I grew up watch Dragnet reruns, so when I read “The Black Dahlia” I couldn’t help but hear Jack Webb’s voice and his distinctive cadence in my head. Here’s a video of him clowning around with Johnny Carson:
He sounded the same when he was serious, except people didn’t laugh on the set. His show would always start out saying, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Of course, more than the names were changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the essence of the stories came from police files and news reports.
The Black Dahlia is a true story so gruesome it sounds like it should be fiction. Even that police sergeant’s name: Finis, as in “the end.” A fiction writer would be jeered for giving a homicide investigator a name like that.
Ellroy wrote a Dahlia story of his own, which was similar to Torso in that he invented two detectives and a resolution to the crime. Something about Ellroy’s writing style reminds me of the ping-pong dialogue in Dragnet. Those clipped sentences and short paragraphs, sometimes only two sentences, or even one, sound almost like they could be Joe Friday, except Joe kept it clean. Ellroy’s not so concerned with decorum and respectability.
I suspect most of us have heard of H.L. Mencken. He gets quoted all the time, because he had a lot to say and he said it so well. But Joseph Mitchell was a new name to me. From what I read in the Gale Literature Resource Center, he’s well-known in literary circles, a writer’s writer and an early practitioner of literary journalism. That’s the genre or form of writing that Capote is working in in In Cold Blood (There’s has to be something grammatically wrong that sentence, but I take pride in the fact that I used “in” three times in a row). Literary journalism is closely related to creative nonfiction, the genre Sonja Livingston used with “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie.” It’s a nice little connecting thread that runs through the readings. There are a lot of them though. It only takes a little looking.
In the appendix to Torso, Bendis says that people often think that the shantytown fire was made up for dramatic purposes. Maybe the idea that police would burn poor people out of house and home is hard to believe. Because that never happens. Parts of the book are fictionalized, of course, like the two main police characters. In that way it reminds me of American Tabloid, which makes no pretense to true crime. But the basic facts of the tale are verifiable and supported by archival material. And we’ve seen embellishments in true crime before, like William Fly’s wobbly knees at the gallows, or Alice Mitchell as the bloodthirsty Amazon.
Bendis says Ness took a lot of criticism for the fire, and that many think it ruined his political career. I was curious what was said about the fire at the time. I don’t have access to Cleveland papers, but was able to check national news from the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Looking at articles that mention “Kingsbury Run,” or “Ness” and “Cleveland,” from the day of the fire and the days that followed, I see no mention of it. The bodies get coverage, as do some of the leads, but burning down the encampment, which seems like it would be a newsworthy event, gets no mention. Why might that be? Was it not newsworthy? Or was it something the newspapers didn’t want to talk about?
The victims were not only killed, they were also decapitated and dismembered. As a result, most of them were unidentified.
It was thought that most of the victims came from the shantytown in the Kingsbury Run area of Cleveland. The residents tended to be impoverished drifters. After body parts were discovered outside of Ness’ office, he led a raid on the shantytown, driving out the occupants. And he burned the area down.
Ness took some heat for this action. Some suspects were identified and questioned, but the killer was never caught. The killings stopped in 1938. It was a rough patch of history, but the city carried on. You know why? Because Cleveland rocks.
I know. Most of those songs had nothing to do with crime. Maybe next time, on crime time radio.
Bendis tells the Torso story in a very cinematic fashion. The dramatic lighting and the camera angles all look like something out of film noir. Then there’s that repetition from panel to panel, sometimes with slight variations, that gives it a filmstrip feel. At the same time, each section opens and closes with a fade in/fade out, zoom lens effect, but the transition isn’t from image to blur but rather image to halftone dot. In one way this reminds me of the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein, probably because I’ve studied art history, but the intention is probably to tie the story to newspapers, which are becoming a thing of the past, at least in printed form. Bendis also incorporates photos from news archives in the illustration, in a very deft manner. It’s sort of reminiscent of Cold Case, although the graphic novel predates the TV show. There was a grubbiness to newsprint and ink. It would smear easily and get on your fingers and make you feel dirty. Bendis recognizes this in an interview: “Crime stories should be dirty and seedy and there is nothing dirtier and seedier than rubbing ink on the page.”
Another atmospheric element Bendis brings into the design is the spiraling pattern of the panels on some of the pages. Maybe this is to show that things are spiraling out of control, or spiraling down the drain. It pulls control away from the reader, in that one has to turn the book to read it properly. It’s a little heavy handed and a little annoying, but I like the experimentation anyway.
When we were kids my brothers and I were doing something annoying, I don’t remember what, but it prompted my aunt to call us bastards. Of course, we thought that was the funniest thing ever, and never passed up a chance to recount the story in her presence over the decades that followed.
So in looking into the background on Poor Naomi, it appears that she had a history of jacking up her baby daddies for child support funds, which at that time in North Carolina were called bastardy bonds. The bonds were not so much to support the child as to insure the county against having to do so. And if a woman did not identify the father or post the bond herself, she was subject to imprisonment.
There is a poetic account of her life that supports this view, which differs from the song. Yet this is contradicted by another source. Perhaps one version comes from the killer’s people and the other from the victim’s family. I’m not sure that anyone knows the true provenance of either. Ballads and stories tend to change as they pass from one teller to another. Bob Dylan had his own take on “Naomi Wise“:
The Randolph County historian pieced together a lot of this from various primary source documents. It’s fascinating to look at these stories, supposedly true, and find so many contradictions. What is the truth, and why is it so changeable?
In “Mad Love,” the last sentence of the opening paragraph says,
But Alice Mitchell was the first to be lassoed by Frederica Ward’s charms…
I like the verb in there, lassoed. Mainly I associate it with cowboys and rodeo. It suggests catching, and possibly taming, something powerful and wild. But a lasso is also a loop of rope, just like a noose – a noose which might be used for execution, or lynching, or suicide. She could have used caught or attracted instead, but lassoed brings all that imagery to our minds, conscious or subconscious, and all the layers of meaning that go with it.
We had talked earlier about how different authors approach crime narrative from different perspectives – Lincoln and Thomas Gray as lawyers, Bierce as a journalist, Mather as a preacher. This piece is what I would call literary art, where using just the right word makes all the difference.
Holder, A.B. (1893). The Mitchell-Ward Case, in Virginia Medical Monthly. Vol. 19, pp. 246-249.
I find it fascinating to compare “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie” to the way the story was received at the time it happened. Livingston’s essay was published this year, in a society that’s beginning to accept same-sex marriage. Yet the case occurred in a time and place where same-sex attraction was considered by medical professionals to be a perversion, unthinkable to common, decent men. As such, it was major national news. Three years after the fact, an Alice Mitchell article led the second page of a San Francisco paper. The news at that time was, yes she’s insane, but she likes men too. The murder ballad of the incident, “Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward,” denies their love outright, and says it was a killing over a man. But if it was, would it have been news? Would it be remembered?
One of the things that struck on the first reading of the essay was the line, “But who would have remembered it then, a man killing his wife?” Sad to say, that’s too mundane to be memorable. A female slasher is news, and a female killing another over a doomed love affair is the stuff of national headlines. But there’s another line in the essay, when Alice is whining of her heartbreak to the cook, who responds, “at least you have plenty of money.” That’s probably just as important in making the story significant. They’re both society girls, from the best of families. If they were poor immigrants living in tenements in NYC, would the public have noticed? Would the motive had mattered?
I was going to do murder ballads for this week’s crime time, since that’s what’s coming up in the true crime course. But instead I’m just going to stick with one: Stagger Lee. It’s the story of one pimp shooting another over a dispute about a hat, in late 19th century St. Louis. The story became folklore and then song, and literally hundreds of versions have been recorded. An early version was Stack O Lee Blues, by Ma Rainey, with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet.
Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey – Stack O’Lee Blues
There’s more than a bit of Frankie and Johnny in there, but it just goes to show how the story gets adopted and adapted by different artists. Mississippi John Hurt paints Billy as an innocent victim, and has Stagger executed, neither of which are quite accurate.
‘Stack O’ Lee Blues’ Mississippi John Hurt (1928) Blues Legend (lyrics)
While Hurt’s version has been called definitive, Lloyd Price took the song to the top of the charts with an R&B version that’s been covered many times. Here’s Wilson Pickett‘s interpretation:
That shows Stagger as a bad man, but bad in the sense that he won’t be cheated. So even though he’s a killer, he’s being celebrated, like he’s the original OG. Pacific Gas & Electric took him a step further
There Stagger’s not just bad, but the police are afraid to arrest him. He doesn’t run from the white folk. Even the hangman is scared of him. And he displaces the devil in hell. Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead looked at another side of the story
They made Billy’s widow the hero of the tale. Stagger’s still a bad man who has the police running scared, but she takes matters into her own hands and sends him to the gallows. Nick Cave took the song and gave it a vulgar twist
Cave took most of his lyrics from a version of the song that had been going around New York State prisons. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Badass delta bluesman RL Burnside also made Stagger a badass, and told the story in the first person
R.L. Burnside – Stack O’Lee and Billy Lyons
Those versions take the story in a dark and amoral direction. In the 60s, Jamaican band The Rulers pointed out that cheating is wrong. The Clash later covered this one
Of course, They could have said killing was wrong, but at least they find cheating objectionable. In truth, the song is symbolic – the stetson hat symbolizes freedom, the cheating symbolizes the Jim Crow laws that denied freedom, and the bad man is admired for standing up for his freedom. That why the cheating is shown as the real crime in the song. And that’s it for this week’s crime time.