Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Bibliophile's Paradise

Considering the amount of money I've spent on books over the years, I should own a controlling interest in, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and even Abe Books, which makes thousands of out-of-print crime titles accessible once again. Now that I'm older, wiser, and am carrying a bigger credit card balance, I've been seeking ways to moderate spending without giving up access to valuable research material.

One site I highly recommend for access to older and FREE reading material is the Internet Archive. Declaring itself to be 'Universal Access to Human Knowledge', it has thousands of books available for download or online viewing. Most material published in the United States prior to 1923 is now in the public domain, and the Internet Archive is a virtual library of these older treasures. (According to attorney Stephen Fishman, the U.S. Copyright Office estimates that 85% of all works published between 1923 and 1963 ever had their copyrights renewed, so there are plenty of good books, magazines, photos, etc from this later period that have no restrictions on reproduction and distribution.) Among the books that I have downloaded from this site and enjoyed are:
  • Apaches of New York, by Alfred Henry Lewis. Originally published in 1911, this series of portraits of Lower East Side crimes and criminals is more entertaining and accurate. But for those who are looking for a good 'feel' of the period, it's a winner.
  • Crime of the Century, or the Assassination of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, by Henry M. Hunt. Published in 1889, this book was the first and only serious investigation of the disappearance and murder of Chicago physician Dr. Cronin. It's probable that he fell victim to the Irish terrorist element that he was known to despise. Some of the illustrations are unsettling even by today's standards, especially an artist's sketch of Cronon's bloated corpse after it was retrieved from a water resevoir.
  • The Trial of the Reverend Mr. Avery. In 1833, a Methodist minister was tried for the murder of pregnant factory worker Sarah M. Cornell, with whom he'd been having an affair. The case received national attention and was one of the longest murder trials in Rhode Island history. This volume is a trial transcript as opposed to a book-length treatment of the case, but absorbing nonetheless.
  • Darkness and Daylight, or the Lights and Shadows of New York. Published in 1886, this 740 page book has three authors- a female missionary, a journalist, and a police captain. It's a grim and eye-opening series of essays, commentaries, and sketches of Manhattan low life.

If true crime researchers ever had a Holy Grail, this site is it. Happy hunting!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ambrose Bierce- so bitter he's funny

While reading Harold Schechter's engrossing volume True Crime: an American Anthology, I was introduced to Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), an Ohio-born writer whose acidic stories and pessimistic commentary earned him the nickname 'Bitter Bierce'. It's debatable whether he was bitter or just shell-shocked by his Civil War experiences, but in any event, I found his articles for the 1860s publication News Letter to be corrosive yet brilliant satire. Below is an example:

The other day, the dead body of a Chinaman was found in an alley of this city, and taken to the morgue for identification. Deceased was addicted to doing odd jobs about town for what he could get, but otherwise bore a good character. The body was found partially concealed under a paving-stone which was embedded in the head like a precious jewel in the pate of a toad. A crowbar was driven through the abdomen and one arm was riven from its socket by some great convulsions of nature. As deceased was seen by two eight-hour men enjoying his opium-pipe and his usual health just previously to the discovery of his melancholy remains, it is supposed he came to his death by heart disease.
News Letter August 6, 1870

Bierce's closing comment was preposterous, but considering that the Chinese Exclusion Act was only twelve years in the future, the authorities probably voiced the same conclusion. He was a tireless critic of the criminal justice system and other institutions that were fundamentally flawed. What makes his articles so enjoyable are the pearl of truth embedded in all the sand and slime that he forced upon his readers.

Any true crime author whose subject matter involves late nineteenth century America should acquaint themselves with Bierce's works. 'Bitter Bierce' told it like few dared to, and the researcher will see the time and place as they really were as opposed to how they wish to be remembered.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


If you have not done so yet, be sure to visit J*Grit- the Internet Index of Tough Jews. I discovered this site in December, when I was whiling away an evening clicking on Pat Hamou's recommended links. Naturally, the first section I went to was 'Criminals'. There were some well-written articles about the Purple Gang, Dutch Schultz, and Martin 'Buggsy' Goldstein, who was allegedly the model for Edward G. Robinson's gangster persona. The site, however, doesn't restrict itself to remarkable crooks. An 'Athletes' category features boxers Barney Ross and Benny Leonard as well as karate champion Marilyn Fierro. Other categories are 'Adventurers', 'Military & Spies', 'Public Servants', 'Radicals', and 'Resisters'.

After spending hours reading the profiles of Jewish men and women who distinguished themselves in the fields of sports, public service, espionage, and crime, I contacted the site owner and offered to submit a story about Jack Zelig. He accepted, and posted the article here. Last week, he also posted an article that I wrote about Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach. I must have been bitten by a J*Grit bug, because I intend to submit pieces about Monk Eastman and Dopey Benny Fein as well.

For those of you in the New York area, I will be appearing with Ron Arons, Rich Cohen, and one other author at the Tenement House Museum on March 11. There will be a panel discussion, followed by a reading and a book signing. Hope to see some of you there!!