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.