Beyond sinister motives
Clements Library exhibit explores cultural circumstances of homicide, dark side of human nature in early America
By Kevin Brown
Lizzie Borden “gave her mother 40 whacks,” according to the well-known poem about the accused ax murderer.
Her notoriety is proof that our steam-powered, horse-drawn, 19th century forebearers were just as drawn to real-life murder mysteries as are we, fascinated by the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony trials among others.
That timeless fascination guides the new exhibit “Murder Most Foul: Homicide in Early America.” It can be viewed from 1-4:45 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays through Labor Day, then Mondays through Fridays until Oct. 2 at the William L. Clements Library.
“We probably have in this exhibit 15 different kinds of murder. We’ve got cut-throats, we’ve got decapitators, hangings, dismemberments, stranglers, ax murderers, pistoleros and other shootings with all manner of firearms,” says Kevin Graffagnino, exhibit curator and library director.
“I think it’s safe to say that murder has always had vast popular appeal because it combines danger, excitement, impulses and people we’re afraid of and thus intrigued by, and the dark side of human nature and experience,” he says.
The library’s source materials on the subject also reveal many aspects of early American social, political and legal history. “These cases are good to study for how people view factors such as ethnicity, class and gender. Do you punish a woman differently from a man, for example? These legal discussions have been ongoing for three centuries in America,” Graffagnino says. The exhibit also explores the long-raging debate over capital punishment.
Graffagnino says key motivations to murder — money, sex, power and revenge — remain unchanged since Biblical times. However, the depiction of murder evolved during the 19th century, as revealed in period artifacts on display. They include magazines and newsstand pamphlets about famous murders.
In the early 1800s, gloomy accounts of murder would be accompanied by drawings of coffins or the hangman’s rope. But the emergence of the popular press, aided by the growth of the telegraph, telephone, steam processes, lithography and photography, made crime a booming literary industry.
“There was a change in the middle of the 19th century. You’re seeing in The Police Gazette the emergence of yellow journalism or purple prose to describe the murder. The Gazette had a national audience for its focus on crime and sports,” Graffagnino says. “You can also see in the drawings an absolute delight in portraying the fatal blow being struck.”
Less famous than the Borden trial, but notorious in its day, was the case involving the Bender family of Kansas. In the 1870s the family was suspected in several murders of men. Kate Bender, called the attractive leader of the clan, was accused of luring men to a room where a family member would swoop in to rob and kill them. “To make it more sensational, she was called the most beautiful woman in the Plains,” Graffagnino says.
A posse captured Kate Bender and her family, but it’s unclear whether they survived. Years later authorities brought two women from Michigan to Kansas for trial — only for the prosecutor to drop the charges in the middle of the proceedings.
Other notorious cases include Pearl Bryan, beheaded in 1896 by a young medical student in hopes her body wouldn’t be identified; Lydia Sherman, who poisoned and killed several husbands and children in the early 1870s; and New Hampshire native Herman W. Mudgett, known as the first American serial killer. He held a doctor of medicine degree from the U-M Medical School.
“He was living in Chicago in 1893 during the Columbian Exposition. He lures people there and tortures and dismembers victims. The count was possibly in the low dozens. He continues to murder people but is finally caught. He becomes a national celebrity, and today he’d be a Movie of the Week for sure,” Graffagnino says. Mudgett, who went by the alias H.H. Holmes, was convicted of one of the murders and hanged in 1896.
The exhibit also includes a courtroom drawing of Borden, the well-known poem and details about her case. Borden was acquitted in the ax murder of her father and stepmother in 1892, despite the excluded evidence of her attempt to purchase poison, and the illness of the family the day before the murders.
“For most of us, murder is dark, forbidding, mysterious and scary, and those elements combine into something a large proportion of us find almost irresistible,” Graffagnino says.