Tag Archives: true crime

Murder Most Charming

The First Floor: New and Featured section of the Main library has a pretty epic graphic novel collection. That’s where I first came upon the works of Rick Geary, who writes and illustrates A Treasury of Victorian Murder and A Treasury of XXth Century Murder, two of the most delightful historical true crime series that’ll you’ll ever find (though to be fair, I’m not sure that he has a lot of competition in this arena).

I’ve read them all a few times, and always pounce on the new titles as soon as they come in. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

beast

That is not a trustworthy mustache.

The Beast of Chicago: an Account of the Life and Crimes of Herman W. Mudgett, Known to the World as H.H. Holmes – This character may sound familiar to you. It’s because he’s the Devil in Erik Larson’s most excellent book, The Devil in the White City. If you want both murder and lengthy digressions about architecture, read Larson’s book. If you want to get right down to business, read Geary’s book instead – there’s more than enough historical detail in here to make it both educational and an exciting romp. For the best of both worlds, you should (of course) read both books. This one really helped me picture the events described in The Devil in the White City, because, well, pictures. There are excellent diagrams of Holmes’ bizarre mansion, illustrations of Chicago and the World’s Fair, and maps of Holmes’ final flight. Good stuff all around.

(Bonus: Here’s a DVD about architectin’, and here’s one about murderin’. Because I belong to the Film & Audio department and have to work this stuff in somewhere.)

The Borden Tragedy: a Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 - Before I read this book, all I knew about Lizzie Borden could be summarized as “Lizzie Borden took an axe, something something something.” But after reading just the title of this book, my Internal Borden Murder Fact Database instantly tripled in size! And once you crack open the covers, there’s even more good stuff – Borden’s mother wasn’t murdered, it was her stepmother. Borden’s father didn’t believe in hallways, so their house looked really weird (the floor plans are mighty confusing). Mrs. Borden died while cleaning the guest bedroom (19 blows), and Mr. Borden died while napping in the sitting room (10 blows). The back cover even lists the similarities between Lizzie’s case and that of the formerly illustrious O.J. Simpson.

that song

Copyright 1997 by Rick Geary!

Those two are pretty famous cases, like most of the titles in the series – there are books about the Lindbergh kidnapping, Jack the Ripper, and the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Garfield, to name a few. But there are others - cases that were famous in their day but aren’t remembered now, like the murder of actor and director William Desmond Taylor, the trial of poisoner Madeline Smith, and the story of the Bender family, described below.

Hospitable looking, aren’t they?

The Saga of the Bloody Benders: the Infamous Homicidal Family of Labette County, Kansas – The Bender family (mother, father, son, and daughter) appeared in Kansas in 1870, purchased land near a local trail, and set up a small inn and grocery store to attract the business of people travelling west. Over the next three years or so travelers and locals alike started to disappear, usually after last visiting the Bender property. The family themselves vanished just when the townsfolk decided to start investigating – and then all sorts of things came to light: a missing man’s glasses, an odd assortment of hammers, a blood-soaked basement floor, and a collection of shallow graves. Ew.

If you enjoy true crime, unhappy books, Victorian history, cool illustrations, and gruesome facts, these are the books for you. Or if you have a slightly morbid reluctant reader (with strong nerves) in your home, introduce him (her/it/them) to Rick Geary. His books are educational, beautifully illustrated, and creepy good fun.

- Amy

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The Dark Side of History*

I admit that I don’t like to read historical true crime; still, it both fascinates and repels me. What makes some people think and do the terrible things they do?  My own dear sweet mother is a true crime junkie (she’s read more than I can count) but I’ve had my fill with these books. The very few I have read include high profile as well as some obscure cases. The key ingredients for me in reading non-fiction have always been the historical aspect and the quality of the writing. The following books have both in abundance.

 The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. I’m a child of the 1970s and, for some reason, I seem to remember a lot of missing persons/serial killer headlines (and one from my childhood in particular, the Oakland County child killer, is still unsolved). One Ann Rule book is plenty for me and this case is the one that started it all for her as the queen of the true crime genre. Rule grew up in my home state of Michigan; her grandfather was a sheriff in a small northern Michigan town, and she was also a police officer, thus her interest in the human psyche. But nothing prepared her for the horror of realizing that the handsome, friendly young man she worked with at a suicide hotline crisis center in the 1970s was Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the disappearance and murder of an unknown number of young women. I admit I skipped the gruesome parts of this gripping book but I liked how Rule put a very chilling spin on her telling of the crimes committed by someone she knew.

Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Smith is a mystery novelist but I’ve only read this poignant memoir of her 1950s childhood punctuated by the disappearance and murder of a classmate. In addition to the parallel stories of both the victim and the suspect, Smith tells of the experience and challenge of growing up with an autistic brother and its impact on her life and family.

 A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger. This is a very creepy story. In 1960s suburban Boston, a serial killer known only as the Boston Strangler murders a housewife in broad daylight in Junger’s childhood neighborhood. Interweaving the trail of the murderer with events from his own life, acclaimed non-fiction author Junger (The Perfect Storm) reveals that a handyman named Albert De Salvo confessed to the crimes, the same man who did some work for his mother on the day of the Belmont murder.

Arc of Justice: a Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. Imagine the excitement of buying your very first house. Now imagine feeling intimidated because you are black and you purchased your house in an all-white neighborhood. Ossian Sweet, a man separated by one generation from slavery, was a successful doctor in 1920s Detroit. With his wife and young child, he eagerly moved into their new home. So began a reign of terror that culminated in shots and left a neighborhood white man dead. This little known case was defended by star attorney Clarence Darrow and the very sad story will stay with you long after the book ends.

 The Red Parts: a Memoir by Maggie Nelson. Okay, I’m beginning to notice a pattern here. I most likely was attracted to some of these books for both their Michigan connections as well as the fact that they are mostly memoirs. From 1967-69, young women in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (in Michigan) area disappeared and were later found murdered. Nelson’s aunt was one victim and, at first, it was thought she was yet another victim of the so-called Michigan Murders. Nelson, a poet, recounts the impact the murder had on her family and her life growing up, and her own interest in the case. Coincidentally, while working on a poetry book as a tribute to her aunt, a break in the case finally brought closure for the family.

~Maria

*This is the third in a series of historical non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed reading and recommending.

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I Enjoy Unhappy Books*

I recently picked up a copy of David King’s Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris from the First Floor’s bestseller collection. It’s about a French doctor by the name of Marcel Petiot who was charged with 27 murders after body parts started showing up in strange places in Paris. I haven’t started it yet, but it looks promising. And it’s another entry in my growing catalog of depressing titles.

Where did my obsession with unhappy books begin? I think I can credit my 12th grade AP History teacher, who made us do research papers in the summer before our senior year. We had to choose from a list of subjects, and by the time the list got around to me, the pickings were mighty slim. What did I end up with? Love Canal. There’s a cheery subject for a sixteen year-old, what with all the cancer and the birth defects.

I don’t remember exactly which books I used for my report, but I do know that they came from this very library. I think one of them was Love Canal: My Story by Lois Marie Gibbs, which is still in circulation today (if you’re wondering, Lois Marie Gibbs is the housewife who founded the Love Canal Homeowner’s Association and started raising a ruckus about the place).

But it wasn’t until I started working here that the unhappy books bug really took hold – and I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. This book is just smashing. It’s the history of a serial killer doctor (sounds familiar, eh?) and at the same time the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the architects and workers who fought to build a magical “White City” out of nothing. (For more dismembering doctors, try Thunderstruck, also by Larson. It’s good, but not quite as good as The Devil in the White City – which is, admittedly, a tough act to follow.)

The next book in my list elicited an “(expletive deleted), Amy!” from one of my coworkers. It’s A Slow Death : 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, published by Japan’s NHK TV. On September 30, 1999, a group of workers in northeastern Japan were exposed to lethal doses of radiation when the uranium solution that they were refining (with funnels and buckets!) went critical. This book chronicles the demise of one of the workers from his first day in the hospital, when he looked like he had a bit of a sunburn, to his death at day 83, when…well, read it if you want to. It’s terrible. But educational.

Keeping with the radiation theme, may I suggest Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich? It’s a collection of interview transcripts that tells the stories of soldiers, evacuees, scientists, looters, doctors, government officials, and families who lived and worked near the reactor. It’s bleak and fascinating and you won’t be able to put it down. My only complaint is with the way the narrative wanders and flows – while this makes the book all the more eerie and powerful, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s talking. Citing this one in a research paper would be a pain. (Bonus: This site has an excellent collection of photographs from the Ukranian National Chernobyl Museum. Watch out for the museum’s page though, because not all of it is in English.)

If you’d prefer a variety of unhappy endings, try Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. It’s much…jauntier than the other books I’ve mentioned, probably because of that Jazz Age thing. In it you’ll meet the dynamic duo of medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, learn about poisoned pies, and discover how to properly process a brain for toxicology experiments. Each chapter is named for (and deals with) a specific poison, which is also mighty cool. (Bonus: the chapter on radium spurred me to learn more about radium dial painters, which led me to a journal called Radium, made available online by your wonderful local public library. Warning: some of the pictures are very gross. But very historic.)

And finally, to end this post on a (relatively) less grisly note, you might try Rick Geary’s amazingly fun series, A Treasury of Victorian Murder. There are books about James A. Garfield, Jack the Ripper, Abraham Lincoln, Lizzie Borden, and even H.H. Holmes, the murdering doctor of The Devil in the White City. They’re all well-researched and beautifully illustrated, and I guarantee that you’ll learn something new from each one.

- Amy

*Alternate title: Some Books About Radiation, Dismemberment, and Other Icky Things

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