Stranger Than Fiction
Ghosts of True Crime Past
By Dean Jobb
Think the explosion of interest in true crime is a new thing? Boston lawyer and historian John Torrey Morse jumped on the bandwagon back in the 1870s when he published a compendium of six cases that run the gamut from fraud to murder. It’s one of four vintage collections of true crime cases—available as reprints or from used book retailers—that offer a trove of intriguing but long-forgotten tales from courtrooms in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and France.
Morse’s Famous Trials (Little, Brown & Company) appeared in 1874 and collects essays on high-profile cases of the time that he published in the American Law Review. He leads off with a lengthy account of the 1873 prosecution of Arthur Orton. A brazen conman, he posed as Sir Roger Tichborne, the heir to an English fortune who was believed to have died in a shipwreck. When the civil courts rejected his claim, he was charged with forgery and perjury.
Morse did not attend the London trial on the criminal charges, which lasted an incredible 188 days. While his account is based on newspaper reports, he had so much material on “this greatest and most remarkable of all trials, ancient or modern” that he felt compelled to expand his original law review article. It takes up two-thirds of Famous Trials and provides a blow-by-blow account of the evidence, legal arguments, and the bitter verbal jousting between counsel and the three judges who presided.
Prosecutor Henry Hawkins, soon to become a judge himself, systematically exposed Orton as a liar and a bad one at that—he knew little about the man he was impersonating. A succession of witnesses swore he was not Tichborne or identified him as Orton. But the case became a study in popular delusion. Many refused to believe he was an imposter; to London’s downtrodden masses, he was a victim of an upper-class conspiracy to deny him his birthright. Thousands thronged to theatres to hear Orton speak and cheered him on from outside the courthouse.
Orton’s lawyer, the feisty Irish barrister Edward Kenealy, attacked Hawkins, bullied witnesses, and sparred with the judges even as his case became a shipwreck like the one that had claimed Tichborne’s life. Orton was convicted and Kenealy’s outrageous conduct earned from Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn what Morse terms “the longest, severest and best merited rebuke ever administered from the bench to a member of the bar.” When the tongue-lashing ended, lawyers in the gallery applauded.
Morse follows up the Tichborne marathon with accounts of two French trials. In 1869 Jean-Baptiste Troppmann murdered eight members of a single family, including a two-year-old child, in an act of “cold-blooded ferocity.” He contrasts officialdom’s condemnation of Troppmann with the kid-gloves treatment afforded Prince Pierre-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of you-know-who. Bonaparte denounced a newspaper editor as a traitor during a public spat, and when an unfortunate man showed up at his office in 1870 to deliver the journalist’s challenge to a duel, the hot-headed prince literally shot the messenger. The jury, more interested in his aristocratic status than the evidence, acquitted him.
A standout in the collection is the trial of Elizabeth Wharton of Baltimore for poisoning her friend, General W.S. Ketchum, in 1871. It was an early courtroom battle between opposing medical experts. The prosecution’s forensic team was certain the general had been poisoned with antimony, but the defence produced numerous doctors who challenged the laboratory results and attributed his death to natural causes. The jury, bombarded with contradictory opinions, declared her not guilty.
Morse, as a lawyer, focuses on the legal aspects of these cases but also offers blunt and sometimes colorful assessments of the players. He soon abandoned true crime, however, in favor of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and other worthies.
It’s tough to imagine a more unlikely true crime writer than Canadian historian, professor, librarian, and bookseller William Stewart Wallace. A clergyman’s son, he was editor of the stuffy academic journal the Canadian Historical Review, compiler of Canada’s first homegrown encyclopedia, and author of long-forgotten books on fur traders, politicians, and explorers. Who wrote Notes on Military Writing for English-Canadian Soldiers? Now you know. Yet in 1931 he published Murders and Mysteries: A Canadian Series (Macmillan of Canada, republished in 1975 by Hyperion Press), a collection of sixteen stories of headline-grabbing murders and mayhem.
Most of the crimes he chronicles occurred in Ontario, his home province. Prominent Toronto businessman Ambrose Small vanished in 1919, on the day he sold his theatre chain for $1 million, and was never seen again. Clara Ford, a woman in the same city, confessed in 1895 to shooting and killing a young man who had taken “improper liberties” with her, then recanted so convincingly at trial that the jury found her not guilty.
Wallace does venture to two other provinces. One case is the unsolved murder almost 150 years ago of a tavern keeper in New Brunswick, on the Atlantic Coast. The other is the bizarre story of Adelard Delorme, a Catholic priest in Montreal, who stood trial an astounding four times for the 1922 murder of his brother. The evidence was damning—Delorme’s revolver was the murder weapon and he was the beneficiary of his brother’s will—but successive juries struggled to believe a holy man could be capable of such a brutal killing. Wallace, however, scoffs at the notion that Delorme was “a much wronged man” framed by “some master criminal.” The mystery was how he managed to get away with it.
Some of the cases have international connections. Harry and Dallas Hyams, identical twin brothers from New Orleans, stood trial twice for the murder of an employee in 1893, accused of making the death look like an accident so they could collect on insurance policies. There’s also the murder trial, three years earlier, of Reginald Birchall in the Ontario city of Woodstock. It made headlines far beyond Canada’s borders even though, as Wallace observes, “there was nothing very mysterious or romantic about the case.” Birchall’s motive (to prevent his land swindle from being discovered) and the identity of his victim (Frederick Benwell, a potential investor from Britain) were enough to turn the killing into a Victorian sensation.
Wallace offers an apology for straying from mainstream history into the realm of the “sensational” and “gruesome.” He was only recording, as he put it, “what God in His wisdom saw fit to permit to happen.” When it comes to murder, the Almighty seems to have been as permissive in Canada as anywhere else.
Chicago has certainly been a focus of this form of divine neglect. “Murders were frequent and were deplored, but not discouraged,” the Sherlockian and crime writer Vincent Starrett noted in Chicago Murders (Duell, Sloan & Pearce), writing about the city in the 1880s. “The police department, intimidated by thugs and kicked around by politicians, was the most inefficient in the republic.”
Published in 1945 (my first edition was printed on thin newsprint stock “in accordance with the paper conservation orders of the War Production Board”), Chicago Murders collects seven cases, the most recent a reporter’s account of his investigation of the 1936 murder of a Northside doctor. The volume’s editor, Sewell Peaslee Wright, a science-fiction writer moonlighting in the world of true crime, admits at the outset that Chicago’s “great classic murders” have been omitted. The lone exception is a chapter on Dr. H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer that Erik Larson would feature decades later in The Devil in the White City. As for thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, slain newspaperman Jake Lingle, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, and other famous crimes, Wright briefly reviews these cases in the preface, then lets his contributors tackle intriguing, lesser-known homicides.
Starrett leads off with Thomas Neill Cream, a doctor from Canada who poisoned two women there before fleeing to Chicago and practising as an abortionist on the vice-plagued West Side. This “cruel, cowardly, egotistical” killer, by Starrett’s count, murdered two people in Illinois, but he underestimates his prolific subject; Cream is now known to have poisoned two other Chicago women who came to him for illegal abortions. Convicted of one of these four murders in 1881, he was released from Joliet prison after serving less than ten years of a life sentence, and undoubtedly after payoffs to the right people. Cream promptly headed to London, where he poisoned more women before Scotland Yard ended his murderous spree in 1892.
Writer Elizabeth Bullock dissects a forgotten train robbery on the Iowa-bound Rock Island Express in 1886 that left messenger Kellogg Nichols dead and a safe emptied of thousands of dollars. William Pinkerton, son of the founder of the famous detective agency, led the investigation, which ultimately uncovered more questions than answers. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Alice Wynekoop, a doctor accused of murdering her daughter-in-law in 1933. She confessed to the crime and so did her son, Earle, in a clumsy attempt to take the blame, muddying the waters and setting the scene for a dramatic trial. Like the other stories in the collection, it’s told with a noir feel that transports readers to the shadowy world of Chicago crime.
What prompted an Australian-born journalist to write a book about murder in France? Alister Kershaw came to London after World War II to work for the BBC, but wound up on the other side of the English Channel as the secretary for an expat British writer. Eager to write his own books, he chose murder as his subject and his new surroundings dictated the location. It’s “easy to perceive in the murders of any given country some sort of local character,” he noted. “Murders are committed in France . . . which could be committed in no other country.”
Kershaw collected seven cases, spanning almost a century from the 1850s to the 1940s, in a 1955 book with the unimaginative title Murder in France (Constable & Company). And true to his word, they include crimes that scream “only in France.” Where else would a troubled priest who disagreed with his church’s teachings plot to kill the pope, then settle for the archbishop of Paris as the next-best target? That was the crime of Jean-Louis Verger, who stabbed the archbishop through the heart during a church service in 1857. “There is no record,” Kershaw claims, of “an Englishman murdering for a purely philosophical motive.”
And only in Paris, perhaps, could the wife of a cabinet minister murder her husband’s harshest critic, the powerful editor of one of France’s leading newspapers, and walk free. In 1914, on the eve of World War One, Henriette Caillaux confronted Gaston Calmette in his office at Le Figaro, drew a revolver and shot him in cold blood. But Calmette’s relentless attacks on Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux were not her only motive. The couple feared the paper was about to publish embarrassing letters exposing their private lives. Even though Henriette Caillaux meticulously planned the murder—she bought the gun and practiced her aim the day of the shooting—a jury of chivalrous gentlemen found her not guilty. It was a classic crime passionnel and, as Kershaw strenuously argues, a horrendous miscarriage of justice.
No book on French murders would be complete without Joseph Vacher. Dubbed “Jack the Ripper of the South-East,” he viciously murdered at least eleven people between 1894 and 1897, most of them young men and women he also sexually assaulted. Disfigured after a failed suicide attempt, he wandered rural France and preyed on anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. “Never did I look for victims: chance meetings decided their fates,” Vacher claimed, adding—as if he had done them a favour—that none of his victims “suffered longer than ten minutes.” There seems to be little about Vacher and his crimes, however, that is unique to France—he was as cruel and depraved as Dr. Cream or any other serial killer, anywhere. But like most of the killers Kershaw profiles, he faced a punishment that was quintessentially French: execution by guillotine.
True crime, Morse noted in Famous Trials, can spark an “eager curiosity which every man calls repulsive in his neighbor, but entertains and satiates in himself.” What was true a century and a half ago remains true today.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), was longlisted for the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and is a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.