Category: True Crime

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

Jim Ewing, a former Clarion-Ledger writer and editor, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

‘Ranger Games’ is Lemuria’s inaugural pick for our Nonfiction FEC

I am thrilled to introduce our newest First Editions Club on Lemuria’s blog. This new club will focus specifically on compelling, eye-opening nonfiction. We will still look for collectible authors and debut books, but we will select  6 to 10 books each year rather than one book each month. As with our original First Editions Club, members of the new FEC for Nonfiction Readers will receive the highest quality, signed first editions covered in protective mylar jackets. I’m very excited to announce our inaugural selections, Ranger Games by Ben Blum (appearing Thursday, November 2) and Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan (appearing Friday, November 3). Both authors will be at Lemuria later this week for events.

The original FEC, now called the First Editions Club for Fiction Readers, will continue with the same mix of novels, short story collections, and standout nonfiction with a strong narrative element such as Hue 1968.

Our first NONFICTION pick:

ranger games

In Ranger Games, Ben Blum delivers a powerful and deeply personal story, oscillating between investigation and memoir, psychological profile, and cultural criticism. On August 7, 2006, Alex Blum, the author’s cousin, participated in a bank robbery in Tacoma, Washington. Alex was on his final leave before his first deployment as an Army Ranger. He was 19. That “inexplicable crime” lies at the core of Ranger Games, an inscrutable question pulling the many tangents of Ben’s investigation into orbit. Ben circles this black hole by delving into the infamous Ranger Indoctrination Program, Alex’s problematic defense of brainwashing, his Ranger superior Luke Elliott Somner, and the affecting maneuvers of the rest of the Blum family.

This is a messy, convoluted, and achingly long search for Ben, tirelessly recounted in dynamic and moving writing.

It’s a book that defies easy classification. Mary Gaitskill comments, “Ranger Games is one of those rare books that illuminates its subject beyond what you thought possible—and then transcends its subject to become something more.”

I get the sense that Ben Blum is devoted to telling the whole story, to revealing the bigger, more profound and more complicated truth for Alex, for himself, and for us. I am very much looking forward to meeting the author of this tangled, swirling, and strong debut book.

Ben Blum will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 2, at 5:00 p.m. to sign copies of Ranger Games. The reading will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Outrage for the Osage: David Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z (a gripping tale of Amazonian adventure), has produced his first book with a sustained narrative in nine years: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Flower MoonThe Osage tribe in the late 1800s, like many other native peoples of the Americas, had been confined to smaller and smaller territories as white settlers hungered for their land. After seeing the “Sooner” land rushes of native territory elsewhere in Oklahoma, they agreed to divide up their land among their members, while reserving the mineral rights to all the people of the tribe. When their territory became one of the most sought-after oil-producing areas in the nation, it brought fabulous wealth to the Osage people. What a wonderful blessing, right?

Unfortunately, it also brought all manner of opportunists and criminals, of both high and low status–from the federal government placing onerous “guardian” restrictions on the finances of full-blooded Indians, to something more violent and even more sinister.

Mollie Burkhart

Mollie Burkhart

Here Grann focuses on the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a handsome, quiet, loving white man named Ernest. Under the shadow of Mollie’s good fortune came terrible tragedy: her family members kept dying, either violently (her sister shot, her in-laws’ house exploded) or suspiciously (another sister and her mother both wasted away). When she and other members of the Osage (who experienced similar tragedy) turn to detectives, lawmen, and even the federal government for help, they are foiled–sometimes quietly, other times violently–at every turn.

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Enter Tom White, former Texas Ranger, FBI agent, and all-around white hat. He was no college-educated, suit-wearing G-man of the early FBI as we think of them, but he was tabbed personally by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the Osage case after an “embarrassing” mishap that ended with a dead policeman to start the case. White smartly used undercover agents and his powers of deductions to discover that the people who posed the greatest danger to Mollie were some of the people she trusted most.

One of the things I admire most about Grann’s book is its smart use of structure to redirect your attention. It uses our need to sympathize with characters we feel we know personally to narrow our focus, much like the public, and even law enforcement, had their attention narrowed in the Burkhart case. If this were a movie, it would end after the second section. However, Grann proceeds with a third section that might be less dramatic than the first two, but is infinitely more chilling. It roused my blood and opened my eyes, and left me thinking for a very long time about all the souls accountable for the outrage against the Osage.

David Grann will be appearing at Lemuria on Thursday, May 4 to promote Killers of the Flower MoonLemuria’s May 2017 First Editions Club selection . He will sign at5:00 and read 5:30 in the Dot Com annex.

Freaky Friday: ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’ by Gay Talese

voyeurs-motelBefore I just dive right into my thoughts on this book, let me share with you a piece from the cover flap of Gay Talese’s book The Voyeur’s Motel:

“On January 7, 1980, in the run-up to the publication of his landmark bestseller Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese received an anonymous letter from a man in Colorado. “Since learning of your long awaited study of coast-to-coast sex in America,” the letter began, “I feel I have important information that I could contribute to its contents or to contents of a future book.”

This anonymous letter was written by Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Denver, Colorado. What Foos went on to explain to Talese was pretty astonishing: Foos had purchased this motel to satisfy his voyeuristic desires and had built an “observation platform” underneath the roof of his motel. He installed “vents” near the foot of the bed into motel rooms in order to watch and listen to his guests. Foos writes, “The advantageous placement of the vent will permit an excellent opportunity to viewing and also hearing discussions of the individual subjects.”

Gerald Foos kept journals for around 15 years (between 1960-1980) and included almost every detail that he found important or interesting. Yes, there is quite a bit of detailed information dealing with sexual encounters of Foos’s unknowing guests. But, Foos really seemed to think of himself as a researcher of American society and sexuality.

He gathered statistics on different matters, such as the effects of the Vietnam War on sexual relationships, or relationships in general. The motel was located near a type of “half-way house” for men who had just arrived back injured from Vietnam. There were a few occasions when Foos witnessed and recorded men who were either paralyzed or had lost a limb in the war, and that injury’s effects on their sexual encounters with either wives or lovers.

Foos recorded the effects of the desegregation of American society in these relationships, as well. He noted that, before the late 60s and early 70s, white women would wait in the car for their African American counterpart to just grab the keys, and would not go inside together. Later, both subjects would enter together and go to the front desk to check in.

I wish I could tell you more about some of the encounters Gerald Foos recorded in his journals…but I don’t think they are very appropriate for this blog. What I will say is that Gerald seemed to think that the movie Deep Throat had to do with the rise in his guests participating in one particular sex act and that men of the 1960s foos-filesweren’t great at sex, and could really care less if their wives were satisfied–gender roles at their finest.

The Voyeur’s Motel is an amazing work of narrative journalism which I could not put down. The majority of this book is from Foos’ actual journals and notes which were extremely fascinating. But….what a freak…right? Right? I can’t decide. Everyone is curious, but Gerald Foos took it to the extreme, and I thank him for it.

Damien Echols – Life After Death

“I believe it was Henry Rollins, also a longtime supporter and friend of Damien’s, who said it, and it’s absolutely true: it could have been any of us,” [Johnny] Depp said of the circumstances surrounding the West Memphis Three’s wrongful imprisonment. “Because, what, you look different? [The authorities] put their eyeball on Damien and didn’t take it off, even though everything around them — they didn’t look at the insane amount of holes in the case. They just looked at the guy with the black T-shirt and the long black hair. It was a witch hunt.”

If you aren’t familiar with Damien Echols, if you aren’t familiar with the West Memphis Three, if you aren’t familiar with gross legal injustice, perhaps you should read this book.  Life After Death is Damien Echols’ new memoir about his time spent in the Arkansas prison system, outlining his stay on death row.  

Controversy and public outcry has kept these convicted murderers in the news. There was a three part documentary, Paradise Lost: the Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.  These documentaries worked to inform the public of the horrendous injustice that three boys from West Memphis, AR were given.  As exampled earlier, celebrities rallied to the cause.  Even Metallica allowed their music to be used in the film, the first time any of their songs have appeared in a movie.  What was displayed was incompetence on the part of the police, and the legal system in general.  What Henry Rollins is saying via Johnny Depp is these poor young men were convicted of a crime because they looked different.  They didn’t conform to cultural norms, and the police took that as a threat to the community.  Because they had long hair and wore black, they were probably murderers.

With that aside, with that understanding, imagine living on death row for having long hair and dressing in black.  Imagine a situation that starts when you are a youthful eighteen year old and lasts eighteen years.  Imagine that you are in a small room by yourself for twenty-three hours a day because you had long hair and wore black.  I can’ t speak for you, reader, by I don’t know how I would take it.  I can’t imagine the anger that would boil inside me.  Honestly, it is terrifying to think of.  What happens when you are wrongly convicted?  It’s one of the many reasons I don’t believe in capital punishment: innocent people should NEVER die.  (Ahem.  That goes for drone strikes too, Mr. President.)

Keeping all of that in mind, Damien Echols was a high school dropout.  Damien Echols didn’t make it to the tenth grade.  Yet, when faced with the unimaginable fear of wrongful conviction and death row, he found “incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane while incarcerated for nearly two decades.”  While in prison he married, and became an ordained Buddhist minister. Faced with such gross tragedy, unable to leave a tiny cell, Echols continued to live his life.  And this high school dropout, convicted murderer, has written a book that was born compelling and grew into a “riveting, explosive classic of prison literature.”

Read this inspiring tale.  Find peacefulness in the worst situation.  Listen to Damien Echols on the September 25 episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook here.  Happy reading, y’all.

Life after Death by Damien Echols, Blue Rider Press, September 2012, $26.95, First Edition Signed.

by Simon

Graphic Novels Are Killing It, Man!

Y’all,

Why are we interested in serial killers, mass murderers, and notorious thugs in the same light that we wonder what Kim Kardashian has been up to?  In the past I have watched episodes of Kardashian’s show Keeping Up With The Kardashians on occasion.  Now.  I didn’t find them fascinating or iconic or even hard working.  Nay.  I was more interested in trying to understand exactly why Jane Doe next door looks at Khloe Kardashian and thinks “yes.  I need to let everyone know what I’m doing at all times so I can appear as glamorous.”  Watching the Real World is not watching the real world.

I am done talking about the Kardashians.

I had to discuss this because I watch reality television based on my fascination with people who are absorbed by reality television on a level of empathy towards its cast and characters.

I have a less conceptual obsession with serial killers, mass murderers, and notorious thugs.  I have come to the assumption that they do things that are so horrendously counter-culture, we as a people need to know why.  Bigger than the anything in the news recently has been the man in Miami who allegedly chewed off the face of a homeless man.  I would give a link to one of the many articles on it, but I know you’ve read/heard about it.  It is the only thing people are discussing.  (and it’s an election year!!!) 

There are many celebrity killers.  John Wayne Gacy, the Unabomber (Theodore Kacynski), Jack the Ripper, The Zodiac Killer, Albert Fish, and of course, Charles Manson and the Family, and, of course,  Jeffrey Dahmer.  (for Zita’s blog on the John Wayne Gacy book go here)  To a lot of people Jeffrey Dahmer is THE serial killer.  Why wouldn’t you be interested in him?  If you’re a rubber necker, which most serial killer enthusiasts are, you just turned to see the most gruesome wreck.  Dahmer would perform brain surgery on his victims while they were still alive in an attempt to make them zombie slaves. Dahmer was a cannibal.  Why would anyone do these awful things?  That is what makes him a celebrity. How could a member of OUR culture become this sinister?  That is what is interesting.

Derf Backderf is an alternative cartoonist who grew up with Jeffrey Dahmer.  He has been steadily writing a graphic novel about his time with Dahmer since Dahmer’s death in 1994.  My Friend Dahmer was originally published as a 24 page comic book in 2002.  In March, Backderf released a 226 page graphic novel under the same name.  He doesn’t give the reader all the gory details of the murders.  He focuses on Dahmer’s high school experience, and how it shaped him into the iconic serial killer that he is.  I have not read many graphic novels, but I enjoyed this one for its art and its interest in how a killer becomes a killer.

For more cultural writings on the subject, read Chapter 15 of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs entitled This is Zodiac Speaking.

 

Below is Sonic Youth’s classic Death Valley ’69  from 1985’s Bad Moon Rising about Charles Manson and the Family.

by Simon

John Wayne Gacy

Everyone has heard about John Wayne Gacy.  He’s the guy who killed thirty three young boys in the mid and late seventies in “Chicagoland”  and then buried them in the crawl space beneath his house.  Oh, and he was also a professional clown for hire named Pogo.

I’ve read a couple of books about Gacy before but this one definitely stands in a class all its own.  As a matter of fact, this is by far the best written and most entertaining true crime book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them).  What makes this book stand out is that unlike most serial killer/true crime books this one isn’t written by a journalist, psychologist, family member of the accused or the accused himself.  Defending a Monster was written by Sam Amirante, the lawyer whose task it was to defend Gacy against the state of Illinois in what would become one of the most notorious trials of all time.  I’d never thought about it before but who better to relay such a story than the defendant’s lawyer?  Genius.

“‘Sam, could you do me a favor?’

A telephone call, seven short words, a simple-enough request.  That’s how it all began.

I knew the guy on the other end of the line.  Everyone on the Northwest Side did.  He was a political wannabe, one of those guys that was always around, talking about all the big shots he knew, hoping that the importance of others would rub off on him, a nice-enough guy – maybe a little pushy, a bit of a blowhard, telling tall tales, but still, a nice-enough guy.”

With this book you get a whole different type of story than with most like it.  It’s not all just dates and facts and confessions.  This is conversations, letters and notes that an accused serial killer would only share with his lawyer.  The insight and observations are incredible.

“‘This boy,’ he said, gently tapping the picture with his fingertip, ‘This boy is dead.  He’s dead.  This isn’t the boy from the drugstore…but this boy is dead.  He is in a river.’

Time switched to slow motion.  I looked at Stevens and then back at the pathetic, broken lump of a man in front of me.  I guess I had some suspicions; if I was honest, they were there, nagging questions put there by Sullivan and other, the mayor.  They were all so sure.  But until that moment, I wanted to believe my client.  I wanted him to tell me that he had driven Rob to the Greyhound station or that Rob was staying with Rossi or Cram and that Gacy had given him a job and that Rob wanted to leave home.  Something.  Something else.

The gravity of his statement was beginning to register.  I looked at Stevens again, puzzled, then back at Gacy.  I was shaking my head.  Something wasn’t right.  ‘What the fuck are you talking about, John?  That is Robby Piest, the Piest kid, the kid from the drugstore, the kid that everyone has been looking for.  That’s him.’

Gacy looked at me.  His sagging, dead, watery eyes pierced me.

‘So…many,’ he softly murmured, barely a whisper.”

This book isn’t for just anyone out there but if you are indeed a fan of the true crime genre I promise you’ll not be sorry you picked up this book.

by Zita

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