Stranger Than Fiction

August 2019

Summer Reads

By Dean Jobb

Planning a staycation this summer? Why not travel through time in the pages of a true crime book. Revisit Lizzie Borden’s 1890s trial for murdering her parents, try to outdraw legendary gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, meet Jack the Ripper’s neglected victims, probe the bitter legacy of Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict, or ride shotgun with an aging bank robber who refused to retire.

 

The-FiveThe serial killer known as Jack the Ripper targeted women in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888, murdering five (and possibly more). All were prostitutes. At least, that’s what police and journalists assumed at the time, and countless books, articles and dramatizations of the infamous murders have repeated as fact for 130 years. But what if these snap judgments—and the conventional wisdom we’ve been fed for generations—are wrong?

British author and historian Hallie Rubenhold set out to shift the focus of the Ripper narrative from the endless speculation about the killer’s identity to the tragic lives of the women he murdered. She succeeds brilliantly in The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which reconstructs the grim underworld of late nineteenth-century London and exposes the sexist attitudes and double standards that left each woman vulnerable to a ruthless predator. The Ripper’s victims “were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers,” she reminds us. “They were human beings.” In Rubenhold they have found a champion, and finally emerge from the shadow of their killer.

The Five traces each woman’s story in meticulous detail, using archival records and newspaper accounts to tease out nuggets about their lives and backgrounds. Gaps in the historical record force Rubenhold to speculate at times, but it is speculation firmly grounded in fact. These were lives marked by struggle and tragedy. To escape a bad marriage, Mary Ann Nichols abandoned her five children, found solace in drink, and descended into a Dickensian netherworld of workhouses, homelessness, and poverty. Catherine Eddowes, orphaned at fourteen, became the victim of domestic abuse. Elisabeth Stride, who came to London from Sweden in search of work, was forced into prostitution after the shame of an unwanted pregnancy.

Rubenhold found no solid evidence that three of the five victims ever engaged in prostitution. “As soon as each body was discovered,” she writes, “the police assumed that the woman was a prostitute killed by a maniac, who lured her to the location for sex.” At a time when any poor woman leading an “irregular” life was suspected of being a prostitute, the label stuck. And Rubenhold advances an intriguing theory about how the murders occurred, which may explain why none of the victims were heard to scream or cry for help, even in densely populated Whitechapel. Three were so poor they sometimes resorted to sleeping on the street and a fourth was murdered in her bed, raising the possibility the fearsome Ripper was nothing more than an opportunist who “targeted women while they slept.”

 

The-Old-Man-and-the-GunWhen Forrest Tucker was not robbing banks, or serving time for robbing banks, he was plotting prison escapes so he could rob more banks. Sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang as a teenager, he morphed into a polite stickup man with a penchant for flashy clothes and fast cars. He escaped custody an astounding eighteen times and pulled his last job in Florida in 1999, at age seventy-eight.

Tucker is the incorrigible crook Robert Redford portrayed in the 2018 movie The Old Man and the Gun, and his story was first told by David Grann in the pages of The New Yorker. A paperback companion to the movie, The Old Man and the Gun and Other Tales of True Crime (Vintage), reprises the original article and adds pieces on a Polish murder and a French con man that Grann also published in the magazine.

“You got to hand it to the guy—he’s got style,” noted one of the jurors who sent Tucker inside. His professionalism earned the grudging respect of the detectives on his trail. His heists were as well rehearsed as plays, and the guns he toted were only props. “There is an art to robbing a bank,” he told Grann, and “violence is the first sign of an amateur.” There is also a cost to becoming a bandit: despite his many escapes, Tucker spent most of his life behind bars, barely knew his two children, and betrayed three wives, who had no idea how he made his living.

The other stories seem just as improbable. Grann travelled to Poland to unravel the bizarre tale of writer Krystian Bala, who was convicted of murder in 2007. Police had little luck in cracking the case until one investigator realized Bala had woven details of the killing into the plot of a novel. One newspaper account was topped with the inevitable headline, “Truth Stranger Than Fiction.” A third story also probes the line between fact and fiction. A talented French con man passed himself off as the missing son of a troubled Texas family, only to discover he may have stumbled onto a bigger crime—and he may have been the dupe. Grann’s thorough reporting and immersive storytelling combine to make this slim collection an addictive read, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.

 

Wild-BillTom Clavin, a former New York Times reporter, set out to separate fact from fiction in a new biography of one of the Old West’s iconic figures, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter (St. Martin’s Press). It’s a tall order—legendary characters, after all, are built on legends—but the real story of Wild Bill, he asserts, “can be at least as dramatic and potent as the fabrications.”

James Butler Hickok knew how to handle firearms, a skill in demand when he headed to Missouri as a teenager in the 1850s. He became a scout, wagon driver, and hired gun during the lawless, bloody birth of Kansas (he sided with the abolitionist cause against raiders hoping to establish another slave-owning state) and killed three men in a shootout, likely in self-defense, at age twenty-four. A claim that he wrestled and killed a bear is probably true, Clavin believes, as is the story that he earned his famous nickname after boldly intervening to stop a barroom fight. Hickok fought for the Union during the Civil War and appears to have infiltrated enemy lines and posed as a Confederate soldier, but not even Clavin knows for sure. “The truth about some of the tales told about Hickok’s spying exploits,” he admits, “will never be fully known.”

One story is undoubtedly true. Hickok killed another man in the West’s first quick-draw gunfight in 1865, in a dispute over a gold watch. When Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an account of the duel and embellished accounts of Hickok’s other exploits, he became an instant celebrity. His reputation as an expert shootist (as gunfighters were then known) led to stints as a lawman and as a scout for the U.S. cavalry. Bodies piled up as hotheads goaded him to draw his revolvers or thugs jumped him in saloons, unaware who he was. In one shootout in Abilene, Kansas, he mistakenly killed his own deputy.

Hickok crossed paths with other legends of the Old West, including General George Custer, his good friend Buffalo Bill Cody, the feared gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, and Calamity Jane (who wound up buried beside him in Deadwood, South Dakota, fueling a myth they were lovers). While Clavin’s frequent detours—to introduce other characters, weigh conflicting stories, or to explore the historical backdrop—tend to interrupt the narrative, he spins the truth into a great yarn that’s worthy of his larger-than-life subject.

 

Say-NothingTruth emerges from behind a wall of silence in Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday), which explores the brutal reality and tragic legacy of the Troubles. Ireland is small—it barely takes an afternoon to drive across the island, notes author Patrick Radden Keefe—but history and sectarian hatred run deep. When Ireland won independence in the 1920s, six northern counties remained under British rule, creating an enclave with a Protestant majority. Protests fueled by discrimination against Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority escalated into violence in 1969, setting the stage for decades of shootings and bombings.

Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker, investigates a senseless act of violence, one of hundreds committed as the Irish Republican Army, Protestant militias, and British soldiers dispatched to restore order turned Belfast’s streets into a war zone. In 1972 Jean McConville, the widowed mother of ten children, was abducted and murdered by the IRA, who accused her of being an informer for the British military. But her real “crime” may have been comforting a wounded soldier she found outside her apartment. The next day, the words “Brit Lover” were scrawled on her door.

Her death and efforts, decades later, to bring her killers to justice, are the thread Keefe uses to unravel the tangled history of the Troubles. His ambitious goal is to present a complete history of the conflict, told through the experiences of an array of key players—from former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has denied persistent accusations of IRA involvement, to IRA foot soldier Dolours Price, who delivered a car bomb to the heart of London and McConville to a death squad. Keefe succeeds brilliantly, with a mesmerizing account that makes sense of a senseless, hate-fueled, undeclared war.

The book’s title, Say Nothing, reflects the wall of silence that still protects many of those responsible for murders and assassinations during the Troubles. Keefe conducted more than 100 interviews over four years, but many of the people involved remained unwilling to talk. “In Belfast,” he reports, “history is alive and dangerous.” This remarkable book may be as close as anyone gets to breaking through the lies and silence to present the truth.

 

The-Trial-of-Lizzie-BordenAn 1892 double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts has been immortalized in rhyme. “Lizzie Borden took an axe,” it begins, “and gave her mother forty whacks.” It turns out the first victim was her stepmother and she was struck nineteen times with an axe. Then Borden turned on her father, who received ten blows to the head (not forty-one, as the rhyme erroneously reports) as he napped on a sofa.

There’s one more problem with this version of events. While Lizzie was charged with murder and stood trial, a jury found her not guilty, and the mystery of who killed Andrew and Abby Borden was never solved. Scholar and lawyer Cara Robertson takes a fresh look at the notorious case in The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story (Simon & Schuster), an engrossing exploration of an unthinkable crime and the sensational trial that transfixed Gilded Age America.

There was only one logical suspect. The Bordens were killed in their home about ninety minutes apart and Lizzie, who was in the house for much of that time, claimed she had seen and heard nothing. Unmarried in her early thirties and facing a lifetime under her parents’ roof, she resented the stinginess of her well-off father and openly loathed her stepmother. Her strange, aloof behavior after the deaths was as damning as any admission of guilt. She displayed “no sign of sorrow or grief,” noted a police officer called to the scene, made “no comment on the horror of the crime, and no expression of a wish that the criminal be caught.”

The murders looked, to nineteenth-century eyes, like the work of a madman. Inflicting repeated blows with an axe after a victim is dead smacked of “the stubborn and dogged brutality of the insane,” one lawyer told the press. But the notion a stranger had been able to enter the home undetected was as implausible then as it appears now, and the savagery of the attacks suggested deep personal animosity and the sudden release of pent-up rage. Lizzie’s only defense was the widely held belief that no well-bred, respectable woman could be capable of such a heinous crime. “Lizzie Borden was a devout young woman ‘of good family’—a lady—and an accused axe-wielding parricide,” Robertson writes. “It should not have been possible.”

If you do plan to hit the road this summer, why not head for the Massachusetts coast? You can indulge your passion for true crime at the Borden house in Fall River, which has become a bed and breakfast with a museum devoted to the case. You can even spend the night in the bedroom where Abby Borden died—and judge her stepdaughter’s guilt or innocence for yourself.

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Dean Jobb’s next true crime book recreates the crimes of serial killer Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian doctor who preyed on women in London three years after Jack the Ripper’s rampage (coming in 2020 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

 

 

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