Author Archives: Reverend

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I am Jim Groom

True Crime Trailers

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 2.06.23 PMTwo weeks ago the True Crime students finished their video segments for the first episode of the “America’s Most Wanted” series we’re creating as part of the class. I’ve been digging out from last week’s conferences and playing catch up, but I’m finally getting around to creating a cohesive episode out of the various segements the students created. And while I still have a bit of work ahead of me,  I wanted to share two of the trailer videos one of groups did that basically re-imagine two early American true crime stories as contemporary film trailers. They’re fun as hell to watch, and what’s kinda cool is that they deal with relatively obscure texts.

The first is based on Benjamin Franklin’s 1734 article in The Pennsylvania Gazette titled “Murder of a Daughter.”  The gist of the article is that these two negligient parents effectively murdered their daughter by turning her out. Some of the details are shocking, for example Franklin claims they fed the young girl her own excrement after she returned home deathly ill from exposure. One of the themes in this article is the ramifications of alcohol abuse, as Franklin notes, “But this is not the only Instance the present Age has afforded, of the incomprehensible Insensibility Dram-drinking is capable of producing.”

The original article by Franklin is less than a page long, but Katie Koth, Demi Fulcher, Chelsea Irizarry, Shelby Jones, and Bridget Johnson did an awesome job making it a compelling trailer for a film I would pay to see. Too fun. Note that you made need to adjust the volume levels a bit, the still have to be normalized for the final cut of the episode.

This group also decided to make a trailer of another reading we did that was also relatively obscure, focusing on George Swearingen’s murder of his wife in 1823. The murder happened here in Virginia, and it’s odd because Swearingen was an atypical criminal. He was a wealthy, successful lawyer who soon after marrying, took a mistress and then repeatedly plotted to kill his wife. You can find his entire confession online here. The narrative seems particularly contemporary, reading almost like James M. Caine’s Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. You can find a good synopsis of this crime on the Murder by Gaslight site. I love this trailer as well because it focuses on what a bastard Swearingen was, cheating on his wife, having his mistress move in the house, and then plotting her demise. Once again, I would pay to see this film. Full disclosure, I have a cameo or two ;)

Suffice it to say, we’re having some fun with the whole video production thing in the True Crime course , and I have yet to blog the masterpiece Paul and I created. That’s my next post.

Wiki Embed: Telling the True Crime Story

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True Crime WIki

In my last post I talked about how excited I am that students are building a resource using the true crime wiki as part of the course Paul Bond and I are teaching this semester. I wanted to use this separate, follow-up post to talk briefly about how we’re using the Wiki Embed plugin to seamlessly integrate that MediaWiki back into the course site.

The wiki was kind of an afterthought for the class, originally we were planning on having the students post the final results of their research directly to Wikipedia as a way to enrich the commons. This is something I’m a big fan of, and last year the Hardboiled course Paul and I taught did just that. In fact, I’m pretty proud of a few of the articles students in that course created, particularly the one for Chester Himes’s 1965 novel Cotton Comes to Harlem.

But this year we had something different in mind, we shifted from them researching for the articles on Wikipedia (which was a crunch towards the end of the semester) to having them lead the discussions and provide their research on a weekly basis. We originally were going to leave it up to them how they would build, share, and publish those resources, but after week two it made far more sense to a have a common space for this, and I spun up a mediawiki site which has proved awesome. I’ve felt a bit edtech retro this semester given I’ve been going back to my WordPress/MediaWiki mashed up roots (a.k.a. the bliki), and I guess this post is kinda also about that somehow (in fact the videos I made with Howard Rheingold were all about that).

Anyway, part of the genius of having both the WordPress site for aggregating student blog posts, sharing a syllabus etc. along with the MediaWiki site for collaborative editing is I can seamlessly integrate the two with the Wiki Embed plugin developed by Enej at UBC. This plugin basically allows me to add a URL of any page on that wiki and pull it  into a WordPress page. What’s even cooler is it now has option where you can actually make every link on that Wiki page you pulled in show up on that blog page as an embed with a common theme, etc. That’s amazing!

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By selecting the “Internal Wiki Links” in the Settings for the plugin and choosing the option for “WordPress Page,” you can basically have your entire wiki show up embedded as part of your WordPress site. I ‘ve been using this on Dynamic Course Calendar page of the True Crime site. It’s a WordPress page that is pulling in the main page of the True Crime wiki. If you go to the Dynamic Course Calendar and click on those links you’ll realize they’re dynamically created wiki pages that remain embedded within a WordPress page frame. Here’s an example, how sick is that!

Over the next seven weeks the truecrimers will be creating at least ten more articles on the wiki as well as cleaning up the articles they’ve already created. In order to make the  True Crime site a hub of the learning that happening we have two main elements: 1) individual blogs and comments representing the reflection and discourse, and 2) the wiki acts as a collaboratively created document of what we read, discover, and discuss. I love it because it’s truly a two-pronged approach to relfection and ongoing course creation.

True Crime Course Wiki


Image from Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko’s Torso

I’ve been a bit quiet on my blog about the True Crime course Paul Bond and I are teaching, which is a shame because it is a total blast. Luckily Paul has been doing most of the heavy lifting on his blog, and teaching along side him is a real treat. This week we looked at Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Andreyko‘s graphic novel Torso (2001), a gripping, illustrated account of Cleveland’s torso murders during the 1930s. The text is a documentary account of Eliot Ness’s attempt to clean-up the corruption in Cleveland, using the fictional frame of two hardboiled detectives. The work is in the vein of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999), but far more compelling given its brilliant noir minimalism and integration of documentary resources such as newspaper articles, photographs, etc. It also subtly weaves in various personal accounts of the barbaric murders occurring regularly over a four or  five year span in Cleveland’s lakeside shantytown—a neighborhood of forgotten, itinerant souls that were a product of the Great Depression.

One of the coolest things about the last nine weeks  has been witnessing how the Truecrimers have documented much of their preparation for leading the course discussions using the True Crime Course Wiki. Each week an alternating group of three students collaborate to frame the discussion they’ll be leading about the texts, and that is all laid out in the respective wiki article for each day’s reading(s). Bridget Johnson, Melissa Westfall, and Morghan Smith did a solid job this week on the Torso article as well as the articles on H.L. Mencken’s “More and Better Psychopaths” and Joseph Mitchell’s “Execution.”  They’re effectively using this space to aggregate information about the authors, historical context, summarize the text itself,  frame broader thematic issues, ask relevant questions, and link to various resources on the web.

What I really love about the wiki is that over time the format of the presntation gets fine-tuned and further honed as a result of it being a public, open space. They can (and do) view each others work, take note of how it’s being organized, and generally build better resources on top of what’s come before. Truth be told, the presentations and the use of the wiki was rough the first few weeks, but as of week nine the students are doing a far better job running the class, collecting valuable resources, and sharing what they’ve learned each and every class. None of it’s perfect yet, nor will it ever be, but it’s remarkable how much more comfortable they are with taking control of the class, and their learning, in nine short weeks.

The Insanity of Gender Trouble

A girl that thinks to assume the mask of a man, can shuffle off the baptismal name given her and take the name Alvin J. Ward, take the place of a man and marry a woman—Your Honor knows there was madness at the bottom of that.”
Colonel Gantt, testifying for the Defense
“The Pity of It,” Memphis-Appeal Avalanche 26 February, 1892

alice_MitchellThe above quote represents one of the most striking bits of Sonja Livingston‘s “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie” creative nonfiction piece demonstrating how strictly defined and deeply inscribed gender roles were 100 years ago. No question they still are, but the fact that any deviation on this count was immediately and summarily recognized as insanity. It’s striking because it serves as a sobering reminder just how firmly our assumptions about what’s right, natural, and good are constantly corrected through a cultural lens. We’re still seeing this battle play out in terms of LGBT and gender equality—marking yet another moment in the battle for social justice for an underrepresented minority. And that becomes that much more complicated when you take these cultural assumptions in 1892 and frame them within a shocking and grisly murder between illicit lovers?

The brutal murder of Frederica Ward by Alice Mitchell in on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee in broad daylight amongst witnesses in January 1892 was just that. A shocking murder that became scandalous when Alice Mitchell openly admitted her intentions to assume the role of a man, marry Frederica, and live happily ever after as man and wife. Such a possibility was nothing short of madness, yet Livingston’s retelling of this tale more than 100 years later when this very issue is the most profound civil rights battle of our moment—it takes on a deeper sense of immediacy. This is a form of constructed insanity we’ve been trying to break free from for decades, and we’ve never been so close, just ask the thousands of gay, lesbian, and trans couples that have marriage unions recognized by various states around the U.S. So, the insanity of gender trouble becomes much ore about a culture’s evolving sense of tolerance (or intolerance depending how you want to understand this).

Yet, it would be unfair to suggest everyone at the time thought Alice Mitchell was insane, which becomes especially clear to me when the fact that lesbian relations were seemingly accepted at rich boarding schools like the one Frederica and Alice attended as a means to prevent some of the more apparent heterosexual scandals before a condoned wedding. The sense of same sex relations as experimentation and play before one grows up hetero is a fascinating moment in this narrative, and gives way to a sense of the hypocrisy at work within a class structure that can support such possibilities. And as
Paul Bond notes in this post, would this even be a story if it didn’t happen amongst the Memphis gentry. I found two articles in the New York Times database of articles at the time that tend to suggest that reporters were not so sure Mitchell was crazy as much as she was sly.  For example, there is this article that makes Mitchell seem like a cold, calculating murderer who knew insanity was an out:

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As the last paragraph notes from this trial piece:

When the verdict [criminal insanity] was read by the clerk a faint smile spread over the defendant’s features, as if she had been confident of the jury’s verdict throughout the entire trail. She was taken to jail, gayly chatting as she went…

There is another article in the Times from roughly six months earlier, February 12, 1892, in which the NYT reporters were seemingly looking for evidence that Mitchell was anything but insane. The following article tries to links letters from Mitchell to a book dealer in Pittsburgh to who notes that she “is a clever writer, and the story that she is insane does not agree with my idea of the girl.”

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What’s interesting here is that you start to get a sense that there is a bit of a struggle around the idea of insanity in this case. And the possibility that Mitchell playing to the fears and prejudices of the culture when it comes to homo and/or transexuality is how they in many ways beat the rap of capital punishment. And this isn’t just the NYT reporters, you also have a very similar sentiment in a local, popular ballad about the two, the last two stanzas of which reads as follows:

There goes that Alice Mitchell,
With arms strong tightly bound down,
For the crime she did in Memphis,
She’s bound for Bolivar now.

And they won’t do anything to her–
She has two of the best lawyers in town–
But if they served Alice Mitchell right,
They would simply cut her down.

With a wealthy family and good lawyers you could be crazy too, but could you be queer? So questions of class, insanity, and gender converge in a case that offers up some interesting ideas of how so many cultural factors work together to give us just one perspective of a mutlifaceted incident as any event, no less a crime wherein people’s fates can be decided. The idea of truth as a construct of one’s position within a culture becomes more and more difficult to ignore, if not escape altogther.

Ohio Gang on Boardwalk Empire

The Ohio Gang

After the laughing attack that started tonight’s True Crime class, we actually got to some book learning. Tonight’s readings focused on political crime. In particular, we looked at muckraker Lincoln Steffens’s “Shame of the Cities” as well as Paul Rose’s vision of the Ohio Gang from his graphic novel The Big Book of Thugs. The Ohio Gang was a group of politicians and businessmen from Ohio that came to Washington D.C. with president-elect Warren Harding and proceeded to architect a wholesale rape of the nation’s coffers.

The HBO series Boardwalk Empire explores the legendary corruption duirng the days of “normalcy” by integrating some of the exploits of the Ohio Gang into seasons one and two. In particular, it follows the narrative of how Harry Dougherty brought Harding to national prominence and power. After Harding’s election Dougherty becomes Attorney General, soon after it shifts to his distrust of assistant Attorney General Jesse Smith who seems to be cracking under the pressure of guilt. Turns out the ”supposed” suicide of Smith is believed by many to have been an attempted murder by Gaston Means. I love that Empire embeds a vision that dramatizes this history somewhat faithfully. What’s more, the show makes a point of demonstrating what an idiot Harding was with his “bloviating,”, not to mention the fact he fathered a bastard child with a teenage mistress. Here’s the clip that frames exactly that from season 1:

True Crime meets graphic novels meets HBO, that’s pop culture hard at work for this class!

The True Crime Girdlers

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Created with Room Planner

At the start of the True Crime seminar this evening the entire class got into a laughing fit. I’ve actually never had anything like this happen before (though there was fist fight in a class I taught at CUNY back in 1997), just about everyone in the room was giddy. In fact, it quickly became contagious. For a few minutes the group couldn’t stop laughing, which was nothing short of awesome. I was just as giddy as most of them so I don’t remember how it happened exactly, but I think it had something to do with “the girdle.”

“What do I mean by ‘girdle’?” you ask. Well, the semianr meets in the DTLT offices—the layout of which is mapped in the diagram to the right. There’s a long conference table that seats about eight, and a series of chairs and couches in a horshoe where the other six or seven students sit. In passing I referred to this part of the class as “the girdle” which was a reference to “The Condition of the Working Class in England”  by Friedrich Engels. There’s a part of that essay where Engels refers to the ways in which you can map the layout of industrial cities in England, such as Manchester, based on class:

All Manchester proper, all Salford and Hulme, a great part of Pendleton and Chorlton, two-thirds of Ardwick, and single stretches of Cheetham Hill and Broughton are all unmixed working-people’s quarters, stretching like a girdle, averaging a mile and a half in breadth, around the commercial district. Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie, the middle bourgeoisie in regularly laid out streets in the vicinity of the working quarters. [Link.]

I used this off-the-cuff reference during the first week because it was hard to see those students sitting on the couch and in the chairs. They seemed like the invisible working class of those industrial cities, so I started referring to them as the girdle, invisibly surround the inner city.  The nickname is one I used for the first few weeks to refer to this part of the room, but as of now it has become the source of  identity for the class. Up and until now the students that sit in the girdle has been in flux. This is mainly because each week a group of three students lead the discussion from the conference table, so there can be no one girdle. That said, as of tonight—based on the laughing fit I can’t remember the exact origins of—the girdle understands itself as a distinct group from the conference table inhabitants. There is a self-proclaimed “Queen of the Girdle” and when Girdlers want to say something they raise there hand and say “girdle has something to say,” or just “girdle.”

I love this! A laughing fit to start the class, an emerging identity anchored in the spaces where we learn, and a sense of community that can only happen through a sense of fun and irreverence. I find it interesting that the identity of this course is emerging through classroom space, which I don’t think was the case with the #emoboilers (the students in the Hardboiled course last Fall). Their identity was more linked to the emo tweets of a few students.

All this said, I’m also wondering if tonight was such an awesome class because one of the students was wearing a variation of the Three Moon Wolf shirt. The cosmic powers of that shirt are well known to many. I can’t say for sure, but there is one thing I am certain of: this True Crime group has been a total blast thus far—and I couldn’t be happier with how the semianr has gone thus far. And I haven;t even mentioned the content yet. So much of a course is embedded in the relations between those within it.


Crimes of Terror: Piracy and Slave Revolts

Over the last two weeks the True Crime seminar Paul Bond and I are co-teaching has started to catch its groove. As of last week groups of three students have been tasked with introducing the readings, running the class discussion, and generally managing the tenor of the seminar for the week. A new group takes over each week, and they’re responsible for some basic research on the topic, time period, and readings. They’re also expected to perform a close reading of the texts in order to run the seminar discussion, as well as prepare questions and arguments about the work to help galvanize discussion.

I’ve never ran a course like this before so consiously, but at of the end of week four it’s really starting to work. The students are rising to the challenge, and I think they’re beginning to realize the importance of background research, close readings, and focused questions. What’s more, they’re taking ownership of where the discussion goes and how it gets there. Paul and I jump in and re-direct the conversation as needed, but more and more the responsibility rests on their shoulders. Some of this is in response to the Hardboiled seminar we taught last Fall. During that class I tended to dominate the conversation, feed the group my readings, and take center stage most of the time. While I freely admit it’s my incination to do this, I know it has its real limitations as an approach to a seminar.  So we changed it up, and I owe much of the organization and thinking behind this structure to Paul. I’m finding this new model has helped muzzle me a bit. And while I still probably talk more than I should, it’s definitely much better than it might have been otherwise. Most of the students are participating regularly, there’s active discussion, and we’re all getting comfortable with discussing a wide range of topics.

One of the topcis that came up both this week and last that I find particularly interesting is the idea of terrorism and crime in the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, last week we started talking about the narrative of William Fly, a sailor who in 1726 mutinied and killed his captain, commandeered the vessel, and raised the Jolly Roger. Fly was eventually caught, convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang—as was the fate of most pirates. But, what’s so compelling about Fly’s execution narrative, The Vial Poured out on the Sea written by Cotton Mather, is that unlike all of the others up to this point we've read, Fly refuses to play along with Mather’s game of obedience that enshrines the power of the elite and ignores their abuses of the poor. Rather than repenting with his last words, Fly scoffed at Mather in the narrative and warned:

Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs….all Masters of Vessels might take Warning of the Fate of the Captain that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due.

This struggle between Mather and Fly over the narrative being told is one that can be broken down between that of powerful, establishment Mather versus the poor, disempowered Fly. Marcus Rediker in his 2004 book on pirates Villians of All Nations argues that what we have at work between the minsiter and the pirate are two distinct kinds of terrors, the hanging of the poor man Fly to protect property, reinforce obedience and instill fear was a terror practiced by the power elite to reinforce their privilege. A second form of terror is that practiced by Fly and his ilk that worked in similar ways by using  violence to terrorize sailors, obtain booty, and seek vengeance on those they considered enemies. Pirates often opted for a different social order than that of Mather, but they nonetheless used terror to accomplish it. In so many ways the summary execution of scores of pirates in North American, the Carribean and Africa from 1715 through 1726 demonstrates how the war on terror in the Atlantic played out during the Golden Age of Piracy.

What I like about Rediker’s frame for the hostile face-off between Fly and Mather is how he uses the idea of terror to illustrate these two social positons in the first chapter of his book. In turn, it gives a bit richer and more complex way to conceptualize the pirate and piracy. Going “on the account” was one way to avoid certain abuses rampant for the average sailor (or laborer more generally) in the colonies. The relationship between those who try and resist the power structure and those who enforce it starts to provide some rather striking examples of the idea of power as a social construction and relation that we read about in Foucualt last week.

Nat Turner praches religion

All of which seemed to be an important prelude to our discussion this evening about the 1831 narrative The Confessions of Nat Turner. More than a century after Fly’s narrative and a revolution for national independence later, the question of terrorism and slavery re-emerge. In class tonight, one student tried comparing Turner’s insurrection to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, a number of other students resisted this and alternatively suggested Turner’s rebellion was more like the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Hmmm, where to go from here? How do we understand what Turner did? How is this terrorism? What are the various vantage points? Turner ruthlessly killed men, women and children, 55 in all, why? What was his motive? How does his existence within a peculiar insitution premised upon control, terror, and violence shape this reality?

The conversation was interesting, and I think as a class we’re starting to break free of some of the assumptions that these texts reflect some kind of unbiased truth or reality. Every text is a reflection of a moment’s fears, desires, and concerns and it needs to be read accordingly—keeping in mind our own. Turner’s confessions reflect just how traumitized an entire nation was by the impact of an insurrection of almost 70 slaves ruthlessly murdering men, women , and children. A terrible recognition of the contradictions of freedom, democracy, and slavery coming home to roost. But what was probabaly most powerful about tonight’s class is the final seven minute produced film called Possession in which the contradictions, humanity, and barbarity of this peculiar institution come into sharp focus.

An Invitation to a Hanging


Image of an Invitation to attend the execution of Tiburcio Vasquez

Invitation to attend the execution of Tiburcio Vasquez

We have been talking extensively about public execution narratives in the True Crime I am teaching, which made this scanned invitation to the 1875 hanging of California bandit Tiburcio Vasquez pretty freaking timely and awesome. Thank you, Tom Woodward!

I couldn’t help but search for details about the condemned, and what I found is quite fascinating. According to (I love that site title!), Tiburcio Vasquez was…

Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericano conquest of the Mexican-American War.

That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*

One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.

For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.

Despite the fact has a different date and year for the exuction than the California Historical Society—the  former has  March 19th, 1879 whereas the latter has  March 16th, 1875—I like that they reference the Mexican-American War in imperialist terms, and immediately frame Vazquez as a victim of a hostile landgrab by the U.S. government as part and parcel of the manifest destiny of US expansion during the 19th century. This is a whole rich and complex area of US history, crime, and legend that I didn’t integrate into the course, but could and should have—there is always tomorrow!

It reminds me of another California bandit with a very similar legendary status: Joaquin Murrieta.  His tale follows a narratie akin to that of The Outlaw Josey Wales. He ends up seeking revenge on the landgrabbing white power structure for robbing him of his stake, raping his wife, and lynching his half-brother. He goes on a rampage that has now gained legendary status, and the authorities even had a traveling exhibit of his severed head in 1853 to punctuate his death. From the Wikipedia article:

He and his band attacked settlers and wagon trains in California. The gang is believed to have killed up to 28 Chinese and 13 White-Americans.[3] By 1853, the California state legislature considered Murrieta enough of a criminal to list him as one of the so-called “Five Joaquins” on a bill passed in May 1853. The legislature authorized hiring for three months a company of 20 California Rangers, veterans of the Mexican-American War, to hunt down “Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Muriata [sic], Joaquin Ocomorenia, and Joaquin Valenzuela,” and their banded associates. On May 11, 1853, the governorJohn Bigler signed an act to create the “California State Rangers“, to be led by Captain Harry Love (a former Texas Ranger and Mexican War veteran).

The state paid the California Rangers $150 a month, and promised them a $1,000 governor’s reward if they captured the wanted men. On July 25, 1853, a group of Rangers encountered a band of armed Mexican men near Arroyo de Cantua near the Coast Range Mountains on the Tulare plains. In the confrontation, three of the Mexicans were killed. They claimed one was Murrieta, and another Manuel Garcia, also known as Three-Fingered Jack, one of his most notorious associates. Two others were captured.[4] A plaque (California Historical Landmark #344) near the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198 now marks the approximate site of the incident.

As proof of the outlaws’ deaths, the Rangers cut off Three-Fingered Jack’s hand and the alleged Murrieta’s head and preserved them in a jar of alcohol to bring to the authorities for their reward.[2] Officials displayed the jar in Mariposa CountyStockton, and San Francisco. The Rangers took the display throughout California; spectators could pay $1 to see the relics. Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, signed affidavits identifying the head as Murrieta’s, alias Carrillo.

I actually read the John Rollin Ridge dime novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta for a course during graduate school. An interesting fact about that text is that while the work is fiction, many have mistook it for a factual account—even a few historians. That line between histry, fact, and fiction would be an interesting one to examine in regards to true crime, as would larger themes such a text might raise such as violence and the West, Borderland fiction, national identities, race, ethnicity, and American imperialism.

Update: Forgot to mention that there was some uproar in Califronia earlier this year over a public school named after  Tiburcio Vasquez. Writing the history of the present, indeed.

Benjamin Franklin a Serial Killer?

While looking up information regard Benjamin Franklin’s short newspaper article from 1734 titled “The Death of a Daughter” I found this bit of sensationalism—or is it?—on the Huffington Post:

Dead Letters

Was Benjamin Franklin secretly a serial killer? Historians say this is unlikely.

While working on the renovation of Benjamin Franklin’s London home, a construction worker found something odd: a small pit in a windowless basement room.

Inside, sticking through the dirt floor, was a human thigh bone.
Ultimately, 1,200 pieces of bone were recovered, and initial examinations revealed that the bones were the remains of 10 bodies, six of them children, and were a little more than 200 years old.

Where’s the CSI: Colonial Crimes Division when you need them?

Legends of True Crime: Sawney Bean

While reading America’s Bloody Register (the subject of my last post for True Crime) one of the things that gives away the shift of crime narratives from moral correctives to popular entertainment are the cliff hanegrs and advertisements. Just as the list of thefts in Richard Barrick’s narrative seem to be coming to a point, the narrative full stops with the following pronouncement:

For the remainder of BARRICK’s Life, which contains a series of heinous crimes perpetrated in Philadelphia, New-York, Harford,New-Haven, in Boston Market, at the vendues and on Winter-Hill) we must refer our Readers to the Second Number of our REGISTER, we we shall publish immediately. In the same Number we intend to publish remarkable conversion of….

In other words a cliffhanger that keeps you wanting more, and as a result will ask you to pay more to get it. One of the things that struck me in the “Second Number” of America’s Bloody Registry is the advertisement for a future issue that there’s no known extant copy of:

THE bloody and cruel History of The KING of ROBBERS and MURDERERS: Being a most surprising and shocking Account of the horrid Massacre of more than Twelve Hundred Men, Women and Children in Twenty-five Years, will be our next.

I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell robbed and murdered more than 1200 people over the course of 25 years? It seemed to me America’s Boody Register was about to jump the shark in just its third issue, and unfortunately we might not ever see what was written on this topic. However, thanks to Daniel E. Williams notes on the subject (you’re all reading his notes, right Truecrimers? -especially those of you presenting…right?) turns out they are referring to the legend of Sawney Bean, a “semi-mythical head of a 48-member clan in 15th- or 16th-century Scotland….reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.”

What?! Trippy, the rabbit hole has opened! The truth of this narrative is highly questionable, but it reads pretty awesome, here’s the summary of the Newgate Claendar I found after a cursory search and scan of Wikipedia:

According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 1500s.[1] His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trade but quickly realised that he had little taste for honest labour.

He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water.

The couple eventually produced eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Various children and grandchildren were products of incest. Lacking the inclination for regular labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.

The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were not aware of the murderers living nearby.

I love the whole cave and incest thing, not to mention the fact that this was all a result of Bean’s deep antipathy for ahonest labor, something the whole clan seemed to genertically inherit. So good.