Our Long-standing Obsession with True Crime

Until quite recently, when someone who actually knew what he or she was talking about took the trouble to correct it, the Wikipedia entry for “True Crime” claimed that the genre originated in 1966 with the publication of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” This all-too-common misconception gets the starting date wrong by roughly 400 years.

No sooner had Gutenberg invented movable type than enterprising printers began churning out graphically violent murder ballads. Whenever a particularly ghastly killing occurred, it was promptly cast in doggerel, printed on a large sheet of paper known as a “broadside,” and peddled to the hard-working masses eager to brighten their dreary days with a little vicarious sadism. Throat-slittings, stranglings, bludgeonings and axe-murders were among the many grisly subjects of these crudely written verses, though few atrocities could match the morbid titillation of a really gruesome child-killing, as in the case of the British “monster mom” Emma Pitt:

                   This Emma Pitt was a schoolmistress,

                      Her child she killed we see,

                   Oh mothers, did you ever hear

                      Of such barbarity?

                   With a large flint stone she beat its head,

                      When such cruelty she’d done,

                   From the tender roof of the infant’s mouth

                      She cut away its tongue.

Murder ballads weren’t the only kind of crime literature available in the old days. In England, true crime books can be traced as far back as John Reynolds’ “The Triumphs of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther,” an Elizabethan anthology that dished up juicy real-life stories of homicidal violence under the moralistic pretext of demonstrating that Crime Does Not Pay. Even more popular was “The Newgate Calendar: Or, Malefactors’ Bloody Register,” a constantly updated compendium of sordid true crime accounts, which, after the Bible and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” was the most widely read book in Britain for more than a century.

Here in America, the public’s appetite for lurid entertainment was fed by volumes like the “The Record of Crimes in the United States” (a particular favorite of self-confessed true crime junkie, Nathaniel Hawthorne). Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, similar compilations were churned out on a regular basis. Perhaps the best known was the 1910 “Celebrated Criminal Cases of America,” by former San Francisco police captain Thomas S. Duke, a collection of criminal case histories covering a wide range of reprobates, from infamous outlaws like Jesse James and the Daltons to Victorian serial killers like Theodore Durrant (aka “The Demon of the Belfry”) and the Chicago “multi-murderer” Dr. H.H. Holmes. Dashiell Hammett was so addicted to Duke’s book that he kept a copy of it on his night table for bedtime reading (as does his surrogate, Sam Spade, in “The Maltese Falcon”).

Though first-rate pieces of American true crime writing appeared throughout the mid-20th century, by such writers as Damon Runyon, Herbert Asbury, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Kilgallen and especially Edmund Pearson (revered by aficionados as the dean of American true crime), a distinct air of disreputability still clung to the genre. Then came “In Cold Blood,” which elevated the book-length true crime narrative to the rarefied heights of serious literature. Unfortunately, its author also set an unfortunate precedent by indulging in the kind of novelistic embellishment (not to say rank fabrication) that has become endemic to the form. People who write true crime, of course, aren’t the only authors of creative nonfiction who have been known to improve on the truth. Given the promise of absolute veracity that is embedded in the very name of the true crime genre, however, I believe such writers have a particular obligation to stick to the facts.

Not that I’ve always done so myself. Early in my writing career, I occasionally allowed myself a bit of what I referred to as “extrapolation” (less euphemistically known as “making stuff up”). My unacknowledged credo (cribbed from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) was “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” In my defense, I restricted my fabrications to fairly minor atmospheric details. For example, in my book “Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer,” there’s a scene in which the main character—the wizened cannibal-pedophile Albert Fish (using his pseudonym, Frank Howard)—dines with the family of his future child-victim, Grace Budd. Here’s how I describe the meal:

The men retired to the kitchen, a clean but dingy-looking room illuminated by a single bare bulb that tinged the whitewashed walls a sickly yellow. The long wooden table, covered with a plaid oilcloth, held a big cast-iron pot full of ham hocks and sauerkraut—the leftover remains of the previous night’s dinner. The sharp, briny odor of the cabbage filled the room. Arranged around the pot were platters of pickled beets and boiled carrots, a basket of hard rolls and two ceramic bowls into which Mrs. Budd had transferred Frank Howard’s pot cheese and strawberries.

This lunch really happened, but I took the artistic liberty of inventing the menu. I hasten to say I did some research into the kind of food a working-class family like the Budds might have served a guest for lunch in the late 1920s. Still, I didn’t actually know what they ate; I just wanted to make the moment seem real for the reader.

I no longer permit myself even such minor bits of imaginative re-creation. My field is historic true crime—I’ve written about cases from the Civil War era to the 1950s—and I’ve come to see the genre as a legitimate branch of American historical study. After all, the Leopold and Loeb case tells us as much about the Jazz Age as Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight does, just as the Manson murders shed as much light on the culture of late-1960s America as Woodstock does. To be taken as seriously as history, however, a true crime book must adhere strictly to documented fact. There’s no reason why a book-length narrative about a 19th-century serial murderer shouldn’t be held to the same rigorous standards as, for instance, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

My task as a writer, as I see it, is to produce a serious work of historical scholarship (my last few books have included copious endnotes) that stays true to the sensationalistic roots of the genre by providing “murder fanciers” (as Edmund Pearson called true crime lovers) with the primal pleasures they crave. In looking for a suitable subject, I try to find cases that possess some larger social or cultural significance. Shocking murders happen all the time, of course, but few of them have the ingredients to make much of an impression on the public beyond momentary shock. In the early 1920s, for example, a former showgirl named Clara Phillips—“The Tiger Woman,” the tabloids dubbed her—took a claw hammer to the skull of her husband’s mistress and bludgeoned her to death. Her crime provided the public with some fleeting titillation but quickly vanished into permanent obscurity. By contrast, the 1927 “Double Indemnity Murder” perpetrated by Queens housewife Ruth Snyder and her milquetoast lover, Judd Gray, became one of the signature crimes of the Jazz Age. What made it so riveting wasn’t the homicide per se (the victim, Ruth’s husband, Albert, suffered a death no more or less gruesome than the one inflicted on Mr. Phillip’s mistress) but the colorful cast of characters, the deliciously tawdry storyline and—most important of all—the way the crime seemed to crystalize the cultural anxieties of the day: the breakdown of traditional morality, the threatening freedoms embodied by the “New Woman” and so forth.

Of course, there will always be highbrows who cast a contemptuous eye at the true crime genre. In an essay on “In Cold Blood,” Renata Adler deplores both the original book and the 1968 movie for playing to the bloodlust of the audience by using “every technique of cheap fiction” to intensify the emotional impact of the killings. This criticism, however, seems deeply wrongheaded since, on some fundamental level, one purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William James called our “aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.” The worst specimens of the genre may not rise above the quasi-pornographic level, but the best—like those exquisitely ornamented war clubs, broadswords and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating: the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even art.

About the Author

Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature at Queens College, the City University of New York. Among his more than 30 published books are a series of historical true crime narratives about America’s most infamous serial killers, a quartet of mystery novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America.

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