Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Best True Crime by State I

True crime is one of my guilty pleasures. I love the page-turner aspect, the lurid details, the drama of the investigation and trial, and even the assurance that, in the end, crime doesn’t pay and the bad guy gets his just deserts.

I’ve also found that it shines a rather surprising light on a particular time and place. I always wanted to put together my own take on “crimes of the decades.” Since I’m such a geography nerd, though, I thought I’d start by taking a look at the best murders and murderers out there by state. 

By the way, I am excluding political assassinations, mob hits, and terrorist attacks. Those are kind of their own genres.

Alabama – Amy Bishop

Amy Bishop is probably the only Harvard PhD on this list. This assistant professor at the Univ. of Alabama Huntsville calmly opened fire at a biology department meeting after having been previously denied tenure. 3 dead, 3 wounded.

In addition to some odd behavior that let to her being denied tenure in the first place, a look at Dr. Bishop’s past revealed her killing a younger brother with a shotgun while in her 20s, being questioned in a pipe bomb case, and assaulting a patron in an IHoP over a booster seat while yelling, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!”

Reacting to the victims’ families’ request that she not be executed, Bishop pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment. She currently resides at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama (where she has gained some notoriety for attacking guards and other inmates).

Alaska – Robert Hansen (the “Butcher Baker”)

Ever read the story “The Most Dangerous Game”? It’s about a mad Russian aristocrat who hunts humans on his private island in the Caribbean.

And that’s what Ronald Hansen did … but in the Alaska wilderness, with prostitutes. He was responsible for 17 deaths overall. 

Hansen was one of profiler Roy Hazlewood’s major coups. He described Hansen to a T – an experienced hunter, who had been rejected by women, and – get this! – had a stutter. After one of Hansen’s victims escaped, it was easy to tie him to the rest of his crimes. 

The nickname? Hansen was indeed a baker.

Arizona – Jodi Arias

Apologies to Jared Lee Loughner (and his super creepy booking photo), but Jodi Arias is pretty hard to beat. A drop-dead gorgeous babe who also happened to be an obvious psychopath, Arias brutally murdered her boyfriend in a jealous rage. Though she claimed self-defense, the overkill aspect of the murder – as well as previous stalking behavior, lots of circumstantial evidence, and tons of convoluted lies on her part – were very hard to overcome. Nonetheless, the nation was glued to the TV for the whole circus of trial and nightly analysis.

Arkansas – Ronald Gene Simmons

Our first spree killer, Ronald Gene Simmons went a little crazy one week back in 1987. Starting out with 14 members of his own family, he then went on to kill a former colleague and a stranger.

In the military for 20 years, Simmons earned a Bronze Star and a medal from the Republic of Vietnam. After his military career was over, though, things didn’t go quite so well. After being investigated for fathering a child with one of his own daughters, he fled to the woods of Arkansas, where he built a ramshackle compound for his family. Not sure exactly what made him snap.

Fulfilling his express wishes, the state of Arkansas put him to death by lethal injection.

California – Manson Family

You know you’ve got to really be on top of your game to make #1 in this state. I mean, I’m talking the Zodiac Killer, the Hillside Strangler, the Menendez brothers, OJ … 

No one’s gonna top ol’ Charlie though. Probably the creepiest set of murders around, these nasties combine cult aspects, hippies, Hollywood, massive pop culture references, and one of the most purely evil people ever. Overall, Manson was responsible for 10 deaths. Rest in Hell, amigo.

Colorado – JonBenet Ramsay

Colorado has a surprising number of famous killings – Colombine, James Holmes, the Donner Party, the Adolph Coors III kidnapping, the United Airlines bombing …

This one, though, has true crime written all over it. A rich family, some genuine mystery, the super-creepy pedophile overtones, hints of an inside job and a cover up … It’s still officially unsolved. I definitely have my own theory though.

Connecticut – Adam Lanza

This one is so sad (and so recent), I really debated including it. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot going on in the Nutmeg State otherwise.

You probably know the story … First, he shot his mother, with one of her own weapons from a considerable home armory. He then headed to his former elementary school, where he killed 20 1st graders and 6 adults. He then killed himself.

One thing that I’m not sure that really came out when all this went down was how deeply disturbed Lanza was:
  • He may have had autism, sensory-integration disorder, obsessive-compulsive order, depression, anorexia, and schizophrenia
  • No one was allowed into his room, whose windows were covered with black trash bags
  • He communicated with his mother, who he lived with, only through email
  • Just prior to the shooting, his whole life basically centered around violent video games and chat rooms dedicated to mass shootings

Delaware – Thomas Capano

Finally, someone who is far away from recent national news. Of course, Delaware is home to only, like, 25 people, so that’s not too surprising. 

It is a good one though. Capano came from a wealthy, well-connected family. A lawyer, he was also a rising political star, having served as Wilmington’s city attorney, a counsel to the governor, and deputy attorney general for the state.

He also had a mistress, Anne Marie Fahey, who worked as appointments director for the governor, and came from a prominent family herself. When she wanted to ditch him for someone else, Capano killed her and then dumped her body (which was never found) in the Atlantic. Two of Capano’s brothers helped him dispose of the body and additional incriminating evidence.

The story’s the theme of several books, including one by Ann Rule, and a number of TV shows, movies, and documentaries as well.

Florida – Aileen Wuornos

The Sunshine State is full of famous killers. Murderpedia lists more than 500 of them.

Aileen, though, is pretty darn unique. First of all, there’s just not that many female serial killers out there. Second, her tale of offing her johns (she was a prostitute) is just too lurid. 

Finally, her upbringing was truly horrific. The daughter of a schizophrenic pedophile who she never met and his 15-year-old bride, Wuornos would be abandoned at age 4. Raised by grandparents, she was subsequently sexually abused by her grandfather and brother. She started turning tricks at age 11, gave up a baby for adoption at 14, and was turned out of her grandparents’ home at age 15. 

Needless to say, all of this was ripe for some major story-telling. In fact, Charlize Theron actually won an Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos in the film Monster.

Georgia – Wayne Williams

The Atlanta Child Murders involved the deaths of 28 African-American children, adolescents, and young adults in the span of 2 years, from 1979 to 1981. It was mostly known for the amount of controversy surrounding it, from the murders, through Williams’ trial, to his subsequent conviction. Williams was actually convicted of only 2 of the murders.  “It’s 10:00 pm.  Do you know where your children are?”

And, yes, I was torn between this one and the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil killing.

Hawaii – Grace Fortescue

Yup, there’s murder even in paradise. 

Grace Hubbard Bell Fortescue was a wealth socialite related to the Roosevelts and to the family of Alexander Graham Bell. She moved to Hawaii after her husband, one Major Granville Fortescue, retired from the Army. 

There, her daughter Thalia got into a DUI incident with some locals (she was the drunk), who she later claimed had raped her. The trial, complete with juicy rumors about degenerate aristocrats (and lots of racism), resulted in a mistrial.

Taking matters into her own hands, Grace arranged to have some sailors rough up several of the defendants. Things got a little carried away, though, and one of them ended up dead. The subsequent trial for that killing was nearly as sensational, but did result in charges of manslaughter. These were later commuted to 1-hour sentences.

Idaho – Lyda Trueblood

People in Idaho must behave themselves. Well, it’s either that or there just aren’t that many people there. I had to really dig to come up with this one.

Lyda Trueblood was a classic “black widow” killer. These are women who poison multiple spouses and family members to collect on insurance claims. In Lyda’s case, she accounted for 4 husbands, 1 brother-in-law, and 1 child. 

She also managed to escape from prison, get married, and stay on the lam for over a year before the jilted former lover who had helped her escape subsequently turned her in.

Illinois – John Wayne Gacy 

Illinois is a pretty big state. So, it’s not too surprising that they’ve got their fair shar of the big ones -Leopold and Loeb, HH Holmes, Richard Speck …

It’s pretty hard to compete with the Killer Clown himself though. John Wayne Gacy is one of the creepiest killers out there, and also serves as the perfect template of the upstanding member of the community who has some skeletons buried in the basement. In Gacy’s case, there were 29 of them, all teenaged boys that he lured to his home for gay sex, then tortured and killed.

On the upstanding side, Gacy was married with 3 children, managed 3 KFCs, was an award-winning Jaycee, organized Chicago’s Polish parade, and was a Democratic precinct captain. 

And then, of course, there’s his career as a clown (at children’s parties, no less):

Indiana – Belle Gunness

Harold Schechter, one of my favorite true crime authors, has just penned a book about Belle. I’m #8 on the reserve list for it at my local library.

Belle Gunness was that very rare animal – a violent female serial killer. Further, she was active in the early 1900s, when most female murderers were much more apt to be putting strychnine in their relatives’ tea (though she did her share of that as well).

On the other hand, Belle was one of the well-known “lonely hearts” types, luring in men through lonely hearts ads, doing them in, then cashing in on their funds. Oh, and by the way, that “doing in” involved splitting their heads open with a meat cleaver, then chopping them up and feeding them to the hogs.

She supposedly left town before her farm was burned down by a disgruntled former farmhand (though she may have also been one of his victims). “Sightings” were made of her for years after – she was something of the Elvis of her day.

Yup, she killed all 3

Iowa – Villisca

Hey, our first unsolved one. Well, unless you accept Bill James’ argument in The Man from the Train that is.

Villisca is a tiny burg in the middle of absolute nowhere. There, in the middle of the night of June 10, 1912, someone hacked to death the 6-member Moore family and 2 of their house guests. There were several suspects, but none of them very convincing.

By the way, you can stay the night in the house. In fact, you can have the whole place to yourself, for a mere $428.

Kansas – Dennis Rader 

I really wanted to put the In Cold Blood murders here (I mean, Truman Capote did a pretty good job on that one, didn’t he?). And then there’s the fascinating case of the Bender family (look ‘em up, if you’ve never heard of them).

But ol’ BTK (for “bind, torture, kill,” of course) is pretty hard to beat. I mean, you’ve got your upstanding citizen type, you’ve got your taunting letters to the police, you’ve got unsolved crimes in the news for over 30 years. Both Thomas Harris and Stephen King based characters on him.

Kentucky – Donald Harvey

Donald Harvey is our first “angel of death.” This is one of those health care workers who you really don’t want caring for you, one who is as likely to kill you as to cure you.

Harvey held a number of different position (orderly, tech, nurse’s aide, diener) at several hospitals in Kentucky and Ohio. Over 17 years, he claimed to have killed 87. He poisoned his victims, suffocated them, and tampered with their equipment. Numbers-wise, he is the top killer in all of US history.

Louisiana – Delphine LaLaurie

Are you familiar with Elizabeth Bathory? She was a 16th Century Hungarian countess who got her jollies torturing and killing her serfs. She was known as the “Blood Countess.”

200-some years later, Delphine LaLaurie tried something very similar with her slaves. Though there had been plenty of rumors beforehand, the true extent of her crimes only came up when a fire broke out in her French Quarter mansion. LaLaurie would subsequently flee a mob of locals after her head, spending the rest of her days in Paris.

Maine – Isle of Shoals Murders

These are also known as the Smuttynose murders, after the particular island where the murders actually took place. The perpetrator was one Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant. The victims were a Norwegian family who had previously employed him. 

Wagner stole a rowboat on the mainland, rowed to the island, and then axed two of the family to death. Unable to find the hidden cache of loot he expected, he rowed back. The sole survivor hid all night in her nightgown and bare feet (it’s cold there in March), signaling a passing fishing boat at dawn, and then fingering Wagner.

The murder was the theme of the novel The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve. The Hurt Locker’s Katherine Bigelow also used it as the basis of a modern-day film with the same name.

Maryland – Erika & Benjamin Sifrit

Our first killer couple were an ex Navy SEAL and a former scholar athlete at a tony women’s college. They met up with another couple in Ocean City, invited them back to their condo, then shot and stabbed them – pretty much for the thrill of it and then with the added bonus of seeing if they could get away with it. They very well may have, if they hadn’t brought the other couple’s drivers licenses to an after-hours robbery at a Hooter’s (where they were caught). 

Massachusetts – Lizzie Borden

This one’s so famous it’s been made into a nursery rhyme. “And when she what she had done …”

What we need to remember about this one was that Lizzie was actually acquitted of the axe murder of her parents. She would remain in Fall River for the rest of her life (in pretty comfy circumstances). The trial was pretty much the 19th Century equivalent of OJ’s. 

The story has generated multiple books, novels, movies, songs, plays, and even an opera and a ballet.

Michigan through Wyoming and Washington DC next week.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

First Lady Portraits – the Bad & the Ugly

Last week, we looked at these ladies’ spouses. I’m sorry, ladies – it’s now your turn.

Once again, though, this is really in response to all the fuss that the Obamas’ portraits caused. There’s not quite as much controversy behind Michelle’s as there is her husband’s. It’s still definitely a little different though:

Like Kahinde Wiley, the artist who painted the president’s portrait, Amy Sherald, tends to do regular black folk against very flat backgrounds. And, like Wiley’s, they may have surreal and political aspects as well as a certain iconic quality. Once again, I’m a big fan, but am not sure the style works so well for such high-profile subjects. 

Two notes:

  • Like last week, I am using the official portraits here
  • I’m staying away from The Good as 1) they’re weren’t too many of ‘em, and 2) there were plenty of The Bad and the Ugly.

Jackie Kennedy

So, we all know she was a looker. And the painting actually does look like her. It’s fairly innovative too (it was done by the same artist who did her hubby, Aaron Shikler). That said, once again – JACKIE KENNEDY WAS NOT A REDHEAD!

Not too surprisingly, Jackie made my First Lady hotties post.

Edith Kermit Carrow Roosevelt


TR’s second wife was not unattractive, if in a somewhat plain way. What gets me here is the contrast between her rather plain-Jane photo and the elegant grand dame of her painting. That, in fact, will be something of a theme here for the next few FLOTUSes (FLOTi?)

Haven’t covered Edith before, so here’s a little trivia on her:

  • She was the literal “girl next door” (her family and TR’s occupied adjacent brownstones in NYC)
  • She had refused TR twice before he married his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee
  • Teddy and Edith were married abroad, in London
  • Edith was the first First Lady to have a social secretary and to hire a full staff for entertaining
  • In retirement, she traveled to 20 different countries

Grace Coolidge



BTW, that dog made it into this blog too. (There’s a photo of Grace with a pet racoon in that post as well.)

Enough about her pets. Here’s a little more about Mrs. Coolidge herself:

  • She was the daughter of a Democratic political appointee
  • She was the first FLOTUS to earn a college degree
  • Before marrying, she was a teacher of the deaf
  • She and Calvin’s first date was at a Republican rally
  • She was a big fan of the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox

Helen Herron Taft


Ditto in spades.

And here’s a little on Helen:

  • She was known familiarly as Nellie
  • Her father was a college classmate of Benjamin Harrison and a law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes
  • She and William Howard Taft met at a bobsledding party
  • She had a stroke while living in the White House
  • She was the first First Lady to smoke

Mary Todd Lincoln


You know, if it weren’t for the roses, I’d swear these two could not even be related.

So, just in case you didn’t know anything about Mrs. Lincoln:

  • She came from a slave-holding family, with several of her step-brothers dying for the Confederacy
  • She spoke French, and lived there for awhile 
  • She was bipolar, and was committed to a mental institution for several months later in life
  • Ruth Gordon, Julie Harris, Sally Field, and Mary Tyler Moore have all played her in film or on TV

Elizabeth Monroe

I’m sure that headband and those spit curls were all the rage, oh, back in the 1820s.

More on Mrs. Monroe:

  • She was originally from NYC, and her father helped found the New York Chamber of Commerce
  • She was 17 when she married, 10 years her spouse’s junior
  • He was a foot taller than her
  • She suffered from epilepsy, and was fairly frequently an invalid while First Lady
  • And on a personal note, as a boy, I helped restore her Oak Hill home in Loudon County, VA.

Anna Harrison

Are those curlers?

Additional Anna addenda:

  • She and hubby William Henry Harrison eloped (her father didn’t approve of her dating a soldier)
  • The two had 10 children, all but one who reached adulthood
  • She was the oldest woman to become FLOTUS, at 65
  • First lady for only a month, she never lived in the White House (or in Washington, for that matter)
  • By the way, I think it’s just a bow.

Julia Tyler

Quick, call a doctor. I think her neck is broken.

Poor thing. She was actually a lot more attractive than that:

Simpering aside, here are a few things we know about Mrs. Tyler:

  • She caused quite a scandal by appearing in a newspaper ad with a young man and posing as the “Rose of Long Island” (the family actually went so far as to pack her away to Europe for a year).
  • John Tyler proposed to her as president, and less than 6 months after his first wife died (scandal #2)
  • She was only 22, and 30 years his junior (scandal #3)
  • Tyler’s oldest daughter was only 5 years older than Julia (ditto)
  • She converted to Catholicism later in life (scandal #4)

I’ve been dissin’ the poor ladies here, though I’ve just gotta ask … Were, perhaps, their husbands not so great shakes in the looks department as well? You bet your ass they were. In fact, they are some 1st ladies out there who pretty much put their husbands to shame.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Presidential Portraits – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Well, sounds like I might be topical for once. Indeed, Barack Obama’s official portrait has generated more than its fair share of buzz:

Different? Yes. Effective? I’m not so sure.

I actually like Kehinde Wiley’s stuff. Typically, he takes totally unknown people, poses them in art-historical heroic poses, then puts in a background that, though very busy, is also incredibly flat – all with a style that is pretty darn close to photorealism. It sounds weird, but it can also be pretty darn interesting:

Of course, he also did portraits of black women holding the decapitated heads of white women:

The art history reference here is supposed to be Judith and Holofernes (hey, I have an art history minor, okay?), but Holofernes is actually supposed to be a guy. Which makes this a little … um, scary?

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of other official presidential portraits like that out there. What is out there? Well, let’s take a look.

NOTE:  I'm limiting these to official portraits. Otherwise, there are just too darn many to pick from.


I think Rembrandt Peale (no slouch as an artist) has done a good job portraying a very complex individual. I also this is just a bang-up classic portrait. I particularly love the dark colors and the utter simplicity. What a spotlight it shines on Jefferson.


This is my fave. I would imagine it’s the fave of a lot of people as well. I like how it really seems to capture Lincoln’s thoughtful character (and long before the hand on chin pose became a cliche). Notice, too how everything is focused on his very expressive face, putting all else into shadow. Finally, I also like the color combo of dark reds, greys , browns, and blacks.

But did you know that Lincoln also made it into my ugly president post as well?


Another portrait that speaks reams about the sitter’s personality. John Singer Sargant (the most distinguished artist to attempt one of these portraits) has managed to capture Roosevelt’s confident persona perfectly. 

I also like how modern this was for its time. The concentration is all on the figure itself. No distracting background frou-frou.

And ditto for this guy, unfortunately.


Once again, great psychological insight. It’s also very much not your standard portrait, but super-effective nonetheless. I’m also guessing that this was just as modern and different then as Obama’s is today.

That said, JFK was not a ginger.  :^(

He did, however, make it into my Hall of Presidential Hotties.



Indeed, not looking exactly like the guy is probably the biggest problem with these portraits.  And that’s why I’ve focused just on the head, and also included a photo for comparison, for the rest of these.  

Now, this does look like it’s a portrait of an older Hoover, but still …

Back to the Hall of Presidential Notties for this dude, I'm afraid.



Is it the eyes? The forehead? The nose?

I mean, I get that it’s Jimmy Carter. But something is definitely a little off here.

Since Jimmy hasn't been covered here before, let me offer a few random facts about our 39th president:
  • He was the 1st president born in a hospital
  • He's the only Naval Academy grad to become president
  • He and his wife once lived in public housing
  • He's had the longest retirement of any president ever
  • The Carters recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary



It’s the eyes, right? Gotta be the eyes. It’s always the eyes, isn’t it?

And it's back to the good-looking presidents.



Haven’t a clue who that guy on the left is. I’m sure the two are related somehow though. Perhaps that’s George’s older country cousin.

Never covered this guy anywhere else, so ... Did you know that our 41st president:
  • Was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals in WWII
  • Played in the College World Series
  • Got his BA from Yale in two and a half years
  • Is a member of the US Golf Hall of Fame
  • Is, at age 93, our oldest living president ever



Now, we all know Tricky Dick had an unusual nose. But, I swear, that thing makes him look like Jimmy the Greek. 

And here is some random trivia about this guy (Nixon, not Jimmy the Greek):
  • He was named after King Richard I of England
  • He turned down a scholarship to Harvard
  • He played football and basketball in college
  • He did local theatre, and met his wife Pat there



Well, well, what suave, semi-famous B movie leading man do we have here? It’s certainly not goofy, boring, stumblebum, ex-jock, possibly-not-too-bright Gerald Ford now, is it? No, couldn't possibly be.

Perhaps even harder to believe, though, is the fact that Ford made it into my presidential hotties blog.

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