Organizing by themes VIII: True crime

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Having written extensively about film noir and Charlie Chan films and detective fiction—and my maternal grandfather who rose to the rank of Detective on the Philadelphia Police Department in the late 1940s (at the very height of the classic film noir era), it was inevitable that I would eventually turn to true crime–despite it being far less amenable to “data-driven storytelling.”

Actually, that last part is not strictly true…if counting the number of true crime books in my bookcase while counting 100 random facts about me counts as “data-driven storytelling”:

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist….

#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

I address Jack the Ripper in a very specific way here.

Four of the remaining 49 books on my crime fiction shelves relate to the January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, to which I first alluded in this “worlds collided” post.

And I am still waiting for Larry Harnisch to write his book.

Beyond these two classic unsolved murders, I am particularly fascinated by the Chicago and New York City crime sagas of the 1920s—culminating in the exposure of Murder Inc. using the epic testimony of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles (the “canary who could sing but could not fly”). These account for 10 of the 45 remaining true crime books on my shelves.

When I was in Chicago in June 2013 for a conference, I took this photograph at what, on February 14, 1929 was 2122 N. Clark Street, site of the S-M-C Cartage Company:

IMG_0425.JPG

Speaking of the 1930s, I also have three volumes (counting this excellent compendium again) related to the “public enemies” (faux Robin Hoods?) of 1933-34: John Dillinger/Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker-Karpis gang, and so forth.

The other crime from the 1920s for which I own two books—and which I first learned about from this television movie—is the murder for which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried in 1927.

That only leaves my two books on the murder of Marie Rogers–and 29 other volumes, including this nearly-forgotten case.

Well, and here are some tangentially-related volumes.

Setting aside my fascination with Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia (and many of the Charlie Chan films), it is a good first pass at a broad generalization to say that I prefer my crimes from the 1920s and 1930s, but I prefer my crime movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Until next time…

Was Jack the Ripper Jewish?

In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.” [1].

Sir Robert Anderson wrote this sentence on page 138 of his 1910 memoir The Lighter Side of My Life. Its context may be found in a preceding paragraph:

And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews; for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their own number to Gentile justice. And the result proved that our diagnosis was right on every point. For I may say at once that ‘undiscovered murders’ are rare in London, and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes are not within that category.”[2] (boldface added)

Anderson was named Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of London’s Metropolitan Police on August 31, 1888. At about 3:45 that same morning, the body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (still barely breathing) was discovered lying on the sidewalk of a short narrow thoroughfare called Bucks Row.

Eight days later, on the same day the mutilated body of Annie Chapman had been found in the rear yard of a house at 29 Hanbury Street, Anderson would begin an enforced restorative vacation in Switzerland. He would not return to London until after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on the morning of September 30. Six days later, Anderson would assume full control of the investigation of these four (and counting) murders.[3] In the interim, however, Anderson had named Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson day-to-day director of the investigation into the killer who later that month would be given the name “Jack the Ripper.”

Soon after the publication of his memoir, Anderson presented Swanson with a copy. At some point, Swanson penciled his own commentary in the margins of page 138 (which continued onto the book’s blank back pages). In what would become known as the “Swanson marginalia,” the former Chief Inspector described an unhesitating identification of a Jack the Ripper suspect by “the only person who ever had a good view of the murderer,”[4] before ruefully noting that the witness refused to

“…give evidence against him because the suspect was also a Jew and also because the evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind.”[5]

Swanson goes on to describe (somewhat erroneously, as it turned out) how the identification took place, followed by the suspect’s subsequent internment in, first, Stepney Workhouse, then Colney Hatch, where he soon died.

The final words of the Swanson marginalia are “Kosminski was the suspect.”[6]

This was not the first mention of a Polish Jew named Kosminski as a top Ripper suspect. In 1959, typed memoranda written by Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Scotland Yard during the investigation (which was officially closed in 1892) were unearthed. In the memoranda (three versions of which have been discovered), he lists three possible suspects, one of them being “Kosminski, a Polish Jew.”

Pioneering research in the mid-1980s would lead Martin Fido to uncover a Polish-born 23-year-old Jewish barber named Aaron Kosminski as the likeliest match to the suspect alluded to by Anderson, Swanson and Macnaghten. Interestingly, Fido himself would ultimately assert that Jack the Ripper was really a man named “David Cohen” who had been confused with Aaron Kosminki[7]. Opinions continue to fluctuate about the viability of Kosminski as Jack the Ripper, with Robert House’s 2011 book Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect[8] an excellent summary of what little is known about Aaron Kosminski[9].

Kosminski book.JPG

Lost in the dispute about names and evidence, however, is this simple fact: three key on-the-scene investigators and one contemporary investigator believed that Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

**********

Just bear with me as I veer into the personal.

As I have noted previously, I was raised Jewish. More to the point, I am the (adopted) son of a woman and a man raised in the mid-20th-century Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, both of whose fathers were born in the Pale of Settlement, one in what is now Poland and the other in what is now Ukraine.

That I now identify as a “Jewish-raised Atheist” testifies to the conclusion I reached after an adulthood immersed in epistemology: organized religion is not my cup of coffee[10].

Nonetheless, I am proud of my Jewish heritage (even if I no longer practice “Judaism”), even more so as I write my book. Intended initially to trace the genesis of my love of film noir, it will now include opening chapters detailing the immigration of four Jewish families from the Pale of Settlement to Philadelphia between 1893 and 1912. Because I realized I cannot understand my childhood (and attendant immersion in detective fiction, Charlie Chan and “classic” black-and-white films) without understanding how David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger came to be living in Havertown (a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia) in the mid-1960s. And once you start peeling that particular onion…

At the same time, I consider myself an amateur Ripperologist. It is thus not surprising that in what will probably be Chapter 2, I find myself describing late-19th-century Jewish migration to the East End of London:

Ultimately, 100,000 of these Jewish emigrants landed in the crowded slums of the East End of London[11]. At first treated with sympathy, native-born Londoners’ feelings soured as Jewish immigrants soon became the majority in a number of areas, particularly the southwest section (NewTown, Spitalfields) centered on the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Road[12]. The established, assimilated Jewish authorities of London were also wary of this immigrant influx, fearing that these uneducated peasant Jews would cast their own community in a poor light, even though, as I have noted, while they may have been impoverished, they were also literate enough to support a wide range of newspapers and works of literature. The alienation of native British Jews from their own Jewishness (stemming from their recent fight for emancipation from anti-Jewish statutes) has been described as their “Anglicization”[13] and it led the arriving Jewish immigrants of the 1880s to establish dozens of new, traditional synagogues in the East End and elsewhere. Soon, there was at least one synagogue on nearly every street in that area.[14]

Anti-Semitic feeling reached a boiling point in the late summer and early fall of 1888, when a series of brutal murders came to be attributed to the Whitechapel Fiend and, later, Jack the Ripper. One of the first people to be publicly accused of committing the murders was a local Jewish butcher named John Pizer, aka Leather Apron, who was arrested on September 10, 1888. Quickly establishing his innocence, he noted that he had not left his house for days for fear of being torn to pieces by an angry mob[15].

In other words, it is impossible to separate Jack the Ripper from the increasingly visible Jewish immigrant population of the East End. As of 1888, 45-50,000 Jews (9-10% of the total population) lived in the East End. If you assume, as I do, that Jack the Ripper lived in geographic proximity to his crime scenes, there is (as a sort of baseline estimate) roughly a 1-in-10 chance he was Jewish.

You also cannot separate Jack the Ripper from the appalling conditions prevailing in his killing fields. It is no accident that Paul Begg opens Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History this way:

During the 1880s the East End became the focus of a great many general anxieties about unemployment, overcrowding, slum dwellings, disease and gross immorality. It was feared that the unwashed masses would tumble out of their dark alleys and bleak hovels, sweep beyond their geographical containment and submerge civilized society. A working class uprising and revolution was an imagined reality that waited just around the corner. Jack the Ripper gave those fears substance and form, flesh and bone, because Jack the Ripper was a product of ‘the netherworld’ who could—and in one case fractionally did—move out of the warrens of hovels and alleys into the civilized city. And if Jack the Ripper could do it, so could the diseased savages themselves, espousing socialism, demanding employment and fair wages, education and acceptable housing, and bringing an end to the world as the Victorian middle classes knew it.”[16]

Much of the socialism being preached in the East End resulted from the writing and agitation of recent Jewish immigrants, as I observe in “Chapter 2”:

As I noted above, the Pale of Settlement served as an incubator for a variety of socialist and other pro-worker movements. Morris Winchevsky, born Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch in the Pale of Settlement city of Kovno, in what is now Lithuania, founded the radical socialist Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend) newspaper in London in 1885. The editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint were housed in the rear of the IWEA [International Workingmen’s Educational Association, founded in 1884], also known as the Berner Street Club. The IWEA was a central meeting place for the newly-radicalized Jews of the East End, both native-born and recently-arrived. In fact, on the night before the murder of Liz Stride, a man named Morris Eagle led a discussion entitled “Why Jews Should Be Socialists.”[17]

And here we come to the crux of the matter—the morning of the “double event.”

**********

At 12:45 am on the morning of September 30, a Hungarian Jew named Israel Schwartz turned from Commercial Street into Berner Street. At the gateway to 40 Berner Street, he saw a man stop to speak to a woman standing there. The man was about 30 years old, 5’5” tall and broad-shouldered, with a fair complexion, dark hair, small brown moustache and full face. He wore a dark jacket over dark trousers and a black cap with a peak; he held nothing in his hands. As he was trying to pull the woman into the street, he turned her around and threw her down on the footway of the gate; the woman screamed—though not loudly—three times.

Schwartz, who spoke little English, wanted to avoid this tussle, so he crossed to the opposite side of the street. There he saw a man standing in the shadows, lighting a clay pipe. This second man was about 35 years old, 5’11” with a fresh complexion and light brown hair; he wore a dark overcoat and an old black hard felt hat with a wide brim.

As Schwartz crossed the street, the first man called out “Lipski,” but whether he was addressing Schwartz or the man with the pipe, we do not know. Later that morning, Schwartz would tell police officers he did not know whether the two men were together or even knew each other. He would also identify the body of Elizabeth Stride as the woman he had seen.

Once the first man called out “Lipski,” Schwartz walked away. The second man began to follow him, and Schwartz ran as far as a nearby railway arch; the man did not follow him that far. Schwartz then told his story to the police, which was summarized by Chief Inspector Swanson.[18]

Stepping back a moment…on June 28, 1887, a 22-year-old Polish Jew named Israel Lipski had been arrested for killing a young Jewish woman named Miriam Angel by pouring nitric acid down her throat. Lipski had been found under her bed with traces of the same acid in his mouth. Protesting his innocence (and with no motive offered by the prosecution), he was sentenced to death; he finally confessed on the morning he was hung[19]. At that point, the name “Lipski” became a sort of casual anti-Semitic insult.

Back on Berner Street, the 9-12-foot-wide gateway at number 40 was the entrance to a passageway called Dutfield’s Yard. It was adjacent to the building housing the IWEA (aka Berner Street Club). Only a few hours earlier, Morris Eagle had lectured in that same building on why Jews should be socialists.

For the previous six months, a Jewish trader of cheap jewelry named Louis Diemschutz had served as the club’s Steward. At 1 am, just 15 minutes after Israel Schwartz’s encounter with the two men and a woman, Diemschutz turned his pony-drawn cart into Dutfield’s Yard. Something made the pony shy to the left; when Diemschutz touched what we thought was a pile of mud with the handle of his whip, he had discovered the body of Elizabeth Stride.[20] And after Diemschutz ran into 40 Berner Street for help, it was Morris Eagle who brought the first two police constables to Dutfield’s Yard.

Whether or not the man Schwartz saw grappling with the woman was Jack the Ripper, he was unlikely to have been Jewish. In fact, I have always believed he called out “Lipski” to the second man as a prelude to a form of anti-Semitic bullying; one can see the two men walking away laughing almost immediately[21]. It also does not seem credible to me that the man with (possibly) Elizabeth Stride would then kill her in the same place he had just been seen by Schwartz and the man with the clay pipe. Curiously, there is no record of Israel Schwartz giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Elizabeth Stride, though it may have been given in secret[22].

Elizabeth Stride was not abdominally- and genitally-mutilated the way other canonical victims of Jack the Ripper (Nichols, Chapman, Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the latter on November 9) were, suggesting either that she was not actually a victim of Jack the Ripper or that he was interrupted by Diemschutz before he could do so.

Thirty minutes after the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Stride, Police Constable (PC)

Edward Watkins walked through Mitre Square, in the City of London (and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police), and saw nothing out of the ordinary[23]. Five minutes later, at 1:35 am, three Jewish men—Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy and Harry Harris—left the Imperial Club[24], a short distance away from
Church Passage, the entrance to Mitre Square. Levy had earlier remarked that Mitre Square should be watched, presumably because untoward things happened there.

Walking by the darkened Church Passage, the three friends saw a woman (who they later felt certain was Catherine Eddowes[25]) standing there with a man. Lawende, who was walking a bit in front of Levy and Harris, passed within nine or 10 feet of the couple, and he glanced briefly at them. He later described the man as about 30 years old, 5’9” tall, with a fair complexion and a small light moustache; he looked ‘rather rough and shabby,’ and he wore a cloth cap with a cloth peak. Other than the four-inch difference in height, this description is broadly similar to that given of “Man 1” by Schwartz. That said, the description would have fit many men in the area. Meanwhile, Lawende would repeatedly assert his inability to identify the man again[26].

The other two men paid little attention to the couple, although Levy was quoted as telling Harris, “I don’t like going home by myself when I see these sorts of characters about. I’m off.”[27]

Five minutes later, PC James Harvey saw and heard nothing standing on the edge of Mitre Square at the end of Church Passage, though Mitre Square was not lit. The couple seen by the three Jewish friends was gone (or hiding in the gloom).

But five minutes after THAT, at 1:45 am, PC Watkins walked through Mitre Square again. And that is how he found the viciously mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes.

Jack the Ripper may thus have been seen by as many as four Jewish men between 12:45 and 1:35 am on the morning of September 30, 1888. One of them was called an anti-Semitic epithet a few yards from the rear entrance of a club for Jewish socialists, and another Jewish man would find the body of Elizabeth Stride lying near that same entrance.

And the morning was not yet over.

At 2:55 am, PC Alfred Long walked down Goulston Street on his beat[28]. He had done so 25 minutes earlier, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. This time, however, he saw a piece of bloody apron lying near a stairway leading to 108-119 Wentworth Model Dwellings. The near-universal consensus among Ripperologists is that this was a piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron, which her killer had cut off and used to wipe his bloody hands and knife[29].

PC Long also observed writing in white chalk on the wall where the piece of apron was found. He recorded it as “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.”[30] As Jakubowski and Braund put it, “There has been a great deal of dispute over the meaning of the message, because it is not clear if the Jews should be blamed or excluded from the murders or whether the word ‘Juwes’ actually means ‘Jews.’” Nonetheless, rather than wait for sufficient light to photograph the graffito, a possible clue, fears of resulting anti-Semitic rioting led then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren to order its erasure at about 5:30 am.

Even if Jack the Ripper stood next to that wall while he wiped his hands and/or blade, it is not plausible to me that—knowing members of both the Metropolitan AND City Police were scouring the area—he would then take the time to write an obscure message. Nonetheless, somebody took the time to write that putatively anti-Semitic graffito shortly before 2:55 that morning.

There is one final “Jewish connection” to Jack the Ripper.

At 6 pm on November 12, 1888, three days after the unspeakably savage murder of Mary Jane Kelly in her tiny room at 13 Miller’s Court, 26 Dorset Street,[31] a friend of hers named George Hutchinson (who had not given evidence at the inquest, held earlier that day) walked into Commercial Street Police Station to give a statement. At about 2 am on the morning of Kelly’s death, he had seen her talking to a man near the Dorset Street entrance to Miller’s Court. In his remarkably detailed description, Hutchinson noted the man “…wore a very thick gold chain, white linen collar, black tie with horse shoe pin, respectable appearance, walked very sharp, Jewish appearance. Can be identified.”[32] (boldface added)

Hutchinson, who was himself seen watching the entrance to Miller’s Court at 2:45 am, may have invented the wealthy Jewish-appearing man to cover his own presence near the crime scene. But even if he did see such a man, he was unlikely to have been Jack the

Ripper, as the best estimates put Kelly’s death at between 4:00 and 5:45 am; it is extremely unlikely the “john” would have had sex with Kelly (a prostitute like the preceding four victims) in her room then waited there for two or three hours to kill her.

Mary Jane Kelly is the last of the five canonical victims (though I personally include Martha Tabram [or Turner], killed on a stairwell in George Yard Buildings on the morning of August 7, 1888 as well) of Jack the Ripper, although Alice McKenzie (July 17, 1889) and Frances Coles (February 13, 1891) are sometimes included.

For what it’s worth, not one purported victim of Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

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For the record, I have absolutely no idea what Jack the Ripper’s real name was, although “a Polish Jew named something like Kosminski” is one of more plausible suspects of the hundreds put forward, if only because of the writings of Anderson, Macnaghten and Swanson[33]. For some perspective, John J. Eddleston’s indispensable Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia lists 113 suspects—including a catch-all “Polish Jew” and “Unknown Male” (rated a “5,” meaning “a strong possibility” that someone not yet named was Jack the Ripper). For context, Aaron Davis Cohen (the real name of Fido’s suspect David Cohen) is listed as a “4” (a very good possibility) as is another East End Jewish man named Nathan Kaminsky (who may or may not have been Aaron Davis Cohen). Aaron Kosminksi is rated lower, at “3” (a reasonable possibility), while “Polish Jew” is rated a “2” (a remote possibility).

Moreover, the perceived certainty about Kosminski is undercut by Macnaghten himself, as he names two other likely suspects (a barrister named Montague John Druitt and a “mad Russian doctor” named Michael Ostrog). And other high-ranking officials had their own preferred suspects. Secret Department[34] Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, in a 1913 letter, would cite an American “doctor” named Francis Tumblety as “to my mind a very likely suspect.”[35] And Inspector Frederick George Abberline, one of the top officers assigned to investigate these murders, ultimately decided a convicted wife poisoner named Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman) was Jack the Ripper.

Other Jewish residents of the East End have been put forward as suspect, meanwhile, including Hyam Hyams.

And the suspects keep coming. In 2007, retired CID homicide detective Trevor Marriott somewhat fancifully named Carl Feigenbaum (who also went by many other names).[36] This video makes a somewhat tortured case for a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann (who gave evidence at the inquest into the death of “Polly” Nichols), while this video makes an intriguing—if highly circumstantial—case that Jack the Ripper was a carman named Charles Alan Cross (aka Charles Alan Lechmere)—the first of two men (along with another carman named Robert Paul) to find the body of “Polly” Nichols![37]

My point was simply to delineate the nexus between Jack the Ripper’s crimes, the increasingly Jewish (and socialist) character of the East End of London in 1888, ensuing anti-Semitic backlash and the roles played by numerous Jewish residents (including, perhaps, Jack the Ripper himself) in the discovery and investigation of the murders.

Until next time…

POSTSCRIPT: In separate books in the 1990s, Paul Harrison and Bruce Paley each argued for the candidacy of Mary Jane Kelly’s former lover and cohabitator Joseph Barnett; the circumstantial evidence is interesting although the ascribed motive is…creative.

In 1937, my great-aunt Rose Goldstein married a man named Joseph Barnett Spungen, who had been born in Leeds, in the north of England, in 1908. (If the name Spungen sounds familiar, it is because this was his brother’s granddaughter). I always do a double-take when I see his first and middle names.

I do not really think there is any connection between Whitechapel’s Joseph Barnett and my mother’s first cousin by marriage…but I will keep interrogating the extant records nonetheless.

[1] Anderson, Sir Robert. 1910. The Lighter Side of My Official Life. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, pg. 138 (Quoted in Begg, Paul. 2003. Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 268.

[2] Ibid, pg. 267.

[3] Much of the information in these paragraphs comes from Eddleston, John J. 2001.Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. as well as my own deep familiarity with the details of the case.

[4] Begg, pg. 267-69.

[5] Ibid, pg. 269.

[6] Ibid, pg. 269.

[7] An excellent summation can be found in Fido, Martin. 1999. “David Cohen and the Polish Jew Theory,” pp. 164-86 in Jakubowski, Maxim and Braund, Nathan, eds. 1999. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.

[8] New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. See especially Chapters 17 and 20-26.

[9] Who, for example died on March 24, 1919, not sometime in the 1890s as Swanson seemed to think.

[10] I am not much of a fan of tea, either.

[11] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[12] http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/life-in-the-jewish-east-end

[13] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/london

[14] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[15] Begg, pg. 157.

[16] Ibid. pg. 1. Carrying this argument to an absurd, pointed extreme, George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter on September 24, 1888 to The Star newspaper which began, “Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer [the name “Jack the Ripper” was still three days away] in calling attention for a moment to the social question? […] Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. While we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling [sic] four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.” Quoted in Begg, pg. 2.

[17] Ibid., pp. 171-74.

[18] Preceding four paragraphs from Begg, pg. 179 and Eddleston, pg. 114.

[19] Begg, pg. 139.

[20] Ibid,, pg. 174.

[21] The counter-argument that he was attempting to distract from his own Jewishness by calling out “Lipski” has always seemed far-fetched to me as well.

[22] Or Schwartz was Swanson’s Jewish witness, who refused to testify against a fellow Jew.

[23] The next few paragraphs from Begg, pp. 193-94.

[24] At 16-17 Duke Street, now Duke’s Place.

[25] This despite the fact Lawende only saw the woman’s back. The identification seems to be have been based upon the black jacket and bonnet she was wearing and, I surmise, the fact she was a few inches shorter.

[26] Which again begs the question whether HE was Swanson’s reluctant Jewish witness.

[27] Begg, pg. 193. Begg goes on to say that he—and contemporary observers—felt that Levy was being evasive.

[28] The ensuing few paragraphs are drawn from Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 41.

[29] It matched a gap in the apron Eddowes was wearing when her body was discovered.

[30] The City of London police believed the graffito read, “The Juwes are not the men That will be Blamed for nothing.”

[31] The crime scene photograph of what was left of the approximately 25-year-old Irish-born Kelly is the ghastliest thing I have ever seen.

[32] Eddleston, pp. 70-71. Eddleston actually believes Hutchinson is the most likely suspect, as he details on pp. 275-84.

[33] According to the invaluable on-line Casebook: Jack the Ripper, “By some counts, more than 500 individuals have been put forward by various experts, historians and theorists – most based on flimsy or non-existent evidence.”

[34] Later known as “Special Branch,” this was the unit devoted to preventing Irish (or Fenian) terrorism. Eddleston, pg. 126.

[35] Quoted in Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 100. An excellent analysis of Tumblety’s not-unreasonable candidacy is Evans, Stewart and Gainey, Paul. 1995.Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer. London, UK: Century Random House UK, Ltd. The edition I own is the 1998 paperback reprint published by Kodansha America, Inc.

[36] Marriott, Trevor. 2005. Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation. London, UK: John Blake Publishing, Ltd. Marriott did not actually name Feigenbaum until the 2007 paperback edition.

[37] The inevitable “well, maybe not” counter-argument may be found here.

And for my 100th post…100 random facts (about me)

This is post #100; thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.”

December 19 is also the two-year anniversary of this site’s launch (so I should gift myself either cotton or china, and it should be red).

To honor this symmetry, and to lighten the mood from my previous three posts (dealing—however obliquely—with the deaths of President George H.W. Bush, Pete Shelley and my maternal grandfather), I present 100 random facts about me. These tidbits of personal trivia are in no particular order.

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#1-19. I have seen every episode of…

Barney Miller*

Columbo*

Coupling

Documentary Now!

The Green Hornet (co-starring this guy)

The Honeymooners (classic 39 episodes, 1955-56)

Night Court

Police Squad (all six episodes)

Portlandia

Remember WENN

Sherlock

Soap*

Square Pegs*

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sweet Genius

Taxi*

Twin Peaks (including this movie)

The Untouchables*

WKRP in Cincinnati*

 Shows with an asterisk I own on DVD.

#20. Barney Miller remains my favorite sitcom, followed by Taxi and Remember WENN (in some order), then CouplingWKRP and Soap (in some order) along with Cheers and Get Smart.

Barney Miller DVDs.JPG

#21. I have likely also seen every episode of a truly obscure 1980 late-night soap opera called The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. 

#22. I have seen (and own on videocassette) all 20 adventures of The Mighty Heroes that aired as part of the 1966-67 series Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes.

mighty heroes

Picture from here

#23. I have seen every episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.

#24. I have seen every episode of Dragnet released as part of the 1967-70 color revival. 

#25. I have spent the night in 24 states (25, if you count the District of Columbia [DC]). Roughly in order from most to least: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee (one night each on an April 1990 road trip).

#26. By contrast, I have never woken up in a foreign country.

#27-30. The only foreign country I have visited is Canada, three times in total.

The first time was to attend a Montreal Expos game in Montreal[1] on the afternoon of May 5, 1990 (which is what I told the gentleman at the crossing from Vermont).

The second time was on September 2, 1990. I began an eight-day road trip (1990 was my year for road trips) the previous day, driving west on I-90 through Massachusetts then deep into New York. Once it got dark, my rental car radio was able to pick up 1210 AM, the Philadelphia Phillies radio station, so I heard my Phillies sweep a double-header from the New York Mets (and the debut of a young second baseman named Mickey Morandini).

Believing I could simply find a room at an exit-ramp hotel, I had not booked one in advance. What I had not considered, however, was that it was Labor Day weekend. I remember one hotel clerk telling me there was not a room for “a hundred miles in any direction.” Exhausted, and unwilling to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for a hotel room 20 or miles away, I drove my rental car into the back of a Holiday Inn in Batavia, NY. I had had the foresight to pack a pillow, so I curled up in the backseat, using my robe as a blanket.

rental car September 1990.jpg

After sleeping for four hours, I roused myself at dawn and headed for Niagara Falls (which genuinely impressed me). I also found a pay phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 near Detroit, MI for that night. After touring the Falls, I drove into Canada, heading north to Toronto. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I listened on the radio as the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays had their best starting pitcher, Dave Stieb, on the mound.

As I got closer and closer to Toronto, Stieb had still not allowed a hit. And I was literally in downtown Toronto when Jerry Browne lined out to right for the final out of the only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jays history (by contrast, the Phillies have had six no-hitters since then).

I did not stop in Toronto, but rather drove directly to Windsor, Ontario, where I took the Ambassador Bridge north into Detroit—the only place you go north from Canada into the United States[2].

The third time was far less dramatic. On June 21, 1997, my then-girlfriend and I spent the night in Island Pond, VT (which I had first visited the day of the Expos game; different girlfriend, however). We listened to this painful loss in the motel room as it poured outside.

Since Island Pond is only 16 miles south on Route 114 from the border with Quebec, we drove to the border that night, crossed into Canada, drove a short distance then turned around and drove back into the United States.

#31. On that same September 1990 road trip, I was in the original Comiskey Park the night (September 3, 1990) Bobby Thigpen broke the single-seasons saves record.

#32. Speaking of old Comiskey Park (and Olympic Stadium in Montreal), I have been to more major league baseball stadiums that no longer exist (six[3]) than ones that are still in operation (three[4]).

#33. Over four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker (co-running the canteen) and a day camp worker (junior counselor at the same camp as 1978, Indian Springs).

#34. I was a camper at long-since-closed Camp Arthur-Reeta in the summer of 1979. For reasons which eluded me, my bunkmates gave me the nickname “Disneyland.”

#35. That same summer, I was sent home from camp for a week or two with the worst poison ivy I have ever had.

#36-48. I have also worked as a/an…

…part-time assistant (gluing samples into a display binder) for a specialty stationery store in Narberth, PA (summer 1982)

…file clerk in the G.H. Arrow periodical warehouse near 4th and Poplar (Philadelphia, summer 1983)

…delivery driver for Boardwalk Steak and Sub Shoppe (aka Boardwalk Pizza) in Ardmore, PA (spring/summer 1984)—still my favorite-ever job; I combined the Sea Isle and the Margate into my signature sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

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…cashier in a WAWA food store in Belmont Hills, PA (summer 1985)

…cashier in a Washington, DC pizza joint (two weekends, summer 1986), while I was an unpaid intern at the Brookings Institute.

…shelving assistant in the Social Science Library at Yale (junior year, 1986-87)

…cashier at two different B. Dalton booksellers in Philadelphia (summers 1988, 1989)

…teaching assistant (three courses) and three-time senior thesis advisor at Harvard (1991-95)

…research assistant for multiple professors at Yale and Harvard

…data entry assistant at Pegasus Communications in Cambridge, MA (summer 1995)

…Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University (January-May 1996; the less said, the better)

…conductor of telephone survey research in Media, PA (spring 2001; see previous gig)

#49. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City (between Boston and Providence, the beach and Pacific). Back then, before the opening of Resorts in 1978 destroyed Atlantic City, a long string of motels stood along Pacific Avenue between Albany Avenue to the southwest and New Hampshire to the northeast. My favorite pastime was to collect pamphlets from their lobbies; in the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and reminisce.

#50. Another pastime was to charge fellow patrons of the Strand pool 25 cents (or was it 50 cents?) to “bowl.” If memory serves, I had six cheap plastic trophies I stacked in a pyramid, and the goal was to knock them over with a ball of some sort

#51. My mother and I (and my father on weekends) occupied “penthouse” A at the Strand. Penthouse B was occupied by Leland Beloff, whose golden retriever Whiskey I used to walk with our Keeshond Luvey. One day I asked “Lee” (then 31 or 32 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up (had he only known…).

#52. Along the same lines, my orthodonist (on whom my mother had a crush), nicknamed “Dr. Touchy,” was convicted of sexually molesting his female patients.

#53. My mother once told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, because that was when she started smoking marijuana (1970).

#54. I think I was in ninth grade when my mother ruined my adolescence by telling me, “Do what you want, just be careful.” Nice, appealing to my “good doobie” nature.

#55. As this signed napkin (my mother and me) clearly shows, Nancy Spungen was the niece of Joe Spungen, my first cousin, once removed, by marriage. Actually, that should be grand-niece…not sure if the error was in the speaking or the recording.

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#56. Another first cousin, once removed is Lois Lane[5], but she is not THAT Lois Lane. This is one of her paintings.

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#57. On a field trip to Washington, DC on May 6, 1980, I threw up in a men’s room in the United States Supreme Court building. I had a stomach bug.

#58. I still do not know how to ride a bicycle.

#59. However, according to family lore, I was able to read at the age of two-and-a-half. Supposedly, one day in the spring of 1969 I was driving in our Havertown, PA neighborhood with my maternal grandmother, when I read a street sign: “Watch Children.” (In the retelling, it has become “watch childwenz.”). Upon returning home, she insisted my mother had had me memorize the sign. In response, my mother handed me a copy of Life magazine, opened to a random page. I read it perfectly.

Again…that is the story. My wife Nell, a former elementary school teacher with an MA in early education, does not think that is physiologically possible.

#60. What is true, though, is that I was a voracious reader as a child, and I built an impressive library of books—which I eventually Dewey-Decimalized. I once set up a “lending library” on our front lawn. One kind gentleman actually rented a book.

#61. I used to borrow substantial American history textbooks from my elementary school library to read over the weekend.

#62. In sixth grade, two other male friends and I formed the Bibliophiles and Explorers Club. No records of “BEC” meetings survive.

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist. (Ed. note: see here for more).

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#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

#66. As a boy in the mid-1970s, I loved watching reruns of Batman–especially when the opening credits featured Batgirl. In retrospect, it is clear my first celebrity crush was Yvonne Craig.

#67. Excluding a girl I helped get around our elementary school after she broke her leg, my first crush on a person I knew started on a December weekend in 1978. My seventh-grade class had just read A Christmas Carol. A local second-run theater was showing the 1951 film version. As my buddy and I were settling into our seats towards the darkened rear of the theater, I happened to look over to the right. Settling into her seat maybe 20 seats away was a lovely blond female classmate, who I already liked in a platonic way.

My brain did not literally go “zoing!” but that is as good a description as any.

#68. Five months later (May 1979), after my mother, Luvey the dog and I moved in with her sister (and her two kids and Spanky the dog), I flew on an airplane for the first time (I was 12). My maternal grandmother took my cousins and me to Walt Disney World. I have not been back since then.

#69. That was not my last trip to Florida. In March 1993, on a lark, I flew to Clearwater, FL to watch four Phillies Spring Training games (in another baseball stadium that no longer exists, Jack Russell). The first game I saw was an afternoon game in St. Petersburg against—I believe—the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived about noon for a 1 pm start and took a seat in the bleachers. It was a hot, sunny day, so I took off my t-shirt—and kept it off the entire three-hour game (we lost 9-7). Coming from wintry Somerville, MA, it did not occur to me to apply any sunscreen.

I have never been so sunburned in my life…though that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying the rest of the trip.

#70. In fact, I returned the next March, this time with my then-girlfriend (and an ample supply of sunscreen). We skipped 1995 because of the strike, but returned in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Phillies did win any of the 12 games we watched in 1994, 1996 or 1997—an impressive 12-game losing streak with us in the stands.

#71. During that last trip, we stayed at a Hampton Inn (now a La Quinta Inn) on Route 19 north. One night, I was relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. I was 33 years old at the time. A number of young men were also in the hot tub, and they were discussing to which lower-level Phillies minor league affiliate they had been assigned. One of them then turned to me and asked something to the effect of, “So, where have you been assigned?”

Yeah, I was pretty flattered.

#72-74. I was even more proud of the following accomplishments (the first two of which are sort of repeat facts):

-Unanimous election as president of the Harriton High School Math Team

-Winning Harriton’s first ever Latin and Mathematics subject area awards.

-Unanimous election as chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council

#75. The latter election took place on September 21, 1986. Later that night, I visited the room of a young woman I liked. Very early the next morning, I wandered up Broadway—happy and bedraggled—to my own room. Along the way, I passed the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Traugott Lawler. Taking in the situation instantly, he simply nodded cordially to me, and I to him. To this day, I appreciate his discretion.

#76. I had officially become “a man” seven years earlier, at my Bar Mitzvah. As part of my months-long preparation, I was required to write out the answers to a series of Judaism-related questions in a notebook. I never got that notebook back because Rabbi Maltzman (who I adored) decided to use it as an example for future Bar and Bat Mitzvot. 

#77. I saw Talking Heads live twice, in the summers of 1983 and 1984. While I was at the first concert, someone asked my mother where I was. “Oh, he’s gone to see the Walking Dead.”

#78. The only acts I have seen live as many as four times (excluding my cousin) are Genesis (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992) and Stan Ridgway (2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

#79. The first concert I ever saw was Cheap Trick, on October 5, 1979 at the now-gone Spectrum in Philadelphia. My father—to his great credit—drove and accompanied my buddy (the same buddy with whom I had watched A Christmas Carol) to the concert. While seated near us, someone offered him some grass to smoke. He politely declined.

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#80.  The first album I ever bought (Spring 1977?) was Wings Over America—which I still have:

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#81. The second summer I worked at a B. Dalton Bookseller (1989), an African-American man in a long raincoat came into the store while I was cashiering. He perused the magazines before selecting a Playgirl.

He paid for it with a wrinkled $20 bill. Something about the bill felt…off…but it was almost the end of my shift, so I paid little attention. Shortly after the man left the store, my supervisor (who did not like me at all) saw the bill in the cash drawer—and realized it was a counterfeit.

We had to make a statement in a nearby police station.

A day or so later, I was fired.

C’est la vie.

#82. I left my last full-time position—data guru at Joslin Diabetes Center—on June 30, 2015. Three days later, with Nell and our daughters in our house on Martha’s Vineyard, I drove to the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME for a little R&R.

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For supper, I drove north on U.S. 1 to King Eiders Pub in Damariscotta, which I cannot recommend enough. With my substantial meal, I had a glass of red wine and a single malt Scotch.

After the meal, I drove north on U.S. 1 to Rockport, where the Denny’s I had visited a few times in the late 1990s with an ex-girlfriend sat. I had something desert-like there, along with decaffeinated coffee.

When I left, it was past midnight…meaning it was the morning of July 4. I began to drive south on U.S. 1, winding my way through the “urban” streets of neighboring Rockland.

Almost immediately, the blue flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and waited (license and registration in hand) as not one, but two, male police officers approached my car.

One officer came to my driver’s-side window to inform me I had been driving 40 miles per hour (MPH) in a 25-MPH zone; this was likely true, I confess. However, he then asked me what I had been drinking earlier that evening. I was honest, though I emphasized how much food I had eaten as well. He clarified that I had not imbibed any alcohol at Denny’s.

I was then asked to step out of the car.

Oh boy.

I was told to lean against the front of the police car, where I went through a battery of tests. The one that stands out is being asked to follow his fingers with my eyes WITHOUT moving my head.

Which I did well enough, apparently, that I was told I was free to go.

Here is the kicker, though.

I had ostensibly been pulled over for speeding.

However, I was not even given a warning, let alone a speeding ticket. And while I was being put through my DUI paces, the other officer was carefully inspecting my black Honda Accord (Massachusetts plates).

My suspicion is they were looking for a car matching my description, and they needed a plausible reason to pull me over.

Still…oy.

For the record, that Denny’s closed for good recently.

#83. My favorite question as a child—the one that used to send the adults in my life completely ‘round the bend—was “Howcum?”

#84. One day after school (an early elementary school grade), a family friend named Hank asked me how school had been. I responded that “it was a cinch.” From then on, Hank (later a second father to me before his own untimely death in October 1983), called me “Cinch.”

#85. My father, however, preferred to call me “Pal.”

#86. When I was 13 years old (November or December 1979), I took the est training. While I now view its “teachings” with great skepticism, I enjoyed the experience. My mother spent much of the 1970s exploring all manner of consciousness-raising (or altering—I remember lots of marijuana and green glass jugs of white wine), though when she tried transcendental meditation, she immediately forgot her mantra.

#87. I actually did much the same for a few years in the late 1970s (coinciding, not coincidentally, with the start of adolescence and post-parental-separation moves), becoming fascinated with astrology, card reading and, especially, numerology (Chaldean, not Pythagorean, thank you very much). To this day, despite my capital-s skepticism, I still unconsciously ascertain whether a number (a day of the month, say) is “compatible” with me or not (before dismissing the notion).

But when I met one of my closest friends (his mother later introduced me at his wedding as “my third son”)—literally the first student I met in my SECOND seventh grade—I immediately asked him when his birthday is; all I had with me were a blue three-ring binder and my numerology book.

He told me, and I excitedly responded, “Oh, you’re a 3!” (I am a 3, and 3’s get along with other 3’s, you see.).

#88. Astrology actually led to another lifelong friendship. Just after the end of my freshman year of high school, a friend threw a picnic at nearby Ashbridge Park. I had just had my braces removed, boosting my self-confidence. Spying two girls I recognized from their visit to Harriton High School[6] during the preceding school year sitting in a tree, I climbed up to join them. I do not recall if they were already discussing astrology, or if it emerged organically in the conversation, but it was an immediate ice-breaker.

#89. The first occupation I remember seriously wanting to be “when I grew up” was archaeologist, around 7th grade or so.

#90. I have only been bitten by a dog once. When I was maybe five years old, I climbed over our backyard fence and down a boundary stone wall into the backyard of a house on a parallel street. There, the only truly vicious dog I have even known (all I remember is that it—he?—was black) came out of nowhere and bit my right hand in the fleshy part between the bases of the thumb and forefinger.

That traumatic experience, however, did not dissuade me from wanting a dog. So, one night in early January 1973, my parents and I drove to a pet store near Wilmington, DE (my father knew a guy…), where we acquired a Keeshond. It was my mother’s idea to name him Luvey “because he loves everybody.” This photograph was taken just outside the door of our “penthouse” at the Strand.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

He would have been 46 years old (that’s 322 to you and me!) on December 17.

#91. You can have your air guitar. I far prefer air keyboards, with air drummer a distant second.

#92. I have never been arrested.

#93. In the unlikely event I am ever arrested, however, under “distinguishing marks” would appear “White scar under left eyebrow.”

One Saturday or Sunday in the summer of 1974, my father (who knew another guy…) took me for a speedboat ride on the Absecon Inlet (separating Atlantic City from the mainland). We were two of maybe six or seven people on this guy’s boat. At one point, another speedboat zipped by us traveling way too fast and way too close. The resulting wake tipped our boat enough that I went flying into the side of the boat. My head landed on something sharp (or with enough force to break the skin) just above my left eye. A few millimeters lower…

Now, does my father take his profusely-bleeding son directly to the hospital on Ohio Avenue? Nooo…he brings him to his mother at the Strand. After reading him the riot act, she took me to the hospital, where I believe I needed 16 stitches to close the wound.

#94. That arrest report might also include “Small white scar on chin.” That would be from the time I whacked by chin into the kitchen counter, after I slipped trying to climb up to reach something (a cookie? a box of cereal?) in a cabinet.

#95. However, I did not require stitches—or emergency medical treatment of any kind—the first time I was ever in Island Pond, VT.

After the Expos game, my then-girlfriend and I wandered south through Quebec, somehow finding this blink-and-you-miss-it village. We decided to get some exercise by pitching and hitting; we had baseball bats, balls and gloves with us. Doesn’t everybody?

Things were going well until I threw a pitch that caught a bit too much of the plate—and she sent it screaming right into my face.

Luckily, it did not do any actual damage.

Except to my ability to throw a strike, for longer than I want to admit.

#96. My clear favorite “guilty pleasure” movie is Times Square. You can see why this movie would have appealed to 14-year-old me.

#97. I rediscovered it the year I lived in DC. I was so blown away by the soundtrack, I walked miles from my apartment to a downtown store that sold it (on vinyl, of course).

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I recently bought a copy of the film on DVD as well; it is a key part of how I came to love film noir.

#98. The first time I ever bought condoms was that September night in 1986. In those days, they were stored behind the counter, meaning you had to ask for them—with everyone listening. As I did so (“ummm, I’ll take the, uhh, the blue box there.”), a friend was standing in line with me.

The next day, he wrote on a piece of paper attached to the door of my room, “A brave man dwells within.”

#99. Next to dogs, my favorite animal is the horse. This is somewhat ironic in that it was horse racing (and cards) that fueled my father’s gambling addiction.

#100. That is why I never gamble.

Until next time…

[1] The Expos lost to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, with John Burkett outdueling Dennis Martinez. While my then-girlfriend and I sat in the leftfield stands, Kevin Mitchell hit a home run which just bounced off my glove—but into the hands of a youngster sitting just in front of me.  That remains the closest I have ever come to catching a ball. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/def_lineups.asp?Y=1990&T=25

[2] I spent the next five nights just south of Chicago; just outside Iowa City, IA; in Fremont, OH; in Pittsburgh, PA; and in my mother’s apartment in Penn Valley, PA (in the Philadelphia suburbs).

[3] Besides the two listed—and, of course, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—they are Busch (St.Louis), Shea (New York) and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh).

[4] Citizens Bank (Philadelphia), Fenway (Boston), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)

[5] Well, at least until she married Jed Bark.

[6] Harriton allowed students to bring a guest to classes with them for one day. The picnic hostess and another girl had brought these two friends from a nearby high school. The four girls all knew each other from a local church.

Why I chose…Murder, Inc.

In my last post, I described the Facebook seven-day book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations).

Freed from the challenge rules governing, however, I now explain my choices.

In this post, I explore my fascination with true crime by discussing…

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Fictional crime has fascinated me since I was seven or eight years old, when I first started reading Encyclopedia Brown and his various imitators. At Yale, I took two courses on the subject.

But my interest in real-life crime was slower to develop. As a child, I did watch TV movies/mini-series on the Manson Family, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Lizzie Borden. Shockingly, given its graphic violence, I was allowed to watch the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde on television. In 6th grade, I first read about Jack the Ripper.

The tipping point, as is so often the case, came in college.

My sophomore year, I lived with two other fellows in a converted basement seminar room. The year before, a Saudi prince (or something) had lived in that room. He had bought a large color television, and when he left the room (and, if memory serves, Yale itself), he left the television there.

One of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual lab, and a friend lent us her VCR. As a result, a number of movies were screened in our room (including the first pornography I ever watched, the artistic but deeply weird Café Flesh; its Mitchell-Froom-composed soundtrack is still a favorite)

Another film I first saw that year was the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club, a historically-flawed but highly entertaining and visually arresting film.

I had vaguely been aware of such 1930s underworld figures as Dutch Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano and “Mad Dog” Coll, but knew little about them. Schultz, portrayed with psychotic intensity by the talented James Remar, is the primary “villain” driving the film’s plot, through Luciano, Coll and Owney Madden are key players as well.

Three years later, I was living in Washington, DC, working at the Brookings Institution. Before going to bed weeknights, I would watch syndicated reruns; this is when I fell in love with Taxi. Another show that caught my attention was The Untouchables, the 1959-63 black-and-white crime show based loosely upon Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-enforcing gang of incorruptible Treasury agents in early 1930s Chicago.

This is another example of well-written, highly entertaining drama built upon completely invalid history (for one thing, Ness played a trivial role in the conviction of Al Capone for income tax evasion). Walter Winchell’s staccato voice-over narration was especially compelling[1], as was the rich chiaroscuro of its cinematography.

The fall of 1988 was also the 100th anniversary of the canonical Ripper murders, and so this absorbing, but wildly inaccurate TV movie starring Michael Caine aired, further piquing my interest in the case.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that within a few years, I was prowling the true crime sections of book stores, slowly building a library. Then, in 1997 the History Channel produced this engrossing documentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Whether or not Capone really was responsible for this atrocity (this excellent book makes a good counter-argument), this was my first comprehensive introduction to the “beer wars” of 1920s Chicago and, by extension, the subsequent development of “the syndicate” in New York City.

Over the next 10 or so years, despite immersing myself in excellent books on the Ripper case and some dreck on the murder of Elizabeth Short[2], I still preferred to read crime fiction rather than crime fact.

Most likely what changed was that as I scoured the true crime bookshelves looking for new volumes on the Ripper and Dahlia cases, I began to notice other interesting books.

One was a thick paperback with a garish orange spine on which in large capitals was written “MURDER, INC.,” with “THE STORY OF THE SYNDICATE” below it in smaller letters.

I dismissed it at first because it was a 2003 De Capo Press reissue of a book originally published in 1951. That seemed boring somehow.

But I kept returning to it. It was that title, and that black-and-white cover photo of a bloody hand holding a playing card.

I finally succumbed in 2008 or so.

The book exists because in “the spring of 1950, Burton Turkus, a former [Kings County] assistant District Attorney, asked [journalist Sid Feder] to write a book with him on the fantastic ring of killers and extortionists that is organized crime in the United States.”[3]

The book, which admittedly starts slowly as Turkus settles into his new role as Brooklyn ADA in 1940 and is agog at the number of unsolved murders in the Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn, picks up at the end of Chapter 2 with this passage:

“We had to have a Buggsy or a Happy Maione who would put the finger on the rest and reveal the machinery. We needed, in brief, a canary that could sing good and loud—and on key. A Reles would do. Do? He would be the exact, perfect fit! Of one thing in this mess, though, both the Law and the mob were positive: Kid Twist would never break. It was legend in the police department how the Kid was arrested and worked over time and again—but never a word out of him.

“And then, Mrs. Kid Twist Reles walked into the District Attorney’s office.

“‘My husband,’ she announced, ‘wants an interview with the Law.”[4]

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, so-named for his penchant for using his long arms and abnormally strong hands to strangle transgressors, began talking to Brooklyn District Attorney William O’ Dwyer on March 23, 1940. Twelve days later, he had confessed enough dirt on the contract killing organization Murder, Inc., headquartered in the back of a Brownsville candy store, to fill 25 notebooks (and exhausting countless stenographers). In so doing, Reles had provided solutions to some 70 unsolved murders, and his later court testimony would help to convict six men, including Murder, Inc. head Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, of murder; all six were executed.

But just as Reles was set to testify against Albert Anastasia on November 12, 1941, he earned the gruesome sobriquet of the “canary who could sing—but couldn’t fly.” Despite being heavily guarded by 18 police officers on the top floor of the Half Moon Hotel, Reles somehow fell out a window to his death. Some tied-together sheets suggested a botched escape attempt, though that does not quite align with Reles’ obvious relish in telling his stories.

Still, Reles had exposed not only Murder, Inc., but the existence of a vast, highly-organized criminal syndicate, organized by Luciano and Meyer Lansky in the early 1930s.

This, then, was the book that fully introduced me, in riveting detail, to the early history of the American mob, in particular the Schultz-Dewey affair and the consolidation of power by Luciano through the murders of two rival mobsters: his boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria (he of the cover photograph; April 15, 1931) and Salvatore Maranzano (September 10, 1931).

This book is also the single best true crime book I have ever read, chock full of detail and written by an experienced crime journalist. At nearly 500 pages, it is a bit sluggish in place, but it is worth the effort.

Honorable mentions:

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund

This is not the best book on the Ripper murders, but it is the first one I ever read, back in 2000. It is a highly-readable compendium of factual overview, essays and commentary that provides a comprehensive introduction (and a wide range of more-and-less plausible solutions) to the case.

Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs

Forget the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. If you want to learn about the Depression-era bank-robbing gangs (Barker-Karpis, Dillinger-Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd [and the Kansas City Massacre], etc.) and their battles with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the newly-reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is the book to read.

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

As I noted above, Eliot Ness, for all his legitimate crime-fighting heroism, both in Chicago and in Cleveland, had very little to do with Capone’s 1931 conviction for income tax evasion. This terrific book tells the story of the true hero of the story, Internal Revenue Service agent Frank J. Wilson, who painstakingly compiled the required forensic accounting evidence. Incidentally, the book’s title stems from President Herbert Hoover’s direct order following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbitt, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

This story has almost been forgotten today. The “crime” of the title is the murder, atop the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, of renowned architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, violent and paranoid husband of beautiful young model Evelyn Nesbitt (later known as “the girl on the red velvet swing”). But it is Nesbitt’s bittersweet life—and its female authorship—that makes this book so interesting.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

As compelling as the story of serial killer H. H. Holmes is, what I loved most about this book was the way Larson contextualized the killings in the context of the 1893 Chicago Exposition. For example, among other things, it introduced a giant slowly-revolving wheel created by a man from Pittsburgh named George Ferris; it seems everyone wanted to ride “Ferris’ wheel.”

In short, I think the best true crime books do what all of these books do, place crimes within a larger context, so that by learning about the crimes, we learn a good bit of history as well.

To be continued…

[1] This is the second time the late great Elizabeth Montgomery appears in this post. This clip is from the 2nd –season episode “The Rusty Heller Story,” featuring Montgomery as Heller, and she portrayed Lizzie Borden in the TV movie listed earlier.

[2] I freely admit that this characterization is informed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Harnsich, who once live-blogged his reading of a book about the case. Yes, I read both the book and every word of Harnisch’s in-real-time critique. I recommend the latter, at least until Harnisch finishes his own long-awaited book on the case.

[3] Turkus, Burton B. and Feder, Sid, 1951, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (second De Capo Press edition, 2003). Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, pg. xi.

[4] Ibid., pg. 50.