Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Documentary Fiction: the Next Frontier in True Crime

It used to make me cringe whenever I’d see the expression ‘nonfiction novel’ used. It’s a contradictory term: novels, by definition, are fictitious, even if they’re ‘based on a true story’. But Canadian author Michael Winter has convinced me that there can indeed be such a beast.
In the summer of 1993, a single mother named Brenda Young was found on the floor of her Empire Avenue apartment in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  She had been stabbed thirty-one times and her underwear was so tightly wrapped around her neck that the investigators initially assumed that it had been knotted in place. Her on-again /off-again boyfriend, Randy Druken, was convicted of murder and spent six years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. In 2000 Druken received $2.1-million in compensation and a government apology.
Michael Winter intended to write a nonfiction account of Brenda’s murder and its aftermath, but felt uneasy about exploiting the death of a woman whom he later described as being “alive, really alive”. He was also concerned about the effect such a book might have on her survivors and the other people who were drawn unwillingly into the messy investigation and court proceedings. For awhile he shelved the project, but the story stayed with him, its allure becoming stronger with time. Finally Winter yielded- partly. Instead of a true crime book, he wrote The Death of Donna Whalen, a work of what he calls “documentary fiction.”
This novel takes its content and storyline from the public record, and anyone familiar with the case will recognize the real participants’ fictional counterparts. (Brenda Young is Donna Whalen, while Randy Druken becomes Sheldon Troke.) But what keeps the book from being invasive is its presentation as a fictionalized version of a real case.
The narrative unfolds primarily through the direct words of the characters, which are grouped and structured to resemble trial testimony and police witness statements. Liberal use of Newfoundland slang gives a more powerful sense of setting than any description of downtown St. John’s or the harbor. The entire presentation resonates deeply with me personally because I ‘m originally from Eastern Canada, but you don’t have to be a Maritimer to enjoy this dark and compelling drama.
By dressing up an actual murder case as a fictional story, Winter helps outsiders better understand Donna Whalen / Brenda Young, Sheldon Troke / Randy Druken, and their world, which can be incomprehensible: Donna feared for her life, but let the man who slapped her around look after her two children whenever she wanted a night out. Donna’s little girl, Sharon, knew that Sheldon pushed her mother around yet still regarded him as a parent figure, going to him for advice when she had problems with her friends. But Winter demonstrates that violence was a natural and trivialized by-product of that society, where parties could end in knife fights and a jail cell was a second home to many.
Some readers may have trouble with how Michael Winter displaces elaborate descriptions and linear plot in favor of letting the story be told via a series of participant monologues. I admit that his approach is unique. But it makes The Death of Donna Whalen “alive, really alive”, just as he wanted Brenda Young to be remembered.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath

In the summer of 1915, the British public experienced a temporary, if morbid, diversion from the horrors of World War I. George Smith, a middle-aged serial bigamist who was accused of drowning three wives for their money between 1912 and 1914, stood trial for murder. The Fleet Street dailies christened it the Brides in the Bath case.

Smith targeted spinsters who were considered past marriageable age. Their gratitude at finding a husband in a world unfriendly to single women weakened their instincts and made them willingly give him control of their assets. After marrying Bessie Mundy (1912), Alice Burnham (1913), and Margaret Lofty (1914), he rented lodgings with a bath and had each wife make out a will and purchase life insurance, in both instances naming him as the beneficiary. Once all papers were signed, he convinced them that they were ill enough to see a doctor. Then Smith allegedly drowned them while they were soaking in the tub, using the recent doctor’s visit to suggest that the women had fainted from ill-health and died accidentally.

The inquests on all three women each absolved Smith of wrongdoing, but his use of the same modus operandi –a bathtub drowning in a boarding house- finally aroused the suspicion of Alice Burnham’s father. But Smith’s conviction was not guaranteed, especially since three inquest juries had seen fit to turn him loose. The Crown turned to eminent forensic scientist Bernard Spilsbury, whose talent for collecting and accurately assessing post-mortem evidence was unparalleled. His testimony withstood the barrages of the eminent Sir Edward Marshall Hall, who represented the defendant, and sent Smith to the gallows in August 1915.

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath skilfully intertwines the new century’s most sensational domestic murder case to date and the evolution of scientific principles in murder investigations. Spilsbury asserted that George Smith had murdered the three women by suddenly grabbing and lifting their legs, forcing their heads under water and preventing any outcry that other lodgers might hear. His medico-legal testimony at the trial likened him to the deductive literary hero Sherlock Holmes, and the awestruck jury found Smith guilty.

But was he?

Author Jane Robins points out that Smith was an undisputed bigamist, but was he actually a murderer? He had married several women between 1908 and 1914, some of whom testified at the trial, and while he maltreated and robbed all of them, only three died. While the powerful similarity between the deaths of Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty make his guilt probable, Robins debates whether he would have been executed if tried today. It’s an interesting question- perhaps a skilled defense lawyer would have raised enough reasonable doubt in a modern courtroom to gain Smith a lesser sentence.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

RIP Rick Mattix

On October 27, 2010, the true crime community lost one of its greatest minds, strongest supporters, and best friends. I’m talking about Rick ‘Mad Dog’ Mattix.

I haven’t fully accepted the fact that there will be no more wryly humorous e-mails from Rick, discussing his current projects and encouraging me to persist with a good idea. Even if he was having a bad day, he could reframe all the aggravating people and incidents in a way that made me tell him more than once that he should write skits for Saturday Night Live.

In 2003 Bill Helmer encouraged me to turn my long-time fascination with Dean O’Banion into a book. Rick soon took up that cause, complaining that if he saw another Al Capone biography come out, he’d apply for a bonfire permit. I soon caved in to such hilarious determination and assembled my collection of notes and photocopies into a book, Guns and Roses. When I wrote The Man Who Got Away and The Starker, Rick sent me material, suggestions, and corrections for both titles and graciously agreed to provide the forward for the former. I like to think that they are much better books because of his input.

Like Bill, Rick warmly greeted newcomers to the field of true crime writing. Some forums are zealously (or maybe jealously is a better word) guarded by gatekeepers who regard any new blood as a threat to their standing. Rick thought that was bullshit. He believed that we all stood to learn from one another. He’s right. “Today’s newbies will probably be one of your favorite authors tomorrow,” he told me once. Right again.

Rick, you’re probably having a great time right now and wondering what we’re all fussing about down here, but until we all meet again, please know the following:

Many an aching heart continues to beat for you
and many an eye continues to pay tribute
Too solemn for words.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Missing Corpse

The theft of Manhattan millionaire Alexander T. Stewart’s corpse from its ornate vault on November 7, 1878 shocked Gilded Age New York. It triggered one of the biggest police investigations in the NYPD’s history, and inspired Mark Twain’s satiric short story, The Stolen White Elephant. But because the body was never recovered, the public soon lost interest and the case became a grotesque footnote in the city’s wilder past.

The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon is about a crime that does not initially seem substantial enough to warrant a book. No one was murdered: the ‘victim’ was already dead. Because the police bungled the investigation and the body snatchers were never caught, the whole affair in retrospect seems like life imitating vaudeville. But attorney Wayne Fanebust’s absorbing account of Stewart’s post-mortem abduction reminds us why the case was a public and media sensation in 1878.

When A.T. Stewart, who was widely known as the ‘Merchant Prince of Manhattan’, died in 1876, he was worth an estimated $40-50 million. Although his wealth put him on a par with Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and other Gilded Age tycoons, New York high society snubbed him because of his common origins and he was a lonely, isolated figure. Because he and his wife failed to have children, he dedicated himself to the building of a Long Island suburb, where he wanted to be eventually buried. Pending the completion of this final resting place, his remains were interred in St. Mark’s churchyard in Manhattan. When they disappeared in November 1878, the press and public went into a speculative frenzy: would there be a fabulous ransom demanded, or was the stunt a backlash against often-tyrannical Stewart personally?

A.T. Stewart's Fifth Avenue mansion circa 1869 (Library of Congress)

Grave robbery was appalling but common in nineteenth century America, as medical schools needed cadavers to experiment on and paid well for them. The theft of a millionaire’s bones dragged the practice from its traditional arena of police blotters and private shame and put it on front pages everywhere.

The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon is more than just an account of New York’s most macabre ‘missing persons’ case. It’s also a journey into the shadows of nineteenth century America, where ostracized millionaires, body snatchers, phoney clairvoyants, and other misfits wallowed and occasionally made history.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town

Summer was pretty mild in my neck of the woods this year, but I’ve lived through enough scorchers to know how debilitating hot temperatures can be. Edward P. Kohn’s Hot Time in the Old Town: the Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt is an intense narration of a killer heat wave that tortured New York City for ten days in August 1896. By the time it lifted, an estimated 1300 people were dead, along with William Jennings Bryan’s shot at the presidency.

New York turned into an inferno on August 5th. When temperatures rose to 100-plus degrees, working men and horses dropped dead in the streets and tenement dwellers broiled in their badly ventilated apartments. At night suffering city dwellers clustered on rooftops and along the piers, trying to suck cooler air into their overheated lungs. Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt stepped in where city officials would not, hosing down the reeking streets to lower the temperatures and raise the sanitation levels, and campaigning to provide free life-saving ice to the poor.

Small boys cooling their heads in a public fountain
Horses being cooled off in summertime New York

As this fight for life reached its zenith, William Jennings Bryan, populist from Nebraska and Democratic presidential nominee, came into town to convince the citizens of New York that they should elect him instead of Republican candidate William McKinley. But he was so wilted by a long, hot train trip across the country that he read his Madison Square Garden speech from a paper instead of giving the same type of oratory fireworks that secured him the Democratic nomination in the first place. The heat also proved too oppressive for his audience, which left in droves.

Edward Kohn takes a well-rounded approach to this history of a forgotten natural disaster. His descriptions of a city under siege are unsettling in their specificity. He uses statistics when warranted, but prefers to put a human face on the disaster. We could forget a label like ‘victim number one’ but not the story of fifteen-month old Hyman Goldman, who had arrived with his parents from Russia nine months before and died from "exhaustion" on the heat wave's first day. Another tiny victim, Annie Botchkiss was born on August 6 in a rear tenement, and succumbed to the heat only five days later.

On the surface, a book that combines a killer heat wave and an electoral contest appears to be trying to mix literary apples with oranges. But Edward Kohn proves that not even a presidential candidate was immune to the heat’s negative impact.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Death of an Overseer

While browsing the true crime offerings in the Sony e-book store, I discovered an Oxford University Press publication titled Death of an Overseer. The synopsis described it as a cultural and sociological re-interpretation of an 1857 murder in Adams County, Mississippi. I enjoy crime books that aren’t limited to a basic narrative so I bought it, despite its unusually high price for an e-book.

In May 1857 the battered corpse of Duncan Skinner, an overseer on a plantation owned by wealthy widow Clarissa Sharpe, was found in a wooded area near the estate. The original investigators concluded that he’d been killed by an accidental fall from his horse, but the dead man’s brother and other sceptical locals dug deeper and found evidence of murder. Three of Mrs. Sharpe’s slaves confessed to killing Skinner, whose harsh treatment of them was notorious, and were hanged after a brief and sensational trial.

Many Adams County residents believed that a fourth party should have joined them on the gallows: a white Irish laborer named John McCallin. During the investigation, several plantation slaves claimed that McCallin had actively incited the murder by telling them that if Skinner were dead, his way would be free to marry Clarissa Sharpe and give them all “better times.” But in 1857 Mississippi law forbade blacks from testifying against whites, and McCallin escaped arrest. He did not go unpunished, however: the plantation aristocrats ordered him out of the community. His intention to marry a social superior seemed to anger them more than his alleged crime.

Author Michael Wayne, a professor of American history, questions McCallin’s guilt. He analyzes the customs and prejudices of the antebellum South as well as the crime and its racially-biased investigation, and concludes that the Irishman may have been a scapegoat. This approach makes Death of an Overseer a detective story in some parts, a history and sociology lesson in others.

I was pleased to see that Wayne reproduced most of his primary sources verbatim and showed in painstaking detail how and why he reached a particular conclusion. He freely admits that the evidence is open to alternative interpretations and encourages the reader to play armchair detective by placing his voluminous research material at their disposal. (The book’s website at actively solicits new evidence and alternative theories.) This approach is a refreshing respite from the slew of authors who sprout fangs and claws when their ‘definitive’ accounts are questioned.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bugs Moran vs. Al Capone: the informed approach

While visiting my local bookstore, I saw (yet another) Al Capone bio in the True Crime section. I picked it up and began flipping the pages.

I've lost count of how many versions of the Capone story I've read, but if a person's life fascinates me enough, I can always enjoy a new book on the subject. Unless it's written from a myopic perspective, as this one was. Five minutes later I put it back on the shelf and bought a novel instead.

According to the author, George 'Bugs' Moran was dimwitted. He lost his gang and his North Side territory because he was too stupid to protect either from the intellectually superior Capone's invasion. When a writer presents that argument, I know that they haven't done their homework, and thankfully, so does anyone else who has a decent understanding of the Chicago beer wars.

When researching and writing The Man Who Got Away, I spoke to recognized experts such as Mario Gomes, John Binder, Rick Mattix, and Bill Helmer; interviewed elderly individuals who knew George Moran, and spent years examining FBI reports, court and prison records, and files retained by the Chicago Crime Commission. I soon understood that Moran did not lose the war with Capone because of poor leadership, mental fallibility, or any reason typically offered by those who don't want to do the work it takes to put the bigger picture together. Moran lost because he was up against a stronger mob, one that predated the North Side gang by at least twenty years.

The genesis of the Capone syndicate was the vice ring organized during the early 1900s by Big Jim Colosimo, a flesh trader and political precinct captain. Big Jim stuffed enough dirty money into the pockets of his ward aldermen and the local cops to operate with impunity. His organization was still going strong at the time of his May 1920 assassination, and when his successor Johnny Torrio added bootlegging to the business roster, the resulting riches made it nearly invincible.

Moran's North Siders, on the other hand, sprang into existence at the dawn of Prohibition, along with hip flasks, speakeasies, and bobbed hair. Dean O'Banion, the gang's sly and charismatic founder, was a brilliant businessman who invested his money in breweries and his charm in favorable partnerships, and by 1921 he controlled all bootlegging north of Madison Street. But when he crossed Johnny Torrio in 1924, he was shot to death in the flower shop that he operated as a sideline. His murder began the six year gang war that killed over six hundred men and disgraced Chicago for all time.

O'Banion's successor, Earl 'Hymie' Weiss, (see photo, provided courtesy of Mario Gomes) was a brainy dynamo who chased Torrio out of Chicago and gave the newly ascended Al Capone nightmares until  October 1926, when a machine gun fusillade mowed him down outside Holy Name Cathedral on State Street.  Vincent Drucci then took over, but his uneventful leadership was cut short in April 1927, when he cursed a temperamental cop and was shot in the back of a police vehicle.

After Drucci's funeral, Moran inherited the dwindling remnants of a mob that had been gradually decimated by the ongoing battle with the much larger Capone syndicate. By that point there was no way he could have emerged the victor, although a former judge recalled in his memoirs that many Chicagoans who had been following the war from the safety of their newspapers were rooting for Moran to win. He did make successful inroads into labor racketeering and dog racing, suggesting that if he had been able to direct the gang's fortunes during peacetime, history might have remembered him differently.

Mario Gomes, Capone expert and webmaster of the encyclopedic My Al Capone Museum website, says, "Though greatly outnumbered by the Capone gang, the North Siders held the fort for many years thanks to the leadership of George Moran. Moran and his men had to constantly out-think and stay one step ahead of the Capone boys in order to survive. (The North Side) was very lucrative, so no wonder it was the last bastion Capone craved so badly. Moran has earned double the respect I have for Big Al."

George Moran may not have been an ingenius strategist like Johnny Torrio or Dean O'Banion, but neither was he the over-muscled dolt of popular lore. He was a hands-on leader, taking the same chances his underlings did, but in the Chicago of his day, that elicited respect, not derision. Even if he had been more proactive than reactionary, he lacked the manpower to beat Capone.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 marked the end of Moran's reign over the North Side. For over a year, the shaken gangster debated the feasibility of continuing the fight, briefly partnering with minor league Capone rivals like renegade Sicilian Joe Aiello and pimp Jack Zuta. In late 1930 he finally conceded defeat. But he did not slink away in disgrace. The door had closed in Chicago, but he found windows of opportunity elsewhere.

He retained control of his dog racing and labor racketeering interests, both of which remained profitable. On the bootlegging front, Moran moved his breweries outside the Chicago city limits and used his Canadian connections to supply liquor to the Chain O' Lakes area in northern Illinois, a district that soaked up booze like a sponge during the summer months. Having heard good things about the West Coast from a former North Sider who moved there in 1925, he sent  emissaries to Los Angeles. Their reports were so favorable that Moran moved in, building breweries and terrorizing the local underworld so thoroughly that the LA County sheriff told newsmen about tough hoodlums literally "begging for protection from Bugs Moran gangsters." If Repeal had not interrupted the invasion, Moran might eventually have taken over the city's liquor distribution and been remembered as a successful booze baron in his own right.

In closing, George Moran was not a bulb with low wattage. He was outmanned and outgunned in Chicago, but when given the opportunity to start over elsewhere, he met instant success. Unfortunately for writers only interested in the quick buck, the truth can take time to uncover, so an entertaining fiction is often substituted. That does not bode well for the future of history.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Man Who Killed Houdini

Harry Houdini’s egregious demise has been covered so extensively in books and movies that the very subject reminded me of a nineteenth century crime scene: so many writers have visited that territory, coming away with sensational theories the way Victorian era gawkers scurried off with bloody souvenirs, that nothing new remained to be discovered. Or so I thought.

In The Man Who Killed Houdini, Don Bell focuses on J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill University student who fatally punched Houdini in the magician’s Montreal dressing room on October 22, 1926. Whitehead later swore in an affidavit that he had pummeled Houdini in the abdomen at the latter’s invitation to prove that his stomach muscles were strong enough to withstand any blow. Days later, the legendary magician died of a ruptured appendix that was assumed to be the result of that demonstration.

Whitehead disappeared from the public eye after the ensuing investigation died down, and no writer or researcher could discover what happened to him. Conspiracy theorists surmised that he might have been the deadly tool of the spiritualist community, whose mediums Houdini had delighted in exposing as frauds. Less imaginative minds dismissed the whole tragedy as an unfortunate accident. Sensing that Whitehead was the key to unlocking the truth, Don Bell embarked on a quest that lasted twenty years and took him all over Canada and the United Kingdom.

The Man Who Killed Houdini is investigative journalism at its finest. Bell tracked down and interviewed former McGill students Sam Smiley and Jacques Price, who had been present in the dressing room when Houdini was struck. (Price recalled that the punching was so violent that he actually pulled Whitehead off, shouting, “For God’s sake, stop!!” Smiley thought that the tall, gangly student behaved too strangely for the affair to be an accident.) Bell also contacted Whitehead’s former girlfriend and younger brother, both of whom proved to be defensive interview subjects, as well as the mysterious puncher’s former neighbors, who were more forthcoming with what they knew. The end result is a book that sets the record straight on who J. Gordon Whitehead really was and what his life was like in the aftermath of Houdini’s death.

Be forewarned: The Man Who Killed Houdini does not validate any conspiracy theories. Bell does not prove that vindictive mediums used Whitehead to stop Houdini’s anti-spiritualist investigations. But Whitehead’s final years leave the reader with a nagging suspicion that the magician’s death was not a mere accident either.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

More on Jacques Millere

This week, additional insight into the mysterious death of Jacques Millere arrived in the form of a nice, thick parcel bearing a Newfoundland postmark. My friend in St. John's, who recently retired after a long career in the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, scoured the provincial archives for me and made a few calls to police outposts near Deer Lake, where Millere's body was found in March 1909. The package, which contained photocopied news articles from the Western Star and a hastily scrawled police report, is what he calls his first 'check in'.

On the afternoon of March 15, 1909, a mill worker named Frank Penny discovered a half-frozen male corpse in an abandoned camp belonging to the Humber River Pulp and Lumber Company in Deer Lake. Although so terrified that he could not recall later whether he left the shanty "by the door or window", he reported the gruesome find to the manager, who in turn alerted authorities in St. John's. A local judge named March, accompanied by two police officers and a physician named Fisher, boarded the next east-bound train.

Upon arrival, Dr. Fisher examined the body, which laid on its side in a bunk, knees drawn up and arms folded across the chest. Death had evidently occurred several days before, as the stench of decomposition was so strong that even Fisher blanched. Seeing no wounds or any other mark of violence, the doctor opined that exhaustion and exposure had killed the stranger. "The end was evidently peaceful," the Western Star informed its readers on March 17th, "the countenance bearing a look of serenity as if the unfortunate had passed quietly into the great beyond."

Peaceful or not, the five mill workers that the manager had sent to assist the police took one look at the dead man and refused to touch him, citing superstitious fears. Fisher, Judge March, and the two policemen were forced to carry the corpse themselves across the frozen lake to a waiting sleigh, where a new development in the tragicomedy unfolded: " The driver absolutely refused to drive the horse and put as much space between him and the corpse as his legs could accomplish," stated the Western Star. Despite the mass desertions, the men from St. John's managed to convey the body to a nearby house, where the owner, who was made of stronger and more sensible stuff, allowed it to be prepared for burial.

The dead man's pockets contained astronomical drawings, a crude airship blueprint, and rambling dissertations on the relationship between mankind and the planets. Combing through the damp and crumpled paperwork, investigators found two identifying items: a crude self-portrait with 'Jas. R. Millere' scrawled beneath it, and a receipt from a Summerside, P.E.I. post office indicating that a Jacques Millere had recently registered a letter to the Duke of Orleans in Paris.

At the magisterial inquiry, a railway section hand testified that he recognized the body as that of a 'Frank Millere' he had met about eight miles west of Deer Lake the previous week. Millere said that he had been kicked off a train near the small community of Riverhead, and intended to make his way to St. John's. One might naturally conclude, then, that the deceased had been a foreign wanderer, one of thousands that tramped their way throughout the North American countryside during the early 1900s.

But the police weren't so sure. There was something about Millere -perhaps his outlandish scribblings, or the undeciphered connection to the Duke of Orleans- that made them hesitate to dismiss him as a tramp. Newspapers all over the province published an appeal for more information.

"Whether he was some visionary royalist dreaming of the restoration of the French monarchy or an ordinary crank will probably never be ascertained, " the Western Star concluded. And that seems to be the case so far. I'll see if my ex-copper friend digs up additional information. Even if he doesn't, the Millere tragedy is one of those fascinating mini-dramas that make an inquisitive writer or historian pause and wonder whether there's more to the story than meets the eye.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Meet the Ann Rule of Victorian era mayhem

In Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven, attorney and college professor Virginia McConnell focuses on two murders that shocked the residents of New Haven, Connecticut in 1878 and 1881 but have since been forgotten. The victims were not showgirls or society ladies, but average young women who fell prey to unscrupulous men. Their sensational deaths, however, spawned media frenzies that exposed the contemporary attitudes toward male promiscuity and female virtue.

The first half of Arsenic Under the Elms describes the killing of Mary Stannard, a simple-minded, 22-year-old unmarried mother, who convinced herself and the Reverend Herbert Hayden, a married minister, that she was pregnant with his child. He lured her into the woods in September 1878, saying that he had procured some medicine that would induce abortion. What he actually gave her was ninety grams of arsenic, which did such a surprisingly slow job of killing her that Hayden had to complete his grim task by clubbing her and slitting her throat. The evidence against Hayden was damning, but he went free after his blindly devoted wife provided exculpatory testimony on the witness stand, perjuring herself to protect him.

The second murder case is that of 20-year-old Jennie Cramer, a beautiful girl known as the Belle of New Haven, who defied propriety by associating with two rich, morally bankrupt young men and their prostitute associate. Her body was found floating in Long Island Sound in August 1881, and an autopsy revealed that she had been raped and poisoned with arsenic. Jennie’s erstwhile companions were hunted down and tried for murder, but presented a united front on the witness stand and were, like Reverend Hayden, acquitted.

McConnell’s lucid prose and detailed research make this book more than just a recount of two Connecticut tragedies. The sufferings of Mary Stannard and Jennie Cramer ended the second they died, but McConnell eloquently shows how their deaths forever altered the lives of their loved ones and the communities they called home. By way of example, she delves into public records to show that Mary’s illegitimate son Willie suffered from anxiety-driven rages for the rest of his life, and Jennie’s mother committed suicide.

I read somewhere that Virginia McConnell wants to be the Ann Rule of Victorian era crimes. After reading Arsenic Under the Elms, I’d say that she has an excellent chance of grabbing that golden fleece.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Mystery of Jacques Millere

Next to true crime, I'm a big fan of unsolved mysteries, mainly unusual deaths and unexplained disappearances. One such case that I recently discovered in a book about Newfoundland criminal history was the 101 year old mystery surrounding the death of a Frenchman named Jacques Millere.

Shortly after 4:00 p.m. on March 15, 1909, one Frank Penney came across the cooling corpse of a man on the grounds of a pulp and lumber company near Deer Lake, Newfoundland. He notified the police, who searched the body and found some startling documents crammed in the pockets: astronomical drawings, sketches of aircraft designs, planet descriptions, and an eye-opening treatise on the relationship between man and the planets. What aroused the most comment, however, was a post office receipt issued to one 'Jacques R. Millere' at Summerside, Prince Edward Island, which indicated that Millere had recently sent a registered letter to the Duke of Orleans in Paris (pictured at top right).

The discovery of the body and its cache of extraordinary paperwork unleashed a maelstorm of speculation over to who Jacques Millere really was and what his connection to the OrlĂ©anist claimant to the throne of France might be. He was not from the Deer Lake area, so no one could enlighten the police on his antecedents. Some thought he might be a scientific genius or crackpot, while others figured that he was a royalist inventor offering to put his skills at the Duke's service.

The book that briefly outlines the case does not specify how Millere died, or give word-for-word examples of the writing found in his pockets. So to satisfy my own curiousity, I called in a favour owed by a retired Newfoundland police officer friend. He's going to see what can be done about retrieving the archived notes from the original police investigation, as well as copy the contemporary news reports.

When I know more, so will you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unknown Does Not Mean Forever

On February 25, 1957, the bruised, naked body of a small boy was found in a cardboard box beside a road in Philadelphia’s rural Fox Chase district. Wrapped in a plaid blanket and seriously underweight, the child appeared malnourished and neglected. Indignant that he had been thrown away like a piece of garbage, investigators from both the medical examiner’s office and the police department initiated a personal crusade to catch his killer and discover his name.

Newspapers all over the country covered the story, and the boy’s photo was even reproduced on gas bills in the hope that someone would recognize him. But he was never identified and is known today as “the Boy in the Box” and “America’s Unknown Child”.

Last weekend I read New York Times reporter David Stout’s book about the case, The Boy in the Box: the Unsolved Case of America’s Unknown Child. Stout interviewed the aging ex-cops originally involved in the investigation, reviewed the boxes of yellowing reports on the still-open case, and turned it all into a book that is one of the best examples of true crime reporting that I have ever encountered.

Like many sensational cases, thousands of leads and theories have poured in over the years. All had to be carefully followed up, but in the end, only two were deemed so viable that both the police and the press took serious notice. The first was that the boy was the illegitimate child of a young woman whose mother and stepfather operated a foster home, and that he was accidentally killed by his exasperated caretakers while misbehaving. The second was that a mentally unstable woman had acquired him from his birth parents and subjected him to years of violent abuse before killing him for vomiting in the bathtub. The latter theory was brought forward in 2002 by a woman who claimed to have witnessed the murder as a young girl. Police investigators, aided in later years by a team of retired cops and profilers known as the Vidocq Society, checked both stories but were forced to abandon them after failing to acquire sufficient evidence.

The case remains officially unsolved, but lack of a ‘happy ending’ does not give The Boy in the Box a hollow ring. Using scenes and dialogue distilled from his research and personal interviews, Stout does a masterful job of revisiting the discovery of the body, the highs and lows of the ongoing investigation, and, most poignantly, the love that the grizzled police veterans gradually developed for the tiny victim. This love drove many of them to continue the quest for justice long after retirement.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

And the Oscar for Best Actress of 1824 goes to... Sarah Drew

On October 3rd, 1824, two men were crossing the London Field, near Hackney, when they heard a woman calling for help. Investigating, they found maidservant Sarah Drew standing beside a shallow pond, muddy and wet up to her chest. She exclaimed that she had been accosted, robbed, and thrown into the water. The men escorted her to a nearby pub, where she told a fantastic tale. 

Over a week ago, she had seen a strange man hovering around the silk manufactory where her master worked, but thought little of it until some valuable silks disappeared. The police took Sarah with them to some known thieves' resorts, but she denied seeing the mysterious stranger in any of them. The officers advised her to follow the man if she saw him again, and find out where he lived or worked so that he could easily be located and arrested.

Sarah attended evening church service on October 3rd, and claimed that she was on her way home when she saw the wanted man walking across London Field. She followed him as directed, but did not get far before she was grabbed by two men (presumably the thief's confederates) and dragged to the pond where she was later found. She said that they stole her purse before heaving her into the water and leaving her to drown.

A local rowdy named Edward 'Kiddy' Harris was eventually identified by Sarah as one of her attackers. Harris had an alibi- his wife and children swore that he had been home all evening on October 3rd. But Sarah told her story so convincingly that a jury convicted him, and he was executed at Newgate in February 1825.

Later that year, Harris' attorney James Harmer published a pamphlet called The Case of Edward Harris, who was executed at Newgate for robbing and ill-treating Sarah Drew. This document, which is available in the Google Books online library, makes a powerful argument for Harris' innocence. Apparently the police officers who took Sarah on a grand tour of the thieves' dens actually pointed him out to her and suggested that he was a bad enough character to be the robber. She looked at him closely but denied that he was the man. Then she somehow ended up in a pond, and accused Harris of being one of the abductors.

Harmer suggests that Sarah Drew might have become a little too adventurous with some young men, and tried to save her reputation afterward by claiming that she had been attacked. When found at the pond, her head  and shoulders were not wet, which they should have been had she been thrown violently in. Her shoes, which she said she had kicked off during the struggle, were neatly positioned when found. To complete the ruse she needed a dyed-on-the-wool villain, and Edward Harris, who had a criminal record, was made to order.

As he was ascending the scaffold steps, Harris bemoaned his fate to reporters. "Oh Gentlemen, tell them (meaning the public) that I die innocent; I am murdered; I am, so help me God! as I am a dying man. I know I have been a wicked man, and a fighting man, and all that, but of this I am innocent."

If he was, then Sarah Drew was not. And in 1820s England, that would have been reason enough for her to concoct a lie so terrible that it sent a man to an early grave.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

E-Reader Home Invasion

Don't let the title of this post mislead you. My place wasn't broken into by a legion of self-aware Kindles. But I did consciously invite the e-publishing revolution into my home when I purchased a Sony PRS-300 E-Reader earlier this month.

I will always have a soft spot for books, and never stop buying them. Few things thrill me more than the delivery of a big box from Amazon or Chapters. But now that e-readers have dropped in price, more bibliophiles are taking a chance on them and discovering that they like the option of carrying a virtual library in their pockets and purses. As a working writer, I have to be sensitive to trends that affect publishing, so I bought Sony's basic reader at my local Best Buy and began my new learning curve.

Because I live in Canada, the Sony product was the logical choice for me. Until recently, Amazon's Kindle was not available here. That has since changed, but at a price, so to speak: the device ships from the USA and incurs some hefty customs fees when its value is declared at the border. I opted for economy and convenience.

The PRS-300 is Sony's lowest-priced reader, and doesn't have the bells and whistles that the more expensive models offer, such as a touch screen and audiobook support. That was fine by me; I was primarily interested in the reading experience.

This unit utilizes E Ink screen technology that makes digital pages resemble their paper counterparts. The font size is adjustible, a nice option for those who prefer large print, and the pages are turned via a multidirectional button beneath the screen. The bookmarking feature 'tags' pages for later perusal, and each time the machine powers on, it remembers where you left off during your last reading session.

Not bad. But what what I really appreciated was access to thousands of public domain books in Google's database, digitized in a reader-compatible format and available for free download through Sony's online store. Many of these are vintage crime stories like those I have blogged about in the past. Another portal on the Sony site lets me log into my local library account and check out e-books from the hundreds of available titles. 512 MB of onboard memory permits the storage of up to 300 books at a time, making it possible for me carry a wealth of reading and research material in my purse. I love it.

A week and a half has passed, and I don't regret my purchase. It has added a whole new dimension to the literary experience, and judging from the fact that e-reader sales continue to climb, they are no  longer a fad item. Some will decry the threat, however weak, to the beloved physical book, but as a writer I'm happy to see that the love of reading is alive and well in the Digital Age.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scotch Pebbles for Lovesick Girls

This weekend I found another true crime gem in the Internet Archive’s Open Source Books collection: The Tryal of Mary Blandy, Spinster: For the Murder of her Father, Francis Blandy, Gentleman. Years ago I read about Miss Blandy in an anthology about murderous women, but until now had never come across any primary documents about the case.

Born in 1720 to solicitor Francis Blandy and his wife in Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, Mary enjoyed advantages seldom available to women at that time: her doting father saw to it that she was well educated and did not want for anything . When her mother died and Francis Blandy did not remarry, Mary, an only child, became the sole heiress to a small fortune. Although she was intelligent, articulate, and modestly attractive, it was probably her future inheritance that attracted Captain William Henry Cranstoun in 1746 and made him propose marriage even though he already had a wife back in Scotland.

Cranstoun promised to have his marriage annulled, but Francis Blandy suspected that he was merely a fortune-hunter and objected to the match. Soon Mary received a present of Scotch pebbles (agates) from Cranstoun, along with a powder supposedly for use in cleaning them. This powder, however, ended up in Francis Blandy’s food in gradually increasing doses.

As she worked on eliminating the one obstacle to her imagined happiness, Mary was not as subtle as she thought. The servants saw her stirring something into her ill father’s tea and gruel, and observed a gritty white substance in the leftovers. They reported their suspicions to the neighbors and even Blandy himself. The aging lawyer’s response was surprisingly sympathetic: he referred to his daughter as a “poor lovesick girl” and added, “I forgive her—I always thought there was mischief in those cursed Scotch pebbles.” When he finally died on August 14, 1751, the authorities moved in and placed Mary Blandy on trial for parricide.

The trial testimony was published in pamphlet form, and is available for download. Medical authorities such as Dr. Anthony Addington (father of future Prime Minister Henry Addington) believed that Blandy had died from arsenic poisoning. When the servants testified that they had seen Mary adding a white substance to her father’s food, she and her lawyers knew that denial would be useless. So she admitted that she had done so, but argued that what she had administered was not arsenic, but a love powder intended to make Francis Blandy regard Cranstoun in a more favorable light. Cranstoun had sent it to her, she said, and if it HAD been poison, she was completely unaware of the fact.

The jury did not believe her. They agreed with the prosecution, which pointed out that even after the ‘love powder’ made her father dangerously ill, Mary did not stop mixing it in his food. While she was under house arrest pending her removal to Oxford Castle prison, she had also hinted to the servants that she was planning to flee the area, which an innocent person would not have done.

While awaiting execution, Mary wrote her own account of the tragic affair, titled Miss Mary Blandy's Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun. She also exchanged letters with another condemned woman, Elizabeth Jeffries, who had killed her master with help from her lover. When a respectable matron visited Mary in her cell and gently chided her for corresponding with such a depraved person, she accepted the rebuke in polite silence but said afterward, "I can't bear these over virtuous women. I believe that if ever the devil picks a bone it is one of theirs."

On Easter Monday 1752, Mary Blandy was hanged outside of Oxford Castle prison. One of her last requests was that she not be hanged too high off the ground, “for the sake of decency.” Although most hanging victims died via slow strangulation, Mary apparently lost consciousness soon after being turned off the ladder and died without a struggle.

After Mary was convicted, William Cranstoun escaped to the European mainland, and died in Flanders on 2nd December 1752.

Mary Blandy killed for love. In the end, she also died for it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Before the year is out....

This morning I awoke at five, and was at my desk by five-thirty. I've always been an early riser, especially during the week, but weekends I usually doze until at least six-thirty. Maybe this is a sign that 2010 will be so packed with writing projects that a 5:00 a.m. wakeup call will become the norm.

2009 certainly ended on an auspicious note. In October I started a new job as a technical writer for a large engineering company. This position strengthened a habit that I've been cultivating for a long time: producing quality copy on demand, without yielding to the vagaries of mood or personal drama. Let's hope that by performing well at my day job, I'll increase and improve my writing output in other areas.

I'm working on a few projects at the moment. One is an article for Rick Mattix's On The Spot Journal about William Howe and Abe Hummel, the legal 'dream team' of the New York underworld from 1869 until 1907, when the District Attorney succeeded in shutting their firm down. Gangsters, showgirls, prizefighters, and philandering bluebloods kept Howe and Hummel on retainer as an operating expense. Some of the stunts they pulled are unbelievable even by today's standards: Hummel once discovered an error in procedure that liberated 240 of Blackwell Island's 300 inmates in a single day. Howe, representing a gangster who had murdered another thug and dumped the dismembered body in the East River, convinced the jury that his client's seven year old girl had actually done the bloody deed. They're so gloriously bad that I'll be sorry to see the research end.

The Dopey Benny Fein project is still in progress. Geoff Fein, Benny's grandson, has been wonderful to work with, but the  research itself is taking time because I'm focusing on primary sources, and the requisite legwork is considerable. Benny's activities during the 1920s remain a mystery, although I've come across a few references to drug-related arrests. If anyone reading this blog has additional information, please contact me.

I'm still working with Franklin Abrams on the Our Gotham project. Some new webisode scenes have been filmed, namely the tense confrontation between Kid Twist Zweifach and the Bottler, who is determined to prevent Twist from seizing the profits of his popular stuss game. I've posted two screen shots below: the first shows Zweifach (played by Franklin) in profile, while the second is a re-enactment of Twist's first, menacing visit to the Bottler's den. Franklin is a first-rate actor who practically summons the spirit of these early gang leaders whenever he steps in front of the camera.

Expect some interesting trips to old New York in the coming year! And more on the Dope!