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Historical True Crime Books

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Book Covers

Did you know that within certain aisles of the Social Science Department lurks the largest collection of con men, burglars, criminals, mobsters, murderers, rogues, and scoundrels that you will ever have the misfortune to find? Of course, I’m talking about the true crime stories in our department.

These stories can not only provide the reader with an engrossing read, but provide insight into law enforcement procedures and the courtroom drama (if the case ever reached trial), insight into the motivation and psychology of the killer, and can elicit sorrow for the victims. Knowing that the events in these stories actually happened add an extra element of suspense and gravitas.

An interesting subset of the true crime genre is the historical true crime novel. These crime stories, which occurred in the early 20th century or before, bring back to life a bygone era, including the police procedures of the day and the general public and media's interest in the crime. Here are a few titles in our collection to get you started. Click on the link to check the library’s catalog for availability, to place a hold, or to read the full summary:

American eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the birth of the "It" girl and the crime of the century  by Paula Uruburu. Location: New York. Year: 1906. Evelyn Nesbit, model for the Gibson Girl, the most photographed woman of the early 1900s, was involved in the "crime of the century" when her jealous millionaire husband Harry K. Thaw shot and killed Nesbit's lover, famed architect Sanford White. Author Uruburu delves into Nesbit's life and chronicles the scandal and the courtroom drama that followed, chronicling America's early obsession with celebrity, glamour, sex and scandal.

A case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the kidnapping that haunted a nation by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. Location: Louisiana. Year: 1912. The kidnapping of 4 year old Bobby Dunbar from his upper-middle-class family became a national news story. After eight months of nationwide searching, he was found in Mississippi, and a man was arrested and charged with kidnapping. Another layer of intrigue was added when a single mother came forward and claimed that the boy was her son, and not Bobby Dunbar. The story quickly became a custody battle and a search for the young boy's identity. Nearly 100 years later, the Dunbar descendants find out the truth through DNA testing.

Crescent city lynchings: the murder of Chief Hennessy, the New Orleans "Mafia" trials, and the Parish prison mob by Tom Smith. Location: New Orleans: Year: 1890. As New Orleans police chief David Hennessey lay dying from a gunshot wound, he claimed that Italians were responsible. The ensuing trial and acquittal introduced the term mafia to Americans. After a vigilante mob of townspeople killed eleven of the defendants awaiting their release, the shockwaves affected United States-Italian international relations for decades afterward.

The devil's rooming house by M. William Phelps. Location: Connecticut. Year: 1911. The story of America's most prolific female serial killer, Amy Archer-Gilligan. Operated a home for elderly people and invalids, until a reporter at that time noticed a sharp increase in obituaries of residents of Archer-Gilligan's rooming house. Became the inspiration for the Broadway play and classic movie Arsenic and Old Lace.

The fall of the house of Walworth by Geoffrey O'Brien. Location: New York. Year: 1873. Murder of the patriarch of the Walworth family in New York in 1873 exposes decades of greed, corruption and madness festering within the family.

Mark inside: a perfect swindle, a cunning revenge, and a small history of the big con by Amy Reading. Location: Texas. Year: 1919. Texas rancher J. Frank Norfleet lost everything he owned in a stock swindle. After rebuilding his fortune, he lost it again in another swindle. Vowing to get even with the five men who conned him, Norfleet trailed the men back and forth across the country from California to Texas to Florida, posed as country hick in order to gather evidence used to convict the con men.

Murder of the century: the Gilded Age crime that scandalized a city & sparked the tabloid wars by Paul Collins. Location: New York. Year: 1897. Recounts one of the most baffling, grisly crimes of that late 1890s New York and how it turned into a tabloid war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The book details the police work involved in building a circumstantial case around a victim that the defense claimed wasn’t even dead, and how the reporters for both newspapers often conducted their own investigations ahead of the real detectives. 

We is got him: the kidnapping that changed America by Carrie Hagen. In 1874, Philadelphia began making plans to host the nation’s centennial, trying to recapture some of its grandeur lost to New York, Washington D.C. and Boston. The kidnapping of young Charley Ross and the accompanying ransom demand for $20,000 - the first recorded ransom kidnapping the nation’s history - became a national news story and spawned a manhunt throughout Philadelphia and New York. Hagen details how the drama involved not only the Ross family, the police, and Charley's captors, but also involved Philadelphia mayor William Stokely and the city advisers intent on promoting the centennial and preserving a "business-as-usual" demeanor.

Special mention: Los Angeles / California crime stories

In the Shadows: thirty dectective stories showing crime doesn't pay by Nick Harris. Return to the Los Angeles of the early 1900s, when the city’s population surpassed the half-million mark. Published in 1923 by private detective and former news reporter Nick Harris, this collection of stories from Harris’ detective agency was intended to scare the youth of the day away from crime. Some of Harris' investigations (Gladys Witherell, Bluebeard Watson) received Los Angeles media coverage; in his other stories Harris was vague with names and locations and they cannot be corroborated with newspaper coverage.

California snatch racket: kidnappings during the Prohibition and Depression eras by James R. Smith and W. Lane Rogers. Location: California. Year(s): 1920s-1930s. Kidnapping for ransom was a booming business in California during the 1920s and 1930s. This book chronicles 15 tales of kidnappings, some well-known, others now obscure.


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