By Patterson Smith

From AB Boomans' Weekly, April 22, 1996. Copyright 1996 AB Bookman's Weekly

To bookmen dealing with the literature of American crime, one reference work is of towering importance: Thomas McDade’s bibliography, The Annals of Murder. Even in the wider field of Americana, its value can scarcely be minimized. Indeed, so well conceived and executed is it, and So engaging in its own right, that it might fairly be said to be one of the finest genre bibliographies in American book collecting. It is therefore natural that the recent death of its compiler brings us to reflect on the work and on the man who brought it to us thirty-five years ago.

When I first met Tom McDade, I was impressed by the contrast between his imposing stature and his reserved but friendly nature. In the intervening years I came to know him as a devoted lover of books, an assiduous researcher, a conscientious guardian of the truth, an accomplished writer, and a man most generous to all who sought his help. He died on March 2nd, 1996, at the age of 88, following several years of declining health. He is survived by his wife Beatrice, son Jared, and daughter Innes.

Although Tom wrote dozens of shorter pieces throughout his life, his memory will rest primarily on The Annals of Murder: A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on American Murderers from Colonial Times to 1900. It consists of 1126 numbered entries for publications that relate to about five hundred murder cases, each of which is represented by one or more publications. The description of each entry includes a transcription of the title-page (abbreviated when unduly long), and the publisher, date, pagination, illustration, and binding of the first edition. Later editions and variants, not numbered separately, are noted. The level of bibliographic detail is a happy medium between the miserly descriptions of Howes’ U.S.iana and the daunting complexity of Bowers-type collational formulae.

The material is arranged alphabetically under the name of the defendant except where the perpetrator is unknown or where special circumstances dictate another label (the Haymarket Massacre and the assassination of Lincoln, for example). Following the first entry for each case is an annotation that sets forth the significant facts or points of the case.

A comprehensive index lists murderers, suspects, victims, and vessels for crimes at sea under U.S. jurisdiction. Authors are included where identified, and place names in instances where the crime is known by its location (e.g., the Manheim Tragedy, after a Pennsylvania town in which a pair of chimney sweepers murdered two women in 1858). A particularly useful adjunct is the inclusion in the index of the locations of cases by state and county.

Librarians who use The Annals of Murder have the highest praise for it. John Dann, director of the Clements Library of the University of Michigan, says it’s "just wonderful; it’s everything a bibliography ought to be," and wishes only that it might be updated to include the material that the intervening years have brought to light. He tells me that of all the bibliographies he uses, he enjoys it the most. Larry Sullivan, when at the New-York Historical Society, found it "a great tool; I used it all the time." Marcus McCorrison, former director of the American Antiquarian Society, and Morris Cohen, professor emeritus of the Yale Law School Library, also regard the work highly; Historian Daniel Cohen, son of Morris Cohen and a longtime collector of early crime, calls it "admirably thorough."

The compiler of The Annals only partially meets the image one might have formed of him from the work itself. Born in Brooklyn in 1907, Tom was graduated from City College of New York, where he majored in accountancy. He studied law at St. John’s University and was admitted to the bar in 1933. These career choices suggest the respect for detail and knowledge of subject to be expected in a bibliographer of crime. The period that next followed in Tom’s life, however, did not accord with the normal activities of a bookish man—four active years in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and confrontations with some of the most dangerous of America’s Depression-era bandits.

Tom’s first bloody encounter was with Baby Face Nelson, a vicious robber who seemed to enjoy killing for its own sake. Shortly after John Dillinger was killed by FBI agents in Chicago in 1934, a car driven by Nelson, the last surviving member of the Dillinger gang, was spotted on a highway northwest of the city by Tom and another agent. Nelson, accompanied by his wife and fellow gang member John Paul Chase, saw that he had been spotted, and after a series of maneuvers by both vehicles, drew alongside the FBI car. Nelson pumped bullets from a pistol in his left hand into the agents’ car while Chase shot at them with a rifle over a crouching Mrs. Nelson. All bullets missed as McDade put the pedal to the metal and sped ahead. The gangsters’ car drew back and, unknown to Tom, two other FBI agents in another car took up its pursuit. Another gun battle ensued with a more deadly outcome; the other two agents were shot dead and Nelson himself was mortally wounded.

This incident had a curious aftermath. John Paul Chase, apprehended a year later, was sentenced to Alcatraz for a life term. When he came up for parole in the 1950s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed his release. A priest who had been agitating for release of Chase as well as of the aging Machine Gun Kelly wrote to Tom, who had by now retired from the Bureau. Tom replied that he had no objection to Chase’s parole, an act which caused Hoover to refer to Tom in an internal memo as a traitor to the Bureau.

Alvin Karpis, the longest surviving bandit of that era, later wrote of the death of Baby Face Nelson, "The cops were knocking off all the big crooks." Another major FBI victory was soon to follow when two of Karpis’ gang members, Ma Barker and son Freddie, were run to ground in Florida. During the 1930s Ma headed the Barker Gang, a loose confederation of Ma and her four sons and other gangsters who moved into and out of the "family" at various times. As pillagers, kidnapers, and murderers who had gained wide notoriety, they became a prime target of Hoover, who described Ma Barker as a "veritable beast of prey."

Tom was among a party of FBI agents who had learned that Ma and Freddie Barker were holed up in a cottage on a lake somewhere in central Florida that was inhabited by an alligator named Old Joe. (Karpis and Freddie Barker had tried to rub out Old Joe by shooting a machine gun at him while trailing a live pig as bait behind their motor boat.) The FBI determined that Lake Weir was the home of Old Joe and surrounded the Barker cottage at dawn. When the occupants met the agents’ demand to surrender with gunfire, the G-men opened up with tear gas and returned the fire. After the fusilade, the agents entered the cottage to find Freddie and Ma dead, he with a pistol by his side, she clutching a machine gun.

Karpis, absent from the cottage at the time of the raid, was now the leading American desperado at large. Four days later he narrowly escaped capture in Atlantic City but a year hence his luck ran out in New Orleans, where Hoover nabbed him in a blaze of publicity. Karpis was shipped off to Alcatraz, where he remained for twenty-six years, the longest term of any prisoner, and then was transferred to another prison. All told, he spent over thirty-two years in prison before being paroled.

Karpis published his memoirs in 1971 and then retired to a quiet life in Torremolinos, Spain. Tom, ever the inquisitive historian, wrote to him and arranged a meeting in Torremolinos in 1978. Karpis was an able raconteur with a capacious memory for the gangster days of the thirties, and the pair spent two evenings together talking over old times. Tom was silent on one point. Freddie and Ma Barker had been Karpis’ closest friends, and Tom could not bring himself to mention that he had been in the FBI raiding party that had brought about their deaths.

Tom left the FBI in 1938. During World War II he served in the Pacific in the Army Special Services, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. He reorganized the Manila Police Department and was awarded a Bronze Star. In 1946 he joined General Foods, where he served as controller and director of corporate security. By this time, his interest in crime literature had taken hold, and he began acquiring pamphlets and broadsides relating to trials and executions. His home in Purchase, New York, was known locally as "Scotland Yard," and letters so addressed, without benefit of street name or number, would reach him. (In 1980 murder came close to Scotland Yard when Jean Harris, the respected headmistress of a girls’ school, shot and killed her estranged lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, the "Scarsdale Diet" doctor, in his home nearby. Bea McDade’s fifteen minutes of fame was encapsulated in a photograph in the New York Times when she was interviewed by a reporter seeking a neighbor’s viewpoint.)

During the 1950s, Tom’s crime-collecting activity brought him into contact with many others with a similar interest, most notably Roger Butterfield, national affairs editor for Time-Life, author of The American Past, and a frequent writer on historical subjects. Butterfield’s interest in American murder trials led him to form a sizeable collection, which he subsequently sold at a favorable price to the New York State Historical Assocation for its new building in Cooperstown. When he later retired from journalism to take up antiquarian bookselling in Hartwick, he may well have regretted letting go such a prime cache of Americana.

Louis C. Jones, director of NYSHA, was also much interested in criminal history and invited Tom to speak on American murders at one of the periodic Cooperstown seminars sponsored by the association. Bea recalls the trepidation amongst the ladies present, who were used to gentler fare, when Tom, always an effective speaker, demonstrated how to tie a hangman’s noose.

To pursue and share their common interest, Tom and Butterfield formed an association of devotees called the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder, which was inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s noted essay, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." The society had no constitution, dues, or trappings of membership beyond an attractive membership card featuring a large red fingerprint pattern, but it functioned effectively as an instrument for bringing together for dinner a congenial group interested in the subject of murder.

One dinner meeting which I attended took place shortly after the New York courts had ruled against the death penalty, for which the electric chair was then the preferred method. Tom in his invitation had asked each of us to come prepared with a newspaper headline suitable to the occasion. I was proud of my contribution, which was "No More Fried Yeggs," until I found that another participant had come up with the very same headline.

Also attending that meeting was Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist and playwright. Feiffer told me that when outlining the plot for his play "Little Murders," he had envisioned a closing scene in which the curtain came down on a room whose walls and furniture were liberally besplattered with blood, that scene to be followed by the curtain rising on the same room completely free of blood. After consulting with professionals, he learned that there was no way of accomplishing such a transformation, and he had to come up with a new plot device. Such are the limitations of stagecraft.

One of the earliest members of the society was Elsbeth Bothe, a defense attorney who had collected books since the age of twelve. Ms. Bothe had seen mention of the society in the New York Times and got in touch with Tom, who enlisted her to speak on women murderers at a Cooperstown seminar. Her favorite case was that of Elizabeth Wharton, whose Baltimore home in 1871 was not far from where Ms. Bothe then lived. Ms. Wharton, a high-society widow, was suspected of poisoning both her long-time family confidant who had advanced her money and an investment clerk who kept her accounts. The former died and the latter barely survived. Ms. Wharton, labeled "The Baltimore Borgia," was tried for murder amid great public excitement, and acquitted. The trial arrayed many medical experts for and against her and did much to cast medical jurisprudence into ill repute. Many years after her Cooperstown presentation, Ms. Bothe was appointed to the bench and herself presided over several murder trials.

Another member of the Society of Connoisseurs was Edward Radin, a founder of the Mystery Writers of America and the author of Lizzie Borden, the Untold Story. This work set forth a new theory of the case that rejected Lizzie as the murderer of her mother and father, which was the accepted view held by Edmund Pearson, the doyen of American crime writers. Radin’s book prompted the formation of yet another whimsical group, The Society of the Friends of Lizzie Borden, and brought forth the following lines by Manfred Lee, one of the two authors behind the Ellery Queen pseudonym:

Lizzie Borden’s lethal acts
Now stand belied by Radin’s facts.
All hail to Ed! Your feat has won
The axe that whacks Miz Pearson’s son!

There was an Ed whose Pearson eye
Could not distinguish truth from lie.
I need not tell you who went Radin
And saved Fall River’s libeled maiden!

Still another member of the Society of Connoisseurs was Charles Norman, poet, painter and biographer, who served with Tom for many years on the Fact Crime panel of the Mystery Writers of America and recalls him as a charming colleague. Norman was a devoted reader of true crime who contributed to the genre through The Genteel Murderer (Macmillan, 1956), his finely drawn account of Thomas Wainwright, the nineteenth-century esthete, painter, critic, forger and poisoner.

As Tom’s collection of trials and broadsides grew, it fed his interest in what the material portrayed concerning the development of the American criminal procedure. He resolved to compile a bibliography of American murder cases through the year 1900, a task which took many years to complete. Bea often found vacuuming Scotland Yard difficult with Tom’s citation slips laid out on the floor.

Tom was careful to define the boundaries of The Annals of Murder, and dealers and collectors would do well to study his introduction to the work before proclaiming an item "Not in McDade." The "false positives" arising from such a claim fall chiefly into three categories: (1) trials for manslaughter, which Tom generally excludes, (2) execution sermons, which are included only if they contain sufficient factual content, and (3) cases which purport to be factual but are in fact fictional. The last category includes a high proportion of stories of women murderers, such as the 1852 pamphlet with the chatty title, Jealousy and Murder, or Life and Wonderful Adventures of Mary Simerton, Who Killed Her Husband and His Mistress, Miss Ellen Levere in the Care of that Band of Robbers, Counterfeiters, and Murderers, Known Far and Wide as the Mysterious League, Where She Followed Them in Disguise of a Man.

To be sure, sometimes the errors are in the other direction. I recently acquired a pamphlet entitled Mrs. Druse’s Case, and Maggie Houghtaling (Phila., 1887). The major portion of work concerned Mrs. Druse, a woman in upstate New York who murdered her abusive husband. In this task she was assisted by her fourteen-year-old nephew. Mrs. Druse spent the next day dismembering the body, now assisted by her nineteen-year-old daughter while her nephew and son played checkers. My suspicion that the work was fictional seemed confirmed by its appearance in Wright’s American Fiction, but further investigation was indicated.

On my computer I fired up the Espy File, a database of executions in the United States. This useful tool was derived from the voluminous archive of M. Watt Espy, an opponent of the death penalty who has attempted to gather information on every American execution. When Espy began his project in 1970, he employed The Annals of Murder as a starting point and received help and encouragement from Tom in his endeavors. Under the auspices of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, key data from the Espy archive were later abstracted, computerized, and offered to scholars in disk format in 1987. The database contains 14,500 cases, for which are shown the name, sex, race, age, and occupation of the condemned, the crime committed, and the date, place, and method of execution.

Since information on cases from the earlier centuries was often missing, incomplete, or contradictory, there was ample room for the growth and refinement of the archive. Unfortunately, bad feeling developed between Espy and the university professors overseeing the computerization of the project, who Espy felt looked down on him because of his lack of academic credentials. Accordingly, Espy continues to supplement his archive, now grown to over 18,000 cases, but the ICPSR database contains none of the new information.

Despite its many errors and omissions, I find the ICPSR Espy database very useful. It has enabled me to determine whether a murderer depicted on a wanted posters was later captured and executed, to decipher a badly scrawled name on the back of photo carte-de-visite of a convict chained to a cell floor, and, turning to the case at hand, to discover whether Mesdames Druse and Houghtaling were for real. To my great delight, if not to that of the two women, I found that Roxalana Druse was hanged in 1887 and Margaret Houghtaling, whose case was unrelated to Druse, in 1817.

When Tom began his work on The Annals, his editor at the University of Oklahoma Press advised him to follow the style of Ramon Adams’ Six-Guns and Saddle Leather: A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on Western Outlaws and Gunmen, which the press had published in 1951. When completed, The Annals not only closely resembled its predecessor in layout, but also in number of entries and page count. Since these two reference works dominate American crime bibliography, it is interesting to contrast their aims and accomplishments.

Although classified by Tanselle as a genre bibliography, Adams’ work is more properly viewed as a subject bibliography. Whereas McDade’s material is almost entirely limited to primary sources, Adams’ comprises both primary and secondary sources. The latter predominate in Adams, especially so in the greatly expanded second edition of 1969, which contains some 2500 entries. In presiding over this prodigious mass of data, Adams takes upon himself the role of guardian of the history of the American west, winnowing truth from falsehood in a vast body of literature where myths abound and error is not easily expunged. Look through Adams’ annotations and you will find scarcely a page in which the compiler has not noted a work containing some event misreported, some baseless legend repeated, some lawman or outlaw misidentified, some name misspelled, or some date falsely recorded.

It does not diminish Adams’ inestimable value as arbiter of western lore to note that his Six-Guns and Saddle Leather does itself contain many errors, some egregious. For example, his entry for Langdon W. Moore’s autobiography describes it as the "experiences of an early-day detective." Moore in fact was a bank burglar. Equally indicative of Adams’ apparent failure to examine all of his material is his inclusion in his bibliography of Edgar James’ book on the Allen outlaws. Seventeen Allen gang members killing a judge and five others in a courthouse shoot-out does indeed sound like a scene from the Wild West, but in fact it occurred in Virginia.

No errors of such magnitude occur in The Annals, and even minor errors are rare. Any discrepancy that one might find between Tom’s physical description of an item and a copy at hand likely arises from a variant state which his research had failed to disclose. It was in the nature of much of the material that he was dealing with—pamphlets hastily written, crudely printed, and altered to meet new developments in the trial, sentence, or execution—that many such variations would occur.

The annotations in The Annals serve a different purpose than in Six-Guns. Tom’s object was purely to describe the "significant facts or points of every case," occasionally noting important features not apparent from the title of the work. We can be grateful for Tom’s exegeses, for accomplishing such a modest aim is in my experience not easy. While many of the items in The Annals are straightforward accounts written for the public and are accordingly easy to summarize, many others are not. Trial transcriptions particularly are not exemplars of narrative prose, and often leave one struggling to determine the essence of what happened. (The judge’s charge to the jury, when one appears, usually contains the best summary.)

Tom’s annotations vary in length. Sometimes a single line of dry prose suffices. In describing the "The Barrel Mystery"; or, the Career, Tragedy and Trial of Henry Jumpertz (Chicago, 1859), his note reads: "Jumpertz was a journeyman barber who cut up his mistress, stuffed her in a whiskey barrel, and shipped her, via rail, to New York." Sometimes he gives more details and an assessment. In the Molineux case of 1898, which Tom says "ranks high on the list of American murder cases," he describes at greater length how a prominent New Yorker employed potassium cyanide against a rival for a young lady’s hand and an athletic director with whom he had been feuding. His entry records the edition of the trial published by Knopf in 1929, one of the few instances in The Annals where he includes a work published many years after the event because of the absence of a contemporary publication.

When The Annals was published in 1961, it was very favorably reviewed in the scholarly journals. The Mystery Writers of America awarded it a Special Edgar. As would be expected, the mass-market media did not review it, with the notable exception of Newsweek, which described it as "a scholarly volume which should lift the hearts of devoted students of the theory and practice of homicide." Despite the acclaim it received and its demonstrated value to bookmen, the University of Oklahoma Press unaccountably did not keep its offspring in print and even chose to remainder copies left in inventory.

The first I saw of the book saw was an advance copy in the form of folded and gathered sheets, sent to me by the publisher at Tom’s behest. At that time, I had been in dealing in books only a few years, and although I specialized in criminal history, I knew nothing of Tom or of his work in progress. But on examination it was immediately apparent that The Annals of Murder was an invaluable contribution. Isn’t it nice, I thought, that publishers are producing such fine crime bibliographies; when will I see another like it? I never did.

In the intervening years the work has come to the notice of a wider and wider audience as collecting interest in the history of American crime has grown and scholars have plumbed it more deeply. The most notable academic acquisition of McDade material in recent years came in 1992 when John Dann acquired for the Clements Library the Medler Collection of American crime. The previous director of Clements had held to a policy of not buying criminal material on the ground that it was not suitable for that library (good grief!). With the subsequent acquisition of an enormous archive of the National Police Gazette, Clements now ranks very high as a scholarly resource for American social history as revealed through the study of criminal behavior and society’s reaction to it.

The Medler Collection, which was one of the most extensive crime collections of McDade material in private hands, was formed by James Medler of Brooklyn. Jim was an assiduous collector who would periodically visit or call to find out if I had anything new for him. In later years I seldom did, because his holdings were so extensive. This excuse did not save me from reproof, however, and Jim would unfailingly advise me that, in contrast to my ineffectualness, he had just picked up such-and-such an item from so-and-so, a competing dealer. Although Tom acknowledged Jim’s assistance in making his library available in compiling The Annals, Jim would not permit me to pass along his phone number or address to others seeking information. It is fortunate that his books are now accessible through the Clements Library.

Another library with a strong and growing collection of criminal literature is Kent State University, which has been the recipient of generous bequests from Albert Borowitz of Cleveland, a leading crime collector and author of several books and many articles in the field. Al’s interest in crime has always extended beyond the criminal events themselves to the literary, dramatic, and artistic legacies of these events. Examples would include Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a novel based on the Chester Gillette murder case; Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, a drama patterned on John Dillinger; and the Staffordshire china figures of Frederick and Maria Manning, which were sold in England to commemorate the husband-and-wife team that was hanged for murder in 1849 as Dickens and others looked on.

Al had been introduced to book collecting by his father, David Borowitz, a prominent collector of English literature with a world-famous collection of George Cruikshank. When trolling for books for himself, the father would keep an eye out for his son’s interests in crime, and in this manner Al through this father came to know Tom McDade. Although Al’s interests are not limited to American murder cases, he finds that he uses Tom’s Annals more than any other crime reference. Besides being very good at succinctly stating the facts of complex matters, he notes that "it reinforces compulsive collecting." (If you’re interested in the murder of the beautiful Ellen Jewett by her sweetheart in 1836—the first case in which the participants were interviewed by newspapermen—would you be content not owning all eleven contemporary publications on the case?)

Historians have taken up many themes that relate crime to other currents running through nineteenth-century society. David Ray Papke draws on journalism, memoirs, and fiction to explore the changing image of the criminal within the social matrix in his Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the Loss of Critical Perspective, 1830-1900 (Archon, 1987). Louis P. Masur examines how the debate over the death penalty reflected changes in American culture in his Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (Oxford, 1989).

In a more recent work Daniel Cohen also draws heavily on McDade material in his Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (Oxford, 1993). One of the themes of this richly detailed study is the decline in authority of Protestant ministers and their theological notions of sin as lawyers and journalists came to replace clergymen as moral arbiters in the public consciousness.

Cohen’s work also illustrates how an historian can derive significance from what appears to be barren ground. Tom’s introduction to The Annals has this to say of execution sermons, a popular genre in colonial America: "Most of such printed sermons contain few if any facts of the crime or of the persons involved. Full of hell-fire and Old Testament theology, they contribute nothing to the subject of murder in America." Plausible though that statement is, Cohen’s scrutiny of the rhetoric of sermons reveals changing contours in the clergy’s attitudes toward retribution and secular authority.

Cohen has made further use of McDade material in a study of "familicide," an event in which a father slays his wife and children, as portrayed in Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic novel Wieland. Finding that all seven cases of familicide were limited to the years between 1780 and 1850, Cohen argues that they were the product not only of psychoses that fit neatly into modern psychological classifications, but also of new stresses that entered American society in the early days of the new republic. These stresses included increasing personal freedom, autonomy, and mobility, and a shift in the paradigmatic relationship between husband and wife away from traditional patriarchal authority toward the ideal of mutual romantic love.

The pattern of entries in The Annals also illustrates changing ways in the means through which information on crime is transmitted to the public. If we examine the entries for the Borden murder case, which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892, we find four contemporary books or pamphlets published around the time of the trial. In 1832 not far from Fall River, another killing had taken place. The body of a young woman was found hanging from a hayrick in a manner contrived to suggest suicide. A note in the girl’s handbag led to the arrest and trial for murder of a Methodist minister who had got her with child. (Like Lizzie Borden, the minister was acquitted.)

In contrast to the four Borden publications, The Annals lists no less than twenty-one contemporary publications on the earlier case. In the sixty years that passed between the two events, the economies of steam printing had led to an enormous growth in newspapers capable of supplying an eager public with crime news on a daily basis. Pamphleteering could not compete and began to die out as newspaper reporting supplanted it. In fact, the Borden case, along with its other fascinations, is something of a journalistic landmark in being the first American murder case to receive extensive wire-service coverage.

Although The Annals was Tom’s only book, he was the author of many shorter pieces which appeared in journals and books. These included an article on E. E. Barclay, an early publisher of lurid pamphlets; on English "Gallows Literature of the Streets"; on Christian Brown, an American publisher of similar material; on Matthias, a self-styled New York prophet involved in swindling and murder; on the New York Tombs, which appeared as a new introduction to the reprint of Charles Sutton’s work by that title; on Tom’s turn at handling looney complaints at the FBI’s "Nut Desk"; and on publications of "The Assassination Industry" engendered by the murder of President Kennedy.

Tom also wrote several fictional stories with clever turns of plot, some of which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Another piece, typical of Tom’s inventive choice of subject, appeared in Albert Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Entitled "Take the Money and Run," it dealt with the options open to a crook who sought to flee the country and legally keep his ill-got gains.

In the factual area, Tom’s expertise was not limited to American crime. Reading Richard Rovere’s Howe & Hummel (Farrar, Straus, 1947), a delicious account of the shyster law firm that enlivened the New York City bar in the latter half of the last century, Tom came upon a passage dealing with the mystery that surrounded the early career of Frederick William Howe, the older half of the partnership. Howe, who would never speak of his origins, was rumored to be an ex-convict who had immigrated from England. Rovere quoted further speculation that Howe had appeared as a witness at a London murder trial known as the "Stansfield Case" in 1840. Tom was a close reader of the Notable British Trial series, and this passage piqued his memory. He reached for his copy of the Trial of James Blomfield Rush (Hodge, 1928).

Rush was a farmer who had borrowed 5000 from his landlord. When pressed for repayment, he swept into the landlord’s home one night and shot four members of the household, two fatally. The shootings took place in Stanfield Hall, the trial was held in Norwich, not London, and in the year 1849, not 1840. Despite these discrepancies, the book on the trial revealed the presence of a young clerk from the defendant’s law office named Howe. Eager to share his discovery about the transplanted Englishman’s past, Tom wrote to Rovere, who never responded.

Tom’s wide knowledge was put to use in his labors on behalf of Mystery Writers of America, which in addition to making an annual Edgar award for the best mystery of the year, also makes an annual award for the best fact crime publication. (The Annals was a publication outside the normal fact crime category and was deemed worthy of a Special Edgar in 1961.) For many years Tom served on the panel which made the fact crime selections. In addition to his ability to judge a good story well told, Tom’s sharp eye routinely spotted errors which betrayed either sloppy writing or bald ignorance. I acquired many review copies from Tom over the years, and there were few in which his pencil had not marked a misstatement of fact or a misspelling.

Accuracy was important to Tom. In his letters to the many authors with whom he corresponded, he often pointed out—gently—errors that he discovered in their accounts, because he believed that any conscientious writer would have liked him to. In Richard Altick’s Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murders and Manners in the Age of Victoria (Norton, 1970), for which Tom provided a contemporary illustration, the author describes the case of James Greenacre, who killed and dismembered his bride-to-be in 1836 after learning that she had lied about her wealth. The story of Greenacre’s exertions in transporting the corpse’s head, torso, and legs to various spots around London via omnibus, cab, and cart was one that engrossed his contemporaries. A tale took hold that Greenacre nearly fainted when he boarded the omnibus and was told that the fare was "sixpence a head."

In his book’s source-notes, Altick wrote that he did not know of any single full account of the Greenacre murder. Tom, predictably, did know of such an account, and referred him to a 476-page book published in 1837. Tom also noted that Altick erred in referring to the victim of Harvard Professor Webster as "Professor Parkman." Doctor Parkman, slain in 1850 by his debtor, never taught.

Writers who heard from Tom when they nodded were usually appreciative, and told him so. When Tom read In Cold Blood, he noticed that in recounting the proceedings of the trial of the killers, the author placed the judge’s charge to the jury before the conclusion of the attorneys’ summations. Tom pointed out the error in a letter to Truman Capote, who acknowledged his mistake and responded graciously.

Fact checking was not the only way Tom was helpful to others. He was always generous in providing independent knowledge and welcomed inquiries from anyone he could help. He did not limit his assistance to literary matters. After retiring from General Foods, he donated many hours of legal services to prisoners at the county jail at Valhalla, New York, which he visited weekly.

At the same institution Bea gave classes in many kinds of handicraft, including drawing, ceramics, sewing, and leather work. (She is also a skilled carpenter and designer whose former home in Purchase and summer retreat in the Berkshires are filled with her handiwork.) She had a cell of her own—No. 942, where she kept her art supplies locked up. She instructed the prisoners to call her "Ma" and Tom "Pa," which had some effect in curbing the foul language that most prisoners used. If a prisoner complained to Bea about some legal injustice, she would tell him, "You’re in Art class now. Wait for Pa."

A friend of Tom’s and a frequent correspondent was Jonathan Goodman, the English crime writer, who has included contributions by Tom in his edited works. When Jonathan asked Tom for his biography a few years ago, when he was in failing health, Tom replied in a letter: "I started this letter feeling fine, and thought I would tell you all about my life. But now that I think of it, it would be a tale of the books I have read." It would also be a tale of the book and the articles that he himself wrote and has left to us to read.


I am grateful for the many persons have provided information for this article, including Albert Borowitz, Elsbeth Bothe, Margaret Butterfield, Daniel and Morris Cohen, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Watt Espy, Jonathan Goodman, Marcus McCorrison, Beatrice and Jared McDade, Willis Monie, Charles Norman, Priscilla Ridgeway, and Larry Sullivan.