Truman Capote’s masterpiece of true-crime literature may not be all that true, according to a man who just won the legal right to try to prove it. The Associated Press reports that Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas law enforcement agent who investigated the 1959 killings at the heart of Capote’s In Cold Blood, has gotten a court’s permission to publish his father’s findings--which Nye says contradict Capote’s story.The Guardian has more to offer about this development.
Those findings have earned new life due to a contradiction of a different sort. The judge who blocked publication of the files in the first place has now reversed his decision in a 2012 case brought by the Kansas attorney general’s office. The AP writes that Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks “ruled Nye’s First Amendment right to publish the material outweigh the government’s interest in maintaining the confidentiality of its investigative records.”
As for the files themselves, the news service reports that they will likely find their way into a book to be written by Nye and author Gary McAvoy.
David Morrell: He was the first person to write about drug addiction at a time when opium in the form of laudanum was in everybody’s medicine cabinet and was used the same way we use aspirin. Many people were addicted to the drug, but the hypocrisy of the time was so severe that when De Quincey openly discussed his opium use, he became notorious and was called the Opium-Eater for the rest of his life. De Quincey was also an inventor of the true-crime genre. He was obsessed with the Ratcliff Highway mass murders of 1811. The first publicized multiple killings in English history, they paralyzed the entire country and created terror comparable to that of Jack the Ripper three-quarters of a century later.
JOHN MAIR – The Fourth Forger. Cobden Sanderson, UK, hardcover, 1938. The Macmillan Company,US, hardcover, 1939.
Several years ago on this blog I reviewed John Mair’s witty, off-beat thriller Never Come Back. Subsequent to that, I learned that Mair had written only one other book before his untimely death in WWII, this non-fiction study of a young gent named William Ireland and a controversy over “newly discovered” writings by William Shakespeare — a controversy that became a scandal that stirred London in the 1790s.
William Ireland was the son of Samuel Ireland, a prosperous collector and dealer in antiquities, and an avid Shakespeare enthusiast — he named his first son William, didn’t he? Every evening Samuel read to his children from the Bard, and this undoubtedly had an influence on William, but not so much as his father’s near-total indifference to him.
Samuel casually dismissed his son as dull and stupid (which for a long time supported the case for the Shakespeare Forgeries, as William was considered totally incapable of writing them) and placed him as apprentice to a legal office where William found himself with little to do but sit in an office, surrounded all day by musty old parchments. Very old parchments.
Here’s where Mair’s genius as a writer comes to the fore: Without disparagement or bathos, he evokes young William’s frustration and (probable) desperate need for his father’s approval, a need that drove him to seek out a suitably old scrap of parchment, draft a minor legal document in suitably antiquarian ink, and forge Shakespeare’s signature on it. When he presented this to Dad, William finally got a morsel of parental approbation — which left him hungry for more.
You can probably anticipate the rest. William worked up a convincing (to his dad) cover story about a wealthy and conveniently anonymous benefactor who kept a steady trickle of “treasures” that grew ever more fabulous. There were other documents. Then letters. Then a Profession of Faith that “proved” Shakespeare was not Catholic. And on and on.
William’s father Samuel began showing these to friends, then to authorities on the Bard, and they met with acceptance and even adulation, particularly the Profession of Faith, because it seemed to say what everyone wanted to hear.
Flushed with success and his father’s long-withheld esteem, and convinced of his own genius, William went to the next step: An original manuscript of King Lear in the author’s own hand, differing from the original only in being more attuned to contemporary tastes.
Needless to say, it was met by a public overjoyed to see that the writer they idolized actually catered to their own standards, and that anything objectionable must have been put there by later, inferior hands. Heady with success, William rushed into his next “discovery”: a lost play titled Vortigern.
All this while of course, there were doubters. And William’s success/excess only made his work a larger target for analysis and debunking. Again, Mair does a fine job evoking the characters of the men who were actually right about the spurious nature of William Ireland’s Shakespeare Papers, but who were also mostly motivated by their own self-interest or idiosyncrasies. At the same time, he tells an intriguing and often poignant story of his father’s growing desperation as friends, fans and a fortune slipped from his grasp — all because of a son he publicly scorned.
This story could have been duller than ditchwater, but author Mair imparts his own fluid narrative style and smart-ass sense of humor to liven it up delightfully. To take just on example, at one point the Poet Laureate of England enters the picture, a poet-magistrate named Henry James Pye, who had been of some service to the crown, whom Mair describes: “…the verse that he wrote in his leisure hours could not detract from his numerous public services…. [as Poet Laureate] Pye did his poetic duty to the public with the same remorseless competence as he administered justice to criminals. From his appointment in 1790 to his death twenty years later he never ceased to write verse and never began to write poetry.”
Writing like this makes The Fourth Forger a pleasure to read, and I followed this account of scandal and hurt feelings avidly to the end. You may too.
And that’s the moment when all hell broke loose.
One of six lawmen who’d been waiting at that point on the road to ambush the car suddenly leaped to his feet and began firing his rifle into the sedan. He wasn’t supposed to have done that. As the story goes, the man in charge of the posse, a former Texas Ranger named Frank Hamer, was going to call out for the couple in the car to surrender. Once the firing commenced, though, there was no turning back. One of the first bullets killed the driver, passing through the Ford’s windshield and carving a vicious path through the young wheelman’s head. He died instantly, and as he did so, his foot slipped off the clutch, letting the Ford roll forward toward a ditch at the side of the road. The slender, petite woman in the passenger seat screamed, “a high shrill wail that haunted the men about to kill her for the rest of their lives.” Although there was talk later on that those two outlaws had fired at the posse, and they’d fired back in self-defense, the fact was that the several guns the couple had packed along with them were laid out on the Ford’s backseat, because there wasn’t enough room in front to keep them handy.
In short order, 150 or more bullets were blasted at the car, some ricocheting off, others getting trapped in the Ford’s metal body, but enough whizzing through the doors and windows to murder both occupants several times over. Hamer himself fired a barrage of bullets through the passenger-side window, making sure that the young strawberry blonde--already slumped down in her seat, covered with blood--wouldn’t be leaving the scene alive.
That cacophonous ambuscade lasted only about 16 seconds, but it concluded Hamer’s 102-day pursuit of the outlaw pair--and put a violent stop to the notorious two-year criminal careers of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Those misguided lovers from the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas, Texas, weren’t the brightest, most crafty crooks roaming Depression-era America; in fact, they could fairly be called ardent bumblers. They remained at large and alive as long as they did, mostly because communications were pretty poor in the 1930s, and law-enforcement agencies didn’t do well at sharing information. Yet in that era when the news media and FBI were hot on the trails of more skilled malfactors, such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, Barrow and Parker received a lot more publicity for their hold-ups of banks, gas stations, and country stores (as well as for crimes they didn’t commit) than they might have had they been operating in isolation.
(Left) Bonnie Parker in full “moll” mode.
In his fascinating 2009 book, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Jeff Guinn recalls how distorted public impressions of the couple became:
Thanks to newsreels at movie theaters and photos transmitted to newspapers through the recent magic of wire services, most Americans believed they knew exactly what Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker looked like. The young couple loved to strike dramatic poses for the cameras that they carried along with their guns, and some of these pictures had fallen into the hands of lawmen who made them available to the media. So the nation became familiar with nattily dressed Clyde brandishing a menacing Browning Automatic Rifle, and with Bonnie assuming unladylike postures on the bumpers of stolen cars. The most famous photo showed Bonnie with a cigar dangling from the corner of her mouth, a particularly eye-catching image in a time when most respectable women would discreetly puff cigarettes in private. Thanks to the media, Clyde and Bonnie had quickly come to be considered the epitome of scandalous glamour. But in person Clyde was short and scrawny, and Bonnie’s looks were ordinary. They were both crippled, Clyde from cutting off two of his own toes in prison and Bonnie as the result of a car wreck nine months earlier in which her right leg was burned so badly that bone was visible in several places. She hopped now rather than walked. Clyde often had to carry her. They had little in common with the glittering images of themselves that mesmerized the public.Despite the fact that many Americans of the time romanticized the crimes and screeching-tire escapes performed by Barrow and Parker--portraying them as “Romeo and Juliet in a getaway car”--the pair weren’t innocents; they were complicit in a few deaths along the way, and their robberies didn’t just hurt people who could afford such troubles. Over the last eight decades, their adventures have been seriously mythologized by Hollywood; while Arthur Penn’s 1967 big-screen picture, Bonnie and Clyde (starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) and last year’s TV miniseries Bonnie & Clyde (previewed here) offer compelling stories, they shouldn’t be considered truthful re-tellings of events. Clyde and Bonnie were just two young people looking for better lives at a time when a broken U.S. economy respected nobody who wasn’t well-to-do. These two didn’t have to die in the violent, cinematic way they did, on that lonely back road in Bienville Parish, filled with hot lead. However, they also didn’t expect to perish in any other way than that. Just days before the ambush, Bonnie told the cousin of an acquaintance to “never go crooked,” adding “it’s for the love of a man than I’m gonna have to die … I don’t know when, but I know it can’t be long.”
Today, the town of Gibsland (pop. 979) will hold its annual Bonnie and Clyde festival, complete with live entertainment, a jambalaya feed, and a lookalike competition to find matches for Bonnie, Clyde, and the posse members who assassinated them. Meanwhile, there’s likely to be more attention than usual around the so-called Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, the Ford V-8 in which that pair met their end, and which is currently on display at Whiskey Pete’s Hotel & Casino in Primm, Nevada--bullet holes and all. If you aren’t planning to be in either of those towns this afternoon, at least you can check out the video below, a simplistic but not overly sensationalized account of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s two-year criminal run, originally presented in 2009 as part of Britain’s Timewatch documentary series.
READ MORE: “Legacy of Dallas-based Bank Robbers Bonnie and Clyde Lives On,” by Tristan Hallman (The Dallas Morning News); “Bonnie and Clyde Gunned Down 80 Years Ago Today,” by Adam Duvernay (Shreveport Times); “Bonnie & Clyde Met Violent Death 80 Years Ago,” by Paul Prost (The Saratogian).
According to The Guardian, James isn’t the first novelist to be fascinated by the case “which Raymond Chandler described as the ‘the nonpareil of all murder mysteries’. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it ‘provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation’.”
Writing in the Sunday Times magazine, James claimed that the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool, which “compares only to the Ripper murders in 1888 in the amount of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, which it has created”, was misunderstood from the beginning by the police, the judge and jury.The Guardian goes on to detail the available clues that convinced James her positing was correct.
Her 1982 novel, The Skull Beneath the Skin, the fictional murder of Lady Ralston, is thought to parallel the Wallace case, and she refers to it directly in the detective chief-inspector Dalgliesh novel, The Murder Room (2003).
The case is “essentially tragic and has psychological subtleties to which it would take a Balzac to do justice,” James wrote. She builds a picture of Wallace as a man worn down by failure and disappointment who eventually cracked: “Perhaps when he struck the first tremendous blow that killed her, and the 10 afterwards delivered with such force, it was years of striving and constant disappointment that he was obliterating.”Back in 2002, Patricia Cornwell put forth a similarly forceful theory with regards to the true identity of Jack the Ripper, a theory she outlined closely in her non-fiction book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed.
READ MORE: “P.D. James and the Wallace Case--a Classic Murder Mystery” and “P.D. James and True Crime Writing--a Few More Thoughts,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’); “Inside Job: 10 Crime Writers Turned Detective” (The Guardian).
Di Mambro starts with several of those, including the murders of William Desmond Taylor and Thelma Todd, along with the mysterious deaths of Thomas Ince and Paul Bern, Jean Harlow's husband (both of which may well have been murder, too).
She carries this theme up almost to the present day with chapters on the death of Johnny Stompanato that involved Lana Turner (a story I first encountered in a highly fictionalized version in one of Harold Robbins' novels, back in the days when I was reading a lot of Harold Robbins); the suspicious deaths of George Reeves and Gig Young; the lurid murder of Bob Crane; the drowning death of Natalie Wood; and the murder case involving Robert Blake and his con artist wife who wound up dead. Di Mambro does a fine job of presenting the facts in these cases and exploring the various theories about them in a fast-moving, entertaining style. I remember all the more recent ones, of course. As a big fan of the Superman TV show, I vividly recall hearing that George Reeves had died. Everybody I knew back then accepted the suicide theory. We were kids, what did we know? I'm convinced now that he was murdered, and that Thomas Ince was, too, to go back to one of the first chapters in the book.
The longest chapter and one of the most interesting is about the life and times of mobster Mickey Cohen, one of the most powerful and notorious figures in the West Coast underworld during the Forties and Fifties. I never knew much about Mickey Cohen other than his appearances, usually as a supporting character, in various movies and novels set in that era. Not long ago I saw the movie GANGSTER SQUAD, which apparently was almost all fiction. Di Mambro bases much of her chapter about Cohen on interviews she conducted with Jim Smith, one of Cohen's long-time associates. As you might expect under those circumstances, it's a fairly sympathetic portrayal but never becomes a complete whitewash of Cohen's criminal activities.
I'm in no position to know what's true and what's not about these cases, but as a reader I found TRUE HOLLYWOOD NOIR very entertaining. It does a good job of capturing both the glamour and the sordidness of Hollywood, and I found it hard to put down.
How about you? What true crime interests you?
Kelly’s remains were thrown into a mass grave after his execution [in 1880 at Old Melbourne Gaol] and discovered during renovations to the jail in 1929 when they were reburied inside Pentridge Prison, save his skull, which remains missing.You can read the remainder of the ulletin’s report here.
Officially, their whereabouts had been a mystery until DNA testing in late 2011 on bones exhumed from the Pentridge site confirmed them to be Kelly’s.
Redevelopers of the now-defunct prison wanted to reinter Kelly’s remains at a museum or a memorial, but the Victoria state government ordered that they be returned to the family last year.
According to Joanne Griffiths, the great-granddaughter of Kelly’s sister Kate, the family would formally bid farewell to the outlaw at a Catholic service in the town of Wangaratta on Friday ahead of his burial in an unmarked grave.
“That’s what he would’ve wanted. That’s what he requested, and he wished to be buried in consecrated ground,” Griffiths told ABC radio.
(Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)
As a general rule, we don't discuss "true crime" stories very much here, but when it comes to classics, the horrifying story of Kitty Genovese remains an important landmark in criminal history.
For those too young to remember it, Kitty Genovese was the young New York City woman assaulted and murdered in a 1964 attack that lasted more than a half hour, while 38 witnesses saw all or part of the attack and did nothing - didn't even call for help.
It shocked a city that thought it couldn't be shocked and prompted debates about the chilling lessons to be drawn from the case. And it was the subject of a first-rate book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case,by A. M. "Abe" Rosenthal, then the City Editor of the New York Times, and one of that newspapers best writers ever. It has just been republished as an e-book - the above link will take you to the Amazon version, but it's also available in formats for other e-readers. If you're not familiar with the case, or even if you are, it's worth your time.
Today, we all know more about pathology and criminal forensics than the greatest medical experts of the 19th century did in their day. CSI and modern crime fiction have educated all of us in the finer points of profiling, DNA, MO, blood-drop study, and trace analysis. We have an intensely scientific appreciation of investigation.
The first detectives, however, had no such useful knowledge. They were totally in the dark.
Before forensics, police work was little more than a cat-and-mouse game. A crime was committed, the criminal would vanish, and the detectives would have to search an entire city in hopes of catching their prey. It didn’t help that the police were often bound by rules and regulations, while the thieves and killers were obviously not. (For example, many crimes in Victorian London were timed to coincide with the period when police shifts relieved each other.)
Eugène François Vidocq changed all of that. In the early 19th century, this notorious criminal and adventurer became--by a remarkable series of events--the head of the Parisian Secret Police (the Sûreté). His motto was that “the cat cannot catch the mouse if he is wearing gloves,” and so he changed the rules of detection. Forget the regulations--he would wear disguises and infiltrate the criminal gangs, learning their ways and becoming their friend. The crooks were often amazed when he pulled off the false nose and denounced them.
(Left) Eugène François Vidocq
More importantly, Vidocq’s first-hand experience with lawbreakers allowed him to create a nomenclature or classification system for many different kinds of criminals, identifying their slang, their clothing, their behavior, and the areas they worked in. He saw it as the same kind of thing that naturalists were doing with animals or flowers. For the first time, criminals might be observed and known before they committed a crime. Vidocq would often be waiting for them as they prepared to strike. It was not forensics as we recognize it today, but it was the beginning of a criminal science.
Around that same time, medical men were making the first steps in scientific forensics. In France and Germany, doctors were trying to determine a system of discerning how long a body had been dead. “Body farms” were kept to study decomposition and books were written attempting to clarify and classify the signs. Such variables as temperature, age, illness, the season, or the kind of coffin in which a body had been stored were taken into account to solve this great mystery. Often, the crime of infanticide was the stimulus and the focus of these studies, because so many people would discard newborn children out of shame or poverty.
As the cities of Europe grew ever larger, the need to identify bodies grew more important. With such huge populations, everyone was anonymous and the discovery of a severed limb or a head was an utter mystery. It was a time of intense study and marked the emergence of forensic medicine as a distinct specialty required by the police. A book from 1824 defined the forensics as “the physical grounds on which we may conclude that the human frame has sustained injury--whether fatal to life or not.”
Medical men would conduct experiments on pieces of flesh to test and record the effects of different weapons. They would apply their knowledge of human anatomy to stray pieces of body pulled from the River Thames or dug from fresh graves. And in all of this work, their knowledge would be increased with the collaboration of the police, who always had a steady stream of victims.
Perhaps the first and greatest of the London forensic examiners was Dr. Thomas Bond, the official surgeon of Scotland Yard’s Division A (to which the Detective Force belonged). He was a lecturer in forensic medicine at Westminster Hospital in the 1880s and was often called upon to identify lethal herbs found inside a corpse’s stomach or to attend to (still living) victims of street crime and study their wounds for evidence. On one occasion, Bond was presented with a coffin containing a body chopped into 10 distinct pieces. He discerned that the victim had been a woman of 20-25 years of age, about 5 feet tall, and with a bullet in her brain. She had first been shot (the bullet had flattened on impact), then hacked to pieces postmortem with an axe.
(Right) Dr. Thomas Bond
In 1888, Bond worked on the Thames Torso Murders case. Excavations for a new police station on Westminster Embankment had revealed a woman’s torso with all limbs missing, and he managed to link the body to an arm found in the adjacent river earlier that week. But 1888 was a busy year for Bond and he was soon given the case that would change the history of both crime and forensics: Jack the Ripper.
Dr. Bond worked in an unusual way on the Ripper case. Rather than examine the corpses himself, he studied the postmortem notes and photographs (the first ever of a serious crime) and tried to draw conclusions about the murderer. Just as a modern crime-fiction lover looks for clues in a story’s text, so Bond sought to reconstruct the narrative from the material he had, “re-writing” the crimes for the police. Most importantly, he used a clear, logical system to tell the story of the killers.
For example, he looked at the position of a body, the estimated time of death, the direction of attack, and the area of the city in which it was found to suggest what kind of criminal might have struck. What kind of clothing might the person have worn at that time, in that weather, in that part of town? What job might they do if they were free at that hour? What associates might they have?
He also paid close attention to the injuries. The direction of attack, the choice of weapons, and the location of wounds would denote whether the injuries had been intended to subdue, to kill quickly, or to torture. This in turn would reveal if the killer was frenzied, calculated, prepared, or spontaneous. In fact, Bond concluded that “Jack” was a sexual sadist.
Sadly, Dr. Thomas Bond might have been a victim of all the horrible things he saw. In 1901, he jumped to his death from his bedroom window after a prolonged period of insomnia. What was keeping him awake? And did he ever find peace?
The late 19th century also saw the birth of a number of pseudo-sciences that were utilized in the name of forensics. These all come under the general term of “anthropometry”--the measurement of man--and followed on from Vidocq’s reasoning that a criminal might be known before he ever committed a crime. Phrenology was an early one, created by Franz Joseph Gall and positing 27 distinct “brain organs” that affected the shape of the skull. From these bumps, it was thought that a man’s propensity to affection, or friendship, or violence might be revealed.
(Left) Author James McCreet
For those who thought phrenology too vague, two other pseudo-sciences were created--physiognomy and pathognomy--by which a man’s entire character might be known, even if he tried to disguise his appearance. This was taken so seriously at the end of the 19th century, that recruits to London’s Metropolitan Police were examined by a physiognomist and accepted or rejected based on the shapes of their ears, nose, or shoulders. For the difference between the two studies, here is an excerpt from my new novel, The Masked Adversary:
Physiognomy is the study of the body’s organic constitution: its shape and relative dimensions. There is a finite number of possible body shapes, just as there are a series of known individual features to the nose or fingers. Critically, all of these elements are necessarily connected within a single organic type so that a tall, thin man will not have a broad fat nose--unless, of course, he is of African descent. Phrenology, it need hardly be stated, also falls within the same discipline. Pathognomy, on the other hand, is the study rather of gesture and motion: the organic character manifested as a physical language, if you like. Thus, a thoughtful man gestures with grace, while the imbecile is spasmodic in gesticulation. Any skilled practitioner of the one discipline must master the other, since one’s actions derive directly from the character as apples issue only from an apple tree.It should be clear that there was very little science and less justice in these disciplines. A man with a low forehead and thick, dark hair might be marked as a murderer, when in fact he was a judge. The next (il)logical step of such studies was the system created by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, who proposed exact measurements of known criminals to scientifically record their identities and prevent their re-offending. It was a system that implicitly sought to categorize criminal “types” and was thankfully soon rendered extinct by the science of fingerprinting and the wider use of photography. However, it still laid the foundations for the measurements Adolf Hitler’s Nazis made of “racial types” in the early 20th century.
The history of forensics is in many ways the history of crime fiction: the desire to know and to solve, the recognition of clues, the reconstruction of story out of chaos. The body is the text and we try to find ways of making it reveal its narrative postmortem. In the end, there may be many stories, but only one truth.