Stranger Than Fiction

May 2019

In Case You Missed It

By Dean Jobb

More than 160 years of crime reporting from the pages of The New York Times. An 1870s New Orleans kidnapping with lessons about race and justice. Two studies of serial killers, past and present, plus an investigation of how passion and obsession can drive women and men to kill. This month, a roundup of five recent true-crime books that you may have missed.

On a hot June day in 1870, two women snatched a toddler from her older brother on a busy street in New Orleans, triggering a massive police investigation and igniting a press frenzy. The women behind this brazen crime were black, the child was white, and the kidnapping had the ingredients of a familiar tale of race and injustice in the Old South. “Because the law and legal procedures favored whites,” notes Michael A. Ross, “justice for blacks was the exception, not the rule.”

New-Orleans-kidnapping-case-RossBut as the University of Maryland history professor demonstrates in The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era (Oxford University Press), first published in 2014 and now available in paperback, the abduction of seventeen-month-old Mollie Digby was far from a routine case. Two suspects were arrested, but their conviction was not a foregone conclusion in a city where Reconstruction Era reforms had desegregated public schools and given black people the right to vote and to serve on juries.

Ross was researching another project when he stumbled upon newspaper coverage of the kidnapping. The dramatic case, he realized, was “the perfect subject for a micro-history” that exposed the social, political, and legal forces at work in the wake of the Civil War. Ross fulfils this scholarly mandate with plenty of segues into the historical context, but the book maintains the narrative thread of an investigation and trial full of drama, twists, and turns.

Journalists stoked public outrage with outlandish claims the baby would be sacrificed in a voodoo ritual. The police investigation, which dragged on for weeks, was condemned as “the sorriest spectacle of incompetence ever witnessed.” But such criticism was politically and racially motivated. Under the leadership of Louisiana’s governor, a former Union soldier, the New Orleans police force reflected the city it served—years before many other cities recruited their first black patrolmen, more than a quarter of its officers were African-American.

A key figure in the book is John Baptiste Jourdain, a clever and resourceful investigator and one of the first black detectives in America. His efforts to crack the baffling case are at the heart of the book, along with a key question: Will the black suspects receive a fair trial during the New Orleans experiment in integration? As the resurgence of white supremacy and segregation loom in the background, Ross’s richly detailed account keeps readers engaged—and guessing.


Book-of-Crime-Flynn“Chicago gangland leaders observed Valentine’s Day with machine guns and a stream of bullets,” the New York Times reported on Feb. 15, 1929. And there was already speculation the execution-style murders of seven men—“the most cold-blooded gang massacre in the history of this city’s underworld”—was the handiwork of the ruthless Al Capone.

The next-day coverage of history’s most infamous mob hit is one of 86 articles collected in The New York Times Book of Crime: More Than 166 Years of Covering the Beat, (Sterling Publishing), released in 2017. Kevin Flynn, a Times editor who quarterbacked the paper’s police coverage for five years, compiled this absorbing anthology of murder and mayhem that America’s paper of record deemed “fit to print.”

A line-up of notorious and sensational cases has been assembled, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to the arrest of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2016. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 and the Manson family murders are here, as well as O.J. Simpson’s acquittal and Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar swindle.

The stories are arranged chronologically within sections that focus on vice, white-collar crime, “The Mob,” and famous heists and kidnappings, to name a few. The section on mass murder revisits the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Orlando’s Pulse nightclub—two decades of senseless slaughter, courtesy of America’s deadly gun culture.

These first drafts of history offer immediacy and insight, as well as examples of fine newswriting. The opening paragraph of Tom Wicker’s report on one of the turning points of history is a masterpiece of brevity and restraint: “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.”

While all of these articles can be easily accessed through the Times’ digital archive, this collection highlights lesser-known crime stories and Flynn’s brief annotations provide updates and context. “For all our genuine revulsion at violence,” he notes in an introduction, “crime, it seems, makes rubberneckers of us all. And reading about it is, unquestionably, a guilty pleasure.” So is reading this collection of true-crime gems.


Trials-of-Passion-AppignanesiHow infatuation and obsession can transform respectable, law-abiding people into killers is the ambitious subject of the 2015 book Trials of Passion: Crimes Committed in the Name of Love and Madness (Pegasus). Lisa Appignanesi, a former chair of London’s Freud Museum and author of two previous books on madness, uses case studies from England, France and the United States to explore the social and psychiatric basis for crimes of passion.

“This book journeys into the heart of dark passions, feminine and masculine,” she writes, “the crimes they impel, and their trial by daylight and doctors in the courts of justice and in the larger public arena of the press.” Appignanesi focuses on the years between 1870 and the outbreak of World War One, a time when attitudes and gender roles were in flux and judges and juries increasingly relied on the professional opinions of psychiatrists—“mind doctors,” as she calls them—to separate the mad from the bad.

Trials of Passion focuses on three cases. Christiana Edmunds was so infatuated with her doctor that she distributed poisoned sweets in Brighton in 1870 to deflect suspicions she had tried to poison the doctor’s wife. A child died after eating one of her tainted chocolates, Edmunds stood trial for murder, and medical and legal experts sparred over whether she was a cold-blooded killer or delusional and insane.

Appignanesi then transports readers to Belle Époque Paris, where Marie Bière’s attempt to kill her lover in 1880 exposed the hypocrisy of a society that tolerated male philandering and abuse while punishing women who dared to strike back. (French law excused a man who murdered an adulterous spouse, but there was no similar protection for a wife who killed her wayward husband.) She also offers a fresh take on a notorious American case—millionaire Harry Thaw’s brazen 1906 murder of Stanford White, a renowned New York architect. White had seduced and raped Evelyn Nesbit, a supermodel of the day; she was now Thaw’s wife, and a courtroom debate raged over whether Thaw’s obsession with avenging the harm done to Nesbit had escalated into insanity.

This is a serious book that takes a deep dive into complex, often contradictory medical and legal thought on insanity and crimes of passion. Appignanesi’s storytelling skills and sharp insights, coupled with her command of this challenging material, make this a satisfying read.


Sons-of-Cain-VronskyWhat compels some depraved men and women to murder not once, but to seek out and kill multiple victims? That’s the question Canadian writer and “investigative historian” Peter Vronsky sets out to answer in Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present (Berkley). Released last summer, it offers unnerving insights into the methods and twisted minds of monsters who have stalked their fellow human beings since pre-historic times.

“Serial killers are what Mother Nature intended all of us to be in the wild before civilization,” he writes—for early humans, survival meant kill or be killed. But as our brains developed, intellect and compassion reined in such murderous impulses. Serial killers are throwbacks, damaged by nurture, nature or both and unable to control their lust for victims.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that the term “serial killer” is a recent invention. Jack the Ripper may be one of the most notorious in history, but Vronsky discovered that the term did not appear in the New York Times until 1981, almost a century after the Whitechapel murders. The FBI’s current definition of a serial killer as “anybody who kills two or more people in distinctly separate incidents”—casting a wide net and retroactively expanding the number of serial murderers—only dates from 2005.

Vronsky, who has written two previous books on serial killers—and, incredibly, has had chance encounters with three of them—focuses his latest on sexual predators, from the human “werewolves” of medieval times to lesser-known French and British killers of the nineteenth century to the proliferation of Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers terrorizing modern America.

The book combines science, anthropology, criminology and history as it explores an array of factors that can create a serial killer, including Vronsky’s theory that a generation of war veterans, too traumatized and distant to be good fathers, led to an explosion of multiple murderers from the 1960s to the 1990s.


Lady-Killers-TelferVronsky, who published a book on female serial killers in 2007, limits this account to the “sons” of Cain. But Tori Telfer is fixated on the deadly deeds of Cain’s “daughters.” Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History (Harper Perennial), released in 2017, profiles more than a dozen of history’s most violent, ruthless and little-known serial murderers—all of them women.

“When we think about serial killers,” she points out, “we think about men.” And even though they account for less than one out of every ten repeat killers, this collection makes it clear women can be as vicious and cold-blooded as their male counterparts. The sexist attitudes and stereotypes that make it difficult for most people to believe women are capable of such cruelty, Telfer writes, make them some of the most prolific serial killers in history. They are “master masqueraders” who “walk among us looking for all the world like our wives, mothers, and grandmothers.”

Telfer, a first-time author, takes readers deep into history with tales of the Russian aristocrat who murdered servants with impunity and the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess reputed to have slaughtered hundreds of young women to feed an insatiable bloodlust. Other women specialized in poisoning food and drink to free themselves from ill-advised marriages and unwanted children. A few were “black widows” who seduced or married older men for their money, then made sure they would not have to wait long for an inheritance.

Several of the women profiled here wielded arsenic as their weapon of choice, long after reliable laboratory tests made it easy to detect in a victim’s body. That they could get away with such brazen crimes, time after time, proves how difficult it was for the authorities to believe women were capable of murder. And Telfer also rejects the idea that poison was “a gutless way to kill.” It requires “advance planning,” she notes, “and the stomach for a drawn-out death scene.”

Telfer reviews these cases in breezy prose that’s peppered with quips and asides. The “serpentine double s” at the end of the word murderess “gives the term its poisonous charm,” she notes at one point, before launching into the tale of a woman “who really put the double s into murderess.” As grim as the stories are, this upbeat approach works and Telfer offers enough analysis and context to inject the book with a dose of gravitas.

All five books offer an array of true stories—some well known, others long overlooked—that are worth checking out.


Dean Jobb’s next book exposes the crimes of Victorian-era serial killer Thomas Neill Cream, a doctor who preyed on women in Canada, the United States and England. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb


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