A well written disappointment

in cold blood

 

I have been a huge true crime fan since I first read Helter Skelter at 16 years old. I listen to the My Favorite Murder Podcast religiously. But somehow in over 20 years, I haven’t managed to read this book, which is a classic in the True Crime genre. I finally picked it up in a birthday book buying frenzy in May and read it shortly after. Objectively, I recognize Capote’s contribution to literature and that it is the first of what’s often referred to as the “non-fiction novel.” However I did not like this book nearly as much as I thought I would.

The story itself is compelling enough. On the night of November 15th 1959, Herbert Clutter, a prosperous Kansas farmer was murdered in his home along with three members of his family: His wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. The family was extremely well liked and had almost no enemies. The town was shaken and on edge after the killings. The perpetrators, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith had never met the Clutters before the night they died. A former cellmate of Hickock’s had spoken of Mr. Clutters prosperity and mentioned a safe containing as much as $10,000 in his office. After six weeks, the murders were apprehended, tried and eventually executed. It’s the writing that I sometimes found to be troublesome. Capote quotes uses huge blocks of text from the killers to do some of the writing in the last half of the book. While their past is certainly compelling, Capote almost seems too sympathetic at times to these men who committed such heartless acts. I’m glad I read the book, but I can’t see re-reading it.

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This is the House. Come on in.

DEATH IN CITY OF LIGHT

 

My actual review is somewhere between a 3 and a 4 but I tend to round up for a generally well written book. The story of Dr. Marcel Petiot and his victims was likely overshadowed in the world at large by the end of the Second World War and the ensuing Nuremberg Trials but in Paris it was a media sensation and his trial had almost a carnival-like atmosphere to it.

During the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Dr. Petiot lured in those vulnerable to Nazi persecution with promises of passage out of the occupied territories and into relative safety. Many of his victims were unsavory underworld sorts whom Petiot were later claimed were collaborators (his defense in court was to claim he was working for the French Resistance) but others were simply frightened Jewish families. Though there is no doubt that Dr. Petiot killed at least 27 and as many as 100 persons, there are still many unanswered questions regarding his case. King’s book does its best to separate documented facts from rumors which flew freely during this time period.

King’s book paints a vivid picture of Paris during the Nazi occupation and it’s aftermath. The atmosphere of fear and suspicion allowed a serial killer to murder with impunity and to come very close to getting away with all of it.

I still haven’t found What I’m Looking For

who killed these girls

 

This is an extremely frustrating book to read. This is not because it’s not a well researched and compellingly written work of true crime. It’s because after 25 years, the brutal murders of 4 young girls in an Austin, Texeas yogurt shop have still not been solved and likely never will.

On Friday, December 6, 1991, 17 year olds Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas were working the closing shift at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt (aka ICBY) in Austin. Tagging along with Jennifer were her 15 year old sister Sarah Harbison and Sarah’s 13 year old friend Amy Ayers. The two younger girls had a sleepover planned that night. Sometime right around closing, unknown persons entered the store, subdued the girls, forced them to strip, shot all four of them to death and then set the store on fire to cover their tracks. The murders would rock then (then) sleepy town of Austin, Texas. Despite a great deal of media coverage and a huge public outcry, no suspects were brought to trial until well into the 2000s and those convictions would be later overturned.

There is no one person or event to blame for the lack of results in this case. There is no “ah-ha” moment like those in Making a Murderer. Many little things would contribute to its extremely frustrating outcome. But at the core of the issue was the fact that this complicated and emotional crime was simply too much for what was then a rural Texas town.

“Fighting Food to Find Transcendence”

starvation-heights

 

I read this book on the recommendation of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class in their episode that discussed this case. I highly recommend both the podcast and the book. The case of Linda Burfield Hazzard is a fascinating one. It’s also interesting to see that the lengths many people will go in order to cure their real or imagined maladies hasn’t changed much. What has changed is how we deal with the practitioners of these so-called natural cures.

Sisters Claire and Dorothea Williamson who came to Dr. Hazzard in early 1911 for her fasting cures. The sisters were in overall good health but did not feel healthy and thought Dr. Hazzard’s fasting cure could be the key to their wellbeing. By spring of that same year, Claire would be dead, weighing less than 50 pounds, and her sister Dorothea would be spirited away from Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium by a faithful family nursemaid looking like a living skeleton. Additonally, both sisters’ finances and power of attorney was signed over to the doctor though Dorothea would deny ever having done such a thing. In the ensuing trial for murder, Dr. Hazzard would paint herself as a martyr for homeopathic medicine being persecuted by the mainstream medical community. The case is bizarre and fascinating. Author Gregg Olsen paints a picture of a woman whose pride and stubbornness combined with her husband’s greed created the monster that would be known locally as “Starvation Heights.”

This story was thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. I would only give the caveat that the first third of the book that details the Williamson sisters’ harrowing experience with the fasting cure is extremely disturbing. I’ve been reading true crime since I was a teen and I found it hard to take. This is not a complaint against Mr. Olsen’s writing. Relaying the experience of starvation should be upsetting.

Never trust a big nurse and a smile

fatal

 

It’s not so easy to get away with poisoning someone in 2016. Modern medicine can typically detect any poisons that can be obtained by the average human. Additionally, we’re not so blinded by antiquated ideas of femininity that we’d fail to consider the possibility that a mother could poison her children or a nurse the patients in her charge. However, as Harold Schechter illustrates in Fatal, it was almost too easy for a woman in the late 19th century to get away with murdering those under her care.

The focus of Schechter’s book is Jane Toppan, a nurse who murdered as many as 31 of her patients using a combination of morphia and atropia. By her own admission, Jane committed these murders for the sexual thrill she got when she would climb into bed with her patients and feel the life slip away from them. Schechter prefaces his story by telling the stories of other female poisoners who murdered those around them with arsenic, which was a commonly used household product at the time. This illustrates how truly inept modern medicine was at the time. In multiple instances, entire families are wiped out and no one suspects it is anything more than terrible misfortune.

Jane Toppan and her contemporary female poisoners were not like male serial killers who killed random strangers. The late 19th century female poisoner made victims of their husbands, children and dear friends who trusted the person attending their bedside. Fatal is a great addition to the true crime genre that offers a less than picturesque view of the U.S. in the later half of the 1800s.