Murder, They Wrote
The art of literary mayhem.
Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By JON L. BREEN
Why do we read true crime stories?
Is it a voyeuristic interest in the details of someone else's misfortune? Do we enjoy a reminder that our own lives, mundane and uneventful by comparison, could be much worse? Or perhaps our interest represents something more ennobling: a desire to understand the elements of the criminal justice system (police, courts, prisons), the conditions of society that breed crime, and the psychology of criminal behavior in the hope of making it all better. Most likely we just appreciate nonfiction writing with the high literary value that an excellent new anthology from the Library of America provides.
Editor Harold Schechter was wise to arrange the selections in True Crime chronologically by date of publication, allowing the reader to trace the development of attitudes toward crime and styles of true crime writing. The first entry is a spare factual account from William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (1651) of the execution of a murderer who came over on the Mayflower. The last, concerning a notorious late 20th-century case, was published in 2001. Three brief pieces, one by Benjamin Franklin, represent the 18th century; about 130 pages cover 19th and 20th century writings, comprising over three-quarters of the total page count.
While the element of titillation was always present, the initial goal of American true crime reportage was saving souls. In selections from the 1699 compilation Pillars of Salt, Cotton Mather follows short descriptions of murder, piracy, rape, bestiality, and other capital sins with page after page of dialogue between minister and the condemned on their way to the gallows. What initially looks like the dullest possible reading becomes oddly compelling as the subject of the exercise desperately strives for an acceptable level of repentance.
An anonymous piece on Jesse Strang, hanged in 1827 New York for the murder of his lover's elderly husband, is the first to resemble a contemporary true-crime article, essentially sober, factual, and detailed. It is drawn from The Record of Crimes in the United States (1834), a favorite book of crime buff Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is himself represented by an 1838 notebook entry about a waxworks featuring notorious murderers. An 1836 newspaper article on the Helen Jewett case by James Gordon Bennett pioneers the sensationalized tabloid approach to true crime, with a clear goal of selling newspapers.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that writers of more than a century ago addressed issues that remain controversial today--the death penalty, the insanity plea, the efficacy of the jury system, trying minors as adults--and with the same sorts of arguments. Abraham Lincoln's account of an 1841 murder prosecution, absent a corpse and based on circumstantial evidence, was advanced as a cautionary note on capital punishment. An 1876 piece by Lafcadio Hearn offers a chilling account of a death house and botched hanging. Ambrose Bierce wrote in 1868, "We yearn for a law making temporary insanity a capital offense."
In a selection from Roughing It (1872) Mark Twain writes:
The anonymous 1875 pamphlet, "Jesse Harding Pomeroy, the Boy Fiend," concludes of the 14-year-old multiple murderer: "The gallows is the proper doom of the wretched boy, who is as fit to roam at large, or be confined in a weak cell as the tiger who has once tasted blood." (In fact, the death sentence was overturned and Pomeroy lived until 1932, spending almost two-thirds of his 60-year prison sentence in solitary confinement.)
Though many classic cases are included, this book is not intended to be an encyclopedia of notorious American crimes. Apart from Twain's description of lawless Virginia City, there's not much Old West action. A section of murder ballads omits the shooting of Jesse James by the "dirty little coward" Robert Ford. Political assassinations are not included, apart from José Martí's 1881 article on the trial of Charles Guiteau, President Garfield's unhinged killer. O.J. Simpson is mentioned only in passing.
Such Hollywood cases as the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the rape trials of comedian Fatty Arbuckle are omitted, though the 1958 stabbing of gangster Johnny Stompanato by the daughter of Lana Turner is covered in a 1983 piece by Jay Robert Nash. The Lindbergh kidnapping case is represented only by Edna Ferber's article deploring the chic and trendy crowds at the 1935 trial of German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
The 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts, murder of the Bordens is covered in the section of verse, though not by the famous jump-rope rhyme that begins "Lizzie Borden took an ax." Among other cases given a poetical treatment are the drowning murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette (the 1906 case on which Theodore Dreiser would base An American Tragedy) and the 1930s robbery spree of Bonnie and Clyde--as penned with a surprising literary flair by Bonnie Parker herself.
It's tempting to call the 1920s the peak period of great American crime writing. Librarian Edmund Pearson brought a relaxed and elegant style, exemplary scholarship, and encyclopedic knowledge of criminal history to his essays, approaching each case like a well-read critic discerning innovations and influences in a new work of literature. His 1926 piece "Hell Benders, or The Story of a Wayside Tavern" discusses the history of "wholesale murderers" before zeroing in on an 1870s case in which a series of travelers unfortunate enough to stop for the night at a Kansas tavern were murdered for financial gain.
A chronicler quite different in style but equally impressive in achievement was Damon Runyon. At 67 pages, the compilation of his articles about the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray for the murder of Snyder's husband Albert is the longest piece in the book. In an era before television, Runyon provided the kind of novelistic description and detailed scene-setting that might not occur to a journalist of today, even one as gifted as he. Consider the following on one major actor in the drama:
Post-twenties highlights are also plentiful: John Bartlow Martin on the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, an unsolved serial killing case in 1930s Cleveland that is as baffling as Jack the Ripper, if not as notorious; A.J. Liebling looking back on the turn-of-the-century competition of New York dailies and the involvement of newspaper writers in real detective work; Zora Neale Hurston on a black-on-white killing in the waning days of Jim Crow; Gay Talese on a minor figure in the Manson case; Jimmy Breslin on Son of Sam.
Books and newspapers are the most common sources; the magazine most frequently represented, with three selections, is the New Yorker. Only two pieces come from the specialized true crime magazines that were a popular newsstand genre for most of the 20th century: a semi-fictionalized 1936 narrative by a deputy sheriff "as told to" Jim Thompson, and an account of Richard Speck's killing of eight student nurses in 1966 Chicago by the prolific W.T. Brannon, once known as the "dean of American crime writers." Brannon credits an astonishing number of police officers by name, presumably as an aid to getting their cooperation.
Schechter introduces each article with a note on the author and, where necessary, about the eventual outcome of the case. Besides those already mentioned, contributors include literary giants (Frank Norris, James Thurber, Truman Capote), celebrated journalists (Alexander Woollcott, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Kilgallen), crime fiction writers (Robert Bloch, James Ellroy), and true-crime specialists (Miriam Allen deFord, Albert Borowitz, Ann Rule).
The final essay, by Dominick Dunne, concerns Lyle and Erik Menendez, the privileged Beverly Hills brothers convicted of the 1989 murder of their parents. Though it has a fascinating story to tell, it is one of the weakest pieces in the book, with a name-dropping celebrity/tabloid sensibility, irrelevant lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous details, meandering organization, and cliché-ridden prose full of vague attributions of the "some said" variety.
It's tempting to wonder if Schechter chose it to make a cautionary point about the state of contemporary true crime writing.
Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.