The Less They Know About Us · Stonewall · Lizzie Borden

Plus the art world's mini-Madoff, R. Kelly wants out, and more

Welcome back, readers! Thanks so much for joining us for another week of the true crime that’s worth your time. Speaking of time, a strange side effect of life “A.C.” is that I have less of it — but when my schedule opens up towards the end of the week, expect a cloudburst of extra content, including author interviews, a book review, and of course the first play-in rounds of the N Crime AA.

But if you’ve got more time on your hands — or need to distract an anxious friend — go ahead and share the newsletter! (And don’t forget: we’d love to hear pitches.) — SDB

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Our look at the 2020 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime continues with The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity by Axton Betz-Hamilton. Another entry in the Sarah-coined “crime-oir” genre (Down City by Leah Carroll, You All Grow Up and Leave Me by Piper Weiss, Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich, etc.), The Less People Know About Us is a compelling, heart-wrenching tale of an adolescence mired in loneliness and family dysfunction, and the unraveling of the mystery underlying it.

A self-described isolated farm kid, Betz-Hamilton grew up in rural Indiana. Her mother, Pam, was chronically depressed, conspiratorial, and a compulsive shopper. John, her father, was mostly content to mind the farm animals and stay out Pam’s way. Betz-Hamilton found comfort in 4H competitions, but always felt different and alone. When she was 11 years old, the family’s bills and magazines began to go missing from their mail. Soon, the phone gets shuts off for non-payment and bill collectors come calling. Her parents’ paranoia mounts as they become convinced someone in their community has stolen their identities. The subsequent years are bogged down with food instability, family arguments, and escalating detachment from family and friends, all of whom are suspect in Pam’s eyes.

Betz-Hamilton has the self-awareness to recognize that her family’s dysfunction is harmful, and she manages to graduate high school early and escape to college. But financial troubles follow her as she discovers her credit ruined as a result of thousands of dollars of debt accrued in her name when she was a child. She herself was a victim of identity theft. Channeling her desire to uncover the roots of her family’s financial ruin, Betz-Hamilton becomes a scholar in childhood identity theft and fraud. Ultimately, she untangles the mystery of her family’s financial ruin, and it’s as satisfying as any fictional page-turner.

Betz-Hamilton is a great writer and effectively catalogs the long tail of childhood trauma and grief. This makes The Less People Know About Us resonant and compelling not only for the mystery at its center, but as a beacon for anyone who grew up feeling out of place, insecure, alone, or undermined by the adults entrusted with supporting them. — Susan Howard


Susan mentioned Mark Blankenship’s write-up of Indecent Advances last week; I’d thought it was in these archives already, but I hadn’t brought it over yet — so here’s that review now. — SDB

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We know it was bad. Even if we weren't there, we know that before Stonewall, gay men in this country were viciously oppressed. We know that's true, because we know what it's like now, in June 2019. We know that if an American pastor can still call for gay people to be executed, then it must've been brutal for the men who were alive when sodomy was a nationwide crime.

But knowing isn't the same as knowing exactly. James Polchin wants us to have the specifics. His book Indecent Advances, published this month by Counterpoint, collects and analyzes news reports of gay-related crime from the 1920s to the 1960s. The result is an act of witnessing that will reconfigure anyone who came of age after Stonewall. Once we know all this, we have to reckon differently with our country.

To start, we must acknowledge that many murdered gay men were effectively erased after death. Polchin describes how hard it was even to find the stories he compiled, since homosexuals were considered so offensive to "regular" people that newspapers and magazines used euphemisms to relate the crimes against them. If you couldn't crack the code, then you could overlook the genocide.

Genocide: There's no better word for what Polchin describes. He details story after story of men who were killed because they were gay. The most shocking tales involve beheadings and torture, but worse are the monotonously similar accounts that fill most of the pages. Here's how they go: A queer man brings a stranger home, or to a hotel, or to a park. They drink. They argue. The stranger kills the queer man, then later claims he was only acting in self-defense because the pervert made those titular indecent advances.

Then comes the kicker: The murderer gets a reduced sentence or even goes free, because the government and the church and the culture agree that normal fellows have the right to kill a pansy.

It's almost unbearable to see this pattern of shame and violence so clearly laid out. How do we cope with these victims, who were only guilty of trying to exist? How do we accept that many of these murderers seem to have been gay men themselves, warped by self-loathing until they massacred their own? It's beyond weeping.

To his credit, Polchin never commands us to weep. His writing is unvarnished and unsentimental as he takes us chronologically through these decades of crime, and when the facts need context, he clearly explains how scientific, religious, and political forces of the time helped endorse these murders. And while there are moments when he allows himself some tart editorializing, he doesn't linger over his own outrage. Instead, he trusts the details will make us angry on their own.

In his wallop of a conclusion, though, Polchin does describe being haunted by his own research, as well as being deeply moved. He's especially eloquent about scouring the private scrapbooks of Carl Van Vechten, the writer and arts patron. Along with pictures of hunky men in magazines, Van Vechten used these books to collect clippings of crime stories, underlining the sentences that indicated the gay subtext that could not speak its name. As Polchin says, "In composing these scrapbooks amid the fears, harassment, and homophobic resentment of the 1950s, Van Vechten saw in the crime articles both a collective history of queer experience and a documentation of suffering that needed to preserved."

In other words, Van Vechten paid witness, and now Polchin is carrying on his legacy. Both men are right that we should look. For the same reason Americans must go to the lynching memorial in Montgomery and follow the historical markers across the Trail Of Tears, we must stare directly at this book. If we want this country to become just, then we must be honest about who we are.

Anyone who cares about the lives of queer Americans should read Indecent Advances as a way to remember what we've lost, what we've gained, and what we must keep resisting. And yes, it's harrowing to face what happened. But it's inspiring, too. Because despite the evil they endured, thousands of queer Americans made it out of the mid-20th century. They still found joy and love, and when we understand what this required, we can marvel at the legacy they've left for us. We can better appreciate what we have now, and we can know exactly why we have to protect it. — Mark Blankenship, 6/27/19


Today’s vintage Previously.TV installment of The Jinx coverage addresses the fourth episode…and who was really “directing” the series at this point in the proceedings.

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Why is Andrew Jarecki putting himself on camera?

The leather portfolio, the patented Furrowed True-Crime-Interview Brow Of Rilly Hard Listening...it comes off mannered, much like the re-enactments.

Unless Jarecki's softball-y questions and glibness are all part of a longer con.

Did Durst ever not think he would get away with it?

Durst's response to the reading of the verdict is one of disbelief -- he quietly asks one of his attorneys to confirm that they said "not" -- and he seems genuinely relieved. But nothing in his behavior or demeanor at any other time indicates that he had the slightest concern about getting convicted. He carried guns around. He stole a hoagie. He stopped wearing his disguise in front of Morris Black (apparently). And he's withering on the stand about the quality of the prosecution's re-enactment; I'm not a hundred on what "the two of you look like spaghetti" means vis-a-vis the recreation of the shooting," but there's no mistaking the tone.

Why would a defendant be that rude? 1) S/he thinks there's absolutely no way a jury will convict him/her; 2) s/he is unable to control his/her arrogance and feelings of intellectual and social superiority, even when it's absolutely critical to do so. It's like watching a train heading for a split rail -- yeah, the jury is supposed to base its decision on whether they believe the defendant committed murder, not whether he's a cock, but ask Jeffrey MacDonald if he thinks most citizens bother with that distinction.

Is it possible Morris Black's death went down the way Durst and his lawyers say it did? Or has Durst just talked himself into believing it?

It's a brilliant defense strategy, particularly for this specific defendant, because I think parts of it are true -- enough of it that Durst can sell it. It's like the conventional wisdom about undercover identities, and how you should pick a name and pieces of personal history close enough to your own that you won't get caught in inconsistencies; I think Durst probably did have a friendship with Black, or at least a friendly rapport. I think they did watch Wall Street Week together, because that's the kind of weird detail that rings true.

But...that's the kind of weird detail that rings true. Durst's "I don't think he had a bow saw... Anyway!" is inappropriately cazh and cheery; that rings true, too.

Could Durst have gotten a not-guilty verdict anywhere but in Texas?

The guy who "jokes" that, in Texas, they'll hang you for stealing a horse but not for killing another person is not shown saying that for no reason. Durst himself cites the fact that Texas law gives homeowners much more latitude than elsewhere to protect their property using whatever means they deem necessary.

I do wonder how the jury was instructed as far as the difference between murder and manslaughter; and whether they had the option to drop down to a lesser charge (I don't think they did) if they didn't find he'd premeditated Black's death. I don't think Black's death was an "accident" the way Durst (re-)conceived it for the trial, but I also don't think he sat around planning to kill Black. I think Black came in with the eviction notice and tried to put Durst over a barrel for rent money, and Durst freaked out and killed him, which depending on the state and its statutes is not necessarily murder, and the defense was very smart to separate the grisly demise of Black's remains, which happened after his death, from Durst's thought processes before Black's death.

It's not self-defense, obviously. But it's probably more manslaughter with aggravating circumstances than it is murder. ("She says confidently, having watched many many Law & Orders.")

Why would he go back to the dump site?

This goes back to my feeling that he really believed he couldn't get caught/convicted. What kind of maroon returns to the dump site? This is, like, the first place a profiler starts looking for you. And then he fishes the head out of the water...where's the head? I seriously want to know.

Did Jarecki know he would catch Durst rehearsing his next answer on a hot mic?

He must have, and I tip my hat to the guy: the stagey-seeming "wanna take a break?", the careful laying of the groundwork with questions about what the lawyers had told Durst to say or leave out both at trial and to Jarecki, Jarecki possibly even playing on Durst's control issues and subtly inciting Durst to defy his attorneys' control -- Durst relaxed, and got zoomed. His lawyer, like, lurches into the frame all "YOU KNOW WE CAN HEAR YOU RIGHT oh god fuckety fuck," and it's not like Durst is as careful as he should be in the first place. He's slipped up or phrased things poorly dozens of times so far, and giving Jarecki a whole paragraph on how his defense team focused him on subatomic loopholes in the oath is not exactly a ringing endorsement of anyone's trustworthiness.

But I can't wait to see next week's episode, so whatever Jarecki's level of involvement or skill in ensuring Durst would tip that hand for us, it's effective in the macro sense. — SDB, 3/2/15


A few bits and bobs from the weekend…

  • Please tell me someone watched Saturday’s 48Hrs on the Lizzie Borden case. Eve’s and my favorite bit of the press release was the consterning “What if the rhyme was incorrect?” but, my admiration for Erin Moriarty’s horseshit tolerance notwithstanding, I didn’t watch. Should I? [CBS]

  • R Kelly wants out of jail because of COVID-19. There are a number of truly tasteless jokes involving that number that, FOR ONCE, I will not dignify. Instead, I’ll say that coronavirus and its imminent rampage through the country’s prisons/jails is a human-rights issue, and there shouldn’t be a double standard of any kind for incarcerated people facing that cruel and unusual illness. But between Kelly and Weinstein, it’s…hard not to feel cynical about the situation, and I’ll leave it there. [ABC]

  • Were you interested in A&E’s Crime Central, but not so interested in paying for it? Then you’re in luck — if you have a Roku — because it’s free for the next month. [CNet]

  • Kenny Schacter’s account of getting taken by “the art world’s mini-Madoff” is very readable…even though he’s very off-putting. This is one of those “even a broken scammer is right twice a day” stories, like the Fyre Festival docs, where a crime was committed but you kiiiiind of don’t feel bad for the “victims”? I’d like to see this piece redone on the investigative side by, say, Vanity Fair or NYMag’s own Jerry Saltz, because the jazzy first-person diction is effective per se but Schacter doesn’t do a great job with the nuts and bolts of Inigo Philbrick’s scheme. [Vulture]

  • Still looking for a decent embedded poll set-up for the N Crime AA. If you can help/have any ideas, bunting at the-blotter dot com, or hit me in the comments! — SDB

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This week on Best Evidence: College-hoops shenanigans, Margo’s cooking up a true-crime-title bingo card, and…well, can we call the administration’s “handling” of the pandemic criminal yet?


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