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Book Review: True Crime: An American Anthology edited by Harold Schechter

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True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter, is a must for any true crime buff. This massive 800-page volume collects nearly 50 works on true crime. It spans 350 years of history, arranged chronologically, starting with the hanging of John Billington, a murderer who came to America on the Mayflower.

Both authors and subjects run the gamut of the well-known (Abraham Lincoln, Dominick Dunne, James Ellroy, the Menendez brothers, Richard Speck, Charlie Manson) to the lesser-known — at least to the general public (Damon Runyon, Calvin Trillin, W.T. Brannon; Caryl Chessman, Louis Wagner, The Mad Butcher). Each essay opens with a few paragraphs on the background of the subject, and where and in what context the original essay first appeared.

This volume seeks out essays that go beyond being a crime-spree recap. For example, the essay on the Manson Family focuses mainly on George Spahn, owner of the ranch the Family hid out on leading up to their killing spree. The essay doesn’t describe the Family’s crimes; everyone knows about those. The focus is on Spahn’s impressions of the hippies: the sweet, docile girls who helped the blind rancher care for his land, and the philosophical man who held them all under his spell.

One of the most fascinating — and obscure — cases in this volume is an anonymously-written true-crime pamphlet from 1875, concerning Jesse Harding Pomeroy. Pomeroy was a young sociopath — not yet a teenager — who kidnapped, beat, tortured, and murdered a number of younger boys. He was caught and sent to a reform school for a year and a half. Upon his release, Pomeroy immediately slaughtered two children. Pomeroy was charged as an adult and sentenced to life. He was fourteen when he went to prison; he died behind bars at age seventy-four.

True Crime: An American Anthology is a great history of dark deeds, and shows that there were sick, deranged criminals well before Marilyn Manson, Grand Theft Auto, or any number of other so-called modern menaces that the conservative right likes to point to. It’s well worth the $40 cover price.

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