Murder Ink: A Killer Collection
Monday, August 25, 2008
An American Anthology
Edited by Harold Schechter
Library of America. 788 pp. $40
Murder, let's face it, is as American as cherry pie.
That's the unavoidable conclusion one reaches after reading the Library of America's huge, bloody, fascinating, often depressing yet sometimes grimly funny anthology of 350 years of true-crime writing.
Admirably edited by Harold Schechter, the book opens with "The Hanging of John Billington," Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford's 1651 account of the first recorded American murder, and ends with "Nightmare on Elm Drive," Dominick Dunne's 2001 report on the conviction of the Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik, for murdering their parents. The anthology's 50 nonfiction pieces, most originally published in newspapers and magazines, include some by authors as celebrated as Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Thurber, Theodore Dreiser and Truman Capote. Many of the crimes are obscure, while others are notorious, such as those involving Leopold and Loeb, Richard Speck and Charles Manson.
We encounter the Ghastly Find (often a body, or pieces of one, floating in a river); the Wayside Tavern, "where the solitary traveler comes but never departs"; and a multitude of women seeking to rid themselves of husbands by means of arsenic or various blunt instruments, some getting away with it, others not. We are reminded of just how incompetent most murderers are. Damon Runyon called Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray the Dumbbell Murderers when they were tried in 1927 for killing Snyder's husband, and the same could be said of a dozen others in this book, including Leopold and Loeb and the Menendez brothers, who fancied themselves superior creatures who could bring off the perfect crime.
Often, the stories from the 18th and 19th centuries are the most gripping, because we are unlikely to have encountered them before. Two early chapters describe separate murders in 1781 and 1782, wherein a farmer and a shopkeeper took up the ax and murdered their families, one because God told him to, the other because of business reversals. Mark Twain explains that the many shootings in America's Wild West came about because "a person is not respected until he has 'killed his man.' " An anonymous piece called "Jesse Harding Pomeroy, the Boy Fiend," tells of a lad in South Boston who in the 1870s tortured and killed younger children, and at age 14 was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted, and he died in prison 60 years later.
The Cuban patriot José Martí reports on the trial of Charles Guiteau, the disgruntled office-seeker who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 and claimed in court that God had told him to. Why? "To unite the factions within the Republican party," the killer explained. His insanity defense was rejected, and he was executed.
The reporter and future novelist Susan Glaspell tells how in 1900 an Iowa farmer's abused wife, Margaret Hossack, apparently used an ax to crush the skull of her sleeping husband but after two trials emerged a free woman. Not so fortunate was Cordelia Botkin of San Francisco, who when rejected by her married lover in 1898 sent his wife a box of poisoned chocolates, which killed both the wife and another woman. Botkin, too, was a dumbbell and wound up in San Quentin.
One does not typically look to true-crime reporting for outstanding writing -- just the facts will suffice -- but there is plenty of class in this volume. The New Yorker's Annals of Crime series has employed the talents of Alexander Woollcott, James Thurber, A.J. Liebling and Calvin Trillin; their articles collected here include Liebling's classic "Case of the Scattered Dutchman," which concerns body parts found floating in the East River.
Three dramatically different selections struck me as exceptionally well crafted.
"The Eternal Blonde," Damon Runyon's day-by-day account of the 1927 trial of Snyder and Gray for the murder of her husband, Albert Snyder, "under circumstances that for sheer stupidity and brutality have seldom been equalled in the history of crime," is often hilarious. Example: "[Snyder] is not bad looking. I have seen much worse. She is thirty-three and looks just about that, though you cannot tell much about blondes." Gray is dismissed as "the little corset salesman." After the lovers bashed in the sleeping husband's skull with a five-pound sash weight, Gray tied up Snyder, who later told the police that two foreigners had broken in and killed her husband. That story held up for about 30 seconds, whereupon the lovers turned on one another, a legal strategy that, as Runyon gleefully relates, did not save them from the electric chair.
At a little after 9, on the morning of Sept. 6, 1949, in Camden, N.J., a World War II veteran named Howard Unruh, armed with a Luger pistol, left his home and proceeded to kill or wound 16 neighbors and passersby in their shops, homes and cars. He later explained that his neighbors were making "derogatory remarks" about him. New York Times reporter Meyer Berger soon arrived on the scene and spent six hours retracing Unruh's steps and interviewing some 50 witnesses. He then returned to the Times office and wrote a 4,000-word story that was published the next day under the headline "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street." It was a dazzling example of deadline reporting and won Berger the Pulitzer Prize. Among the many bits of memorable dialogue he recorded was this exchange between an indignant Unruh and one of the policemen who arrested him: "You a psycho?" "I'm no psycho. I have a good mind."
Possibly the most remarkable piece of writing in this anthology is the African American novelist and journalist Zora Neale Hurston's account of the 1952 trial in Suwannee County, Fla., of Ruby McCollum, a black woman who had shot and killed her white lover, Clifford Adams Jr., a doctor and state senator. The trial, Hurston wrote, "amounted to a mass delusion by unanimous agreement." The well-to-do McCollum had given birth to one child by Adams and was pregnant with another when she shot him. She was allowed to say in court that Adams was the father of her child, but the prosecution called that "preposterous" and the judge refused to let her offer any details or mitigating circumstances. She was a black woman who had killed a white man, and there was nothing more to be said. The official story was that she shot him in a dispute over an unpaid $6 medical bill. Covering the trial for an African American newspaper and watching from the balcony reserved for blacks, Hurston found this charade astonishing, and she gives a powerful account of both the trial and the way local blacks, fearful of white authority in a Klan stronghold, were unanimous in condemning McCollum. It's a painfully candid piece of writing in which one reporter sees with perfect clarity the reality that everyone else denies.
Editor Schechter refers to a previous crime anthologist as having "served up true-crime tidbits for the delectation of a sensation-craving public." There are many delicious tidbits here, but I think no one would accuse Schechter of base motives. His seriousness is reflected in the Hurston selection, in Elizabeth Hardwick's eloquent protest against the 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman and in many other pieces. The anthology is almost obscenely entertaining, if one has a strong stomach and a certain mind-set, but it is also a searching look at the dark underside of American reality, at an aspect of the human condition that both horrifies and fascinates us.