True Crime: An American Anthology

Harold Schechter, editor

The Library of America

788 pages, $40

The teenage girl gave birth in a Delaware hotel room; she and her boyfriend would later claim that the infant was stillborn. But the coroner said the baby suffered blunt trauma to the head. This was 1996. The young mother and father, sweethearts from an upscale town, eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter after one turned on the other.

Eight months later, another teenager gave birth, this time at her high-school prom, this time in New Jersey, and killed the baby in the ladies’ room. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter, too.

I was at the New York Daily News for both of these stories, and they were on the front page for days. What made them such big stories? Well, it seemed to me that scared young parents killing their own kids was pretty much as bad as it gets. To me, with ten years in the business at the time, this phenomenon also struck me as something new.

How wrong I was.

The very first entry in True Crime: An American Anthology, a sprawling, blood-soaked, alternately riveting and revolting survey of 350 years of American crime writing, concerns one Mary Martin of Massachusetts. In 1646, this young woman was “left . . . in the House of a Married Man, who became so Enamoured on her, that he attempted her Chastity.” One thing led to another, and with her third assignation, poor Mary became pregnant and had a baby, whom she promptly murdered “by her self in a Dark Room.” She was hanged until “she dyed.”

Times change. Crimes don’t.

Mary’s story is told in an execution sermon written by Cotton Mather. These speeches were delivered in no doubt ominous tones to expectant crowds before the condemned met their deaths, and were then printed and distributed. The editor of the Library of America’s fascinating if uneven collection, Harold Schechter, identifies these sermons as the first examples of true American crime writing, a genre that would appear in varying forms—articles, songs, newsreels, and door-stopping volumes like this one—throughout the country’s history.

Beginning in that dark room, True Crime ranges from one end of the country to another, from barren plains to urban alleys, from Hollywood to backwoods Kentucky. Within its pages, we encounter a good many famous Americans, including Abraham Lincoln. Even more numerous are the famous writers—James Ellroy, Truman Capote, Calvin Trillin—as well as journalists who might be better known to those in the business, such as Joseph Mitchell, Meyer Berger, and Dorothy Kilgallen.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Victims are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, mutilated, poisoned, drowned, electrocuted, bashed in the head with weights, and shot again, and their bodies are disposed of in a variety of creative yet rarely successful ways. Lovers turn on each other—just like those two teenagers in that Delaware hotel room. Read one after the other, the stories are both hard to put down and exhausting; there is so much inhumanity. But taken in smaller doses, True Crime is filled with dark pleasures and more than a few surprises.

It is also a great place to find succinct accounts of some of the most notable crimes in American history, crimes whose details have often been lost in the fog of legend. Jack Webb—yes, of Dragnet—outlines the particulars of the Black Dahlia murder from 1947 in suitably clear and crisp prose. And Damon Runyon brings his considerable linguistic gifts to the Snyder-Gray murder case, forever captured in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and the movie of the same name. “Now the woman and the crumpled little corset salesman,” Runyon writes, “their once piping-hot passion colder than a dead man’s toes, begin trying to save their respective skins from the singeing at Sing Sing, each trying to shove the other into the room with the little green door.” That would be the room where the electric chair is kept. A picture of Ms. Synder getting the juice (as Runyon might have put it) was soon splashed across the cover of the Daily News, after a reporter strapped a concealed camera to his ankle.

Wendell Jamieson is city editor of The New York Times.