June 18, 2018

Bill James: Popular Crime: Reflections On The Celebration Of Violence (2011)

In September 2017, I posted about a forthcoming book from Bill James. The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery was researched and written by James and his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James.

Before I write about that book, however, I want to share some bits from James's previous crime book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (2011). James writes and offers a wide array of opinions on dozens of cases in that book, as well as commenting on many true crime books. However, the snips below are more general.

Although this is not a book review, I trust you can tell - from the fact that I am posting several excerpts from this book and my oft-stated respect for James and his research and writings on baseball - that I absolutely recommend this book.

One thing you can always count on from Bill James: He is never dull and he will make you think.
The modern American phenomenon of popular crime stories is in absolutely no way new, modern, or American. That it is truly a universal phenomenon throughout human history perhaps should not be asserted without a more complete survey, but I know of no society which did not have sensational crimes and huge public interest in them, except perhaps societies which were so repressive that the government was able to quash them. ...

We are, not as a nation but as human beings, fascinated by crime stories, even obsessed with them. The Bible is full of them. On your television at this moment there are four channels covering true crime stories, and five more doing detective fiction. And yet, on a certain level, we are profoundly ashamed of this fascination. If you go into a good used book store and ask if they have a section of crime books, you will get pile of two reactions. One is, the clerk will look at you as if you had asked whether they had any really good pornography. The other is, they will tell you that the crime books are down the aisle on your left, in the alcove beside the detective stories. Right next to the pornography.

The internet service that I use headlines news stories with links to them. A huge percentage of these are crime stories—yet in the chart attached, where their news summaries are sorted into categories, there is no category for crime. Maybe a third of their top news stories are crime stories; you would think that would rate one category among their 25. Apparently not. ...

If you go to a party attended by the best people—academics and lawyers, journalists and school bus drivers, those kinds of people . . . if you go to a party populated by the NPR crowd and you start talking about JonBenet Ramsey, people will look at you as if you had forgotten your pants. If you are a writer and you try to talk your editor into working on a book about famous crimes, he or she will instantly begin hedging you toward something more ... something more decent. Maybe if you included a chapter on Watergate, it would be alright. If you write anything about JonBenet, you need to say how unimportant that really was, compared to the attention it drew; that's really the only appropriate thing to be said about that case.

If you try to talk to American intellectuals and opinion-makers about the phenomenon of famous crimes, they immediately throw up a shield: I will not talk about this. I am a serious and intelligent person. I am interested in politics and the environment. I do not talk about Natalee Holloway. It is as if they were afraid of being dirtied by the subject.

Of course, no one has a social responsibility to be interested in Rabbi Neulander; that's not what I am saying. What I am saying is that given the magnitude of this subject, given the extent to which it occupies the attention of the nation, there are a series of obvious questions which one might guess would be matters of public discussion, but which are not discussed anywhere because the kind of people who participate in the national conversation are terrified of being thrown out of the boat if they confess to an interest in such vulgar matters. Why do some crime stories become famous? Why does the Scott Peterson case become a national circus, while a thousand similar cases attract nothing beyond local notice? Why are people interested in crime stories? Is this a destructive phenomenon, as so many people assume it to be, or is there a valid social purpose being served? Who benefits from this? Who suffers from it? Who makes the critical decisions that cause crime stories to explode or fizzle? Are these stories actually significant to the nation, or are they truly as petty and irrelevant as intellectuals tend to assume they are?

Beyond this roomful of questions there is another room where the questions are yet more important. Does our criminal justice system work well? How could it work better? When it fails, why does it fail? How could this failure have been avoided? Do the rules make sense? What does it take to earn a conviction? What should it take? ...

Of course there is a national discussion about those types of issues—among the lawyers. When the rest of us try to comment, we are reminded firmly that we are not lawyers and therefore don't know what we're talking about. No one writes about these issues. ...

It is my belief that the lay public—non-lawyers—should participate actively in the discussion of crime and justice. It is my notion that popular crime stories could be and should be a passageway that the lay public uses to enter into that discussion. ...

This book is about three things. First, it is about famous crimes, and in particular about famous crimes which have happened in the United States since about 1880. Second, it is about crime, in a general way, about the kinds of issues I have tried to introduce here.

And third, it is about crime books. I am not a lawyer or an academic, nor even a cop or a court groupie. My understanding of these issues is based on what I have read, which includes a thousand or more crime books. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no book about crime books.
I argued before that popular crime stories are much more important in re-shaping our culture than we are generally willing to see. I don't mean to overstate the importance of the Mary Rogers story, and I'm not expert enough in all of these areas to be certain that I am not over-stating it, but ... if you read a history of metropolitan police departments, I am certain that it will reference the significance of the Mary Rogers case in leading to the re-organization of the New York police department in 1845. If you read the early history of abortion law, I am confident that it will reference the Mary Rogers story. If you study the history of the detective story, I feel sure that you will find that the Mary Rogers stories were critical to that genre's breaking out of its narrow early trench, and becoming a part of the culture. If you know anything about the history of journalism, you certainly know that the newspaper business rode on the backs of crime stories for a hundred years, the Mary Rogers case being one of the sturdiest carriers. But if you read a history of America in the 1840s, it is likely that not a word will be said about Mary Rogers.
America between 1890 and 1915 was driving toward revolution, or toward a second civil war. I always find it amazing how little people understand this, and how little they know about it. It seems to me that, since we didn't actually arrive at the revolution, people dismiss the whole concept that this could have happened. One might expect historians to disagree about how close we were to revolution or civil war, but it doesn't seem to me that they do ... We weren't at the brink of civil war in 1914, as Kentucky was in 1900, but we were headed in that direction. ...

I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events, the tabloid stories. Tabloid stories have been around at least since 1700 and are omnipresent around us today, but in some sense they reached their apogee in the 1920s, culminating, of course, in the Lindbergh case in the early 1930s. It was the golden age of something horrible. All of the big cities in 1920 had multiple daily newspapers. These newspapers competed with one another to nakedly exploit horrific human tragedies for their own profit.

The great crime stories of the 1910-1920 era were vitally connected to the struggle for the nation's soul. They had to do—almost all of them—with rich against poor, with labor against capital, with radicals against the establishment, with the South against the North, with the pacifists against the militants at the time of the Great War, with immigrants against natives. By 1922, somehow, most of that had simply vanished, at least from the crime stories. Looking back on it from 90 years later it seems almost like a miracle, as if all of these rifts were somehow suddenly healed by the nation's prosperity. Things somehow jumped into packages. Labor split off from radicalism; fiery labor agitators were replaced by tough labor union professionals. Crime became organized and professional and horribly lethal, while "journalism" learned to package and market cheap, tawdry stories of cheating wives and spoiled rich kids who murdered for fun. ... I wish I could tell you what happened to America in 1921, but the truth is that I do not understand it, and I haven't seen the evidence that anyone does.
In 1980, after discovering the bodies of 21 murdered children, the Atlanta police said they were not certain that they had a serial murderer on their hands.

This is a constant theme. If you checked out 50 serial murderer cases before 1980, I would bet that in 45 of them, the police would be quoted in the newspapers insisting that the crimes were not linked, even as the newspapers suggested that they were.

The capacity of mankind to misunderstand the world is without limit. The external world is billions of times more complicated than the human mind. We are desperate to understand the world; we struggle from the moment of birth to understand the world—but it is beyond our capacity. We thus sign on to simplifications of the world that give us the illusion of understanding. Experts are not less inclined to sign on to these simplistic explanations than outsiders; they are more inclined to sign on to them. They have more need of them.
I couldn't actually read In Broad Daylight [by Harry MacLean (HarperCollins, 1984)]; it gave me nightmares. In all my years of reading grisly murder stories in the moments before drifting off to sleep, there are only two books that have ever given me nightmares: that one, and The Shoemaker (Simon & Schuster, 1983) [by Flora Rheta Schreiber].
One of the books that I thought I might write, at one time, was a book entitled How Serial Murderers Are Caught. We are all interested in how to catch serial murderers, how to catch them quicker. Might it be that one way to learn something about that subject would be to study how previous serial murderers have, in fact, been caught? Why not do a systematic review of the subject? Find as many details as I could about the capture of, let's say, 300 serial murderers, then try to organize that information. What happened, to bring them to the light? And also, knowing what we know about the murderer now, after he has been caught, how could he have been caught earlier? If we had tried this, would it have worked?
My greatest fear, in writing this book, is that I will be unable to convince you that John and Patsy Ramsey had nothing to do with the death of their daughter. The Ramseys, having suffered a horrendous loss, then became the victims of a fantastically botched investigation which spent several years pointing fingers at them, and of public scorn, condemnation and ridicule stemming from that. I feel a responsibility to do what I can to clear their names, and I fear that I will be unequal to the challenge. I will do my best.
On April 10, 1836, a New York City woman working under the name of Helen Jewett was murdered in her brothel. A 19-year-old man named Richard Robinson was arrested and charged with the crime, and was tried but acquitted.

The murder of Helen Jewett occurred at the birth of the modern newspaper industry—a moment very like 1990, the birth of the internet. For a few years newspapers sprouted like dandelions. In a climate of many competing newspapers with small audiences and extraordinarily lax editorial practices, the story of the murder of Helen Jewett emerged as one of the most famous crimes in American history. Patricia Cline Cohen wrote a 1998 book about this case, The Murder of Helen Jewett, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Helen Jewett was a prostitute, yes, but in saying this I am as much misinforming you as the opposite. She was a prostitute, but Robinson and Jewett had an intense, passionate relationship which had been going on for a year before her murder. They wrote one another love letters, dozens or probably hundreds of them. They bought one another gifts; they went to the theater together. They teased one another and fought petty battles that seemed to both of them larger than life. They shared secrets. They carried small, hand-drawn pictures of one another. She sewed on his buttons, and mended his shirts. When Robinson had dalliances with other women, she was furious with him, and he had to work his way back into her good graces.

She was, then, more of a surrogate wife or a surrogate girlfriend than she was simply a sex worker, as we think of a prostitute in the 21st century. What is unclear, even having read the book, is to what extent this was unusual in 19th century New York. ...

Ms. Cohen's research is quite remarkable, and the story she tells is twice that remarkable, at least. Helen Jewett's name at the time of her birth was Dorcas Doyen. For several years as a young girl Dorcas worked as a live-in domestic servant with the family of Judge Nathan Weston, in Maine. It's a distinguished family; Judge Weston's grandson became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In the 1820s there was a woman named Mrs. Anne Royall, who travelled around the United States visiting towns and staying with people and recording her experiences in self-published travelogues that were often petty and vindictive. Ms. Royall visited the Weston house, met Dorcas Doyen briefly, was very much charmed by her, and wrote a couple of very flattering paragraphs about her in one of her nasty little books. No one at the time made any connection between this unnamed servant girl and the woman who, nine years later, became the infamous Helen Jewett, but Ms. Cohen nonetheless finds the passage and uses it effectively to help re-construct Ms. Jewett's early life.

That's remarkable research. There are many such discoveries in her book. Nathaniel Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College at the same time as a nephew or cousin or something of Judge Weston, and visited this same small town in Maine for several weeks one summer when he was in college, flirting with a servant girl who worked in his friend's house. Hawthorne wrote about this, and wrote about the family and the little town in letters or journals that still survive, and Ms. Cohen finds these and uses them to re-construct the time and place. The wallpaper in one room of another cousin's house still survives, in an off-the-beaten-track museum somewhere, and Ms. Cohen finds this wallpaper and writes about it. Ms. Jewett, as a prostitute, had several other small run-ins with the police, and was on one occasion profiled in a newspaper by a sympathetic reporter (who was also a client), and Ms. Cohen has found this profile and used it to help re-construct her life—as well as the court records of all of these other little dustups.

She finds letters from one family member to another, discussing social events at which Dorcas Doyen would have worked, and, as Doyen/Jewett was an avid reader and a great lover of books, she finds advertisements in small-town newspapers for books that Doyen might have read and probably read, and she finds articles that appeared in local newspapers that describe events or stories that Doyen would have known about or participated in. She finds descriptions of people that Doyen would have known. She finds court records and census records that make passing reference to Doyen's grandfather or her great-grandmother or her next-door neighbor's dog. She finds the addresses at which Jewett lived in New York, and she finds out who was living next-door and what they did for a living, and who lived in all the houses up and down the street and what the nearby businesses were.

It would be ungracious of me not to mention that, having read countless crime books, I have never before encountered anything remotely like this level of research. By "research" I do not mean hitting Google and Wikipedia. I mean living for weeks in old libraries and dusty courthouses, trying to recognize a name in a stack of 200-year-old property transaction records, and then moving on to the next old library, the next old courthouse or the next university archive or the next small-town museum or the next stack of census reports. I'm a pretty good researcher; I couldn't begin to do this.

It would also be gutless of me not to call this what it is. It's academic showboating. In 1804 Jacob Doyen, who was Helen Jewett's grandfather, filed a small-claims court action in Hallowell, Maine, against a man named Stephen Smith, having to do with a $12 debt, and then failed to appear in court when the case was heard. Ms. Cohen finds the record of this action and infers actively from it, but it doesn't actually have a damned thing to do with the story of Helen Jewett; it's just showing off Ms. Cohen's research skills. As much as we might admire her research, it does become tiresome. ...

[Helen Jewett's] letters go on for pages. Her punctuation is at times a little non-standard, but the message is always crystal clear. These are the words of a destitute shoemaker's daughter, dropped off at age twelve to grow up as a domestic servant to a wealthy family, and given a few months of schooling by her generous masters. I venture to say that, if you took the letters of a murdered 21st century prostitute, you would not be likely to find such eloquence.

In fact, there is a great deal in this story that calls into question the notion of progress. The life of Helen Jewett, apart from its terrible finish at the business end of a small hatchet, seems infinitely better than the life of a modern prostitute, as best I understand that from the images on my television. She did not service a hundred clients a week; more likely five to fifteen. She lived in a large house with beautiful furniture, where sumptuous meals were served as an inducement to the clientele. Paintings hung on the walls that today hang in museums and are well known to art historians. She drank champagne, and she spent her days reading novels and writing letters and making a daily promenade to the post office. She wore beautiful dresses. She went to the theater several times a week. Some of the theaters had special seating areas for the prostitutes. They valued their patronage, because the presence of the glamorous ladies drew out-of-town businessmen into the theater.
After the [hard cover edition of this] book came out I heard from a number of people who asked me, "Why didn't you include a list of the 100 best crime books?" to which I replied, of course, "Why don't you mind your own damned business?" But after I heard this suggestion a couple of dozen times I eventually had to concede that maybe I should have done that, so here it is. ...

This is not a list of the 100 Greatest Crime Books; it's just a list of 100 Good Crime Books that I will recommend to you, and then we will assume that there are 1,000 more that I don't know anything about. ...

One thing that you probably do know, if you read crime books, is that most books about crimes are terrible. I don't mean to be disrespectful to the people in what is now "my" area, but ... a lot of books about crimes are just God Awful. None of the books that I will list here are bad; they're all pretty good. I'm going to give them "stars," but I wanted to warn you that I'm grading here on a very, very tough scale; even the one-star books on this list are actually good books. I am recommending all of these books; I am just recommending some of them more highly than others.
Only nine of the 100 books on James's list received 4 or 5 stars:

5 stars
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
Final Verdict, Adela Rogers St. Johns, 1962

4 stars
Last Rampage, James W Clarke, 1990
Thunderstruck, Erik Larson, 2007
The Rose Man of Sing Sing, James McGrath Morris, 2003
Blind Eye, James B. Stewart, 1999
Twelve Caesars, Suetonius, written about 115 AD
The Onion Field, Joseph Wambaugh, 1973
The Newgate Calendar, original author unknown

James, on The Newgate Calendar:
[It] was published repeatedly (in various forms) through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and was one of the most widely read books in the English language for about 200 years, perhaps second only to the Bible, or third behind Pilgrim's Progress. Newgate was a large prison in London, where criminals were executed. The Newgate Calendar was a collection of short accounts of the lives of famous and terrible criminals. The book was used for generations to teach children about the wages of sin, although it has what we might consider an ambiguous moral tone. Though certainly not reliable, the book is easy to peruse online, and is well worth the investment of a little bit of your time.

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