Posts tagged ‘Casey Anthony’

July 4, 2011

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.

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June 1, 2011

called on account of darkness

by Vince Keenan

The rise of Bill James is the secret fantasy of every bookish type. The details are practically Dickensian. James, a lifelong obsessive baseball fan, begins recording his thoughts on the game while working as night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory. He assembles what he calls a book, almost six dozen photocopied pages long, and sells it via a single ad in The Sporting News. Only seventy-five people would buy the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. But those happy few would be present at the birth of a legend.

James’s approach is based on rigorous objective analysis or as James put it, “counting things.” It dared to challenge much of baseball’s conventional wisdom, which in a sport that prizes its traditions is tantamount to heresy. James had a steadily growing number of admirers among hardcore fans, but the powers that be thought him a crank. Until they didn’t.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball beautifully recounts what happened next. The front office of the Oakland Athletics relied on Jamesean analysis, known as sabermetrics, to turn a cash-strapped small-market franchise into a perennial contender. Other teams followed suit. James himself would become an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His ideas would spread to other disciplines; Nate Silver applied the science of fantasy baseball to the American electoral process in 2008 and became a political guru. The man who, as Lewis wrote, “perfected the art of sounding like a sane man in an insane world” ultimately persuaded that world to think as he did. James represents the triumph of the wonk, the vindication of the studious kid watching others play outside, confident in the knowledge that they’re doing it wrong.

Bill James’s other great passion is crime stories, which he tackles in his new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I share those two interests, so I picked up a copy. Little did I know when I cracked it open, coincidentally during the uproar following the Casey Anthony verdict, what a singularly odd experience I had in store. Popular Crime would prove to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever loved.

To begin, how to describe it? The subtitle, for instance, is a misnomer in that it sounds judgmental while the book itself is not. James is an unabashed enthusiast of crime stories, and laments that “opinion-makers and the ‘opinion elites’ … turn up their noses” at them. James, on the other hand, is eager to discuss them at length. In nearly 500 pages he surveys decades of tabloid fodder. It’s a deeply idiosyncratic study; James did no original research, basing his conclusions solely on exhaustive reading. It soon becomes apparent that James has been thinking about crime for years, and now wants to share his many, many thoughts. That sense of beliefs long bottled up finally spilling forth powers the book through some bizarre passages. Michael Lewis described the Baseball Abstracts as “one long, elaborate aside.” The same holds true of Popular Crime.

James breezes through horrors infamous and otherwise, sizing up the evidence and issuing his own verdicts. He makes a case for Lizzie Borden’s innocence that surprisingly holds water, blasts the widely accepted “solution” to the mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s identity, logically argues that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, could not have been her murderer’s first or only victim. His take on the Kennedy assassination, based on ballistic evidence from a single source, is less convincing yet disturbingly plausible in an Occam’s Razor kind of way.

James engages in some bravura historical profiling of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He even plays favorites. It galls James that the enterprising serial murderer H. H. Holmes has been the subject of only one book, Erik Larson’s acclaimed The Devil in the White City, when by contrast “Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers. And there are 75 books about him.” Only Bill James could view a man who built a “torture castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair like an undervalued infielder who draws a lot of walks.

The book is at its best when dealing with how crimes are reported and by extension remembered. James astutely assesses the evolution of the American press, noting that in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping—Bruno Hauptmann done it, in James’s opinion—media consolidation kept sensationalistic impulses in check until the next “Crime of the Century,” O. J. Simpson (also guilty), when the cable news landscape resembled the earlier era.

James consumes true crime books, rightly observing that aside from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the form is largely ignored, and peppers Popular Crime with terse, unsparing reviews. While he admires The Devil in the White City, James disdains the author’s “turn-up-your-nose-at-the-crime-story attitude … Did you ever know one of those people in college who was a good guy but so responsible that you always wanted to set his shoes on fire? It’s 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and he’s studying his Latin. Larson is kind of like that.” Jolene Babyak’s book on Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” suffers because it includes excerpts of Stroud’s own unpublished manuscripts. “Stroud’s writing is trim and graceful, while Babyak’s is harsh and blocky.” James also comments regularly on the once de rigueur TV movie and miniseries adaptations spawned by these books, which rightly or wrongly are as much a part of the recollection of such crimes as police reports and trial transcripts are.

But 500 pages of such detail-oriented fixation takes it toll. The opening chapters are like falling into conversation with a cantankerous but engaging fellow at a bar. A few drinks later, you find yourself eyeing the exits and wondering “Is this guy nuts?” James compares the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, which presented the two radicals “as simple men swept up in a tide of onrushing events,” to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro “finding themselves portrayed by their lawyer as Gilligan and the Skipper.”

An obvious observation made in a book about the Jon-Benet Ramsey case—the Ramseys are innocent, by the by—is met with the timeless rejoinder “No shit, Sherlock.” He interrupts his train of thought for digressions both relevant (the excesses of the Warren Court) and not (how to save the American automobile industry). He addresses readers directly, identifying passages written years earlier and hinting at ideas he’s hoarding for a future book.

The last third of Popular Crime is something of a slog, focused largely on a subject James doesn’t care for:

The stories of serial murderers are repetitive and gloomy, but I will tell a few of them and then meet with my editor to decide which ones to throw out, and the ones we throw out I will throw up on the internet.

And then—then—are James’s efforts to bring his vaunted statistical analysis to bear, crafting a sabermetrics of crime. James lists his eighteen categories for classifying a crime by level of public interest; devises a new ten-level penal system; and develops a six-tiered ranking of witness descriptions offered to the police. Most impressive and deeply foolhardy by turns is the value system he assigns to evidence, weighting various types in wholly arbitrary fashion with a score of 100 required to convince a skeptic.

Michael Lewis wrote that Bill James set out to prove in baseball “that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible.” But here James’s efforts fall woefully short. Evil, for lack of a better term, is a lot like that ineffable quality in sports known as heart. It’s an intangible. It cannot be measured.

But that willingness to make the attempt is why I found James’s bizarre opus so compelling. He claims, “I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events.”

At other times, Popular Crime is a prickly defense of his interest in a subject frequently frowned-upon by cultural arbiters. Ultimately, though, the book is a sincere attempt to identify what it is about the darkness that fascinates and lures so many of us.

See also Bill James’s memorable appearance on the Colbert Report….