THE LITERATURE OF THE AMERICAN SERIAL KILLER
From AB Bookmans Weekly, May 9, 1988. Copyright 1988 by AB Bookman Publications, Inc.
By Patterson Smith
In 1970 Macmillan published a book by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long entitled Killer: A Journal of Murder. It followed Gaddis' The Birdman of Alcatraz by 15 years, but whereas the latter work had been a mild publishing and a major cinematic success, Killer was neither. It consisted of the autobiography of a convict who had been executed in 1930, supplemented by the coauthors' background commentary. And although the convict's manuscript had interested a score of criminologists and literary figures (including Karl Menninger, Sheldon and Bernard Glueck, H. L. Mencken, Fulton Oursler, and Irving Shulman), it was only through the diligence of a prison guard who pressed for its publication for forty years that it finally was put into book form by Gaddis and Long and released to a largely indifferent public.
The convict was Carl Panzram, and, success or not, his story was a harbinger of similar biographies to follow. Panzram was a "serial killer," a special type of murderer which has become common only in recent yearsso common and so recent that the term has entered criminologists' language almost overnight.
The serial killer is one who seeks out and murders strangers over a period of time in separate episodes. He is distinguished from the simple mass murderer who kills many people in a single blaze of fury, such as the crazed killer who runs amok in public or who wipes out his family in a domestic rampage. The serial killer usually acts alone and is almost always a young white male.
In this article I consider the literature of the American serial killer, a category which of late has become a focus for many collectors of crime. It is fitting that I write this in 1988, for this is the centenary of Jack the Ripper, the unknown brutal killer who terrorized London in 1888 and who is the first celebrated serial killer of modern times. In contrast to the entrenched notoriety of this illustrious British predecessor (who continues to generate a torrent of books seeking to establish his identity), the bulk of literature on the American serial killer is recent, dealing as it does chiefly with killers who have shed blood within the memory of us all. For that reason, most books in the genre are reasonably accessible and within the reach of the low-budget collector.
The category is not for the squeamish. Not only are the deeds bloody and often revolting in the extreme, but also--even more repugnant to some readersthey arise not from normal human passions like love and hatred carried beyond the breaking point, but from what is apparently a desire to kill for the pure pleasure of killing. Contemplating the wellsprings of behavior so "fiendish" (to use a favorite nineteenth-century expression) is not to everyone's taste. On the other hand, interest in the subject, as Jacques Barzun has noted, is not limited to those "athirst for crude sensations. . . . The connoisseurs of crime are for the most part people of sensibilities as delicate as the abstainers', and perhaps they have stronger minds."
Before taking up the serial killer, it is of interest to consider two works not directly on that subject but still within the category of mass murder, one about a "domestic" killer, the second about a "public" one. The first book is of note because it is the earliest known work published about an American multiple murderer. Entitled The Vain Prodigal Life and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier, it appeared in London in 1680, two years after Hellier, a bonded servant in Virginia, was hanged for the murder of "his master, mistress, and a maid."
Dr. Rosenbach, the eminent rare-book dealer, tells of having unsuccessfully sought this book for his crime library for eighteen years before stumbling across it in the home of a book collector on whom he was paying a casual visit. Left alone in the room with the book, the good doctor flirted with the notion of purloining it, but repressed his criminous thoughts and was able to buy it at auction at a later date. Writing in A Book Hunter's Holiday (1930), he tells us, "Today it is one of the prizes of my library, both as to rarity and the price I paid for it!" Who can say what a copy would bring in 1988? Howes' US-iana gives no clue, for that otherwise worthy reference to Americana omits Hellier along with many other important and valuable books on American criminals.
The second mass murderer for whom we plead an exception is remarkable in illustrating the vagaries of criminal history. Although I have in my library every conceivable reference work on American crime, nowhere is there mention of one of America's biggest mass killings. This might be understandable if the crime, like that of Hellier, had taken place in the distant past of colonial America, or if no book had been published about it. But the crime took place only sixty years ago and there is a 136-page book on it, albeit a scarce one.
The book is called The Bath School Disaster (1927). When I first saw a copy, its title suggested to me a fire or tornado; but the disaster was a man-made one, perpetrated by a disaffected psychopath. In Bath, a tiny town outside of Lansing, Michigan, a consolidated school building was built in 1922 which strained the community's financial resources and caused successive increases in local taxes. A property owner named Andrew Kehoe complained bitterly about the school budget, which he considered responsible for increasing the levies on his land. After serving one obstructionist term as a member of the school board, he was defeated for reelection in 1926. One Wednesday morning a year later, half the school building blew up in a terrific explosion triggered by dynamite wired into the building's electric clock. Nearly fifty children were killed and many more injured. Andrew Kehoe had taken revenge on the town of Bath.
The author of The Bath School Disaster was a near neighbor of Kehoe's named M. J. Ellsworth. His book, bound in printed brown wrappers, tells the grisly story in the unpolished prose of a writer dedicated solely to the goal of accuracy in all details. The many photographs in the book are grimly engrossing. Some are of Kehoe's bombing apparatus; others are of the twisted remains of the automobile which he blew up on a downtown street subsequent to the main explosion, killing himself and several onlookers. Most of the photographs are simple candid shots of children. Some had been taken after the bombing and show the victims lying wounded on hospital beds. Others had been taken before the tragedy and bear the pathetic legend "Dead" under the children's names.
Such a single act of mass destruction is not in the nature of the serial killer, who gives individual care and attention to each of his victims. And although in numbers he may attain the level of an Andrew Kehoe, he does so through separate acts of violence often spread out over several years. Such a murderer was the man who was known as H. H. Holmes (his real name was Mudgett), generally considered to be the first American serial killer. Estimates of the number of his victims range from forty to one hundred and upwards, most of them women eager for marriage whom he killed for their money. He himself confessed to the murder of nearly thirty victims.
Since Holmes was an inveterate liar as well as a swindler and murderer, the true details of even the killings to which he confessed will never be known, but the physical evidence found in his building in Chicago, known as "Holmes' Castle," left grim implications. Detectives searching it after his arrest found trapdoors, hidden stairways, concealed panels, and blind hallways. Especially sinister were several sleeping chambers which lacked windows and were capable of being sealed air-tight. The gas piped into them was controlled from Holmes' bedroom, whereas the valves on the gas fixtures within the guestrooms were dummies which could not be shut off by the occupants. In the basement of the Castle were a dissecting room, a crematory, and several mysterious machines, one of which bore a disturbing resemblance to a medieval rack. Traces of human remains were in evidence.
Holmes let rooms in his Castle to lodgers during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Many guests checked in but did not check out. Holmes was able to carry out uncounted murders in his Castle for several years without suspicion. His downfall came about through an attempt to defraud an insurance company by collecting on the death of a man named Pitezel whom he murdered in Philadelphia. The story of the investigation into that murder is told in The Holmes-Pitezel Case (1896), by Frank P. Geyer, the Philadelphia detective who followed Holmes' trail through numerous cities, uncovering the bodies of two more of the Pitezel family in Arlington, Illinois, and yet another in Toronto.
Geyer's book is attractive to the crime collector on several planes. Not only is it one of the first American works on a serial murderer, it is also the first full-length account of an American homicide detective tracking his quarry. The author's narrative style is pleasingly free of the bombast that so often accompanies nineteenth-century crime writing. The work is physically attractive as well, in its highly ornamented cloth covers typical of the late pre-dust-jacket era.
At least four issues of Geyer were published, with varying imprints and page counts. Since the book was sold on subscription, collectors of salesmen's samples can look for its sample version, which consists of the typical selection of some of the more exciting pages of prose and some of the better illustrations. At the back of the sample are several lined blank pages for recording the names and addresses of subscribers. An advertisement tipped into the sample describes the work as the story of a "loathsome monster" whose apprehension "completely overshadows all detective fiction, even that from the hands of such master as Gaborieau and Conan Doyle." True.
Holmes' extraordinary criminal career brought forth several other contemporary works about him, some of great rarity. One of the more accessible of this group is an anonymous publication in printed wrappers, Holmes, the Arch Fiend (n.d.), issued by Barclay of Philadelphia, the leading publisher of American crime pamphlets in the last century. It has several speculative drawings of Holmes murdering his victims, including a pathetic one of him forcing two little girls into a trunk. In the trunk's lid is a small hole through which he is about to introduce a tube connected to a gas fixture.
The story of H. H. Holmes, remarkable though it was, faded from prominence for half a century, during which time it was retold only very occasionally in the periodical press or as a chapter in collections of murder cases. It was reintroduced in book form to a wider public by Charles Boswell and Lewis Thompson in The Girls in Nightmare House (1955), one of the titles in the Fawcett Gold Medal series of true-crime paperbacks, well-regarded original works never published in hardcover. Twenty years later, David Franke presented the latest and fullest account of H. H. Holmes in The Torture Doctor (1975).
After Holmes' execution in 1896, thirty years passed before a serial killer of notoriety appeared on the criminal landscape. Then came Earle Nelson, a 34-year old Bible fanatic with a history of teenage violence, who strangled and raped (in that order) a rooming house proprietress in San Francisco. Twenty other landladies in various cities suffered similar fates as Nelson moved up and down the West Coast and thence to Philadelphia. He finally fled to Winnipeg, where he killed two more rape victims before being caught, convicted, and hanged by the Canadian authorities. No full-length history of this killer has been published; the first account of any length to appear in book form was a chapter in Louis Charles Douthwaite's Mass Murder, published in London in 1928. A fictionalized account appeared in an obscure paperback, Rooms to Let (1977), by Robert Olmos and John Howard, whose back cover correctly notes that Nelson "killed more women than Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler put together."
A lonely-hearts killer operating in Nelson's time was a man named Herman Drenth, who was known chiefly by his last alias, Harry F. Powers. A traveling salesman based in West Virginia, Powers used matrimonial correspondence agencies to ensnare lonely women, whom he robbed then murdered. Police estimated that before his arrest in 1931 he had killed fifty victims, although that number seems highly doubtful. He confessed to killing only those five whose bodies were found buried next to his "murder garage," wherein he bound and gassed his victims and watched in delight as they died. The pleasure of the sight, said Powers, "beat any cat house I was ever in."
I have a form letter in Powers' hand which he used to inveigle female correspondents. In it he announces himself "longing for someone to take [my former wife's] place in my heart," and promises that his new wife "can have anything, within reason, that money can buy." The letter begins, "My age is [blank], height 67 inches, have clear blue eyes, medium dark hair." Powers evidently had used the letter as a model for writing to various women, no doubt adjusting his age to fit the year of writing or the age of his correspondent.
The printed legacy of Powers consists of a scarce book by Evan Allen Bartlett, Love Murders of Harry F. Powers: Beware Such Bluebeards (1931) and a scarcer undated contemporary pamphlet of 14 pages, "Love Secrets of Bluebeard. The use of the term "Bluebeard" in the title to denote a murderer of women, the prevalent usage for the last two hundred years, is somewhat interesting, since the original Bluebeard was a fifteenth-century French nobleman named Gilles de Rais who was a homosexual killer of boys. We shall meet his modern counterpart in Houston later in this article.
A most bizarre killer with no distinct preference for either sex was Albert Fish, a sado-masochist who enjoyed molesting children, then killing and eating them. To his own six children he was a kind, if eccentric, father who occasionally enjoyed beating himself with a nailed paddle. Fish was caught and executed in 1936 after murdering at least fifteen children. He was clearly as insane as anyone could be, but the defense could not persuade the jury that he was not better off dead. The convicted man looked forward to his electrocution. "It will be the supreme thrill," he said, "the only one I haven't tried." Two full-length books exist on Fish, each inadequate to its subject: Michael Angelella's Trail of Blood (1979) and Mel Heimer's The Cannibal (1971). There is a chapter-length treatment of him in The Show of Violence (1949) by Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist retained by Fish's defense council who later gained fame for his campaign against the depiction of violence in comic books.
Comic books were not the reading fare of Williams Heirens, a brilliant youth who skipped college freshman year to enroll as a sophomore in the University of Chicago. While a high-schooler he had been plagued by perverse sexual and larcenous impulses, of which he sought some understanding through reading Krafft-Ebing and books on juvenile delinquency. In college he managed to maintain good grades while perfecting his burglarizing techniques. Mere burglary turned to bloodlust when Heirens began to encounter resistive women in their rooms, and in June of 1945 he committed his first murder. In the aftermath of a second murder, police found this message scrawled in lipstick on the victim's bedroom mirror: "Catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." Catch him they did, but not before he had killed another victim, a six-year old child whom he dissected in the basement. Lucy Freeman brought her psychiatric insight to the grim story of this deranged killer in "Before I Kill More..." (1955). (Heirens was the inspiration for a customer of mine with a macabre sense of humor. It amuses him when traveling to paint "Catch me before I kill more!" on his motel room mirror before checking out.)
A particularly sick murderer was Edward Gein, who was the model for Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, which was itself the basis for the Hitchcock film which has discouraged so many women from showering in an empty apartment. Gein (which he pronounced "Geen") lived with his mother and father in rural Wisconsin. After their deaths in the 1940s he took to digging up female cadavers for bizarre anatomical experiments. Good taste demands that I avoid describing the nature of his other perverse pleasures beyond noting that he was a necrophile, a cannibal, and a skin fetishist. After eight years of looting graveyards, he turned to killing live victims to obtain objects for his depraved tastes. The single book on the case is Robert H. Gollmar's Edward Gein, America's Most Bizarre Murderer (1982), a thoroughly trashy work which is considered a must in every serial killer collection.
Gein achieved notoriety only after his arrest. It was different in Boston in the early 1960s, when a string of killings led the press to bestow the name "Boston Strangler" on the unknown assailant who achieved world-wide fame before being tracked down. The killer proved to be Albert DeSalvo, a man with an ungovernable sex drive who, prior to his homicidal period, had enjoyed a long career of inveigling his way into the apartments of solitary women to fondle or rape them. During his strangler phase thirteen women fell victim to DeSalvo in eighteen months.
The principal work on DeSalvo is Gerold Frank's disjointed account in The Boston Strangler (1966). Two less common works are the paperback originals Strangler! by Harold K. Banks (1967) and Confessions of the Boston Strangler by George W. Rae (1967). Oddly enough, one of the principal historians of American crime, Jay Robert Nash omits DeSalvo from his encyclopedic Bloodletters and Badmen (1973) on the ground that "I have made a serious attempt to include only those with known and proven criminal records and those whose convictions and crimes were never in doubt." Nash's point was that the Boston authorities, lacking evidence other than DeSalvo's confessions to convict him of murder, chose to prosecute him for his pre-strangler assaults and then have him committed to an asylum, rather than seek an indictment for murder.
In the Juan Corona case in 1971, news of a multiple killer on the loose did not build gradually but broke suddenly when the police found the bodies of twenty-five migrant workers on Corona's farm in California. Most had been brutally stabbed, and all appeared to have been killed within the previous six weeks. Corona, a Mexican immigrant, was charged with their murders. It was then, by the numbers, the biggest murder indictment in the history of California.
Corona denied killing anyone, and it was not clear what his purpose might have been if were indeed guilty. The prosecution suggested a homosexual motive since all the victims were men, most of whom had been mutilated with a machete in a manner suggestive of sadistic frenzy. However, that thesis was undermined by the fact that Corona appeared happily married with four children and was known as a "hopeless heterosexual." During the trial, when it seemed likely that the prosecution had bungled its case, the defense gambled on going to the jury without calling any witnesses. The gamble lost and Corona was convicted.
Three books exist on the Corona case, the first providing the fullest treatment: Ed Cray's "Burden of Proof (1973). In it the author, who had been a member of the defense team, strongly challenges the guilty verdict. The second work to appear was Tracy Kidder's "The Road to Yuba City (1974), which is more evenhanded in its treatment, but still leaves the reader wondering if a miscarriage of justice had not occurred. (I recently saw an unsigned copy of this book at a book fair at a very high price; presumably the dealer had been emboldened by Kidder's subsequent fame as the author of a bestselling book on computers, The Soul of a New Machine.) The third book to examine Corona was by a fellow Chicano named Victor Villasenor (1974), who reconstructs the deliberations of the jury based on months of interviews with its members. The justice of their verdict will long be argued.
There was no question about the homosexual orientation of Dean Allen Corll, the Houston killer of about thirty teenage boys who took his pleasure from tying them to a torture board then sodomizing and strangling them. The case burst into the headlines in 1973 after an accomplice, 18-year-old Wayne Henly, shot Corll dead and then related to police an unbelievable story of numerous victims killed by Corll, with or without Henly's assistance. Henly's account gained credence only as the police, following his sometimes vague recollections on burial sites, exhumed corpse after corpse. The authorities gave up the noxious and wearisome task after 27 bodies were uncovered. They stated that they could locate no more bodies, but some cynics suggested that they stopped at that point because they had by then exceeded the number of victims in the Corona case and secured to Texas first place in the serial-killer derby.
Three books exist on the Corll murders. The only one from a mainstream publisher took its title from Corll's method of enticing boys: The Man with the Candy, written by Jack Olsen (1974), from whom one might have expected a fuller treatment. The other two are obscure paperback originals, now difficult to locate: David Hanna's Harvest of Horror (1975) and John K. Gurwell's Mass Murder in Houston (1975).
By the time the Corll case broke, Edmund Kemper had set out on a string of killings of young women which terrorized the University of California campus at Santa Cruz. A six-foot nine-inch man in his mid twenties, he kept cellophane bags in his car in which to place dismembered parts of his victims to avoid staining the upholstery. It had become apparent that Kemper was not an ordinary boy by the time he reached age 15, when he shot his grandparents dead. Subsequent confinement in a mental hospital did little for him. Before his criminal career ended, he had killed six young women, his mother, and his mother's friend. Margaret Cheney's The Co-Ed Killer (1976) is the key book on the case.
Also operating in Santa Cruz at that time was Herbert William Mullin, whose philosophy was that "murder decreases the number of natural disasters and the extent of the devastation of these disasters." To avert an earthquake and other such calamities, Mullin killed thirteen people in the course of four months. It was a mixed pattern of victims: a derelict, young women hitchhikers, teenaged campers, a Catholic priest. His life and maunderings are studied in The Die Song (1980) by Donald T. Lunde and Jefferson Morgan, the former a forensic psychiatrist who has made a specialty of multiple murderers.
Poor Santa Cruz. The Kemper and Mullin murder strings had come on top of a mass killing in 1970, when a drug-crazed hippie named John Linley Frazier executed the family of a wealthy eye surgeon whom he regarded as "too materialistic." He then set fire to their home. When firemen arrived, they found the bodies of the father, mother, two boys, and the father's secretary in the swimming pool. No wonder Santa Cruz's district attorney described his city as "the murder capital of the world." All three Santa Cruz murderers are treated in Ward Damio's paperback, Urge to Kill (1974).
In Atlanta in 1974 English journalist Sandy Fawkes met Paul Knowles and was immediately attracted by his "gaunt good looks." She spent several nights with him. Knowles had by then killed some fifteen people, mostly women whom he tried to rape. Ms. Fawkes did not credit Knowles' hints that he was a mass murderer. She should have, for shortly thereafter a newspaper colleague of Ms. Fawkes' who had just arrived from England was attacked by Knowles and narrowly escaped with her life. Knowles took flight and killed two other victims before being captured and shot dead by a lawman from who he attempted to escape. Ms. Fawkes' adventures are described in her book, Killing Time (1979).
Ann Rule was another author who had a personal, though less intimate, involvement with a serial killer, also in 1974. In an area of Seattle near her home, a series of attractive young women began to disappear. In some cases their bodies were later discovered, strangled or sexually mutilated. Ms. Rule, a policewoman who had been a police reporter (and who had two teenaged daughters of her own), followed the investigation from the start, being under contract with a publisher to write a book on the case. After two more girls disappeared one Sunday, she learned that the police were looking for a man named "Ted" who had a car of the same model and color as her friend Ted Bundy. But surely the Ted they sought could not be that Ted, the handsome, fashionable, sociable young man, active in the Republican party? The Ted who had spent long hours manning the telephones with Ms. Rule in the Seattle Crisis Clinic, talking desperate callers out of suicide? It was indeed that Ted.
Today Ted Bundy, murderer of over twenty young women in two years, is probably the best-known serial killer in America as he awaits execution in a Florida prison. Two portrayals on television and five books on his life have introduced him to a vast audience. Of the books on Bundy, Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me (1980), must be accorded pride of place because of its author's close association with Bundy and her background as a policewoman. Also well told are Richard W. Larsen's Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger (1980) and Steven Winn & David Merrill's Ted Bundy: The Stranger Next Door (1980), a fine paperback original. Unusual is Stephen Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth's The Only Living Witness (1983), which is based on long taped interviews with Bundy in which he talks about the crimes while not quite confessing to them. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy (1981) is a slight work by Bundy's lover of six years, published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Kendall.
Through her book on Bundy and other writings, Ann Rule has done much to acquaint the public with the phenomenon of the serial killer. She writes: "Unlike the 'mass murderer' who kills many victims in one fell swoop (James Huberty at McDonald's, Charles Whitman in the Texas Tower, Richard Speck in the student nurse dorm in Chicago), the 'serial killer' is a man who kills his victims one or two at a time over a long time--who never stops until he is caught or until he himself dies. He stalks, and kills, and waits, and stalks and kills again. He moves in the shadows just beneath the surface of our awareness." Besides her study of Bundy, Ms. Rule has written three books on lesser-known serial killers of the Northwest. They have been published in paperback by New American Library, who regrettably felt constrained to issue them under the pseudonym Andy Stack in the belief that acknowledged female authorship would inhibit their sale.
Bundy had stalked his victims in the out of doors and had no need to conceal their bodies permanently. Our next serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, was a homosexual murderer like Corll who enticed his victims to his home. And like Corll, he had the ever-increasing problem of disposing of the bodies. Corll had met that need by burying most of them beneath a rented storage shed miles away from his home. Gacy, with no such facility at his disposal, crammed them into graves in the crawl space under his suburban Chicago bungalow, relying on heavy doses of lime to abate the odor which neighbors often complained of. Over thirty teenaged boys died at Gacy's hands before he was arrested in 1978 and charged with murder. Like Corll, Gacy chose his victims from among runaways and the rootless underclass of a large city whose parents lacked concern for their children or the resources to trace them.
Four books of widely varying quality have been published on the Gacy case. Very good is Terry Sullivan's Killer Clown (1983); good is Clifford L. Linedecker's The Man Who Killed Boys (1980); poor is Tim Cahill's Buried Dreams (1986); and dreadful is 29 Below by Jeff Rignall and Ron Wilder (1979). As is often the case, the worst book is the most valuable to the collector, on the principal that having failed to attract a good publisher, it found the smallest market and remains the most difficult to locate. And no one can blame Rignall for attempting to exploit his role as one of the few boys who had been molested by Gacy but survived his ordeal. (Gacy left another surviving victim. First Lady Rosalynn Carter had to suffer the embarrassment of a widely published photograph showing her clasping hands with him two years before his arrest, when he was serving as a Democratic precinct captain.)
Female multiple murderers, being so few, invite our special attention. There were three significant American women who left many victims in their train. The first two are not in the normal mode of serial killer since they eliminated family members rather than strangers. The third was a serial killer par excellence.
Poison has long been the weapon of choice for women murderers. Aside from the advantage it offers of difficult detection--which makes it attractive to a murderer of either sex--it requires no physical strength or skill to use, can be easily secreted, and can be administered in the kitchen or sickroom, two areas of the house where a woman's presence excites no suspicion. It was therefore natural for Lydia Sherman to employ poison to destroy a minimum of three husbands and six children in a series of murders that began in 1864 and stretched over several years. When finally brought to trial in New Haven in 1872 for poisoning her third husband, she had been given the sobriquet "The Connecticut Borgia" by the New York press, who preferred to ignore the fact that her first husband had been poisoned in New York. Thomas McDade, the bibliographer of American murder cases, says of her: "Her motives were not precisely mercenary, nor did she murder out of spite or vindictiveness. She simply found a family an inconvenience, and poison such an easy solution." The principal work on the case is a Barclay pamphlet entitled The Poison Fiend! (1872). It employs a common Barclay trick of beginning the page numbering with 19 so that a browser checking the last page might think it had more pages than otherwise.
The conviction and imprisonment of Lydia Sherman did not rid New England of female poisoners. In neighboring Massachusetts Sarah Jane Robinson was prosecuted unsuccessfully for the murder of her son in 1886 and successfully for the murder of her brother-in-law two years later. A series of deaths over several years of seven members of her family, most of whom had been insured by a hapless benevolent society, had finally awakened suspicion and led to the discovery of arsenic in all of their bodies. The Official Report of the Trial of Sarah Jane Robinson (1888) was one of several calf-bound works issued under an Act of 1886 authorizing the state's attorney general to "prepare and publish such reports of capital trials in the Commonwealth as he deems expedient for public use, to be distributed one copy each to the various public and law libraries of the Commonwealth." As far as I know, Massachusetts is the only state that had such a policy.
We come now to the only known American woman who fits the classic pattern of the serial killer: the enigmatic Belle Gunness. She was a stout Norwegian immigrant who married a compatriot in 1902 and settled on a farm outside of LaPorte, Indiana, after a few years in Chicago. On her farm she killed a husband, some children, and an indeterminate number of suitors whom she lured to her farm through matrimonial advertisements in Chicago newspapers. Her murderous propensities came to light after a fire of mysterious origin destroyed her farmhouse in 1908 and led to the discovery of numerous bodies on the grounds. The whereabouts of Belle after the fire was as puzzling as her prior life had been. A decapitated female torso was found in the ruins, but despite the coroner's finding to the contrary, it seems very likely that it was not that of Belle but of one of her few female victims, possibly slain and buried to deceive investigators prior to her flight. Although subsequent sightings of Belle Gunness were reported in various locations, she was never apprehended and the remainder of her life is completely untraceable.
A rich folklore has grown up around Belle Gunness. Olive Burt, in American Murder Ballads (1958) records two ballads inspired by her. Those not troubled by non-scanning verse may enjoy this one:
Belle Gunness was a lady fair,
In Indiana State.
She weighed about three hundred pounds,
And that is quite some weight.
That she was stronger than a man
Her neighbors all did own;
She butchered hogs right easily,
And did it all alone.
But hogs were just a side line,
She indulged in now and then;
Her favorite occupation
Was a-butchering of men.
To keep her cleaver busy
Belle would run an ad,v And men would come a-scurrying
With all the cash they had.
Now some say Belle killed only ten,
And some say forty-two;
It was hard to tell exactly,
But there were quite a few.
The bones were dug up in her yard,
Some parts never came to light,
And Belle, herself, could not be found
To set the tally
And where Belle is now no one knows,
But my advice is fair:
If a widow advertises
For a man with cash, beware!
The legends surrounding the Gunness murders are explored in Janet Langlois' Belle Gunness: The Lady Bluebeard (Indiana University Press, 1988), which is further evidence of the interest which American university presses have begun to take in our criminal heritage. Since Langlois' perspective is that of a folklorist, readers desiring a straightforward account of Belle Gunness must rely chiefly on the only full-length study, Lillian de la Torre's The Truth about Belle Gunness (1955), one of the most prized titles in the Fawcett Gold Medal series. Also deserving of notice is the chapter "Belle of Indiana" in Stewart Holbrook's Murder Out Yonder: An Informal Study of Certain Classic Crimes in Back-Country America (1941). In his research on Belle, Holbrook had been unable to discover any book or pamphlet on her. Nevertheless, there is a such a book, a rare work in dime-novel format entitled The Mrs. Gunness Mystery (1908). There is also a similar work in the Norwegian language which I have never seen recorded. I once had a copy when a novice bookseller but did not realize its importance.
In this article I have been able to give only a small sample of the literature of the American serial killer, omitting such luminaries as Cleveland's Butcher of Kingsbury Run, New York's Son of Sam, Atlanta's Wayne Williams, and Los Angeles' Hillside Strangler. Like those already described, their deeds have been chronicled for the enjoyment of students of the darker side of the human soul, over whom the American serial killer exerts a singular power and fascination.