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.