You've probably never heard of Jesse Pomeroy unless you've read Caleb Carr's 1994 novel, The Alienist
, which features a brief prison interview with "America's most famous lifer." But this legendary bogeyman will be hard to forget after you read his life story. Pomeroy tortured and murdered children in Boston in the 1870s. He was himself a child at the time, only 14 when he was finally arrested. Author Harold Schechter, a New York literature professor who has made a name for himself documenting nonfiction accounts of heinous crimes, deftly resurrects the past from newspaper accounts, letters, and other historical documents, including a reform school's massive volume disturbingly titled History of Boys
. Schechter doesn't take the easy way out. He could have just pieced together reports and accounts, letting the record stiffly tell the tale. Instead, he blends his research into a seamless story, fascinating in its horror, as well as its ability to turn the century-old characters into real people. The reader will be pleased to find copies of engravings, photos, and sketches of Pomeroy, from his heyday as "boy-fiend," as well as his later days behind bars, when fellow inmates changed his nickname to a less-sinister "Grandpa." Schechter sets out to teach a lesson, and in Fiend
he succeeds at reminding us that modern times don't have a monopoly on juvenile terror. --Jodi Mailander Farrell
From Publishers Weekly
From serial killer expert Schechter comes a grisly, hopped-up, but surprisingly well-executed narrative of the vicious crimes and long imprisonment of Jesse Pomeroy, the notorious 19th-century "Boston Boy Fiend." Schechter argues that "killer kids have always been with us," but even in the context of a history of horrifying examples of youth violence, the case of Pomeroy is appalling. An abused, deformed, impoverished child, he graduated at age 12 from animal cruelty to the ritualized torture and mutilation of younger boys. In 1872 he was caught and sentenced to six years in a reformatory. He presented a rehabilitated facade and, following his shrewish but loyal mother's campaigning, was released after 16 months. Six weeks later he killed a neighborhood girl; an indifferent constabulary failed to discover her body until after Pomeroy was apprehended for a second vicious child-murder. This confluence caused unprecedented outrage; ultimately, Pomeroy received a life sentence in solitary confinement. While Schechter has displayed a career enthusiasm for what Hannibal Lecter termed "louche" subject matter (Schechter's books on serial murderers have been titled Bestial, Depraved, Deranged, etc.), he is a deft writer and does well at re-creating from documentation the thoughts and perspectives of long-dead figures; even Pomeroy is rendered subtly, with creepy verisimilitude. Schechter ably portrays the "living death" of Pomeroy's captivity (he served 53 years, making repeated escape attempts, and had become a media curiosity by the 1920s), and captures the poignancy of the infirm Pomeroy's release, in 1929, to a prison farm, where he remained until his death in 1932. This is a memorably gothic tale of sadistic psychosis and social vengeanceAtrue-crime lovers will not want to miss it.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.