Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend….Harold Schechter

Woodcut illustration appearing in a newspaper of the time depicting the gruesome discovery of Samuel Adams' body in a crate by the docks.

September 17, 1841. An argument breaks out in a second floor office of the Granite Building in New York City. A hatchet is raised and connects with the head of a man named Samuel Adams, smashing into his skull and killing him. His body is stuffed into a wooden packing crate, dragged down a flight of stairs, and is carried by horsecart to a waiting steamer bound for New Orleans. The killer returns to the office and cleans up the mess, thinking he has removed all of the evidence and gotten away scot-free.

He is wrong.

Harold Schechter’s amazing book, Killer Colt, follows the quite different lives of two brothers, John Caldwell Colt and his brother, the famous Samuel Colt, inventor of the Colt repeating pistol. Both boys were born into a well-to-do family that falls on hard times. Their mother and sisters die young, and although his father remarries, the boys are left to find their ways in the world. John hires Samuel Adams to print his famous book on bookkeeping (which goes through 42 editions!), but the two come to blows that fateful night in September over an unpaid bill. Were it not for the astute observations of Colt’s neighbor, Asa Wheeler, who witnessed Colt’s actions through the keyhole of the door, the crime may have gone undiscovered. Colt’s subsequent arrest leads to the Trial of the Century, as the jury struggles to convict him of either manslaughter based on self-defense, or premeditated murder.

Schechter’s book starts slow with the introduction of the Colt boys and their sad childhoods, but builds momentum as the crime is perpetrated and the trial begins. He suggests that this was the first American trial to be influenced by the ‘penny press’, which were smaller newspapers geared more towards average Americans. These early versions of The Enquirer splashed inflammatory and/or graphic illustrations on the front page and carried lurid stories and scathing editorials about the trial. This was unheard of at the time and caused an uproar throughout the country (and this was before photography!). Men and women lined up by the hundreds to get seats in the courtroom to watch the trial unfold. They were exposed to graphic forms of evidence (the decomposed head of the victim was brought in as evidence one day) and dramatic episodes, as Sam Colt demonstrated his patented pistol right in front of the judge’s bench as evidence to help clear his brother. Besides inflaming public opinion, these papers had a direct impact on the trial itself. The widespread dissemination of information (and misinformation) about the trial made it difficult to seat an impartial jury. It was a trial unlike any other.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the bullshit fluff of Sex on the Moon. It was impeccably researched, well written and absorbing. Schechter did such a great job of getting into the minds and hearts of both of the Colt boys, and his coverage of the media circus that the trial became was entertaining and compelling. You can certainly see where the public’s love of dramatic murder trials first began!

If you love a good courtroom drama, this is one for the books. Check it out. Book number 3 for the NonFiction Non Memoir Reading Challenge!

Grade: A

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

The Ferris Wheel, invented just for the 1893 World's Fair

February 24, 1893: The city of Chicago, IL surprisingly wins the ballot to host the 1893 World’s Fair over New York and Washington. The best and brightest of America’s architects descend on the town to plan the most awe inspiring spectacle the country, and the world, have ever seen, with the clock ticking until Opening Day. The pressure is on to outdo the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which introduced the amazing Eiffel Tower, and to put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming Midwestern city. Meanwhile, a blue eyed, charming physician arrives in town with a keen interest in the young ladies who will flock unaccompanied to the fair from their boring hometowns, eager for new experiences. And a downtrodden newspaperman will delusionally envision for himself  the favor of Chicago’s mayor and a better life.

All of these stories are masterfully woven together in Erik Larson’s amazing tale, The Devil in the White City. This is the story of Daniel Burnham, visionary architect and mastermind of the Fair, who brought together some of the most famous architects of the day to build what would come to be called the White City, so named because all of the buildings were painted white (spray paint was invented at the fair just for this purpose!). Utilizing neoclassical design, these men raised one of the most awe-inspiring settings for the fair anyone could ever imagine, all in a two year time frame. They would battle time, the elements, financial panics, and each other during the building of the fair, but would somehow manage to create something unforgettable.

HH Holmes, serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair

It is also the story of HH Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used the lure of the fair and the big city to his advantage. Women would leave their homes to come to the city for a new start, a job, or for excitement. They were taken in by the suave, good-looking Holmes, who wooed them with flattery, gifts and from what it sounds like, groping, only to end up luring them to their deaths. He built a hotel specifically designed to get these women under his roof, where he could suffocate them in sealed rooms, burn their bodies in a specially made kiln in the basement, or sell their skeletons to medical schools (who were so desperate at the time for bodies that they would raid graveyards). When finally convicted it was known that he killed 9 people for certain, although others have estimated the number could have been around 200.

And finally, it is the story of Patrick Prendergast, an Irish immigrant who for some reason felt that if he worked hard to help re-elect Chicago’s four-term mayor, Carter Harrison, that Harrison would promote him to Corporation Counsel, even though the two had never met. Prendergast’s “work” usually involved writing delusional and scary postcards to city officials. When Carter gets re-elected and no promotion is forthcoming, Prendergast doesn’t take rejection well, and instead takes matters into his own hands.

It was fascinating to read about the Fair. Thanks to this fair, we were first introduced to Cracker Jacks, zippers, the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, dishwashers, Hershey chocolate and Pabst Blue Ribbon (okay, maybe we could have skipped the PBR!). The concept of the midway was also introduced, although the Midway at the World’s Fair definitely differs from our modern midways. The midway was then conceived as a way for fair guests to be exposed to people from different cultures, and along the midway people could see belly dancers, camels, Eskimos, an ostrich farm, and Amazonians. The fair was also lit by electric lights on every building, making it a spectacle for night as well as the daytime. People could not even bring their own cameras without paying a fee!

I liked this book just as much as Thunderstruck, maybe a bit more. The Holmes story was so deliciously creepy I could not read it at night, and like I did in Thunderstruck when I jumped over chapters about Marconi to read about Crippen, I found myself sometimes jumping ahead a bit to read about Holmes. Not that the Fair parts of the book weren’t entertaining. It was fascinating to see how such a huge event got put together in such a short time, back before telephones, the Internet or computer drafting. The Holmes sections of the story definitely had more momentum for me.

I hope you’ll check this one out. Creepy yet immensely satisfying. 2nd book for the NonFiction NonMemoir reading challenge!

Grade: A

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York…Deborah Blum

Drs Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, pioneers of forensic toxicology

I’m not known around my office for carrying around the world’s most upbeat books. While everyone else is reading lighter, fun stuff like The Help, some Janet Evanovich novel with a number in the title, or The Girl with the Whatever, I’ve got my nose stuck in books about cancer, dead bodies, and now poisons. So needless to say, no one, and I mean NO ONE, was sad to see me finish The Poisoner’s Handbook. I think I managed to freak out every single coworker and my husband by carrying this book around for a week (no wonder my husband kept wanting to eat out every night! 🙂

Had my coworkers taken a closer look at the book (the twelve word subtitle is in print so small you can barely read it up close, much less across the room), or even the book jacket, they would have realized that this is not a book about how to poison people. It’s more about the history of toxicology and forensic science, and the rise of its importance during Prohibition. Deprived of beer, wine, and hard liquor, people would turn to bootleg liquors made in someone’s backyard for their thrill. Sadly, this wasn’t the safe stuff home breweries crank out these days. It was much worse. Some of the bootleg liquors available then contained horribly toxic ingredients such as ammonia, gasoline, formaldehyde, and acetone….yet people drank it anyway.

Of course, poison wasn’t just showing up on the rocks in speakeasies. During the beginnings of the Great Depression, people apparently had no qualms killing off family members or friends if it meant getting insurance money, an inheritance, or decreasing the size of a large family to make ends meet. Back before today’s modern science, it was very hard to tell when/if someone had been poisoned intentionally, as no one had done any studies on how poisons act in the body or what physical signs different poisons might leave behind. In 1918, Drs Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler founded the very first forensics and toxicology lab in the country at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and dedicated their careers to studying poisons and their effects on human physiology. Their findings would later help to convict criminals, pardon the innocent, and help those who became sick from different poisons.

Blum’s book devotes a chapter to many of the different poisons Norris and Gettler came across in their careers during the early 20th century. It was astounding to me that energy drinks available to everyone and some medications used to contain the radioactive element radium, which would cause people’s bones to crumble; and beauty creams used to contain thallium, which would eventually make people’s hair fall out.  I was also horrified that one of the ways the government fought against people who drank illegally during Prohibition was to further poison the alcohol that was out there, which could and did in many cases kill or sicken people.

Blum’s book was a bit choppy in places, but it picked up steam towards the end. Although the book has a chapter devoted to each poison, the story for that particular poison was rarely resolved by the end of the chapter, sometimes coming to its conclusion two or three chapters later. The book also jumped around in time quite a bit, so you had to pay attention. There was a lot about the party politics of Prohibition and the fights Norris and Gettler had to keep their lab going and gain credibility in the legal profession, which constituted the slower parts of the book for me. It was also pretty graphic in describing the effects each of the different poisons would have on their victims, and how the forensics team would chop up human tissue to use in chemical experiments to help isolate the poisons. There were also lots of animal studies where animals were intentionally poisoned and killed to help learn about the physiology of poisons in the body. This book was not for the faint of heart!

Overall an interesting read for those not too squeamish and those who like good murder mysteries. I ended the book relieved that Prohibition was repealed and that the FDA is there for us now.

This is my first book for the NonFiction NonMemoir Challenge!!! Only 24 to go!!! 🙂

Grade: B

More True Crime Reads!

Just in case you’re wanting more true crime reads this month, Cassandra over at Book Riot has a great post with some fantastic reads about the dead. As part of her commitment to reading more non-fiction (yay!) she’s listed three books to check out:

The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession and Forensic Artistry, Ted Botha.

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab The Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales….Dr Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

They sound so creepy! I will definitely check out Death’s Acre, as Dr Craig from Teasing Secrets from the Dead (review here) talked about working at the Body Farm with Dr Bass as part of her graduate training, and also the Mary Roach book, since Spook was so hilarious.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief: The Astonishing True Story of a High-Society Cat Burglar…..Bill Mason with Lee Gruenfeld

Bill Mason, infamous jewel thief

One of my all-time favorite movies is Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, an amazing suspense movie starring Carey Grant and Grace Kelly. Grant plays John “The Cat” Robie, a reformed jewel thief, who has lived a squeaky-clean life since retiring as the world’s most notorious cat burglar. When a new string of high profile jewel thefts occurs on the French Riviera, Robie is immediately suspected. Thinking that it may ‘take a thief to catch a thief’, Robie offers to help the authorities nab the real culprit, bringing him back to the tantalizing world of wealth and society. It is Robie’s ability to think like a cat burglar that eventually helps him apprehend the suspect and prove his innocence.

 By day, Bill Mason was a successful property manager, married with three kids. But by night, Mason stole nearly $35,000,000 worth of jewelry over a thirty year period from some of the wealthiest and most famous Americans of the time. His unique and sometimes heart-stopping tale is told in his book, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. From the planning stages–where Mason checked out the society pages of newspapers and magazines to find his targets, studied their daily living habits, and researched their apartment security systems–to the execution phase, where he might have to do something crazy like creep along a narrow concrete ledge 15 stories up in the rain, or lower himself into a glass atrium on a rope, and then after all that find out that the owners have done something stupid like leave their patio door unlocked (!), Mason takes us all along on the adrenaline-soaked thrill ride that made him famous (or infamous). Lest you think he got away scot-free, he did eventually get caught and served some time in prison, but it was the ineptitude of the authorities combined with the skill of his lawyers that kept him from the multi-decade sentences he probably deserved. 

Mason also shares what it was like behind bars, what it was like to live as a fugitive, and the vindictive nature of the authorities, who did not appreciate being outwitted by Mason and strove to take their revenge in other ways. Several times Mason was arrested on false or trumped-up charges, and like John Robie, was blamed for other crimes that he had nothing to do with simply because he was so visible. It was amazing to me that he could be walking down the street and the next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed and put into a police car AGAIN, when he’d done nothing wrong. He also shares how hard his life of crime was for his family. His wife knew little or nothing about his double life, and it was she who had to hold things together for their kids as he was dragged in and out of courtrooms and jail. They would eventually divorce but remain friends, and Mason remained very close to his children.

I enjoyed the parts of the book where Mason broke down his individual heists, but I got really frustrated reading the parts about his personal life. I kept waiting for him to help himself out and grow up. It was almost like the guy wanted his life to be screwed up. It made me mad that he was lying to his wife the whole time (he admits cheating on her as well) and he admits that it took him almost falling 16 stories to his death during yet another theft attempt to finally reform his life, not the fact that he was putting his family and friends through hell. Even though at one point he was living as a fugitive, he would still go out to bars and even got sucked into a drug deal. I think my eyes were rolled back in my head for the entire middle section of the book. Are people really that dense? Come on! Stay home and stay out of trouble! Jeez.

I appreciated that by the end of the book he was very remorseful about what he’d done and how his actions affected not only his family but those he stole from, and that part of the proceeds of the book were going towards a robbery victims’ recovery fund.

Not a book I would wholeheartedly recommend, but it had its good parts. To Catch a Thief was much better.

Grade: B-

Teasing Secrets from the Dead: My Investigations at America’s Most Infamous Crime Scenes…Emily Craig, Ph.D.

Dr Emily Craig, forensic anthropologist

It seems you can hardly turn the TV on these days without flipping to one of the many crime shows currently on air. NCIS, Bones, CSI-Miami, Cold Case…you can barely find a show whose premise doesn’t surround a murder. In real life, though, crimes can’t always be wrapped up in a quick 3o minute episode, you don’t always find the bad guys, and one investigator rarely solves the crime alone. Dr Emily Craig, a world and nationally-renowned forensic anthropologist, clears up the myth and mystery of real-life crime scene investigations in her amazing and fascinating book, Teasing Secrets from the Dead.

 Dr Craig’s career began as a medical illustrator, which involved making highly detailed drawings of the human body and surgical procedures for physicians. A man she was dating who worked in law enforcement turned her on to the possibility of a new career in forensic anthropology, so Craig headed back to school to get her Ph.D. in forensic anthropology in her mid-forties. A forensic anthropologist’s job is to evaluate bodies and/or human remains at crime scenes to help solve crimes. Dr Craig specialized in skeletal remains and what they can tell her about the identity of the victim and the nature of the crime. Amazingly, there is much information that can be found from skeletal bones: the sex, race, and age of the victims can be determined from certain skeletal bones, and also how they died,  if knife marks or bullet holes are found in the remains. Dr Craig shares with us many of the trips she goes on as part of her job with the State Examiner’s office in her home state of Kentucky to help solve violent crimes, hanging off of cliffs, crawling into tiny mine shafts and sifting through ash at house fires to locate and catalog remains. Dr Craig’s expertise was also requested in the aftermath of three of America’s most devastating crime scenes from the last twenty years: Waco and the death of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the Sept 11 attacks on America. Dr Craig was there on site for all of these momentous and horrifying occasions to help coroners and medical examiners to identify the victims in order to return their remains to their families.

Most importantly and poignantly, although she is a scientist, Dr Craig shares early and often the need to remain human in the face of such tragedy.  It’s understandable that many protect themselves by putting up emotional walls to keep themselves immune to the magnitude and horror of these violent crimes. However, Dr Craig stresses the importance of staying in touch with the humanity of these crimes, remembering that these victims were real human beings who died violent deaths, with sad families that are grieving their loss. She opens up about the stress of working near Ground Zero for eight weeks after the Sept 11 tragedy, where the sadness and anger of the event hung over all of them as they sifted through the remains of the innocent victims. Yet she also finds resolve in her work, to help these victims to justice whenever possible, and to give closure to their families.

Dr Craig recently retired from the Kentucky State Examiner’s Office in late 2o1o after a distinguished career. This book was a completely engrossing read and I really enjoyed it. I hope you’ll check it out.

Grade: A+

Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper….Geoffrey Gray

FBI composite sketch of hijacker Dan Cooper

November 24, 1971. A tall, dark haired man in a suit boards Northwest Airlines Flight 305, bound for Seattle WA, on a stormy night. He sits in the middle seat of the last row on the right. Orders a bourbon and Seven Up. He seemed like no one in particular, until he handed one of the flight attendants a note just as the plane was taking off, informing her that he had a bomb and would like her to sit by him.

What follows is the epic, slightly kooky story of the hunt to find the man who called himself Dan Cooper, chronicled in Geoffrey Gray’s book Skyjack. Using a parachute and the aftstairs on on the 727, Cooper parachuted out of the plane with the $200,000 he demanded from Northwest and disappeared into thin air and folklore. As of today he is the only airline hijacker never to be caught or identified. Cooper became a cult hero at a time in our history when Americans were pretty down on America (pre-Watergate and during the Vietnam War), and his hijacking was seen as Everyman taking on the Establishmen– and winning.

Like any sensational event, the Cooper hijacking elicited a media firestorm, and conspiracy theories abounded. Suddenly every whack job in the country was the lost hijacker, or married to him. Every unexplained photograph, prolonged absence, personality disorder, or interest in flying was enough to bring possible candidates for Cooper out of the woodwork. Families became torn apart by the case, as relatives became obsessed with finding the hijacker or the money, or proving that their husband/son/brother was Cooper. Gray himself becomes a bit obsessed by the end of the book, struggling in vain to find even one piece of evidence that would crack the case.

It was interesting to see the slice of Americana that became involved in the case. No one seemed really “normal”, but to become interested in solving what many agents at the time called “the perfect crime”, you would have to be a bit off kilter. This book for me was more of a testament to what happens when someone starts to dig under the surface of any crime, or into anyone’s life, for that matter. What you find isn’t always pretty, desirable or understandable, and you don’t always get all the questions answered.

This was not my favorite book, but it was engaging enough to finish, and like the Cooper case itself, left you hanging at the end. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real story as I read. It does seem unbelievable in some parts. Gray describes his wacky cast of characters well, and did a good job helping the reader get inside their heads. I wondered what the real Dan Cooper would have thought of the people who tried to claim his name and his deed. I think he would have had a good laugh. Almost 40 years later, he has still not been found.

Grade: B+