What distinguishes true crime from other non-fiction? If you were to measure its pulse, where in the story should you place your two fingers?
The German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) would say motive. He should know. He revolutionized the true crime genre in Germany. Before Schiller came along, the German true crime genre had a different emphasis. It provided sensational details of misdeeds and the criminal’s repentance. Those details were supposed to instill a respect for the law and scare the readership into upright behavior.
But Schiller bucked convention and he admitted it. The problem with the sensationalist crime story, he wrote, is the emotional distance between reader and criminal. It leaves readers shaking their heads over behavior they don’t understand. They no longer view the perpetrator as human, but as a different species. If the author really wants to move the audience, wrote Schiller, he or she must pick up a scalpel and dissect the motive. Readers must not only see the protagonist commit crimes. They must see him want to commit them.
How do psychology and circumstances interact to produce criminal conduct? That became the new focus of Germany’s true crime genre. In the introduction to his own true crime story, Schiller wrote: “In the entire history of mankind, no chapter is more educational for the heart and soul than the history of human aberrations. For every great crime, an equally great force is at work.”
What was the last true crime story you read? Did it focus more on motive, sensationalism, or forensic techniques?
Some literature on point:
Gail K. Hart, Freidrich Schiller: Crime, Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Punishment (Newark: University of Delaware Press 2005)
Jeffrey L. High, Schiller’s Literary Prose Works: New Translations and Critical Essays (Rochester, New York: Camden House 2008)
(c) 2014 Ann Marie AckermannRead More
Who is the most famous true crime author in the world? Truman Capote, perhaps? Or Ann Rule?
If you travel back to the French and German origins of the true crime genre, you’ll find Germany’s greatest poet. He not only wrote his own true crime story, he edited a true crime collection and gave the new genre his blessings. And you know his name. World-renowned for writing the Ode to Joy and William Tell, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) launched the true crime genre in Germany.
But it was France that inspired him.
Most scholars credit Francois Gayot de Pitaval with creating the contemporary true crime genre. He published a collection of criminal cases between 1734 and 1743. Although he wasn’t the first author to write about crime, he offered something new. Pitaval probed the psychological depths of the criminal mind and retold the stories with narrative flair. This combination captivated the public. Pitaval’s collection became a bestseller of the 18th century, sparking translations and further editions.
In Germany, Schiller was fascinated. He inaugurated Pitaval’s collection in Germany by editing the debut German edition. In his introduction, Schiller recommended studying criminal cases. Crime, he wrote, is a thought-provoking, fertile field for fiction. His own true crime story also prefigured the modern true crime story. We’ll look at that story in a future blog.
What is your favorite true crime story and why do you like it?
Mine is And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce B. Henderson. I like the exotic location (South Sea atoll) and the fascinating way the authors cast doubt on desert island arithmatics. Four (the number of people on the island) minus two (the number of people who disappeared) doesn’t necessarily equal two (the number of murderers).
Some literature on the French and German origins of the true crime genre:
Albert Borowitz, Blood & Ink: An International Guide to Fact-based Crime Literature (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002)
Mary Lindemann, Narratives of Dismembering Women in Northern Germany, in Women and Death 1 (Helen Fronius, Anna Linton, eds.; Rochester, NY: Camden House 2008) pp. 76-92.
Martin Rosenstock, The Anti-Detective Novel in German, English, and Swiss Literature (dissertation, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 2007).
(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann
“Thief!” “Fire!” “Wolf!”
All three are examples of an ancient form of alarm called the “hue and cry.” A cry for help and assistance in response to crime or danger was an integral part of historical law enforcement. Statutes or regulations in several European countries required citizens to respond to the hue and cry. They had to hunt down the criminal or wolf or help put out the fire.
Just how prevalent was the hue and cry in Europe? A brief peak in the literature suggests it was quite widespread. In England, the Statute of Winchester (1 Edward 14, 1885) charged townsfolk to pursue a criminal if they heard the cry. Germans used the hue and cry by shouting, “Zeter und Mordio!” A 13th c. criminal code called the Sachsenspiegel also required the court proceedings against a murderer to open with the cry. In France, a victim hollered “haro,” “harou,” or “harue.” “Accor’uomo!” was the cry in Italy. Spain also raised their version of the hue and cry in response to a crime (but I can’t find what words the Spaniards used). Hungary, in a part that is now Romania, raised the alarm by shouting out “Tolvaj!” (thief) or “Tulai!” (help).
Settlers transported the hue and cry to colonial America. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all employed it. In New York, police shook wooden rattles to raise the cry. But for sparsely populated regions such as rural Virginia, the old European custom proved inadequate. All in all, given that crying out for help and assisting in emergencies are such natural, human responses, it is not at all surprising that the custom was widespread and formalized.
The multiplicity of the languages makes it hard to research the prevalence of the hue and cry in Europe. If you have anything to add, please join in on the discussion!
Text © Ann Marie Ackermann, September 2014; Images: morugeFile, shutterstock.com & National Archives. See Impressum.
Some literature on point:
Emise Bálint, Mechanisms of the Hue and Cry in Kolozsvár in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, in Cultural History of Early Modern European Streets (Riitta Laitinen & Thomas V. Cohen, eds.; (Ledien, Bosten: Brill 2009) p. 40.
Gesa Dane. “Zeter und Mordio”: Vergewaltigung in Literatur und Recht (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2005) pp. 22-23.
A. Esmein. A History of Continental Criminal Procedure with Special Reference to France ( Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1913) p. 61; p. 125 n. 3.
Ronald H. Fritze & William B. Robinson, eds. Historical Dictionary of Late Medieval England 1272-1485 (Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 2002) p. 139.
Christopher Hare. Dante the Wayfarer (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons 1905) p. 3.
Martin Andrew Sharp Hume. Spain: Its Greatness and Decay (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 1899) p. 13
Philip Jones. The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signoria (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press 1997) p. 381.
Michael Roth. Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2011) pp. 64, 66.
Craig D. Uchida, History of American Policing, in Jack R. Greene, ed.. Encyclopedia of Police Science, vo1. 1 (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2007) p. 617.Read More
It was so easy to get trapped. The city walls ensnared you and the gates locked you in.
If you wanted to commit a crime in one of Germany’s 19th-century walled cities, you’d probably want to case the place first and plan your escape. A typical town had only a handful of exits via the city gates. Some towns still closed their gates every night and posted the times in the newspaper.
The city of Ludwigsburg, for instance, closed its gates between 6 pm and 6:30 am during the second half of November, 1835. But, as we saw in the last post, if the townsfolk raised the hue and cry, you couldn’t count on an open gate. The watchmen could close the gates just to catch you.
But most towns offered great places to hide. Houses were built fairly close to each other, leaving narrow gaps between them. Those gaps, noted a 19th-century German investigator, could easily accommodate a skinny criminal. They were a perfect place to dismantle and conceal a weapon, rearrange clothing, or take cover until the commotion was over. Such a gap played a role in the case I’m writing about. It offered the assassin a great hiding place. But he managed to escape the walls, flee to the United States, and eventually take up arms at Robert E. Lee’s side.
Intelligenz-Blatt des Neckar-Kreises und Ludwigsburger Wochenblatt. 31 October 1835.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann, September 2014, except for Roman city gate, shutterstock.com