Why Write about Crime?

It is not too much to say that in every man there dwell the seeds of crime; whether they grow or are stifled in their growth by the good that is in us is a chance mysteriously determined.
As children of nature we must not be surprised if our instincts are not all that they should be. “In sober truth,” writes John Stuart Mill, “nearly all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s everyday performances.”
 
~ H.B. Irving, A Book of Remarkable Criminals, 1918.

Some crime historians with a flair for the allegorical trace the origin of crime back to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Those with a larcenous streak point to Eve, who stole the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as the first criminal. Regardless, crime has been with us since the Dawn of Time. Whether it was by a human created from dirt by God or a Neanderthal who emerged from the primordial oceans, criminal acts have been the bane of mankind’s existence for as long as there has been recorded history.
 
But why study crime? Why examine the history left by the dregs of society?
 
Because most of the time violence doesn’t occur in the gutter; it happens in our homes, in the bedrooms and living rooms of average people who would never consider themselves criminals or even capable of a criminal act. Still, we live under so many laws that it is likely we are each a criminal at some point in some way. Crime is worthy of study because it touches our lives in so many ways.
 
The economic and emotional costs of crime are incalculable, but here are a few figures that can be calculated, thanks to the FBI’s obsession with compiling statistics:
 
The FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, the office that profiles criminal minds, estimates that at any given time in the United States there are between 300 and 500 serial killers at work. Out of 270 million or so people, it’s a pretty low chance that we will ever see one in person, much less become a victim, but the odds are much higher that we could someday become victims of another, equally serious crime: intimate partner violence.
 
During the most recent 10-year period studied (2002–11), the offender physically attacked the victim in more than two-thirds of intimate partner victimizations against females (67 percent). In about half of female victimizations (52 percent), the intimate partner threatened to harm the victim prior to the physical attack. In addition, about 5 percent of female victims were hit by an object their intimate partner held or threw at them, 36 percent were grabbed, held, tripped, jumped on or pushed, and 8 percent suffered sexual violence.
 
In 2011, 18 percent of intimate partner victimizations against females involved a weapon, similar to the percentage observed in 1994. In 2002–11, about 4 percent of nonfatal female intimate partner victims were shot at, stabbed or hit with a weapon. About half of intimate partner victimizations against females resulted in physical injury, with 13 percent suffering serious physical injury such as gun shot or knife wounds, internal injuries, unconsciousness or broken bones.
 
The odds are much higher that we’ll die or suffer injury at the hands of someone we know and love than meet up with another Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy.
 
My local newspaper (at the time the Lansing State Journal) years ago ran the obituaries of a husband and wife who died in a murder-suicide. Their families had no inkling as to why he got so angry at her that he needed to pull his shotgun and take her out before killing himself. The couple was buried together and survivors from both sides grieved together because there was never any indication that the two even fought. These families are just two of the hundreds around the country struck by random violence in which the victim and aggressor (and who can really say who played which role here) knew each other.
 
Every day, we are confronted with crime. Accelerating to make it through a yellow light is a crime and somebody probably has statistics about the number of people who are charged with negligent homicide after a fatal car accident caused by a need to not get stopped at that red light. (Actually, we can do one better. You can read about one here.) Ever slip a company pen into a jacket pocket and forget to bring it back? Take a few extra hotel shampoos? (They’re not giving them all away, you know.) If it’s not your property and you take it, it’s stealing.
 
Crime is crime is crime. Sure, there’s a big difference between mass murder and negligent homicide and petty larceny, but the point is just about everybody is a criminal at one time or another.
 
And most of us don’t care — if we think about it all.
 
No one cares if we grab a towel from the hotel, right? Or there’s a certain pleasure in that “rush” when you come over the hill doing 78 and see that state trooper with the radar gun but he’s facing the wrong way and you keep checking your rear-view mirror and your palms sweat a little bit and the heart races and you slow the car down with just sheer willpower without touching your brakes because you don’t need that ticket and whew, we got away with it this time. That movie studio has enough money; this torrent download won’t hurt them.
 
Talk to most people in jail on a typical weekend and they’ll probably tell you that they’re not like the people who usually end up in the slammer. It’s an anomaly that they got pulled over for their second DUI for or that their old lady finally had enough of having to explain away bruises. That only happens to other people — real criminals, you know. I have news for you, those people are us. We are them.
 
Mick Fletcher — a guy who won’t be eligible to walk outside a prison gate without shackles until 2017 because he preferred his mistress to his wife — has a law degree. He probably never would have thought he was one of those kind of people. William Bonin earned a meritorious conduct medal in Vietnam and logged 700 hours as an aerial gunner but decided to put his skills to a more sinister use as the Freeway Killer of California. His co-workers never suspected a thing.
 
Look at Martha Stewart or Michael Vick — they would never call themselves cons, yet we have the mugshots to prove it.
 
Crime is a part of all of us and we are all just one temper tantrum away from the big house. History is filled with stories about men and women who swung from the gallows because they lost their cool at the wrong time and just happened to have a good weapon handy.
 
That’s probably why we like our TV shows sprinkled with a little murder. The business to be in in Cabot Cove was the undertaking business it seems. No one protested when nice old Jessica Fletcher was investigating homicides during TV’s “family hour.” It’s ok when we tie-up the murder with complex plot lines that require phones to ring at a given time and when the killer’s inability to hit a two-handed backhand provides the final clue to solve the crime. But when we take a look at the real work of police detectives or wonder what makes a man like Dr. Robert Rutledge snap and kill his wife’s seducer, we’re considered ghoulish or sensationalist.
 
To the critics I say, you’re right. I like learning about killers and other criminals. It’s a lot more productive than the cheap thrills we get strapped into a roller coaster or at a beyond-the-grave horror flick. For a good dose of fear I’ll take Truman Capote and In Cold Blood over Bram Stoker and Dracula any day. What happened to the Clutter family in Kansas was real and can happen again. And besides, everybody knows that Stoker based his Transylvanian count on a real-life murderer anyway.
 
So, I invite you to join me as we take a look at some of society’s lesser-known, but still fascinating malefactors. The subjects in this collection are, for the most part, not the types of cases that made a splash nationally, but their stories are still worthy of study for many reasons — not the least of which is their tragic uniqueness.