2 stars, true crime

The Truth about Belle Gunness

cover114698-medium

Title: The Truth about Belle Gunness
Author: Lillian de la Torre

On the morning of April 27, 1908, the farmhand on a lonely property outside La Porte, Indiana, woke to the smell of smoke. He tried to rouse the lady of the house, the towering Belle Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness, and he called the names of her three children—but they didn’t answer, and the farmhand barely escaped alive. The house burned to the foundation, and in the rubble, firemen found the corpses of Belle, her two daughters, and her son. The discovery raised two chilling questions: Who started the fire, and who cut off Belle’s head?

As investigators searched the property, they uncovered something astonishing: The remains of a dozen or more men and children who had been murdered with poison or cleaver were buried beneath the hog pen. It turned out Belle Gunness was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. And when the investigation revealed that the body found in the fire might not have been hers, the people of La Porte were forced to confront the terrifying realization that Belle might have gotten out alive.

Rating2star

When I requested this book I expected a recently written book about Belle Gunness. It is neither new nor really about Belle. Now I don’t mind the not new part much. It’s a re-release of a book from the 1950s but considering that it’s still fine. I’ve read some older true crime books that were very sensationalist and cheerfully mixed fact and fiction. (Not that newer ones are always better, especially when it comes to sensationalism). However, that wasn’t the problem. Yes, the facts were sometimes dressed in (light) purple prose and especially at the beginning we are told a lot about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved but that gets better.
However, it’s also not really a book about Belle Gunness. It opens with her farm burning down and the discoveries of the bodies on the ground. Then it spends only a short time on Belle’s life and her crimes. I already knew more about her and my only previous contact with Belle had been my favourite true crime podcast doing an episode on her.
The book’s actual focus is Ray Lamphere’s trial. Only at the very end, it returns to Belle and the author poses her own theory about Belle’s fate. (A theory that’s plausible but also one that hasn’t any more proof than any other). Now I wasn’t that interested in that trial before I started reading and the book didn’t change that.
Mainly because the trial is mainly told via court transcripts. Just one after the other (with the occasional newspaper article thrown in) with the minimum linking narration possible. Sure, some original quotes from the time are good but this book goes beyond that. Often the information from several pages of transcripts could have been summed up in a few paragraphs. And then the next transcript just repeats the information we already got in the last one. It makes for some rather tiresome reading.

The book simply has a misleading blurb. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I had known that it focussed so heavily on the trial. If that’s your thing you might enjoy it more than I did.

ARC provided by NetGalley
Advertisements
3 stars, true crime

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane

28817930Title: Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England
Author: Paul Thomas Murphy

On April 26th, 1871, a police constable walking one of London’s remotest beats stumbled upon a brutalized young woman kneeling in the muddy road, her face smashed and battered. The policeman gaped in horror as the woman stretched out her hand to him, collapsed in the mud, muttered “let me die,” and slipped into a coma. Five days later, she died, her identity still unknown.

Within hours of her discovery, scores of Metropolitan Police officers were involved in the investigation, while Scotland Yard sent one of its top detectives to lead it. On the day of her death, the police discovered the girl’s identity: Jane Maria Clouson, a sixteen-year-old servant to the Pooks, a respectable Greenwich family. Hours later, they arrested her master’s son, twenty-year-old Edmund, for her murder.

An epic tale of law and disorder, Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is the story of a criminal case conducted at the time of the birth of modern forensic science. It is the story of the majesty–and the travesty–of the nineteenth-century British legal system: the zealous prosecutors determined to convict young Pook; and the remarkable lawyer equally determined to obtain his acquittal by any means possible. At the heart of this story are the alleged killer and his alleged victim: Edmund Pook, the young Victorian gentleman caught up in a legal nightmare, and Jane Maria Clouson, the young maid whose hard life before her tragic death serves as a bracing corrective to Downton Abbey fantasies about the lives of British servants.

Using an abundant collection of primary sources, Paul Thomas Murphy creates a gripping narrative of the police procedural and the ensuing legal drama, with its many twists and turns, from the discovery of the body until the final judgement–and beyond. For while the murder of Jane Clouson has for nearly one hundred and fifty years remained unsolved, much of the evidence remains, and Murphy, applying contemporary forensic methods to this Victorian cold case, reveals definitively the identity of Jane Clouson’s murderer–and provides the resolution that Jane’s angry supporters long ago demanded.

Rating3star

The blurb of this book is misleading. I had expected a straight true-crime story but the book goes beyond that. That’s because the murder wasn’t ‘just’ a murder. The author has to go beyond that and also delve into Victorian society and explain why it was such an issue that a middle-class man was put on trial for murdering a working class girl (that used to be his family’s servant) but not convicted. Without more context, some of the events following Jane’s death are incomprehensible to the modern reader.

However, the author overdoes the ‘going beyond the case’ sometimes. There are quite extensive details of two other trials that made headlines back then but the only connection to Jane’s murder trial is that they had some of the same personnel. A few sentences about that would have been enough. Instead, we get almost a chapter that just deals with these cases and none of it adds anything to the story of Jane’s murder. And it doesn’t remain the only aside where I couldn’t see the point of (though the others aren’t quite as long).
Well, and for the “Murphy carefully reviews the evidence in the light of 21st-century forensic science in order to identify Jane’s killer”-part. Well…the forensic evidence consists of blood-stained clothes that we don’t have anymore so the author has to rely on descriptions that might or might not be accurate. Granted, together with some eyewitness testimony that wasn’t accepted as evidence in the trial he makes a good case. I’ve had authors try to convince me that a certain person is Jack the Ripper on much less but the blurb makes it sound as if the author had identified the killer beyond reasonable doubt and that is certainly not the case. (To be fair: that is pretty much impossible in such an old murder).

Overall the book was interesting, and I don’t even mind the ‘wrong packaging’ because some social context is necessary for understanding the case. But not as much as the author gives.
ARC received from NetGalley

2 stars, true crime

Did They Really Do It?

27850354Title: Did They Really Do It? From Lizzie Borden to the 20th Hijacker
Author: Fred Rosen

Nine of the most controversial violent crimes in America’s history are reexamined in these compelling stories of true crime
 
Dr. Samuel Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s broken ankle, but was he actually part of the larger conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln? Did Lizzie Borden brutally murder her own parents in Massachusetts? Was admitted jihadist Zacarias Moussaoui really involved in the terrorist plot to destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? In a series of provocative and eye-opening true crime investigations, author Fred Rosen revisits some of the most shocking and notorious crimes in America over the past two centuries to determine once and for all . . . did they really do it?
 
Applying logic and techniques of modern criminology while reexamining the crime scenes, official police records, and the original courtroom testimonies of witnesses and the accused, Rosen explores nine infamous crimes that rocked the nation and the verdicts that were ultimately handed down. From Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s execution for treason to the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby to the Ku Klux Klan slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi to 9/11, the alleged perpetrators get another day in court as Rosen calls into question the circumstantial evidence and cultural context that may have determined guilt or innocence in each case.

Rating2star

It feels a bit like the author picked out some true-crime cases that interested him and then tried think of something that could link them together and came up with ‘Did they really do it?’ even though in some cases that is not the most burning question. A more accurate link is probably that in most cases the circumstances and the time had huge influences on the trial and the verdict.

And if Rosen had just gone down that road, delved deeper into the Rosenbergs, Zacarias Moussaoui etc. and thrown out Lizzie Borden, the Boston Strangler and Bruno Hauptmann which all feel like badly done filler this might have been a much better book. Instead, we get a very mixed bag.
So, according to Rosen, Lizzie Borden did kill her father and step-mother. The proof? She never married.

Yes, you see Lizzie was abused. Physically by her step-mom and her father didn’t do anything about it or sexually by her father and the step-mom didn’t know/care/do anything. Or perhaps both. He isn’t quite clear on that. But that’s why she killed both. And then ha suddenly decides that she was sexually abused and that’s the reason she never married. Because as we all know that is the only reason why a woman would never marry. All others just have to throw herself at the first guy that comes along…

And that is actually all the “proof” we get for his conviction that Lizzie Borden was a killer which is…weak.

When it comes to Bruno Hauptmann he thinks that he was rightfully convicted of abducting and (accidentally) killing Charles Lindbergh Jr. He might have had a partner but that’s not what the chapter is about. The chapter is actually about Lindbergh Senior’s antisemitism and support for Hitler. Now I’m not saying these things should be ignored because of what Lindberg did and what happened to him but it has no relevance for the question of whether Hauptmann was innocent. The abduction happened in 1930. Lindbergh only declared his sympathy for Hitler and his views years after that. There is no connection between that and the death of his child and therefore no need to spent over a third of the chapter on it.

Now the chapter on the Boston Strangler really does take the cake for ‘useless filler-chapter’. Yes, Albert DeSalvo did commit some of the murders but not all of them. (He reaches that conclusion, not by a meticulous study of the sources but because by now there has been DNA-testing was done that exonerates him in one case). So the Boston Stranger were most likely Stranglers. How many were there? Which murders were most likely to be DeSalvo’s doing? Who knows or cares? But apparently, the author has a minimum page-count he needs to reach…

And that is a shame because the chapters that are more about how time and circumstances like the Red Glare, racism and antisemitism or the post 9/11 chaos influenced the courts: they’re pretty good. Though to come back to one of my initial complaints: One of the chapters is about three murdered civil rights activists in 1960s Mississippi and from the way the case is presented I didn’t get the impression that there was ever the question ‘did they really do it?’ The problem was rather that due to racism, the way the justice system worked back then, more racism and even more racism it wasn’t possible to get convictions for everybody that was involved in the murders. At least that’s how I (who had never heard of this case before this book) understood it. So either there were more doubts than the author let on which means he did a bad job at presenting the case, or the case was pretty clear-cut. In that case, he did a bad job when he decided to include it in a book that’s supposed to be about cases where there’s doubt about the true guilty party.

If that book was a paper that got handed in for grading it would come back with ‘missed the topic’…