists that they marry. They go down to a nearby lake….

Once again, I ask: Sound familiar? It is almost the exact same scenario that describes the death of Grace Brown at the hands of Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906. One of the journalists present at the murder trial of Robert Allen Edwards was Theodore Dreiser. In 1925, Dreiser had written his magnum opus An American Tragedy, a fictional treatment of the Brown/Gillette story. How  strange it must have seemed to him, sitting in that courtroom some twenty years later. He probably experienced a powerful sense of déja vu.

An American Tragedy provided the plot line for yet another terrific film. Made in 1951, A Place in the Sun starred Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.


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More on this subject will appear in a subsequent post. Now I’d like to address the way in which this subject has hijacked my personal reading program! Having promised myself that in future, I’d be buying as few hard copy books as possible, I’ve just purchased a slew of them. Several of the items I’ve become interested in as a result of my recent research on true crime are not owned by the local library; nor are they available for Kindle download.

A number are out of print. This is true of Murder One, the collection of pieces by Dorothy Kilgallen that includes “Sex and the All-American Boy.”  Murder_One_paperback_by_Kilgallen I did not get this Dell paperback (75 cents!); rather, I got a used hardback. Rather ill-used, judging from the condition of its cover.

 blood-ink-international-guide-fact-based-crime-literature-albert-borowitz-hardcover-cover-art  Blood and Ink: An International Guide to Fact Based Crime Literature, by Albert Borowitz. In print, published by Kent Stat University Press. A terrific but dangerous reference work. I was only in the A’s when I encountered Richard Altick, an author I remembered from my graduate school days. At that time, we’d been assigned to read  The Scholar Adventurers. I recall finding Altick’s tales of literary sleuthing quite fascinating. What I don’t recall, and perhaps never knew, is that he had a special interest in Victorian Britain, specifically in crimes that occurred in that era. Altick-Scholar  13435  Hence, my ordering of Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (available for Kindle download, thank goodness). No more poking around in Blood and Ink for me – at least, for the present! (“The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills” by Albert Borowitz is included in the True Crime anthology.)

And today I look forward to the arrival of two more items related to my true crime investigations. The first is The Badge by Jack Webb. Webb’s essay on the Black Dahlia murder case is included in this volume. Badge  I’m especially interested in reading James Ellroy’s introduction to the 2005 reissue of this  book.  In 1958, when he was ten years old, Ellroy’s mother was murdered. He then went to live with his father, something he was glad to do, as that feckless person pretty much left him alone to raise himself and later, to run wild. One thing his father did do for him was to give him the Jack Webb book for his eleventh birthday. On the face of it, this would seem an odd gift to give to a boy whose mother had recently met with violent death. And yet the book had a life changing effect on him, particularly the piece on the Black Dahlia:

The Badge got me hooked. I just followed Jack Webb’s lead.

He credits the book with motivating him to become, in his own words, the “Demon Dog of American literature.”

Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer” is included in the True Crime anthology. Originally published in GQ in 1994, the piece was later enlarged to become the memoir My Dark Places, published in 1996.

Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s killer. most probably the “swarthy man” with whom she’d gone out on a date the night of her death, has never been found.

Oh, and the second item expected in today’s delivery, originally published in 1919, is this: curiousmurders

I’ll keep you posted on further developments.

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