An explanation…

In my last post, I mentioned I was having some eye trouble. So far, I’ve yet to find a solution to it, and it makes reading difficult. So that’s why there haven’t been any new posts in a very long time.

I’m hoping to eventually find a solution to the issue, and in the meantime have been thinking about adding reviews of movies about historical true crime.

Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly sooner rather than later!

Published in: on February 11, 2009 at 3:41 am  Comments (2)  

I’m not dead yet!

Just a note-I’ve not abandoned this blog. I just haven’t done a lot of non-fiction reading in the last year. I’m also having some eye trouble which cuts down on the reading time.

Hopefully I’ll read more in the next twelve months!

Published in: on February 2, 2008 at 9:51 pm  Comments (3)  

Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story Of The Serial Killer Next Door, by Roy Wenzel, Tim Potter, L. Kelly and Hurst Laviana

“Can I communicate with Floppy and not be traced to a computer. Be honest. Under Miscellaneous section, 494, (Rex it will be OK), run it for a few days in case I’m out of town-etc. I will try a floppy for a test run some time in the near future-February or March.”

That communication from BTK-now known to be Dennis Rader-to the police was to be the beginning of the end for the conceited, self-assured serial killer who killed at least ten in the Wichita, Kansas area between the 1970’s and 1990’s before stumbling all over himself and giving himself away 2005.

Here is the complete story, courtesy of Crime Library.

Allow me to interject a bit of personal commentary here. This case has been one that I followed more closely than others because I lived through the whole bit-from the first murders in the 70’s through his then-unlinked murders in the 90’s as a Kansas resident. In fact, for several years, I lived within 50 miles of Wichita.

The areas that Rader called his playing field are areas I know well. The people he scared into never entering a home without checking the phone to make sure the lines hadn’t been cut are people I grew up knowing. They’re a people with a great deal of common sense and a certain measure of good ol’ Midwestern trust.

It was revealed in the book that Rader may have stalked and intended to murder at least one resident of north-central Kansas. My grandparents lived in that area their entire lives.

In short, it all resonates more than most cases I know well. So I’ve read the books on the subject. While this is not what I’d consider the best book on Rader, it definitely has a unique point of view.

The authors are all journalists with The Wichita Eagle. (This is a link to excerpts from the book, from the Wichita Eagle website. This is the comprehensive page from The Wichita Eagle that contains photos, interviews and timelines for the murders.) They didn’t have to do extensive research for the book, I’m guessing, because they lived it and covered it as it was happening.

Additionally, they are quite familiar with the players in law enforcement, which sets the tone for the book. It’s a look at the lives of two long-time Wichita residents-serial killer Dennis Rader and Wichita Police Department homicide detective Lieutenant Ken Landwehr, whose starkly contrasting (and yet at times, oddly similar) lives became entwined.

It’s, at the same time, both a book that is highly self-congratulatory and harshly self-critical. (Something the politicians radically messed up in the press conference announcing the arrest-something else that’s covered in the book.) There are times that the authors don’t hesitate to criticize moves made by both themselves and the police department.

As a reporter for a brief period of time, I covered cops and courts, and I know it’s all-too-easy to make missteps in communication that affect the relationship between the media and law enforcement. So if the book had spoken only of the easy lines of communication, this book would have rung starkly untrue. But as it is, it’s believable. I’m guessing, as authors, that it would be very easy to slip into a tone of complete self-congratulations following such a huge arrest (that was largely brought about by the coverage in the media.) So the authors should be congratulated for walking that line in the book.

Still, it’s important to remember that Rader really hung himself through his own extreme conceit-like most serial killers. Butt’s an interesting study in how the media and law enforcement CAN work together to ensnare criminals.

Mostly, though, I appreciated the thorough portrait portrayed of Landwehr. All too-often true crime books focus on a certain amount of glamorizing the killer. This book offers a great portrait of the sacrifices law enforcement members made during the long investigation.

In the end, I’m not sure this is the best book on BTK. But it is a unique look at a case that stumped even experts in the field of serial killers.

Published in: on June 25, 2007 at 5:14 pm  Comments (7)  

Dillinger by Ovid Demaris

I decided to do something a little different for this review-I read a book that was written before Capote wrote “In Cold Blood”, just to see what books about crime with a historical bent looked like. Plus, I picked this one up for a dime at a used book sale, so I couldn’t resist.

Dillinger, by Ovid Demaris was definitely eye-opening, but not because it puts forth any unique information, but because it’s a grand example of what I’d call “pulp non-fiction”. It’s quite obvious most of the dialogue came directly from the brain of the author, Demaris and not from any real source.

In addition, there are, here and there, what today would be fairly innocuous lurid sexual details of the relationship between Dillinger and his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette that just scream “we’re here to sell books!”

Frankly, this nndb.com article about John Dillinger was more informational than the book was in its entire 170 pages, and is a lot more concise, of course.

One thing neither the book nor the above-mentioned article touch on is the heated debate surrounding Dillinger’s “alleged” death in an alley near The Biograph theatre in Chicago, Illinois in 1934. (To be fair, the book predates the controversy, which was put forth in the book Dillinger: Dead or Alive, which was published in 1970, nine years following the publication of the Demaris book.)

The controversy, which is nicely summed up in this Crime Library article, is basically that because of the extensive plastic surgery Dillinger had late in his life would have made it very difficult to positively identify him, and that some details in the autopsy do not match up with what is known about the gangster (from Wikipedia):

  • None of his scars were mentioned in the report.
  • The corpse had brown eyes. Dillinger’s were grey, according to police files.
  • The body showed signs of some childhood illness which Dillinger never had
  • The body showed a rheumatic heart condition, yet according to the later testimony of Dr. Patrick Weeks–Dillinger’s physician at Indiana State Prison–Dillinger could not have suffered from this disease as he was an avid baseball player while in prison and had served in the Navy.

However:

  • The body was positively identified as John Dillinger by his sister Audrey, through a scar on his leg received in childhood.
  • The mistake concerning the corpse’s eyes may have been an error on the part of the coroner, resulting from eye discoloration caused by a traumatic head wound.
  • The FBI has at least two sets of post-mortem fingerprints of the dead man. Though scarred by acid, the prints were clearly identifiable as those of John Dillinger.

Back to the Demaris book, though-it’s a little surprising that Demaris, who was a UPI reporter at one point, would be so sensational in his telling. But by another token, it was before Capote changed the genre with “In Cold Blood,” and Dillinger was considered, in his time, something of a Robin Hood-robbing banks during the Great Depression, a story lending itself to lurid detailing-a talent at which Demaris seemed to be very adept.

As a footnote to this review, I had forgotten that old paperbacks used to have advertisements in them. This book contained one for Kent cigarettes, which I found really more amusing than the book itself. Here is the first page of the advertisement:

But the great part is the second page, where you can use your Kent box end-flaps to purchase any of these super-attractive kitchen items:

I don’t know about you, but I’m jonesin’ for that popcorn popper. Only $9.95 with ten Kent flaps!

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 2:18 am  Comments (10)  

Breathtaking…

I’m re-reading In Cold Blood for what, I think, is the third time. I’m reading it in conjunction with the massive and fascinating biography of Truman Capote by Gerald Clarke, titled Capote: A Biography. It’s a great read, and I recommend it.

However, I just had to note, once again, that it never fails to take my breath away when I get to the following quote, attributed to Perry Smith by Capote:

“I didn’t want to harm the man (Herbert Clutter). I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

It was a quote I neglected to mention in my previous review on the book, and one that I thought was worth noting as a particularly stellar and shocking perfect example of the true crime genre.

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 8:53 pm  Comments (6)  

Clutter family home for sale.

I was meandering around the internet the other day and discovered that the Clutter family home in Holcomb, Kansas (which is near the towns where I went school as a youth and the town my parents currently live) is for sale.

http://www.faulknerrealestate.com/index.cfm?show=10&mid=430

I note it because it’s interesting to see the house and interior now, after having seen all the horrific photos of it as a crime scene. Here are some photos:

*A note-I tried to get these photos to align right and I seem to be missing something, but I can’t figure out what. My apologies.

One of the bedrooms:

Another bedroom:


A modern look down the tree path that leads to the home, which was so aptly described in Truman Capote’s book:


And a look into the basement, where Herb Clutter was killed:

It’s a very lovely home, and the current owners (since 1990), the Maders, are the third owners. I hope that some family can make it their own and erase some of that bad “vibes”, for lack of a better word.
Related, while I was looking for some other photos for this post, I also found this:

http://www2.ljworld.com/photos/galleries/2005/apr/03/in_cold_blood_a_legacy_in_photos/

It’s a photo essay in the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World commemorating the 40th anniversary of the book. Included are several photos highlighting the fun and functional parts of the home-which Herb Clutter designed and built himself.

This is a link to the entire series featured in the LJWorld-definitely a must-read for anyone who is interested in the story:

http://ljworld.com/specials/incoldblood/

And finally, this is a great story from that series about the Clutter home:

http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/apr/06/in_the_end/

Published in: on March 13, 2007 at 8:09 pm  Comments (95)  

“Lost Love: A True Story Of Passion, Murder And Justice In Old New York” by George Cooper

“Lost Love” by George Cooper is a fascinating look at not only a tragic love triangle that comes to a head in the years following the Civil War between a famous war correspondent and a talented actress, but a fascinating work that begs the reader to ponder the age old idea put forth by George Santayana-“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It is a fascinating look at the burgeoning ideas of marriage and the womens’ rights movement and the sanctity of marriage in their day.

(Unfortunately, I was unable to find a good summary of this story online, as I usually do. This is a link to another review that gives a fairly good overview, and this is a GREAT link with many stories written by the victim and includes a short overview of the murder.)

Albert Deane Richardson rose to fame as a well-renowned journalist, journaling his trips to the “new West”, and eventually garnering fame and attention when he was captured by Rebel forces during the Civil War. He spent a year and a half in a Rebel internment camp in Salisbury, North Carolina and eventually escaped with another captured journalist.

It is after these incredible events that he meets Abby Sage MacFarland, who was suffering, in her words, under the wrath of an increasingly abusive husband, Daniel MacFarland.

The paranoid Daniel feared that his wife was behaving unbecoming a wife with his neighbor Richardson, and even shot him in the thigh at one point-Richardson recovered. Meanwhile, Abby had moved to Indiana, where a divorce on the grounds of abuse and drunkeness could be obtained. To obtain residency status, she had to live there for a year.

However, the second time around, Richardson would not be so lucky. MacFarland ambushed him in the front offices of his employer, The New York Tribune. He would die a week later, but not before a deathbed marriage-performed by the notorious Rev. Henry Ward Beecher-to Abby two days before his passing.

In a classic case of “putting the victim on trial”, MacFarland was acquitted after claiming insanity.

This book is everything a historical true crime novel should be. It details the crime and the trial and puts it in perspective with the day to day realities that the characters faced.

At times, I do wonder if Cooper is taking too much the side of the widow-the popular view of the day was to side with MacFarland against his straying wife. This book is very sympathetic to Abby-and probably not undeservedly.

However, that’s made up for by the ease with which Cooper weaves the true words of the players with the narrative. Never once does the reader feel that Cooper is making up words to put in the players’ mouths, as is the case in some historical true crime books. It hearkens back to the classic true crime novel-In Cold Blood.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone-in particular readers who are not familiar with the genre of true crime and are interested in a wonderful snapshot of the period following the Civil War.

Published in: on January 30, 2007 at 3:07 am  Leave a Comment  

So, speaking of movies…Infamous

I’m wondering – have you seen Infamous?

Another movie about Truman Capote-and I loved Capote which was released last year. LOVED Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, and consider it one of the best performances I’ve seen on the big screen.

So I’m wondering if this is going to be worth seeing-I’ll probably have to see it on DVD since we almost never get the good art movies here in Central Illinois.

Infamous has gotten such mixed reviews from what I’ve seen, which has only increased my curiosity about the movie.

So leave me a message if you’ve seen it, and what you thought.

Published in: on October 31, 2006 at 4:31 am  Comments (3)  

Shadow Chasers: The Woolfolk Tragedy Revisited, by Carolyn Deloach

(First, please let me make a lame excuse for not posting more lately – wedding planning sucks all the life out of the world-don’t expect much out of me this fall. Now, back to our regularly scheduled review.)

Shadow Chasers, by Carolyn Deloach is a startling tale and one most casual true crime buffs are not familiar with.

But this is a hauntingly chilling tale of a man accused of annihilating his entire family with a short axe handle – nine in all, including his father, step-mother, six siblings (two boys and four girls) and an elderly aunt of his step-mother in one frightening evening in Bibb County, Georgia on August 6, 1887.

(This is a very rough online timeline of the events. This is a small overview of the murders.)

Though only tried and convicted for the murder of his father, he was quickly indicted for all nine murders shortly following the discovery of the bodies – by Thomas himself and inquest. Woolford is found guilty of the murder of his father in just 45 minutes by the jury empaneled in the case.

He is hanged on October 29, 1890 in front of a crowd of 10,000. He maintained his innocence until the end.

Many details of the murders ARE troubling – a common one in family annihilations is how one person managed to subdue an entire family, and in this case, is particularly troubling given the number of people killed and the age of Thomas’s brother, Richard Jr., who was 20 years old at the time of his death.

This is a mediocre book about a very, VERY intriguing case. Part of what turns me off is the heavy use of license in creating a constant dialogue that runs throughout the book. It’s stilted enough that it’s always in the back of my mind that these conversations are largely the work of the author (albeit based on true events.)

Even so, the book is compelling and well worth a read. Deloach has obviously done more than her share of work researching this book – and that shows in the details that one would think would be long-gone in a case that’s 120+ years old, and for that she should be praised.

Oddly enough, even though it has been thought to have burned down, remains of the Woolfork home still exist-very, very decrepit as they are, in case you are looking for some place to go on Tuesday for Halloween.

Published in: on October 29, 2006 at 3:10 am  Comments (7)  

Starvation Heights, by Gregg Olsen

In one of the most gripping tales of historical true crime I’ve ever read, “Starvation Heights” had me from page one, and it completely caught me by surprise. It’s the story of a power-hungry doctor from the 1910’s who espoused a “healing” method that was popular at various times in history called fasting.

But the lengths that Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard went to to “heal” her patients were nothing short of serial murder.

(For a brief overview of this story, see this article at crimelibrary.com.)

Dr. Hazzard believed that a diet of nothing but a few teaspoons of soup and water, along with enemas (which were quite popular in the early 20th century) and vigorous massage, would rid the body of “toxins”, leading to better health.

As the patients wasted away, Dr. Hazzard would “encourage” her patients to sign over power of attorney, quietly and violently becoming a very rich woman.

Two of Dr. Hazzard’s patients – British sisters named Claire and Dora Williamson – are the sad subjects of this book. They came to Dr. Hazzard’s rural Washington clinic in search of healing and emotional well-being.

After dwindling down to under 75 pounds, Claire managed to send a telegram home begging for help. But before her Nanny could arrive, she passed away. Dora, however, was able to escape and eventaully was nursed back to health and was able to be a witness in the trial of Dr. Hazzard, where she was convicted of manslaughter.

But justice would not prevail in this case, and after serving only a short term, the governor commuted her sentence. Eventually re-arrested after the death of another patient, the number of victims who died under her care will likely never be known.

In an odd twist, Dr. Hazzard’s book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease is still available at various locations online.

I recommend this book, not only as a great historical true crime book, but just as a gripping read all around. Pick it up – you won’t be disappointed.

Published in: on September 15, 2006 at 3:24 am  Comments (16)  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.