Stranger Than Fiction

August 2018

Catch a True-Crime Wave This Summer

By Dean Jobb

Looking for some summer escapism? Get a reality check with new true crime books that investigate a serial killer who butchered men on her Indiana farm, the strange disappearance of a Los Angeles evangelist, Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fight against injustice, and the incredible saga of a little-known con artist who became an international man of mystery.

Let’s start with the con man. In 1917, a patriotic Native American named Chief White Elk toured the Western United States, selling war bonds, leading recruitment drives, and vowing to scalp the Kaiser if he got the chance. Later, as a vaudeville singer billed as “the famous Indian Caruso,” he took his act to whistle stops across Canada as well.

He was neither a Native American nor a chief, of course. White Elk was one of a string of aliases used by Edgar Laplante, a son of French-Canadian immigrants who cashed in on the public’s weakness for a good story.

 

King-Con_WillettsBritish author Paul Willetts recounts Laplante’s exploits in King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Imposter (Crown). The book is as engaging, ambitious, and colorful as its shady protagonist, whose tales grew taller with the telling.

The title “king of the con men” fits—Laplante was, truly, one of the best. A slick-talking publicity hound and fast on his feet, he managed to stay one step ahead of detectives and journalists. He impersonated Tom Longboat, a famous Canadian marathon runner, so often and so convincingly that when some newspapers reported on the real Longboat, they used Laplante’s photo as the illustration.

“Poise, mental agility, and a poker face” usually got him out of trouble, Willetts writes. And when exposure was imminent, he deftly skipped town to “begin afresh, debts and friendships casually shrugged off at a moment’s notice.”

But Laplante’s North American exploits were only an opening act for an audacious assault on Britain and Europe, where he almost finagled audiences with King George V and Mussolini under the guise of being an emissary for his “people.” He became the toast of Fascist Italy, mounting a comical drug- and alcohol-fueled goodwill tour financed by an aristocratic dupe.

Willetts has dug deep into newspaper archives and investigative files to accomplish what the authorities on two continents failed to do almost a century ago—unravel Laplante’s trail of brazen fraud and deceit.

 

Belle Gunness “was insane on the subject of money,” her sister recalled, and “would do anything to get it.” Including, it turned out, murdering men on a wholesale scale. She used newspaper advertisements and powers of persuasion worthy of an Edgar Laplante to lure a succession of men to her Indiana farm. The newcomers soon disappeared, along with their money and belongings.

Hells-Princess_SchechterVeteran true-crime author and serial-killer specialist Harold Schechter tackles the story of the woman the press dubbed a “Female Bluebeard” and the “Indiana Ogress” in Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men (Little A). Gunness’s victims included two husbands and several children—a total of at least fourteen, making her one of the few women to be counted among history’s worst serial killers. Surviving letters to one of her victims, he writes, reveal “much about the depravity of her character, the sadistic pleasure she clearly derived from toying, catlike, with an intended victim.”

Born into poverty in Norway, Gunness emigrated to Chicago in 1881 as a young woman. She was suspected of poisoning her first husband and using the life-insurance proceeds to buy the farm where, in 1908, excavations uncovered an appalling number of dismembered bodies. For a time, her suspected tally of as many as twenty-eight victims earned her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for “the greatest number of murders ever ascribed to a modern murderess.”

The mystery, referred to in the title, is what became of this “butcher of men.” She was thought to have died in a fire that destroyed her home, but a spate of purported sightings fed speculation she had faked her death. In an additional twist, a farmhand was charged with her murder and almost a third of the book is devoted to his trial. Schechter’s deep research and storytelling flair ensure readers will hang in to see if he can solve this century-old puzzle.

 

Mirage-Factory_KristThere’s a mystery at the heart of Gary Krist’s new book The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles (Crown) as well—Did prominent evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson fake an alleged kidnapping in 1926? The Canadian-born McPherson, known to her tens of thousands of devout followers as Sister, founded the Angelus Temple—America’s first megachurch—and her disappearance was international news.

At first, she was thought to have drowned while swimming at a beach near Venice, California. When a search failed to recover her body, there were rumors she had run off with the radio engineer who helped to broadcast her sermons. Ransom demands transformed a missing-persons case into a kidnapping investigation, but police were sceptical and no one followed through to collect the money. More than five weeks after she disappeared, McPherson walked out of the desert near the Mexican border, claiming she had been abducted and held at a remote cabin.

“Like so many people in her newly adopted city,” Krist writes, McPherson “understood that an appealing story can accomplish so much more than the plain, unvarnished facts.” There were so many holes and loose ends in her story, however, that she was accused of staging her kidnapping and miraculous escape. She wound up being prosecuted for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. A whodunit became a “did-it-happen?”

The Mirage Factory recounts how McPherson and two other larger-than-life figures—engineer William Mulholland and Hollywood movie mogul D.W. Griffith—helped to transform Los Angeles from “a backwater without the water,” as Krist puts it, into America’s fifth-largest city by the 1930s. There are other true-crime elements, from the deception involved in securing access to water in the California mountains to the sporadic bombings that targeted the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Mulholland’s massive water-diversion project.

Krist is the author of two previous accounts of people, crimes and great cities: City of Scoundrels (Chicago) and Empire of Sin (New Orleans). Check out The Mirage Factory for the crime, and you’re sure to stay for the storytelling. The book’s epic canvas and Krist’s vivid, fast-paced narrative make this a great summer read.

 

Conan-Doyle-Defense_FoxThere’s no better storyteller than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Conan Doyle’s sense of justice and fair play spurred him to investigate a miscarriage of justice that landed an innocent man in a Scottish prison for almost twenty years. New York writer Margalit Fox explores the prosecution and exoneration of Oscar Slater in Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House).

Slater, a shady character who mixed with a shady crowd, was convicted in 1909 of murdering a Glasgow woman, Marion Gilchrist, based on flimsy evidence. He narrowly escaped the gallows and remained in prison long after it was clear he had been wrongfully convicted. Conan Doyle believed the case would “remain immortal in the classics of crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy,” but a century later it has become little more than a footnote to the author’s long career.

Fox digs deep into the legal and historical record to give the case a thorough and engaging retelling. Slater’s real crime, she argues, was being Jewish and German-born at a time of rampant anti-Semitism and distrust of foreigners. Glasgow police jumped to the unfounded conclusion he was guilty, rounded up witnesses who thought they saw him at the crime scene, and ignored evidence that suggested his innocence.

It was a classic case of investigative tunnel vision and too much for the creator of a new kind of rational, scientific detective. Conan Doyle showed Holmesian-like deductive skills as he meticulously exposed the flaws in the circumstantial case against Slater. The author’s “method entailed the search for small details whose significance other investigators had missed,” Fox writes—the significant “trifles,” as Holmes was forever reminding Dr. John Watson, which solved countless mysteries.

Who killed Marion Gilchrist? Fox refrains from trying to play Sherlock with the conflicting and incomplete evidence available. “Any ‘solution’ advanced eleven decades after the fact,” she explains, “can only be the product of undiluted speculation.” What she has done, however, is give fans of Conan Doyle and his Great Detective a new mystery to savor. Think of it as “The Case of the Wrongly Convicted German”—only this is one Holmes story that happens to be true.

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Dean Jobb is completing a book on Victorian-era serial killer Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian doctor who murdered at least ten people in Britain and America. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.

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