Stranger Than Fiction
Larger Than Life
By Dean Jobb
From the cases of one of America’s most famous detectives and the crime of a Gilded Age poisoner to a fresh take on the exploits of a legendary Old West outlaw, a roundup of recent true crime books featuring outsized characters who broke the mold.
Few cities can boast as many larger-than-life characters as Chicago. The ruthless Al Capone. Kidnappers Leopold and Loeb, who killed their young victim in the 1920s for the thrill of it. Mass murderer Richard Speck, who systematically murdered eight student nurses in 1966. H.H. Holmes, the 1890s serial killer immortalized in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.
Chicago journalist Jon Seidel retells their stories and introduces more than a dozen lesser-known but prolific killers, terrorists, and gangsters in Second City Sinners: True Crime from Historic Chicago’s Deadly Streets (Lyons Press). He covers the federal courts for the Chicago Sun-Times and his love for the vanishing world of printers’ ink and street-wise newshounds shines through. He describes his first book as “a tour through the annals of Chicago crime. The newspapers are the guide, revealing the history that lurks in every neighborhood and around every corner.”
His tour relies on one newspaper above all—the Chicago Daily News, published from 1875 to 1978 and acquired by the owners of the Sun-Times in the 1950s. This connection gave Seidel access to the Daily News’s rich archive of crime reporting and the work of a stellar lineup of writers that included Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, and Mike Royko. One of the paper’s founding principles was “to furnish entertainment,” and the crime reporting showcased here accomplished that mission.
Seidel’s penchant for short, newspaper-style paragraphs keeps these stories running at full throttle. And he quotes generously from contemporary news reports and witness statements, transporting readers back in time and infusing the narrative with immediacy and color. One example: After federal agents ambushed and killed public enemy John Dillinger outside a Chicago movie house in 1934, a Daily News writer noted that the notorious bank robber and escape artist “had achieved the greatest triumph of a varied and interesting career by dying . . . and came to his final anticlimax in an alley between a tea store and a chop-suey restaurant.”
Seidel devotes a chapter to the sensational Haymarket bombing of 1886, which left eight policemen dead and the same number of labor leaders and anarchists facing the gallows. Other sinners include butcher August Becker, who murdered his wife in 1899 so he could marry his teenaged sweetheart. In 1925, car thief Martin Durkin made headlines when he shot and killed Edward Shanahan, the first agent of what would become the FBI to die while on duty. Johann Hoch was a serial bigamist who married women and plundered their savings. Some he abandoned, while others died young. Hoch deflected suspicion by claiming he had married “too many unhealthy women.” When he was hanged in 1906 for poisoning one of his wives, police were convinced he was a serial killer as well.
“People don’t merely die here,” Daily News scribe David Jackson once noted. “They are brutally murdered, terrorized, slaughtered. They are victims of bizarre schemes, mad sprees, heinous fiends.” In Second City Sinners, Seidel proves him right.
Plenty of detectives have been compared to the venerable Sherlock Holmes. But only one, William Burns, appears to have been declared “America’s Sherlock Holmes” by the sleuth’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who met and befriended the famous private detective.
In America’s Sherlock Holmes: The Legacy of William Burns (Lyons Press), retired University of Alaska historian William R. Hunt traces Burns’ rise from self-taught sleuth to the pinnacle of his profession, his fame rivalled only by his contemporaries in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Burns was a teenager who dreamed of an acting career when his father was elected police commissioner in Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1870s and introduced him to the world of detectives and crime-solving.
Hunt traces Burns’s early career with the Secret Service as he busts counterfeiters and government officials profiting from land grabs and joins forces with the Progressives battling big-city corruption. The bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, which left twenty-one people dead soon after he founded his own detective agency, was his breakthrough case. He exposed a ring of labor extremists responsible for the bombing and other attacks across the country.
Burns possessed none of Sherlock Holmes’s superhuman skills of deduction. He cracked cases through hard work and by following hunches. “Every Burns investigation fell into two stages,” Hunt writes. “Gather the evidence, then confront the culprit considered most likely to confess.” Burns was no saint, and he resorted to bluffs, lies, and intimidation to ensure this “weakest link” would crack. This was Burns’s secret weapon—he had only to identify a promising suspect willing to take a deal and incriminate his cohorts, and the turncoat would build his case for him.
And in an era of corruption and dubious ethics, he often crossed lines. Burns used spies and bribes to infiltrate the legal teams defending the targets of his investigations. He manipulated the media to inflate his growing reputation and loudly denounced defendants on the eve of their trials, knowing his interviews would influence the jury.
Burns also resorted to bending and breaking the law, and this would be his undoing. Secret arrests, jury tampering, and illegal wiretapping were among the tools of his trade. His scandal-tinged tenure in the early 1920s as head of the federal Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) sullied his reputation and tarnished his legacy. At times Hunt’s narrative veers too deeply into background and supporting characters, but a clear picture emerges of a brash, over-confident, headline-grabbing figure who believed the ends justified the means.
“Carl would not give me anything that would hurt me—would he?” Helen Potts asked as she lay dying in 1891. Carl was Carlyle Harris, her husband and a medical student, who had written her a prescription for capsules containing a trace of morphine. But the doctors who worked frantically to save the young woman’s life were convinced that she had been given a fatal dose. “Do you think I could be held responsible for this accident?” Harris repeatedly asked the medical men as Potts’s condition worsened. That question would transfix Gilded Age New York City.
Harris is little-known today, but in the 1890s he was arguably as notorious as any murderer of the time—serial killers H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper included. In Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts (Kent State University Press), author and law professor George R. Dekle, Sr. resurrects this forgotten case of sexual scandal, betrayal, forensic intrigue and cold-blooded murder.
It’s hard to image a more odious, heartless fiend. Harris was a psychopath of the first order, an inveterate liar with an insatiable sexual appetite who loved to boast of his conquests. His own brother called him a “villain.” He had secretly married Potts but soon tired of her and plotted how to make his escape. “My prospects will be utterly ruined if this marriage is known!” he confided to one of her friends. “I would rather kill her and kill myself than have the marriage public! I wish she were dead.” Within six months, he made sure his wish came true.
Six Capsules meticulously recreates the haphazard investigation into the death and the hard-fought trial the followed. Harris almost got away with murder—it was thought Potts had taken an overdose or a careless druggist had put too much morphine into the capsules. Evidence was lost, the coroner’s inquest was perfunctory, the body had to be exhumed for an autopsy, and Potts’s mother, fearing scandal, helped to cover up the crime. It fell to a muckraking reporter for the New York Evening World to uncover the secret marriage and other evidence that led to Harris’s prosecution.
Dekle draws on his legal expertise to dissect the strategies of the prosecution and defense and analyzes the testimony of the medical experts each side enlisted to confirm or dispute that morphine poisoning was the cause of death. The result is a snapshot that captures the state of forensic science—and its limitations—in 1890s America. There’s a lot more to unpack here—the reliability of circumstantial evidence, the impact of sensational press coverage, the second-class status that made women vulnerable to predators like Harris in the Gilded Age—and Dekle delivers.
If outlaw Butch Cassidy needs a boost to be considered a larger-than-life character, being portrayed by actor Paul Newman on the big screen is enough to put him over the top. Newman’s portrayal of a witty, debonair robber of banks and trains, who prided himself on not firing guns during a heist, made Cassidy an Old West icon. Funny thing is, Charles Leerhsen notes in a new Cassidy biography, the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid nailed the charismatic leader of the Wild Bunch gang by chance—Newman never bothered to research the character, and scriptwriter William Goldman, determined not to be “constricted by the facts,” barely glanced at the historical record.
That’s just one of the revelations in Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw (Simon & Schuster), which follows a vein of truth and digs into a motherlode of legend in search of the real story of a gentleman outlaw. Did Cassidy steal from rich bankers and railroad tycoons and give to the poor? Not exactly, notes Leerhsen, a New York author and journalist who co-wrote a book back in 1990 with someone his subject no doubt would have enjoyed robbing: Donald Trump. But Cassidy did refuse to steal from bystanders. “Put that away!” he was reputed to have told passengers who dutifully produced money and watches during one train robbery. “We don’t want yours, we want theirs.”
Leerhsen fills in the blanks left out of the movie—Cassidy’s upbringing as the oldest son of poor Mormon homesteaders in Utah (his real name was Robert LeRoy Parker), his gradual rise from occasional cattle rustler to big-time robber, his attempts to go straight until the money ran out and another bank safe or express car beckoned. And then there’s the matter of what really happened after Cassidy and Sundance struck out for South America in 1901 and how Hollywood reimagined their final shoot-out, seven years later, with Bolivian soldiers. Leerhsen’s folksy, tour-guide narration and liberal use of Old West vernacular—robbers don’t stroll or flee, they “mosey” and “vamoose”—make this a delightful journey into the life and times of a man who epitomized the last years of the American frontier.
There’s no shortage of books on Cassidy. Leerhsen stands on the shoulders of scores of biographers who have gone before him and he acknowledges his debt to their earlier, sometimes contradictory findings and conclusions. One of his sources, who had researched the outlaw for four decades, tried to dissuade him. “It’s a slippery slope you’re on with this guy,” she warned, “so turn back while you still can.” Readers of Butch Cassidy will be glad he decided not to heed her advice.
Dean Jobb’s next book recreates the crimes of Victorian Era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in England, the U.S. and Canada and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner (coming in July 2021 from Algonquin Books). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb