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.