The Devil Made Them Do It

A new anthology about men (and women) behaving very badly

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.

The surprises in True Crime are even more striking, and start early. The writer of the second piece, “The Murder of a Daughter,” engages in the worst kind of base sensationalism when he recounts how parents fed their girl excrement before killing her. (Parents beware: lots of kids die in this book.) The detail has no reason to exist beyond the author’s desire to shock the reader. If that story had come across my desk, I would have trimmed the excrement line in an instant. Its author? Benjamin Franklin.
A hundred or so pages later, one of the legends of the so-called New Journalism is deflated, at least in my mind. Truman Capote has been quoted as saying he wanted In Cold Blood to be a new genre: the first true-crime saga to use literary techniques to tell its story. But in the late 1800s, Celia Thaxter turned a double slaying off the coast of New England into a perfect little novella called “A Memorable Murder.” It’s all there: rich, novelistic descriptions of the sea and the barren island on which the killings took place, internal monologues from the characters (hypothetical, of course), and a remarkable feeling of suspense, especially considering that the author reveals the ending on the first page. (This is actually a quirk of many of the early selections here.)

Other high points in True Crime include Abraham Lincoln’s wry tale of three brothers accused of a slaying that apparently did not happen; a series of “Murder Ballads” that describe killings in song; an excerpt from Herbert Asbury’s evocative “Gangs of New York”; Jim Thompson’s Texas-spare “Ditch of Doom”; and Joseph Mitchell’s “Execution,” whose ice-clear prose throws some of the flowery language elsewhere into stark, unfortunate relief. And therein lies the biggest flaw in this anthology: it’s an anthology—its best offerings can’t help but put some of the lesser examples to shame, no matter how well they might have stood on their own.

I feel sorry, for example, for the anonymous author of “Jesse Harding Pomeroy, The Boy Fiend,” which recounts the crimes of a young torturer and murderer of small children (see note to parents above) in Boston in 1871. That selection just happens to come after an entry from Mark Twain, who describes a well-known Nevada desperado in the following manner:

When he moved along the side­walk in his excessively long-tailed frock-coat, shiny stump-toed boots, and with dainty little slouch hat tipped over left eye, the small-fry toughs made room for his majesty; when he entered the restaurant, the waiters deserted bankers and merchants to overwhelm him with obsequious service; when he shouldered his way to a bar, the shouldered parties wheeled indignantly, recognized him, and—apologized.

No matter how many times you’ve read Twain, his easy grace with words, his sense of humor, and his handle on details never cease to amaze. Mr. Anonymous didn’t stand a chance.

In one case, at least, Schechter puts the varying talents and viewpoints of different writers to good use. He has chosen two entries about the trial of Robert Allen Edwards, who drowned his girlfriend in 1915, a case remarkably similar to the one that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy.

Because of this similarity, in fact, Dreiser himself was hired to cover the Edwards trial for the New York Post, and a portion of his coverage is included here. It is ponderous, puffed up, and lacking in drama. Not so Dorothy Kilgallen’s coverage of the same trial, which follows Dreiser’s. Hers is shot through with suspense from start to finish. If her prose sounds a bit dated, with a distinctly pulpish accent, this was still a woman who didn’t let words get in the way of a great story. “Next on the stand for the prosecution was Rosetta Culver,” writes Kilgallen. “She was everything Freda was not—blond, attractive, poised. I wondered if handsome Bobby had ever tried to lead her down the cemetery path.”

Of course, both Dreiser and Kilgallen faced a challenge known to all crime writers (and all detectives) since time immemorial: they didn’t see the crime itself. So they spent a lot of time in court. Numerous entries here are actually more about court reporting than crime reporting, and much of what unfolds does so in front of a judge, jury, and press box. Kilgallen smartly used many direct quotes from the transcript to build tension. Not all the other writers are so canny. Some of the courtroom selections could have been trimmed, and the same thing could be said of Cotton Mather’s sermons, which run to thirty-one thunderous, exhausting pages.

In its closing entries, True Crime allows us to compare contemporary crime writing with its inarguably well-represented past. Gay Talese’s language flows nicely in his take on the Manson murders, “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range,” even if his reporting seems lazy—he opens with a description of a ranch hand and his girlfriend sitting on a fence that, while nicely drawn, has nothing to do with the story, and is distracting. (It felt like this vignette was the first thing he saw, so it was the first thing he wrote.) Jimmy Breslin, writing in the Daily News, brings the harrowing streets of late-1970s New York alive in “Son of Sam,” making me shudder as I remembered the dirty city in those days, yet also making me imagine with a twisted journalist’s envy how exciting it would have been to cover this particular story.

But it is James Ellroy, in the third-to-last entry, who is the real emotional closer of True Crime. So many children have been slain before his “My Mother’s Killer” begins on page 707 that it is oddly refreshing to have, here, a child seeking the details of his mother’s death. Ellroy’s writing is sharp and spare in the extreme: the story is only thirteen rat-a-tat-tat pages long, without a wasted consonant or vowel. Yet the turmoil of this successful writer reimagining his childhood, peering through investigative details, and looking at grisly crime-scene photographs of his murdered mother, is brought remarkably, and awfully, to life.

I read the piece when it appeared in GQ some years ago. On rereading, I was better able to appreciate Ellroy’s language and skill, but was still as haunted by the story as I was the first time—perhaps more so. If True Crime doesn’t cause my bookcase to collapse, I’m sure I’ll pick it up again to reread Ellroy’s little masterpiece. It will come in handy whenever I require a jolt of cruelty to remind me that my life isn’t so bad after all, or need to be inspired by some genuinely fine journalism. 

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Wendell Jamieson is city editor of The New York Times.