Author Archives: Reverend

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I am Jim Groom

True Crime on Google Maps

wiseguy_coverI’m reading through Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 non-fiction account of Henry Hill’s life Wiseguythe basis for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas. We’ll be talking about Goodfellas in the True Crime seminar next week, and I wanted to finally read the book that inspired the film. What I love about the film (and now the book) is how it chronciles the changing nature of the mob from the 1950s through the 1980s. When I first saw it as an undergraduate in Los Angeles in 1990, Goodfellas struck me as that more than a story about gangsters. It’s a tale about the changing nature of our crime-obsessed culture over the 30 year span of the characters’ lives: their relationships, their neighborhoods, their jobs, their clothes, their everything. It’s a cultural document that at once compells and repulses the viewer—the spiral of a lifestyle that becomes as all consuming as the ethos of the 1980s it ultimately chokes on! 

Anyway, it’s remarkable how much the film follows Pileggi’s narrative arc as told by Henry Hill. Something the book adds that’s a bit harder to incorporate into the film is the broader historical context of organized crime in the neighborhood of Browsnville—East New York where Henry Hill came of age.

Brownsville-East New York was the kind of neighborhood that cheered successful mobsters the way West Point cheered victorious generals. It has been the birthplace of Murder Incorporated Midnight Rose’s candy store on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga avenues, where Murder Inc.’s hitmen used to wait for their assignments, was considered a historic landmark during Henry’s youth. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone grew up there before going west and taking their machine guns with them.

The long history of organized crime in this area of Brooklyn is fascinating, and doubly so when you start running into all the characters you’re watching develop during the 1920s in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. It’s interesting how much this area in Brooklyn was not only run by Italians (as mentioned in the passage with reference to Torrio and Capone), but by a number Jewish  crime bosses as well. Gangsters like Meyer LanskyLouis Buchalter, Bugsy Siegel, and Martin Goldstein, just to name a few,  were part of the high profile Jewish Mafia that built Murder Inc. Ironically, this is a group often underrepresented in the pop culture vision of organized  crime during the 1970s and 80s. The website Yidfellas: the Kosher Nostra is an excellent overview of the hostory of the Jewish mob who, like their Italian counterparts, played a key role in architecting the modern day model for organized crime in the U.S.

Anyway, the above passage lead me to Google maps because I want to start exploring this area of Brownsville-East New York. When I lived in Brooklyn I often traveled back and forth between Fort Green and Long Beach, Long Island. My route took me through East New York on a regular basis. Many of the streets Pileggi talks about in the book (Pitkin Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Saratoga and Livonia Avenues) are names I am familiar with from those trips. What’s more, I grew up on the other side of JFK Airport (which was called Idelwild Airport during the 1960s) and all these people and places are familiar. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t know any of these gangsters, but my father was born and raised in Cedarhurst and would tell stories of seeing local legends like Jimmy “the Gent” Burke in the local bars. This world was attached to the one I grew up in, not the same, but definitely close enough to see and hear of it regularly in the built environment.

And this built environment is only a click away on Google Maps. Below is a street view of the Murder Incorporated headquarters on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga Avenues. The spot seems almost unchanged, which is reminiscent of these NY Daily News “Then and Now” crimes scenes in NYC. Crazy thing about places like NYC is you are constantly passing locations with centuries of rich history, but the palce moves so fast there is often nothing to commemorate any of them.

View Larger Map

So that led me to the questions, has Google Maps actually captured majors crimes in action? The answer is yes, all kinds. But two cases that caught my eye when searching on Google, two possible grisly murders captured by Google’s satellite. The first was the capturing of a murder crime scene near train tracks in Northern California:

RIchmond CA crime scene

Murder Crime Scene caught by Google Maps’ Satellite

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 4.05.03 PM

Murder on a Jetti in Amsterdam?

The other satellite image that is pretty disturbing is a bird’s-eye view of a jetty in an Amsterdam-area park that people suggest is a evidence of a body being dragged from the water. Take a look at these images:

murder_scene

Murder on a Jetti in Amsterdam?

Now there have been a wide range of theories on this, one positing that the figure on the ground is a dog that is trailing water on the jetty. Another, obviously, is that a bloody body was dragged from the water. Crazy, even if it isn;t true, the image alone is enough to scare you.

In the searching I also found the New York Times has mapped every murder in New York City from 2003 through 2011. There is also a Google Map that traces the locations where the bodies of the 30 children killed by the Atlanta Child Murderer where discovered. Macabre stuff, I know, but True Crime is all about scaring the hell out of all of us! Take heed!


View Atlanta child murders map in a larger map

Charlie’s Angels: The Short Case

logo3Truecrimers Sara Akbari, Meredith Fiero, Gloriana Smith, and Jack Harris did an excellent job on their second video assignment. Back in week 10 they did an excellent presentation on Jack Webb’s telling of one of the great unsolved cases of the 20th century in the U.S.: the Black Dahlia. In a stroke of genius on the part of this group, they set Charlie’s Angels loose on the ostensibly unsolvable case of Elizabeth Short. Will they break it wide open? Will the Black Dahlia finally be put to rest? Well, if the Angels, faithly supported by Bosley, can’t solve this one—who can?

From Mansonism to Bundyism

manson_clapping_better 01
The 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter ends on a fear-mongering tear about “the social compost heap” from which Charles Manson sprang that may lead to an even more “virulent strain” of “Mansonism.” [This usage of Mansonism pre-dates, and I imagine was the inspiration for, the other Mansonism of the 1990s.] It’s probably the best bit in the entire film, and it lays bare the moral at the heart of the film: Manson introduced a special variety of hippie that will endlessly mutliple and grow increasignly more aberrant and antisocial. They represent  a “virulent strain” of the youth movement that is coming of age presently, and that the viewer must be particularly wary of these mutants. Here is the clip, watch it through:

According to Helter Skelter, the idealism of 1960s youth movements in search of social justice, peace, and a better future effectively devolves into anarchic, violent cults led by fervent fanatics. A pretty effective narrative to stem popular support for any socially responsible activism during the 1970s. In fact, Vincent Bugliosi’s final commentary on this “era of madness” (which just as well could refer to the 1960s more generally as it does to the Manson murders) was probably the scariest thing about the TV movie when I watched it as a kid in 1976. The rabid Mansonites were out there multiplying wildy in mass orgies. It’s an image somehow akin to what 1950s youth must have felt when watching the xenophobic horror and scifi films of that era, namely Them! (1954) or  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But the difference now was the threat was from within (somethign John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing updates brilliantly about the films from the 1950s).

Such a message of paranoia and fear in Helter Skelter informs the general public’s idea of the hippies as the modern incarnation of violent commies. And it gets even more interestingly when set against another burgeoning identity group of the era: the yuppies. The emergence of this category of young, conservative, upper-class urban professionals was the oppositie extreme to the feral Manson hippies. White, clean-cut, all-American capitalists who are living the dream of social status and conspicuous consumption. The posterchildren for a re-worked vision of class consiousness that would ultimately celebrate the idea of material privilege in the mainstream media of the 1980s. Something that reaches its logical extreme with Bret Easton Ellis‘s 1991 novel American Psycho, but it can’t get there without first passing through Bundyism.

Ted Bundy on Trial

American Psycho

Ted Bundy in many ways was the prototypical yuppie during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A staunch college Republican who openly denounced student movements. In Ann Rule’s  The Stranger Beside Me (1980) she notes Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Meg Anders, was asked by police what he had said when asked about the lug wrench with a taped handle he kept in his car (which he used to crush the skulls of women he abducted) he answered, “You never know when you can get caught in the middle of a student riot” (193).  A bizarre transference of his aggression onto the socially oriented activism of the day.

Yet, he seemed to use the unviersity as a cloak of privelege as well as a hunting ground for his victims. He hid within an affectation of culture, and dressed the part of a prep—complete with turtleneck, blazer, white tennis shoes, and corduroys. What’s more, he resisted any communal idea of organizing, he was an individualist. His determination to become successful was described in by Ann Rule as “an almsot Horatio Alger-like metamorphosis” (21). What’s more, he is described by Rule as anything but a radical:

He believed totally in the orderly progression of changes in the system of government through legislation. His stance made him something of a loner among the work-study students working at the Crisis Clinic. They were semi-hippies, in both their garb and their political views, and he was a conservative Republican. (36)

I love the way Ann Rule delineates the two foci of “semi-hippies”: clothes and politics. Can’t the same might be said of Yuppies? In this regard Ted Bundy really is a stand-out. He’s the very opposite of Manson, and in many ways scarier. He’s a clean-cut kid with predatory appetite that represents the most primal vision of a political rhetoric around social Darwinism that seems to buttress a system that amasses its fortunes in terms of human trophies, or  said another way disinvestment. He is the logical extreme of  such a system of accumulation. Without God, without fate, and within a very flimsy world tied together by a fragile lattice of coincidence, survival of the fittest is all you have left. It’s the horror at the heart of the vision of the serial killer that explodes throughout the 70s and 80s—we’re being preyed on by forces out of our control. We’re supine in the face of chance, we can only hope to survive the predations of the most twisted among us. It’s a view of the world Ann Rule seem to buy into, one wherein weakness is a trait that must be culled at all costs:

Had the man who approached these young women divined somehow that he had come his victims in a time when they were particularly vulnerable, when they were not thinking as clearly as they usually did? It would almsot seem so. The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure.

is Rule suggesting here that the common condition of the women who were abducted, beaten, raped, and then mutilated by Bundy might have been avoidable? Are we blaming the victims here? If only these women weren’t so vulnerable, if only they had a sense of how savage the world truly is, if only we were more scared of that stranger beside us. Ted becomes the one in total charge, the figure of pwoer—the women become the “weakest of the pack.” And this metaphor of nature’s culling of the weak tends to reinforce the most conservative political rhetoric. The strong will survive and the weak shall perish. It’s the montra of the corporate world, and it’s been an enduring a vision of our  society for the last forty years that in many ways could be considered at the opposite end of the spectrum from the revolutions of the 1960s. In such a predatory world there’s no sense of community, no support for the vulnerable, and a return to a pre-civilized moment in which humanity is on par with animals on the hunt. It’s the closest thing to a worldview in Rule’s book, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the escalation of U.S. political culture as we enter the 1980s. And like Bugliosi’s view of Mansonism, it’s equally feral, just far less distinguishable from normalcy.

And there is so much more. Bundy’s defining romance with Stephanie (a girl from an affluent family) that ultimately a source of rejection. After undergraduate, she no longer considered theirs a viable, longterm realtionship based on his prospects (which might be read as class). The whole thing kinda reads like the plot of a John Hughes film from the 1980s. It’s as if Bundy was the other side of Manson, the bizarre horror of submersed class consiousness as well as the worst of sensationalized violence against women. As Bundy is coming into the national scene as a media sensation, so are slasher movies. The popular vision of violence against women is another cultural touchstone. The deranged killers of the slasher cycle of films that represent so much psychic baggage of a decade of deeply scarring turmoil, from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve  (1971)through Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and many many more. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that’s why they call it cutlure. And the struggle between the horrific carciatures of Manson and Bundy might be exactly the political battle we are still fighting today, to borrow from Mike Caulfield‘s awesome comment here that inspried much of my ramblings above :)

But let me end this post somewhat haphazardly with another quote from Ann Rule’s book that captures for me an image of Bundy’s life that I believe supports my theory of him as the proto-typical yuppie. In this scene during May, 1975 Ted is entertaining people he used to work with in Washington in his partment in Salt Lake City:

The trio from Washington found Ted’s apartment very pleasant; he’d cut pictures out of magazines and tried to duplicate the decor he favored. He still had the bicycle tire, hung from the meat hook in his kitchen, and he used that to store knives and other kitchen utensils in a mobile effect. He had a color television set, a good stereo, and he played Mozart for them to accompany the gourmet meals he prepared.

It almost seemed like a scene out of some bratpack movie from the 80s like St Elmo’s Fire. The attention to decor, the Moart accompanied by gourmet good, not to mention the hifi system. Ted is about things, he is about possessions and appearance, but as this passage also makes clear he is also has a meat hook that holds knives and maybe even the cleaver he brings on his midnight forays. Part of the vision here is out of  style magazine, and the other part a slasher film—Ted is the premise of a cultural flashpoint of consumption, predation, and affectation that would come to define the next 15 years of U.S. culture. If Helter Skelter killed the hippie, then The Stranger Beside Me gave the yuppies their first serial killer, but certainly not there last ;)

Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter Bogus Conspiracy Theory?

"Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin " by Peter Beard

“Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin ” by Peter Beard

As my last post made all too clear, this week in True Crime we’re talking about the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter. Last night, as a follow-up to the discussion of the film, we discussed the interview between Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil published in 1973 as “Then it All Came Down.” Capote went to San Quentin in 1972 to talk with Beausoliel who was (and still is) serving life in prison for killing Gary Hinman—the first of the Manson murders. What’s fascianting to me about this conversation is that it suggests Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter scenario argued during the Manson trial, namely that the various murders were committed to spark a global race war, is overstated.

Instead, the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders were actually attempts to free the charismatic and handsome Beausoleil from prison. In fact, Capote lays this theory out pretty clearly in the preface to the published interview:

It all began with the murder of Gary Hinman, a middle-aged professional musician who had befriended various members of the Manson brethren and who, unfortunately for him, lived alone in a small isolated house in Topanga Can­yon, Los Angeles County. Hinman had been tied up and tortured for several days (among other indignities, one of his ears had been severed) before his throat had been mercifully and lastingly slashed. When Hinman’s body, bloated and abuzz with August flies, was discovered, police found bloody graffiti on the walls of his modest house (“Death to Pigs!”) ­graffiti similar to the sort soon to be found in the households of Miss Tate and Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca.

However, just a few days prior to the Tate-LaBianca slayings, Robert Beausoleil, caught driving a car that had been the property of the victim, was under arrest and in jail, accused of having murdered the helpless Mr. Hinman. It was then that Manson and his chums, in the hopes of freeing Beausoleil, conceived the notion of committing a series of homicides similar to the Hinman affair; if Beausoleil was still incarcerated at the time of these killings, then how could he be guilty of the Hinman atrocity? Or so the Manson brood reasoned. That is to say, it was out of devotion to “Bobby” Beausoleil that Tex Watson and those cutthroat young ladies, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Hooten, sallied forth on their satanic errands.

So, after watching the TV movie which spends three hours articulating and celebrating the brilliance of Bugliosi’s elaborate conspiracy theory tying the Manson murders to the Beatles’s song “Helter Skelter,” Capote offers a very logical, condensed version in just two short prefatory paragraphs. Rather than buying into an overblown theory that The White Album was the basis of an impending global racial conflagration, Capote argues Manson and the family had come up with the bloodiest, most horrific way to get Beausoleil out of jail. Still twisted thinking, no doubt, but somehow more believable than the vision of Helter Skelter laid out during the trial. That said, I must admit Bugliosi’s elaborate theory is far more entertaining than Capote’s, and maybe that’s the point.

Helter Skelter or, how I came to hate the dirty hippies

This weekend I watched the 1976 TV documdrama Helter Skelter for the first time since I was a young boy. And while watching it again I came to the stunning realization that this TV movie is the reason why I’ve hated dirty hippies so viscerally for the last three decades. In fact, this TV movie could have just as well been named The Family: A Bunch of Dirty Hippies. And when I say dirty hippies, I mean DIRTY hippies. According to this TV movie, the love children that were part of Charles Manson’s family may have been the dirtiest people ever. Just take a look at the evidence presented as part of the TV movie, these shots come early on in the program when the Ranch is raided by the police.

Dirty Hippie with Gun

Dirty Hippie with gun protecting the ranch

A series of dirty hippies making ugly faces

A series of dirty hippies making ugly faces

A depth of dirty hippies

A depth of dirty hippies

There is some serious dirt going on here, and I would normally scratch this up to overenthusiasm on the part of the director if it wasn’t reinforced throughout the movie. In fact, there’s a scene between Vincent Bugliosi (the crusading hero determined to stomp out the last remnants of filth) and his wife in which he breaks the Helter Skelter conspiracy behind the murders wide open. While Bugliosi is ennumerating this vision his special lady friend delivers the final blow by tying the Family’s lack of cleanliness to their senseless preying on the lives of the showered establishment people.

I can’t tell you how much this scene made me love this movie. It reinforces everything I feel about Hippies, the 1960s, and Manson more generally, In fact, this TV movie has a few themes it is trying to push pretty relentlessly: 1) Hippies are dirty, 2) the free love movement of the 1960s would ultimately devolve into psychos like Manson taking control of their minds, 3) Manson is the devil, 3) Bugliosi is a legal genius, and 4) Mansonism is a growing epidemic consisting of burgeoning dirty hippies that murderously misinterpret Beatles’ song lyrics.

Scene from Helter Skelter wherein Manson decides to represent himself.

Scene from Helter Skelter wherein Manson decides to represent himself.

While we were talking about this movie in class last night, Seth Dorman brought up the point that this was a major network TV event. In fact, it’s the 16th highest rated movie to air on network television of all time! This was a cultural phenomenon of epic proportions, and I only half joke when I suggest this TV movie had an indelible imprint on my current view of hippies. I can remember the ranch, the filth, the descriptions of love-ins, and the resulting bloodshed. In the U.S. at least, April 1st and 2nd of 1976 were the final days of the 1960s. Helter Skelter put the final nail in the popular peace and love movement perpetuated in the mainstream by Woodstock. It made way for the 1980s, and for that I am ever grateful!

You've Got Charlie Manson Eyes

A Curious Still Life

in_cold_blood_xlgAs I mentioned in my last post, one of the things Paul and I are trying to do with blog posts, videos, etc. for the True Crime course is model some of what we want to see. The group that is leading the discussion on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood did a good job with background information and summarizing what happened in the first half of the book, but any good discussion of a book needs to anchor its discussion and arguments directly in the text. One of the things you hopefully learn as an undergrad when taking a literature class is how to read closely. How to examine specific passages to pick-up on particular elements of style, voice, etc. At the same time you also need to connect how a given passage connects to the broader themes of the book.

For the second half of In Cold Blood Paul and I have asked each group member to do just that. Choose a passage or two from the book and closely examine its broader themes, particularly elements of style that also feedback into the ideas Capote is getting at in the book. An example we talked about in class on Thursday was from Section 1 and it’s a description of the back seat of Dick and Perry’s car.

Dick was driving a 1949 black 1949 Chevrolet sedan. As Perry got in, he checked the back seat to see a if his guitar was safely there; the previous night, after playing for a party of Dick’s friends, he had forgotten and left it in the car. It was an old Gibson guitar, sandpapered and waxed to a honey-yellow finish. Another sort of instrument lay beside it—-a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun, brand-new, blue-barreled, and with a sportsman’s scene of pheasants in flight etched along the stock. A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest fully packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still life. (22)†

I brought this passage up during class Thursday because it, like so many others in this book, foreshadows and encapsulates the tensions and themes that made this book a classic. One of the immediate elements of this passage frame possibly the most powerful theme in this book, namely that cold blooded murderers are actually people. Perry embodies this brilliantly here (and an issue that only gets more complicated as the book proceeds) as he is scanning the back seat for his guitar, which he actually plays at parties fro friends, has deep affection for and demonstrates he can actually create something (not only destroy). This is something that is echoed continually throughout the book as it focuses on Perry as both murderer and human at once—a complex framing of the banality of evil that might be the most horrific part of the whole text.

And this very theme is written brilliantly into this passage as the description seamlessly moves from the guitar to “another sort of instrument” right beside it, namely “a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun” which captures the murderous side of Perry. What’s more, this shotgun does not invoke an idyllic hunting scene that focuses around pheasants, but rather scenes of two men hunting down a family based on a similarly fanciful vision of gold and treasures to be found on the Clutter farm. This is all further reinforced by the list of hunting sundries in the description that illustrate with painful detail how everyday tools quickly become monstrous when seen through the lens of violence this scene is literally driving towards.

Finally, the the last line of this passage, “curious still life,” made just as well be another name for the entire book. Not only is Capote introducing a more ethereal literary voice to this hardboiled situation, but he’s also providing a curious still life to a moment of time in American culture. The idyllic vision of post-war America running on a crash course with the underbelly of the dream embodied by lost souls like Perry. But this is not an excuse, or even an argument, but rather freezing a documentary moment of time into a literary tableaux —the mashing up of art and reality. A curious still life that at once pushes the story forward as much as it foreshadows what’s to come while at the same time brilliantly demonstrating the larger tensions, themes, and ideas that define this work of art.

___________

† We used this edition of the book for the discussion, so the page number for the quote copied above would be for that edition.

Torso: Biopsy

Torso:Biopsy from Jim Groom on Vimeo.

Two weeks ago the True Crime course Paul Bond and I are running discussed the graphic novel Torso. We’ve adopted a new approach for teaching this Freshman seminar. On a weekly basis the course is run by rotating groups of three students . I’ve loved this approach, students are working together, doing research, adeptly leading discussion, and take=ing ownership of their course. We’ve been asking them to make sure all their prep work for each week is added to the course wiki, and together they’re building a comprehensive document of what we’ve discussed throughout the semester.

The other side of this is because the students truly own the course discussion, it doesn’t always touch on various elements Paul and I might want to lecture about. Let’s face it, I love to talk. I have no problem dominating a course session with my views of what something means, but I’ve been resisting this impulse. That’s very much a side-effect of co-teaching this course, something I find has been awesome for pushing my teaching outside my comfort zone.  That said, the student-driven discussions don’t always cover certain themes, issues, close readings that we might thing are important. And while everyone talks during class, including Paul and I, we try not to hijack the conversation. This is where we use typically targeted posts, comments, etc., to cover anything we think has been missed.

Two weeks ago, while we were talking about Torso, it became apparent that a number of students were uncomfortable with reading graphic novels. Rather than this viusal medium being second nature, as folks might assume, more than half the class found the book confusing because of the format. Give that, Paul and I decided we would try and do a video discussion, like we did for 10 Mario Bava films over the past six months, talking specifically about how you read graphic novels.

Paul put together a presentation with the first 15 pages of the graphic novel, and he took me through doing a close reading in this visual medium on video. I learned a ton about reading graphic novels, and I love the idea of supplementing what the students are doing in their discussions with some follow-up, formalized video discussions like this one. I want to do more with Paul (which is always the case because I love talking to him about this stuff), and I think if we were to teach this course again this would be one way to do a back flip of a particular class. A post-facto wrap-up and recap of the discussion to highlight student points from the discussion they led, and also the opportunity to share our own ideas, readings, and thoughts more extensively. That said, I might just like it cause I can talk more :)

Jack Webb’s “The Black Dahlia”

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Jack Webb in character is Joe Friday on Dragnet

Last night we had a pretty awesome True Crime class. The conversation was deftly led by Sara Akbari, Meredith Fiero, and Jack Harris; they did an awesome job with their presentation, research, and framing othe readings for the class as their wiki article will attest. We talked about two related pieces. The first was Jack Webb’s telling of the “The Black Dahlia” murder from his book The Badge which is a collection of all the episodes of the classic 1950s Radio and TV series Dragnet that he pitched but could never air due to their graphic nature. The other was James Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer” about his lifelong obession with his mother’s violent murder when he was only ten years old. I wrote a bunch about Ellroy on this blog while reading and discussing his novel Black Dahlia as part of the Hardboiled Freshman Seminar Paul Bond and I taught last Fall.

I have to say it was eye-opening to read the “The Black Dahlia” piece by Webb that got Ellroy hooked on the horrific fate of Betty Short (he recieved the book as a gift on his 11th birthday from his dad) which somehow became his own fate. I had no idea what an amazing writer Webb was,  this short narrative is reminiscent of a hardboiled Hemingway at his best batting out terse, brutally apparent prose. The brevity of this account—something Ellroy couldn’t manage in his novel—coupled with a harrowing nod to emotions that can never  take root in the policemen overseeing the worst humanity has to offer makes this work unbelievably compelling. The following passage that describes the corpse of the Black Dahlia is an excellent, if not painful, example of just that:

It was nude. It showed evidence of slow, deliberate torture. There were neat, deep slashes around the breasts and on them. Rope burns on the wrists and ankles indicated the victim had been spread-eagled to heighten her agony. Her mouth had been deeply gashed from ear to ear so that her face was fixed in a grotesque and leering death smile. Finally, her bosy had been cleanly, surgically cut in two at the wasit.

Brown was glad to turn away to check with Lee Jones of the Crime Lab.

Not only is the description as powerfully horrific as anything I’ve read in Ellroy, but at the same time detective Brown’s horror remains necessarily understated, suggesting that even a verteran like him is “glad to turn away.” This is such a nice touch, and the simultaneously precise and ethereal quality of his recounting of Dahlia’s narrative is captivating. For example, take this description of detective Brown trying to recreate her last moment between being seen at the Biltmore Hotel and showing up in two pieces in an abandoned lot at 39th and Norton.

Once The Dahlia changes a dollar bill at the hotel cigar stand and amde a call, maybe two. The she waited, as though expecting a call back. When none came, she walked out the front door , smiling to the doorman as he tipped his cap. He observed her trim form swinging south on Olive Street toward Sixth, the slim legs stiding easily, the red heels tapping purposefully on the sidewalk.

It was 10 P.M.

And thus Detective Brown traced The Dahlia back to childhood, forward to the brink of eternity. And there the investigation stood still. Five days from the doorman’s last salute to the living, up to the discovery of the mutiliated thing, remained a blank.

For anyone who has read Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, which I’m a huge fan of, filling in the unknowns of these three paragraphs is exactly what Ellroy turns into 400+ page magnum opus of everything he’s done up and until that moment. He tries to fill in the blank, resolve the murder, and put order to an open-ended horror show posing as a suppressed Dragnet episode that Ellroy couldn’t escape. But unlike Ellroy, Webb keeps the case open, from as early as her childhood this short piece pushes you to the “brink of eternity” with Betty Short. At the same time it can neither let you fall or pull you back. More than a few students had a similar reaction to this piece, and for me I was blown away by how remarkably well-written, and precisely crafted it is as both a document of the case as well as a finely-framed piece of literture to capture the horror and effervescent beauty of a moment between knowing and uncertainty, life and death, a smile and the ghastly mutilation of the flesh. Webb’s piece may very well be the best thing we’ve read all semester, but with that said, it’s now time to turn to Truman Capote’s 1966 masterpiece In Cold Blood.

Wanted: the Tri-State Gang

Wanted Poster

Last week in the most awesomest True Crime course ever taught anywhere we talked about H.L.Mencken’s 1934 article for The Baltimore Evening Sun “More and Better Psychopaths.” Mencken’s piece condemns the “New Penology” for being too soft on criminals, while chastising our culture’s romanticizing of gangsters. The following bit of Virginia criminal history is taken from Mencken’s article, which led me on a bit of a web journey.

Some time ago a professional criminal named Mais, wanted for various murders and robberies, went into hiding in Baltimore. The cops, getting his scent, tracked him down promptly, and took him into custody. He was heavily armed, and they risked their lives, but nevertheless they took him. Sent to Richmond to answer for a peculiarly brutal murder, he was convicted and sentenced to death. But in a few weeks he had broken out of jail, and on the way he had killed a policeman. Now he is at large again, and robbing and killing again, and other cops will have to risk death to take him again.

Dr. Mais’ escape was a monument to the sentimentality with which such swine are now treated. Though he was known to be an incorrigible criminal, and all his friends were known to be of the same sort, he was premitted to recieve visists from them in jail. Presently one of them slipped him a pistol, and the next day he was on his way, leaving one man dead and two wounded behind him. Suppose you were a cop, and you met this Mais tomorrow? Would you approach him politely and tap him on the shoulder, and invite him to return to the deathhouse? Or would you shoot him at sight, at the same time giving thanks to God that he didn’t see you first?

Given I’m comfortably nestled between Washington D.C. and Richmond in beautiful, historic downtown Fredericksburg, I started to wonder about this Robert Mais character. I did a quick Google search and discovered this post on the Virginia Memory site about the book “The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression” which is a history of Mais and his two accomplices Marie McKeever and Walter Legenza (the triumvarite that made up the Tri-State Gang). What’s more, the post on the Virginia Memory site links to a series of primary documents at the Library of Virginia that the author Selden Richarson used in his book, including the wanted poster embedded above as well as a number of newspapaer articles that recount various circumstances surrounding the murdered guard Mencken refers to in his article.

mais_guard

Or this scan from a Richmond newpspaer that had a picture of his funeral:

toot_mais_funeral

There is also a story about the jailkeeper on duty, Deputy Richard Duke, who commited suicide as a result of the jailbreak, presumably because he felt somehow responsible.

Deputy Duke

You can also see a scan of Richard Duke’s death certificateDeath Certificate II:

Or the death certificate of one of the members of the Tri-State Gang, Walter Legenza, who was ultimately caught and executed in Richmond (as was Robert Mais).

Death Certificate

Have I ever mentioned how awesome the web is and what an amazing resource it is for teaching and learning on this blog before? I had some visions of taking the documentary images and articles and making an abbreviated version of this as a graphic novel á la Brian Michael Bendis’ Torso, which we also read and discussed last week, but that’s fodder for another post.

Gallows Poll (Rough Cut)

Paul Bond and I collaborated on a fun segment for the first episode of the True Crime class video we’re working on. I’ll be polishing off and tightening up the final version of episode one this week, but I figured I’d share the rough cut lest I start believing this blog is about finished products.

Paul Bond was the genius behind this one. He had the idea for creating a boxing match-themed highlighting the Gallows confessions we read from the colonial period. You see, during the first two weeks of class we focused on Puritan execution narratives from the late 17th and early 18th century New England. Fact is, Gallows literature was a bonafide genre during that time featuring repenting criminals providing a litany of their perfidious crimes. The format was pretty consistent: list your sins, ask for grace, and then be hanged. It’s a pretty trippy genre because in the world of the Puritans God’s grace was never a given, so there would be an endless sense of uncertainty regarding whether you were to receive God’s grace or not. What I love about the Puritans is that despite how wicked or pious you were, who God grants the convenant of grace was unknowable in this world. While such a reality gives everyone hope no matter their lot, it also makes for the ultimate in existential uncertainty. And when you wrap all this up in a neat confession naarative delivered on the gallows immediately before one’s death, it packs a punch.

So, the idea was to setup two of the more intense execution narratives from the colonial period, for our pursposes those of Patience Boston and Esther Rodgers—what Paul terms “Lady’s Night” on the Gallows Poll. These two capital criminals go head-to-head to determine “Who’s more heinous?” Which of these women was more sinful? Whose confession was more steadfast and strong? [The consistency and lack of emotional vicissitudes were often telling for the Puritans because wavering was seen as a sign that God's grace was not present.] Paul’s wife read from Esther Rodgers’s narrative and Martha Burtis read from Patience Boston’s narrative. We framed both readings with the playful, semi-personas “Pillory” Paul Bond and Jim “Gallows” Groom providing commentary and analysis. It was a blast.

Funny enough, after the students were so high on their own trailers and various segments they talked a certain amount of shit on Paul and I, suggesting it was too long and somewhat boring. Damn milennials! Fact is, we actually dealt with the literature and tried to wrap a fairly focused reading and analysis into a playful frame, they just ran around with pillows under their dresses and polka dot onesies. That is not scholarship in the same way the Gallows Poll is, we are professionals—there’s no real comparison. It’s like lumping Federico Felinni and Michael Bay in the same class of director. Amateurs! The full episode is coming soon, you be the judge!