Podcast Review 1: Four True Crime Podcasts

I have listened to a very few podcasts over the years, but just recently I began listening to more of them. I realized that I had strong opinions about how the podcasts were handled, so I thought that occasionally I would review some of them. So, this week I start with my first podcast review of four podcasts about unusual occurrences or true crime.

I found all four of these podcasts in a Marie Claire article listing the 60 best current true-crime podcasts.

These four podcasts fit very neatly into two groups. Two of the podcasts are limited series about one specific crime. The other two podcasts are series that continue indefinitely in which each podcast discusses one or two unusual cases. I’ll discuss the limited series first.

Tom Brown’s Body

Tom Brown’s Body is a very professionally produced podcast by Texas Monthly. It features their seasoned reporter and published author, Skip Hollandsworth, in a series of eight 45-minute episodes about the effect of an unsolved crime on a small Texas town. Or was it a crime? A popular high school boy first went missing and then was discovered dead, but it’s not clear whether the death is a suicide or a murder.

Of course, with this powerful magazine to produce it, there is not a glitch in the production, but also impressive is the writing and interview technique of this scripted podcast. Everything about this podcast is interesting and professional. I don’t mean to imply that I am biased toward a professional vs. unprofessional podcast, just that there is nothing to criticize. I found this podcast very interesting.

Paper Ghosts

Paper Ghosts is also a scripted podcast produced by iHeart Radio of ten half-hour episodes. It features true-crime writer M. William Phelps (at one point he asks a witness to call him M), and is about the disappearances or murders of several young girls and women near his home town in New England during the early 1970’s. It is also professionally produced.

While Hollandsworth’s interviews in Tom Brown’s Body had the more conventional purpose of just investigating the history and current status of the case, and the effect the case has on the town, Phelps is actively trying to solve the murders, or at least the podcast gives that impression. He is also very self-promotional and constantly brings himself into focus during the podcast. (I don’t mean he interviews people; I mean he talks about himself and his efforts a lot.) One serious negative for me as a grammar nerd was that, although this podcast is also scripted, he makes a few but consistent grammatical errors. I am not familiar with him as a true crime writer, but I hope he has a good editor. I found this podcast interesting, but I felt it was more repetitive than Tom Brown’s Body and less impressive. I’m also not clear on the meaning of the title.

And here’s a bitchy remark: We all know from studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that using an initial instead of a first name is pretentious. The M is for Matthew. There’s nothing wrong with the name Matthew Phelps, M.

And That’s Why We Drink

And That’s Why We Drink is a weekly half-hour podcast featuring Christine Shiefer, a writer for Nickelodeon, and Em Schulz, a prop designer. Its focus is the supernatural and true crime, and it is much less formal than the other podcasts. It’s format is a couple of friends sitting around with drinks and telling each other spooky stories. It is produced by Kast Media, but I doubt that it is scripted, and at least the episode I listened to had none of the interim musical effects of the others or anything like that.

I have to confess that while I listened to the entirety of the first two podcasts, I could only stand listening to one episode of this one, despite the podcast being very popular. I found the format and unscripted nature of the podcast troublesome because the two women spend a lot of time chit-chatting about things that only they are interested in (like what their mothers are going to say about their podcast) and making lame jokes. Now, I listened to the first episode, and it’s very possible that they got better at this as they went along. However, this is a criticism I have had of all the two-person podcasts I have listened to.

I have more serious criticisms, though. One in particular about the first episode is that they selected some topics that most people know a lot about already, that is, the history and building of Winchester House and the Jim Jones tragedy. Contrast that with the other series I’m reviewing next, which told me about cases I’d never heard of. Again, this is just one episode, though.

What disturbed me more than that was my impression that they spent about ten minutes researching each topic. (One of them even said she looked it up the day before.) They showed an astounding ignorance of the time periods and settings of these events. For example, they made the fatuous assumption in the first story that because someone was known as the Boston Medium, he was the only medium in Boston at the time that he was consulted by Sarah Winchester. In reality spiritualism was very popular at that time and there were probably hundreds of mediums in Boston. Similarly, they basically boiled the 60’s down into sex and drugs. I would think that these two women, who (probably ironically) exclaimed that they had Master’s degrees could have put a little more effort into exploring the context of their stories.

OK, in this podcast, the two girls knew that hardly anyone was listening yet and they were just basically entertaining themselves. To be fair, I should have probably listened to a more recent episode. However, these women seemed so silly and superficial to me that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Supernatural with Ashley Flowers

Supernatural is a weekly podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers, a radio personality from Indiana and the creator of another podcast, Crime Junkie. My research on her, let me say right away, has indicated that she has been accused of plagiarism for some of the Crime Junkie episodes, in particular of copying other podcasts word for word. As an ex-writing instructor, I find this kind of behavior atrocious (apparently what she said in her defense was that people had copies from her as well), but I was not aware of this issue until I researched her name just now, and I didn’t see any similar allegations about Supernatural.

This podcast is concerned with unexplained cases, some of them true crime, that may involve the supernatural. I listened so far to two-and-a-half episodes. I found this series, which is produced by Parcast, to be very professional.

This podcast is clearly scripted, and in each half-hour episode Flowers covers one unusual case. Both of the complete episodes I listened to involved possible alien activity. I had not heard of either of these cases and found them interesting. One was a true-crime case about two men found dead wearing lead masks on the top of a hill near Rio de Janeiro. The other case was about possible alien abductions in 1980’s Maine. This podcast is professionally written and produced.

My Rankings

I ask myself “Would I return to this podcast?” for the weekly podcasts and “Would I listen to another podcast?” for the limited series that I have finished listening to.

In order from best to worst:

  1. Tom Brown’s Body: Would I listen to another podcast from Skip Hollandsworth? Yes
  2. Supernatural: Would I return to this podcast? Maybe, if I just consider the podcast and not the plagiarism charge
  3. Paper Ghosts: Would I listen to another podcast from M. William Phelps? Probably not
  4. And That’s Why We Drink: Would I return to this podcast? No

I just started out listening to these podcasts for my own amusement, but if there is interest in more reviews, I will take it on as more of a research project. Did you enjoy these reviews? Are there any podcast topics you would suggest I look into? Of course, the next review will be of book podcasts.

Review 1590: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, a rural Irish woman, a milliner, was burnt to death by her husband and relatives. Their explanation was that the ailing woman had been taken away by the fairies and that they had burnt a changeling trying to get it to say it was not Bridget Cleary.

Historian Angela Bourke examines this crime in detail, not only the events as reported by the witnesses and the trial but the meaning of it. She interprets fairy legends and their place in rural Irish society, and she also explains the meaning of comments and actions the night of the crime and the night preceding it in terms of these legends. She looks at the crime from a feminist point of view as well.

I found this book interesting, although at times I felt Bourke got carried away with her interpretations. Most of the time the writing style and her analysis are interesting, but the book is occasionally a little dry.

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Review 1335: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Cover for Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon details a past that was once infamous but now almost forgotten except in Osage country. In the 1920’s, the Osage nation in Oklahoma was the richest population per capita in the United States. This phenomena was a result of wise decisions by the tribal leaders during the 19th century land grab by the whites. They voluntarily moved from their homelands, purchasing land in Oklahoma that they thought white men would deem worthless. Then oil was discovered on their property. Because the nation had purchased the property, it couldn’t be taken back.

However, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, deemed the Osage unfit to handle their own money. So, they appointed white guardians for them. As you can imagine, there were many eager to cheat these people out of their headrights, as were called their shares of the tribal fortune.

The Osage began dying. Grann centers much of his book on Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Ernest Burkhart. One by one, her family started dying. First, her sister, Annie, was found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, died of a mysterious illness, believed by many to be poison. When her sister Rita’s husband, Bill Smith, tried to investigate, he and his wife and servant girl were killed one night when their house exploded. Other Osage were dying, too, and investigators either came up with nothing or were themselves murdered.

As the FBI was in its infancy and trying to figure out its own jurisdictional powers, new director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the Osage murders, which were becoming infamous as indicators of failure and corruption, would be good ones to solve. So, he sent out a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate.

Grann follows their investigation, and it is a fascinating one. This is a shameful period in our history that should not be forgotten. Grann goes further than the FBI, though, by looking into other deaths that were not investigated.

This book tells a mesmerizing story about a shocking time not so far in the past.

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Review 1316: Famous Trials

Cover for Famous TrialsBest of Ten!
Famous Trials is excerpted from the multiple-volume Penguin Famous Trials series, which in its turn originated with the Notable British Trial series. This series of first-hand accounts of trials began in 1905 and eventually comprised 83 volumes, each for one case. Famous Trials presents eight of those cases. The only one I was previously aware of was that of Crippen, the man who murdered his wife and buried part of her body in his cellar.

Three of these trials were of innocent people, two of whom were imprisoned for years before their cases were re-examined. Florence Maybrick was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic when there was no actual proof he died of arsenic poisoning or was even murdered. Although there was a small amount of arsenic in his system, he was known to take arsenic himself. She was more likely convicted because she admitted to having an affair.

Oscar Slater was convicted of murdering an old woman, Marion Gilchrist, because he hocked a brooch that was similar but not identical to one reportedly stolen during the murder. He was identified by two unreliable witnesses, and he probably never met Mrs. Gilchrist, who was almost certainly killed by someone she knew.

The case of Robert Wood, a man accused of murdering a prostitute, is notable for the lucid defense case. Robert Wood was almost certainly not guilty, and he was found so.

The writer of the Crippen case, Filson Young, was clearly rather sympathetic to Crippen, a weak man with a rapacious wife who planned to leave him penniless after he spoiled her for years. Although he fooled people for some time into believing she had left him, he made the mistake of letting his mistress wear his wife’s jewels. Crippen is also notable for being the first fugitive to be apprehended in flight because of the recent installment of wireless on the ship, as detailed in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

The trial of George Joseph Smith was known as the Brides in the Bath case, as Smith bigamously married several women, cleaned them out, took insurance policies on them, and then drowned them in the bath tub. In the case of one of his victims, only 30 hours expired between the insurance policy and her death.

Herbert Rowe Armstrong was a hen-pecked husband who poisoned his wife with arsenic. Her death was only looked into after a business rival became ill after having tea with him and was found to have arsenic in his system.

Rattenbury and Stoner were lovers who were tried for murdering her husband. Although Mrs. Rattenbury almost certainly had nothing to do with the crime, she received so much approbrium during the trial that she committed suicide.

I am interested in true as well as fictional crime and found these accounts fascinating. They are extremely readable. In addition to presenting the evidence and arguments in an understandable form, they include assessments of the case and behaviors of the prosecution and defense by observers knowledgeable in law. Although some of the comments, especially about the women involved, are truly Victorian in outlook, this is a fascinating book that makes me interested in reading the entire Penguin series.

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Day 1279: Harriet

Cover for HarrietHarriet is a novel written in 1934 based on a true crime that occurred in 1875. As such, it is suitable for the season as well as for the R. I. P. Challenge and the Classics Club Dare.

Harriet is a woman in her 30’s who has her own fortune of £3,000 with prospects of 2,000 more. She is a “natural,” which I take to mean having some sort of mental incapacity. Although her mother, Mrs. Ogilvie, cares about her, she boards her periodically with poorer relatives, allowing them to make a little money and giving herself and her husband a little break from Harriet, who can be difficult.

Mrs. Ogilvy sends Harriet to stay with her cousin, Mrs. Hoppner. Mrs. Hoppner lives with her spoiled daughter, Alice. Visiting her are her older daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband, Patrick Oman, an artist. Also visiting is Patrick’s brother, Lewis, a clerk. Patrick and Elizabeth are devoted to Lewis.

Although the charismatic Lewis is courting the delicate and beautiful Alice, he turns his attention to Harriet. He is soon engaged to her and marries her despite Mrs. Ogilvie’s objections. In fact, Mrs. Ogilvie tries to get Harriet made a ward of the court to block the marriage, but this backfires when Lewis finds out and tells Harriet she wants to have her committed. Once they are married, Lewis proceeds to strip Harriet of her money and possessions.

After Harriet has a child, he boards her at his brother’s house and moves into a nearby house with Alice. Up until then, Lewis’s actions are marginally legal if morally repellent. It is after this that the behavior of the two brothers and two sisters becomes criminal.

This novel is chilling in its psychological depictions of the two sisters and brothers. Jenkins was fascinated by the case and uses people’s actual Christian names, imaging the thoughts and activities of the characters. This novel was one of the first fictionalizations of a true crime.

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Day 1017: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer

Cover for Midnight AssassinI lived in Austin, Texas, for more than 20 years (not anymore, yay!), so I already know that Austin had a serial killer before Jack the Ripper. That didn’t make this book any less interesting, though.

Journalist Skip Hollandsworth was very surprised when he learned about it. In fact, he says he didn’t at first believe that, starting in 1884, Austin suffered a series of brutal attacks on women that ultimately culminated in several murders.

At that time, serving women usually lived in little shacks at the backs of their employers’ homes. Most of the victims were dragged out of these homes—other occupants either hit over the head or merely threatened—and then brutally attacked somewhere nearby. Most of the first victims were black, so of course (it being Texas and the 19th century), the authorities looked to African-American men for the perpetrator. Then they decided it was a gang of them. The idea of a serial killer seemed inconceivable to them.

Hollandsworth’s strength in this book is in bringing 1880’s Austin to life. He does a great job of setting the stage. I also enjoyed all of the photos of Austin from that time. This is an interesting story, one that many Austinites are unaware of. Of course, it doesn’t have a solution as the killer was never caught. We may never know who this murderer was or why he stopped. Hollandsworth follows up some interesting leads, though.

If you are interested in this topic, Steven Saylor has written a fictional account of it, using O. Henry as a character. His solution is a bit far-fetched and easy to predict, though.

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Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 534: And the Sea Will Tell

Cover for And the Sea Will TellYears ago, I was living in a house with a bunch of other students. It was then that I read Helter Skelter, the book by Vincent Bugliosi about the Manson murders. Bugliosi was, of course, the prosecutor on that famous case.

I am the type of person who is much more scared by books and movies about things that could or did happen than things that could not. I watched countless horror movies (the classics of the 40’s and 50’s) as a kid without being scared (Saturday night with my older brother, all lights off for the Christopher Coffin show), but I was terrified at the same age by The Three Faces of Eve. After I read Helter Skelter, I realized for the first time that because my bedroom was the former living room of the old farmhouse and right next to the door, it would be the first stop for anyone who broke in during the night. I was creeped out!

image of Christoper Coffin
Christopher Coffin in his coffin

This newer Bugliosi book is about a crime that occurred in the 1970’s but was not tried until the 1990’s. It involves two couples who arrived coincidentally at what was supposed to be a deserted island far south of Hawaii, Palmyra.

One couple, the Grahams, was wealthy, with a beautiful boat, fully stocked. Their plan was to stay on the island a year, although Muff Graham was there only because Mac wanted to be. Buck Walker was a fugitive from a drug-selling charge. He and his girlfriend Jennifer Jenkins arrived on a leaky, battered old boat with few stores, planning to stay there indefinitely.

In late August of 1974, after staying on the island a couple of months, Buck and Jennifer were preparing their boat for a tough sail to Fanning Island to buy more supplies. They were tired of living mostly on fish and coconuts. A couple months later, the couple sailed into Ala Wai harbor in Hawaii in a beautiful boat, clearly the one that belonged to the Grahams.

Although Walker and Jenkins were prosecuted for the theft of the boat, visits to Palmyra turned up no evidence of what happened to the Grahams. Jenkins’ story was that they found the Grahams’ overturned Zodiac on the beach after Mac and Muff told Buck they were going fishing. Walker and Jenkins claimed to have searched for the couple, but said they could find no sign of them and thought they drowned or were killed by sharks. Nevertheless, they had not reported the incident to the authorities because they had stolen the Grahams’ boat.

Seven years later, a visitor to Palmyra discovered a human skull, a wrist watch, and other bones on the beach. They appeared to have fallen out of a metal box that had been fastened shut with wires and had drifted ashore. The skull was identified as that of Muff Graham.

Buck Walker was convicted of the murder. Bugliosi’s book is about Jennifer’s trial.

First, I was surprised to find Bugliosi had changed from prosecution and defended Jenkins. He makes a major point that he only defends people he thinks are innocent of the crime they’re charged with. I was not as sure as he was about Jennifer.

This book is well written and for the most part moves along nicely. It has a few flaws, though.

For one thing, it is extremely long at more than 700 pages. In my opinion, it does not  need to be that lengthy. The crime itself occupies less than 200 pages. The rest is about the investigation and the trial. Although most of the material is interesting, at times it seems as though Bugliosi is confusing his role of storyteller with that of a litigation instructor. He spends a lot of time explaining legal procedure and concepts, some of which are very basic. For example, within the same 20 or so pages, he spends four pages explaining the difference between the verdict of not guilty and actual innocence and another four pages on the importance of the summation. He also constantly gives his opinion of the job the prosecution was doing. I sensed a lot of ego here.

Approaching the end of the book, I was astonished to find nearly 100 pages devoted to Bugliosi’s summation, which is quoted almost verbatim. Although he makes some important points not raised elsewhere, he covers a lot of ground already discussed during the trial. He could have hit the highlights.

A lot of dialogue is quoted throughout the book. Although this technique makes the book move along, it seems impossible to me that so much conversation could be accurately recounted almost 20 years (by the time of the trial) after some of the events. This approach to nonfiction makes me uncomfortable.

If you like true crime, you’ll probably find this book interesting enough to stick with it. Like me, you may find yourself skipping over pages of material. While I was reading, I often imagined Henderson, Bugliosi’s ghostwriter, arguing with him that some things should be left out.

Day 518: The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

Cover for The Fall of the House of WalworthJust a quick note before I get started about the Classics Club Spin #6. The spin selected #1, so I’ll be reading Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gillman!

The Fall of the House of Walworth begins in the 1950’s with Clara Walworth living in a crumbling mansion in Saratoga Springs. She obsessively goes through the possessions of her once-eminent family, not realizing that its members have hidden from her a shocking truth. Her father was once imprisoned for the murder of his own father.

The book then returns to trace the history of the Walworths, a family of prominent figures who became New York state aristocracy. In particular, it looks at the career of Reuben Hyde Walworth, the last Chancellor of New York. It was his younger son Mansfield Walworth who was murdered in a New York City hotel room by Mansfield’s own son Frank, then only 19 years old.

The book relates the story of the marriage of Mansfield and Ellen Hardin. Ellen was Mansfield’s step-sister after the marriage of his father to her mother, Sarah. As a young girl, Ellen was apparently carried away by Mansfield’s streak of romanticism. But she did not realize he had already gained a reputation as a wastrel and a bully. O’Brien theorizes that the family may have hoped the love of a good woman would help him to reform.

The book examines the history of Mansfield and Ellen’s marriage and the reasons the situation reached such heights of drama, including a strain of mental instability in the family. Mansfield was an author of overblown romantic novels, who saw himself as a misunderstood genius. O’Brien’s comments about his dreadful writing and excerpts from his novels show us how deluded Mansfield was about his own talents, even in a sentimental age. They also provide a hint of amusement to the book.

Cultural historian O’Brien has written an interesting true story of an unusual crime that shocked the country. Frank Walworth’s trial provided the test case for the new concept in law of second degree murder. The book also provides insight into the views and treatment of epilepsy, at the time considered a mental illness.

Day 392: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Cover for The Invention of MurderJudith Flanders, a British journalist and history writer specializing in Victorian times, has written an entertaining and exhaustive book showing how the Victorian fascination with murder grew and forced improvements in policing. In addition, it resulted in the evolution of the detective novel. Flanders begins this discussion with the interest in a few major crimes from before the Victorian era, explaining how public response changed during the Victorian age.

One theme of the book is class. Flanders effectively shows that the public interest in murder was for crimes that involved the middle or upper classes, with a tendency of the newspapers and popular songs and legends to elevate in class the murderers who were from the lower classes. Newspapers flagrantly made up “facts” about accused murderers that sensationalized their backgrounds or their crimes, including changing their social class. Even as late as the Jack the Ripper murders, interest was probably only taken by the public (since the victims were lower-class prostitutes) because of the number and viciousness of the crimes.

Flanders tells us about a series of panics that took place as a result of a growing audience for this kind of subject matter. Once a tax was removed from newspapers in 1855 that had kept the price high enough to restrict their circulation to the middle and upper classes (although the poor shared newspapers or picked them up in coffee houses), circulation greatly expanded and the papers found a new audience for sensationalism.

Even though there had only ever been a very few cases of murder by poisoning, in the early and mid-nineteenth century a poisoning panic resulted from a highly publicized murder case. In the ensuing rash of accusations, people were brought to “justice” when there was no actual proof that anyone had been poisoned let alone any proof that the accused was guilty of any wrongdoing. Unqualified persons were allowed to testify on the “scientific” evidence, including one Alfred Swaine Taylor, who for years testified to the presence of arsenic using a test that actually introduced arsenic into the sample through copper gauze. Even worse, the lower class “poisoners,” who usually had little or no legal representation, were invariably hanged, while the middle and upper class accused often got off completely or with lighter punishment, even if there was more real evidence against them.

Eventually, with improvements in the science of criminology and the rise of public indignation about some obvious miscarriages of justice, the police force was compelled to become more professional and the law to pass more stringent rules of evidence.

Frankly, our lurid interest in crime hasn’t changed, as shown by the prevalence of true crime shows on TV. A large part of the fascination and entertainment value of this history has to do with the details of the crimes as well as the plots of the many plays, novels, and penny dreadfuls that derived from them. Flanders has written an entertaining and lively history for anyone interested in true crime, the evolution of the mystery novel, or the history of advancements in criminology.