by Harold Schechter)
As a professor of American literature who also writes nonfiction books about our nation's most notorious killers, I've always been struck by how many of our greatest writers have been avid fans of lurid real-life crime stories ("murder fanciers," in Edmund Pearson's memorable phrase). Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, was so addicted to the shamelessly exploitative "penny papers" of his day that--during his stint as American consul to Liverpool during the mid-1850s--he had a friend ship him regular batches of these sensationalistic publications. Edgar Allan Poe's classic story "The Mystery of Marie Roget" is so closely based on the highly publicized 1841 murder of cigar girl Mary Rogers that it is essentially a work of nonfiction. Another 1841 murder--that of printer Samuel Adams by John C. Colt (brother of sixgun-inventor Sam)--obsessed Herman Melville, who wove a reference to it into his masterpiece, "Bartleby the Scrivener."
In researching my own new book, The Mad Sculptor (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest), I discovered that the crime it deals with--a particularly shocking triple murder committed on Easter Sunday, 1937 in the tony Manhattan neighborhood of Beekman Place--attracted the interest of various writers, among them Raymond Chandler, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Dreiser, and especially Thomas Berger. Here is a list of 10 of my favorite true-crime inspired works of American literature;
1. Peter Robinson and Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"
In December, 1840, banker Abraham Suydam, prominent citizen of New Brunswick, New Jersey, went to the home of carpenter Peter Robinson to collect a debt and was never seen alive again. Within 24 hours, news of the banker's mysterious disappearance had spread through the city, generating what newspapers described as "a terrible excitement" among the populace. Before long, suspicion fell on Robinson, who was seen in possession of Suydam's gold pocket watch. Searching Robinson's house, police discovered the victim's decomposing corpse beneath the newly laid flooring in the basement. Ultimately, Robinson confessed that he had bludgeoned the banker unconscious, buried him alive in the dirt floor of the cellar, then purchased a wagonload of boards and laid a new wood floor over the grave. Robinson's trial was one of the most sensational and widely publicized proceedings of the time, and his public hanging in April 1841 a gala event that drew thousands of raucous spectators. The crime was commemorated in true-crime pamphlets and broadside ballads and had a lasting impact on classic American literature, serving as the inspiration Edgar Allan Poe's masterpiece of horror, "The Tell-Tale Heart."
2. Margaret Garner and Toni Morrison's Beloved
In January, 1856, Margaret Garner, along with her husband, their four children, and several other slaves, absconded from Kentucky and, crossing the frozen Ohio River, fled to Cincinnati. Taking refuge in the house of Margaret's uncle, they were tracked down by a posse of slave catchers and U.S. Marshals. Rather than see her children returned to bondage, Margaret took a butcher knife to them, slitting the throat of her two-year-old daughter and wounding the others before she was subdued. Both vilified as a homegrown Medea and celebrated as an African-American martyr, Garner--whose trial became a cause célèbre of the abolitionist movement--served as the model for the tragic figure, Sethe, in Toni Morrison's 1987 novel, Beloved.
3. Patrick Collins and Frank Norris' McTeague
On the morning of October 9, 1893, a San Francisco ironworker named Patrick Collins entered the kindergarten where his wife Sarah worked as a cleaning woman. Enraged at her refusal to hand over her wages to him, he savaged her with a pocketknife, inflicting nearly three dozen wounds on her face, neck, and breast. Collins was arrested for her murder shortly afterwards while praying in a Catholic church. The newspapers had a field day with the story, running blaring headlines that described Collins as "the savage of civilization" and a "murderous human beast." Living in San Francisco at the time was the great American novelist, Frank Norris, who saw in the case a confirmation of his own bleak views of human nature. Thus was born his masterpiece McTeague, whose title character, loosely based on the real-life Collins, murders his increasingly miserly wife when she refuses to give him money for drink.
4. Margaret Hossack and Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers"
Sometime around midnight on December 1, 1900, a well-to-do, 59-year-old Iowa farmer named John Hossack was attacked in bed by an axe-wielding assailant who literally beat out his brains as he slept. His wife, Margaret, became the prime suspect after neighbors testified to her long-simmering hatred of her abusive spouse. Covering the sensational story was 24-year-old Susan Glaspell, at that time a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, the largest daily in the state. Shortly after Mrs. Hossack was convicted and shipped off to Anamosa State Penitentiary, Glaspell quit journalism. After moving east, she and her husband founded the Provincetown Players, for which Glaspell created her one-act play, Trifles, a thinly veiled take on the Hossack case with a decidedly feminist slant. The following year, she reworked the material into her now-classic short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (later adapted for an episode of the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents).
5. Chester Gillette and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy
As early as 1892, while working as a reporter in Chicago, Theodore Dreiser began to notice a recurrent type of crime, symptomatic of America's obsession with what he called "money success." This was a murder committed by a poor, ambitious young man who--having fallen in love with a well-off young woman he sees as his ticket to fortune--resorts to murder as a way of ridding himself of a once-desirable but now inconvenient girlfriend. With an eye to treating this topic in fiction, Dreiser began collecting newspaper clippings on a number of these crimes, finally settling on the 1906 case of Chester Gillette, executed for drowning his pregnant factory-worker girlfriend, Grace Brown, in an Adirondacks lake. The result was Dreiser's 1925 masterpiece, An American Tragedy.
6. Leopold and Loeb and Meyer Levin's Compulsion
In May, 1924, two brilliant and wealthy young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the pampered scions of prominent Chicago families, committed a murder so sensational that it would come to be as closely identified with the 1920s as flappers, the Charleston, and bathtub gin. Conceiving of themselves as Nietzschean superman, they set out to commit "the perfect crime." Choosing a victim at random--a 14-year-old acquaintance named Bobby Frank--they lured him into their car and, after bludgeoning him to death with a chisel, disfigured his corpse with hydrochloric acid and stuffed it naked into a drainpipe at the bottom of a remote railroad embankment. The trial of the two Jazz Age "thrill killers," who were defended by the celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow, became the media event of the day. Among the reporters covering the case for the University of Chicago newspaper was student journalist, Meyer Levin. Thirty years later, Levin transformed the story into his bestselling "documentary novel," Compulsion, a precursor of Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's "true life novel," The Executioner's Song.
7. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity
In March, 1927, a brassy Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder conspired with her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray, to do away with her unwanted husband, Albert. After bludgeoning the slumbering Albert with a sash weight, garroting him with picture wire, and stuffing chloroform-soaked rags up his nostrils, the homicidal couple ransacked the house to make the crime look like the work of Italian burglars, a charade so obviously contrived that the pair was arrested within hours. At her trial, Ruth tried to pin all the blame on her milquetoast boyfriend, a ploy seriously undercut by the revelation that, shortly before the murder, she had taken out a $48,000 life insurance policy on her hubby with a double indemnity clause that paid out twice that amount should he meet with an accidental death. The case, one of the great tabloid sensations of the Jazz Age, became the basis of James M. Cain's classic 1938 noir thriller, Double Indemnity (later filmed by Billy Wilder with Barbara Stanwyck in the role of the scheming femme fatale).
8. Robert Irwin and Thomas Berger's Killing Time
On Easter Sunday, 1937, Robert Irwin--a talented, profoundly disturbed young sculptor who had once been confined to Bellevue Hospital after attempting to slice off his own penis--committed a horrific triple murder in the fashionable Manhattan neighborhood of Beekman Place. The victims were a beautiful artist's model named Veronica Gedeon, her mother Mary--both strangled to death by hand--and a male boarder, Frank Byrnes, stabbed through the head with an icepick while he slept. Irwin was quickly dubbed "The Mad Sculptor" and the case became one the tabloid sensations of the 1930s. Three decades later, Thomas Berger, best known for his satiric western, Little Big Man, used the Irwin case as the basis for his 1967 novel, Killing Time. Despite a prefatory note advising readers "not to identify the characters in the narrative which follows--criminals, policemen, madmen, citizens, or any combination thereof--with real human beings," Killing Time is such a thinly veiled version of the Irwin case that it amounts to a roman à clef.
9. Robert Nixon and Richard Wright's Native Son
Richard Wright was already working on his novel Native Son --about the doomed inner-city hoodlum, Bigger Thomas--when a young black man named Robert Nixon was arrested in Chicago for the murder of a white woman, beaten to death with a brick during a botched robbery. In the Chicago newspapers, Nixon (who would be implicated in a series of similar slayings perpetrated the previous year in Los Angeles) was consistently portrayed in the most wildly racist terms, as a "black ape" possessed of "jungle strength and agility." Recognizing the parallels between the real-life crime and the story he was attempting to tell, Wright collected all the news clippings he could find on the case and used many of its details in the construction of his 1940 masterpiece.
10. Charles Schmid and Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"
Between May, 1964 and August, 1965, Charles "Smitty" Schmid--a charismatic sociopath who compensated for his diminutive height by stuffing his cowboy boots with rags and crushed tin cans, wore pancake makeup, and sported a fake beauty mark on one cheek--murdered three teenaged girls and buried their bodies in the desert outside of his hometown, Tucson, Arizona. An article on the case in the March 4, 1966 issue of Life magazine by veteran reporter Don Moser--who dubbed Schmid "The Pied Piper of Tucson"--gave the bizarre young serial killer nationwide exposure. It also caught the eye of author Joyce Carol Oates, who used the case as the basis for her now-classic 1966 short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" in which a bored adolescent girl named Connie is lured to her death by Arnold Friend, a malevolent figure who shares a number of Schmid's creepiest characteristics.