"Siren of the Swamplands" was just one of many titles Ada LeBoeuf was given throughout her trial, mostly by The New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The Lady of the Lake," "Small Town Celopatra," & "The Bucolic Lorelei" were a few other standouts. The writers, it would seem, wanted to set a scene for the tragedy that was about to unfold.Read More
March 20, 1961
I want everyone to know that what I’m about to do in no way implicates anyone else. I say this to make sure that no blame falls on anyone other than myself.
I have depressing problems that concern, for the most part, myself. I’m waging a war within myself, a war to find the true me and I fear that I am losing the battle. So rather than admit defeat I’m going to beat a quick retreat into the no man’s land of death. As I have only the will and not the fortitude necessary, a friend of mine, seeing how great is my torment, has graciously consented to look after the details.
His name is Mack Herring and I pray that he will not have to suffer for what he is doing for my sake. I take upon myself all blame, for there it lies, on me alone!
When I first read this note, I swore it was something I had written. Putting pen to paper and replicating it, I could feel the pain and exhaustion that Betty must have felt. Obviously, I’m not shy about my struggles with mental illness, and I’m pretty candid when I talk about sensitive subjects, including suicide. Still ... this note hit me pretty hard. Betty was just 17 when she wrote this, and some classmates remarked that she wrote it in a joking manner, characteristic of her melodramatic personality. Then again, everyone seemed to interpret all of Betty’s suicidal claims as jokes.
The sophisticated language Betty uses is indicative of someone well beyond her years, and her clarity and accuracy in describing her mental turmoil is undeniably striking, but realistic to anyone accustomed to the torment of depression. Betty grew up in the 50’s in a small, conservative town in Texas. She is said to have taken issue with segregation, with the arbitrary rules placed on women and girls, and with the idea of blindly following the status quo. If Betty was already struggling mentally, this environment was a decidedly terrible one to bring her any peace. Compounding all of this, Betty was known for her dramatic nature and her desire to be the center of attention, traits that extended to her sexuality as well. She was known for being unabashedly forward with the boys at her high school, and she had no qualms with sneaking out to meet them in the backseats of cars after they’d taken their girlfriends home to meet curfew.
Her actions may have gotten her the attention she desired temporarily, but it brought on a wave of negative attention as well. She brushed off the talk of a bad reputation, but those close to her knew it still stung. Then, Betty, who had been a stellar drama student throughout her years in high school, was demoted to stage manager her senior year after a new teacher took over. She had ambitions of going to college and staring on Broadway, but her depressingly realistic view of the world curbed any excitement she may have had for the future — her working class parents could never pay college tuition, especially for an acting school out of state, and her part time job wasn’t enough to cover expenses either. She seemed doomed to stay in Odessa, Texas forever, surrounded by people who didn’t really understand her and often disliked her.
It’s not surprising to me that Betty would have wanted to commit suicide. Her cousin, author Shelton Williams, and her close friends from high school cite her melodramatic nature and her infatuation with her ex-boyfriend as reasons for her actions. They believed her antics were all in jest, and a ploy to win back the boy she saw as the love of her life: Mack Herring. Sure, Betty’s suicide attempts appeared as cries for attention — taking four aspirin (what I would consider a typical dose,) climbing onto the stage rafters and telling people she just couldn’t bring herself to jump. But cries for attention and the desire to die aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t doubt Betty may have been looking for someone to “save” her, but to me, all of her actions are in line with someone who is truly, profoundly struggling.
We all react to our struggles differently, but I relate to Betty wholeheartedly. I’ve done so many questionable things in my life that I regret because I didn’t know how to cope with the intensity of my feelings. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’d act out as plea for attention — those are the actions of a child. But when you’re deeply depressed, it can be difficult to navigate the darkest recesses of your brain. You’re essentially in a state where your thoughts are at war with one another, and you’re battling with your brain for sanity. This is why Betty’s war analogies are so accurate, and for me, point to a person who is struggling. It’s not a feeling you often hear described that way unless the person has actually felt it — it’s often the easiest way to explain the chaos that your mind has become.
Obviously there is a melodramatic flair to the way Betty speaks and acts, but that doesn’t negate her suffering. And if I’m being honest, this is where I connect with Betty the most. I love to be outlandish and extravagant, I love to shock people, and I often joke about my own mental health and my desire to commit suicide. I’m stable enough to know not to go through with it, but that doesn’t stop those feelings from creeping up on me from time to time. Joking can be a coping mechanism for a lot of people — it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurt, but rather that they must laugh to keep from crying. To “push through” when you don’t know what else to do.
You can allow your loved ones to make morbid jokes, and in fact, they may feel more comfortable sharing their innermost terrible thoughts with you if they’re anything like me. But sometimes, when things start to get a little weirder than usual, or you notice a subtle shift in the way they’ve been acting, or maybe you just haven’t checked in in awhile — that’s when you have to check. Most of us who have dealt with depression for sometime are pretty good at managing suicidal tendencies, but they can still sneak up on you, and it never hurts to check in. Have an honest conversation. Put the joking aside if necessary, and see where they’re at mentally. Can you help? Does something need to change? Maybe everything’s fine, and that’s great! But the morbid jokes are often placeholders to cope with real feelings, so don’t write everything off as silliness and assume your friend is fine. And if they’re like Betty, and ask you to pull the trigger for them, maybe just … don’t do that. Find them help, talk with them, get some Oreos and watch Forensic Files, whatever, almost anything is a better option.
The moments leading up to Betty Williams’ death are pretty straightforward. Her and her ex-boyfriend Mack exit his car onto his father’s hunting lease. They talk for a little, then walk down to a small stock pond, Mack with a gun in hand. They stand by the water for a moment when Betty remarks that it’s a little chilly and she returns to the car to retrieve her duster. She returns, and Mack asks her for a kiss, to remember her by, he says. She obliges, thanks him, saying that she’ll always remember him for this act of kindness. She kneels. Mack lifts the gun and Betty takes hold of the barrel, placing it to her temple. “Now,” she says. Mack pulls the trigger.
The events leading up to and following this night become ever more complicated, muddying the lines between right and wrong, making us question our conversations with people we think we know, and calling upon us to consider what it really means to be “sane.” The aftermath of this event would bring out some of the ugliest aspects of human nature, class, and wealth, making this a crime where the most poignant violence lied with neither Betty nor Mack, but with the busybody, know-it-all’s of Odessa Texas in 1961. It was the friends and neighbors, the “good girls” and the self-proclaimed “Christians” who I find the most vile and reprehensible in this case.
As for Betty and Mack, their identities are a bit complicated.
Betty told anyone who would listen that she wanted to die, she even asked some of them if they would do it for her, saying she had the desire, but not the fortitude necessary to go through with it. Things weren’t boding well for her lately. She had earned a reputation as a bit of a slut, for the first time in her high school career, she had not been given a part in the upcoming play, there were problems at home and a recent breakup, but the crux of Betty’s sadness lay in the fatalistic way she viewed the future.
Betty was wise beyond her years and knew that Odessa was too small for her, she knew she was capable of much more, but, a true depressive realist, Betty knew that college tuition was something neither she nor her family could afford. She was beginning to feel hopeless, and was likely suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder. She wanted to die.
Mack was a Football player, but not a particularly noteworthy one, and his favorite pastime was hunting. There was something unique to the way Mack hunted, others would always point out. While most boys his age would consider a wounded animal a failed shot, Mack trailed it and killed it, preferring not to see a creature suffer.
That suffering is something he’d claim he saw in Betty, and he felt for her like she was one of those wounded animals. He was confused and flustered on the stand, not fully understanding his actions himself. He just thought she really needed his help. She got to him, he said.
Mack’s strangeness was on full display when he led detectives to the stock pond, stripped to his underwear, and pulled Betty’s body out of the water. There was clearly something wrong with Mack as well. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that untreated mental illness is a theme in the cases I like to cover. The idea of killing someone simply because they asked you to is not something most people would ever consider, yet I disagree with the defense that Betty’s insistence wore down Mack’s capacity for reasoning. I think Mack was already struggling in that department.
That being said, I think Mack’s defense used what they had available to them at the time, in a small, Texas town, and they went with what would probably make sense to most people. I do applaud his lawyer, Warren Burnett, because it is said that he took careful precautions to avoid attacking Betty’s character, something quite rare for a defense attorney to be considerate of. It was for naught, however, for the town took it upon themselves to malign Betty’s character every chance they got.
I don’t hold fault with either Betty or Mack in this case. Mack has been described as a cold, heartless sociopath by Betty’s supporters, and Betty’s name has been drug deep through the Texas mud by both Mack’s supporters and random gossipers around town. It’s these people that disgust me. These grown adults who’s perverse curiosity compels them to ruminate on the sexuality of a teenage girl. It’s no wonder their children were just as terrible — cheering Mack on, and acting as a fan club while he, by all accounts, remained solemn throughout the trial, still unsure of what he had done and why he had done it.
It’s possible to see this crime as someone who desperately wanted to die, and someone with a compromised ability to reason agreed to help them carry it out. Neither of these two seem level headed to me, and I don’t think we need to throw stones at one’s character to save the other’s.
Just because there may have been something off with Mack doesn’t mean Betty manipulated him. She’s not the villain in this scenario. The villains are the man at the local car wash, telling people, “Everyone knew that girl was no good. She tricked that boy into killing her.” Or the woman on the jury, who remarked, after the verdict had been read, “That girl was nothing.” Everyone who gossiped about the promiscuity and manipulative nature of the late, tormented Betty, everyone who cheered at the trial, everyone who believed Betty had ruined this poor boy’s life, those are the villains.
Mack and Betty were two teenagers who didn’t quite understand the world around them. Together, they made the ultimate mistake, but we should be examining the way we teach teenagers about mental illness, not scrutinizing their fucking habits.
It’s difficult to imagine keeping up an elaborate lie your entire life, but that’s exactly what Dorothea Puente did. She maintained both her innocence and her fantasy life until she took her last breath at The Central California Women’s Facility in March of 2011. This is a woman that cannot seem to admit to anything that might put a blemish on her character. She‘s concocted an unnecessarily implausible excuse for even one of her pettiest crimes — propositioning fellatio to an undercover police officer, a crime that only warranted 90 days in jail and would hardly be considered violent or malicious. Dorothea insists she was simply visiting a friend at what she wholeheartedly believed was a bookkeeping office, when the place was raided by police. She was charged only because she was there. A classic wrong place, wrong time sort of thing, if you will.
Then there’s her childhood, and the increasingly elaborate tales she wove about her past. Sure, she’d admit to illegally operating a boarding house, but even that served to make her look more altruistic: this poor elderly woman, who was wrongfully sent to prison, is on probation, but just can’t resist helping those in need. Sure, she cashed their checks, but she had to operate the boarding house somehow. The crime that resulted in her probation? Drugging and stealing from patients she was caring for while she worked as an in-home aide. According to Dorothea, the charge was impossible — she could never drug anyone, because she just “wasn’t that type of person.”
It’s as if she had this pathological need to be seen as a good person. The psychiatrist who evaluated her after the arrest had this to say:
“I think she truly wanted to rehabilitate [her tenants] as she could not the people in her own family. On the other hand, when these people, as could be expected, would act up—at that point, she snapped and decided to kill them.”
He spent a total of twelve hours speaking with her, and eventually diagnosed her with antisocial personality disorder. I haven’t met Dorothea, and I’m certainly no psychiatrist, so I don’t want to dispute his claims, but I do wonder how altruistic those original desires actually were. She undoubtedly had a rough upbringing, and it would be understandable that she would suffer throughout her adult life as a result of that. But Dorothea never did a good deed without making sure people knew about it. With her first boarding house, she donated to charities and political organizations, allowing her to attend events where she could be photographed with local celebrities and politicians. It wasn’t as if she did all these good deeds to no fanfare.
Then there’s all of the “low-cost medical care” she provided to her tenants and the Mexican community in San Francisco. With medical qualifications that were completely fabricated, there’s no telling what harm she may have been putting them under.
Clearly, the appearance of being a good person was very important to her, but I’m not wholly convinced that she actually wanted to be a good person out of the kindness of her heart.
Still, we are left with the mystery of Dorothea, and why she fought so hard to maintain her delusions. I use the term “delusions” here, but I don’t mean to imply she was mentally ill and believed them in the purest sense. But I do think that her lies became such a large part of who she was, that she began to almost see them as true. I’m sure many of us have met people like this — people who seem to lie almost pathologically, even about the most arbitrary things, and although their tales are so outlandish, and dismissed by most people, they’ll always find someone to listen.
Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of desperation there, no matter how callous and cold hearted this person may be, that they just need this to be true. Of course they aren’t actually delusional, and undoubtedly know that they are lying, but it almost seems that the constant repetition and desire to manipulate the truth has a profound effect on a person, one that allows them to just nearly believe themselves. I think Dorothea wanted to convince herself that her lies were true.
I don’t believe her “kind old lady” facade was specifically created for the purpose of murder, but more as a ruse to maintain her appearance of altruism and respectability. I wholeheartedly believe she would have done anything to keep this ruse going, and if murder was necessary, or at least an easy solution, she had no qualms about taking a life. She was so focused on herself and her public image that the lives of others were simply insignificant to her.
I’ve referred to her as a female Ted Bundy, but that’s only in the sense that, like Bundy, she was able to use her appearance and personality to convince potential victims that she wasn’t a threat, to lull them into a false sense of security. But as far as the crimes themselves go, I don’t believe she necessarily enjoyed the act of killing. That being said, it certainly didn’t seem to upset her any either.
Where the psychiatrist’s claims fall apart for me is when you consider the deaths of Ruth Monroe and Everson Gillmouth, two murders she has not been convicted of but is widely believed to have committed. These don’t seem to be crimes where she “snapped.” These weren’t her boarders. In the case of Ruth in particular, we know that Ruth’s health began quickly deteriorating as soon as she moved in with Dorothea, and that the process leading up to her death must have lasted at least a few days. In light of the boarding house murders, it seems likely that she poisoned Ruth as well, and if you believe she did, there’s really no way to deny the premeditation there. With both of these crimes, money seemed to be the motivation once again.
And yet, Dorothea has always glossed over these instances, claiming Ruth’s death was suicide and never speaking of Gillmouth. Even in prison, with no chance of parole and her appeals long exhausted, Dorothea refuses to show remorse. She can’t, not without admitting she isn’t the saint she’s claimed to be. It’s a strange thing, because Dorothea’s delusions may make her the most frightening sort of serial killer. She’s not out for a thrill, she doesn’t need to enjoy the crime, there’s not much of a “type” to her victims except that she’s able to serve them food or drink.
When Martin Kutz conducted a series of interviews with Dorothea for Sactown Magazine, he admits that she appears and behaves like an ordinary old lady. He’s smart enough to know better, but the idea still presents itself: she’s utterly ordinary. She’s not out hunting for victims or saving “tokens,” she doesn’t brag about her crimes or seem to care for notoriety. No, Dorothea is wrapped up in her fantasy world and her insistence that she’s a good person. And that’s what makes her so terrifying. She’s an otherwise unremarkable woman who simply doesn’t place value on human life.
Dorothea Puente is an extremely complicated individual. She maintains her innocence, but makes no attempt to explain away the mountain of evidence that points to her guilt. She simply says “they don’t have all the facts,” “those are lies,” “I’m not that kind of person,” or, my personal favorite, “they’ve never even talked to me!” As if her guilt or lack there of hinges on whether or not a person has met her. It gives one the impression that she believes that if someone doubted her, but then spoke to her, she could fool them with her masquerade. In Dorothea’s mind, her innocence is secondary to the persona she has created, for if she can maintain that facade, then she didn’t commit the crimes, or at least she can deny responsibility for them.
The convicted serial killer has the appearance and demeanor of a kindly grandmother, and it’s not just her guilt that she insists the state got wrong, but almost every detail of her life, including her age, birthplace and upbringing.
Born in Redlands, California in 1929, Dorothea was the second youngest of seven children. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was just eight, and her mother, an alcoholic who intermittently ran off for periods of time and was abusive when she was home, died in a motorcycle accident the following year. The orphaned Dorothea bounced between relatives and foster homes until she was sixteen, when she went off on her own, worked as a prostitute, and met a 22-year old soldier following his return to the U.S. from WWII. He would be her first of four husbands.
With such a dismal upbringing, perhaps it’s not surprising that Dorothea created an alternate version of events. Her chosen account, however, is admittedly puzzling. The way Dorothea tells it, she was born in Mexico, the youngest of eighteen children. She worked as a nurse during WWII, surviving the Bataan Death March. She was scouted for the Rockettes at age 19 while shopping in a department store in San Francisco and promptly flown to New York where she was hired. She’d then spend Thursday through Sunday in New York, and fly back to San Francisco the rest of the week to work as a cook in a seafood restaurant. Her work as a dancer allowed her to meet John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, and she was good friends with Rita Hayworth. During this time, she also won $10,000 on a game show and played in a handful of LPGA tournaments. During the 70’s, she was close friends with Ronald Regan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, although she never did get along with Nancy.
Public records of her life contradict all of this, and during the time she claims to have served in the war, she was a 13 year old living in California. Nonetheless, she used her invented nursing skills to provide cheap medical care to both residents of her boarding home and members of the Mexican community in Sacramento, of which she was a respected member, despite her Mexican heritage being pure fabrication. She helped fund Hispanic arts and education programs, donated food and clothing to anyone in need, and provided guidance for all the women who came to her as they prepared for messy divorce proceedings. Numerous Spanish publications mention her in a positive light, going so far as to refer to her as “la doctora,” giving her the honorary title she lacked from an education. Her qualifications may have been fictitious, but her affect on the community was admittedly very real.
Dorothea was said to feed the stray cats, pass out tamales in the neighborhood, and give away vegetables from her garden. Her biggest contribution to Sacramento’s least fortunate residents however, was also her most despicable: her boarding house at 1426 F Street. Social workers valued her willingness to take in the hardest to place individuals — alcoholics, drug addicts, and the severely mentally ill who had been turned away by other boarding houses and care facilities. This was the second time she had earned her good rapport — her first boarding house venture had ended abruptly in 1978 when she was arrested for forging the signatures of her resident’s benefit checks and signing them over to herself. She received five years probation and was forbidden from operating a boarding house.
This would be the start of a string of arrests. With no boarding house, she took on work as an in-home caregiver, adding 10-15 years to her age, donning oversized glasses and dressing in a matronly fashion. She was every bit the kind old woman that women older than her would expect to understand and care for them properly. In reality, she drugged three women and stole their checks, money and various valuables from their homes. Soon after, at the Zebra Club in midtown San Francisco, she slipped a sedative into her companion’s drink — a 74 year old man she’d just met that night. They returned to his apartment later that night where he watched Dorothea work through a drug induced haze. She collected all of his cash and checks and slipped a diamond ring off his pinky finger before heading out the door. These incidents led to her next arrest, where she was sentenced to five years in prison, though good behavior allowed for her release after three. The conviction did, however, extend her probation to 1990, meaning she was still forbidden from operating a boarding house.
Probation be damned, Dorothea was not the least bit deterred, and she opened up her most famous boarding house at 1426 F Street, where she had enough room for eight tenants. Supposedly Federal probation officers visited her multiple times within the following two years, never suspecting a thing. The story goes that her sweet
demeanor, tidy home, and lies about her visitors being nothing but friends or guests were sufficient enough to convince them she was committing no wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the state had started sending some of its most difficult residents to Dorothea’s new place, and she built up her rapport in the community once more. It’s possible she fooled everyone, but it also sounds likely that officers turned a blind eye because of just how much her facility was needed by social workers. This is admittedly pure speculation, but gives some insight into just how little facilities are prepared for the severely ill or addicted. It was said that, at the time, Dorothea was the best they had, which is tragic in more ways than one.
In time, smells began to radiate from Dorothea’s home. The putrid, repulsive stench of rotting flesh that Dorothea insisted was a burst pipeline or dead rats under the floorboards. But the disappearance of Bert Montoya finally destroyed the dangerous facade she had maintained for years. His case worker was determined. She may very well be the only reason Dorothea’s crimes came to light.
She insisted police search for him or at least question Dorothea, because this didn’t seem right to her. This eventually led detectives to Dorothea’s back yard, lined with shrubbery and flower beds, decorated with the pleasant blooms of azaleas and rose bushes. Any yet... there was still that putrid smell of decay hanging in the air. Dorothea was very corporative, even lending the police an extra shovel to dig. It was her shovel, in fact, that helped unearth the first bone — a leg bone. Dorothea clasped her hands to her face, mouth agape, in astonishment, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.” She says.
The police would come back the following day with a bigger team to search the entire property. It wasn’t uncommon to find remains in yards or gardens at this time. Past families, especially victims of the depression, buried loved ones wherever they could, and the home’s backyard was often a viable option. And this bone appeared to have been there for quite some time, certainly much longer than Bert Montoya had been missing. But to stay on the safe side, Detective Cabrera brought her in for questioning. “I started working her,” Cabrera says, “but all along, she was working me. She was tough. She never blinked, never broke a sweat.” Her story stayed the same and there wasn’t enough to hold her at this point.
And so, after inquiring if she was under arrest (she wasn’t), Dorthera asked if she would be allowed to visit a local inn for a cup of coffee, and this request was not seen as unreasonable, so it was allowed.
In the following days, Dorothea would run, six more bodies would be found in her garden, and a massive search for her would commence. She was found four days later, at a motel in Los Angeles. She surrendered without a fight.
It was after her arrest for the seven bodies found in her garden that Dorothea was linked to two previous murders. The first was the death of her former friend and business partner, Ruth Monroe, which had been presumed a suicide all these years but was now looking a little less so. Ruth came to live with Dorothea after her husband was sent to a hospital with a terminal illness. Within days, she began to have trouble walking, within weeks she was bedridden, pallid, and appearing close to death, sipping on creme de menthe, prescribed by Dorothea to relax her. Dorothea convinced Ruth’s entire family that she was a nurse, and they trusted she would do what was best for Ruth. It wasn’t long before the police were called and Dorothea told them Ruth had overdosed on codeine and acetaminophen, too heartbroken to go on. The second was her pen-pal turned boyfriend, Everson Gillmouth. The well meaning, yet unbelievably naive man wrote to Dorothea so much while she was incarcerated that he’d fallen in love with her. He picked her up when she was released, paid to rent a new boarding house for her, and the two moved in together. His body was discovered in a wooden box on a riverbank by two fisherman. The body remained a John Doe until they were able to link him to Dorothea.
Despite her conviction and the insurmountable evidence against her, Dorothea has always maintained her innocence. It’s not just that she denies the crimes either. When speaking to Martin Kuz from Sactown magazine, Dorothea spun her tales of being a Rockette and entertaining with the Kennedy’s. She remained quiet and stared at the wall when her crimes were called into question. She seems to feel that if she does not address them, they can’t possibly be true. Likewise, if she spins tall tales about her life, there’s no reason to doubt them.
Which makes one wonder: what’s it like to maintain a lie your entire life? Or rather, multiple lies?
See, Dorothea is first and foremost a con-woman. Her interviews with Martin Kuz ended when he decided he would not be supplying her with food and personal items. It’s very possible she was attempting to convince him of her good nature all along in order to get this out of him.
Indeed, detectives remarked that after their initial interview with Dorothea, she had been playing them all along. Still, there are these unifying traits that betray our humanity, no matter how far we stray from them, and I think there’s something interesting in how Dorothea clings to a lost love. She fully admits that she “might as well be dead” to surviving children and relatives, but she cannot let go of her second husband, Axel Johansson. Despite a tumultuous relationship, Dorothea clings to her rose colored glasses of that marriage.
Make no mistake, Dorothea is a vile, manipulative, callous human being. But it’s that last part — the fact that, no matter how much we want to distance ourselves from her, she’s still human. Serial killers often seem like “monsters,” creatures so unlike us and beyond our control, and some of Dorothea’s worst traits — her greed, her willingness to kill to get what she wanted, and her lack of concern for her victims or their families, betray any semblance of humanity, and make it easy to keep that distance, but both her monstrosity and fallibility lies in her pathological need to be liked. She’s a liar, undoubtedly, but she seems to lie not just to others, but to herself as well.
Martin Kuz for Sactown Magazine: The Life and Deaths of Dorothea Puente
The more I read about Caril Ann Fugate, the more intriguing her story becomes. Her ordeal was high profile, to say the least, and it was replicated repeatedly in books, movies and songs. But the most interesting thing to me was reading the emotionally charged reactions that so many people have towards her. Writers, psychologists, internet commentators — all these people so insistent on her guilt that when her husband crashed his car in 2013, killing himself instantly and leaving 70 year old Caril critically injured and hospitalized for months, there were those who swore she must have orchestrated it. There‘s been a great deal of anger ever since she was released from prison, despite the fact that she had served 18 years without incident and remained a model citizen since her release. The father of her ex-boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, insisted that she should have been on his lap when he was executed.
The remarkable thing is that Caril was just 14 when she was arrested. The vitriol directed at her even then is telling of the way that we view teenage girls and the way we demand they meet our expectations. Yes, girls younger than Caril have committed heinous murders, and we regularly see couples draw out violent impulses in one another, so its not an impossible scenario, but is it even a likely one? Are we so sure that this is what happened with Caril that we're ready to publicly condemn her?
It took a bit of digging to discover that the state never actually claimed Caril took part in any of the murders. The entire case against her was based on her attitude. Yes, as astonishing as it is that a conviction could be obtained based on feelings or “gut-instinct,” 14 year old Caril was deemed guilty because well, she seemed like she could have been. Essentially, they decided that because she didn’t act like a proper kidnapping victim, she couldn't possibly have been a kidnapping victim. She must have gone along willingly, enamored with the older, forbidden Charlie. Surely her parents put a stop to the relationship and she gleefully watched as he slaughtered her entire family. The fact that there was no proof, the fact that everyone else claimed Caril had ended the relationship on her own, the fact that only Charlie was supporting this romanticized version of events, none of that meant that the prosecution's telling of events couldn't be true in theory. No one could prove that Caril didn't assist in the murders, and therefore, she was just as guilty as Starkweather. The only thing that saved her from the chair was the fact that she was only 14. She was sentenced to life in prison, but released after 18 years for good behavior. She has always maintained her innocence.
I must say, I’ve never seen any instance of a young girl committing murder where she had developed the skills to lie so convincingly and never once admit her guilt. Young people like to talk, and they lack the same understanding of consequences that we develop with age. A longing for the twisted romanticism of the killer couple will always be pervasive in our society — in fact, just the other day on the radio, I heard two modern songs that made Bonnie and Clyde references. Caril Ann had another thing working against her, though: our insistence to see young girls as much older than they really are. Once the slightest hint is given that a girl may not be 100% pure & innocent, the general public is ready to pounce. There is a reason we have “jokes” about when a young girl will become “legal.” And that underage perversion aside, this obviously raises another problem when it comes to women like Caril Ann. We see her as a grown woman, just waiting for the law to give us the O.K., so we feel as if the law should treat her like an adult. What’s more, we expect her actions to be in line with the decisions an adult would make, so we fail to see the poor and bizarre choices she makes as simply the choices of a confused child.
I believe it’s clear how that would have an impact on a jury’s decision.
See, Charlie initially insisted that Caril had nothing to do with the murders. This was her story as well. After some time in a jail cell and hours of questioning, he was reportedly told that Caril was claiming he’d kidnapped her. This revelation apparently did not sit well with him, and he changed his story to say she was a willing participant. When Caril was first arrested, the warden claimed she was so broken up to hear that her family was killed, there was no way she could have known. At her trial, he changed his story and claimed that when she was arrested, he found newspaper clippings describing the deaths of her parents in her jacket pockets (apparently he had either completely forgot this piece of information, or lied at some point.) No one questions these inconsistencies, but we’re more than ready to poke holes in Caril's character.
In theory, yes, Caril had opportunities to escape, and no, she did not play the proper victim role. But her guilt was decided on flip-flopped stories and witnesses recounting her behavior. At the very least, it’s a case that, even if “in your gut” you feel like she did it, there was no suitable evidence that should have been able to win a conviction.
In this series, I’m obviously not portraying a 14 year-old Caril, and I must admit that her age made me hesitant to tackle this story. But I think it’s important to call attention to the way that we, as a collective society, view teenage girls. There’s this insistence on perceiving young girls as older than they are, & if she’s not hysterical and wildly sympathetic, she must be up to no good. There is no “in-between” the young, sweet, innocent stage, & all the expectations and scrutiny that come with womanhood. I think it’s important to note that grown women will only garner the same sympathy if they’re deemed helpless (i.e. childlike) enough; but behaving as Caril did — in a calm & collected manner that likely had more to do with shock than anything, is a surefire way to be perceived as cold and uncaring.
This must be confusing for teenage girls, particularly when you’re raised to put everyone else’s happiness before your own, which we often are, regardless of whether of not its our parents’ and teachers’ intention. We learn to present ourselves in ways others expect of us, but attempting to behave like a grown woman when your brain is still operating as a child’s can have disastrous effects on one’s development. For Caril, her efforts were both tragically futile and catastrophic as she attempted to placate the very dangerous Starkweather in what she saw as an effort to save her family.
She was likely trapped with an abusive ex-partner who didn't know how to let go and also happened to be a homicidal maniac. She did the best she could to keep him calm, forced to take care of her captor out of fear he'd kill those she loved. She showed remarkable resilience considering her age and inexperience, and when she finally tried to get help, the law refused to believe her and instead sided with her kidnapper. The fact that his words carried any weight is astounding: one’s fate should ever be decided on by an angry ex, and that’s something I’m sure we can all agree on.
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie
When I take inspiration from films, I usually try to reference them in my titles. In this case, my imagery draws heavily from the 1960's French film "Blood and Roses." It's a mesmerizing tale of vampires and unrequited love, and it unfolds like a painting has come to life, or rather, various paintings have been woven together to create a visual masterpiece that is equal parts horror, love story, tragedy and art.
You can feel our heroine Carmella unraveling as the story progresses, and a doctor's commentary raises just enough questions that we can never say for sure which events are real, and which are products of Carmella's deteriorating mind and childlike imagination. Carmella's unraveling is not unlike the story of Kathleen Hagen, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Kathleen's mind was in a state of decay and illusion — a feeling that I am acutely familiar with.
I knew immediately that I wanted to build a set in a state of decay and shoot in the woods. The problem I had was representing that state of mind in the style of pin up or noir. So, while I went with typical pin up & vintage boudoir costume choices, you'll notice classic gothic and horror motifs throughout this series. (See bloodstained white nightgown.) My goal here was to really capture the feeling of loosing ones mind. I felt compelled to show this in part because I frequently see cute comics and encouraging articles about dealing with depression and anxiety and I always feel that they just scratch the surface. Things like fear of social interaction and the inability to leave bed are frequent topics, and while they are certainly nothing to belittle, the less palatable issues like paranoia, disassociation, and hallucinations tend to get pushed aside. I think people tend to associate these things with "scarier" illnesses like schizophrenia, but for someone suffering from manic or chronic depression, frequent insomnia can lead to a host of psychotic symptoms. In Kathleen's case, it led her much farther.
That can be a sobering fact for many of us struggling with depression. We live in a society that values a strong work ethic above all else, and scoffs at the idea that someone could be struggling because they are tired. “We’re all tired,” seems to be a popular response. For us insomniacs, we may sometimes feel like we have a bit of an edge over “normal” people when it comes to this. Staying up all night — or days on end for that matter — is not uncommon for many of us. I remember tossing and turning and writhing in frustration while I was in college. Coupled with my overactive creativity and ambition, sleeping was damn near impossible. I eventually decided to put my insomnia “to good use” and stay up all night working. If my body didn’t want sleep, I guess I didn’t need It, right? This contradicted every medical opinion I’d ever heard, but I convinced myself anyway.
I was getting more work done, and I have to be honest, while it wasn’t my best, it wasn’t terrible either. My professors were still impressed by my thoughts or words or whatever. Trouble arose when I started doing odd things. I sat under a table in class because it was “more comfortable,” I’d see shadow people on the subway and around street corners and I just knew they were coming for me. I was even going into my second closest Duane Reade and buying things in the middle of the night, having conversations with people that I couldn’t remember. (I still have no clue why I didn’t choose the closest Duane Reade.) I only discovered this when I went during the day one time and a cashier made a comment about how it was weird to see me during the day. All the things that had been showing up around my apartment suddenly made sense. There was not a creature sneaking in and replenishing shampoo and cigarettes while I was gone. This isn't a sleep-medication horror story either. I wasn’t taking anything for sleep at the time. I was just so fucking exhausted that my body and mind didn’t know what to do with themselves.
I’ve had bad reactions to plenty of medications too, but that’s a story for another time. Now I have to take medicine every night before bed. I don’t care about the stigma, I don’t care about new research that suggests sleep quality is not as good on medication. If you can get on without it, you absolutely should, but if you’re stuck, and the alternative is seeing shadow people on the subway ... well, I’ll take poorer sleep quality over no sleep any day.
Anyway, I believe Dr. Kathleen Hagen’s official diagnosis was manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and she was sent to a hospital instead of a prison as it was clear she’d had no idea what she was doing at the time. I’m really glad the state came through on this one, as it can too often be a shit show when crime and mental illness collide. It’s just too difficult to understand these mindsets if you haven’t experienced something similar first hand.
What I can’t stress enough is that Bipolar disorder, Anxiety and Depression can absolutely cause audible and visual hallucinations, and can lead to intense paranoia and disassociation under the right (?) circumstances. We can’t really capture these feelings in cute cartoons or cheeky memes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. I swore for the longest time that I was the only one on earth suffering from my specific form of insanity, and thought that I was basically incurable. I now realize how ridiculous that is and I want to help as many people as possible avoid that way of thinking.
We may not have our own cutesy paraphernalia to raise awareness for these “scarier” aspects of depression. The closest I’ve ever gotten is this Cerberus drawing.
It’s ... not cute. But neither is depression. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding humor in it, as that can be a great way to cope, but I want our societal discussions on mental illness to scratch deeper. It’s extremely difficult to talk about these scarier aspects of our illness — its taken me awhile to get to this point, and it’s something I force myself to be as open as possible about. But I can do better, we can all do better.
And I don’t mean to imply that you should push yourself into doing anything that makes your depression worse, but find your limits, figure out your triggers, decide if your lifestyle needs changing — I had to move out of New York City because living there made me sicker. Think carefully about the people in your life, and if they’re harmful, distance yourself. And please, get some fucking rest. It’s so important. Take care of yourself, no matter how difficult that may be, because we often think the worst case scenario is that we’ll commit suicide. I think most of us are pretty numb to that thought, right? Once you’ve contemplated it 15-20 times or so, it sort of looses its scare factor. But suicide isn’t the only end game — Dr. Kathleen Hagen killed two people she loved, and it wasn’t because she had some extraordinary mental disorder or a violent personality. Kathleen could have been any of us. Any of us could become the next Kathleen if we neglect caring for our illness.
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie
There are a small number of people who believe the reformation of Karla Faye Tucker was a farce. So for arguments sake, let's say Karla really was fooling everyone throughout her final moments--a show she put on until her last breath. All she really did was learn how to wear the mask that society requires of us. It doesn't matter to the world if you fantasize about killing people daily, as long as those fantasies never come to fruition. Her performance would have been one that we all take part in daily, but she truly relished hers and made it count.
One of the most remarkable things about Karla Faye Tucker isn't just the amount of people she had petitioning for her life to be spared, but who those people were.
Former Texas prosecutors, staunch advocates of the death penalty, prominent Televangelists, even the brother of one of her victims. The statements everyone made about her after her arrest were very damning. Even her defense attorney was repulsed by her and didn't want to defend her. It was after Karla's conversion to Christianity and her public apologies that people began to not just see another side of her, but consider how she became the monster she had previously been in the first place.
She was introduced to drugs at 10 years old, and with her mother, became a groupie in her early teens. They both worked as prostitutes and used various drugs heavily. She really was never destined to live a "normal" lifestyle.
Admittedly, she seemed to make it difficult for people to view her in a sympathetic light. She wanted to be seen as tough, and by all accounts, she was. One prosecutor said he had no problem admitting that he believed she could easily beat the shit out of him if she wanted to. She said outlandish things, like her mention of experiencing an orgasm with each blow of the ax. She later confessed that this was a lie she told to make herself appear more tough, comfortable with murder, and intriguing to the rough crowd she hung around with.
The unfortunate thing is that it took her religious conversion for people to acknowledge the terrible upbringing that Karla endured. And, admittedly, she made it much easier to see her as a person — she was no longer threatening, but likable and forthcoming. The problem is that, as is often the case, it is so much easier to offer help to someone who no longer needs it. Prison turned out to be the best thing for Karla, but it's important to remember her, because she is an example of prison actually reforming a person. As she was quick to point out while she was still alive, there were and still are many other men and women on death row who had similar revelations and became new people while in prison. Her gender, appearance, and charisma helped bring attention to her transformation, as did the fact that she reached it via Christianity. Sadly, reformation is not typically the goal of US prisons, and, like so many people before her, she was still put to death.
Karla's popularity didn't really help her much in the eyes of the law, but it did raise some interesting questions about capitol punishment and the role of our prison systems, however briefly. And it makes one wonder how our legal system should react to people like Karla, who have such a rough start in life that prison is what saves them.
A final thought:
Fred Allen oversaw Karla's execution, along with 120+ others during his days as captain of the "Death House Team." In Werner Herzog's 2011 documentary "Into the Abyss", Allen told Herzog that within days of Karla's execution, he suffered a nervous breakdown & resigned, giving up his pension. He also changed his position on executions. "I was pro capital punishment. After Karla Faye and after all this, until this day, eleven years later, no sir. Nobody has the right to take another life. I don't care if it's the law. And it's so easy to change the law."
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie
I feel guilt for saying this, but initially I couldn't help but find fault with the victim in the case of Dorothy Mort. Some background: Dorothy Mort was suffering from at the very least, depression and anxiety. Things only got worse after her abusive father committed suicide. Her husband called the best doctor he could find, Dr. Claude Tozer, who was also a war hero and acclaimed Cricket player. Soon, Dorothy seems to be feeling better, but her and her doctor are writing rather amorous letters to one another. They may or may not have been intimate in other ways. After some time, Tozer breaks off the affair, supposedly to marry another woman. Dorothy fatally shoots him and then attempts to kill herself. It seems she narrowly missed her heart, then attempted to overdose on laudanum, but is eventually found, treated and taken to trial. She is acquitted on grounds of insanity, and spends eight years in Long Bay prison hospital before being released and sent home.
The accounts on this vary so much. I first watched it reenacted on Deadly Women, where they heavily imply the affair was sexual, and while condemning Tozer's bedside manner, also claim that Dorothy fooled the jury and "got away with murder." Something about that didn't sit right with me, because I thought ... he was still her doctor, we have no idea just how ill this woman was. Then I found many articles where he was called a "dallying doctor" and described as handsome and a charmer. That didn't do much to sway my thinking, it only strengthened it. I attempted to read a book called "Mrs. Mort's Maddness," but I'll be honest, I couldn't get through it. I grew impatient. Then I found an article from The Sydney Morning Herald by Malcolm Knox that concluded with "There were no rights and wrongs, only a final tragedy and ruined lives."
He points to mental illness as the biggest factor here, and notes the possibility that Tozer may very well have been suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. Far from the playboy depictions, Tozer had been engaged to a woman who tragically died of influenza a few months after his return from the war. His father had passed while he was away. The woman he told Dorothy he was engaged to marry was completely made up. He just knew he needed to end the relationship, and presumably, he thought this was the best way to go about it. He was obviously, tragically wrong.
It seems as if Dorothy and Claude may have found kindred spirits in one another, united in their depleted/fragile mental states and recent losses of their fathers. I felt so much sympathy then for Dr. Tozer, who it seems truly cared for Dorothy, and was battling his own demons. Dorothy was very lucky in this situation. Her husband was more than devoted, standing by her through everything, acknowledging her illness, and welcoming her home when she was deemed stable. She went on to live a quiet, uneventful life with her husband and children, and even outlived Mr. Mort.
It really calls to mind just how differently things can go when you have a strong support system. Even the judge and jury were willing to recognize Dorothy's mental illness, allowing her to get treatment and live a relatively stable life. With Claude Tozer, the mere possibility that he may have been afflicted with his own illness is only just being raised, nearly a century later. Provided he really was suffering from PTSD, he was far from shunned, but being revered would have had its own share of problems. It can be difficult to recognize mental illness --even, and oftentimes especially, in oneself-- but this is why self reflection is so crucial, as is dismantling all of the stigmas and preconceived notions we harbor about mental illnesses.
This was a deeply personal one for me, as I had to pry open some old wounds and revisit the thoughts that ran rampant in my head during the deepest points of my depression. You really can't speak from the perspective of a sick mind without poisoning your own a little in the process. Of course, I know that mental illness manifests so differently in each of us, and I strongly believe in the importance of making those experiences visible. So if there's a femme fatale you feel that you relate to, or just anything you feel like sharing, please feel free to contact me, and I'll try to cover some different experiences in future stories.
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie
The story you'll often hear about Stella Nickell is not pretty, but its quite extraordinary. After taking 4 Excedrin, her husband collapsed. She called paramedics, but they were unable to save him and he was pronounced dead, presumably from natural causes. From the beginning Stella insisted something must be wrong -- aside from chronic headaches, her husband was a healthy man and there was nothing to suggest why he would die so suddenly. When she saw a news report about a woman dying from Excedrin capsules filled with cyanide, she called the police. They exhumed her husband's body and determined that he too, had been poisoned. Stella handed two bottles of Excedrin over to police -- supposedly bought at two different times from two different stores. It seemed virtually impossible that one woman could have such bad luck, as only five tainted bottles were discovered, and Stella quickly rose to the top of the suspect list. Her subsequent refusal to take a polygraph test only furthered suspicions.
She was eventually tried and promptly convicted, based on a slew of circumstantial evidence. Minuscule amounts of a product called Algae Destroyer were found mixed with the cyanide in the capsules and a local fish store clerk testified that he sold large quantities of this product to Stella. Her fingerprints were all over library books on deadly plants -- many of which were on pages about cyanide. Then there was her daughter, who testified that she had heard her mother repeatedly talk about being "bored" with her husband and wanting to kill him. As for motive, she would receive extra life insurance money if her husband died accidentally, so the prosecution painted a grim picture of a vile woman who wanted to kill her husband simply because she was bored with him, and was so greedy that she was willing to poison another innocent person just for the extra life insurance money.
When initially heard the story of Stella Nickell, my first question was "how in the hell did this woman get cyanide?" Naturally it was where I started my Stella research. Mostly because I wanted to be accurate and needed a way to show her using cyanide in my photographs, but I was also curious. It doesn't seem like the sort of substance one can just pick up at the grocery store.
After hours of research (and a lot of searches that make my internet history even more questionable than it already was) I'm still uncertain as to where the average person would obtain cyanide discreetly. Outside of very specific occupations, it's just not the sort of thing that would ever be readily available, at least in lethal doses anyway. What I did discover, however, is that there is another, even more intriguing version of events surrounding Stella Nickell.
It turns out that the question of how a reportedly uneducated, alcoholic woman living in a single wide trailer was able to obtain cyanide, properly fill at least 5 bottles worth of capsules, and handle it all carefully enough as to not harm herself in the process was never raised during Stella's investigation or trial.
I ended up reading about two private detectives who unsuccessfully fought to get Stella a new trial. Not only did the FBI withhold documents from the defense team, but they paid both Stella's daughter and the fish store clerk for their testimonies, and convinced Stella's friend --who had information that would have helped Stella's defense-- that her life was in danger and she needed to go into hiding. Years later she said "It all just kind of dawned on me, wait a minute, this was a whole setup."
For context, this all occurred only four years after the Chicago Tylenol murders -- which left seven people dead and remains unsolved. So to say that there was a lot of pressure on both the FBI and pharmaceutical companies would be an understatement, and apparently both were praised for the way they handled the case of Stella, especially in comparison to the Tylenol murders. The widespread fear and panic at the time is the only reason I can think of that no one thought to question how and where Stella would obtain cyanide. Then again, it seems like a question that would demand an answer, doesn't it?
The reason for zeroing in on Stella (which happened fairly early into the investigation) was the belief that she had bought two separate bottles of contaminated pills on two separate occasions at two different stores. The odds of that, agents decided, were infinitesimal, and I can't argue with that. The problem, however, is that Stella apparently told police that she might have bought them separately at different stores, but she just couldn't say for certain either way. Her friend though -- the one who went into hiding under FBI instruction -- had been living with Stella at the time and said she was with her when she purchased both bottles at the same store in a two-for-one sale. She was also with Stella and her daughter during the times her daughter said the incriminating conversations about Stella wanting to kill her husband occurred. According to her, Stella never really complained about Bruce. They were happily married, and in hindsight there was no reason to think otherwise. But at the time, she says, the FBI did a very good job of convincing her that Stella was not only guilty, but out to get her as well.
They also paid a neighbor to spy on Stella and search her home for the Algae destroyer. No such product was found in the Nickell home. This fact was concealed from the defense and not mentioned at trial.
Stella worked a low-paying job screening passengers at an airport and lived in a single-wide trailer. According to many reports she was a heavy drinker. From what I've gleaned, cyanide is not something you can just handle casually. If handled incorrectly, Stella could have very easily killed herself in the process of filling the capsules. The only link between Stella and cyanide was a pair of overdue library books on hazardous plants. Her fingerprints were all over the pages on cyanide. "I started reading books to find out what plants I might have on the property that would be a danger to kids and pets," Stella says. The books were checked out before Bruce's death, but were never returned. She says her interest in cyanide arose when she became suspicious about his death.
There are over 1,000 pages of FBI documents that were not shared at trial, and according to the private detectives they indicate concealed evidence and tampering with witnesses.
Also of note: three months after the two deaths, Seattle police investigated a suicide where they found a bag of capsules resembling those of Excedrin and a pound of cyanide.
Sharron Kinne is such an interesting character because she truly is a modern outlaw. If we were watching this play out on film, she would be our heroine. We would sympathize with her, admire her badassery, and find reasons to justify her actions. Of course, this isn't film, so depictions of her are often unfavorable, but the thing that gets to me is when they're just flat out wrong.
I had to rely on Wikipedia so much in researching Sharon Kinne, because unfortunately most of the articles I found were so riddled with speculation and opinion that it felt wrong to even use them as source material.
A lot of these websites state as fact that Sharon killed Patricia Jones, and it's not unlikely, as the gun used to kill Jones was later found in Sharon's possession. Nevertheless, she was acquitted of that murder, so to credit her with it is simply not factual. One of my personal favorite sensationalizations is this little gem:
"She carried out her plot by luring Patricia Jones to the remote area and then shot her to death as Patricia cried, screamed, and begged for her life."
By all accounts, there were no witnesses to Patricia's murder, so I'm not sure if the writer intends to imply that he was actually present at the scene of the crime or is somehow omniscient.
Then, in another article, we have this statement about the death of Sharon's husband, James Kinne:
"Sharon Kinne did the only sensible thing, for her: She shot James in the head while he was napping and said her 2-year-old daughter Danna did it while playing with daddy's gun."
Sharon's conviction in the death of her husband was overturned, and because she remains a fugitive, and her first three trials yielded no resolution, the charges against her remain pending. So, legally, she is not responsible for the death of James Kinne.
Now, clearly I'm not opposed to embellishment for the sake of a compelling story, but the characters I create, while based on real women and as well researched as possible, are still characters of my own design. I in no way intend for my words to be taken as their statements. It's important, I believe, to be as transparent as possible in distinguishing facts from fiction.
In an attempt to be fair, I always check whether the woman I'm portraying has admitted to committing the crime or maintains her innocence. I may have my own ideas as to whether or not they're telling the truth, but I want to at least attempt giving them the benefit of doubt, and if nothing else, put myself outside of my own head while enacting them. So, if they admit to it, I will tell the story from that angle, and if they do not, I'll find whatever statements or news reports from them that can help me craft a story from their perspective of events.
Some are easier than others. Larissa Schuster and Ana Trujillo both had numerous interviews and direct quotes that I could draw from. Sharon Kinne, on the other hand -- and I'm sure her fugitive status plays no small part in this -- has not really spoken too much about her alleged crimes.
She has however, always maintained the same stories for each crime she was accused of. James was an accident, she simply found Patricia's body, and has no idea who might have killed her, and the incident in Mexico was self defense. If nothing else, the woman is consistent with her statements. Its unlikely she'll ever be found, as she could be anywhere in South America at this point, and no one really seems to be looking for her anymore. Some speculation even suggests that she has died. She'd be a fugitive in her 70's, so that's entirely possible.
I chose to work the comics into this story because the Criminal series explores crime in a very interesting, nuanced way. In the world of Criminal, we abandon the good/evil dynamic, even more so than you'll often see on film and television. Because these aren't your "likable antihero" characters, they're people stuck in shitty life situations finding a way to survive, and they aren't always doing what they think is right. There isn't always some altruistic or compassionate side to them, and yet, there doesn't need to be. Brubaker and Phillips still make you feel for them. The way each arc can be read independently but still ties together really pulls together the idea that you can unwittingly be the "villain" in someone else's story, and that the lines between what is right and wrong are often murky and bloody.
And this isn't just praise because its my favorite comic. I bring this up because its so pertinent in life. We may be the protagonist in our own stories, but each of us is a villain or an adversar in somebody else's, and we'd be wise to remind ourselves of that every once in awhile.
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie
I'd highly recommend checking out Criminal by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
If you come across any material on Sharron Kinne that isn't shit, please let me know!
In just ten days, Joanna Dennehy murdered her housemate, her landlord, and a love interest, then drove across the country and attempted to carry out murders on two complete strangers she found out walking their dogs. Lacking both motive and remorse, her spree garnered a great deal of attention, with most people simply grappling to make sense of something that was ultimately nonsensical.
Nothing in her childhood would have suggested she was troubled, but as she reached adolescence she became rebellious, though that's more the norm than the exception. Unlike most teens, however, she seemed to exclude the people from her life that shed light on reality, choosing instead to surround herself with people who believed her every word, admired her faults, and followed her blindly.
She sort of stuck in that adolescent phase, with romanticized ideas of being an outsider and no beliefs, values, passions, or hobbies to ground her. Her decisions were based on impulses--to drink or take drugs, to scare off her partner and children, to create alternate versions of her life and pass off stories as the truth.
She left home at 15 to live with her 20 year old lover, John Treanor. They had two children, but she frequently told friends she never wanted them. She'd run off for days at a time and have affairs with different men and women, she was an alcoholic, and she was prone to increasingly violent temper tantrums when she didn't get her way.
When she started carrying a dagger in her boot and talking about a desire to kill someone, Treanor decided it was time to take the children and leave.
As Elizabeth Yardley put it in The Guardian:
"She came to value nothing, believe in nothing, reject society and any contribution she could make to it – pursuing only her own increasingly bizarre impulses in an existence where the line between fantasy and reality had become increasingly blurred."
She describes Joanna as someone who completely fell through the metaphorical cracks of society and implores us to look within ourselves to find ways to help people like Joanna, before they have committed multiple murders. And while I don't disagree with Yardley, I do feel the need to ask "how?"
Perhaps I'm unlucky, but I feel like I encounter quite a few people who will frequently pass their invented realities off as facts. And what's the best course of action here? You can take them aside, and tell them you don't believe them, but Joanna had dissenters as well, and those were the people she simply cut out of her life. Those closest to her, who knew her best -- her parents, sister, partner, and children, those are the people she ran the farthest from. It allowed her to maintain her illusions. She told her landlord that she had served time in prison for killing her father after he repeatedly raped her as a child -- a reality she fabricated. Whether he believed her or not, he wanted to help her, and ultimately it cost him his life.
I don't believe in pure evil, and I would never say that Joanna is beyond help, but I do wonder: when we encounter people, and we know they're full of shit, do we call them out on it? Perhaps if everyone around them tried to draw them back to reality there could be some benefit, but it seems they would just search out other people, more susceptible to their beliefs.
These people seem to operate like small scale cult leaders, they only need a few people, but those few must believe them hard and fast.
I doubt I'm alone when I say that I often feel as if I'm on a never ending quest to figure people out. As if understanding them will bring about some type of resolution. But I think it has more to do with my curiosity, and that in obtaining knowledge of something new, you slowly develop a better grasp on the complexities of the world. But when I think about people like Joanna, and the people I know who cannot stop themselves from fabricating new realities, I wonder if perhaps sometimes, attempts to understand these people are more harmful than good. Perhaps there are those rare people who defy understanding to such a degree that it would serve us best to simply not obtain that knowledge.
P.S. I mean this on an individual level, of course. I in no way think that psychiatric and behavioral health specialists should abandon people like Joanna. On the contrary, they are perhaps the only ones who can do any good for someone so adverse to reality.
The story of Frankie and Charlie Silver began in 1831, yet it captivates an audience to this day. Descendants from both families have strong ideas on what they believed happened that night. Most people, however, are content with the fact that we'll never know exactly what went down in that little wood cabin, and that's a big part of what keeps us interested. That, among a few other things.
To start, Frankie was regarded as pretty, so that already raises the level of public interest. There's just something about a pretty woman doing something ugly that piques our curiosity. In fact, both her and her husband Charlie appeared to be well liked within their small North Carolina mountain community. Accounts of the two from Alfred Silver, Charlie's half-brother, painted Charlie as "a favorite at all the parties for he could make merry by talking, laughing, and playing musical instruments," and of Frankie: "She had charms, I never saw a smarter little woman."
That, however, is where the compliments stop and the accusations begin. Charlie's camp colors Frankie as a jealous wife who killed him in his sleep out of revenge. Accounts in Frankie's favor, however, describe Charlie as a bit of a drunkard and highly abusive, with Frankie killing him in self defense.
Wayne Silver, a historian of the Silver family, offers a more nuanced view on what he presumes happened that December night. After going out for Christmas liquor, Charlie returns home and an argument breaks out between him and Frankie. Likely inebriated, Charlie makes a treat towards his wife and crying child and begins to load his gun. While he probably didn't mean it -- he's just drunk and acting foolish -- things are heated and Frankie reacts in understandable panic. Its a small cabin, an ax is right by the fireplace, she grabs it and swings. "It was more of an accident than anything else," Silver believes.
The events following the murder also add to the lure of this tale. Pieces of Charlie were found in the fireplace and around the property, and they continued to find parts of him for some time. Indeed, Charlie Silver has three different grave markers, with different body parts discovered at different times beneath each one.
It's difficult to imagine a modern woman dismembering her husband after killing him in self defense. In fact dismemberment is often used to help dispel claims of defense. Don Haines of Blue Ridge Country offers some insight:
"It was a sexist society. It was not unusual for a man to murder his wife and receive no punishment. Nineteen-year-old Charlie was perhaps an unfortunate product of an unfortunate environment – a young man who may have manifested the worst of his time’s mountain mores. This ingrained attitude may have had a significant role in the events of December 22, 1831."
He points out that we're talking about an eighteen year old in an extremely male dominated society here, her mind is likely filled with panic and fear. There's no room to consider the idea of justifiable homicide. Wayne Silver theorizes that young Frankie would have naturally turned to her family for help, and though the plan was doomed from the start, they decided the best course of action was to attempt to hide the body and pretend he never came home that night.
Despite the guilty verdict and subsequent hanging of Frankie, she garnered a lot of support in the time between her trial and execution. She had not been allowed to speak at trial, but she reportedly spoke after the fact, and changed minds among the general public. Even seven of her jurors wrote to the governor requesting she be pardoned.
While these attempts were ultimately futile, they give us a glimpse at how easily a mind can be changed -- Frankie's jurors were originally 9/3 for acquittal before rehearing some revised testimony. We see how important it is that the accused be given the opportunity to speak in their defense, an opportunity that Frankie did not have.
It is also important not to let 21st century lenses cloud our view of this tragedy. Both Frankie and Charlie were products of their environment, and it would be difficult for any of us to imagine living in that society. Provided the claims that Charlie was abusive are true, we cannot hold him to our modern standard of accountability. He was a young man taught a very different set of rights and wrongs than we should expect from those in today's world. Likewise, we cannot rush to judge Frankie for her ill advised coverup. She was very likely a young woman trying to do what she saw as right for her child and her family.
For me, Frankie Silver is one of the easier killers to feel sympathy for. I imagine the fear she felt must have been tremendous, both when her husband became a threat to her and her daughter's life -- whether real or imagined -- and upon realizing what she had done to him. But those feelings of fear and of helplessness are ultimately what led her to make the unfortunate choices she made. When you put that idea on a broader scale, it becomes an important thing to reflect upon in modern society. When we see people make bad decisions, it is necessary to pause before jumping to dismissing them as bad or reckless people. For the more abandoned one feels, the more likely one is to behave in a rash fashion -- the less you have to loose, the less you care about consequences.
That can be particularly poignant this time of year when dealing with friends and family suffering from depression. Its something I constantly have to remind myself of -- knowing that I'm limited on how much I can invest in the emotions of others, lest I drive myself into another mental breakdown, I can sometimes neglect to let others know I care. What's important to remember is that you don't have to fully invest yourself emotionally into a situation to let someone know that you have and will not abandon them should they ever need your help. Sometimes it can help just to know that you do in fact have something to loose.