The Impostor · Herb Baumeister · The Yorkshire Ripper
Plus: Children of God, the Bigham family, and 'trauma repetition'
I’m not sure I can recommend The Impostor...and I’m not sure why. The Impostor, a 2014 book by Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, tries to get to the heart of the story of Enric Marco, who claimed for many years to have survived the concentration camps at Flossenbürg and Mauthausen until his fabulism was uncovered by researcher Benito Bermejo. Cercas in translation has a certain vintage flavor to his phrasings, a Whartonian way of embroidering a scene or situation that, while inefficient, is also quite pleasant; it’s literary without straining, a rarity in the genre, so it’s not that the writing is poor.
And it isn’t that the story is dull, at least not for those of us attracted to stories of identity thieves and “survivor cons” -- something we’ll be talking about on the podcast this week as it pertains to one specific 9/11 hoaxer. I find these stories maddening, fascinating, both in how the cons are built and then continue, sometimes for decades, and I’m just as interested in the particulars we can’t know, what inspires or allows a person to perpetrate this sort of fakery, what is missing at their centers. So it’s not that the case itself is a nothingburger, although qua the case the book is about twice as long as it strictly needs to be, and Cercas takes his time setting up any kind of brass-tacks account of Marco’s deception and/or its unravelling.
But that’s because Cercas is just as concerned, if not more, with what Marco, his con, his real history, his success in the role of camp-survivor statesman, and Cercas’s own simultaneous fascination for and reluctance to commit to a full-length account of the story each and all say about the Spanish national character. This isn’t a per se uninteresting throughline for non-Spaniards, but it’s not necessarily what non-Spaniards came for, this repeated worrying of the “Marco is Don Quixote, and Don Quixote is us” bone.
When he finally does get around to analyzing Marco’s con itself, Cercas is insightful about Marco’s methods, and about Marco’s insights into human nature, the way he odds-played the myth he’d chosen to create. And there is a ruefully acidic analysis of what became of Truman Capote after writing In Cold Blood -- a “masterpiece” that Capote achieved in part by manipulating the killers, whose execution he celebrated as giving his book an ending -- but that analysis is inspired in the main by Emmanuel Carrère, whose account of another impostor, The Adversary, apparently talks at some length about Capote sacrificing depth of feeling for depth of narrative.
It’s all a big Möbius of character, characterS, the two faces of the journalist, identity, et cetera, and Cercas contemplates the various turns and braidings elegantly -- and when it’s time to skim over yet another tone poem about Marco’s secret family, it’s usually evident. I’m just not sure The Impostor tells us anything we don’t already know, about Capote, about cons, about masks. It’s very good; it’s just not a necessity. -- SDB
Property once owned by a man alleged to be Indiana’s most prolific serial killer is on the market. Sarah and I discussed Herb Baumeister, who allegedly killed 20 or more people before taking his own life in the 1990s, last June after watching an episode of Behind Mansion Walls that detailed the case. (The ep is also embedded above, for your viewing…pleasure?) Investigators say that Baumeister would pick up young men at Indianapolis gay bars, kill them, and bury them on his property, a multi-acre estate known as Fox Hollow Farm.
While the details of the case remain alleged, since Baumeister never went to trial, it’s a fact that the remains of 11 young men were found on the expansive property. Since Bauermeister’s death, several people have bought the house then claimed it haunted, with cheeseball ghost hunting reality appearances and all. But now an aspiring developer has purchased eight of Bauermeister’s 18 acres, with a plan to build out three 2-3 acre lots, to be sold for $300,000.
The plan went before the city council, with the developer telling the Indianapolis Star that "I wanted to make a joke at the council meeting and say that we hope we don't find any bones while we're building, but I decided to keep it professional.” Kind of crass, but not necessarily off the mark -- as over 5,000 human bone fragments have been found on the property thus far, I’d give even odds that we’re up for more “shocking discoveries” when they start laying sewer lines for the tract mansions-to-be. You can listen to our The Blotter Presents episode on the case, which also covers Joe Berlinger’s Wrong Man, here. -- EB
Netflix is reportedly producing a documentary series on the Yorkshire Ripper. British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe was convicted in 1981 for the slaying of 13 women and the attempted murder of seven others. As you might have guessed from his nickname, he was active in Yorkshire for about five years in the late 1970s and early 80s, targeting female sex workers after -- Sutcliffe said to investigators -- god told him to. He’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, following a lengthy stint in a UK psychiatric hospital.
The fact that he’s still alive arguably makes him unique among serial killers up for doc consideration, as he’s actually available for interviews. It’s unclear if Netflix crews will be speaking with Sutcliffe, however -- according to The Mirror, while producers are speaking with families of victims as well as survivors, little else is known about the project. “This will be a huge program for Netflix and is likely to follow the same format” as The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann (a series we discussed on The Blotter Presents just last month), an anonymous source told the Mirror.
“It will focus on victims and the terrible impact of his attacks. It will also examine the dreadful police blunders around the case. Crucially, it will try to throw up fresh clues about crimes Sutcliffe has never been convicted of,” the anonymous source also said…but the mention of the McCann case stands as a great reminder that the British press + unnamed sources = a tombstone-sized grain of salt, if you’re smart. -- EB
That’s David Berg there in the middle
People Magazine Investigates: Cults is back for a second season as of June 3. It’s certainly tempting to make cracks about the appropriateness of “People Magazine” and “investigate” in the same sentence, but this is 2019 and every publication must have a “true crime editorial team” or die, I guess. According to a press release from ID (which airs the show), this season will cover David Berg’s Children of God cult, which has a People-friendly celeb link with members including the Phoenix family. This season will also tackle the Manson family -- and I think I speak for us all when I say that if there’s any team of hacks that could dig up fresh, new dirt on that family, it’s the fearless investigators at People. jk no they won’t. -- EB
Podcast Carolina True Crime just wrapped up a three-episode arc on the state’s infamous Bigham family. The show, which is from Myrtle Beach-based broadcast station WMBF, is relatively new, with only eight episodes under its belt. Three of those cover the Bighams, a Horry County family that’s been linked to scores of murders in the early 1900s. (Here’s a rather breathless account of some of the family’s bloodier scandals.) The pod also covers several locally-famous disappearances, an infamous bank robbery, and the unsolved slaying of 23-year-old Shawn Neal in 1996. -- EB
Writer Suzanne Morris says that a true crime “addiction” helped her mental health. Writing for Digital Spy, Morris says that she developed an interest in the genre while recovering from an abusive relationship (something she shares with Cosmo scribe Elizabeth Ann Entenman). According to therapist Lou Lebentz, some folks turn to true crime as a form of “trauma repetition,” which she says is something people attempting to process emotional injuries use to “try and repair that original trauma.” Do you buy that hypothesis? -- EB