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.

The Borden house is ranked #3 by Trip Advisor of sights to visit in Fall River, Massachusetts.

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.

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15 Responses to POPULAR CRIME PAYS

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Susan–thanks for the tour of historical tabloid-style murders. I had heard of all of these, but didn’t know these details.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Barb, you would love this book and I bet there are a whole lot more he discusses you’ve never heard of.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    I think we crime writers are fascinated because we spend so much of our time writing about what goes on behind the scenes. When I read about a Maine case in the papers, I always wish I had someone I could call and ask: What do they really know? Because the news always has so little.

    I’m still waiting for the day when someone breaks and we find out the truth about what happened to little Ayla Reynolds. One has to hope that there’s a conscience in that group somewhere.


  3. Linda Style says:

    Great blog, Susan…fascinating stuff. I sometimes watch Dominic Dunne’s show on crimes among the rich and famous…and all are pretty much about two things…money (probably #1) and love triangles. True crime stories are interesting to study for procedural information, but most of the crimes don’t translate into good novels. Arizona’s famous true crime story is the Winnie Ruth Judd trunk murder.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Yes, money and love/sex. Revenge is in that mix too, but usually connected to money and sex. I’ll have to look up the Judd murder.

  4. Thanks for the book recommendation, Susan. I’m getting it!

    A thriller writer friend of mine, Marcus Sakey, hosted a show on the Travel Channel called Hidden City where he explored famous crimes in a different city each week. Grisly and fascinating stuff.

    In my home state of Wisconsin, one of our most famous true crime stories is that of Ed Gein, who influenced the creation of many a fictional killer. And then there was also Jeffrey Dahmer…

    Yikes. Living here, how could I -not- end up writing about crime?

  5. Good post, Susan. Didn’t realize that was how Rice got its start! Here in Texas we have more than our share of lurid crimes, including the cheerleading mom killing her daughter’s rival. (As a former cheerleading mom, this story embarrasses me no end.) It’s wonderful to find so much amazing stuff in our papers we can turn into great stories. I’m attending RomCon and met someone with an amazing family story that I’d never be able to write. No one would believe it. 🙂

    • MCWriTers says:

      Marsha, I’m not surprised Rice U. doesn’t spread around the story about the founder’s murder. Quite the scandal. One reason that story struck me is that I have a master’s from Rice and certainly never heard that story during my years there. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Fascinating, Susan. This makes me wish I had the mind for murder (not the real kind, just the fictional stuff) because I love to read about other people’s crimes. 🙂

    • MCWriTers says:

      Sheila, sometimes the real-life sensational murders don’t lend themselves to the fictional kind. Doesn’t stop us from reading about them though. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Susan Fleet says:

    Great post. Loved the one about Lizzie. I knew someone who wrote a book about that case, way back in the 70s, a history prof at Bridgewater College. I blog about true crime at DARK DEEDS http://darkdeeds.susanfleet.com/blog_1.php
    The site gets a zillion hits and I just collected 12 of my posts in an ebook: Dark Deeds: Serial killers, stalkers and domestic homicides. BTW, it’s rumored that Leonardo DeCaprio will star as Dr. H.H.Holmes, America’s most prolific serial killer

  8. Gail Barrett says:

    You’re right that those kinds of lurid cases fascinate us. Add in money, and we are hooked!!!

  9. Thought you’d appreciate this conversation I had with Bill James on my ReplyAll blog just last week! This book seems to be getting a second life!


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