Stranger Than Fiction
Stop the Presses!
By Dean Jobb
A maid stabs and almost kills her wealthy seducer in 1840s New York City. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 stakes an early claim to the title “crime of the century.” Lurid headlines expose a 1940s “Twisted Sex” murder in Manhattan. And a 1960s British scandal links a notorious London mobster with a member of the House of Lords. Four recent books chronicle these sensational true crimes, with a focus on how each story played out in the news media.
Even though there were still sixty-eight years to go, there was little doubt in 1932 that the crime of the twentieth century was the kidnapping and murder of the son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. The grieving father was a beloved national hero, the first man to complete a solo flight over the Atlantic. Media coverage of the case was pervasive and unprecedented; for a time, Americans seemed to care about nothing other than the search for the child and the trial of his alleged killer. “The news was taken to heart,” notes Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. “It concerned the loss of a baby everyone knew by his nickname”—Little Lindy.
Shelves of books have been written on the Lindbergh murder and the conviction and execution of Bruno Hauptmann for the crime. But, as Doherty notes in Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century (Columbia University Press), the role of the news media in transforming a sensational case into a sensation has been overlooked. This is his focus, and he declines to wade into the endless debate over Hauptmann’s guilt, whether he acted alone, and the many shortcomings of the police investigation. “This is a true media book,” the author declares at the outset, “not a true crime book.”
And this makes it a must for anyone who wants to understand the media’s role in catapulting a high-profile murder into the “crime of the century” stratosphere. The Lindbergh case, Doherty writes, came at a turning point in the evolution of the American mass media. Big-city newspapers with multiple editions each day could bring readers the latest developments. Radio was one-upping print, with live broadcasts that allowed listeners to eavesdrop as events unfolded. And newsreels—the third “lane” on the 1930s information highway, as he terms it—were immersing theatre audiences in the sights and sounds of events that the whole nation was sharing in real time.
Doherty unravels how the media covered the case with a storyteller’s eye for character, anecdote, and detail. One of many examples is the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of how newsreel camera operators defied the judge’s edict and surreptitiously captured footage of the trial, including Hauptmann’s testimony in his own defence. This is scholarly writing at its best—a thorough academic study presented in a lean, hardboiled narrative style and peppered with dead-on insights. Think there’s nothing more to be said about the Lindbergh case? Think again, and read this book.
A decade later, a sexually charged murder case would set off another media frenzy, this time in New York City. The body of Patricia Burton Lonergan, a wealthy socialite in her early twenties, was found in the bedroom of her Manhattan brownstone in October 1943. She was naked and had been beaten to death with a pair of heavy, brass-bottomed candleholders while her eighteen-month-old-son and his nanny slept downstairs. Suspicion soon fell on Wayne Lonergan, her estranged Canadian-born husband. He had returned to Toronto to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force but was in New York that weekend on leave. Police quickly concluded the crime was not a robbery-gone-wrong’—the victim’s jewelry, worth a small fortune, had not been touched—and hauled him back from Canada for trial.
In Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder (Globe Pequot/Lyons Press), award-winning Canadian author Allan Levine recreates the shocking murder and its aftermath. The Lonergans frequented the Stork Club, the El Morocco, and other nightspots favored by New York’s in-crowd (celebrity gossip columnist Walter Winchell was a Stork Club regular) but it was not Patricia’s wealth and social profile alone that made the murder a sensation. It was Lonergan’s admission he was bisexual and his alibi—he had been in another part of the city, he told detectives, and in bed with a man. While one New York newspaper cautiously alluded to revelations of “whispered vices whose details are unprintable”—giving Levine his title—the tabloid Daily News trumpeted the story under a large-type, front-page headline: “Twisted Sex.”
Levine has thoroughly researched the case (the New York District Attorney Office’s archived files on the case alone run to more than 1,600 pages) and immerses the reader in the time and place. There was no physical evidence linking Lonergan to the murder, and forensic tests available during the Second World War could glean few clues from the bloodstains and fingerprints found in his wife’s bedroom. The prosecution’s case rested on a confession that Lonergan would insist, for the rest of his life, the police had extracted using threats and violence.
Lonergan was convicted and served more than two decades in prison. Deported back to Toronto after his release, he picked up where he left off and by the 1970s was in a relationship with a Canadian actress—“another generous woman,” Levine notes, “with a healthy bank account.” After sifting through the paper trail and extensive media coverage, the author rejects Lonergan’s claims of innocence and police brutality. Levine condemns his subject as “a born liar with only one true objective: to move up the social ladder and live the good life.”
Almost a century to the day before Patricia Lonergan’s murder, maid Amelia Norman confronted businessman Henry Ballard on the steps of the Astor House Hotel on Broadway. In a flash she pulled out a knife and stabbed him, missing his heart—assuming he had one—by inches. He had fathered her child but refused to marry her or support them, callously advising her to “go and get her living as other prostitutes did.” On a November night in 1843 she decided, instead, to try to kill him.
Washington, DC-based historian and author Julie Miller explores the far-reaching implications of the crime in Cry of Murder on Broadway: A Woman’s Ruin and Revenge in Old New York (Cornell University Press). Norman’s prosecution for attempted murder created a firestorm in the newspapers. “The vengeance of a woman upon her despoiler cannot be checked,” penny-press pioneer James Gordon Bennett mansplained in the New York Herald, “when jealousy and desertion goad her to its accomplishment.” Her case energized advocates seeking more rights for women and the working class. And it helped to hasten the reform of outdated laws that prevented a woman from suing her seducer—a legal right that, in the 1840s, only “her father or master” could exercise, reinforcing the notion that women were little more than property.
Norman may have been able to read but never learned how to write—she scribbled an X to sign her statement confessing to stabbing Ballard—and little is known about her. But Miller’s careful research gives her a voice and a backstory, as the author traces her upbringing in rural New Jersey, the offer of a servant’s job that allowed her to escape to the big city, and her “ruin”—as it was termed at the time—as Ballard’s mistress. Several high-profile contemporary observers weighed in on the case, including abolitionist and activist Lydia Maria Child, who championed Norman’s cause. Journalist Mike Walsh, a muckraker locked up in the same jail as Norman (he was serving a short term for libel and assault) considered her “a high-minded girl” and condemned Ballard as a “dastardly, base, mercenary, miserly dog.” Even Charles Dickens helps out with descriptions of the city he visited on a North American tour in the early 1840s.
Was Norman convicted of attempted murder? What was her fate? And how did her ordeal change attitudes and the law? Miller offers the answers in this fine study of a long-forgotten case that exposed a powerful man’s mistreatment of a vulnerable woman and resonates with today’s #MeToo movement.
When it comes to lurid headlines on crime stories, it’s tough to beat the giant-sized words emblazoned on the front page of London’s Daily Mirror in July 1964: PEER AND A GANGSTER: YARD PROBE. The peer was Lord Boothby, a prominent Conservative politician and one-time Churchill ally who had become a staple of British television. The gangster was Ronnie Kray, one-half of a violent twin-brother act that would soon dominate the London underworld. The crime committed by this “odd couple,” as Daniel Smith aptly calls them? Scotland Yard, the report implied, was investigating them for having a homosexual relationship, which at the time was still a crime.
In The Peer and the Gangster: A Very British Cover-up (The History Press), the prolific London author skilfully reveals the untold story behind a Fleet Street scoop and how the powers that be quickly squelched the story. Even though the allegations were largely true—Boothby and Kray were not in a relationship, but were both gay and they socialized together—the threat of a libel suit prompted the Mirror to back down and retract its incendiary story. Smith, who calls it “the century’s greatest British scandal that never was,” exposes how and why the story was killed.
Smith interviewed widely and consulted government records and recently declassified MI5 files to expose how the Krays sought to curry the favour of powerful friends and how Boothby’s gambling and love of London’s nightlife brought him into their orbit. The relationship between Ronnie Kray and Boothby was based on a shared desire for young male lovers, not for each other. The Krays’ violent reputation, Smith asserts, forced many young male victims to do their bidding. As for the cover-up, the Establishment closed ranks to protect Boothby; the British government was still reeling from 1963’s Profumo affair (a cabinet minister and a Soviet diplomat, in that case, were sleeping with the same woman) and could not afford the fallout from another sex scandal.
What would happen if the same scoop crossed an editor’s desk today? A story linking a prominent politician and a mobster would still be news, Smith notes, but the reference to a homosexual relationship would do little more than raise eyebrows now, when being gay is not a crime but a human right. The real crime, successfully covered up in 1964, was how Boothby and Kray forced young men to have sex with them. “That is why the story remains relevant,” Smith concludes. “It is about the abuse of power.”
Dean Jobb’s new book The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, released by Algonquin Books in July, recreates the crimes of a Victorian Era serial killer who preyed on women in Chicago, Canada, and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb