One never can get at the thing itself. That is the fascination of murder as a subject, and why it lends itself to all kinds of renderings,” Wendy Lesser speculates in Pictures at an Execution, her 1993 study of our literary and tabloid fascination with murder. “We want to ask big questions; more than anything else, we want to get the answers to big questions. Yet all we can get at, finally, are the details.”
Well, if details it must be, then how about some new details? Ironically, after the saturation coverage of O.J. and Helter Skelter Charlie, this all but requires a step back into older murder cases. These two histories expertly chronicle, in different ways, the antebellum origins of penny-presstouted, horrible homicides— the land where sleaze began. Trust me, though, you’ll recognize the terrain.
Karen Halttunen’s Murder Most Foul rubs its finger across the schism between ye olde murder and the kind you read about. In Puritan New England, ministers preached “execution sermons” that urged congregants to view killers as no more depraved than themselves— the urge to evil was universal. But with liberalism, the “humanitarian revolution,” and the “culture of sensibility,” society’s new assumption of innate good required that the murderer be seen as a moral alien: a monster. Only, a fascinating monster. Violence took on pornographic overtones; the sensationalism of the streets vied in the tabloids with horrors from the sealed, prim parlor. Halttunen plays with all these categories and more: the rise of the trial report as literary bestseller; domestic murders as “issue killings” (meaning they highlighted social concerns); forensic pathology; the insanity defense. From then to now, she concludes, we’ve maintained our “ambivalent engagement with the murderer” because “modern culture still offers no systematic and satisfying way to come to terms with human evil.”
Patricia Cline Cohen doesn’t bother with such generalities— just launches into America’s first Trial of the Century, the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett by her teenage lover Richard Robinson in 1836. A woman on the town, Jewett frequented the notorious third tiers of Bowery theaters, but she lived large: the brothel she died in was owned by John Livingston, of the same Hudson River political clan who recently almost gave us a House Speaker. To think, with such family tradition, Member Bob blushed at adultery! Cohen shows us Jewett’s courtesan moves (romantic letters with endings like “Adieu jusque les moments delicieux“), her humble Maine origins, and her unavenged death: the sports of the judicial system wouldn’t heed the testimony of prostitutes, and Robinson was acquitted. Newly born penny papers like the Sun had a field day, start to finish.
A historian succumbing to the tabloid impulse but armed with contemporary resources, Cohen has biographical poop on dozens of minor characters remotely associated with Jewett or Robinson: she draws on municipal archives, town histories, family genealogies, census records, city property indexes, insurance maps, church registries, and dozens of newspapers, measuring the Eastern Argus of Portland, Maine, up against the Portland Courier. Curious about the price of brothel mirrors? Cohen knows, turning up an 1836 Journal of Public Morals article and an 1827 craftsman’s guide.
The primary research behind Murder Most Foul isn’t as startling, though Halttunen has certainly piled up the execution sermons and trial reports. Rather, it’s the secondary sources she can draw on that amaze: monographs like Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 16491699, and literary studies of criminal biography in England circa 1700. If Cohen can track anyone’s traces through the modernized archives, Halttunen, moving unpretentiously from discussions of Scottish philosophy to obstetric medicine, can track any organizing concept through an established academic subfield. Details, details, details.
How much new insight do these studies give into the underlying nature of the pop-cult murder trial’s mixture of gothic monstrosity and social confusion? Cohen has so much of the local color of 1830s America down that you feel ready to settle there; she’s particularly attentive to the impact of widespread literacy and of women jostling with men in public spaces. Halttunen’s execution sermons seem a limited starting point— what of other early responses, like murder ballads?— but her sketch of the tabloid sensibility is nuanced and persuasive. Collectively, the two update David Brion Davis’s 1957 Homicide and American Fiction, 17981860 (he was Halttunen’s academic
adviser and the first to resurrect Jewett’s story) by looking for meaning in the popular culture beneath the American Renaissance.
A sharpness of language, and focus, is lost with this approach: Lesser’s book, which plucks insights from Mailer and Poe, among others, gets much deeper into questions such as our complex identification with both murderer and victim. But big murder cases tend to be far murkier, an unstoppable gush of factoids, blather, and pseudoscience. Halttunen and Cohen capture that confusion— with killer material.