The top ten:
After one and a half years of blogging about historical crime cases, the New Year offers a great opportunity to look back at crimes that fascinated my readers the most. These were the most popular:
1. New Discoveries about the Lincoln Assassination: Interview with Author Michael W. Kauffman. No, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg jumping from the balcony after shooting Lincoln. Computer analysis of all the data in the one of the most famous historical crime cases ever offers new insights, and Michael Kauffman explains them. This is an author who was so committed to researching the assassination he jumped from the balcony in Ford’s Theater himself.
2. Ötzi, the Alpine Iceman: How Modern Forensic Science Unveiled a Stone Age Murder. Historical crime at its best, because murder cases don’t get any colder than this! Someone killed the iceman 5000 years ago. Modern scientists have pieced together the iceman’s last moments with analysis of his head injury, the arrow that shot him, and a defensive wound.
3. Jefferson C. Davis, Civil War General and Murderer: Interview with Donald A. Clark. The Civil War had its own historical crime cases. In this one, one general killed another. Clark, who authored a new book about Bull Nelson, the murder victim, talks about the crime and the murderer.
4. King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Murder, Accident, or Suicide? This is Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery. What happened to the builder of fairy tale castles and the patron of Richard Wagner? Bavaria’s monarch took a walk in 1886 and was found later that evening drowned in a lake. Murder, accident, or suicide? Here are the facts, and you can decide.
5. Ravens as Partners for Cadaver Dogs? Ravens, according to biologists, have a symbiotic hunting relationship with both humans and canines. Since ravens eat carrion, might law enforcement be able to use them to work with dogs in a team? This post contains some fascinating facets about the raven-dog-man friendship that you probably never knew.6. Poe Toaster: Might a Bavarian Group be Responsible? Every year for decades, a mysterious figure has left cognac and roses at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. The Poe Toaster’s identity has long been a mystery, but a Bavarian group has hinted responsibility. The motive is linked to King Ludwig II and his mysterious death.
7. Volunteer Cadaver Dog Handlers: Might You and Your Dog Make a Good Detective Team? This is an interview with New York Times bestselling author and cadaver dog handler Cat Warren. She talks about training her dog and what it’s like to search for a body. Most American cadaver dog handlers are volunteers, and she invites you to consider whether you and your dog might have the right aptitude.
8. Pirate Flags: Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know. Historical crime meets romantic legend in this post. Are historical pirate flags black or red? What did the colors mean? Did they really have the skull and crossbones? Here’s why sailors were more frightened of red pirate flags than black ones.
9. New Twists on the Lindbergh Kidnapping: An Interview with Author Richard Cahill. The Lindbergh kidnapping is one of America’s most haunting crime cases. Richard Cahill is an attorney and has studied this case for twenty years. The insights in his new book contained some surprises for me, so I interviewed him for this blog post.
10. Drawing Straws in the Lifeboat: Noble Sacrifice or Murder? The book and movie In the Heart of the Sea popularized the true story of a whale sinking a ship in 1820. It was the basis for Moby Dick. The sailors survived by drawing straws in the lifeboats and eating each other. Did they face legal action when they returned to port? And how does the law judge such an extreme situation?
Honorable mentions for two historical crime posts
Two other posts deserve honorable mention for the attention they received:
A Dog Solves a Murder: A True Story from Spain. This post about a 19th century Spanish dog that solved a murder attracted the attention of a television producer who interviewed me about it on Skype. I’m still crossing my fingers that this post will find its way into a documentary!
French and German Origins of the True Crime Genre. No, Truman Capote did not invent the true crime genre. A Frenchman did in the 18th century and caught Friedrich Schiller’s attention. Schiller promoted the new genre and added a few stories of his own. Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, liked this post. He tweeted me to say he hadn’t known this history and thanked me for posting it.
Happy New Year, and I raise my glass to our historical crime reading adventures for 2016!
As a subgenre of true crime, historical true crime is gaining popularity. Last week we looked at some of the reasons why. This week we’ll look at some of my favorite historical true crime books, sorted by time period. Some of them are the vanguards of the subgenre. Others are obscure and might surprise you.
I haven’t read them all and am open to suggestions, so please leave a comment below if you want to recommend any historical true crime books! I’d love suggestions dealing with pre-WWII crimes.
Criminal Motivated by Lost Honor: A True Story, by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller, author of William Tell and the Ode to Joy, is considered a father of the true crime genre. This is his debut story. It wasn’t the first true crime tale ever written, but Schiller’s fame helped launch the genre.
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins. Founding fathers and bitter enemies, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend a murder suspect in a sensational New York murder case. Burr later killed Hamilton in a duel. The author claims to have discovered a new clue as to the identity of the real killer in the case they both defended.
Early 19th century
A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder by Abraham Lincoln. Did you know Abraham Lincoln wrote true crime? In fact, he might be the most famous true crime author ever. This story, also called the Trailor Murder Mystery, is based on one of Lincoln’s own cases. His prose doesn’t yet reach the heights of the Gettysburg Address, but the read is worth it for the ending, which has one of the best twists I’ve ever seen. Lincoln’s story is in the public domain and I’ve reproduced the entire text in my blog. Just click on the link to read it.
Civil War era
True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder & Abuse by Tobin T. Buhk. A fascinating anthology of crimes associated with the war.
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman. Kauffman used modern data processing to analyze the evidence in the Lincoln assassination and uncovered some interesting facts. Click here for my interview of the author.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. A well written, exciting narrative of four women who stepped outside the usual roles for 19th century women in order to defend their countries. Whether they were heroes or criminals depends on your perspective.
The Notorious “Bull” Nelson: Murdered Civil War General by Donald A. Clark. A scholarly portrait of one of the war’s most famous murder victims. You can read my interview of the author here.
Late 19th century
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. Deliciously Victorian, this story covers an 1860 English murder investigation during the birthing throes of forensic science.
Fiend: The Shocking True Story Of America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Harold Schechter. Set in Massachussets in the 1870s, this book covers a string of beatings and murders that were eventually traced back to a boy. Well written and disturbing.
The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America by Geoffrey O’Brien. You know the house of Walworth even if you don’t recognize the name. Ellen Hardin Walworth was the daughter of one of Abraham Lincoln’s friends and one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution. When her son killed her estranged husband, Ellen became a lawyer to help defend her son.
We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America by Carrie Hagen. The gripping story of America’s first kidnapping for ransom, set against the background of 1876 Philadelphia and its preparations for the country’s centennial celebrations.
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr. This one is my favorite! Set in France in the 1890s, Starr narrates the birth of forensic science against the backdrop of France’s “Jack the Ripper.” Starr’s writing is both suspenseful and informative.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. A classic – and quite possibly the book that made historical true crime books so popular. Larson chronicles one of the country’s most prolific serial killers and the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This is a story you won’t soon forget.
Early 20th century
Famous Crimes the World Forgot: Ten Vintage True Crime Stories Rescued from Obscurity (Volume 1) by Jason Lucky Morrow. The author resurrects crime cases that were big news at the time but are forgotten now. A seasoned journalist, Morrow does an excellent job of breathing life into cases moldering in the archives.
Hauptmann’s Ladder: A Step-by-Step Analysis of the Lindbergh Kidnapping by Richard T. Cahill. The author is a criminal trial lawyer and offers fresh insights into one of the country’s most famous cases. You can read my interview with Richard Cahill here.
Do you have any titles you’d recommend? Please leave a comment and let me know. I’ll add them to my list.
True crime has been a vibrant American genre for decades, and within the past few years, it has given birth to a subgenre. Historical true crime books are up and coming.
Historical True Crime in the Publishing Industry
How do you measure the pulse of a new subgenre? One artery to feel is the publishing industry. Both Kent State University Press and the History Press in South Carolina now feature true crime history series. Sutton Publishing (United Kingdom) does as well. Sutton offers not only an English series, called Sutton True Crime History, but a German one, Historische Kriminalfälle, through its German subsidiary, the Suttonverlag.
If you’d like meet a couple of the authors with those publishing houses, here’s your chance! I previously introduced one of Sutton’s German authors, Corinna Müller, in an interview about a boy who was buried alive. I’ve also blogged about Kent State University Press author Richard Cahill and his book on the Lindbergh kidnapping.
There are a number of independently published historical true crime books, and two series are worthy of mention. Jason Scott Morrow founded Historical Crime Detective, through which he’s published three historical true crime books. I’ve read one of them and found it quite well written.
Richard O. Jones, a seasoned journalist who claims to have found evidence in the archives that one of his ancestors was a murderer, started a delightful series of regional historical true crime short stories called Two Dollar Terrors. Each costs two bucks and details an Ohio crime. Even if you’re not from Ohio, Jones’ stories are worth reading for his exquisite writing.
Historical True Crime Blogs
Blogs are another great place to press your two fingers and feel the genre’s pulse. My blog focuses on historical true crime in both the United States and Germany, with occasional splashes of Civil War stories and Mark Twain’s travel experiences in Germany. There are several other great historical true crime blogs you can check out. One of the most popular is Laura James’ CLEWS, with a draw-your-pistols old Western flavor. Her site has been dormant for several months, but Laura emailed me this week to say she had technical problems and his planning to kick the site back into the playing field.
Jason Scott Morrow also blogs about historical true crime at Historical Crime Detective. A great blog for 19th century murder in the United States is Robert Wilhelm’s Murder by Gaslight. It has a delicious Victorian flair. Wilhelm has also published books on historical true crime, one of which is currently waiting in my “to read” pile. The online Crime Magazine also offers a series on historical crime.
Crime vs. History
So why is the subgenre gaining popularity? Might it be the crossover into the history genre, which picks up additional readers? It’s quite possible that a reader who eschews true crime might read a historical true crime book due to an interest in the particular time period. And for some, true crime might be the fun-to-read packaging for a history lesson.
Another reason might be because the blood has long dried. The genre breathes the dust of the archives more than the scent of gunpowder. Historical true crime offers a softer alternative to the sometimes sensationalist, gory, modern true crime books. Readers might have more emotional distance because of the passage of time, giving them a different reading experience. The appeal of historical true crime might be something more than just emotional shock.
One highlight of any true crime book is sleuthing along with the detective while you’re reading. Historical investigations might be easier to understand than modern investigative techniques. Who can understand two expert witnesses arguing about the validity of the new generation of DNA tests, for instance? Historical, easy-to-follow criminal investigations might shift the book’s appeal to the intellectual puzzle of solving the crime with traditional techniques.
What do you think attracts readers to historical true crime?
Coming up next: my favorite historical true crime stories. Some might surprise you.Read More