Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC: Collins, Merritt, O'Brien 
27th-Feb-2014 03:07 pm
ws: castabella
Collins, Paul. The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked The Tabloid Wars. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011.
Merritt, Greg. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood. Chicago: A Cappella-Chicago Review Press, 2013.
O'Brien, Geoffrey. The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010.

These three books are about cause célèbre murders, each about twenty years apart: 1873, 1897, 1921. And one of the interesting things about them is that, of the three, the only one anyone now has even heard of is the one that wasn't a murder at all: the death of Virginia Rappe--and most of what we vaguely "know" about her death is wrong. About the other two, the murder of Mansfield Tracy Walworth by his son Frank and the murder of William Guldensuppe by Augusta Nack and Martin Thorn, I feel fairly safe in saying that, unless you've read O'Brien or Collins, you've never heard a thing. And yet these were HOWLED about by the newspapers in 1873 and 1897 and both have a certain amount of historical importance, the Walworth murder for being the first second-degree murder trial in New York, the Guldensuppe murder for the comet-like rise of the repellent William Randolph Hearst and his Journal. So one of the things I learned from all three books is how quickly a cause célèbre evaporates from human memory.

All three of these books are excellent, although each is very different from the other two. The O'Brien is intensely Gothic Victorian, as are the lives of its subjects. (I was half persuaded, all the way through, that I was being gaslighted and The Fall of the House of Walworth was actually a novel. But the central person of the book, Ellen Hardin Walworth, was one of the founders of the DAR, so if it's a scam, the Daughters of the American Revolution are in on it.) It is in some ways the most frustrating of the three, not because of anything O'Brien is doing wrong, but because, first of all, the people are frustrating for their failures and their blindnesses (as real people are wont to be), especially Ellen Hardin Walworth herself, who, for all the time she spent in introspection, never seems to have seen herself clearly at all. (Mansfield is not frustrating. Mansfield is HORRIFYING, and I admit I ended up reading those parts of the book in breathless curiosity about what awful thing Mansfield would do next.)

The other reason for frustration is that the central ACT of the book, the murder of Mansfield Walworth, remains inaccessible. It is not a mystery--there was never any doubt, first to last, that Frank Walworth murdered his father--but it simply cannot be seen. One of the other things these three books have shown me with bitter clarity is that murder trials are not about finding the truth. They are about the competition of narratives, and both prosecution and defense will shape their narrative to defeat the competition, not to try to reveal the truth about anything. And all we know about the murder of Mansfield Walworth comes from Frank's trial. Was it premeditated, as the prosecution argued? Was Frank epileptic, as the defense argued, and ought he to be found therefore not guilty by reason of insanity? (Victorian doctors considered epilepsy a form of insanity.) The evidence is both scant and contradictory, and we are left simply not knowing. O'Brien is far more a biographer than a criminologist; he doesn't assess the evidence for or against, makes no effort at a meta-narrative. I find that frustrating, but I also recognize that that's because I come to these things as a mystery reader first and a historian (insofar as I can make any claim to that title) second. His failure to do what I want is not a flaw. And what he is doing, he does brilliantly.

Collins, on the other hand, is writing for mystery readers as well as for historians, and his book does explicitly what I often wish true crime books would do. He follows the course of the discovery of Guldensuppe's dismembered body, the course of the investigation, the trial, the execution of Martin Thorn and what can be determined about the later life of Augusta Nack, and then he steps back and points out that the evidence tells a story that never came out in the trial, because, after Nack turned state's evidence, she and Thorn were both committed to insisting on the complete innocence of themselves and the complete guilt of the other party. Nack's narrative won, and the truth--that the wounds on Guldensuppe's body indicate that Nack and Thorn must have been working together--was at that point simply not important enough to anyone to be bothered with.

(Apparently, I am an idealist. It offends me that there is no space in our legal system for anyone to say, "Both prosecution and defense are bypassing the truth.")

Collins' book is the most straightforward of the three, the most clearly a "true crime" book. He tells a complicated story consisely and elegantly and has done all kinds of research. But the book does not have either the baroque form-mirroring-content style of O'Brien's or the argumentative thesis of Merritt's.

Merritt's book is a biography of Roscoe Arbuckle (he put up with the nickname "Fatty" for his career, but no one who knew him called him that), and of Virginia Rappe (pronounced "rappay"), insofar as Merritt was able to unearth information about her; it is also, therefore, an excellent book about silent movies and the beginnings of Hollywood. But mostly it is the terrible story of the point where Arbuckle and Rappe's lives intersected and the consequences thereof. Merritt is passionately interested in finding the truth, about Rappe as much about Arbuckle, and dispelling the myths: he raped her with a bottle; she "had it coming" because she was a slut. I don't entirely know if I agree with his conclusions, but I appreciate the care with which he lays out the shreds and shards of evidence we have around the missing central act of what happened in Room 1219.

The terrible thing about Roscoe Arbuckle is that he is a sort of Schrodinger's cat of justice. If he did attempt to rape Virginia Rappe and thus caused her death, he got away with it. Tried three times and acquitted of manslaughter. But if he didn't attempt to rape her, if her death was truly the ghastly accident Merritt thinks it was, then his fate, the destruction of his career, was unjustifiably cruel. In neither case can one feel that justice was served.
27th-Feb-2014 10:47 pm (UTC)
One of my historical sideline interests is the so-called Poisons' Affair in the reign of Louis XIV, in which a number of people, mostly working glass, were tried for witchcraft and poisoning and executed. It seems likely they were mostly completely innocent. But the narrative at the time -- which was really about undermining the power of Louis' then mistress, Mme de Montespan, required their guilt, and later writers revelled in the gory details. It's almost a perfect storm of sexism, prurience and self-righteousness, and it wasn't until the 2nd 1/2 of the 20th c. that it was deemed worthy of re-evaluation.
It fascinates me how historic murders are coded to suit the morals of the day and how willing many people still are to continue that, which seems to be the case with Arbuckle.
28th-Feb-2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
Yes. The story about the depravity of Jazz Age Hollywood was clearly a story, culturally, that was looking for a donkey to pin itself on.
28th-Feb-2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. Arbuckle and Clara Bow, who was represented as engaging in all sorts of extreme behaviour (some of the stories about her are still in circulation, but are fictional).
28th-Feb-2014 07:41 pm (UTC)
Merritt mentioned those. I had had no idea.
28th-Feb-2014 12:43 am (UTC)
Apparently, I am an idealist. It offends me that there is no space in our legal system for anyone to say, "Both prosecution and defense are bypassing the truth."

Adversial system. It's set up as a contest, not as a search for the truth.
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