True Crime

Ed. by Harold Schechter

Americans love their criminals. And if statistics for prison population (the United States incarcerates more of its citizens, per capita, than any other country in the world) or serial killers (roughly three-quarters of twentieth-century serial killers have been American) mean anything, they have a lot of them to love.

That said, and placing the sick behaviour of desperately underserviced groupies to one side, the closest most people want to get to real criminals is to read about them – at least before television shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted let us watch them on TV. “Within a certain limit we have a fondness for this sort of thing,” Ambrose Pierce opines, “the line at which it should stop being drawn quite close to our own person, but not embracing it.” But where does our fascination with crime come from in the first place? Editor Harold Schechter, currently the dean of American true crime writing (and co-author of The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers), suggests the usual explanations in his introduction to this distinguished anthology. We are, in a nutshell, curious about these things precisely because they are so alien to our everyday experience. But whether such curiosity has any social value or is a potentially dangerous form of prurience is a matter still before the jury. Cotton Mather thought his miscellany of death-row confessions Pillars of Salt would scare a wayward public into better church attendance (the misdemeanor his dead men walking repent the most). William Randolph Hearst, on the other hand, just wanted to sell papers by pandering to what Benjamin Franklin (represented here) referred to as “the corrupt Taste of the Majority.” In other words, if it bled it led.

Attitudes toward crime and criminals also vary. On the one hand the killer (and the majority of these pieces deal with murder) may be likened to a wild beast or mad dog. So Jesse Pomeroy (“the boy fiend”) is presented as a “furious beast” in danger of being “torn limb from limb” by an angry mob, the assassin Guiteau seems to José Martí, covering his trial, to resemble “nothing so much as a wild pig,” and Damon Runyan sees in femme fatale Ruth Brown Snyder a “blond throwback to the jungle cat.” In the court of public opinion Leopold and Loeb are likened to rattlesnakes and mad dogs and Richard Speck to a “sub-animal.” Never one to mince words, H. L. Mencken suggests the shortest way with such creatures:

Of such sort are the abysmal brutes that the New Penology tells us ought to be handled more tenderly. They are not responsible, it appears, for their wanton and incessant felonies; the blame lies upon society. And the way to deal with them is not to butcher them, nor even to jug them, but to turn them over to “trained experts,” that they may be rehabilitated. Simply stating such imbecilities is sufficient refutation of them. Society is no more to blame for a gorilla of that kidney than it is for a mad dog, and the bogus “experts” can no more cure him than a madstone can cure a dog. There is only one way to deal with him, and that is to put him to death as soon as possible.

The sort of thinking Mencken is dripping acid on here – and which comes in for similar unforgiving treatment from Dominick Dunne in the anthology’s final selection, an account of the Menendez murders – finds expression in two accounts of the Robert Allen Edwards trial. The case itself involved the archetypal story, popularized by Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (which was, in turn, based on the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown case, and which led to Dreiser being asked to cover the Edwards trial) about a young man who kills his girlfriend, Freda, in order to better his chances at marrying up. In other words, Edwards was less a mad dog than a man on the make. Dreiser would convict, but finally pleads extenuating circumstances of a very modern sort: “I cannot get out of my mind . . . that he was influenced by the very chemical and physical influences which betray all of us at certain times in our life, and particularly in our youth.” In “Sex and the All-American Boy” Dorothy Kilgallen goes further, directing an accusatory finger outward to indict society while extending some sympathy for “Bobby’s puny, misspent young life”:

He was afraid to confide in anyone whose mature advice and counsel might have shown him a bit of daylight on the road ahead. He was afraid of society – afraid and ashamed. And out of his fear and shame and his cowardice, he gambled away Freda’s life and his own. You might almost say it was society who handed him the dice and urged him throw.

It is interesting to note throughout this anthology the expression of these different perspectives – criminals as mad dogs or merely misunderstood – and their fluctuating currencies over the years. In our current law-and-order environment one suspects popular opinion inclines toward Mencken’s “string ’em up” attitude (Mencken himself would likely find himself at home on cable TV or talk radio). But you never know when a more nuanced, sympathetic understanding will make a comeback.

For the most part Schechter has done an outstanding job of selection. One is delighted to learn more about famous “crimes of the century” that made headlines in their day but have now all but been forgotten. And one is equally thrilled to be introduced to writers such as Edmund Pearson, a man Schechter describes as “our country’s answer to the revered Scottish crime historian William Roughead” (not quite, in my opinion), and Kennedy speechwriter John Bartlow Martin (here writing a history of the underappreciated Cleveland “torso” murders). In story after story horrors are exquisitely evoked, even in the killers’ own words – a particularly brutal example being the testimony of James Yates concerning the murder of his family. In fact, if the collection has a weak link it is the selections from “name” authors. The pieces by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frank Norris simply don’t measure up – as history, sociology, or even literature.

Review first published online April 27, 2009.

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