‘…it is a “locked room” mystery written by Sophocles.’ – The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

April 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm (books, True crime)

I’ve had a strange experience, reading this book. It begins, of necessity, with  recounting of the circumstances that led to the murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby. Immersed as I’ve been  recently in this story, I didn’t discern anything new in Cara Robertson retelling. This, despite the fact that every time I revisit this scenario, its mixture of strangeness and horror grabs hold with great force.

I read on. The chief body of the text concerns the trial. I found that the minute retelling of the witness testimony began to drag. I was having to push myself to keep going.

One note that was sounded throughout the proceedings concerned the demeanor of the defendant: “Throughout the trial, Lizzie Borden remained a sphinxlike cipher.” Her lack of responsiveness puzzled all who saw her. Where were the tears, where the shuddering? I had the sense that some among the observers went from puzzlement to exasperation, even to anger, in the way that our feelings sometimes evolve when we simply cannot figure something out.

At any rate, the trial dragged on. At one point, I was close to throwing in the towel. But then the unexpected occurred, in the form of the closing arguments. George Robinson for the defense; Hosea Knowlton for the prosecution. For me, the pace of the narrative changed suddenly. The eloquence of these two attorneys held me spellbound. I fairly raced through to the conclusion.

Except there was no conclusion. There I was, eagerly flipping the pages, ready for more, when I found that I’d reached the Acknowledgements. From the storehouse of her vast and meticulous research, Cara Robertson had told all she had to tell.

From George Robinson, for the defense:

“Right at the moment of transition she stood there waiting,between the Court and the jury; and waited, in her quietness and calmness, until it was time for her to properly come forward. It flashed through my mind in a minute. There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge  by  the judges of  this court and by the jury who have hr in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His  watchful Providence from above, and by  the sympathy and watch[ful] care of those who have her to look after.”

Cara Robertson observes that Lizzie’s lawyer has portrayed her as “an orphan in need of paternal guidance and protection, a ward of the court rather than a prisoner in custody.” And she cannot resist adding, with more than a touch of irony:

It was a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, considering that Borden was on trial for having created her own orphanhood.

(Robinson’s closing lasted just under  four hours. At that time, lengthy closing arguments were not all that unusual.)

From Hosea Knowlton, prosecutor:

“It was not Lizzie Andrew Borden, the daughter of Andrew J. Borden, that cme down those stairs, but a murderess, transformed from all the thirty-three years of an honest life, transformed from the daughter, transformed from the  ties of affection, to the most consummate criminal we have read of in all our history or works of fiction.”

As is by now well known, George Robinson and his defense team won the day. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was read out, the courtroom erupted in shouts of rejoicing, which were in turn taken up by  the crowd outside the courthouse building. Lizzie finally let her feelings show. She was thrilled with her  exoneration and couldn’t express sufficient gratitude to her attorneys, the jurors, and various other  friends and supporters.

The good feeling did not last….

Lizzie and Emma could have gone anywhere else to live, at that point. But they elected to remain in Fall River – although not in the same house, the seemingly accursed domicile on Second Street. It was now 1893. As time went on, relations between the sisters began to deteriorate. In 1905, Emma moved out of their house. The sisters never spoke again.

Lizzie Borden herself never publicly commented about the case that altered the course of her otherwise drab life. Like the town that bred her and then ostracized her, as she aged, Lizzie Borden turned inward, reclusive, and, above all, silent.

Lizzie – by then, Lizbeth – Borden, at her house on The Hill, dubbed Maplecroft, with her dog, Laddie

As I was reading – and in some part laboring to get through this book, I kept saying to myself, okay, this is it – this is the last book I read on the subject of the Borden murders. Well, at this point, all I can say to myself in response to that assertion is: Hah!!

Next up – eventually, most likely:

 

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The Death of Grace Brown, 1906

March 21, 2019 at 1:48 am (True crime)

The Borden killings are baffling and appalling. The same can be said of the killing of Bobby Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

The murder of Grace Brown is certainly just as appalling as the above named, but it is not baffling. On the contrary, considering the circumstances in which it occurred, it was almost inevitable. Above all, it is heartbreaking.

In Bringing Down the Colonel (2018), Patricia Miller tells the story of the scandal that broke in 1893 when Madeline Pollard brought suit against W.C.P. (William Campbell Preston) Breckinridge for breach of promise. In the early 1880s, in the words of the jacket copy, Breckinridge was “…a handsome, married, moralizing lawyer running for Congress” when he initiated an affair with Pollard, then a student at Wesleyan Female College, now known simply as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The relationship continued for nearly a decade. The inevitable pregnancies – note the plural – resulted. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892 and the anticipated marriage proposal failed to materialize, Madeline Pollard had reached the end of her tether.

Very early in this absorbing chronicle, Patricia Miller states the following:

The charges were shocking, given that Breckinridge was such a well respected figure. What was even more shocking, and novel, however, was what Madeline had to sacrifice to bring the suit. She had to reveal herself as a “ruined” woman–a woman who had acquiesced to sex outside of marriage. Few things could be more injurious to a woman in late nineteenth-century America. A woman’s chastity was  the bedrock of her social capital. Its loss, the specter of the “fallen” woman, haunted society.

When stating her purpose in bringing this suit, Madeline Pollard declared bluntly: “I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”

Pollard was no ingenue. She was reasonably experienced in the ways of the world, particularly when those ways involved powerful men. Grace Brown was another story altogether. An unworldly farm girl from a small town in upstate New York – South Otselic, in Chenango County – she had come to the “big city” – Cortland – in 1904 to work in the Gillette Skirt Factory. She had a married sister in that city, with whom she could live. Her family back home could use the money she would make at the factory.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a scion of the factory owner’s family, arrived in town to work at the skirt factory. He and Grace struck up a friendship which soon turned into a love affair.

According to an account told to a reporter after Grace’s death, Chester met Grace when a ring, an inexpensive gold band with an opal stone, slipped off her narrow finger and rolled across the factory floor until it came to rest at his feet. He picked it up and made a bow and a remark before handing it back to her.

From Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

By such small gestures are our fates determined….

The relationship was secretive. For one thing, Chester was eager to rise into the upper crust of Cortland society. There was simply no place there for Grace. In truth, she was a stopgap for Chester, someone to make him feel less lonely as he was  learning the ropes in an unfamiliar environment.

Just as Chester was starting to pull away from Grace, she gave him news that he did not want to hear: she was pregnant. In those days, if you got a girl “in trouble,” you married her. No question; it was simply what was expected and what was done. Grace was desperate for the marriage to take place. But Chester was just as desperate not to do it.

Chester advised Grace to quit her job at the skirt factory and return for a time to her home in South Otselic. This she did, but once there, she was miserable. She loved her mother and her siblings dearly, but she could not bring herself to confide in them. Eventually, she and Chester made  plan to meet in another town and travel north into the Adirondacks. It was Grace’s fervent hope that they were running away to be married. And yet, in one of her last letters to Chester, in which she describes bidding farewell to the places and people she loves, she betrays her anxiety:

And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

At length, they came upon a place called Big Moose Lake. They took rooms there.

The lake was beautiful; the country, secluded. They rowed to a remote spot. Chester claimed that Grace, though fully clothed, had suddenly jumped into the water. Unable to save her, he swam back to shore. The boat, overturned, remained out on the lake; there was no sign of Grace. Her body was recovered the following day. Soon after, Chester was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Grace’s letters were read, bringing many in the courtroom  to tears. Meanwhile,  when speaking of Chester, prosecutor George W. Ward let loose like an avenging angel:

“He has more stability of purpose, more determination, more cunning than a wolf has got…and when a pretty flower had come down from the hills he scented her out as the instrument of his lust, plucked the petals one by one and threw them under his feet.”

Quoted by Craig Brandon in his book

Chester was judged guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A subsequent appeal was denied.

There is of course much more to the story than what I have heretofore related. The post on  NewYorkUpstate.com provides a good summary of events and some excellent visuals. If you need more – and I definitely did – I recommend Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon. (Be sure to seek out the revised and updated edition, copyright 2016.)

Part Two of Brandon’s book is entitled “The Murder That Will Never Die.” First there was Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, based on the events described above and published in two volumes in 1925. This work was adapted for the stage in the early 1930s. The film version, with the same title, came out in 1931. The film A Place in the Sun, a somewhat looser adaptation, came out in 1951. I simply must interject here that this to me is one of the most brilliant films ever made. It starred an impossibly handsome Montgomery Clift, an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor – at the time of the filming, nineteen years old! – and Shelley Winters as the doomed and desperate Alice Tripp. Utterly riveting.

Finally, an operatic version of the original novel was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The premiere performance was presented in 2005. The composer is Tobias Picker.

In his introduction, Craig Brandon reprints the words to a ‘murder ballad’ called Omie Wise. The crime to which it refers occurred in 1807 or 1808:

I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He ‘d give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”

“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”

(This ballad exists in several versions; this one is offered by  Bob Waltz.)

Also in his introduction, Craig Brandon offers this provocative theory concerning why  the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown has such a hold on the popular imagination:

The real question–why do we still care about Chester after all this time?–continues to evade us. What is it about this story of a cruel and self-centered young man who murders his pregnant lover in a lake only to be discovered and executed? One answer that comes up over and over again is that the story is what psychologist Karl Yung called an archetype, a psychological script so compelling that, once initiated, forces the protagonist to follow it, powerless to resist–and, in this case, compels others to tell the story over and over.

So, did Chester Gillette actually kill Grace Brown? The better question is, Was he responsible  for her death? Craig Brandon quotes this summation by a reporter for the Utica Daily Press:

Whether Chester Gillette struck the cruel blow which killed the girl who loved and trusted him, or whether he overturned the boat with the purpose of drowning her, or whether, according to his own statement, he drove her to suicide by refusing her the only reparation in his power and then cold-bloodedly left her to drown without making one attempt to save her, makes little difference in the essential fact that he was morally her murderer.

Grace Mae Brown, March 20,1886-July 11, 1906

 

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True crime, from a librarian’s perspective: books and essays on the Borden case

March 7, 2019 at 2:50 pm (True crime)

The above mentioned librarian would be me; the subject, one to which I somehow feel compelled to return, year after year. Because of new, more recent transgressions in the news? No, although there are plenty of  those from which to choose. Instead, I find myself returning to the same older ones.

I am currently preparing a program entitled ‘Who Done It: True Crime Stories From A Librarian’s Perspective.’ This presentation, to which an hour and a half has been allotted, is to be given to a local group ten days from now. (That excellent title BTW was conceived by my friend Jean S.) Once again, I’ve become deeply immersed in this material. Three cases in particular have hijacked my mental apparatus:

The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, alleged to have been committed by Lizzie Borden (1892);
The murder of Grace Brown, alleged to have been committed by Chester Gillette (1906);
The murder of Bobby Franks, committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (1924).

Let’s start with the Borden case.

Andrew and Abby Borden

My search for an early and accessible retelling of the Borden story led me to The Borden Case by Edmund Pearson. This lengthy essay was included with four other true crime narratives in a volume by Edmund Pearson entitled Studies in Murder. First published in 1924, it was reissued in a Modern Library edition in 1938.

The edition which I now possess was put out by the Ohio State University Press in 1999 and remains in print. It  features an introduction by Roger Lane, Emeritus Professor of History at Haverford College. Professor Lane observes in regard to Edmund Pearson’s writing that he possesses a

 lively, urbane, and ironic style …, one that anticipated Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in bringing a touch of class to a form that needed it.

Edmund Pearson 1880-1937

Mr. Pearson hailed from Newburyport, a small city on the Massachusetts coast northeast of Boston. Although he later moved to New York City to take up the post of publications editor for the New York Public Library, his attachment to his New England roots remained strong throughout his life. He wrote about a variety of crimes, but the Lizzie Borden case was his chief preoccupation. Studies in Murder was published in 1924. In the course of The Borden Case, he mentions that he had the good fortune of being able to speak to some people who had  been living in Fall River at the time the murders took place.

This passage appears near the beginning of The Borden Case:

On the intensely hot morning of August 4, 1892, something more than an hour before noon, an elderly gentleman named Andrew Jackson Borden was walking through South Main Street, Fall River. He was returning to his home which was only a few steps from the principal business street, and little more than around the corner from the City Hall, and the center of the town. It is probable that his mind was chiefly concerned with business, or with his family affairs…. So securely is the future hidden from us, that there is no way to imagine the astonishment which would have been his, could he have had any intimation not alone of the sufficiently startling fact that the remainder of his lifetime was then numbered by minutes, but that his name was to engage his countrymen’s attention, for weeks and months to come, as if he were somebody of national importance.

How  about years, decades to come?  In True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter states  that “Among connoisseurs of American true crime writing, Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) is esteemed as the dean of the genre….”

In The Borden Case, Pearson includes a lengthy quote from The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter. Written and published in 1893, this hot-off-the press title followed closely on the heels of the actual crimes. Porter was the police reporter for The Fall River Globe and a correspondent for The Boston Herald.

This  book has a curious history. For years following its publication, it was very difficult to obtain. In the Appendix to Studies in Murder, Edmund Pearson hints rather breathlessly that the Porter book may have been deliberately “suppressed.” He goes on to state: “In Fall River it seems to be on the index librorum prohibitorum; it is mentioned in hushed tones, and is not included in the catalogue of the public library.” To my surprise, I was able to obtain – rather easily – a copy of The Fall River Tragedy through interlibrary loan. The book that was sent to me is actually a facsimile edition of the 1893 issue.

Facsimile of the title page of the original 1893 edition

It is frequently alleged that before copies of this book could reach their intended audience, Lizzie Borden bought up the entire edition and destroyed it. In her 1967 book A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, author Victoria Lincoln, herself a native of Fall River, gives credence to that legend. Supposedly there was something very damning in Porter’s book – something that Lizzie did not wish to become known.

But that legend has since been debunked by, among others, Sarah Miller, author of The Borden Murders (2016). Miller is dismissive of Porter’s efforts:

In reality, Lizzie had little to fear from Edwin Porter….If  the people of Fall River were hoping for shocking new revelations, or perhaps even a solution to the mystery, Porter was a complete disappointment.

Maybe so, but I found his minute by minute analysis of the crimes – to be cogently reasoned and quite persuasive. In other words, circumstances must have ordered themselves in precisely  the way Porter describes in order for someone from the outside to have gained entry to the house, murdered both elderly Bordens, and then escaped undetected. The following was quoted by Edmund Pearson in Studies In Murder:

 To those who stopped to contemplate the circumstances surrounding the double murder, it was marvelous to reflect how fortune had favored the assassin. Not once in a million times would fate have paved such a way for him. He had to deal with a family of six persons in an unpretentious two-and-a-half story house, the rooms of which were all connected and in which it would have been a difficult matter to stifle sound. He must catch Mr. Borden alone and either asleep, or off his guard, and kill him with one fell blow. The faintest outcry would have sounded an alarm. He must also encounter Mrs. Borden alone and fell her, a heavy woman, noiselessly.

To do this he must either make his way from the sitting room on the ground floor to the spare bed room above the parlor and avoid five persons in the passage, or he must conceal himself in one of the rooms up stairs and make the descent under the same conditions. The murdered woman must not lisp a syllable at the first attack, and her fall must not attract attention. He must then conceal the dripping implement of death and depart in broad daylight by a much frequented street….Bridget Sullivan, the servant, must be in the attic asleep on her own bed. Her presence in the pantry or kitchen or any room on the first or second floors would have frustrated the fiend’s designs, unless he also killed her so that she would die without a murmur.

In making his escape there must be no blood stains upon his clothing; for such tell-tale marks might have betrayed him. And so, if the assailant of the aged couple was not familiar with the premises, his luck favored him exactly as described. He made no false move. He could not have proceeded more swiftly nor surely had he lived in the modest edifice for years. At the most he had just twenty minutes in which to complete his work. He must go into the house after Miss Lizzie entered the barn and he must disappear before she returned.

There’s more in this vein – quite a bit more. It is very persuasively argued. Porter concludes by exclaiming:

It was a wonderful chain of circumstances which conspired to clear the way for the murderer; so wonderful that its links baffled men’s understanding.

But Porter is not quite right about the  twenty minutes required to perform the killings, as Pearson points out. Examination of the blood evidence and later, the stomach contents of each of the victims, led investigators to conclude that Abby Borden had died an hour to an hour and a half before her husband.

So: Andrew Borden had only just arrived home; he’d decided to lie down on the couch in the sitting room for a brief nap. Bridget the maid was napping upstairs in her bedroom.  Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, was visiting friends out of town. A relative, John Vinicum Morse, was staying with the family, but had gone out and did not return until later. Abby Borden’s whereabouts were not immediately known. Lizzie said that she had gone out to visit a sick person. Lizzie herself claimed to have been in the barn out back while her father was being slaughtered. Yet circumstances pointed to her more than to anyone else, so she was duly arrested. And tried. (Sarah Miller’s book describes the trial in vivid detail.) And ultimately acquitted.

There is of course much more to this story than what I have related here. I recommend Sarah Miller’s The Borden Murders, a book which is rather disconcertingly – to me, at least – reviewed as a YA (Young Adult) title, and even as one for older children! (Sarah Miller has penned several works for this demographic.) My dear friend Barb L, children’s librarian extraordinaire, offered the following insight to me via email:

There is a type of older middle school reader or teen who would just eat this up.  They thrive on the dark and the macabre.  They’re wired for it.  On my website I call them the “Jokester.”  Many Jokesters are looking for intense action and plots.  They like the extremes.   Early on they want the books on volcanoes and tornadoes and emergency situations.  The Titanic fascinates them and they ask their librarians again and again for the “scary stories.”

Barb’s site, A Book and a Hug, is outstanding, a must-see for anyone who cares about children and the literature that describes and enriches their world.

One of the first things I did when I obtained The Borden Murders was to flip through the sections containing photographs. Pictures were taken at the crime scene of both Andrew and Abby Borden. The picture of Abby, which does not reveal much, is included in Miller’s book. The one of Andrew is graphic and terrible and was, thankfully, omitted.

I also recommend Edmund Pearson’s The Borden Case, in his collection Studies in Murder. Almost a hundred years after it was written, it remains eminently readable. Of course, there are numerous other books available on this seemingly inexhaustible topic. (The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter and A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight by Victoria Lincoln are both available as inexpensive downloads.)Two online sources that are worth a look are the  Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum and Library  and Tattered Fabric: Fall River’s Lizzie Borden.

One of the central questions concerning the literature of true crime – indeed, concerning the crimes themselves – is why certain criminal acts establish a hold on the human imagination that retains its grip as the years go by. (Yes I know, there’s that infuriating bit of doggerel, “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”) My own theory is that certain crime stories contain within themselves a central mystery that has never  been resolved in a satisfactory way. That mystery bears on the even greater conundrum of human nature itself – why individuals perform seemingly inexplicable acts in the cold light of day, or in the middle of the night.No matter what anyone thinks now, or thought then, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother. Was she in fact guilty? And if she didn’t do it, then who did?

Lizzie (later Lizbeth) Andrew Borden 1860-1927

The ballet Fall River Legend was made by Agnes DeMille in 1948 for the American Ballet Theater. Music composed by Morton Gould.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Seven: Nonfiction, part five: an unintended omission

January 2, 2019 at 1:20 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, True crime)

  In my recent posts on favorite nonfiction of 2018, I inadvertently omitted The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. The book is subtitled,  the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world. In it, Weinman tells the story of Sally Horner, an eleven-year-old girl from Camden, New Jersey, whose fateful encounter in 1948 with a man calling himself Frank La Salle resulted in a bizarre kidnapping and ensuing captivity that lasted for two years. During this time, Sally and La Salle made their way across the country to California, all the while assuming the roles of daughter and father respectively.

The strange odyssey of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle ended in 1950. The story received a fair amount of media attention. People were understandably intrigued by it. One of those who certainly knew about it was a somewhat eccentric Russian expatriate and butterfly collector. Oh and brilliant novelist. His name was Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov’s succès de scandale, Lolita, appeared in 1955. In her book, Sarah Weinman raises a provocative question:; namely. to what extent was Lolita inspired by the true life misadventure of Sally Horner and her sinister captor?

Vladimir Nabokov’s otherwise scrupulous archive of Lolita-related clippings failed to include anything about Sally Horner because if it had, then the dots would connect with more force, which would upset the carefully constructed myth of Nabokov, the sui generis artist, whose imagination and gifts were far superior to others’. It’s as if he didn’t trust Lolita to stand on its own against the real story of Sally Horner. As a result, Sally’s plight was sanded over, all but forgotten.

But with this provocative and beautifully written book, Sarah Weinman has shone a bright on that story and given it new life.

 

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Best of 2018, Six: Nonfiction, part four – the best of the rest

January 1, 2019 at 11:30 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, France, True crime)

For This Reader, it was a great year for nonfiction.

In history:

 

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer (brother to the late Princess Diana)

A History of France by John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a terrific – and prolific – historian whom we lost in June of this year.

The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport. A commenter on this blog post said: “Sounds like a fine book about an endlessly fascinating topic.” I certainly find it so. Endlessly fascinating and endlessly tragic.

In current affairs:

 

      Nomadland: Surviving American the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard. This small book consists of the text of two lectures delivered by Mary Beard, a renowned Cambridge classicist, courtesy of  The London Review of Books.

Beard’s book also contains a priceless picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel in matching power suits!

   Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

In a variety of other areas, hard to pin down:

   The White Darkness by David Grann. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers yet another powerful narrative.

   Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes

   Ghosts of the Tsunami  by Richard Lloyd Parry. This is a devastating story, told with great sensitivity. Parry is an excellent writer. For an exceptional work of true crime, try People Who Eat Darkness.

In nature:

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes. I finished it – Yay! Also downloaded it from Amazon and so will have it forever. Mr. Barnes, you have opened a world to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t resist sharing two more videos of avian nature:

 

(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

How Do We Look: the body, the divine, and the question of civilisation, by Mary Beard. This is a companion volume to the BBC’s Civilisations: From the Ancient to the Modern. (The three DVD’s that comprise this series are owned by the local library.)

True Crime / International Intrigue:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, by Gilbert King

Blood & Ivy: the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard, by  Paul Collins

    Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective, by  Margalit Fox.  Fox comes up with an especially well expressed locution when she compares crime writing to doctoring. Both, she says, are rooted in “the art of diagnosis,” an art “…which hinges on the identification, discrimination, and interpretation of barely discernible clues in order to reconstruct an unseen past….”

The Spy and the Traitor: the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara. Inevitably, the impact of this powerful narrative is augmented by the fact of the untimely passing of its author.  Michelle McNamara did not live to complete this labor. Two researchers, crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, performed that task, and did an admirable job. And McNamara’s husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, also deserves credit for assigning the task the highest possible priority. He could have arranged no better memorial for his wife.

An Accident? – or Something Else?

   The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, by Dale Peterson. For those of us who have long admired the work of Jane Goodall, this book provides  a fascinating look at how the research camp she established in Tanzania, East Africa, functioned on a day to day basis in the 1960s. At the same time, Peterson relates the story of a researcher who goes missing. In July of 1969, as part of her research project, Ruth Davis follows a chimpanzee into the forest. She does not return to camp. An investigation follows, with the outcome everyone dreads.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

And of course, there was  this rather specialized publication…handmade by two doting grandparents, with the help of Google Photos:

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time

 

Mom, Welles, and Etta making art at the Art Institute

I asked Etta strike a pose appropriately “Gothic.” As you can see, she obliged!

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‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

August 5, 2018 at 7:42 pm (California, True crime)

  I wasn’t planning to read this book. In fact, I was definitely planning NOT to read this book.

But I read it anyway. I finished it yesterday and have thought of little else ever since. The Golden State Killer – that moniker was bestowed upon him by Michelle McNamara – was an incredibly evil man.

After committing a hundred deliberately messy thefts, he was  dubbed the Visalia Ransacker.   He then embarked on a series of cruel and sadistic sexual assaults in the Sacramento area. Wikipedia estimates the known total of these to be fifty-one. This aggregation of atrocities resulted in his being called the East Area Rapist, or EAR. But there was worse to come.

The attacker wanted “justification” for killing, the psychiatrist said, and it was only time before he found it.

[“Salem man recalls obsessive search for the Golden State Killer,’ in The Statesman Journal]

Twelve murders followed. Twelve known murders, that is. The acronym was expanded to reflect this grim new reality. EAR became EAR/ONS. (The ONS stands for ‘Original Night Stalker;’ this, to differentiate him from Richard Ramirez, who was first dubbed the Night Stalker by the press in the mid 1980s.)

Unfortunately GSK (the Golden State Killer) was as cunning as he was brutal. He managed to avoid capture even when police appeared to be within a hair’s breadth of apprehending him.

This one man crime spree began in 1976 and ended ten years later. No one knows why it ended. Perhaps now that they have a suspect in custody, they will find out. I rather doubt it. The Wikipedia entry provides most of the known particulars. The sheer length of the list of offenses is gasp-inducing. Reading about even a few of them, one is sickened. Why read about it at all?

Here we come to Michelle McNamara. Michelle grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame University. She also possessed an advanced degree in creative writing (MFA), attained at the University of Minnesota.  She maintained a  blog called True Crime Diary.
She was especially intrigued by the case of the Golden State Killer. That interest became, by her own admission, an obsession. The obsession, in turn, became a book project.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a painstaking elucidation of a repugnant series of crimes. Michelle McNamara subjected some exceptionally painful scenarios to an unflinching gaze and then tried to draw from that process some useful knowledge about the perpetrator. Although she was able to synthesize and put in order a great deal of information, she was not able to pinpoint his identity. Small wonder. Several law enforcement entities brought all their resources to bear on this stubborn mystery and did not  get any further than Michelle did. The geography alone is challenging, especially for those of us not familiar with the terrain. The map below gives a general idea of where and when the crimes occurred.

Michelle McNamara might have gotten there, or at least gotten closer, eventually. But fate had decreed otherwise. She passed away in her sleep in April of 2016, leaving behind her husband Patton Oswalt and a seven-year-old daughter.

And the book, only partially written.

Once Patton Oswalt had begun to recover from this sudden, awful blow, he made the finishing of Michelle’s book a top priority. Working together, investigative journalist Billy Jensen and crime writer Paul Haynes saw the project through to completion.

The individual accused of the Golden State Killer crimes is Joseph James DeAngelo. He is 72 years old, a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer. At the time of his arrest, he was living in Citrus Heights, not far from the scene of several of his many depredations.

To my eyes, DeAngelo’s visage is frightful to behold. Some photos of the man when young have appeared online; they show him as more or less agreeable looking, in an average sort of way. I choose not to place any of those images here. Instead, I’d like to recall a novel by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of one man’s descent into depravity. In a portrait painted in his youth, Dorian Gray is handsome and appealing, even alluring. His face is smooth and unmarked. In life, it stays that way, even as his his actions become more and more cruel and unforgivable. But the portrait, hidden away in an attic room, tells the real story. And of course, this state of affairs cannot persist indefinitely…

Another classic work of fiction this subject has brought to mind is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Michelle McNamara was an excellent writer; her  style was ideally suited to the subject matter. To wit:

Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.

I love her use of figurative language and  short, punchy sentences. Stylistically it’s like the nonfiction equivalent of noir mystery fiction.

Here’s another passage, with longer sentences, equally effective. It concerns the very crucial question of whether these crimes could be linked to the same perpetrator:

A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.

This excerpt brought to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd:”

“The old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.

Illustration by NC Mallory of E.A. Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.”

 

From the blog Madness and Insight

Paul Holes is the cold case investigator who worked with Michelle, up until her death, on the Golden State Killer case. He had  this to say about the experience:

“The ability to learn the case, have insights that many do not have the aptitude for, the persistence, and the fun and engaging personality all wrapped up in one person was amazing. I know she was the only person who could have accomplished what she did in this case starting out as an outsider and  becoming one of us over time. I think this private/public partnership was truly unique in a criminal investigation. Michelle was perfect for it.”

So yes, this was a tough book to get through but at the same time I couldn’t stop reading it. I’m glad all of these facts have been read into the record. The victims and their families deserve to have their ordeals known and acknowledged. The fight for justice has, after all, been very much waged on their behalf. And those criminalists and officers of the law and of the court who have been in the trenches, in some cases for years – Detective Paul Holes, Sergeant Larry Crompton, Detective Richard Shelby, forensic scientist Mary Hong, and numerous others – are owed an enormous debt of gratitude.

Here is Paul Holes on how DNA was used to solve this case::

These words by Elizabeth Bruenig, appearing in today’s Washington Post, are part of a passionate brief opposing the death penalty. Wherever you stand on that issue, I believe that her thoughts on the most basic aspects of human nature are eloquently expressed here; as such they are, I think, a good way to conclude this post:

In the world we encounter evil. Our impulse is to destroy it. But here in the world, good and evil are hopelessly entwined; you contain evil, bring it to account, heal injuries and make restitution for wrongs — but it is impossible to finally destroy all evil without also taking the good with it. This is because good and evil are tangled in the hearts of human beings and cannot be sorted out in this life. And since the goodness in us — the humanity — is worth preserving, we ought not inflict death as a punishment, but rather cling to life, even unto the very last moment of hope.

Michelle Eileen McNamara: April 14,1970-April 21, 2016

 

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“In Okahumpka, he was known as the boy on the bike.” – Beneath a Ruthless Sun, by Gilbert King

July 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

This is the story of Lake County, Florida, in the mid twentieth century. It is a powder keg of a place where the corrupt law enforcement apparatus was controlled by a ruthless, pitiless sheriff named Willis McCall.

Sheriff Willis McCall, center, with two of his deputies

McCall presides over a process whereby Jesse Daniels, a slow and unworldly nineteen-year-old who spends most of his time bicycling around the tiny town of Okahumpka, is made to take  the blame for the rape of Blanche Knowles, a wife and mother from a socially prominent family. From this basic cast, King’s narrative expands outward to encompass numerous individuals hapless enough to catch the eye of the sheriff, as well as those who fought him any way they could (and there were not many safe ways in which to do this).

Location of Lake County, Florida, in red.

Oh and by the way, I say of Jesse Daniels that he was “made to take the blame’ rather than being convicted because initially, he was never tried. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, now know simply as the Florida State Hospital,  in Chattahoochee. If you’re imagining a place of sheer awfulness right out of a film shocker, you’d  be about right.

As this saga commences, Jesse Daniels was a gentle, loving soul, an only child with devoted parents. He was not insane but rather developmentally disabled. He had committed no criminal act. Yet he spent fourteen years in Chattahoochee.

(Another famous inmate of this notorious institution, also in the 1950s, was Ruby McCollum, whose case was written about so memorably by Zora Neale Hurston.)

Both Blanche Knowles and Jesse Daniels were white. The Knowles family had money and status; the Daniels family had neither. Pearl Daniels had suffered repeated miscarriages before having Jesse. Pearl’s husband Charles, Jesse’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was functionally illiterate and beset with arthritis and other adverse health conditions. He was unable to work.

As I was reading this book, I was experiencing many emotions: astonishment, dismay, and anger were just a few of  them. But reading about Pearl Daniels evoked feelings of almost unbearable sadness. Here was a woman for whom almost nothing in life had gone smoothly, who possessed so  little of material value. But the one thing she did prize above all else was her son Jesse.

Pearl Daniels and her son Jesse

Pearl never stopped fighting for Jesse. And in this fight she was aided and supported by a most extraordinary woman. At the time she enters this story, Mabel Norris Reese, later Chesley, was the editor of a small weekly newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic. (Her husband Paul Reese had bought the paper in 1947.) From the start, Reese was relentless in her effort to free Jesse Daniels. By means of her fiery editorials, she went after Sheriff McCall and the corrupt minions who carried out his orders. (A historian of the paper refers to one of them as “McCall’s right-hand thug.”) She was treading in dangerous territory. Her dog was poisoned. She received death threats. Her house was firebombed. Nothing stopped her.

Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday — city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.

From A History of Mount Dora’s News (2), by David Cohea

Eventually, because of financial strain and the danger of their position in the town, it became impossible for Mabel and Paul Reese to continue to put out the Mount Dora Topic. The marriage cracked under the strain. Mabel remarried, moved to Daytona Beach, and joined the staff of the Daytona Beach News. Her efforts to seek justice continued. She died in 1995, at the age of 80.

Mabel Norris Reese

Woven around the story of Jesse Daniels are numerous other crime narratives, most involving African Americans. They are painful to read. The depth of the racist sentiment is simply appalling. It was exacerbated by the changes being wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. The subtitle of  this book is ‘A True Story of  Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.’ Found, that is, if you believe that justice delayed – in Jesse Daniels’s case long delayed – is still justice.

My heart ached as I read this book. At the same time I was mesmerized by it. I had to keep reminding myself of the quotation from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(For an interesting backgrounder on this quote, click here.)

Beneath a Ruthless Sun was preceded by Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, this book tells the story of four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Lake County Florida, in 1949. Thurgood Marshall was their defending attorney. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is in a sense a follow-up to that first narrative. Gilbert King refers to the events told therein several times. While it’s not necessary to have read Devil in the Grove first, I rather wish that I had.

Devil in the Grove won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2013. I’d love to see Beneath a Ruthless Son receive a similar accolade.

[My family lived in Miami Beach, Florida, from 1953 to 1962, when I went north to college. Miami Beach was an oddly insular community, largely composed of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, their children – such as my parents – and their grandchildren – such as my brothers and myself. If there was any awareness of what was going on in Lake County, it was not, to the best of my recollection, communicated to us children.]

In 2007, Willis McCall’s son Douglas said of his father: “He was a son of the old South,” adding that “He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination and they never found anything.” Oh, but there was plenty to find, if one only knew where to look (and then how to impanel an impartial jury to hear the  evidence and judge accordingly).

 

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‘An act that becomes its own purifying absolution….’ – American Fire by Monica Hesse

August 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  It started in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in November of 2012. It went on  for the next five months: the burning down of random empty buildings. The county had an abundant stock of such structures, and someone was apparently determined to take a torch to every one of them.

By some miracle, no one was killed, or even hurt, during this pyromaniacal rampage. But the effort to catch the perpetrator strained law enforcement to the breaking point. Firefighters in particular were hard hit and utterly exhausted. Still, the effort put forth during this siege was enormous and unstinting.

Whispering Pines, a once flourishing motel/resort, had been sitting empty before being set ablaze.

One tactic involved staking out buildings that were deemed to be likely targets. All sorts of electronic surveillance devices, especially motion sensitive cameras, were deployed. Agents of law enforcement huddled in tents at night, some distance – but not too far – from the focus of incendiary temptation.

Sure enough, five months into the investigation, this was the set-up that suddenly broke the case wide open.

Monica Hesse has done a prodigious amount of research in order to bring this stranger-than-fiction tale to life. In addition, she introduces us to a varied cast of characters who live and work – at least occasionally – in the insular community that is Accomack. Some are strong and purposeful; others are quirky drifters. And one, Charlie Smith, is – well, you need to read  the book to make your own assessment of Charlie.

Including notes, American Fire is 255 pages long; the experience of reading of it is propulsive. I put pretty much everything else aside as I raced though this narrative. If you’re looking for a page turner, this is it.

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‘…unbefriended men with long-simmering rage and elaborate plans for revenge.’ – Incendiary by Michael Cannell

May 3, 2017 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, New York City, True crime)

   New York’s so called Mad Bomber was just such a man. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, he terrified the city with homemade explosive devices. He placed them in movie theaters,  train stations, phone booths, and rest rooms. All anyone knew about him was that he held a powerful grudge against Con Edison.

For sixteen years, the New York City Police pursued this wraith, with no results. Finally, in desperation, they consulted Dr. James Brussel.

An assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, his day job  was supervising the treatment of more than six thousand anguished souls at Creedmoor and other public asylums in and around New York City.

In addition to his responsibilities to the city, Dr. Brussel also saw private patients.

The question the police had for him was this: From the brief, handwritten correspondence provided by the Bomber, in addition to his actions and methods, could this distinguished psychiatrist venture any conclusions as to who this cunning and elusive person might be?

He could. And did. Hence, the book’s subtitle: The Psychiatrist, The Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

In Incendiary, Michael Cannell does a first class of job of reporting, particularly on the reporters themselves. He brings the world of the mid- century newsroom to vivid life. You can almost hear the noisy clattering of the typewriters and smell the tobacco smoke that suffused these places. In fact, the city itself, in that era, springs vividly to life. (As one who spent a fair amount of time in Gotham in the early sixties, this portrait really resonated.)

Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. [as the bomber was known at first] could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.

As I was reading this book, I found that George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, especially the adagio (middle movement) kept resonating in the back of my mind. And in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

 

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

April 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

 I experienced the usual angst in preparing to lead a discussion of  The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. Well, perhaps more than the usual angst.

I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it –  the book I mean, not the post –  and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and  deeply unsettling.

But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?

I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.

So: Here, in part, is how it went:

I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper  widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:

In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever  been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.

Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
It is Act Two, Scene One of Macbeth, in which the eponymous protagonist anticipates the terrible crime he is about to commit.

And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes  this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”

Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!

(I am at present reading a fascinating biography of Thomas De Quincey: The Opium Eater, by Grevel Lindop.)

After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as  there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:

I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)

All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:

…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].

The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to  death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded  adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)

What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.

An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.

One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:

Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”

I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:

 Front and back covers

 

Inside front cover

Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”

Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to  stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.

And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.

In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed  in a way that truly give one hope for the future.

Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She  picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:

So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.

And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895?  And anyway,  a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.

One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)

In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.

At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:

No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.

The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.

Robert Coombes in the late 1930s or early 1940s

 

 

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