19th Century True Crime at the Free Library

By Ben R. RSS Fri, April 19, 2024

From classics like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter to recent bestsellers like In Light of All Darkness and If You Tell, readers love true crime. In addition to generating chills and thrills, a good true crime account sheds light on the society and the era in which the crime took place.

That’s certainly true of Murder in a Mill Town: Sex, Faith, and the Crime That Captivated a Nation, by Swarthmore history professor Bruce Dorsey, which details the scandal around the 1832 death of a pregnant "factory girl" widely presumed to have been murdered by a Methodist "circuit rider." Dorsey depicts the life of these two, whose very identities represented the way early industrial America was rapidly changing, as well as the drama of the trial and the ripple effects of media coverage that turned this into America’s first “crime of the century.”

Dorsey will be at Parkway Central Library to discuss his book on Thursday, April 25 at 6:00 p.m. Registration is encouraged, but not required.

In the meantime, here are some other books to help satisfy your love for 19th-century true crime:

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson's spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men — the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World's Fair, striving to secure America's place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling. Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America

King of Heists is an absorbing tale of greed, sex, crime, betrayal, and murder, King of Heists blends all the richness of history with the thrills of the best fiction.

The Murder of The Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked The Tabloid Wars

On Long Island, a farmer finds a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys playing at a pier discover a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumble upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. Clues to a horrifying crime are turning up all over New York, but the police are baffled: There are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.

The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives headlong into the era's most baffling murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Reenactments of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell's Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio — a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor — all raced to solve the crime.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of The "It" Girl, and The Crime of the Century

This is the scandalous story of America's first supermodel, sex goddess, and modern celebrity, Evelyn Nesbit, the temptress at the center of Stanford White's famous murder, whose iconic life story reflected all the paradoxes of America's Gilded Age. Known to millions before her sixteenth birthday in 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty. Women wanted to be her. Men just wanted her. When her life of fantasy became all too real, and her jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, killed her lover, celebrity architect Stanford White, builder of the Washington Square Arch and much of New York City, she found herself at the center of the Crime of the Century, and the popular courtroom drama that followed, a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity, and sex.

Hannah Mary Tabbs and The Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America

Shortly after a dismembered torso was discovered by a pond outside Philadelphia in 1887, investigators homed in on two suspects: Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married, working class, Black woman, and George Wilson, a former neighbor that Tabbs implicated after her arrest.

As details surrounding the shocking case emerged, both the crime and ensuing trial — which spanned several months — were featured in the national press. The trial brought otherwise taboo subjects such as illicit sex, adultery, and domestic violence in the Black community to public attention. At the same time, the mixed race of the victim and one of his assailants exacerbated anxieties over the purity of whiteness in the post-Reconstruction era.

In Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, historian Kali Nicole Gross uses detectives' notes, trial and prison records, local newspapers, and other archival documents to reconstruct this ghastly who-done-it true crime in all its scandalous detail. In doing so, she gives the crime context by analyzing it against broader evidence of police treatment of Black suspects and violence within the Black community.

The Five: The Untold Lives of The Women Killed by Jack The Ripper

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.


In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men — Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication — whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in The Gilded Age

In September 1868, the remains of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were found lying near the banks of Indiana's White River. Suspicion for both deaths turned to Nancy Clem, a housewife who was also one of Mr. Young's former business partners. Wendy Gamber chronicles the life and times of this charming and persuasive Gilded Age confidence woman, who became famous not only as an accused murderess — but also as an itinerant peddler of patent medicine and the supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme.

We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America

The city was about to host the United States Centennial celebration, and the mass panic surrounding the Charley Ross case plunged the nation into hysteria. The desperate search led the police to inspect every building in Philadelphia, set up saloon surveillance in New York’s notorious slums, and begin a national manhunt. With white-knuckle suspense and historical detail, Hagen vividly captures the dark side of an earlier America. Her brilliant portrayal of its criminals, detectives, politicians, spiritualists, and ordinary families will stay with the reader long after the final page.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace traces the story of a scandalous trial that rocked Victorian England, describing how Isabella Robinson recorded sexual fantasies in her private diary, which was discovered and read by her husband, who petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery.

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