When Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde wrote “the Americans certainly are great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes” in a letter on April 19th, 1882, he was referring to Jesse Woodson James. Back then, the prolific Irish writer was in Missouri on a coast-to-coast lecture tour of the country and, to judge by the other letters he wrote then, was having a whale of a good time.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde had been shot a few weeks before, just a few blocks from where he was staying. By the time Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde hit town, the locals were stealing everything that had any connection to the famous outlaw and selling the items at public auction.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde marvelled at the prices they were getting for Jesse Woodson James’s coal scuttle, dust bin, and boot scraper, and he was delighted by the excitement Jesse Woodson James’s murder had generated. Perhaps the famous writer and future jailbird (they nailed him on a “gross indecency” rap in 1895) recognized a kindred spirit. The “great train-robber and murderer,” as Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde referred to him, had been famous for years, and for good reason. Jesse Woodson James was no slouch when it came to self-promotion, and he had legions of defenders both locally and nationally. In death, though, he was transformed into something much greater and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was on hand to witness it.
Jesse Woodson James was one of the first celebrity murderers. Over the years, he became such an icon in popular American culture that the truth of his many crimes has largely been forgotten. Perhaps more accurately, the truth has been eclipsed by stories — stories people want to hear and see again and again, and in truth, it is the idea of murder that fascinates us.
Deliberately taking a life is the ultimate crime. It happens a lot in this country, and it is mostly men who do it. But all murders are not created equal, either in the eyes of the law or for the purposes of this book. If one drug dealer kills another drug dealer, for example, nobody but their families is likely to care. If a man gets liquored up and goes home and kills his wife, it is sad but unremarkable. If she fights back and kills him, then we have got one less drunken jerk to deal with.
But when a murder is really significant, for any number of reasons, it acquires more weight and importance. When let us say, the victim is famous, or when there are great numbers of victims, or when the victim or the murderer is unusually attractive or wealthy, or when the method of the murder is particularly horrifying, well, everything changes. The whole country takes notice and we pay attention to each step of the process.
It begins with the first reporting of the crime and the revelation of the details. If those details are sufficiently shocking, our interest is piqued. Then the evidence accumulates as more clues are revealed. By this point, we are actively trying to learn the most recent revelation. We want to know more and the media — print, broadcast, virtual — all want to be the first to pass along those precious bits of information.
At some point, law enforcement will identify a suspect and attention will focus on that person. Usually, the next steps are arrest, indictment, and trial, though if the suspect is wealthy or famous, he may be able to prolong those phases.
We tend to think the trial and verdict — or verdicts when appeals or civil trials follow — are the end of the story, but they are not. There are few clear-cut cases here and there, though many of these murderers are pretty damn rotten. Even if the trial ends with a conviction and the sentence is carried out, more stories are going to be told about the murder and the murderer. As time passes, those stories can take several forms because the major players can be cast in widely different stereotypical roles. Murderers, even the sickest serial killers, may be perceived as glamorous, romantic figures. Or, if they are unattractive, they may be seen as brutish villains. Victims may be completely blameless and sympathetic, but if the case involves sex and the victim is a woman, she may be perceived as somehow deserving what she got.
The law enforcers can be portrayed as dedicated, hard-working law enforcement professionals or bumbling, corrupt flatfoots while the prosecutor may be a four square crime-busting district attorney, or perhaps a politically ambitious weasel who uses trumped up charges to further his or her upcoming campaign for mayor, senate, whatever.
The defence attorney may be an utter slimeball who knows the client is guilty and will still use any loophole or unscrupulous tactic to get him or her off, or the counsellor may be a valiant crusader for an unjustly accused innocent.
In the biggest, most important cases, one strong narrative line tends to gain more currency than others. It comes to be accepted as the truth, or the true myth, as it were. That is the process that gives us Jesse Woodson James as the American Robin Hood, standing up for poor folks against the godless bankers. It transforms John Herbert Dillinger from an accomplished bank robber into a dashing rebel, capable of breaking out of any jail, and who might, in the end, have eluded the feds and cops who claimed to have gunned him down.
Most entries begin with a description of what happened, who the key participants were, where and when people were killed, and how it was done. But even those simple facts are often in dispute. When that is the case, I have gone with what seems to be the most logical sequence of events. If there are significant unresolved contradictions or questions, both versions are included. (Did Charles Arthur Floyd participate in the Kansas City Massacre? He strenuously denied it, and many writers have accepted this denial. Still, honest readers can disagree.)
In some cases, murder has not generated any wild tales, folk songs, novels, or films. But these “unknown” crimes are so wild and unusual they must be mentioned, if only briefly.
Not to be too crass and flippant but to earn a place in these pages, the American murderer must have killed either a large number of normal people or one relatively famous person, or he or she must have pulled it off with real drama and audacity. Also included are several notable non-murderers. They are the law enforcers and writers whose careers are so inextricably linked with the killers and criminals who stopped short of murder but still pulled off something out of the ordinary.