Thursday, July 4, 2013

Duel with the Devil

No sooner had Manhattan's municipal water system come into effect when one of its wells became a crime scene.

In January 1800, the body of Gulielma ‘Elma' Sands was found floating in the frozen water of a well in Lispenard's Meadow, a marshy terrain near modern day Soho. She had left her Greenwich Street boardinghouse on December 22, 1799 after telling confidants that she intended to be married to carpenter Levi Weeks, who was a fellow boarder. Instead of a bride, Elma became a corpse in a watery grave and the blame was universally cast on Weeks.

Levi’s brother, Ezra, an influential building contractor, hired three prominent lawyers to defend him: former secretary of the treasury and Bank of the United States founder Alexander Hamilton, one-time senator and future Vice President Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston, who went on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court. Although the first two were political adversaries, together with Livingston they formed the young nation’s earliest ‘dream team’.  Four years later Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel, but while the trial ran its course, they cooperated so well that the prosecution never stood a chance.

The trial of Levi Weeks was the first American murder trial to be transcribed for posterity, thanks to the new ‘technology’ of shorthand. Eager for details of the ‘Manhattan Well Mystery’, thousands of people attended the proceedings throughout their duration, which was longer than any other American trial to date. Afterwards, future New York Post editor William Coleman published the transcripts in book format.

Duel with the Devil is not merely about a landmark murder mystery: the book reaches out to explore the social customs and political chicanery of post-Revolutionary War New York. A case in point: Aaron Burr’s water company owned the crime scene, had employed Levi Weeks, and rejected a bid by a relative of Elma Sands. According to the author, Burr himself had “financial relationships” with the court recorder and the clerk and past dealings with the mayor and the judge.

Duel with the Devil is another gem by Paul Collins, who also wrote one of my favourite True Crime books: `Murder of the Century'. Collins, who is already celebrated as NPR's "literary detective", once again reveals his genius as a historian and a detective. His theory on the identity of Elma's killer may be as close to the truth as we can get after 214 years.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Infidelity: the Death of Normalcy

Infidelity (ECW Press, October 2013) is a novel about the proverbial Bad Romance: two people in a relationship that starts out cathartic and ends up corrosive- to themselves and those close to them.

Ronnie, a free-spirited hairdresser and ex-teenaged rebel, is engaged to Aaron, an ambitious caterer who tries to make an honest woman of her. Bored and antagonized by a routine existence, she begins an affair with Charlie, a neurotic  and married writer who is mesmerized by the very brashness that Aaron discourages. They meet in his university office, in Toronto hotel rooms, Bay Street bars, any place where neither is reminded of their respective obligations at home. Their need for one another obliterates all other responsibilities, until the people in their everyday lives- Ronnie’s fiancé, Charlie’s wife and autistic son- become casualties in the ultimate fallout.

Infidelity is gritty and real. It doesn’t have a happy ending, and nor should it, because Charlie and Ronnie aren’t truly in love- they’re seeking an escape from their respective personal demons. The entire novel is a beautifully-written reminder that relationships born out of desperation or rebellion have negative- and often permanent- consequences.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Recollecting the Scattered Dutchman

The murder of William Guldensuppe hasn’t received the same level of recognition as other gruesome killings that took place during the closing years of the nineteenth century. But throughout the latter half of 1897, the people of New York talked about little else.

On June 26th, 1897, some boys out to escape the summer heat found a strange object floating in the East River and retrieved it. It turned out to be a headless and limbless male torso wrapped in oilcloth. The repulsive discovery was initially passed off as a medical student prank, but the conclusion changed to murder after doctors said that the dismemberment lacked the skill of a medical professional. The announcement sparked public interest, but when the missing limbs were found in Harlem soon afterward, intrigue morphed into hysteria. Who was the victim? Where was his head? And who had killed him?

Newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and the aging Joseph Pulitzer turned the mysterious affair into a media circus, driving up the circulation of their respective papers as they competed to solve the case first.  This was the era of the detective journalist, so reporters from both camps schemed, tricked, and stole in order to get names and locate evidence. They were so tenacious that the press arguably deserves the credit for identifying the victim as bathhouse masseur William Guldensuppe and his suspected killers as barber Martin Thorn and midwife Augusta Nack.

Murder of the Century reads more like a detective novel than a work of history, but the author is constantly faithful to the facts and has the endnotes to prove it. Paul Collins, who moonlights as the literary detective on the NPR show “Weekend Edition”, recreates the investigation, trial, and aftermath in a way that keeps the pages turning.

As the author of three historical True Crime books, I can tell you that his task wasn’t an easy one: the ‘Case of the Scattered Dutchman’ was not widely written about after the trial concluded, so the hunt for non-newspaper sources must have been taxing. His persistence uncovered a surprising amount of forgotten details, which he uses to present his own version of how William Guldensuppe was killed, and by whom.

This is not just the story of a love triangle that ended in bloodshed: Collins has evoked Gilded Age America and its merciless tabloid wars, the echoes of which can still be felt today.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder

The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder
I heard about this book several years ago, when the Daily Telegraph  (UK) ran an article about 23-year-old Giles Freeman Covington, a seaman who was hanged in Oxford in 1791 for murdering an elderly peddler. After the execution his corpse was sent to an anatomy school for use as a teaching aide. The skeleton ended up as a museum display piece, and remained so until 2001, when the curator of the Oxford Museum declared his intention to give the remains a Christian burial. The man added that he questioned the justice of Covington’s conviction and planned to secure a Royal Pardon.
The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder revisits the October 8, 1787 killing of David Charteris, a Scottish peddler, and the alleged miscarriage of justice that followed. Charteris was found beaten to death in a ditch at Nuneham, Abingdon, but primitive police resources and the reluctance of local residents to “get involved” left the case unsolved for four years.
A break in the investigation occurred when gossip led to the arrest of one Richard Kilby, an army deserter who offered to tell all in exchange for a Royal Pardon. He told the authorities that Giles Covington and an accomplice named Charles Shury had killed Charteris during a robbery attempt gone wrong.
When Covington’s ship docked in London in 1791 he was arrested and brought to Oxford to stand trial. He didn’t accept accusation gracefully: while Kilby was giving evidence, Covington sprang from his seat and tried to punch him. The jury returned a guilty verdict and three days later, on March 7, 1791, he was executed at the entrance to Oxford Castle. Before submitting to the hangman’s deadly art, he tossed a paper off the scaffold: it was a letter addressed to a local magistrate and read, "I hope you and your family will live to find that Giles Freeman Covington died innocent and then I hope you would relieve the widow that is left behind if Bedlam is not to be her doom."
The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder is a slim volume about a murder and aftermath that weren’t particularly shocking or sensational, but Mark Davies points out that Covington’s conviction on the basis of an accomplice’s testimony may have been a miscarriage of justice, and ‘justice denied’ stories have a certain pathos. The book also provides a fascinating insight into late eighteenth century social customs and mores. Davies notes in his forward, “Most (of the people who appear in the book) – ordinary working people of little note – would no doubt be greatly surprised to find themselves remembered over 200 years later. But that, I hope is part of the charm of this tale.”
I’m not sure if the Oxford Museum curator went ahead with the pardon request and, if so, what the outcome was. Apparently a similar application was made on March 7, 1991 (the 200th anniversary of Covington’s execution) but a spokesman for the Royal Prerogative of Mercy division at the Home Office stated, "Normally cases like this involve people who are still alive and in prison. But the rules are still the same. (The applicants) will have to produce new evidence to show the original conviction was unsafe." After over two hundred years it’s unlikely that exculpatory evidence will ever come to light, but perhaps a public exoneration in this book will be sufficient.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Gangster Star is Reborn

Whenever newsmen wrote about American gangland during the Prohibition era, two names usually made into the final copy: Al Capone and Legs Diamond. Both were household names and front page staples, but their similarity ended there. Capone was a multimillionaire whose criminal empire and power made the President uneasy. Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond had a handful of followers and was only modestly successful in the bootlegging and narcotics rackets. Yet Diamond was so famous that he hung around with celebrities, received fan mail, and nearly became the subject of a MGM feature film.

“Legs Diamond, Gangster” is the biography of the handsome Irish-American bootlegger who competed with Big Al for headlines during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although spiteful rivals referred to Jack Diamond as “overrated”, author Pat Downey has written an excellent reminder of why Legs made such a splash during his day. The book covers the four attempts on his life, war with former protégé Dutch Schultz, Hotsy Totsy bloodbath, and other acts of violence in which Diamond was either an instigator or a target. Also included is his inglorious military service, an ill-fated trip to Europe that made him a celebrity on both sides of the pond, and his relationship with Ziegfeld dancer Marion “Kiki” Roberts.

“Legs Diamond, Gangster” is NOT a rehash of old newspaper articles and Diamond biographies. Using official records, family interviews, and a healthy dose of scepticism, Pat Downey does a thorough job of reconstructing Jack Diamond’s life from his tragic Philadelphia boyhood to his sudden demise in a cheap rooming house. At various points along the way, a few persistent myths are debunked. Example: Diamond’s nickname allegedly came from his dancing and/or bullet-dodging skills, but Downey offers evidence that the moniker belonged originally to Jack’s brother Eddie. This historical tidbit is one of many that make this book one of the most entertaining and best-researched gangster bios to come out in a long time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dying for Love

Famed Chicago historian Richard C. Lindberg has excavated the long-buried stories of Belle Gunness and Johann Hoch, two serial killers who preyed on the lovelorn during the closing years of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth. It’s a darkly fascinating look at a ruthless pair who profited from their respective marriage-murder sprees until the law caught up with one and fire destroyed the other… maybe.
Belle Gunness was a homely middle-aged widow whose Northwest Indiana farm included an unmarked graveyard for all her slain suitors. From 1900-1908 she lured well-to-do men to her home, promising love and material comfort and delivering a horrific death instead. She is arguably the most prolific female serial killer of her era, and Lindberg enlivens her story with details about recent DNA testing of human remains found on the old Gunness farm site in LaPorte. When a fire destroyed the place in 1908, apparently killing the murderess along with her children, some investigators were convinced that the adult female skeleton found was not Belle’s. The authorities had been closing in on her, alerted by the suspicious relatives of her victims, and many believed that she’d murdered a homeless woman to aid in her escape. The mystery isn’t solved yet, but this modern postscript suggests that one day it may be.
Johann Hoch’s legend is not as well remembered, but no less intriguing. A squat, balding man who somehow appealed to women, Hoch spent some time as an apprentice to serial killer H.H. Holmes (a fact that Lindberg’s masterful research has brought to light), whose Englewood “murder castle” claimed dozens of lives. Hoch married thirty-five women for their money and assets and killed at least ten of them. Forensic science proved his undoing: one of his victims, Marie Walcker, had arsenic in her system, and when the mortician proved that the poison had not been a component of the embalming fluid, Hoch was charged with murder. He was convicted after a sensational trial and hanged in 1906.
Lindberg documents the murder for profit sprees of Gunness and Hoch in alternating chapters, and in a gritty, intense style that makes the events he describes as chilling today as they were at the time of their discovery. Heartland Serial Killers will appeal to True Crime fans, lovers of Chicago history, and anyone who enjoys a literary foray into the underworld of human nature.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Deadly and Delicious

On the afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice Livingston Fleming ordered clam chowder and lemon meringue pie from the kitchen of New York’s Colonial Hotel, where she lived with her three children. When it arrived, she wrapped the pie, poured the chowder into a pail, and asked her ten-year-old daughter Gracie to deliver the food to her mother, Evelina Bliss, who lived nearby.

The gesture was surprising, and suspicious. Mary Alice’s relations with her mother had been less than cordial, despite later protests to the contrary. She had borne three children out of wedlock and was pregnant with a fourth, an accomplishment that drew Mrs. Bliss’ ire. Mary Alice was also desperate for money, and Evelina was all that stood between her and a massive inheritance from her father. When Mrs. Bliss died hours after eating the chowder, Mary Alice was arrested for murder and became the darling of the New York press.

Mary Alice
Arsenic and Clam Chowder recounts Mary Alice’s sensational 1896 murder trial. The case riveted the public for several reasons. One was that the defendant came from one of New York’s must illustrious families: the Livingstons. Another was that the crime was matricide, which was relatively rare at the time. A third, which sent the newspapers into a frenzy and made jury selection difficult, was that if found guilty, Mary Alice could be the first woman to die in New York’s electric chair. These factors, combined with salacious testimony about Mary Alice's unladylike love life, ensured that the courtroom was filled every day of the trial and kept the story on the front pages throughout the summer of 1896.

Henry Hale Bliss
Author James D. Livingston does a nice job of linking Mary Alice to notable contemporary figures. While awaiting trial in the Tombs, one of her fellow inmates was Maria Barbella, an Italian immigrant who nearly became the electric chair’s first female victim. Her stepfather, Henry Hale Bliss, was struck by an automobile in September 1899, making him the first motor vehicle casualty in the United States. She faced Howe and Hummel, the city’s most notorious and corrupt criminal defense team, during a breach of promise suit she brought against a former lover.

In addition to recounting the crime, trial, and aftermath, Livingston explores issues such as jury bias, capital punishment, women’s rights, and the precise meaning of “reasonable doubt” in court cases. I didn’t find these statistic-laden sections as compelling as the rest of the narrative, but readers seeking a broader overview of the forces that helped decide Mary Alice Livingston Fleming’s fate will find persuasive evidence that the jury’s verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Arsenic and Clam Chowder can be enjoyed by True Crime fans, social historians, or mystery buffs wanting to see life imitate art.