Thunderstruck: Technology Catches a Man Wanted for Murder

It’s been quite some time since I reviewed a true crime book for this blog, but I recently read one I wanted to share. The book is Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, who also authored The Devil in the White City. Thunderstruck explores the parallel paths of Guglielmo Marconi and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen to the point where their paths converge with the latter’s arrest in Canada in 1910.

The Stories in Thunderstruck

I profiled the Crippen case in September 2020. Briefly, Dr. Crippen was an American homeopathic physician who managed the London office of a patent medicine company. He found refuge from his overbearing wife, Cora, in the arms of his secretary, Ethel Le Neve. Cora, who had ambitions to be a music hall performer, disappeared in February 1910. Not satisfied with the doctor’s explanations, her theater friends persuaded Scotland Yard to investigate. Chief Inspector Walter Dew accepted Crippen’s explanation that she had absconded to America with another man. He was on the verge of closing the case when Crippen and Ethel vanished.

Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)
Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)

Marconi was an Italian self-trained early pioneer in wireless telegraphy. His lack of formal scientific training earned him criticism from the academics researching the properties of radio waves. Marconi’s secrecy and combative nature only made the conflicts worse.

Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)
Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)

Nevertheless, with considerable trial and error, Marconi made significant strides in sending and receiving radio waves over long distances. In January 1903, he sent a wireless message from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of England. Sending a radio signal from a transmitter at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to a receiver in Wales was an achievement, but the telegram was primarily a publicity stunt. Reliable messaging across long distances remained not easy to achieve. The spark-gap technology of the time required powerful transmitters and was prone to generating radio frequency interference.

Technology and Crime Converge in Thunderstruck

By 1910, the reliability of wireless telegraphy had improved. Although spark-gap transmitters could only send signals in Morse code, radio became essential equipment on ships traversing the Atlantic. And that’s where Marconi’s path intersects with Dr. Crippen’s.

Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)
Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)

It was July 1910 when Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve fled London. First, they went to Brussels. From there, they boarded SS Montrose, a steamship bound for Canada, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy. Despite the ruse, the Montrose’s captain, Henry Kendall, recognized the couple and used the ship’s wireless to contact the steamship company. The company, in turn, notified Scotland Yard.

Inspector Dew gambled that Kendall was correct in his identification and boarded a faster ship. Newspaper headlines all over the globe chronicled the trans-Atlantic Chase. Dew won the race and arrested Dr. Crippen and Miss Le Neve as Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River.

My Take on Thunderstruck

Overall, I found Thunderstruck to be fascinating. Larson captures Marconi’s long struggle to send signals across the ocean. The unfolding love story of Crippen and Le Neve and the development of the murder case are riveting as well. My only complaint is that the narrative switches between tracks at what often seems like awkward points in the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it difficult to put down. It’s too long to read in one sitting, though.

Epilogue

Wireless telegraphy was crucial in rescuing survivors when RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. It also helped save lives after a German submarine torpedoed RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

Following World War I, continuous wave transmitters allowed radio waves to carry speech and music, making Marconi’s spark transmitters obsolete.

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A Different Class of Murder: True Crime Book Review

Recently, I introduced you to John Bingham, Lord Lucan, the British Peer of the Realm suspected of murder. This week I review a book about the case, A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan.

Book cover: A Different Class of Murder
Book cover: A Different Class of Murder

An editorial note. You may notice that I always recommend the books or videos I review. I am not a professional critic; It’s my job to, hopefully, enlighten my readers, not to slam an author’s work. Rather than criticize a book or writer I didn’t like I won’t post a review.

Class and Murder

You may recall that Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, was in the middle of a contentious divorce. His wife, Veronica, accused him of domestic violence and he accused her of mental instability. Things came to a head on the night of November 7, 1974. A man entered the Lucan home at 46 Lower Belgrave Street, Belgravia and killed Sandra Rivett, the Lucan children’s nanny. Veronica said the killer was her husband. Lucan, in conversations before he disappeared, claimed to have tried to stop an attack on his wife.

Sandra Rivett, the murdered nanny
Sandra Rivett, the murdered nanny

Books and articles written about the case generally assume that Lucan was the killer. The theory is that he intended to kill his wife but killed Rivett by mistake, then disappeared. One camp argues that he committed suicide. Another contends that he escaped with the help of his wealthy friends and is (or was) still alive.

A Different Class of Murder

In A Different Class of Murder, author Laura Thompson takes a different approach. She examines the history of earls, the background of the Lucan family, and the 7th Earl’s life and lifestyle. This is before she tackles the crime itself. Interviews with key participants, several of whom are no longer living, bring the Lucan story to life.

Lord and Lady Lucan in better days
Lord and Lady Lucan in better days

Thompson concludes her book with a chapter on possible scenarios. Of course, she considers both the “Lucan did it” and the “Lucan didn’t do it” options. Then she explores some non-traditional possibilities. One scenarios is that Sandra Rivett was the intended victim all along, while another poses the idea that Veronica herself killed Rivett.

Thompson’s final scenario is one I’ve never seen proposed before. Although she really doesn’t argue strongly for any one of her scenarios, this one is logical, fits the evidence, and explains some circumstances that were heretofore puzzling. I won’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book!

Recommendation

Although Thompson is fond of rather long chapters, her writing style is engaging, and her research is thorough. A Different Class of Murder doesn’t just tell the story of a crime. It also gives the reader a window into the aristocracy in postwar Britain, a time of sweeping social changes. I heartily recommend it.

Did You Know?

One of Lord Lucan’s ancestors, George Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, gave the order that launched the disastrous “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Crimean war.

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Monster City Book Review

Monster City book cover

Last week, I discussed the Colorado case of the Watts family murders. In this week’s blog post, I review Monster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age.

The Central Character

Monster City is a book by criminologist and author Michael Arntfield, Ph.D. It is part biography (of detective Pat Postiglione), part crime history, and part criminal psychology. With so many threads, the book has something for just about everyone.

Detective Sergeant Patrick Postiglione grew up in New York City, where he worked in his father’s heating and air conditioning business. A stint in the military left him with two goals: to see the South and find a law enforcement career. As part of his first ambition, he took a “vacation” to Nashville, Tennessee, in January 1978, which became permanent. In 1980, he was part of the Nashville Police Academy’s last training session of 1980.

The protagonist of Monster City, Pat Postiglione with his wife, Margaret.
Patrolman Pat Postiglione (R) with his wife, Margaret

From patrolman, Postiglione quickly worked his way up to homicide detective. As a detective, he showed unusual ability and seemed particularly adept at closing serial homicides and cold cases. Arntfield follows Postiglione’s career by examining several cases he worked on and solved. Many of these were years or decades old.

The Cases Featured in Monster City

Arntfield organizes Monster City around six significant investigations. First is the Vandyland Murders, a series of murders occurring near the campus of Vanderbilt University. Second are the Motel Murders, the murders of high-risk women in seedy motels in Nashville and elsewhere. Third is the Dive Bar murders, the random killing of an aspiring musician and his wife who had just arrived in Nashville trying to make it big in Music City, USA. Fourth is the Tanning Bed murders at a “tanning studio” on Church Street. Fifth, the Fast Food murders. Sixth and perhaps the most challenging is the Rest Stop murders since the killer was a long-haul trucker who could be anywhere.

Although the six investigations form the nexus of the book’s organization, Arntfield also mentions cases. It is a thorough picture of Nashville crime from the mid-1970s through the first decade of the twenty-first century.

My Take on Monster City

Monster City held my complete attention from the first page to the last. Not only are the stories fascinating to true crime fans, but Arntfield tells them with a panache that keeps his readers enthralled. I enthusiastically recommend it.

Disclaimer

I have something of a personal connection to the book. I grew up in the Nashville area, and although most of the crimes described in the book occurred after I moved on, two did not. The murder of Sarah Des Prez occurred a block from the campus during the time I was a student at Vanderbilt, but I do not recall it. The disappearance of Marcia Trimble was another story. When the nine-year-old went missing from her Green Hills home, it was a massive local news story. Newscasts on all three local television stations prominently and repeatedly displayed her picture until her body was found.

Pat Postiglione, Deadly Recall, Nashville, Tennessee, 2019

I left Nashville three years before Pat Postiglione hit the streets as a rookie cop. Therefore, I was long gone before he started making a name for himself as a homicide detective.

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In Colder Blood: Book Review

Back in June, I posted a review of Cold Blooded, a three-episode video series from SundanceTV that re-examines the 1959 Clutter family murders. That crime inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood, a book he termed a “non-fiction novel.” This week, I review In Colder Blood, a book that posits that the Clutter murderers also killed a family in Osprey, Florida.

The Backstory

One week before Christmas, December 19, 1959, Cliff and Christine Walker took their two children shopping for a new car. Actually, they looked for a new used car since their budget couldn’t cover a brand-new vehicle. But their family was growing, and they needed something larger than the Plymouth they currently drove as their family car. Cliff drove a Jeep for his job as a ranch hand on the Palmer Ranch. They lived on the ranch as well in a small house provided by the ranch owner.

An undated photo of the Walker family (In Colder Blood)
An undated photo of the Walker family.

Cliff, 25 and Christine, 24, test-drove a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air at one used car lot and another car at a different lot. Their next stop was Johnny’s Hardware for lunch. Lunch consisted of hot dogs and sodas, with candy and cookies for the kids. The couple and their children then went to Don McLeod’s house. McLeod was also a Palmer Ranch hand and lived on the property, although at the opposite end in Sarasota. McLeod and Cliff were close friends as well as coworkers. They left the women and children at the McLeod house while they went hunting.

When the men returned, they took Cliff’s Jeep to the barn to load some sacks of feed. Christine drove the Plymouth to the barn and unloaded Jimmy, 3, and Debbie, 1. The children wanted to ride home in Daddy’s Jeep instead of the Plymouth.

Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders (In Colder Blood)
Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders

The Crime

Although they had a brief hunting trip the day before, Cliff and Don McLeod planned to hunt wild hogs that plagued the Palmer Ranch. At about 5:30 on the morning of December 20, McLeod stopped at the Walker house. Unable to raise anyone, and concerned that something was amiss, McLeod broke in through the back door.

Once inside the kitchen, McLeod discovered the body of Christine Walker lying flat on her back, her face battered and bloody. She was obviously dead. Beyond her, he could see Cliff’s body and that of little Jimmy curled up beside him. Later investigation would determine that Debbie had been shot through the head and that Christine had been raped as well.

McLeod backed out of the house and jumped in Cliff’s Jeep. His own truck had a horse trailer attached, which would have slowed him down. He then sped toward a nearby IGA grocery where he knew there was a payphone. In an era before ubiquitous mobile phones, a landline payphone was his only option. Borrowing a dime from a woman opening a restaurant, he called the Sarasota Police Department at about 5:45 a.m.

The Book

In Colder Blood is by lawyer turned writer J.T. Hunter. It relates all the facts of the case in rich detail. The portrait of young family simply living their lives slain with no obvious motive is heart-wrenching. But the real meat of the book is the renewed 2007 investigation into the cold case by Kimberly McGrath.

When Don McLeod discovered the bodies of the Walker family on December 20, 1959, it had only been five weeks since the brutal Clutter murders in Kansas. By then, authorities knew that Richard Hickock and Perry Smith had killed the Clutters. They also knew that the pair’s flight had taken them to Florida. Although considered potential suspects, there was no direct evidence that they killed the Walkers.

Photo of Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R) (In Colder Blood)
Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R)

McGrath took a fresh look at Hickock and Smith as suspects in the Walker case. The pair had stolen a Chevy Bel Air, like the one that the Walkers had test-driven. Maybe their paths crossed, and the couple agreed to swap cars.

McGrath identified 29 points of similarity between the two cases. As a result, in 2012, authorities exhumed the bodies of Smith and Hickock from Mount Muncie Cemetery. She hoped that DNA comparison would either confirm the pair’s involvement or rule them out as suspects.

Nine months later, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s office announced that it was unable to find a DNA match. Nor were they able to rule out Hickock and Smith. After nearly fifty years, the DNA was too degraded to be definitive.

My Take on the Book

In Colder Blood is a quick read (120 pages in the print edition). I found it engaging, well-written, and an enjoyable true crime read. While the Hickock-Smith hypothesis is plausible, I did not find it convincing. McGrath’s list of 29 points are mostly coincidences. While they are believable enough in themselves, there is not much real evidence to back them up. However, that does not reflect on Hunter’s book. He presents the theory in an intriguing fashion.

In Colder Blood is a book I can highly recommend.

A Word of Caution

The book contains crime scene photos that may disturb some readers. If you fall into this category, you’ll want to skip the photos.

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