Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Thorndike Large Print Crime Scene)

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9781410439666: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Thorndike Large Print Crime Scene)
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The man who revolutionized the way we think about baseball now examines our cultural obsession with murder—delivering a unique, engrossing, brilliant history of tabloid crime in America.

Celebrated writer and contrarian Bill James has voraciously read true crime throughout his life and has been interested in writing a book on the topic for decades. Now, with Popular Crime, James takes readers on an epic journey from Lizzie Borden to the Lindbergh baby, from the Black Dahlia to O. J. Simpson, explaining how crimes have been committed, investigated, prosecuted and written about, and how that has profoundly influenced our culture over the last few centuries— even if we haven’t always taken notice.

Exploring such phenomena as serial murder, the fluctuation of crime rates, the value of evidence, radicalism and crime, prison reform and the hidden ways in which crimes have shaped, or reflected, our society, James chronicles murder and misdeeds from the 1600s to the present day. James pays particular attention to crimes that were sensations during their time but have faded into obscurity, as well as still-famous cases, some that have never been solved, including the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Boston Strangler and JonBenet Ramsey. Satisfyingly sprawling and tremendously entertaining, Popular Crime is a professed amateur’s powerful examination of the incredible impact crime stories have on our society, culture and history.

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About the Author:

Bill James made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s with his Baseball Abstracts. He has been tearing down preconceived notions about America's national pastime ever since. He is currently the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. James lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Susan McCarthy, and three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I

In Rome in the year 24 AD, the praetor Plautius Silvanus pushed his wife Apronia out of the window in the middle of the night. They hadn’t been married very long, or, we might guess, very happily. It was a high window, and she did not survive the fall.

Silvanus was a member of one of Rome’s most celebrated and successful families. His father, also Plautius Silvanus, had been consul in 2 BCE. His grandmother, Urgulania, was a close friend of the empress, and a cousin, Urgulanilla, was then married to the man who would later become the emperor Claudius.

Apronia’s father rushed to the palace and awakened the emperor Tiberius. Tiberius went immediately to the scene of the crime, where he saw obvious signs of a struggle and the marks of Apronia being forced out the window. Silvanus had no explanation. He claimed that he had been asleep at the time, and that Apronia must have leapt to her death. He was arrested, judges were appointed, and Tiberius presented his evidence to the Roman senate.

A great public scandal arose, in the midst of which Urgulania sent her grandson a dagger. This was taken to be a hint. Silvanus attempted to stab himself with the dagger, and, that failing, apparently enlisted the aid of confederates; in any case, Tacitus records that he “allowed his veins to be opened,” and was soon gone.

There was still to be a trial, however. Silvanus’ first wife, Numantina, was put on trial on charges of having driven her late ex-husband insane with incantations and potions ... what we would now call “witchcraft.” She was acquitted.

Silvanus’ family was destroyed by the scandal. Claudius divorced Urgulanilla, who was believed to have been implicated in the matter in some opaque way. The grandmother disappears from history.

In 61 AD the Prefect of the city of Rome, L. Pedanius Secundus, became embroiled in a dispute with one of his slaves, either because he had agreed to release the slave for a price and then reneged on the deal—the story told by the slave—or because Pedanius and the slave had both fallen in love with the same slave boy who was kept as a prostitute, which was apparently the story circulated in the streets. In any case, Pedanius was murdered by the slave.

Roman law required that, when a slave murdered his master, all of the slaves residing in the household were to be executed—in fact, even if the master died accidentally within his house, the slaves were sometimes executed for failing to protect the master. Pedanius had 400 slaves. The law had been as it was for hundreds of years, Roman law being harder to change than the course of a river, and there had been cases before in which large numbers of slaves had been executed, but now people were losing respect for the old values, and the slaves no longer saw the point in this tradition. Crowds of plebs—rank-and-file civilians, neither slaves nor aristocracy—gathered to protest the executions. Rioting broke out, and not for the first time, incidentally. Rioting had erupted over the same issue at other times through the centuries.

The senate debated the matter, and most of the senators realized that the executions were unjust. They were unable to block implementation of the law, however, and the order was given that the executions must be carried out. Troops attempted to seize the slaves, but a crowd gathered to defend them, armed with stones and torches, and the soldiers were beaten back. By now Claudius’ stepson Nero was the emperor, never known for his civility. Nero ordered thousands of soldiers to the scene. The slaves were taken into custody, and legions of soldiers lined the streets along which they were taken to be put to death.

Ordinarily, crime stories sink gradually beneath the waves of history, as proper stiff-upper-lip historians are generally above re-telling them, but street riots are one of the things that sometimes cause them to float. On January 1, 1753, an 18-year-old girl disappeared from a country lane in an area which is now part of London, but which at that time linked London to the village of Whitechapel. Employed as a maid in London, Elizabeth Canning had spent New Year’s Day with her aunt and uncle in Whitechapel. As the holiday drew toward evening she headed back to London, and the aunt and uncle walked with her part of the way. With less than a mile to go along the thinly populated lane her relatives turned back, assuming that she would be safe making the last leg of the trek alone in the gathering dusk. In 1753, of course, the streets were unlit, and also, London had no regular police service. She had with her a little bit of money, what was left of her Christmas money, which was called a “Christmas Box,” and a mince pie that she was carrying as a treat for one of her younger brothers.

She failed to arrive back in London. What happened then is oddly familiar to us. Her mother immediately raised the alarm, and her friends, relatives and her employers immediately organized a volunteer search. Within hours of her disappearance they were knocking on doors throughout the area, and within two days they had covered much of London with advertisements and fliers asking for information and offering a small reward. Her disappearance attracted the attention of the city. Someone along the lane thought that he remembered hearing a woman scream about the time she disappeared.

The search, however, went nowhere for several weeks. On January 29, late in the evening, Miss Canning suddenly reappeared at her mother’s house, looking so bedraggled that her mother, when first Elizabeth came through the door, had not the slightest idea who she was. She had bruises on her face and body, a bad cut near one ear, she was dirty and emaciated and the nice dress she had been wearing at the time she disappeared had been replaced by rags. Her mother screamed, and, in the crowded part of London where they lived, the house filled quickly with friends and curious neighbors.

At this point the system of justice, such as it was, flew into action with unfortunate speed. Her neighbors began peppering her with questions about her disappearance—an obvious lapse of judgment, but what do you expect from eighteenth century peasants? We’re lucky they weren’t carrying pitchforks. Where have you been? Who took you? Where were you held? When you escaped, where did you find yourself?

Elizabeth, I believe, tried to answer these questions as best she could in her desperate condition. The story that she told, confused and disjointed and somewhat incoherent, is that, walking along the lane on the fateful holiday, she had been accosted by two thugs, who robbed her of her coins and her nice dress, and then pushed and dragged her several miles to a large house. There they turned her over to a group of women who made some half-hearted efforts to force her into a life of immoral trade. Resisting these efforts, she was locked in the hayloft—the attic, we would call it now—and apparently forgotten until she finally managed to escape, injuring her ear in the process. She had lived for four weeks on a loaf of bread, a pitcher of water and the mince pie.

Within minutes, the finger of suspicion had been pointed at the residents of a particular house, a large house filled with gypsies, tramps and thieves. There were some loose women who lived there, and some other oddballs and eccentrics. Yes, said Elizabeth; that sounds like that must be the house.

She was given a day to rest and recover, and then taken before an Alderman, who interrogated her and expressed some doubts about her account, but ultimately issued a warrant for a search of the property in question. A posse of Elizabeth’s over-eager friends descended on the house, accompanied by a representative of the Lord Mayor of London and by other officials. All of the residents of the house were arrested. They were arraigned days later before a Justice of the Peace, who happened to be the novelist Henry Fielding. Fielding issued warrants for the detention of two women.

This story, very much like the story of the Duke Lacrosse team, would soon explode into a divisive national controversy with political overtones, occupying the attention of the British people to an extent that is ultimately inexplicable. Elizabeth Canning was destined to become, for a few months at least, perhaps the most famous person in the world. Crime stories of this magnitude make entire cast and crew into celebrities. In this cast we have an old gypsy woman named Mary Squires, with a face like a child’s drawing of a witch, and a mistress of the house called Mother Wells, and in the crew we have a man bearing the moniker (I am not making this up) Fortune Natus, and a young prostitute named Virtue Hall.

Mary Squires smoked a pipe and would tell your fortune for a penny. She was the ugliest woman in the history of the world, a skinny old crone with a face full of warts, a nose the size of a pear and a lower lip, said the writers, the size of an infant’s arm. Ms. Canning accused Squires and Susannah Wells, who owned the house, of stealing her corsets or, as they were called at the time, her “stays.” (They were probably called “stays” because they helped the woman’s body stay where it was put.) The underwear was worth perhaps less than Ms. Virtue’s virtue, but at that time one could be hanged for theft in England, and while that was not the usual punishment this was not the usual case. In the early days of the story, due to the great public sympathy for Ms. Canning, her accusations were accepted at face value, and by late February the old gypsy stood in the shadow of the gallows.

The mayor of London at that time was Sir Crispe Gascoyne. Gascoyne became concerned that an injustice was occurring on his watch, and took it upon himself to prevent this. The story told by Elizabeth Canning had serious problems. She had given a description of the house which did not match the suspect dwelling in one particu...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9781416552741: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

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ISBN 10:  141655274X ISBN 13:  9781416552741
Publisher: Scribner, 2012
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9781416552734: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

Scribner, 2011
Hardcover

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