Stranger Than Fiction

October 2020

Women & Crimes

By Dean Jobb

Writer and self-confessed true crime junkie Rachel Monroe traveled from Texas to Nashville in 2018 to attend the second CrimeCon convention. There were sessions on profiling, cold cases, and the latest forensic techniques, a booth set up to make selfies look like a mug shot, and T-shirts declaring I’M JUST HERE TO ESTABLISH AN ALIBI. Monroe noticed something else—of the two thousand or so in attendance, there was only “a smattering of men.”

savage-appetites“Women make up the majority of the readers of true crime books and the listeners of true crime podcasts,” she notes in the opening pages of Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession (Scribner). Why? While there’s undoubtedly an element of voyeurism and some women may want to learn all they can about killers to avoid becoming a victim, she prefers a “more alarming hypothesis”—perhaps, she writes, the women at CrimeCon “liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.”

Monroe explores this macabre attraction through the stories of four women. One is a pioneering forensic investigator with a difference—Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee, who was wealthy enough to indulge her passion for detection and blessed with a mind that a friend said “worked with the accurate precision of a railroad watch.” In the 1940s and 1950s Lee built realistic scale models of crime scenes (or Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, as she preferred to call them), complete with dolls as victims, to train detectives to look for clues pointing to foul play.

Author Alisa Statman’s fascination with the Manson murders and her close relationship with a sister of murdered actress Sharon Tate helps Monroe to assess the impact of crime on its victims. The case of a young Tennessee man accused of killing three children and convicted on the flimsiest of evidence—and the woman convinced of his innocence—allows her to skewer the media-fuelled “Satanic cult” panic of the 1990s and document the rise of online amateur sleuths. In each of these stories, Monroe skilfully weaves in memories of her own fascination with violent crime.

The fourth female archetype she examines—“The Killer”—is Lindsey Souvannarath, a nineteen-year-old in suburban Chicago with teenage angst to spare. She connected online with James Gamble, a twenty-two-year-old in Nova Scotia who was as maladjusted and jaded as she was—and just as obsessed with emulating the Columbine school shooting. Together they hatched a shocking plan to meet on Valentine’s Day 2015 in Gamble’s city, Halifax, and shoot as many people as they could at a shopping mall before committing suicide. A timely tip to police derailed the plot; Gamble shot himself after police surrounded his home and Souvannarath was arrested as she arrived at the Halifax airport. She is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder.

Monroe’s book is a smart, insightful, and engrossing journey into the dark world of crime obsession. “When we make killers into objects of fascination,” she warns, “we risk contributing to their mystique.” But true crime stories serve a purpose—they are today’s version of the gruesome fairy tales that have warned generations of children about the evils lurking below the surface of everyday life. “Parts of ourselves long for these shadowy places,” she argues; “we’ll discover things there that we can’t learn anywhere else.”

 

McConnell_Belle-hrBrooklyn a century ago is the scene of another recent exploration of women who kill. Did nineteen-year-old Florence Burns murder her estranged lover Walter Brooks in a Manhattan hotel room in 1902? That’s the question at the heart of Virginia A. McConnell’s The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Kent State University Press). But like the best true crime, her book digs deep into the milieu the victim and his likely assailant inhabited—a world of pampered, fast-living offspring of wealthy families, McConnell writes, infused with “the heady hedonism of being young and in rebellion against something and nothing.” Affluenza, it turns out, is nothing new.

Burns and Brooks were part of the Bedford Avenue Gang, a collection of bored, promiscuous Brooklyn teenagers and young adults who pulled petty crimes for kicks and partied like it was 1899. The hijinks turned deadly when Brooks, just twenty, was found shot in the head, and Burns—banned from her parents’ home for her wild behavior and possibly pregnant with Brooks’ child—was accused of his murder.

McConnell’s thorough research and richly detailed storytelling explores what happened next. Detectives botched their interrogation, prompting a judge to toss out Burns’s damning admissions. An eyewitness identified her as a woman seen at the hotel that night, but without a proper lineup being arranged, his testimony was useless. She never stood trial and the “unwritten law” of the time made it unlikely a jury would have convicted her—a woman who killed an abusive husband or a man who had seduced and abandoned her was viewed as acting in self-defense or in a fit of temporary insanity. Burns may have gotten away with murder, but McConnell, author of a half-dozen previous books of historical true crime, deftly traces the shocking, downward spiral of her life years after her name faded from the headlines.

 

Greiner-A-Woman-CondemnedThree decades later, in Upstate New York, a young mother of three stood trial for the murder of her husband. In A Woman Condemned: The Tragic Case of Anna Antonio (another Kent State University Press title), author James M. Greiner takes readers into the Albany underworld—made famous by the likes of gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond—and returns an indictment against the justice system.
           

Sam Antonio—try saying his name without thinking of Texas—worked as a brakeman on the New York Central Railroad, but most of his income came from dealing drugs. His twenty-six-year-old wife, Anna, knew her place and said nothing when he turned up at their apartment with guns, packets of drugs, and unsavory “coworkers.”

Once one of Antonio’s associates discovered he had been shortchanged on a deal, Anna’s precarious life began to hurtle toward disaster. Vincent Saetta tried to extort the money he was owed from Anna, then recruited another hoodlum, Sam Faraci, to kill Antonio. The pair took him to a secluded highway outside Albany in 1932, then shot and stabbed him to death.

Faraci and Saetta were soon arrested and confessed. Greiner’s focus is Anna’s prosecution as part of the plot, and perhaps even the instigator of the murder. Drawing on thousands of pages of court transcripts and police records, as well as news coverage and the memoirs of key players, he recreates the crime in remarkable detail, then dissects the case against Anna with surgical precision. A Woman Condemned is a true crime gem that combines the riveting storyline of a police procedural with a relentless search for the truth.

Was Anna aware that her husband’s life was in danger? The answer seems to be yes. Did she offer a share of his life insurance payout to hire his killers, as police and prosecutors alleged? Greiner, a retired history teacher, is unconvinced; readers will be as well. And he leaves no doubt she was denied a fair trial and did not deserve to be executed along with her husband’s killers (or to endure the anguish of two last-minute reprieves before dying in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison).  The “unwritten law” that gave the well-born Florence Burns a get-out-of-jail-free card was never invoked to spare the life of a poor Italian immigrant.

 

My-Mother-the-Serial-KillerHazel Baron was nine when she first suspected her mother was a murderer.” That’s the attention-grabbing opening line of My Mother, A Serial Killer (HarperCollins), Baron’s harrowing story of her hardscrabble upbringing in rural Australia in the 1950s as the child of Dulcie Bodsworth, a ruthless and remorseless sociopath who killed Helen’s father and two other men.

Only one person had the knowledge and courage to put Bodsworth behind bars. Hazel was still in her teens when she revealed her suspicions that her mother had drowned her ailing father so she could marry Harry Bodsworth, a man nineteen years her junior. She was also convinced that Bodsworth had then poisoned an overseer at a sheep ranch (hoping to secure the job for her new husband) and later set fire to an elderly man’s bed as he slept, to get her hands on his money.

Baron teamed up with veteran crime journalist and author Janet Fife-Yeomans to tell her remarkable, believe-it-or-not story, first published in Australia in 2018 and released in North America this year. Women are rarely accused of multiple murders and Bodsworth—a con artist who could lie and feign sympathy and compassion with ease—seemed the unlikeliest of serial killers. She even ingratiated herself with local police officers by baking treats for them. “Beneath the pleasant façade, she was a harsh, tough and cruel woman,” the authors write. “She possessed no conscience. She was lethal.”

The book recounts Bodsworth’s crimes and how Baron broke free of her control and took her suspicions to the police (by blowing the whistle, Hazel was “dobbing in” her mother—that’s just one of many Australian terms that pepper the narrative and firmly anchor the story in its time and place). Her disclosures triggered a massive investigation and manhunt and drawn-out court proceedings as the justice system struggled to grapple with the allegations. Two guilty verdicts were reversed on appeal, with new trials ordered, before both Bodsworths—it was Harry, acting on Dulcie’s instructions, who had actually killed Hazel’s father—were sent to prison.

This is an absorbing story of family disfunction, betrayal, and murder that exposes the trauma and damaged lives that Bodsworth’s callous actions left in their wake. It’s also a story as sobering and compelling as the darkest of fairy tales.

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Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), the true tale of a brazen swindler who conned the elite of 1920s Chicago. His next book, set for a summer 2021 release, recreates the crimes of serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who terrorized Victorian Era London and murdered at least four people in the Chicago area in the 1880s. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

 

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