A founder of modern true-crime writing, the poison pen in real life, more on Ida Tarbell, and podcast recommendations: newsletter, March 27, 2020

March 29, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,597) on Friday, March 27, 2020.


I’ve quoted Shane Parish of the Farnam Street blog several times over the past few weeks, but I couldn’t let this pass by without sharing it with you:

We’ve aged a generation in the past three weeks.
What matters has sharply come into focus. Family matters. Love matters. Kindness matters. Health matters. Generosity matters. People matter. Community matters. The rest is just noise.
Aside from physical distancing, the biggest thing you can right now is choose to see the best in each other. Be kind. Be patient. Be tolerant. Be quick to help out in anyway you can. Be forgiving when you would otherwise be upset. See things through the eyes of others and try understand where they are coming from. Seek out opportunities for generosity. Reconnect with your community. Reconnect with yourself. Reconnect with your priorities. Live them.
We’re all in this together.

I agree with every word of this.

Thanks to our medical workers, our grocery store and drugstore employees, and everyone who is out there, at some risk, trying to help other people.

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Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

William Roughead, founder of modern true-crime books

No one that I know of has the title of Founder of Modern True-Crime Literature (or some such), but if such a title existed, the leading candidate would be a guy you have probably never heard of — a Scottish lawyer named William Roughead (pronounced ruff-head).

Roughead (1872-1950) was a lawyer in Edinburgh and, by all accounts, was most competent and well-respected.

But instead of taking up an avocation such as woodworking or bird watching, Roughead was fascinated by a portion of his own profession. He loved murder trials, and it is said that he attended every major murder trial in Edinburgh from 1889 through the 1940s.

More important than just watching the trials, Roughead dug deeply into the evidence, the characters, the circumstances of the crime, and the procedures of justice. Fortunately for us, he wrote about many of these cases with a style that puts the reader inside the courtroom, watching intently and listening to his commentary. As Luc Sante writes in the introduction to Roughead’s Classic Crimes:

His prose represents the full range of the English language, circa 1880, as played on a cathedral organ with the largest possible number of manuals, pedals, and stops. He traffics in rare words, disused expressions, abstruse variants, and strictly local idioms, deploying them for reasons that are sometimes historical, sometimes psychological, often shamelessly musical.

The stories that Roughead tells are not classic mysteries in any sense. Rather they are true stories well-told — in other words, good journalism. Again, Luc Sante:

They are anything but cozy. Roughead is not especially interested in clever paradoxes and neat resolutions; in fact he is not nearly as fascinated by the clue-hunting and deductive cogitation aspects of his cases as he is by their elaboration in the courtroom. A murder for him is of interest chiefly insofar as it provides the premise for a rich, complex trial at which personalities can clash, unfold, reveal their wrinkles.

Roughead’s articles on the trials that he observed appeared regularly in the Scottish Juridical Review, a monthly legal journal. Later, he would collect these articles into anthologies. These anthologies brought Roughead’s work to the general public, and he gained a wide set of admirers, from novelists Henry James and  Dorothy L. Sayers to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Joyce Carol Oates, in a 1999 essay for the New York Review of Books (which is where I came across Roughead’s name for the first time only a couple of weeks ago), wrote this about Roughead:

Roughead . . . wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales. 

Roughead’s work is fairly easily available in anthologies that are found in libraries and with online booksellers. They can also be found at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archives. If the pandemic has you indoors and searching for something a little different to occupy a few hours, William Roughead might be coming to your rescue.

An early 20th-century’s crime wave – the poison pen letter

The poison pen letter has been a device used in mystery and detective fiction for many decades by writers as diverse as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Richard Llewellyn, Edmund Crispin, Patricia Wentworth, and Robert Barnard, just to name a few.

There is a special power in words to provoke fear — even terror — when the physical evidence for such feelings may be scant or non-existent. Even the words the letter often omits, such as the name of the letter writer, can add to its power.

In the early 20th century, life imitated art with a spate of real-life poison pen letter cases in America, Great Britain, and France that rival the stuff of fiction. Curtis Evans, editor of Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing, has an interesting rundown of some of the major instances of poison pen writing beginning with the case of Florence Jones, wife of Elizabeth, N.J., dentist Charles Jones.

Mrs. Jones was the target of a venomous set of letters accusing her of having lovers in other cities close by whom she visited regularly. It took several years, but the police finally tracked to letters to the house of Mrs. Jones’ next-door neighbor, Mrs. Anna Pollard, a prominent townswoman in Elizabeth. Mrs. Pollard was brought to trial, and the evidence against her was the matching of letters on her typewriter with those in the letters that Mrs. Jones had received.

The trial itself was something of a circus with the lawyers for each side constantly bickering and the judge unable to restrain them. The defense argued that Mrs. Pollard’s house was open to many people and that anyone could have used her typewriter. The jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Evans’ article has many more instances of the use of the poison pen letter and makes for fascinating reading.

Source: The Poison Pen Letter: The Early 20th Century’s Strangest Crime Wave | CrimeReads

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

Ida Tarbell: Madame Roland, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln (part 2)

Ida Tarbell might have stayed in France for a very long time if it hadn’t been for Abraham Lincoln.

Tarbell had moved to Paris in 1891 when she was 34 years old. She gave up a secure job as an editor of The Chatauguan in New York and went to France with the idea of writing a biography of Madame Roland, a feminist leader of the French Revolution. In Paris, she built a social life and a circle of friends that she truly enjoyed. She supported herself by writing for a variety of American publications. She attended lectures at the Sorbonne and studied the way that French historians did their research.

What she found out about Madame Roland left her disillusioned. She had hoped her biography would celebrate an important feminist leader; instead, she found that Roland had encouraged the violence of The Terror — until it turned on her and eventually took her life. Tarbell also began researching the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day while in Paris, Samuel McClure showed up at her door and offered her an editorship at his new publication McClure’s Magazine. Tarbell had written some articles for McClure’s syndicate, and he was determined to get her to join him in New York. She turned him down but continued to write articles for the syndicate and the magazine and became the magazine’s correspondent in Paris.

McClure persisted in trying to get her to come to New York, however. When she returned to America in 1894 to visit her family in Pennsylvania, he contacted her about a series for the magazine on Napoleon. By the time the last installment was published, the magazine’s circulation had quadrupled, and Tarbell’s reputation as a meticulous researcher and solid write had been established.

The idea of writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln was one she considered with reluctance. Lincoln had fascinated her, and she remembered news of his assassination when she was a young girl. “If you once get into American history, I told myself, you know well enough that will finish France.”

Still, she had a challenge. She spoke with John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, who had just published a biography of Lincoln, and he told her to forget about it. He had written all there was that was worth knowing about the 16th president, he said. Like any good reporter, Tarbell was skeptical.

Tarbell spent many months researching Lincoln’s life. She traveled to Illinois and interviewed people who had known Lincoln as a young merchant and lawyer. She tracked down copies of lost speeches and letters. She even went to England to chase a story that Lincoln had appealed to Queen Victoria, asking her not to recognize the Confederacy — a story the turned out to be false.

When Tarbell’s biography of Lincoln was published in 1895, McClure’s circulation topped 250,000 and continued to rise to more than 300,000 by 1900. The profits were such that McClure was able to buy a printing plant and a bindery.

Tarbell by this time had become a top editor at the magazine and was about to take on her greatest project, A History of Standard Oil. But her position of responsibility had brought her continued headaches as McClure’s behavior became more erratic and his decisions more arbitrary and confusing. In 1906 she left McClure’s to help found The American Magazine.

Next week: Life after Standard Oil

Podcast recommendations: My Favorite Murder, The Murder Squad, and My Death Row Pen Pal

Here are three podcasts for consideration during your coronavirus confinements:

My Favorite Murder is hosted by a couple of young women, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, whose language may not be suitable for your grandchildren (or you). For me, that stuff gets old pretty quickly, but they may mature into a style that is more in keeping with the seriousness of their subjects.

On the other hand, they may not, and their voices may grow on you.

In any event, it’s a good, fast-paced listen, described in their own words this way:

. . . . Since its inception in early 2016, the show has broken download records and sparked an enthusiastic, interactive “Murderino” fan base who came out in droves this spring for the sold-out nationwide tour.
A top 10 regular on iTunes’ comedy podcast chart, My Favorite Murder has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, The Atlantic, Nylon and Rolling Stone magazine. Source: My Favorite Murder — Exactly Right Podcast Network

Most of the episodes are pretty long — an hour-and-a-half or so — so you may want to try one of the mini-episodes.


So you (maybe me, too) want a bit more seriousness in your true-crime podcasts: Check out The Murder Squad with retired cold case investigator Paul Holes and Investigative journalist Billy Jensen.

This is an old-fashioned procedural show with good stories and good guests:

Each week listeners ride shotgun as Holes and Jensen attempt to solve the crime using a variety of methods, from old-fashioned detective work to advanced technologies including familial DNA searches, social media geotargeting, and maybe most important—the skills of their listeners who send in tips and theories, becoming active members of The Murder Squad.

It’s here: https://www.exactlyrightmedia.com/the-murder-squad. And there are lots of episodes available.


Speaking of voices and style, My Death Row Pen Pal features Rebekah, a Manchester, England, woman who decided to start a correspondence with someone on death row. Very weird, except she isn’t. She’s not looking for romance (she married) but has a variety of motivations.

The man she finds to write to is on death row in Texas, and by episode three, she is traveling to the U.S. to meet him. I’ll leave it at that, but you should try it:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08548tn


Check out last week’s newsletter

Vince V.: I will point out that William Styron actually doubled-down when he wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel essentially about the Holocaust. Just as certainly as Styron was not an African-American in “Nat Turner,” neither was he Jewish.  In fact, he was a non-practicing Presbyterian. 

Steve W.: Just finished  Hoover by Kenneth Whyte.  Very interesting and timely as he was a misunderstood man who did great things after WWI and WWII, yet suffered blame for the depression. Right or wrong.  Several similarities to Trump?
Amy C: Re: cultural appropriation. Somehow I must be missing the point. Writers write from their perspective or a researched perspective. Biographies are written about people, not the author. If there are dissenting ‘opinions’ on who should write what sounds like censoring so those who cry foul now have a sounding board mission to tell the tome from their ‘opinion’ of what the truth is. Just read a couple books in our Book Club this year where a handful or relatives all claimed a certain family member’s birth date was a totally different date (the adult person was never, born in medical facility, registered or attended public education). No one person sees the ‘truth’ the same exact way. So no one person or group of people or culture should be left or entitled to write the ‘story’. So, I just don’t get what all the hoohaw is about on who gets to write what.

Frank C.: You postulate two possibilities re Woody Allen’s book: firstly, that the allegations against him are true; secondly, that they are false. But does it matter which is the case?

We have the biblical advice that the casting of the first stone is the privilege of he (or mostly nowadays she) who is without sin. Should we rejoice in how many sinless people now exist in our societies? 
 Do we have any revered heroes (apart from Jesus and Mary) whose lives have been entirely blameless? And in the aforementioned cases, how do we feel about the outburst of temper and violence on the part of Jesus when he laid about him at innocent traders earning a living providing useful services in the temple? There is no record of repentance on his part. Are we really at ease with publishing the Bible? 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: 7 roses

Best quote of the week:

“News is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form, and . . . history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it.” Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835-1910) American journalist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer and humorist

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The sharp words of Ida Tarbell, the dilemma of Woody Allen, more on cultural appropriation, and reader reaction: newsletter, March 20, 2020




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