Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The History of Helter Skelter

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer – Skip Hollandsworth (Picador)

I don’t know why, it’s certainly not based on any logical reasoning, but I had come to think that the concept of a serial murderer was a more modern, recent vintage. Logically, these twisted souls could have existed at any point in our collective histories and easily one of the most infamous serial killer’s, Jack the Ripper dates back to the late 1880s.

Could a contemporary of Jack’s or even Jack himself that became the person suspected of being America’s first serial killer and panicked the citizens of Austin, Texas in the late 1880s? That is the premise that author, journalist, editor and screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth explores in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer.

If you think about the folks who ply their writer trade and purveyors of true crime, non-fiction writers, they tend to focus on current or recent stories that they can blow up into full blown books. Think of the likes of Truman Capote, In Cold Blood and Ann Rule The Stranger Beside Me who write about current, nefarious, characters, who offered either direct access or a mountain of recent information to utilize in the penning of their books.

Hollandsworth on the other hand had to embark on the equivalent of a dumpster dive into historical news clips and historical accounts about not only the murders, but the era in which they took place. He does a masterful job of not only telling the often gruesome tale, but also setting the scene for the dynamics of the era; with insight into the politics, the rapid expansion of the Austin area, and the state of race in the 1880s.

In an age when we are all armchair crime scene investigators, his research into the crime fighters and the techniques, they used in that era is also very illuminating. To say the capabilities were limited is a grand understatement. Hollandsworth truly stiches this story together with a master storyteller’s eye, making it a great read for both true crime and history fans.

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