Crime and Place
By Dean Jobb
Setting is as much a part of a crime story as the characters caught up in the violence and intrigue. Think London’s sinister, fog-shrouded alleys and the stark, lifeless landscape of Fargo, or the seedy dives that are a second home for the streetwise noir detective. The same can be said for the role of place in true crime—where it happened can be as compelling as whodunit.
For Washington Post features writer Monica Hesse, the scene of the crime is Accomack County, an isolated swath of coastal Virginia and a once-thriving farming area that has fallen on hard times. Beginning in 2012, this quiet backwater was the scene of a series of arson attacks that terrorized residents and made national headlines.
“To journalists and professional storytellers, crimes are always more interesting when they happen in folksy, safe communities than when they happen in big cities,” Hesse writes in American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land (Liveright). “There’s a reason that Twin Peaks was set in a small Washington State logging community and not in New York.”
Hesse found her Twin Peaks in a place where crimes are few, most people are “Born Heres,” and newcomers, even long after they take up residency, are known as “Come Heres.” The county is dotted with abandoned homes and other buildings—the legacy of the slow decline of rural America—and someone torched more than eighty of them in the span of a few months.
This is a tragic tale of crime and punishment, told with dry wit and obvious affection for the people of a close-knit community under siege. Hesse’s thorough reporting and storytelling flair breathe life into a bizarre crime wave—and an unlikely pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde offenders—that could have been as overlooked and forgotten as Accomack County.
Another time, another place. In New York in the 1800s, being sent to “the Island” was a one-way trip for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Blackwell’s, a cigar-shaped sliver in the East River now known as Roosevelt Island, was the site of the era’s most dreaded institutions—a prison, insane asylum, workhouse, and a hospital for the poor. New York writer Stacy Horn explores the dark history of this dumping ground in Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).
This no-details-spared account recreates the horrific conditions in the grim buildings that rose along the spine of the two-mile-long island. Even Charles Dickens, a man hardened to the cruelties of the time, recoiled at the “naked ugliness and horror” of the asylum’s inmates when he visited in the 1840s. “Everything,” he noted, “had a lounging, listless, madhouse air.” Cruel guards and nurses, inexperienced doctors, filthy rooms and cells, tainted food, and a lack of public oversight and funding made these institutions a hell on earth.
Horn tells the island’s story through the experiences of a handful of people, most notably William Glenney French, a crusading clergyman who worked there for more than two decades and tried to expose the abuses and appalling conditions. A highlight of the book is journalist Elizabeth Cochran’s ten-day stay at the asylum in 1887, working undercover for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, she emerged with a series of articles exposing this “human rat-trap.” Her articles prompted a grand jury investigation but did little to improve the lot of those condemned to Blackwell’s.
The plan, Horn writes, had been to move New York’s “sick, mad, and punishable away from the general population and into the more humane, stress-free, and healthful environment of this lush, pastoral island.” It became, as one man incarcerated in the prison put it, “the true Siberia of America.” Damnation Island, a modern exposé worthy of a Nellie Bly, is a sobering reminder of how good intentions can go horribly wrong.
Across the East River, a section of Lower Manhattan known as the Bowery was providing plenty of tenants for the prison and asylum on Blackwell’s. The name dates to New York’s founding as New Amsterdam in the 1600s—it’s derived from bouwerie, Dutch for farm—and the area became notorious for gangs, riots, vice, and crime.
The long and colorful history of the street and its eponymous neighborhood are told in Stephen Paul DeVillo’s The Bowery: The Strange History of New York’s Oldest Street
(Skyhorse Publishing). A main drag from the city’s earliest days, it attracted taverns and theaters and was the place where circus impresario P.T. Barnum got his start. Even Five Points and other adjacent slums were an attraction, with Abraham Lincoln among those “slumming it” to take a look.
The Bowery is infamous as the turf of nineteenth-century gangs—the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies (named for their plug hats), the Dead Rabbits. Rivalry erupted in open street warfare in 1857, leaving at least eight men dead and scores wounded. DeVillo has unearthed another interesting true crime nugget—Dr. Francis Tumblety sold herbal remedies in the neighborhood before heading to London in 1888, where he became a suspect in the Jack the Ripper slayings.
“It’s the only major street in New York never to have had a church located on it,” the author notes, which perhaps accounts in part for its history of crime and immorality. DeVillo leads tours of New York and his book has the appealing, folksy feel of a guide’s narration as he takes readers through the Bowery’s checkered, skid-row past to its redeveloped and gentrified present.
Take a trip south, and back in time, to Baltimore on the first day of November 1864. Cannons fired, church bells rang, and crowds took to the streets to celebrate the outlawing of slavery in Maryland. University of Buffalo historian Adam Malka, however, argues that emancipation of the state’s 87,000 slaves marked the beginning of a new regime of racial exclusion and oppression at the hands of the police and the prison system.
The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press), explores timely and important issues of racism and inequality before the law, Malka notes, as “black Americans continue to confront the insidious marriage of race and policing.” He uses Baltimore—on the borderline between North and South and considered the capital of black America in the mid-nineteenth century—to reveal how racism became ingrained in early police forces. Baltimore was also a lawless place in dire need of policing—frequent riots earned it the “mobtown” moniker in the early 1800s.
While whites paid lip service to Maryland’s declarations of freedom and equality, Malka discovered, there was a widespread assumption that freed slaves would turn to crime. As a result, blacks received an inordinate amount of police attention and arrests increased dramatically. Before the Civil War, three out of four inmates of state prisons were white; by 1870, seven out of ten were black. For the promise of freedom to be fulfilled, he concludes, Americans must confront this legacy of injustice and “the white supremacy intrinsic to their policing practices.”
I suspect tourism officials in Nashville, Tennessee were not eager to see the release in September of Monster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age (Little A), which revisits a string of brutal murders and rapes in the capital of country music beginning in the 1970s. Michael Arntfield’s gritty exploration of the crimes of multiple serial killers who have operated in the city makes for riveting but gruesome reading of the kind not found in visitors’ guides.
The book focuses on the career of Pat Postiglione, a legendary Nashville detective and leader of a squad that solved an astounding fifty-five cold cases in eight years. Arntfield, a former police officer turned author who teaches criminology at a Canadian university, tells his story in impressive detail while sharing his own insights into the development of forensic methods and the twisted minds of serial murderers.
At times Arntfield’s admiration for Postiglione borders on hero worship—a reference to a serial killer who would have claimed more victims had he not made the “mistake of killing in Nashville on Pat’s watch” is one instance where the detective’s exploits feel inflated. And Arntfield’s background and comfort in the been-there, seen-that world of police officers means there’s a lot of cop-speak in the book—an inmate facing the electric chair is described as “waiting to ride the lightning.”
While some readers may chafe under the barrage of jargon, it gives the book a hardboiled, police-procedural feel that suits this insider’s perspective on more than three decades of murder investigations. And, thanks to Monster City, the home of the Grand Ole Opry has a more dubious claim to fame.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the story of 1920s Chicago con man Leo Koretz. His next book traces the crimes of Thomas Neill Cream, a doctor-turned-serial killer who committed his Victorian-era murders in three settings—London, Chicago and Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.