Published by the History Press, 160 pages, $22
Reading about true crimes, even when they’re safely tucked in the mothballs of the 19th century, brings scary fascination. That’s especially true when you’re aware that these criminals stalked their victims here in Boston. Each story Christopher Daley unearths is a drama, some expressing the misguided passion of love turned violent, some involving jumpy justice where the wrong guy is suspected. And there is suspenseful mystery: Whose severed limbs are floating in barrels in the Charles River?
One chapter turns to Mary Ann Bickford, a married woman from Maine who had affairs in glittery 1840s Boston and then became a prostitute. She was murdered by a lover who laid the blame on his somnambulism. A lurid Police Gazette drawing of him slitting her throat—the kind of sight common to tabloids back then—sensationalizes the ghastly details even beyond today’s TV coverage. Albert Tirrell, the sleepwalking killer, blamed his colorful victim, claiming prostitutes often commit suicide. Amazingly, he was acquitted and went back to his wife. Then there’s Jesse Pomeroy, “The Boy Torturer,” who attacked and murdered other children in the 1870s. He was deemed a psychopath and spent 58 years in prison, 41 of them in solitary, where, interestingly, he wrote poetry. Nine such cases are accompanied by modern-day photos of key locations (like a magnificently ominous courthouse) taken by the author’s wife, Catherine Reusch Daley, along with period photographs—some of these madmen were, alas, handsome.
From page 85: Mrs. Clark described how Jesse pounced on the snake with his rake with savage force. He not only killed the snake instantly but also continued to pound on it over and over again until it was just a mass of blood and flesh pounded into the garden soil. She remarked that Jesse seemed to take extraordinary glee at the act…. It seemed he was no longer the helpful and polite Jesse she had known but some cold, mindless killing machine absent any kind of conscience.