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True Crime: An American Anthology


Americans have had an uneasy fascination with crime since the earliest European settlements in the New World, and right from the start true crime writing became a dominant genre in American writing. True Crime: An American Anthology offers the first comprehensive look at the many ways in which American writers have explored crime in a multitude of aspects: the dark motives that spur it, the shock of its impact on society, the effort to make sense of the violent extremes of human behavior. Here is the full ...

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Americans have had an uneasy fascination with crime since the earliest European settlements in the New World, and right from the start true crime writing became a dominant genre in American writing. True Crime: An American Anthology offers the first comprehensive look at the many ways in which American writers have explored crime in a multitude of aspects: the dark motives that spur it, the shock of its impact on society, the effort to make sense of the violent extremes of human behavior. Here is the full spectrum of the true crime genre, including accounts of some of the most notorious criminal cases in American history: the Helen Jewett murder and the once-notorious 'Kentucky tragedy' of the 1830s, the assassination of President Garfield, the Snyder- Gray murder that inspired Double Indemnity, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahlia, Leopold and Loeb, and the Manson family. True Crime draws upon the writing of literary figures as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (reporting on a visit to a waxworks exhibit of notorious crimes), Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser (offering his views on a 1934 murder that some saw as a 'copycat' version of An American Tragedy), James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, and Truman Capote and sources as varied as execution sermons, murder ballads, early broadsides and trial reports, and tabloid journalism of many different eras. It also features the influential true crime writing of best-selling contemporary practitioners like James Ellroy, Gay Talese, Dominick Dunne, and Ann Rule.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Schechter (American literature, Queens Coll., CUNY; The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century ) has put together a sweeping anthology covering the history of crime in America and showcasing some of the best American crime writing. Arranged by publication date, the selections are mostly magazine-length retellings of American crimes, including Puritan execution sermons, murder ballads, and cringe-worthy heinous accounts. The authors selected vary from the colonial (e.g., Benjamin Franklin) to the literary (e.g., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Truman Capote) to current best-selling experts (e.g., Dominick Dunne, Ann Rule, Calvin Trillin, James Ellroy). The all-too-familiar tales are here-Leopold and Loeb, Charles Manson, Son of Sam-but Schechter also includes some stories that received less press and may be new to readers, like the 1930s case of the Cleveland "butcher" and the 1873 axe murders on Smutty Nose Island, NH. Readers will find it difficult to put down this delightful treasury encompassing some of the best crime writing from colonial times to today. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Karen Sandlin Silverman, Library Svcs., Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia

The Barnes & Noble Review
If people read detective fiction to see justice done, they read true crime stories in order to see innocence lost. From Edgar Allan Poe (who invented the detective genre) to Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes proved its greatest popularizer) through to today's assortment of imaginary private and public investigators, fictional detective stories center on the heroic ingenuity of the detective, whose guts, guile, and guiding intelligence result in a solution that is -- for entertainment's sake -- typically counterintuitive and unpredictable. The detective outwits the criminal and justice is served.

The true-crime story, on the other hand, is rarely puzzle-like. Real-life detecting is a more prosaic business. Murder is handled by the police, and they usually figure out whodunit pretty quickly. The allure of true-crime stories lies elsewhere, for they are about the victims and the criminals. The victims begin in a state of innocence, and the criminals arrive to wreck that innocence forever. Because the story is true, the reader can readily identify with the victims and share their entry into the world of violent experience, where malevolent -- and fascinating -- murderers walk the earth.

True Crime, Harold Schechter's masterful anthology from the Library of America, showcases lost innocence through American time and space, ranging from the New England colonies to contemporary Beverly Hills. Choosing from a vast universe of true crime stories, Schechter divides his focus. Some of his selections spotlight famous cases, such as the legendary unsolved Black Dahlia murder of 1947, in which the shockingly tortured corpse of a young woman rattled -- and riveted -- Los Angeles. Schechter also brings our attention back to famous criminals like Ed Gein, whose grisly exploits inspired first Psycho and then The Silence of the Lambs, and Son of Sam, whose random killings terrorized New York City in 1977. Other chapters call attention to the work of famous writers who aren't necessarily known for true-crime writing, such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, or the poet José Martí. And of course there are famous writers covering well-known cases, such as Damon Runyon reporting on the notorious case of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, who were convicted of murdering Mrs. Snyder's husband in 1927. Their trial is little remembered today -- one of the many attractions of Schechter's anthology lies in its recovery of crimes once famous but now forgotten -- but the Snyder-Gray trial was a cause c&eacutelèbre of its time and the inspiration for James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, a 1936 novel later adapted by Billy Wilder into one of the all-time great films noirs.

Roughly speaking, True Crime traces how crime reportage expanded from the realm of religious instruction to enter tabloid journalism, and finally to become literature. Schechter's excellent introduction, augmented by headnotes to each chapter, shows how American true-crime writing originated in New England as part of the "execution sermon." Delivered next to the scaffold as part of the hanging ritual, the execution sermon was a disquisition meant to instruct the assembled multitudes. This collection contains no actual examples of this type of oration, but it does include Cotton Mather's Pillars of Salt, a remarkable 1699 compilation drawn from the tradition. Like other Puritan genres (such as the captivity narrative), true crime writing turned both secular and sensational over time, broadening its focus to encompass the prurient as well as the didactic. (Both of these preoccupations have endured to the present day, as Schechter's selection from the prolific and popular Ann Rule, among others, amply shows.) When writers began striving for genuine literary effect, a development this anthology allows us to chart from its beginnings, the modern style of true crime writing had arrived.

The best pieces in True Crime showcase detailed character development of either victims or criminals. Celia Thaxter's account of an 1873 multiple murder on a New Hampshire island stands out for its filigreed portrait of innocent victims whose simple lives are destroyed, for example, while Miriam Allen DeFord's delicate anatomy of the infamous 1924 thrill killers Leopold and Loeb stands out for its attention to the psychology of the criminal, in effect answering the question, "Why would anyone do such a thing?" (A. J. Liebling's gripping 1955 reenactment of how a clever young newspaper reporter cracked a murder case in 1898 stands out in the collection for its striking resemblance to an invented detective story; its singularity demonstrates how the narrative conventions governing true crime differ from those of crime fiction.)

What makes people kill other people who have done nothing to them? This question lies at the heart of true-crime writing, and it takes a variety of forms over the history of the genre. The Puritan minister asks the murderer on the way to the gallows if he knows that he has a "Wicked Nature in [him], full of Enmity against all that is Holy, and Just, and Good"? Two and a half centuries later, Elizabeth Hardwick observes that "it is not hard to understand organized crime, but how can you understand two young boys who kill an old couple in their candy store for a few dollars?" Modern true-crime writing focuses alternately on the hypothetical couple whose lives are destroyed, and on the two young killers and their murderous kin.

If True Crime has a weakness, it is only that this excellent anthology can't encompass the book-length stories that have raised the literary reputation of true crime writing during the last two generations. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood shaped the modern form of the genre, while Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, Joe McGinness's Fatal Vision, and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song are a few of the superb books that helped bring true crime to its current heights -- partly because the longer format allows for a deeper exploration of the lives and personalities of victims and criminals and a more detailed portrait of their communities. True Crime richly satisfies on its own terms, and it is to the lasting credit of both the book and its editor that this anthology will undoubtedly send its readers in the direction of the great books that helped to inspire it. --Leonard Cassuto

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University and the author of Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. He can be found on the web at

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598530315
  • Publisher: Library of America, The
  • Publication date: 9/18/2008
  • Pages: 900
  • Sales rank: 453,243
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 10.92 (h) x 2.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Schechter, editor, is a professor of American literature at Queens College, the City University of New York. He is the author of more than two dozen books and is best known for his historical true crime accounts, most recently The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century (2007). He is also the author of six novels, including a mystery series featuring Edgar Allan Poe.
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Table of Contents

The Hanging of John Billington William Bradford Bradford, William 1

Pillars of Salt Cotton Mather Mather, Cotton 3

The Murder of a Daughter Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin 36

An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J-- Y--, Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781 Anonymous 39

"A crime more atrocious and horrible than any other" Timothy Dwight Dwight, Timothy 45

Jesse Strang The Record of Crimes in the United States 52

The Recent Tragedy James Gordon Bennett Bennett, James Gordon 63

"A show of wax-figures" Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, Nathaniel 69

Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham 72

Crime News from California Ambrose Bierce Bierce, Ambrose 80

from Roughing It Mark Twain Twain, Mark 87

Jesse Harding Pomeroy, the Boy Fiend Anonymous 98

Gibbeted Lafcadio Hearn Hearn, Lafcadio 117

A Memorable Murder Celia Thaxter Thaxter, Celia 131

The Trial of Guiteau Jose Marti Marti, Jose 156

The Murder of Annie Downey, alias "Curly Tom" Thomas Byrnes Byrnes, Thomas 171

Hunting Human Game Frank Norris Norris, Frank 175

The Hossack Murder Susan Glaspell Glaspell, Susan 179

Murder Ballads

Poor Naomi 198

Stackalee 199

The Murder of Grace Brown 203

Belle Gunness 204

The Murder at Fall River 205

Trail's End 207

Mrs. Cordelia Botkin, Murderess Thomas S. Duke Duke, Thomas S. 210

Hell Benders, or The Story of a Wayside Tavern Edmund Pearson Pearson, Edmund 217

The Eternal Blonde Damon Runyon Runyon, Damon 235

from The Gangs of New York Herbert Asbury Asbury, Herbert 303

The Mystery of the Hansom Cab Alexander Woollcott Woollcott, Alexander 317

Execution Joseph Mitchell Mitchell, Joseph 324

More and BetterPsychopaths H. L. Mencken Mencken, H. L. 329

Dreiser Sees Error in Edwards Defense Theodore Dreiser Dreiser, Theodore 334

Sex and the All-American Boy Dorothy Kilgallen Kilgallen, Dorothy 339

Miss Ferber Views "Vultures" at Trial Edna Ferber Ferber, Edna 371

Ditch of Doom Jim Thompson Thompson, Jim 375

A Sort of Genius James Thurber Thurber, James 392

Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street Meyer Berger Berger, Meyer 407

Butcher's Dozen John Bartlow Martin Martin, John Bartlow 418

The Case of the Scattered Dutchman A. J. Liebling Liebling, A. J. 467

The Trial of Ruby McCollum Zora Neale Hurston Hurston, Zora Neale 512

The Black Dahlia Jack Webb Webb, Jack 524

The Life and Death of Caryl Chessman Elizabeth Hardwick Hardwick, Elizabeth 536

The Shambles of Ed Gein Robert Bloch Bloch, Robert 549

Superman's Crime: Loeb and Leopold Miriam Allen deFord deFord, Miriam Allen 557

Eight Girls, All Pretty, All Nurses, All Slain W. T. Brannon Brannon, W. T. 578

The Pied Piper of Tucson Don Moser Moser, Don 610

A Stranger with a Camera Calvin Trillin Trillin, Calvin 627

Charlie Manson's Home on the Range Gay Talese Talese, Gay 638

Then It All Came Down Truman Capote Capote, Truman 651

"Son of Sam" Jimmy Breslin Breslin, Jimmy 662

The Turner-Stompanato Killing: A Family Affair Jay Robert Nash Nash, Jay Robert 668

The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills Albert Borowitz Borowitz, Albert 686

My Mother's Killer James Ellroy Ellroy, James 707

Young Love Ann Rule Rule, Ann 721

Nightmare on Elm Drive Dominick Dunne Dunne, Dominick 737

Sources and Acknowledgments 775

Index 779

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  • Posted November 7, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    excellent anthology

    I hate to admit this publicly, but this excellent anthology highlights Americans¿ (including guilty me) macabre fascination with crime through famous authors who over the years, especially the last few decades, have made this into a powerful genre. The collection starts in colonial times with Puritan documents and Ben Franklin; runs into the nineteenth century with Bierce, Hawthorne and Mark Twain; and into the twentieth century and this decade with a genre who¿s who to include Dreiser, Thurber, Capote, Dunne, Rule, Ellroy and Talese. The compilation includes some of the most felonious activities in American history; several of which gained additional notoriety through movie versions like Double Indemnity, the Black Dahlia, and Compulsion. Finally, True Crime analyzes why people love the genre. This is a winner for fans as Harold Schechter analyzes the roots, the history, and the current popular state of the genre through authors and their subjects even with many of the cases included like Son of Sam of Bronx infamy well known.<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

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