(I know, you’re wondering if all I do is read. Not true! I work, too. Oh my, Opening Day can’t come fast enough for me so I’ll have something else to think about. Then spring, and with that maybe I’ll find a way to shed some of the heartbrokenishness that’s accumulated over the winter. Maybe.)
Some say that Houdini was a great escape artist, but not a great magician. Others argue that he was just as skilled as any other magician of his day. Undoubtedly he was a great entertainer. William Kalush and Larry Sloman, the authors of The Secret Life of Houdini (2006) would ask you to believe something else about Houdini—that he was a spy.
Houdini is one of those enduring names that people instantly recognize. Just as people who don’t know or care anything about sports still know that Babe Ruth had something to do with baseball, most people can connect Houdini with magic. There were other performers and magicians of the early 20th century who were popular and perhaps more accomplished than Houdini (Harry Kellar comes to mind) but they’ve long been forgotten. Houdini, though, is still here.
Kalush and Sloman want to add to the Houdini legend by introducing recently discovered material that connects Houdini to early Secret Service chief John Wilkie, and the first head of Britain’s MI-5 spy agency, William Melville. According to Kalush and Sloman, Houdini’s early career was floundering until he met Andy Rohan, a Chicago police officer. Rohan helped Houdini set up a performance at his station house, where Houdini performed several escapes in front of police officers, detectives, and members of the press. The event got Houdini much needed publicity and also established a valuable connection with Rohan, himself an amateur magician. Rohan helped provide entrée for Houdini to other police stations and chiefs around the country, where he performed similar publicity stunts. Rohan also introduced Houdini to Wilkie, another amateur magician. Wilkie had a history of using performers and magicians in Secret Service work, especially for tasks such as understanding counterfeiting, safecracking, and escapes. Kalush and Sloman aren’t completely clear on this, but they seem to imply that Wilkie connected Houdini with Melville. As a highly regarded performer, Houdini would be able to travel around Europe without suspicion and gather intelligence for Melville.
What Houdini exactly did for Britain or the U.S. as a spy is unclear; the authors point out that the spy agencies were in their early stages at the time and much of the communication between spies and spymasters was conducted orally. Written records were quickly destroyed. Houdini did perform all over Europe and spent a good deal of time in Germany and Russia. He had access to heads of state. He could observe armies and armaments. While it’s unlikely that Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas were carrying on discussions about building warships in front of a performer like Houdini, he could undoubtedly get a sense of the general temperament of the various courts.
This all seems very exciting, doesn’t it, the idea of Houdini as a spy! However, upon closer examination I don’t really think it’s that much. As previously noted, Wilkie had already been using performers to help him out in the U.S., and in fact, outright admitted in a 1908 Washington Post article that he recruited magicians. So Houdini was not only not the first, but in fact, one of many. Melville used magicians in his work, too, and also employed music hall performers as informants. During World War I, Houdini did aid the government by providing instruction for young American soldiers in subjects such as how to escape from the wreckage of torpedoed ships and how to break out of German-made handcuffs. Again, though, he was not the only one. A New York Times article discussed the U.S. government’s recruitment of magicians to help the war effort, resulting in the contributions of several magicians in areas such as cryptology, development of a type of invisible ink, and surveillance of possible German spies (I should mention that the authors refer to this New York Times article in the book’s text but the article isn’t cited in the book’s notes. Don’t worry, though, I hunted it down—it’s a 9/4/1917 article. Thank you, NY Times searchable archives!).
So the question is, I think, is it fair to call Houdini a spy? That he gathered some basic intelligence seems without question. But so did many others on a part-time, amateur basis. In WW II, Noel Coward did similar work for the British government due to his ability to move in high-level, international circles; Leslie Howard was also probably involved in some kind of intelligence work. The revelation that Houdini also provided intelligence for MI-5 is not, I think, an earthshaking one, but just another footnote in an already astounding life. To be honest, I suspect that Houdini’s police connections, provided by spymasters Wilkie and Melville, did more for his career than for the efforts of either intelligence agency.
And Houdini’s life was already pretty amazing. Most people are aware of Houdini’s famous escapes, but Kalush and Sloman do a fine job describing their complexity and the physical torture Houdini underwent during them; he may have had hidden keys and other tricks for breaking out of chains, boxes, and other containers, but that didn’t make the ropes any less tight and the irons any less sharp or heavy. The authors also cover Houdini’s foray into the world of aviation. An early adopter, he actually became the first person to fly an airplane in Australia! In general, Houdini always seemed willing to give new technologies a try. He made films of parts of his act as early as 1901, and his career as a film actor in the early 1920s (with results ranging from big hits to dismal flops) is also chronicled in detail by the authors. I guess all this type of curiosity is to be expected from a man who started out apprenticed to a locksmith.
Houdini had a virtual second career as a historian of magic and a debunker of false mediums and Spiritualists. He amassed a huge collection of theatrical and magic memorabilia and books and tried his hand at writing about magic. Some of these efforts fell flat; his attempt to write a history of magic turned into a mean-spirited diatribe against his original inspiration, the 19th century French magician Robert-Houdin (Houdini’s motivations and mistakes in this area are better discussed in Jim Steinmeyer’s excellent Hiding the Elephant than in Kalush and Sloman’s book). Houdini also wrote for magic and theater magazines, and his constant work with the Society of American Magicians shows his belief in his craft, the brotherhood of magicians, and the respect he felt they deserved for their skill.
Which brings us to debunking and Spiritualism. Houdini had an inside track on mediums and fakery as, early in his career, he and his wife had performed a spiritualist act. They did their work the same way as many other traveling mediums—they found out facts about people in the towns where they were performing and used those to make seemingly unknowable statements about those persons’ pasts, presents, and future. When a few of their predictions and descriptions of audience members’ lives hit too close to home, Houdini became uncomfortable with it and abandoned the act. He seemed to be genuinely disturbed by the idea that he could tell the eager audiences anything about their lives and their futures, that he could relay words from their beloved dead, and they would believe him. He felt that he was tampering with their lives and emotions in a way that was just morally wrong.
The Spiritualist movement was very popular in the late 1800s; the number of deaths in the Civil War undoubtedly contributed to people’s desperate willingness to believe in communication with the dead. Similarly, after World War I, Spiritualists also became headline news. People flocked to shows featuring mediums; those who could afford it paid considerable sums for private séances. Houdini went on a tireless crusade to unmask false mediums. He became friendly with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the leading proponents of Spiritualism, using Doyle to gain insight into Spiritualists, their techniques and beliefs. Doyle eagerly helped him out because he was convinced that Houdini was actually magic, with untapped medium abilities. Houdini performed various tricks typical of mediums for Doyle, explaining how they worked in an effort to show Doyle how silly it all was, but either comically or sadly, Doyle always walked away from these acts seeing only the parts that helped prove his theories about Houdini’s latent Spiritualist gifts. Kalush and Sloman’s account of Houdini’s anti-Spiritualist crusade focuses heavily on Houdini’s relationship with Doyle (who comes off as a bit of a nut) and Houdini’s zealous attempts to take down one medium in particular, a Boston woman who went by the name of Margery. Kalush and Sloman had access to previously undiscovered material held by Margery’s family and write about this episode with a great deal of detail. The most astonishing part of this story, though, is not the efforts of Houdini to prove Margery’s fakery or the way she fought back; it is the way people of the time seemingly wanted to believe in her more than him. Unfortunately, I think it would be the same way now.
Kalush and Sloman’s research is by far the most impressive part of this book. The material available to Kalush and Sloman—the new spy information, the material about Margery, Houdini’s own astounding life—should have made for a fantastic biography. However, I have two major, major problems with this book.
The first chapter opens with a conversation between two of Houdini’s assistants and Houdini as they prepare to practice an escape in which Houdini is buried alive. Here’s the problem. We know the authors weren’t there listening in on the conversation. We know they didn’t talk to any of the parties involved. The notes (and we’ll get to that issue later) reveal that this is based on two of Houdini’s own accounts of his preparations for this stunt, as published in Collier’s and Popular Science, about ten years after the events. But it’s not Houdini’s words that are quoted in this book—this is a dramatization of Houdini’s magazine stories, as rewritten by the authors. This book is supposed to be a biography, but re-imagined conversations and scenes such as this would be more appropriate in Houdini: the Novel. And that makes me really, really annoyed. I mean, I guess that the authors thought that this style would draw in readers and be easier to get into than quotes from primary sources, but I find it really creepy and distasteful. I’m genuinely bothered by the idea that the authors are putting forth their own words and thoughts as those of the real people involved—real people, who apparently, left their own words for us to read. Obviously, authors of nonfiction can describe a place or a scene or an event, but they shouldn’t do it as if they were there and are recounting it in real time (am I making sense? Is this clear? I might not be, I realize). Maybe I’m old-fashioned on this, maybe I’m being too hard on the authors’ probable good intentions, but if I want to read a story about someone or some event, then I’ll read a story; if I want to read a true account, then I want to get a real portrait of the person or time, with real documents from that time, real source material, and notes telling me where all that information is from. No coy fake conversations, no made up scenes; the writers may be enamored of their own dramatic skills, but in most cases the best words on the subject of a biography (especially one as entertaining as Houdini) are often the subject’s own words.
Now to the notes. In the introduction, the authors write that they have documentation for everything in this book. That’s great! Unfortunately, since they had so many notes, they decided not to include them in the book—they’re online at the publisher’s website. This is singularly unhelpful, unless you plan to read this book sitting next to a computer. I’ve gone through some of the notes after the fact, but don’t have time to essentially reread the book or mark up every page I have a question about when I’m reading it away from a computer. It’s really inconvenient.
There are a few other things that bother me with this book. The authors barely mention Harry Kellar for about 300 pages, then suddenly refer to him as a father figure and mentor for Houdini, without really explaining much about this relationship. They completely neglect an important meeting that Houdini had with an elderly Ira Davenport, one of the earliest and most successful mediums, during which Davenport revealed many of his tricks to Houdini. These are minor things, though; the real problem for me, that prevents this biography from being excellent instead of merely okay, is the recreated conversations. I just don’t think they belong in a biography.
Houdini put just as much energy into his fight against the Spiritualists as he ever put into his great escapes. His relentless efforts were not just because of the mediums’ deception and the way they played upon vulnerable emotions but because of, I suspect, his search for the real thing. Houdini deeply felt the loss of his own loved ones and desperately wished for a way to contact them after their deaths. Houdini hated the fake mediums and the Spiritualists but I think that’s because he so wanted to believe in them.
I have long harbored a desire to be a magician’s assistant, but alas! for obvious reasons I have so far failed. I’m not sure why I want to do this. I don’t believe in magic magic, but I do believe in great performances and being part of a magician act is, I suppose, a chance to be part of something spectacular—to float in the air, to be cut into pieces, to vanish…
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), fought between the Spartans and Athenians, featured battles on land, battles at sea, sieges, disease, treachery, destruction of land and cities, weakness and foolhardiness, wasted money and wasted lives. Thucydides, who both fought in the war and wrote its definitive history, called it “a war like no other,” but in time it has come to seem like a template for many wars yet to come.
Victor Davis Hanson took Thucydides’ description for the title of his study of the war. A War Like No Other (2005) is more about how the war was fought than why. This explains the somewhat unusual structure of the book—instead of being a straight chronological history of the war, the book is divided into sections that describe different tactics used throughout the war, such as “Fire,” about the Spartans attempt to raze the farmland of the Athenians; “Disease,” about the plague that struck down more Athenians than were killed in land battles; “Armor,” about open-field hoplite battles; “Walls,” about sieges; “Horses,” about the role of cavalry; and “Ships” about triremes and naval battles.
At first I found this a little disorienting, as I am not well-versed in the chronology of the war. However, Hanson includes a timeline in the book’s prologue and that helped when I felt lost. After a while, though, names and places started to become more familiar and it became easy enough just to look at specific events rather than worry about order. Besides, in a war as long and unwieldy as this one, one action did not often lead directly to another, so I suppose sequence isn’t really that important.
The details Hanson gives about the ways the war was fought are fascinating. Sparta’s initial idea, to destroy the Athenians crops in order to provoke them into open battle must have seemed like a good idea, but there were two problems. First, Athens, under the lead of Pericles, had plenty of money and supplies and therefore was content to lie back behind the Long Walls that protected the city and let Sparta hang itself. Second, the destruction of crops is much, much harder than it looks. What is ready for harvest in one area might not be only a few miles away. Wheat that’s too young won’t burn. Stalks that are too old might only flare up quickly and go out without igniting the hoped for inferno. Olive trees are hard to cut down and even harder to burn and worse, take root again quickly. (Hanson, who takes every opportunity to remind readers that he is “a farmer” when he is not a history professor, tried all this himself.)
Sieges were not much more effective. Hanson points out that the same societies that were able to carve intricate marble friezes and affix them to the roofs of buildings, struggled with how to efficiently tear down a wall and storm a city. This all reached a high point of absurdity in the Spartan siege of Plataea, with the Spartans building higher ramps and ladders outside the city and the Plataeans building taller and higher walls on the inside. Periodically the Plataeans would tunnel under the walls to collapse the ramps; in return, the Spartans threw brush, pitch, and sulfur over the walls and set it on fire. Unfortunately, it rained, the tactic failed, and the siege dragged on.
Hiding from the war outside didn’t help much, though. Inside the Long Walls of Athens, a mysterious plague struck, killing tens of thousands of Athenians, including Pericles. The disease not only greatly diminished the potential fighting forces of the Athenians, but, as Hanson points out, the epidemic led to a breakdown in society. Feeling that death was coming inescapably quickly, people were prompted to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. The proper treatment of the dead, previously so important to the Athenians, was abandoned as bodies piled up in the streets and in buildings. Hanson’s idea seems to be that even after the plague had passed, people found it hard to return to their previously more civilized ways. Criminal behavior and savagery became a normal part of city life rather than the exception, and this made later wartime atrocities more acceptable than they may have been in the past.
Though war in ancient Greece is often depicted as battle fought by hoplites, the heavily armed infantry, fighting in the tightly structured phalanx formation, Hanson points out that the Peloponnesian War featured few such open field battles. Hoplite battles were traditionally short affairs, where the squares advanced, attacked at high speed, then retreated. Hanson estimates that in the entire twenty-seven years of the war, there were only about four to five total hours of these type of battles.
This is part of a larger point that Hanson makes throughout the book: that the Peloponnesian War is important because it is a turning point in how wars were fought and thought about. Prior to this, wars had been relatively brief affairs, with only a few of these quick battles and retreats (the Persian War was an exception, but that was a war against foreigners, as opposed to this war which was Greek vs. Greek). Wars had rules—they were fought certain ways, each role was taken by members of different classes (the wealthiest as cavalry, the middle class as hoplites, the poorest as rowers), and niceties such as retrieval of the dead were observed. There was honor in such fighting. As the Peloponnesian War dragged on, though, these rules began to break down. Lightly armed fighters began to take the place of hoplites and broke down the phalanxes. Refusing to return the bodies of the dead became a form of fighting because of the psychological toll it took on the losing sides. Promises were broken, with civilians executed or enslaved. War was changing.
Probably my favorite part of the book was the description of fighting at sea, in the light, swift triremes, which were basically used as battering rams. One hundred and seventy rowers, set in three tiers on the ships, rowing in unison as quickly as possible towards enemy ships. The lucky ships survived somewhat intact to be repaired and fight another day. The losers broke apart and the rowers, hoplites, and crew were left to be killed, captured, or drowned. Rowing as part of a crew was a difficult skill to master and experienced rowers ers were highly valued. When a ship went down, the victors felt they had accomplished a great deal because now the enemy had 170 less rowers less to put to use. One Athenian general proposed that any captured rowers have their right hands cut off so they couldn’t be further employed (of course, to me this seems absurd; if rowers were so highly valued, why not put any captured rowers to work in your ships?). Trireme battles were supposedly exciting events, with lots of speed, noise, and action. The fights took place only a mile or two from shore, drawing spectators from the towns and soldiers from each army; the groups made a lively audience, raucously cheering on their sides as if they were fans at a big game (does anyone have the point spread on Sparta vs. Athens at the Great Harbor battle?).
The best parts of this book are these types of fine details about how the fighting worked, that give you a picture of what life was like for both the soldiers and the civilians caught up in it all. As previously mentioned, the structure seems a little offputting at first, but I came around to it and believe it was a good choice. I am also appreciative of the number of maps, the timeline in the introduction, the glossary of terms and places and the guide to important people (to keep you from mixing up Lamachus with Lysander and other potential disasters). The end notes are also comprehensive and interesting. These may seem like just accessories, but they’re very helpful to the general reader who is not an expert in a particular subject.
On to the negatives. Hanson is a clear writer who is good at explaining; it’s easy to imagine him lecturing in a classroom. But that's also part of the problem--he's a good explainer, but not much of a storyteller. The book lacks drama and there's no sense of any kind of narrative. You could argue that this is due to the thematic versus chronological structure, but I still think that within the different themes there is room to construct stories. Peculiarly, he writes in the beginning that Thucydides is a difficult writer that modern readers have trouble getting through, but the excerpts from Thucydides he includes are by far the most exciting and dramatic passages. I guess you could say he’s just picking out the best or most accessible parts, but even so, they’re still a good example of what you can do with this material.
Hanson also has an annoying habit of tossing very current catch phrases into his descriptions. He refers to “sleeper cells,” “coalition forces,” and “a global village.” He calls Thucydides an “embedded reporter.” I wish I was making that up, but I’m not. I guess Hanson thought that would help present-day readers connect more with the material, but the effect is more like that of a trying-to-be-cool high school teacher whose inept attempts to use slang leave the class collectively rolling their eyes.
Another problem is that there really aren’t any characters. There's no one who really comes to life, who you can follow throughout the book. The best candidate is probably Alcibiades--the sneaky Athenian general was nineteen at the beginning of the war, switched sides to Sparta midway through, then came back to Athens, fought ably for them, and finally was murdered at age 45, just short of the war's end. But these are all just events and dates, without much information about the man himself. I have a feeling that all of this is a problem of not having available material rather than neglect, so I can’t really fault Hanson too much. But I do find myself wishing for some other contemporary accounts, other voices from that time just to balance out Hanson and Thucydides’ points of views. Are there missing diaries anywhere out there? I can only hope so.
This book made me a think of a lot of questions about wars and how to conduct them. However, I have been somewhat dismayed by the lengths of some of my recent posts and had hoped to keep this one shorter. Unfortunately, I have failed miserably, which means I can’t really add anymore. So now you will just have to guess what I am thinking.
In 1838, a girl named Mary Rogers disappeared from her home in New York City. Miss Rogers wasn’t just any girl, though—she was famous for her beauty, which was on display at the cigar store in Lower Manhattan where she worked as a salesgirl. The owner of the store, John Anderson, knew Mary from his neighborhood and was clever enough to realize that someone with her looks would bring in business; the men who came to the store to see her and flirt with her had to eventually buy something, didn’t they?
Mary Rogers became the talk of the town quickly enough, despite being, as one newspaper described her, “unencumbered by position or achievement.” So when she disappeared, there was a flurry of dismay in the papers. A note apparently written by Mary alluded to the idea of suicide, but one newspaper, in a rather waggish tone, suggested that she had eloped with a handsome, mysterious stranger.
Mary came home after a few weeks. She just said she had been visiting friends and no one ever found out whether that was true or not. She soon stopped working at the cigar store and instead helped her mother run a boarding house. On a hot Sunday in July 1841, Mary disappeared again. A few days later her body washed ashore in Hoboken.
The murder investigation got off to a sluggish start; New York City didn’t really have a police force, just a shaky system of poorly regarded constables and local magistrates. Unsurprisingly, the first big concern was over who should pay for the investigation. Her body had been found in New Jersey, so they should pay, said the New York City government. She lived in New York, had most likely been murdered there and had just happened to end up in New Jersey, so they should pay, argued NJ. Some things never change.
Fortunately, the tabloid press of the day knew a good story when they saw one—a beautiful girl might be able to sell some papers, but a beautiful, dead girl would undoubtedly sell many more. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the Tribune, had had a great success covering the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett, though in a fashion considered shockingly lurid. He sensed a repeat of that success in the death of Mary Rogers and led the charge to find her murderer, effectively shaming the authorities into action. Many of the other papers professed disgust at Bennett’s over the top style, but had to follow to keep up. Theories about Rogers’ murder appeared in all the newspapers: she was killed by one of the dangerous gangs that roved through the city; she was murdered by her fiancé, a man with his own bad reputation; she was killed by a sailor—after all, her bonnet had been tied under her chin with a knot only a sailor would know. One newspaper insisted that she was not dead, stating with authority that the body had decomposed too much for one who had likely been murdered only one or two days before. They suggested that she had eloped and had been seen in Pittsburgh. One of Mary’s ex-suitors thought that she had been kidnapped and forced to work in one of Hoboken’s notorious houses of prostitution, and had been murdered by a client.
Things got more complicated when the sons of a Hoboken innkeeper found pieces of Mary’s clothes scattered around a nearby thicket. No sooner had this evidence come to light then Mary’s fiancé visited the ostensible crime scene and, showing a fine sense of melodrama, killed himself with an overdose of alcohol and laudanum.
All of this made for good fun for the newspapers for a few months but no progress was made. Suspects were interviewed by the police but they all were able to provide alibis. Eventually another big murder case grabbed the attention of the newspapers and the people became preoccupied with that, forgetting about Mary Rogers.
In Philadelphia, Edgar Allan Poe didn’t forget. He had followed the case closely and now had an outrageous idea. His 1841 story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring C. Auguste Dupin, a French man who solved a murder case using logic and deduction, had been a success. Poe, as always in dire financial straits and needing another hit, proposed a story based closely on the Mary Rogers case. However, his version, set in Paris, would feature Dupin and would end with Dupin solving the murder.
Poe’s story was to be serialized in three parts but right before the publication of the third part, new theories surfaced about Mary Rogers’ murder. Hoboken was not only known for its fine river views and prostitutes, but was also a good place to get an abortion if a girl couldn’t afford the high-end Fifth Avenue services of the notorious Madame Restell (even back then, Hoboken thrived on the concept of being “just like Manhattan, but cheaper!”). Now it was proposed that Mary Rogers had died during a botched abortion, her body thrown into the Hudson as a cover-up.
None of this was part of Poe’s plan. Suddenly he had to revise his conclusion to at least leave an opening for the new theory, while not completely contradicting all the groundwork he had laid in the two previous parts.
How did Poe save his story? Did he solve the murder? Did anyone ever solve the murder? What did it all mean, anyway? This is the stuff of Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder.
Stashower, a mystery writer and biographer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was, I would guess, attracted to this story for all the reasons set out in the title. You’ve got Mary Rogers, a beautiful girl who was famous for being famous, an irresistible parallel to all the forgettable starlets in our own tabloid era. You toss Poe into the mix, and his life story and larger-than-life personality are always good fun. Then there is the curious notion of “the invention of murder.” Presumably Stashower and/or his publisher were referring to the idea of the murder mystery/detective story, or the sensationalism of the true crime drama; murder played out as sport or parlor game in the pages of the newspapers.
Stashower carefully traces the steps of Mary’s last day, the search for the missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the subsequent murder investigation, both by the press and the police, such as they were. All of this seems well-researched and is clearly laid-out. The various personalities involved—Mary’s fiancé, her ex-suitor, her mother, and the innkeeper in Hoboken where her body was found—are all nicely sketched; the group, as a whole, seems like the cast of a musty nineteenth century melodrama. Intertwined in the Mary Rogers’ material, Stashower squeezes in a Poe mini-biography, picking up in closer detail Poe’s efforts to write his story based on Mary Rogers’s murder, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and his attempt to save it as events spiral out of his control (always a problem when you’re dealing with real life in real time). If you’re familiar with Poe, there’s nothing new here, but as noted, Poe is always entertaining.
In all, that’s the ideal word for this book—it’s entertaining. It’s easy to read. You’ll zip through it pretty quickly. So what is there to complain about? Welllll…
For starters, the “invention of murder” thing is a bit of a stretch. In describing the rise of James Gordon Bennett and the Tribune, Stashower explains about how Bennett made his name writing about the Helen Jewett murder of prostitute and the trial that followed. Wouldn’t it seem, then, that that would be the real “invention of murder,” that is, a murder sensationalized by the press, a story devoured by a public both shocked and thrilled by such low-life material? If Stashower posits Bennett’s pursuit of the Mary Rogers’ case as an attempt to recapture the, shall we say, magic of the Jewett case, it’s hard, then, to give that full credit to the Rogers’ murder as a landmark in American pop culture.
(and yes, I realize that this post is now longer than the book, but whatever)
My other main complaint is that there are numerous missed opportunities here to really explore the time period. Stashower briefly describes the lack of a police force and later covers how a few suspects were taken in and interrogated about the Rogers’ murder. But I never got a real sense of what happened in the 1840s when a crime took place in New York City. How did they investigate a murder? What was required to bring in a suspect for questioning? How many murders were there in 1841? Were many solved? Was it dangerous walking around in the city? Stashower explains how Bennett repeatedly hammered home the idea that the dangerous gangs that plagued the city were responsible for Mary Rogers’ murder, but we don’t really learn much about the gangs—who they were, what they did, what kinds of crimes they were involved in. I would have liked to be brought into the dark side of the city more, to really see more about the criminal world of the time.
I also found myself wondering about how extraordinary Mary Rogers’ employment was at that time. Was she noticed because she was exceptionally beautiful and was working in a store? Or was it fairly common for girls to be working as sales clerks and she just stood out because of her looks? What was it like working in a shop? Was it unusual for a girl to go out walking by herself on a Sunday as Mary did on the day she disappeared? Did people usually go over to Hoboken on hot summer days to get away from the stifling city? What was the scene there like? I guess I’m just interested in a lot more details than are given about the time period, and as a result, the book never really transports me to another time and place.
I feel almost guilty complaining, though. This book got stellar reviews when it came out and most people seem satisfied by it. The research seems solid; I only caught one factual error, which compared to other books I’ve read lately, is practically miraculous. That should be enough. The book is well-organized and that should be enough. It is fast-moving, easy to follow, and, again, entertaining, and that should be enough. All of these are excellent qualities that should add up to a good book that I should praise without reservation and I should be satisfied, and it all should be enough. But I am restless and curious and wondering and so it is not.