The Medea of Kew Gardens

by djtafoya

If I could raise the money, I’d love to make a documentary about Alice Crimmins. Not many people know who she is now, but her murder trials and appeals in the sixties and seventies were big news at the time. She was accused of murdering her two young children, and because there was no solid evidence of her guilt, the investigation and trials were about what kind of person the investigators, her neighbors, her husband, her lovers and friends thought she was, and the difference between who they thought she was and who they thought she should be.

I’ve been fascinated with Alice since I first stumbled across her story on the internet years ago (for the crime-obsessed, the internet changed everything). Hers is one of those unsolvable, intractable cases about which opinions become more forceful as less and less is clear.

Alice Crimmins was the mother of two small children, Missy and Eddie, who were taken from her Queens apartment sometime during the night of July 13, 1965. Alice was in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband Edmund. Gerard Peiring, one of the detectives assigned to the case, reportedly took an immediate dislike to Crimmins, calling her a ‘cold bitch.’ Alice was heavily made up and liked to dress in tight clothes that showed off her figure. She had been dating a number of men and liked to go out and have fun. When they found Missy’s body in a vacant lot a few hours later, Alice didn’t cry (though she did faint).

Eddie’s body was found a few days later in another vacant lot, so badly decomposed in the summer heat that it was never possible to determine how he died. Evidence in the case was shoddily collected or inconclusive. Alice’s husband, Edmund Crimmins was an odd man who had wiretapped his wife’s apartment and would listen to her having sex with other men. He may or may not have exposed himself to young girls in Cunningham Park. The detectives focused on Alice.

It was the middle of the 1960’s and the case became about lifestyle. Books written in the 70’s would describe Alice as a ‘swinger.’ Her heavy makeup hid acne scars (she looks, in some photos, strikingly like the actress Julianne Moore). The police followed and wiretapped her for two years after the murders before finally arresting her in September, 1967. The trials and appeals went on until 1975. Alice was convicted in both deaths in separate trials and was in prison until her parole in 1977.

As always, the thing that gets in my brain and won’t let go is the idea of inappropriate behavior as an indicator of guilt. Cases like this (thinking of the Sam Sheppard case, Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsey, and on and on), in the absence of compelling physical evidence, become stories about whether the accused seem like murderers. Do they act guilty? Do they mourn appropriately? Do they act as we want them to act, as we think we’d act?

In Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half a Life, he admits acting out grief for the benefit of two women in the street soon after accidentally killing a young classmate with his car. In reality, he wrote, he was numb. In the most extreme situations we might say or do anything, and in the moment the police show you the dead body of one of your children, what would you say and do?

To be a parent is to imagine how you might act if the worst happens, and that imagined moment isn’t free of all of your fictional or vicarious experiences, either. You’ve seen it in the movies, read about it in books or newspapers a thousand times. And the police are watching, your neighbors are watching, and they’re drawing conclusions about who you are.

Add other ‘inappropriate’ behavior into the mix. Alice was a sexual explorer who had physical relationships with men other than her husband. She was a woman who was seen to enjoy and embrace her sexuality at a historical moment in which that had political, legal and cultural ramifications that her peers probably found terrifying or abhorrent. During her trials, the prosecutor questioned Alice at length about her relationships with other men. The jurors were all male. Some of the jurors did their own investigations, visiting the crime scene without sanction. One of them was overheard saying, “A tramp like that is capable of anything.”

It’s no secret that there’s something about women engaging in criminal behavior that draws special interest and approbation. I just read Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn’s meticulous history of Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s pretty clear that it was the public’s perception of Bonnie that drove the fascination with the pair’s mostly petty crimes (when they died, Clyde’s viewing drew ten thousand mourners; Bonnie more than thirty).

A few photographs of Bonnie mugging with a cigar apparently convinced people she was a hard-bitten gun moll who engineered their criminal exploits and participated in murder. According to Guinn, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer singled Bonnie out for especially vicious treatment during the final ambush. In the years after the pair died, successive retellings of the Bonnie and Clyde story became stories of a thrill-seeking femme fatale driving her simple, previously innocent man to robbery and murder.

Of course, Alice  might have done it. The prejudice, harassment and rush to judgment don’t immunize Alice, even if they make it easy to sympathize with her. Women have killed their children for any number of reasons and Alice was mercurial and unpredictable. Medical Examiner Milton Helpern said the evidence of undigested food in Missy’s stomach disputed Crimmins’ time line. An eccentric neighbor and a former lover testified against her.

In the press she was called ‘The Medea of Kew Gardens,’ and like Medea she is impossible to fix to one consistent narrative. She maintained her innocence throughout the trials and years of appeals and became more strident and less able to control herself in court. Reading about those later appearances is especially affecting – guilty or innocent her situation must have been just about intolerable, and it’s difficult to even imagine being unjustly imprisoned for killing your children.

Mary Higgins Clark’s first novel, Where Are The Children? was based on the Crimmins case. I just read it again and found it kind of antique, even for 1975. Clark’s take was entirely sympathetic: her main character, called Nancy, is innocent, having been manipulated and drugged by the real killer, but Nancy is frustratingly disengaged and vague, spending what feels like half the book in a drug-induced haze and trying to remember something that might help the men around her to find two newly missing children, the product of her remarriage after the loss of her family and years of hiding. Nancy is resilient but still oddly passive, and maybe that’s what Clark thought about Alice herself, though she doesn’t strike me that way.

People aren’t interested in Alice anymore, but headlines and TV news still reflect our fascination with accused female killers, especially those accused of killing their children, like Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Diane Downs or Casey Anthony. Alice has disappeared, not just from the scene but from the culture (there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for her). She might, in fact, still be alive. There have been some sightings of her in Florida and New York, where she lived after marrying a Long Island contractor. I wonder if she’s thought about telling her story. I think it would be fascinating, but she probably has no interest in being front page news again.

16 Comments to “The Medea of Kew Gardens”

  1. This is a tremendous post–we have such fixed expectations of particularly women accused that we almost demand performance. What a documentary it would be. Makes me think of Ruth Ellis, accused of murdering her love (last woman executed in the UK, I think). Did you ever see the movie about her, Dance with a Stranger?

    Also, it makes me think of the great study, Woman on the Scaffold by Theresa Starkey? (https://abbottgran.wordpress.com/tag/theresa-starkey/)

  2. I remember liking “Dance With a Stranger”. Miranda Richardson was great. Also “I Want to Live”, with Oscar-winning Susan Hayward. (Wasn’t And recently I was blown away by Claude Chabrol’s devastating 1988 film, “The Story of Women”, starring the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert as Marie Latour, apparently the last woman executed in France by the guillotine. She was arrested for performing abortions during the German occupation. She was not a sympathetic woman for the most part, but fascinating. Great movie. One could produce an excellent boxed-set of DVDs with films of “final or prominent women executed in such and such a country”.

    I’d love to see a documentary or film version of this Alice Crimmins story. And I think you could do Mary Higgins Clark one better.

    • Please imagine that the left parenthesis and the word “Wasn’t” in the second line do not appear in the above post. Editing is not my strong suit. Perhaps if I spent less time watching movies.

  3. Thanks for the chance to post again! Yes, I own a copy of Dance With a Stranger, which is excellent. I’d also really, really recommend ‘Longford,’ too, about Lord Longford and his involvement with Myra Hindley while she served out her life sentence for being of the Moors Murderers. It’s harder to find, but fascinating.

    I haven’t heard of Woman on the Scaffold, but followed the link and read your interview. It sounds great. And to her point, I think, it seems to me that a kind of conformity ALWAYS matters with women accused of crime.

    RusselI, I kept thinking of “I Want to Live” while I read about Alice. Susan Hayward is just amazing in that. “Oh, have you ever been desperate?”

  4. Having just returned from Fla., where the Casey Anthony trial is drawing huge ratings for HLN and Nancy Grace, I was thinking about this all week. Are we more likely to believe these types of charges (and vote for conviction during a trial) because we can relate to them – and maybe even in our darkest moments considered them? Anthony is likely guilty, but there’s no actual forensic evidence linking her to her daughter’s death. However, there’s lots of testimony about her demeanor afterward and her partying lifestyle.

  5. That’s what usually happens in the absence of hard evidence, right? – this sort of ‘forensics of personality’ investigation. And it’s not always meaningless. You can prosecute people for being unconventional by the standards of the community or weird in some way that’s actually harmless, (that seems to be the case with the West Memphis Three, for instance), but sometimes people act out because they really are so disconnected they’re actually dangerous.

  6. And frankly, if Casey Anthony weren’t young, white and attractive, would this even be a national story?

  7. I’d never heard this case. Interesting stuff,

  8. Dennis, I LOVED Longford–we must discuss! BTW, do you know of any good book on the Moor Murders? I read one, but it wasn’t quite the comprehensive account I was looking for.

  9. Good call, Wallace! It’s been fascinating to watch the Casey Anthony verdict reactions. The whole case is clearly about trying to guess who Casey Anthony is, and who her parents are. I’d love to know what the thought processes of the jurors were, and why they drew the lines they did. What seems like a slam dunk to the outsider misses the effect of being a juror in a room all day every day for weeks with defense, prosecutors, judge and each other, I guess. There’s a book from a few years ago about the experience of serving on a jury – I want to find it again and read it.

  10. Thanks for writing about Alice Crimmins. My armchair detective grandmother used to discuss this case in the late 60s and early 70s (She died in 1974 when I was 13, unaware of my future career as a police officer ~ and my pursuit of an unsolved case she frequently mentioned ~ the one I’ve written a book about).

    I read the true crime books about Alice’s case in the 70s and always kept an eye out for updates in the newspaper. I remember the frustration of not knowing how or why those kids were killed, and the feeling of injustice as they prosecuted Alice for her appearance and lifestyle. Alice married Anthony Grace.

    The NY Daily News recently ran a story comparing the Alice Crimmins case & Casey Anthony:

    http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-06-30/local/29737241_1_tot-mom-casey-anthony-caylee-marie

    Is the book about the jury experience “A Trial by Jury” by D. Graham Burnett? ~ I borrowed the audiobook from the library a few years ago ~ I enjoyed it.

  11. My mother told me about this case when we moved to California. See, We live in Kew Gardens between 1964 to 1967 before we moved out to Garden City in Nassau County. I had caught the news one afternoon and heard about the case. There were high emotions for the residents at the time. Now it makes sense to me why we were never out of mom’s eyesight growing up there.

  12. Thanks for the link, Kathleen! There are a lot of really interesting parallels in the two cases. I’ll definitely check it out. And yes, the Burnett book is now on my TBR list. I was even thinking about the Susan Rienert murder case here in Philly, and how even though Susan and her kids were murdered, the way she lived her life was definitely at issue in the cases of her accused murderers. Fascinating stuff.

  13. i post your latest book ” The End of Everything” in my simple blog :) great post btw

  14. The 2002 kidnapping and murder of Danielle van Dam in San Diego was big news. Part of the big attention was that the parents were swingers and the mom had been out drinking the evening of the abduction. The parents were put through the wringer in online discussions, news reports, and during trial testimony.

    Use the swinger and things get salacious. [No, I am not a swinger.]

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