Books by Harold Schechter
It is good whenever I can give a shout out review to a nonfiction writer who may not get the attention that I give to some of my other favs, but I will admit I am a sucker for nonfiction when it is about crime. Two years ago, I got seven free books from Harold Schechter that are an average of 80 pages about some horrific criminal and crime which I do not have to be talked into reading even though I got them two years ago. I read them all on New Year’s Eve since I am a known party-animal. The results were great as I had nightmares to go with my eventful evening.
I read Panic, Brick Slayer, Slaughterhouse on the Prairie, and Pirate. Filled with first-hand documentation, Harold Schechter writes like a true historian by keeping to the records and documentation. While a lot of readers do not like that style, I always appreciate reading an account that is pretty free of bias, but even in keeping to the facts, there was plenty of interesting phrasing.
Panic was about a rash of child abductions in the Great Depression, in particular 1937 when most of the accused were men of color or immigrants. The question was raised that perhaps these new Americans were not as innocent as they seemed on Ellis Island, but then doubts were raised in some of the cases even though they were executed nonetheless for murdering and raping. Yes, the gruesome details were included and while I do not read for that, I don’t shy away from gruesome either. The conclusion was that there were no more muder-rapes in 1937 as there were in any other year and the percentage of crimes committed by men of color and immigrants was not really that significant either. I appreciated that this was pointed out.
The next book I read was Brick Slayer. Robert Nixon used bricks to crush the skulls of his rape victims and then leaving the murder weapon near the blood soaked bodies of six women he had raped and murdered. Robert was a transient who was also African American and would become the model of James Baldwin’s Bagger Thomas in his classic Native Son. His crime spree ran from 1937-38, but what I found compelling was that Robert had an IQ of 60 and was schizophrenic. During his trial, the evidence was so overwhelming, but not conclusive. It was also pointed out that the police in Cook County were allowed to torture him into confessing and since he had some cognitive disability he may have been coerced to confessing to the crime. He was electrocuted for his crimes before consideration was made for people with similar mental conditions who also happened to be people of color. Robert Nixon had too many things against him to receive a fair trial.
At the beginning of Slaughterhouse on the Prairie, it was pointed out this happened in the same idyllic town that Laura Engles Wilder wrote about in her popular series of Little House on the Prairie. Perhaps the town was not so idyllic as this book was centered around the Bender family who constructed a boarding house of sorts where Kate Bender would perform psychic reading of tarot cards while James Bender would hide behind a sheet put up as a room divider and bring a heavy hammer down on the unsuspecting victim’s head for the purpose of robbery. One day they Benders disappeared leaving behind over a dozen graves and a cellar filled with decaying bodies. The family did not remain in Kansas according to eye witness accounts, but these gruesome murders were done without any humanity whatsoever. True cold-blooded murder in the strictest sense. But then what I found curious was in the pursuit of the Benders, there were four accounts of vigilante groups shooting up the Benders who refused to surrender. Four? This started in Bloody Kansas in 1873 when true methods of identification did not exist that we have today. With a lucrative reward offered for their capture, hundreds of citizens participated in these vigilante groups, it is little wonder that the Benders were reported to have been killed in four separate incidents. This means that perhaps one group was able to kill the family, but there were three other incidents where innocent people were hunted by these enthusiastic groups.
I will Finish up with Pirate in which Albert W. Hicks signed onto a schooner in 1860 that was traveling from New York City to Massachusetts fishing for clams that were in great demand by citizens of New York. While sailing Hicks murdered the two young deckhand brothers and the captain, robbing them. During his trial, Hicks did not seem very concerned since he kept pleading his innocence, but the more they dug up evidence the more they found that Hicks was a lifetime criminal without any regard for his victims. He had gone out to California during the Gold Rush where he robbed and murdered many victims. In killing the captain and crew of the vessels, his crimes were considered to happen on the high seas which had a more severe penalty for such crimes. His trial presented some horrifying evidence of what he did to the two brothers and the captain using an ax to kill them. In the end thousands showed up in the New York harbor to witness the execution of Albert W. Hicks, convicted pirate on the island where the Statue of Liberty now stands. He added a conclusion where one of the cheap newspapers had an article that claimed Hicks was removed from the scaffold with his heart still beating and was taken to a doctor in upstate New York who resuscitated him where he would live to old age. Idle speculation perhaps, but it does leave doubt in the reader’s mind and since I am a writer, I have turned nonfiction into my take in a fictional account.
While I do not recommend these books unless you, like me, enjoy this sort of genre with all of the gory details of murder and other high crimes, Keep in mind this is nonfiction, historical writing, only the facts even though he uses a subtext to bring out certain doubts about the recorded facts.