Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2)
Susan Vaughan here. My husband shakes his head at my fascination with the court news and crime articles in the local newspaper and online. Hey, it’s not lurid fascination, well maybe a little. It’s research, honey, I tell him. Murder, fraud, justice system machinations, street violence, missing persons, escaped convicts, celebrity shenanigans—all fodder for fiction. Still, he rolls his eyes.
So I was surprised when he gave me the book Popular Crime by Bill James. Applying liberal doses of meticulous research, humor, and insight, James chronicles the history of tabloid crime in America. The phenomenon of dramatic crime stories is not new, modern, or American. The rule “if it bleeds, it leads” has always been true.
Take the case of Lizzie Borden. On a morning in August, 1892, Lizzie’s father and stepmother were murdered in their home. A violent attack with an ax or hatchet that left blood everywhere. I’ve always assumed Lizzie was guilty, maybe because of the nasty children’s rhyme, but James sets out to prove her innocence. Given the tight time frame, he says she couldn’t have committed the crime, cleaned herself and disposed of bloody clothing, and disposed of the murder weapon. The evidence against her wasn’t enough to convict her, and the crime was never solved. The case is the subject of several movies, including a new one planned on the Lifetime channel starring Christine Ricci.
Here’s a murder that was infamous in 1900. Elderly recluse William Marsh Rice made a fortune in Houston and moved back East during the Civil War, moving to a New York City apartment. For years, his relatives had fought over what he should do with his money. An attorney hired by Rice’s ex-wife conspired with the butler—yes, the butler—to drain away the man’s fortune. Murder wasn’t their initial intent, but when another lawsuit threatened their plans, the butler killed Rice with a chloroform-soaked sponge and sent the body to be cremated. The men hurried to cash large checks forged with Rice’s signature but bank executives called police. Because the crematorium took 24 hours to heat, an autopsy could be performed and proved murder. None of the relatives received William Rice’s money. His will left his fortune to a private institute that today is known as Rice University.
Lizzie Borden’s story isn’t the only one to be turned into film. In 1906, architect Stanford White was murdered on the roof of the old Madison Square Garden, which he had designed. The murderer was a wealthy young man who had married White’s former lover. This was the most famous case of that era and resulted in more than one movie. The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) starred Joan Collins and Ray Milland. Ragtime (1981), starred James Cagney and Mary Steenburgen, among others, and Norman Mailer played White.
Crime stories about prominent people seem unusual because of the motivations and power of those involved, but actually remain much the same regardless of time and place. Rather than explain much about culture, perhaps they tell us more about human nature. And perhaps that’s one reason writers like those of this group study and write about crime.