A Death In Mud Lick · George "The Mad Bomber" Metesky
Plus Dan Cassino's three-book spotlight on gender and class divides in true-crime narrative
|Best Evidence||Mar 29||4||2|
We’re kicking off another week with a look at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award nominees, and assessing whether the 2021 nominees for Best Fact Crime are worth adding to your reading list.
We’ll continue our look at the nominees with A Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre.
The 2005 overdose death of William “Bull” Preece in Mud Lick, West Virginia set in motion an investigation into the flooding of small towns in the state with millions of addictive prescription drugs. In A Death in Mud Lick, Eric Eyre, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, takes the reader from pharmacy parking lots and county courthouses to the state’s top legal office and the halls of Congress in an effort to understand how West Virginia ended up with the highest opioid-overdose death rate in the country.
Preece’s death leads to a lawsuit and settlement with pharmacy/pill mill that supplied him with prescriptions. Soon, Jim Cagle, the lead attorney on that case, recognizes that responsibility goes higher up the chain — to the major pharmaceutical distributors. Cagle enlists the help of another attorney, Rodney “Bulldog” Jackson, and they begin an effort to sue large distributors on behalf of the state to recoup some of the hundreds of millions West Virginia was spending to address the societal problems caused by prescription drug abuse.
As Eyre reports on all this, he quickly draws the ire of West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrissey. It turns out that Morrissey has deep ties to one particular pharmaceutical distribution company, Cardinal Health. He used to represent them when in private practice and, at the time he takes office, his wife is one of their congressional lobbyists in Washington. Morrissey is not only defensive about his own ties to the industry, he seems hellbent on delaying any lawsuits that could hold distributors accountable.
A Death in Mud Lick is chock full of satisfying investigative details — the unnamed informant who walks a Pekingese, deliveries of unmarked packages that contain print outs of never seen before emails, racing to the county courthouse to get just-released court documents before closing time. Eyre writes authentically about the persistence and tenacity that goes into investigative work. He’s also open about his own struggles — as he was investigating this story, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the reader can sense how he feels the pressure of the race against time on more than one front.
Along with Beth Macy’s Dopesick and Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, A Death in Mud Lick helped me wrap my mind around the depth and scope of the opioid epidemic. When Eyre finally gets his hands on the data detailing the volume of prescription drugs flowing into these small towns, it’s devastating. The Sav-Right Pharmacy in the town of Kermit (population under 400) that counted Bull Preece as a customer processed nine million hydrocodone pills over two years. Meanwhile, overdoses soared and communities across the coalfields of southern West Virginia were laid waste.
Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his reporting on the opioid epidemic, and deservedly so. I’m struck by how much A Death in Mud Lick is also a story about newspapers. Eyre’s paper goes through consolidation, bankruptcy, and sale during the course of his investigation. The reporting chronicled in this book is a reminder of the value of day-to-day reporting as a check on power, and how the public is losing that as more and more regional newspapers fall by the wayside. — Susan Howard
Want to hear about all of the nominated books directly from the writers? The Raven Book Store is hosting what looks to be a very interesting virtual event on April 6 at 9pm ET/8pm CT featuring all five of the nominated Best Fact Crime authors! Click above for more information and to register.
It’s interesting, the “signature” local crimes that fall below the horizon after a generation or two — like George “the Mad Bomber” Metesky. When Metesky surfaced in this morning’s “This Day In History” dispatch from The History Channel, I recognized the name and case; John Douglas mentions it in The Cases That Haunt Us, in passing, as an early example of effective criminal profiling by psychiatrist James A. Brussel. But despite the fact that Metesky, trying to avenge a workplace injury, hit just about every major Big Apple landmark over the course of his campaign; was in communication with the press/public about said campaign (most notably announcing that, once the United States entered World War II, his “PATRIOTIC FEELINGS” dictated that he take a break, but that Con Edison should not consider itself safe); was a key mid-century instance of an insanity defense actually working; and espoused an “eat the rich” philosophy — okay, a self-centered one, but still — that might make him, if not relatable, then instructive, Metesky isn’t talked about much anymore, I don’t think (please correct me if I’m mistaken)…
…and when it comes to crimes and criminals New Yorkers consider distinctively “ours,” I doubt he’s on many people’s lists along with Gallo, or Gotti, or even Sorokin.
Partly, that’s the passage of time. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Metesky’s “second wave” of bombings (and the first of his bombs that actually detonated), an explosive at Grand Central Station that “startled” commuters but didn’t injure anyone, so actuarially, many of the people who would remember Metesky’s reign of terror are likely to have died. And partly it’s the passage of the times: in intervening decades, we’ve seen more lethal bombings (the Unabomber); terrorist attacks on landmarks (and not just 9/11); and mass shootings becoming a horrible routine. Metesky, if his bombs rate any attention, might seem…quaint. (Not least because, while a few of the bombs seriously injured civilians, the vast majority either only made a lot of noise, or didn’t go off at all. Some of the stories around the discovery and handling of certain bombs have an “opening sequence of Six Feet Under” vibe, I have to say.)
Dr. Brussel’s description of a prospective suspect is spoken of admiringly by Douglas, and you can read more about how NYPD, in desperation, asked Brussel to work backwards to come up with an emotional “composite” of the Bomber in this Smithsonian longread. — SDB
Best Evidence likes to generate longreads in addition to recommending them — but that isn’t free. A paid subscription helps us get even in the same time zone as paying fantastic contributors like Susan and Professor Cassino what they’re worth; if you got a bigger tax refund than you expected, consider spending part of it on them!
A few weeks ago, Best Evidence asked why some crimes become cultural touchstones, while others are largely ignored. There’s no single answer to that question, and some of the difference is purely about the right person bringing it to the public at the right time. But a lot of crimes capture the public attention because they allow us to talk, indirectly, about difficult social cleavages that are hard to talk about head-on. A trio of recent books re-evaluates some well-known female criminals, but take seriously the role of class and gender expectations in how their crimes were seen at the time, both in the public and the criminal justice system.
The grandmother of these cases is Lizzie Borden, and while there’s a Borden book out there for just about any taste (Lizzie Borden: Zombie Hunter is a series of books at this point), Cara Robertson’s The Trial of Lizzie Borden is one of the first to take gender seriously as an important part of the case. Most of the book is an exhaustive day-by-day review of the actual trial, full of detail that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and that detail makes it clear how important gender and class were to the way Borden was treated.
As Robertson tells it, the prosecution in the Borden case had a steep hill to climb, not only because there wasn’t any direct evidence linking her to the murders, but because of the way that society viewed women of her class. The media was more than willing to blame an immigrant, or an Irishwoman, or a poor man for the crime; but to blame it on a wealthy woman was to push up against every societal expectation. This means that the prosecution couldn’t fully argue that Borden was murdering out of greed, or even anger, but rather hint that she must have been temporarily disturbed in some way. In essence, the defense was arguing that she was innocent; the prosecution was arguing for temporary insanity. Even Borden’s menstrual cycle was at issue — there was a belief that women were vulnerable to mental disturbances during their period — but the social mores of the time meant that no one could even reference her period.
The sensitivity to class and gender also clears up some issues that are often mysterious in other accounts. For instance, during the murders, Borden claims to have just been in the barn looking for something, for a long time. To modern sensibilities, this is suspicious, as it was to the prosecutors. But as Robertson points out, Borden was an unmarried woman of means, and spending an hour just poking around the barn makes a lot more sense when you realize that she had literally nothing to do with her day aside from ironing some handkerchiefs.
Robertson also does a good job of bringing in contemporary press accounts of the trial, which demonstrate how class and gender shaped the way Americans at the time viewed the case. Among the recurring themes in the coverage is shock at how many high-society women wanted to be in the gallery for the trial, along with plenty of commentary about how attractive those women were, which is an element you hope you wouldn’t get in the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty-one. The sense of the time seems to be that the trial of Borden, by interrogating the behavior of upper-class women, was somehow infecting the women in Borden’s circle, spreading the potential for deviance. A belief in her innocence was thus the only way to restore the natural order.
Expectations about class and gender didn’t stop shaping our view of women criminals when the 19th century ended. Anthony Amore — whose day job is recovering the art stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 — provides an object lesson in how the same forces shaped perception of 20th-century crimes in his recent book, The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist. Dugdale is the scion of a wealthy British family, a philosophy professor turned Irish Republican terrorist and art thief. While not as well known in the U.S., Dugdale’s case was a sensation in the UK; in Ireland, where she still lives, she’s regarded as something like a folk hero. The book covers a lot of the same ground as Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2018 book Say Nothing, but the focus on Dugdale brings in a wealth of detail that isn’t present there. The book is more biography than true crime — the art heists don’t take up nearly as much space as a true-crime reader might want — but it’s a breezy read nonetheless.
Amore does a good job of walking through the details of the Russborough House heist, and how quickly it unraveled. He also makes the argument that Dugdale was responsible for an unsolved earlier heist, which also seems to have been carefully planned, and seems to have involved someone with an eye for fine art. This is where Amore shines — the case for Dugdale’s involvement is convincing — but he inexplicably leaves most of the argument to a postscript. He’s seemingly trying to leave the main text of the book to the agreed-upon facts, and confine speculation to a later section, but it reduces the impact of what is the main contribution of the book.
Like Robertson, Amore puts a lot of effort into showing the ways in which Dugdale was treated differently because of her class and sex. After her first art heist — a seemingly poorly planned theft from her own parents’ home — the judge let Dugdale off with a slap on the wrist, while others involved got much harsher sentences. Because she’s the scion of a wealthy family and a highly educated woman, the court’s assumption is that any crime she committed can’t have been as serious, or is attributable to some sort of emotional disturbance. Her protests that she’s carrying out radical anti-colonialist action, her demands to be treated as a political prisoner, are only seen as more evidence that she’s not really a threat.
Dugdale was determined, though, to prove that she wasn’t a dilettante. The book focuses on the art thefts, but there’s also the time that Dugdale and her accomplices hijacked a helicopter, (poorly) built giant bombs, and proceeded to drop them on a police station, which would be the headline on just about any other criminal’s biography. These actions, and the art heist at Russborough house, made it harder for the British to dismiss Dugdale as just misguided, though they certainly tried. As such, she’s very much the British equivalent of Patty Hearst, though the lack of a “brainwashing” angle made it harder for the press and courts of the time to explain her behavior. Like Borden, her actions presented a challenge to beliefs about upper-class women, and the explanations proffered for her behavior only make sense in that context. She’s not really a terrorist: she’s rebelling against her parents, or she fell in love with the wrong man. There’s even a very 19th-century subtext that she got too caught up in anti-colonialist philosophy, self-radicalized from her own studies, an unfortunate result of a women thinking too much.
In case we think we’ve moved past this sort of paternalism in our understanding of crimes committed by upper class women, Amore falls victim to it himself. In his telling, Dugdale’s turn to violent revolutionary is driven by a rebellion against stifling class expectations foisted on her: he argues that her coming-out season was an especially alienating experience. It’s maybe plausible that she was trying to get back at her parents (though she kept up her activities even after reconciling with them), but there’s another story we could tell about Dugdale. By all accounts, she started her college career as a defender of traditional class privilege: it was only after years of studying and teaching philosophy that she turned towards violence as a way to work against colonialism in Ireland. To reduce her to a reaction to her own class is to remove her agency in choosing to become a violent revolutionary, in much the same way that British judges did early in her criminal career.
We get a very different angle on the intersection of class in gender in podcaster and author Tori Telfer’s (Red Flags, Criminal Broads) selection of the careers of women con artists, Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion. Arranged in chronological order from the French Revolution to the present, Telfer’s selection of cases is thoughtful: she hits some of the expected cases (a selection of women claiming to be Princess Anastasia), but also brings in racially and ethnically diverse con women that aren’t as well known. As a result, there are likely to be some cases that even fans of the genre haven’t heard of before, and the relatively short chapters mean that the reader is generally left wanting to know more about the women in question.
What almost all of these cases have in common is the way the women are able to get away with overtly outrageous lies because they appear to be wealthy, and no one wants to ask too many questions. Why is a woman who hints at extreme wealth, collects purebred dogs, and drops $100 bills on tips working at a doctor’s office? She’s probably just eccentric, rather than a skilled embezzler. Why doesn’t the person who owns this apartment seem to know the woman I bought it from? Well, it’s probably just some kind of mix-up, rather than an increasingly out-of-control Ponzi scheme targeted at winning an Olympic gymnast in marriage (it turns out poorly for everyone involved). The assumption throughout the book — and thus throughout the past few hundred years, and across various countries — is that while poor women might steal from you, rich women won’t, and any inconsistency in their stories is probably just a misunderstanding on your part. As such, pretending to be rich in order to take advantage of naïve strivers is a solid business model.
Of the women Telfer features, I wanted a whole book on Jeanne de Saint-Remy, who managed to make the French court believe that she was Marie Antoinette’s confidant, collecting huge bribes to lobby the queen, and culminating in the theft of the most expensive necklace ever made to that point. Telfer argues that the resulting scandal, and damage to Marie Antoinette’s reputation, is one of the precipitating forces in the Revolution, and I’d love to see what a historian has to say about it.
While these books don’t give us a complete answer, they do help to illuminate the question of why some crimes get a foothold in the public imagination. It’s easy to point to features of crime — brutality, or celebrity involvement, or a lingering mystery — as driving interest, but such a view ignores how crime is always embedded in a set of social expectations. Borden and Dugdale and any number of Telfer’s con artists capture the public imagination because they upset our expectations about class and gender, and therefore give us a chance to interrogate those expectations in a safe way. When the public asked if a wealthy women could have given her mother forty whacks, they were talking about an obvious deviation from the norm, so any conclusion they reached about class and gender was insulated from the everyday, and didn’t necessarily have to be applied to their own lives. Crime, in these cases, provides a space for us to talk about social expectations, as any disconcerting conclusions can be reasonably discarded as a one-off deviation. The underestimation of these women, the constant attempts to explain away their behavior, to give them a benefit of the doubt that no one would apply to members of other groups, also tells us that we haven’t made as much progress as we might like to think. — Dan Cassino
Tuesday on Best Evidence: True crime and public safety, and a very belated correction (not from us!) (yet).