Printer Friendly

Review Essay: The Lure of the sensational murder.

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York. By Patricia Cline Cohen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. vii plus 432 pp. Hardcover--$27.5O, paperbound--$14.00).

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. By Karen Halttunen (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 1998. xiv plus 322 pp. hardcover--$29.95, paperbound--$16.95).

Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven. By Virginia A. McConell (Connecticut & London: Praeger Publishers, 1999. xiv plus 260 pp. $26.95).

"Trial records are literal transcriptions, but people can only speak through the stories they understand."

-Robert Ferguson (1)

In the last decade, a new branch of scholarship has emerged in the expanding field of the history of American crime and criminality. This spate of new studies centers not upon crime trends, statistics, or policing, but upon a topic tangential to these mainstays of the social history of crime: particular acts of violence that so harrow their communities that they become sensations, attracting crowds to the courtroom and prompting publishers to expand newspaper coverage and to offer pamphlets and books on the subject. Such sensational murders, although regular occurrences in history, are nonetheless unusual events. Cases that elicit an outburst of public interest are by their nature out of the ordinary. Consequently, such cases will not reveal so much about what might be termed "normal" crime, the most common forms of crime that can be mapped with statistics and spoken of as trends. To readers interested primarily in these issues, this literature on sensational murders will seem a tangent to the real work of st udying the history of crime. (2)

But this peculiar nature of "sensational" crime can be very illuminating in another way, telling us a great deal about society and its broader concerns. More than other histories of crime, these studies of sensational murders interrogate the popular interest as much as they investigate the crimes themselves. In that sense, they are histories less of crime than of communities coming to terms with violence, telling stories about it, and finding rationales to explain and learn from it. Such histories have the potential to capture a wide audience with their lurid and engrossing stories of detection and violence. In the process, historians can use these strong story lines as an opening for broader efforts in American social history, recreating moments in the past from a new and fresh perspective.

This is the lure of the sensational murder. Its study offers at once to be scholarly, even at the cutting edge of social and cultural history, and to have mass appeal. A host of scholars publishing in the last decade have pursued this goal; much of their work has been of high caliber. This is a deceptively broad field, for involved in a single sensational murder case can be a number of potential themes of historical merit: mass culture, the press, law, policing, crime, race, class, and gender. In addition, the historians interrogating these cases have disparate goals, lured into the project by the wealth of rich and interesting materials collected in court documents, newspaper coverage, pamphlets, and on rarer occasions in private papers. Individual works therefore vary widely in emphasis and style, pushing different issues to the fore.

If quantification turned the field in a new direction a generation ago, now social and cultural historians are taking the many tools they have developed in recent years and turning them upon these sensationalized stories of murder. The number of high-quality studies on sensational crime in the 1990s has been remarkable, becoming something of a sub-field of the social history of crime. This new direction in the examination of crime can be thought of as comprising two divergent types of analyses: the case study and the evaluation of historical trends in sensationalism over time.

The sensational murder equivalent of the local--or case--study is the more engrossing of the two varieties of scholarship, recreating the world of meaning illuminated by a single violent crime. Virginia McConnell and Patricia Cline Cohen have crafted two interesting--but very different--case studies of nineteenth-century murders. In fact, the two stand at opposite poles in style and context: McConnell's book is a historical version of the popular true crime genre, while Cohen's monograph is among the most thoroughly contextualized social histories recently published. Between them, the two reveal both the promise and perils of writing case studies of historical murders.

Virginia McConnell has crafted a flowing, breezy narrative of two New Haven murders between 1878 and 1882 in her Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven. She has chosen cases that parallel each other in interesting ways, both involving the death of a young woman as well as evidence of arsenic poisoning. Like the best examples of murder case studies, McConnell succeeds in bringing the atmosphere of the times to life. A lawyer, English professor, and true crime buff, she writes with strength, and she has found wonderful material to work with. Her hope is to become "the Ann Rule of Victorian true crime and she might succeed in that endeavor. From beginning to end, this has the markings of a worthy addition to the true crime genre: it is evocative, detailed, tightly-focused, and lively. But if engaging, Arsenic Under the Elms also demonstrates the potential weaknesses of the case study. It is neither a scholarly work of history, nor does it have a clearly articulated and historically-relevant theme. (3)

Arsenic Under the Elms opens with a recreation of the final days of Mary Stannard in 1878. Mary was from a poor family and had an illegitimate son. She believed, wrongly, that she was again pregnant, this time by a local minister, the Rev. Herbert Hayden. She planned to confront Hayden and demand money for an abortion, but the historical record is unclear about whether this confrontation took place. In early September, 1878, her body was found in the woods near her home; she had been poisoned and her throat cut. In McConnell's second case, Jennie Cramer, "the belle of New Haven," was found by a local fisherman floating near the shore in 1882. She knew many young men, but she was recently a regular in the circle of James and Walter Malley, nephew and son of the wealthy owner of New Haven's largest department store. After a confrontation with her mother about staying overnight with the Malley boys, Jennie left home and was not seen alive again. She had apparently been raped, and she, like Mary Stannard, had ars enic in her system. McConnell's treatment of each of these cases--which she discusses in succession--centers upon the trials: first the coroner's inquest, then the preliminary case before the justice court, and finally the "real" trial before a jury. Despite evidence connecting each of the defendants to their respective victims, the accused in both trials went free. Hayden's trial ended with a hung jury, and the Malley boys were acquitted.

As an effort to recreate these events, Arsenic Under the Elms is quite successful. It is readable, lively, and without tangents that distract from the action of the narrative. McConnell regularly succeeds in evoking the historical moment, giving the reader a feel for what it would be like to sit in each courtroom. The strength of the work--and a strength of this style of case study overall--is the effective use of the narrative drama of the trial. She is generally a strong writer, enough so that an occasional editorial lapse jars the reader. Arsenic Under the Elms is, in fact, full of interesting moments, characters, and incidents told in an engaging style.

As a work of history, however, this volume has several failings, the chief of which is a dramatic lack of context and argument. Murder certainly can "provide us with a mirror of an era," as the preface posits, but an author has a good deal of leeway in choosing what to reflect. Arsenic Under the Elms provides a narrow reflection upon the particular cases under consideration; historians would like to see the broader vista of the era's important themes. These are rich cases, and McConnell could realize their potential by situating them more firmly within the context of other murders in the period. Unfortunately, she merely gestures to the fact that the Malley trial "shar[ed] space in the news" with the trial against Charles Guiteau for assassinating President James Garfield. (189) And that captures the extent of the contextualization here: rare and isolated paragraphs that appear almost as non sequiturs to the overriding concern with the more narrow action within the courtroom. Similarly, McConnell might have s ituated her cases within a broader thematic context. In fact, she seems to toy with the idea of using her two New Haven cases to unravel the quickly changing nature of forensics in this era, a theme worth pursuing. But she retreats from this sort of context as well, merely describing the forensic problems in the cases and inserting anachronistic asides about how modern forensic science might resolve them.

A tight focus upon a single case need not preclude the possibility of relevance to the broader interests of the historical community. Gerald W. McFarland, in The "Counterfeit" Man: The True Story of the Boorn-Colvin Murder Case (1990), succeeds in using an earlier New England murder story as a means to pry open the divisions and tensions in the local community. This is an investigation of mistaken identities, a sort of American version of the famed Martin Guerre case. This murder story provided McFarland with a range of issues to explore: how town politics, religious differences, and personal rivalries collided in this story, for instance, and how the narratives of the case changed radically over time, becoming more sensational in retrospect. In this way, he connects the murder story to more enduring themes--the broader social and cultural shifts in modernizing America. In a similar manner, Charles Rosenberg, in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age (1968), used a famous tria l as a means of explicating the broader theme of the changing place of psychiatry in American life and the law. Like McConnell's work, these were lively, gripping stories founded upon a set of particular circumstances, but they also provided more historically nutritious fare to sustain the reader.

If Arsenic Under the Elms lacks historical context and argument, it could also use a more critical evaluation of its sources. McConnell leans almost exclusively upon newspaper accounts and pamphlets of the cases in question, the sources that provide a foundation for any study of sensational crime in the 19th century. But they are also sources requiring careful interpretation, particularly important given the fact that McConnell is attempting to communicate not merely what happened in the crimes considered, but also the "thoughts, motives, and actions of the people involved," "based on my own analysis of what I determined to be most probable" and by reading "between the lines and mak[ing] a decision as to what was most likely to have been said." (xiv). This sort of recreation begins on the first page with an extended vignette complete with Mary Stannard's interior thoughts as well as fictive conversations. This is gripping, but also disturbing. How is the historian to know when McConnell has reached the end of the historical record and is beginning to embroider? For a writer, this is not problematic; for a historian, it is quite troubling, particularly when McConnell is engaging in this creative writing not as a self-conscious experiment to play with historians' perceptions of the past (as in Simon Schama's Dead Certainties), but simply to make her story more alive and personal. (4) Even without her additions, McConnell seems indifferent to the fact that newspaper editors and authors of pamphlets were active participants in creating the sensational atmosphere of the murder trials. In other words, these newspaper accounts are not merely objective reports, but rather documents that require careful readings. Yet in her focus upon "the story" of the murder and trial, McConnell leaves her sources almost invisible to the reader. The book includes notes and a selected bibliography (which, importantly, does not feature any of the recent historical works on nineteenth-century murder), but she rarely reflects upon the prove nance of the information she is transmitting. It is not that McConnell appears to make illogical assumptions about the evidence she weighs, but we must depend upon her to have made the most reasonable assessment of the sources, and we never get an insight into her rationale.

Ultimately, McConnell is interested in "whodunit?" in her two cases. In this, she is more like a contemporary journalist than an historian, even as the book acts out the peril facing any local or case study--that the results will appear only narrowly relevant, of antiquarian rather than historical interest. Historians, less interested in the outcome of a particular case than in what these sources tell us about American society at the time, will find McConnell's tight focus upon her trials frustrating even as they continue to be drawn along by the book's narrative charm.

A more rewarding and challenging read is Patricia Cline Cohen's The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth Century New York (1998). This exhaustive and fascinating book fulfills the potential of this genre of sensational murder case study. Like Arsenic Under the Elms, it is full of narrative drama, but it also provides a dense context making it much more relevant to the overall study of antebellum America.

Helen Jewett was born Dorcas Doyen in Augusta, Maine, in 1813. She was "ruined" at an early age and left town to live a fast life in Portland and Boston before settling in New York City in 1831, at the age of 18. Jewett spent the next five years as a prostitute working in a number of brothels in the rapidly-expanding city. Like many prostitutes in the era, Jewett had a number of clients, but her position could at times bleed over into a more committed relationship as a sort of kept mistress. She had a long-term relationship with one clerk in particular, Richard Robinson, between June, 1835, and her death in the Spring of 1836. Her lifestyle was surprisingly domestic. In extant letters, Jewett and her clients downplay the economic/sexual exchange involved in their relationship in favor of the language of romance and mutual affection. She even sewed and mended the clothes of some men, playing the role of devoted girlfriend.

On 10 April 1836, Helen Jewett's body was discovered in her bed, which was itself smoldering but not quite aflame. She had been killed by a hatchet blow to the head. Several convincing clues pointed to Robinson--a cloak and hatchet found nearby, for instance, could be traced to him (although his defense team hotly debated the contention), as well as the fact that he had been seen going into her room that evening (also disputed). Robinson was put on trial for the murder and the jury acquitted him, much to the applause of other young men in the city. The defense succeeded in putting the brothel on trial and discrediting much of the testimony against Robinson, in essence asking the jury to choose between the word of a clerk and that of prostitutes. For its part, the prosecution was singularly unimpressive, missing many opportunities to score points against Robinson.

Like McConnell, Patricia Cline Cohen uses the narrative tension the detective story offers, moving from the discovery of the body to a history of Dorcas Doyen, to the newspaper coverage and finally to the trial and the story's culmination. If Cohen's structure is chronological, it is loosely so, allowing the author to expand upon a number of relevant sides of the case. The book, therefore, is about much more than the murder of a prostitute-it achieves a recreation not of a single trial, but of the world inhabited by Helen Jewett in 1830s New York City. The richness of this recreation makes this study remarkable.

Along the way from murder to acquittal, Cohen connects this story to the many interrelated social and cultural currents that wash through Jewett's world. Jewett was a part of the massive rural migration into New York in this period of the city's fastest growth, and Cohen places her experience in this context of changing rural and urban realities. The murder occurred just at the moment when the penny press was born, and their coverage was unlike anything that came before. Cohen also explores the norms of the sex trade in New York, creating in the process a fascinating counter-narrative to the Cult of True Womanhood: a woman of spunk" in charge of her own destiny and yet deploying the sentimental ideals of the day in her favor. The strong male subculture in the city provides yet another facet to this study and perhaps the only one that I wished were pursued still more thoroughly. Finally this era of romanticism saw the strong cultural trend toward the sentimental, as much in tales of true crime as in fiction. I n fact, Jewett tapped into this genre when she wove stories for her clients explaining her own fall from innocence to prostitution. Even her name speaks of this bent toward romance--"Helen" is from "Helen Mar" (another name she used for herself), who was the heroine in a popular romance of the day. Each of these themes in the social and cultural history of antebellum America is held together by the concrete circumstances of Jewett's life and death.

This is the most successful historical treatment of a sensational murder case study produced thus far, and it is one of the most striking books I have recently read in any field. The research base for this project is impressive: not only court documents, newspaper stories, and census records for the actors in this drama, but also a host of letters involving the case, documents from Jewett's home in Augusta, Maine, as well as a record of the victim's earlier court appearances and even an interview with Jewett published a few years before her murder. Cohen interprets this array of data with subtlety and patience, weaving it into a tapestry with far more detail than I would have thought possible for the life of an antebellum prostitute who died at the age of 22. In its thorough research, depth of context, and nuanced recreation of Helen Jewett's life, Cohen's book recalls Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale.

The detail in The Murder of Helen Jewett is remarkable enough to both entrance and burden the reader. It ties together every conceivable source now available to the social historian, and all in an intimate portrait that brings New York City alive. Yet, the book would be more digestible if limned. This is by far the longest work under consideration here (430 dense pages), and at times the detail seems overwhelming, threatening to distract the reader from the story's more substantial meaning to the history of the period. For example, a chapter on the love letters exchanged between Robinson and Jewett is a fascinating look into their private life, but Cohen presents a massive amount of information here, including chunks of raw primary material. A bit more selectivity in this chapter-and in passages throughout the book--might have strengthened the study by making it more approachable. The density of the minutiae here might scare off the impatient in her audience who will then miss the book's many gems.

At every stage, Cohen makes sensible assumptions about the sources she uses, and she carefully explains them to the reader. Readers might at first doubt the dependability of Jewett's letters that emerged years after the crime, but Cohen shows how she cautiously came to the conclusion that they were genuine. When she introduces the questionable publication of Robinson's diary, she gives more than a page of arguments evaluating whether we should consider it authentic (282-283). Similarly, she evaluates various plausible candidates for Helen's first sexual partner in a notably even-handed manner (180-202). Perhaps more arguable (but fascinating) is her contention that Helen Jewett herself provided the origins of the romantic tales of her fall from grace. It seems just as credible that the men writing about her after her death desired (and created) a sentimental tale for their ravenous readers. These examples show just the sort of reflection and critical interpretation that McConnell's study lacks.

But why should we care about this one murder in antebellum New York? Cohen does a marvelous job of leading the reader through so many facets of city life, but it remains unclear just what contribution this vision of the antebellum experience yields to the broader study of the era. Choosing not to include a preface, introduction, or conclusion (or anything that acts like one), Cohen has crafted a portrait of Jewett's world rather than a treatise. It is so rich a portrait that Cohen avoids the pitfall of antiquarianism that snared McConnell's study of New Haven murders. More than that, The Murder of Helen Jewett yields an entirely fresh perspective on a range of issues important to our understanding of antebellum America. Still, many readers will long for a more overt assessment of the place of this material in the wider story of antebellum urban life. By writing this as a rich narrative rather than an analysis, Cohen leaves to the reader the job of summing up precisely what it teaches us that we did not know b efore.

One measure of the health of this growing sub-field of sensational murders is that Cohen's book is the second published in the 1990s on a famous death of a young woman in antebellum New York. The Murder of Helen Jewett parallels--and in some ways eclipses--another fine study: Amy Oilman Srebnick's The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (1995). Both books cover much of the same terrain: a modernizing New York City, the place of young women in this city, the rediscovery of the victims' real histories, and an evaluation of the treatment afforded the cases. Srebnick's is more of a cultural history than Cohen's--narratives are at least as prominently here as the life and death of Rogers herself--and it is a worthy study, investing the story with the sort of forceful argument that Cohen's study downplayed.

The events surrounding the death of Mary Cecilia Rogers can be quickly outlined. In July, 1841, her body was found in the Hudson River, bruised and waterlogged. A working-class girl, Rogers was well known in the city as a "Cigar Girl" at a popular tobacconist. The cause of her death was never determined, and no one was ever brought to trial. A range of explanations emerged (suicide? rape and murder?), but most believed that complications from an abortion killed her. The case was widely perceived as evidence of the growing problem of vice in the city.

At one third the size, Srebnick's book is far more manageable than Patricia Cohen's, and it has a number of strengths. If less thoroughly contextualized than The Murder of Helen Jewett, Srebnick's book is clearly centered upon an important historical theme: the crisis of gender roles bound up in swiftly-modernizing New York City. At times Srebnick is thoroughly convincing, brilliantly pulling together her evidence and argument--which is the most clearly articulated argument of any of these recent case studies--to demonstrate how the case was no less than a symbol of modernization and its social strains in the city. When Srebnick writes that "Mary's fate told what could happen to women who were sexual and whose sexuality and relative 'freedom' allowed them to live outside the protected domestic sphere," (51) she has successfully prepared the reader to see how this death, and therefore this book, are significant to the overall story of American history in the era.

Srebnick's study, however, is not consistently convincing. In places repetitive, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers loses the narrative tension of the story by summarizing the developments of the case at the beginning, a fault only partly redeemed by her forceful argument. She also digresses occasionally into secondary issues. Why, for instance, should we care about the pages of genealogy tentatively connecting Mary Rogers to the prominent New England Mather family (34-5, 37-43, 108)? Srebnick frames this find as a reconstruction of Rogers' heritage, but it comes across as a tangent. A more significant context she might have explored was a comparison between this sensationalized case and the many other cases from this era which received similar treatment. Were they each symbolic of the sorts of changes in modern America that she finds in the Rogers case?

More troubling, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers has a fundamental disjuncture that Srebnick never quite bridges. Most of the early chapters (the strongest section of the book) concern Mary's death and the context of the city: gender in antebellum urban America, police reform, abortion, and the penny press. But the second half of this book is a discussion of the narratives that framed this death, a substantially different subject in which Mary appears merely as a symbol put into play by various authors and editors. Srebnick is most successful with this study of discourse when discussing the penny press and how editors used Mary to personify the perceived dangers of the city. Once she turns to Edgar Allen Poe and other authors that come along after him, she loses her connection to the rich social history she developed earlier. These stories crafted from the Rogers tragedy are best understood not in the context Srebnick develops -- of Mary's death and the modernization of urban America--but rather within the framework of the literary history of antebellum America and its sentimental ideals.

Both Srebnick's and Cohen's case studies are compelling and useful, and both place their cases in telling contexts, reflecting upon urban life, gender anxieties, and the changing nature of print culture in America. In perspective, they overlap to a considerable degree, building in the process a strong foundation for understanding sensationalized murders -- particularly the deaths of women -- in the antebellum period. Some readers will prefer Srebnick's Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers for being concise and clear in its argument. But most will find more compelling the textured vision of New York city created in The Murder of Helen Jewett.

Overall, this style of studying sensational murder stories through a case study has a number of advantages. It is a gripping read, succeeding in bringing the past to life. The particulars rope the reader in, and the tension of the courtroom drama propels the story forward. Cohen and McConnell both effectively leave the reader in suspense, slowly unraveling the story of the crimes and trials over the course of their narratives. The case study can so readily yield a sumptuous vision of a moment in the past, serving as a means to fulfill one of the promises of social history, the inclusion of marginalized stories and historical figures. This sort of case study also has a pitfall -- which Cohen and Srebnick avoid and McConnell does not -- of tending toward a narrow and static view, focusing as it does upon a single locality at a particular moment. The most meaningful case study, particularly evident in The Murder of Helen Jewett, is one that develops a rich and meaningful context and interpretive framework connec ting the particular case to the broader developments of its era.

If a case study can bring a moment to life, it cannot effectively explain change over time. Any attempt to situate a single murder in a changing context will, by necessity, feel forced or it will lean upon others' work, capturing the trends as a context for the murder, but not necessarily adding much to the study of those trends. Most case studies at least gesture to the fact they study reflect an important moment of transition, usually in the development of modernity (which, of course, can be found in any decade of the last two centuries if you look closely enough). Srebnick's study of Mary Rogers, for example, is a "chronicle of the modernization of urban antebellum culture." (xv) But the effective study of change over time demands a longer view than a single historical moment can provide. The Helen Jewett case was nothing like a murder sensation in the early 1700s, nor would it unfold like one in the 1910s. The study of change over time in sensationalism demands a different style than the case study.

A number of historians have used sensational crime to focus upon just such historical change. Instead of a close evaluation of one murder, they analyze a broader theme or themes in the study of sensation and violent crime. In theory, this perspective would be of more general use to other historians by providing a broad framework for understanding sensational cases and their place in American culture and society.

In Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998), Karen Halttunen offers this sort of sweeping perspective. It is a readable, well articulated, and worthy study of how the "dominant narrative expressing and shaping the popular response to the crime of murder underwent a major transformation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century." (2) Along with Daniel Cohen's Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (1990), Murder Most Foul will serve as the starting point for our understanding of the long-term historical trends in this literature.

Halttunen begins with a chapter on Puritan execution sermons, narratives evaluating murder in sacred communal context. To early Puritans, murderers were not the "moral aliens" that they would later become, but were perceived as object lessons for a community that was itself constantly wrestling with sin. The rest of the book explores the new variety of murder stories in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. In this era, a new frame emerged for stories of murder which Halttunen labels the gothic imagination. Each chapter of the books take a slightly different angle on this development. "The Pornography of Violence" discusses how much more explicit and lurid the tales of murder became; by 1800, pamphlets were filled with intimate details of the crime and crime scene. If this literature witnessed the birth of horror as a genre, it also saw the emergence of tales of mystery. For the first time, murder stories emphasized detection, evidence, and a slowly unfolding story of revelation, mixed with a ne ar obsession with what remained unknown. This expressed itself in a growing number of trial narratives. The last three chapters define particular categories of this new literature of gothic horror: domestic murder, sexual murder, and the murderer as moral alien.

Murder Most Foul is best understood as a work of intellectual history, centered as it is on the changing ways Americans thought about murder and murderers. Indeed, murders are not the subject of study here. It is the narratives of murder that interest Halttunen, and her source material is a huge collection of crime pamphlets published before 1860. She sets this change within the context of a wider intellectual shift from Puritan piety to the Enlightenment's faith in progress and the inherent goodness of man. Halttunen contends that this transition made deviant, murderous behavior incomprehensible. Hence the heightened response of horror in the nineteenth century--the murderer can no longer be considered a sinner like us, he is now a moral alien outside the bounds of rationality itself. How do we respond? With anxiety, horror, and fascination.

This study has two important strengths. First is this sweeping and imaginative cognitive structure: out of lurid tales of murder, Halrtunen crafts a deft argument for the changing orientation of the American mind. In the broadest sense, this is a translation of familiar historical themes--modernization, secularization, the shift from "Puritan to Yankee"--into the arcane arena of murder pamphlets. But Halttunen does much more here, piecing together trends in this literature to explore the problem of evil and how Americans have framed that problem differently over time.

A second strength is the scope of material considered here. Halttunen has apparently taken McDade's Annals of Murder--an aging but encyclopedic compendium of early American murder narratives--and evaluated at least a healthy proportion of its entries. Each chapter is full of references to numerous pamphlets, many of which have not received much scholarly attention. Far from a case study, Murder Most Foul enjoys a broad foundation of source material.

But is the construction of this sort of intellectual history, even when supported by such a vast array of sources, the best way to explain these changes in murder narratives? Murder Most Foul offers an expansive perspective, but it does not emphasize the most obvious explanation for the cultural transition under consideration. Social historians will wonder why other sweeping changes in American life--the reading revolution, changes in printing technology and in who controlled print media, the rise of romantic popular literature and the novel, the development of urban population centers as audiences for these stories, the emergence of the penny press, and changes in the American family and courtship--are displaced in favor of an intellectual construct like the "gothic imagination." To her credit, Halttunen ignores none of these other trends--in fact, they appear as strong sub-themes in many chapters--but they remain secondary in her study. What deserves top billing is, of course, arguable. But many will find h er study thought-provoking, even convincing, and still decide that the "real" explanation for this transition in narratives of murder in the period lies outside the orbit of intellectual history.

Aside from these alternative explanations for her findings, another problem with this study is how Halttunen imposes a structure upon the disparate ephemera of murder that survive from the era before the Civil War. In fact, a large portion of this book can be described as a taxonomy of murder pamphlets: chapters as phyla (murder as moral alien, for example, or domestic murder stories) and various chapter subsections differentiating the genera within these larger groupings. She has chosen these categories well, yet any such effort at classification will raise questions. One question would be: What about class? A number of murder stories in the nineteenth century present aristocratic predators feeding off the innocent youth of the working class, for instance. (5) That is not a story here, and it is hard to evaluate why this theme is not addressed.

It is hard to evaluate, because the reader has difficulty discerning with clarity the strength of evidence this classification scheme is based upon, despite the fact that Halttunen's notes are overflowing with a rich array of individual cases. This is a vital question, for, as anyone who has read these pamphlets knows, each particular murder story was unique, and many sensationalized cases were quite peculiar. Precisely how Halttunen evaluates trends in this tremendous range of material is the linchpin of her argument about the nature of this developing gothic imagination. Halttunen has wonderful examples of the categories that she deftly deploys, and she has evaluated a host of pamphlets. But she tends to state rather than argue that these categories were either new or that they were broadly representative. A purely quantitative analysis would be quite out of place in this study, but more passages like the one evaluating the growing preponderance of trial-centered narratives would be welcome. Trial narrative s, she says, accounted for only 15% of murder pamphlets before 1790, rising to 66% in the antebellum period (95). Similar passages outlining the relevance of other themes and developments in this literature would provide the reader with a clearer understanding of the significance of the several hundred individual cases she describes so very well.

For example, the pamphlet detailing Michael McGarvey's murder of his wife by whipping fits neatly into her idea of a crime of domesticity. I am equally impressed by the number of like cases in the notes for this section of the chapter on the brutality of wife murderers: 17 pamphlets supporting eight pages of text. (160-68) But what precisely does that tell us? Are these the only ones she has found supporting this theme? Are there fifty more? Our of the 400, let us say, that she looked at published between 1800 and 1860 (what was the number of pamphlets she evaluated?), does this theme relate to a few or to most? How different is that from the 100 (again, how many?) that she saw predating 1800? Halttunen makes the plausible argument that "sexual narratives of murder grew in popularity after 1820," (176) but how is this measured?

Despite these shortcomings, Murder Most Foul is a rich addition to the literature. It clearly offers a much more convincing explanation for the transformation of crime genres in the nineteenth century than David Ray Papke's sweeping but uneven Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the Loss of Critical Perspective, 1830-1900 (1988). Murder Most Foul would serve as the theoretical vision for this literature before 1860 if that position were not already occupied by a formidable volume. As it stands, it will share that position with another capable, but quite different, overview of the changes in the American literature of crime before the Civil War: Daniel Cohen's Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (1990).

Pillars of Salt covers precisely the same era as Murder Most Foul, and the two share much in regard to themes and conclusions. Like Halttunen, Daniel Cohen carefully develops an evaluation of changes in crime genres over the course of two centuries. He is less interested in an overarching intellectual framework for this transition than he is in connecting the changes in murder stories to wider social trends. Pillars of Salt concentrates on the "emergence of a new configuration of crime publications", which became "legalized and romanticized, reflecting two of the dominant cultural currents in antebellum America." (251) He pursues this theme in four carefully argued sections that show how the early literature of execution sermons changed over time and then was gradually displaced by more legal, sentimental, and secular tales of crime in the 19th century. Less sweeping in his source material than Halttunen, Cohen focuses his argument upon a number of individual cases over time (with support from many others) an d effectively develops them into case studies embodying his wider points.

If Halttunen's volume is a work of intellectual history, Daniel Cohen's is at the frontier between social and cultural history. He, too, is very concerned with these narratives, the stories of crime and disorder and what they tell us. But he sets them not within a grand cognitive framework, but rather the more mundane and proximate field of changing social, cultural, and material realities of the era. As in Halttunen's study, Pillars of Salt wrestles with the changes over time in the public perceptions of murderers. But secondary themes in Murder Most Foul are fundamental for Daniel Cohen: who controlled the presses, how widespread was the distribution network for them, what other print genres were they in competition with, and how did legal and literary developments affect these stories? This congeries of topics enhances his story of the development of early American crime literature.

This rich context has the side effect of blurring and complicating Daniel Cohen's overall thrust, however, something not helped by occasional redundancy. Cohen not only covers the sweep of his argument in the body of the text, but he begins with an overview and ends with a conclusion, both of which also reiterate this trajectory. This redundancy (which is replicated in minor ways in passages throughout) makes reading the volume a bit more burdensome than necessary, despite his flowing prose. Perhaps Cohen included such a varied set of contexts that he found it impossible to boil them down into a smooth and simple argument. Reiterating this complexity in an overview and conclusion was therefore, I imagine, the only way he could find to sum up this story. In fact, the reality of this transition was complex, tied into all of these themes in the development of antebellum America. In that sense, Daniel Cohen's intricate study simply reflects that reality. But Pillars of Salt is at times more descriptive than analy tical, and many readers will wish he had pulled his findings together into a more coherent statement about how this changes the way we should think about America before the Civil War.

Daniel Cohen and Karen Halttunen provide us with fresh perspectives on the literature of antebellum murder. Both of their works are successful and convincing in their own ways, and they are thoroughly researched and carefully argued. They are also quite different in style, strengths, and focus. Murder Most Foul is imaginative and thought-provoking, even if it can feel so sweeping as to appear more akin to a historical essay. Most social historians will feel more confident in Daniel Cohen's method. Halttunen is convincing that there was a change in the American mind related to the transformation in narratives of murder, but this change is nevertheless best explained by a host of social and cultural changes in America investigated more thoroughly in Pillars of Salt.

Overall, this growing historical literature on sensational crime is rich and promising, if also checkered by the problem that the subject matter is so thoroughly peculiar. Each study concerns, after all, unusual moments of public passion provoked by a unique crime. Whether in a case study or a longitudinal study of the genre over time, scholars are probing a weird side of American social and cultural history. The greatest challenge facing anyone working in these materials is in making the study relevant to the broader discipline. Patricia Cline Cohen, Amy Oilman Srebnick, Karen Halttunen, and Daniel Cohen each rise to this challenge, if unevenly. Each of these studies is also very readable and well researched.

But this developing scholarship on sensational crime is not without its blind spots. The focus of both Daniel Cohen and Karen Halttunen upon a declension from Puritan execution sermons raises the question of whether this history of sensationalism that they both develop is American or is it merely New England's experience? Virtually all of the recent scholarship on sensational murder betrays a bias to the northeast by focusing upon New York City (Patricia Cohen, Srebnick) and/or New England (McFarland, Schama, McConnell, Daniel Cohen). The only study even purporting to be a national story is Murder Most Foul, and Halttunen begins both the book as a whole and each chapter with the Puritan roots of crime literature. Is this Puritan heritage really the national story for sensational murder cases? Certainly, Puritanism is not the heritage for the majority of the nation, even if Boston, then the middle Atlantic cities of Philadelphia and New York were the centers for publishing. Since these are histories of sensati onal crime, not publishing, and sensational crimes occurred throughout the nation, this raises the question of whether this story of sensational crime literature would be different if set in another region. This seems to be a case of our rich New England sources skewing us toward the Puritan declension when the history of sensational crimes in America overall is not so clearly dominated by that transition.

It is not inconsequential that so many of the historians drawn to the study of sensational crime are women, (6) nor that so many of the cases that American society has sensationalized were either murders of or by women. As Edgar Allen Poe noted, "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world," (7) and, we might add, one of the most sentimentalized and sensationalized topics in the history of American culture. In these sensational cases, social historians have found a new cache of rich source material for the study of people who left few other records. Women's historians have been among the most thorough exploiters of this resource to date. In the process, these studies have unearthed a vivid portrait of roles women have been made to play--particularly the innocent victim and the siren-predator--in the stories of sensational crime over time.

The sources mined in these studies could be just as useful for the study of other groups of Americans. Sensationalized African-American crimes could take the field in still another direction. Several recent articles on the sensationalism of lynching and race riots move in that direction,8 and Suzanne Lebsock is at work on a fascinating trial of African-American women in 1890s Virginia. And what of men? As much as these sensational stories speak to women's history, they also describe episodes in the history of American masculinity. Patricia Cohen, Karen Haittunen, and Daniel Cohen demonstrate an understanding that as much as these are crimes which illuminate women's roles, they are stories of men and masculinity as well. Further study should illuminate the ways that sensational crimes define masculinity, perhaps some inspired by Angus MacLaren's Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (1997). (9) This sweeping cross-cultural look at masculinity and deviancy is thought provoking, if also mo re of a discourse analysis than many social historians would prefer.

In fact, much of the work on sensational murders has been inspired at least in part by the development of discourse analysis and its close reading of meaning in documents. Sensational crimes are, after all, largely events of storytelling, both in the courtroom and outside of it. Most of the studies under consideration here evaluate the narratives constructed about these cases, but the best example yet of the potential for discourse analysis in crime stories can be found in Robert Ferguson's evaluation of the trial of John Brown. (10) In this piece, Ferguson argues that the trial was almost irrelevant in legal sense--the verdict was a foregone conclusion--but became meaningful because of the competing ideas of what the trial, and John Brown himself, stood for. According to Ferguson, Brown turned himself into an American romantic hero, making his trial about the American character as much as about slavery and fomenting rebellion. Anyone disenchanted with the methods of discourse analysis would be well advised t o read this article before giving up on cultural studies altogether. Other scholars might use it as a model for their own close readings of sensational cases.

The books under consideration here take different perspectives upon nineteenth-century murder stories, which many scholars connect to wider transitions in American culture in the era. Yet American culture has continued to grow and change. By the 1920s, the average newspaper had grown to ten times its antebellum size. Moreover, the nature of newspapers had changed--full of half-tones and features, and covering these sensational stories more than ever before. Many of the studies under consideration here imply that modern sensationalism sprang into being in the antebellum period: the epilogues of both Karen Haltrunen and Amy Oilman Srebnick draw direct parallels between the mid-nineteenth century and contemporary sensational murder stories, for instance. But American sensationalism continued to evolve throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving us much more to investigate. Like the best scholarship, these books on sensationalism pose a host of engaging questions, and they leave many of them for us to answer.

Michael Ayers Trotti, "Review Essay: The Lure of the Sensational Murder"

In the last decade, a new stream of scholarship has emerged in the history of American crime and criminality: the study of sensationalized murder stories. This review of the recent literature focuses upon three particular books--Patricia Cline Cohen's The Murder of Helen Jewett, Karen Halttunen's Murder Most Foul, and Virginia McConnell's Arsenic Under the Elms--while considering a number of other works published in the last decade. The reviewer argues that this is a deceptively broad field, and that each work has strengths and weaknesses. Cases studies like Cohen's Murder of Helen Jewett are riveting, creating a rich and nuanced portrait of a historical moment. But they cannot so easily explore important changes in culture and society over time. Broader works center upon significant transitions in American life, but emphasize varying sides of those transitions. Halttunen's Murder Most Foul emphasizes changes in the American mind in regard to crime stories, for instance, whereas Daniel Cohen's Pillars of Salt is centered more upon social and cultural change. Altogether this is a rich and rewarding new vein of scholarship in the history of American crime and culture.

ENDNOTES

(1.) "Story and Transcription in the Trial of John Brown" Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 6 (1994): 73.

(2.) Here I am reminded of a critical review of Louis Masur's cultural history of capital punishment, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (New York, 1989). In this review, Eric Monkkonen discredited Masur's cultural method, making instead a strong case for the book Monkkonen wished Masur had written: a social history founded upon capital punishment statistics and trends. Similarly, many readers might find the books under consideration here simply are not asking or answering the sorts of questions about criminality and society that they are interested in pursuing. ("Executions and American Culture: A Scaffolding for Analysis?" Reviews in American History 18 [1990]: 208-12)

(3.) The dissertation proposal of a colleague of mine in graduate school was criticized by a senior faculty member: it was well written, but "this isn't history." He left the program, and subsequently won the American Studies Association's award for the year's best dissertation in American Studies! This criticism of not being a historian, then, must be kept in perspective: there are other legitimate ways to mine the past outside of the strictures of our discipline.

(4.) Simon Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (New York, 1991).

(5.) In fact, the "classed" nature of crime stories in the nineteenth century is the basis of David Ray Papke's Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the Loss of Critical Perspective, 1830-1900 (Hamden, CT, 1987).

(6.) And many more women are in this field: Suzanne Lebsock is at work on a crime in Virginia in the 1890s, Judith Walkowitz wrote a path-breaking study of women and violent crime in Victorian England (City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London [Chicago, 1992]), Andie Tucher wrote a history of the early penny press in New York City largely through their response to several stories of crime (Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium [Chapel Hill, 1994]), Laura Edwards has written on antebellum Southern violence in the family circle ("Law, Domestic Violence, and the Limits of Patriarchal Authority in the Antebellum South" Journal of Southern History LXV [1999]: 733-770) among many others.

(7.) "The Philosophy of Composition" in The Raven, with the Philosophy of Composition (Boston, 1986), n. p.

(8.) See, for instance, Ann Field Alexander, "'Like an Evil Wind': The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith" Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 173-206; Jane Dailey, "Deference and Violence in the Postbellum Urban South: Manners and Massacres in Danville, Virginia" Journal of Southern History 63 (1997): 553-90.

(9.) For Donald Meyer's review, see the Journal of Social History (Spring 2000): 688-690.

(10.) "Story and Transcription in the Trial of John Brown" Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 6 (1994): 37-73.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Trotti, Michael Ayers
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:8575
Previous Article:Battle time: Gender, modernity, and confederate hospitals.
Next Article:Dust: A History of the small and the invisible. (Reviews).
Topics:


Related Articles
The Privileged Eye.
Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860.
Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation.
Murder in our Midst: the Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation.
Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors.
Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Casebook.
A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters