Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There has been a boy who Just lay down and Died

On May 25, 1968, four-year-old Martin Brown disappeared from his home in Scotswood, a working-class neighborhood in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northern part of England. Martin lived with his mother in an area of town full of derelict houses in various states of disrepair that were considered a danger to children and adults alike. Some boys playing that afternoon came across Martin lying on the floor in one of these houses, with blood and saliva coming out of his mouth. They called to construction workers outside for help, but the boy was already dead. Because there was no sign of violence, and an aspirin bottle lay nearby, authorities initially suspected he might have accidentally gotten into the medicine and overdosed.

Martin Brown
As police talked to neighbors following Martin's death, the behavior of one child, Mary Bell, appeared odd. It was she who had first informed his aunt of Martin's death, telling her "There's blood all over" and offering to lead her to where the body had been found. Mary later had seemed overly curious about the accident, asking the aunt, "Do you miss Martin? Do you cry for him?" Martin's mother, June, was also plagued with visits from Mary, who had knocked on her door the day after his death to ask June if she could see Martin. When told no, that Martin was dead, Mary responded with a smile, "Oh I know he's dead. I wanted to see him in his coffin."

The following Monday, May 27, teachers arriving at nearby Day Nursery found that the school had been broken into over the weekend. The intruders had not stolen anything, but had thrown school supplies around and splashed cleaning fluid onto the floor. They had also left four ominous notes, reading: "I murder SO That I may come back." "fuch of we murder watch out Fanny and Faggot" "We did murder Martain brown fuck of you bastard" "You are micey because we murdered Martain Go Brown you beter look out there are murders about by Fanny and and auld Faggot you srcews"

At the time, the police thought the break-in and the notes were nothing more than a prank, and the school, having had trouble with vandals in the past, installed an alarm system. These notes, however, would later prove to be more than just a bad joke.

On July 31, three-year-old Brian Howe went missing from his home. His older sister, Pat, was frantic with worry, going from house to house looking for him. A small boy who always stayed near home, Brian was unlikely to have simply wandered away. Mary Bell again appeared, with best friend (but no relation) Norma Bell, offering to help Pat look for her brother. Mary gradually led Pat up to an industrial area near the neighborhood, where older children often played. Mary motioned to a large stack of concrete blocks, suggesting that Brian might be playing "behind the blocks, or between them." Though she encouraged Pat to go and look around the blocks, Pat refused and soon left the site. Hours later, police found Brian's body in that exact spot.

Brian had been strangled, and his body showed signs of an attempted mutilation. His hair had been chopped off in big clumps, there were puncture wounds on his thighs, and bits of skin had been stripped away from his penis. A broken pair of scissors lay on the ground near his body. When they removed his clothes at the morgue, police discovered an "M" carved into his stomach with a razor blade. Speculation, oddly pointing directly to the murderers, was that someone had initially carved the letter "N", then changed it into an "M". Whether this was determined after the identities of the killers were made or before is significant, and will be discussed later.

Evidence: Broken scissors

Along with the other neighborhood children, Mary and Norma were interviewed by investigators. The pair immeditately stood out, due to their unusual interest in the two crimes. Stories began to emerge about both girls' actions during the time between the two murders. In one, a schoolmate observed Mary attack Norma on the school playground in the days following the break-in at the nursery school. Mary scratched and kicked her friend, yelling at her "I am a murderer! That house over there, that's where I killed!" At the time the boy ignored the "confession", since Mary was well known to be a show-off.

Incredibly, it also emerged that Mary had visited the Howe's home days before Brian was killed. Even then she was pointing a finger at her friend Norma, saying (inexplicably) "I know something about Norma that will get her put away straight away.... Norma put her hands on a boy's throat. It was Martin Brown -- she pressed and he just dropped." In telling this story, Mary put her hands around her own throat to demonstrate. Then she left.

The girls also displayed inappropriate emotion during the funerals of each of the victims. Norma was described as having smiled and been "oddly excited" throughout the funeral of Martin Brown. An officer stationed outside the Howe home reported that Mary was among those gathered in the street as Brian's coffin was removed for the funeral. She waited, watching the house in rapt fascination, and as the coffin was being carried out, "She stood there, laughing. Laughing and rubbing her hands," reported the detective.

Norma Brown near the construction site where Brian was found

Mary's demeanor at seeing Brian's coffin spurred authorities to move more quickly to get her off the street. Fairly certain of her involvement in the two murders, police grilled the girl, whose story changed each time she told it. She first told police that she had seen Brian going to the construction area with an older boy, who had hit him. She also said she had seen a broken pair of scissors in the boy's hand. Since the presence of scissors at the crime scene was confidential information, police assumed Mary could not have known about them unless she had either witnessed or participated in the murder of the boy.

Mary then said she had seen Norma kill the boys. Questioned again, Norma now reported that Mary told her she had committed the murders. Showing unusual savvy for an 11-year-old child, Mary told police she wanted to make a statement. The lengthly signed statement again placed the blame for the killings on Norma. Finally, police arrest them both, as they each know far too much about the murders not to have committed the crimes themselves.

Mary Bell, after being taken into custody

Both Mary and Norma are tried for the deaths of Martin and Brian. During the trial, Mary is consistently portrayed as the ringleader, with Norma described as the mentally deficient follower. In closing arguments, Prosecutor Lyons outlined the accepted version of the relationship between the two and of its role in the murders: " In Norma you have a simple backward girl of subnormal intelligence. In Mary you have a most abnormal child, aggressive, vicious, cruel, incapable of remorse, a girl moreover possessed of a dominating personality, with a somewhat unusual intelligence and a degree of cunning that is almost terrifying."

Not surprisingly, Norma was found not guilty of either murder. Mary was convicted, but on a lesser charge of "manslaughter because of diminished responsibility," indicating that her age and her lack of a stable family life made it impossible to convict her of murder.

In the years that followed, it is Mary Bell who is remembered as the evil child with no emotion or empathy, who killed because she "enjoyed hurting people." The first psychiatrist to examine Mary in prison, Dr. Robert Orton, stated, "I've seen a lot of psychopathic children...But I've never met one like Mary: as intelligent, as manipulative, or as dangerous." It is Mary who is remembered as the child with the dead eyes, the girl who told a guard at the prison where she was housed during the trial: "I like hurting little things that can't fight back."

But the duo of Mary and Norma bears further examination. The concept of folie à deux, a shared madness that causes two people to commits acts neither would undertake alone, is evident in this relationship. The duality of the girls is clear in the uncanny shared last name, the carving of the letter "N" turned into an "M", the way in which each girl claimed the other committed the crimes followed by an immediate reversal into taking sole responsibility...all point to a melding of identities of the two, both in how they are seen by authorities and on the part of the girls themselves and how they view each other.

Indeed, evidence brought out during the trial indicates a mixing up of the identities of the two at the level of their physical activity and their shared psychic connection. According to Gitta Sereny, whose book Cries Unheard has recently been republished after its controversial reception in Britain in 1998, Mary and Norma were seen on many occasions during their trial to kind of psychically "link up": "Their heads turned toward each other, their eyes locked, their faces suddenly bare of expression and curiously alike, they always seemed by some sort of silent and exclusive communion to reaffirm and strenghten their bond."

Also indicative of the increasingly blended identities of the two are the four puzzling "confession" notes left at the school. Though it was first reported that Mary wrote all but one of the notes, handwriting experts later examined the items and determined that the act of writing had been shared in what Mary and Norma called "joining writing." Each girl would alternate writing on the note, sometimes to the point of alternating each letter in a word, one being composed by Norma, the next by Mary. They shared as well the inspiration for writing the notes, or as Mary put it (using similar terminology as described their writing process), penning the notes was a "joint idea" planned as "a great big joke."

Furthermore, the initial(s) carved into Brian Howe's stomach indicate the public's own twining of the girls' identities. The much-accepted version of the story is that once the body was removed to the morgue and undressed, the letter on the stomach became evident. It appeared that it had originally been carved into the shape of an "N", then later the extra line was filled in to make it an "M." Several writers have speculated that "another hand" carved that line, shifting the guilt from "N" -- Norma  -- to "M" -- Mary. This speculation, however fascinating and indicative of one or the other girl's desire to claim the crime, is not linked to any source. Possibly true, but more likely the fabrication of a public wanting to poeticize the crime, the visual link of the two letters serves to underscore the bond between the two girls, and as such, to strengthen the folie à deux at work in their psyches.

Further boosting the idea of shared madness is the existence of a fantasy world known only to Mary and Norma. According to Mary, the girls fantasized about becoming criminals, committing crimes, then escaping to Scotland. Their idea of "crime" was childish, based on movies they had seen, of bad guys full of bravado, powerful and afraid of nothing. Their entire juvenile crime spree was undertaken in a spirit of "naughtiness," to cause trouble and, if they were successful, to be sent away. "We built it up and up until, it now seems, we kept hoping we'd be arrested and sent away. We never talked about anything except doing terrible things and being taken away."

The fantasy world they created, their bonds to each other, and the crime they committed make Mary Bell and Norma Bell yet another example of the folie à deux couple, albeit the youngest one on record at the time. But does the diagnosis really point to an illness? Does folie à deux actually exist, or is it a convenient way to explain something we as outsiders cannot understand otherwise?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Le Peuple de Paris au XIXe siècle

I would so love to go to this exposition that is in Paris right now. It's called "Le Peuple de Paris au XIXe siècle" and it is running at the Musée Carnavalet until February 26. The exhibition examines life during the latter part of the nineteenth century in terms of violence against people, crime, the Commune...generally the untold story of the unwashed masses of the era. Consisting of artifacts and discussions of such cultural markers as la grisette, les Apaches, les ouvriers, la peur, the exhibit is laid out in a series of rooms. As Didier Daeninckx says, the exhibition space is literally framed between the barracades and crime, perfectly representing the two tensions of the time: one in the form of violence that attempts to change the world and the other a violence "suicidaire" among criminals. But mainly I want to go to this because the use the music from Taxi Driver during transitional bits of the clip. ;-)

The exposition consistes of a series of rooms grouped thematically. Here is a description of the room entitled "Life in Paris":
"Life in Paris" at that time might mean a variety of things: finding a place to sleep during a severe housing crisis, finding food at a time when buying necessities used up a large portion of a working class family’s budget, but also keeping clothed and physically taking care of oneself. Housing conditions were often difficult and were marked by a lack of privacy, whether you lived in a “garni” or in a furnished flat.
This exhibition room is built around a large central showcase, in the middle of which are exhibited several articles of clothing which, by a visual trick, are put in perspective with the other rooms. A long panorama, consisting of the façades of houses on the rue de Belleville taken by the L’Union Photographique Francaise, makes possible a re-creation of the general atmosphere of the quartier in 1906. Neighborhood social interactions and manners of speech and of carry oneself are all indicative of popular culture in Paris at the time.
While leisure time, especially for the working class, was limited, people still managed to enjoy themselves. Their activities were simple: a walk through the quartier, going to a cabaret, a dance in a tavern, or a picnic on the fortifications were the basic everyday pleasures of the era.
Atget, Petite chambre d'une ouvriere,
Rue de Belleville, 1910

There is an exhibition catalogue, if anyone wants to buy me a birthday present...

More information about "Le Peuple de Paris au XIXe siècle" can be found here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Paranormal Life

Abandoned cemetery, Dekalb County Georgia
I have always felt spirits. When I was a child, from about three to five years old, I could sense things in the house we lived in. It was an ordinary ranch house in the Garden Lakes subdivision of Rome, Georgia, a seemingly harmless house, but I had an imaginary friend whom I now believe to be a child spirit. I named him/her Doe A Deer, like the song. I can remember that I actually saw Doe A Deer, and that he/she was an actual child. I never thought about who he/she was, just accepted the fact that this was my friend. This was a good, friendly spirit.

There was also a bad spirit, or spirits, in the house. At night, I used to wake up terrified and not know why. I would often run across the hall from my room into my parents room, and I remember having to get up the courage to navigate those three steps, because there was something at the other end of the hall. Of course this could have been simply child’s fears, but I can still feel the “things” at the other end of the hall. They were real.

I also had a terrible nightmare when I lived in that house, a dream that stays with me even now. I was outside in our yard and my dad had pinned my brother up on the laundry-drying device we had…a kind of umbrella-shaped thing (only without the fabric of an umbrella) you could spin around and hang laundry from. Dad was spinning my brother around on it, and while he didn’t seem to mind, it kind of upset me. I went inside the house, and there was an evil woman there. She came towards me and I tried to get away but she grabbed me and put me in a cardboard box she had on the kitchen table. I remember her pushing down the lid as I was fighting and crying. Then my mom came in and said in a sharp voice, “What are you doing to her?” The woman let go of me and left the house immediately. Then I woke up.

Nothing else stands out from the rest of my childhood, except for a feeling I had for old houses. I always was drawn to old houses, and could feel something very unique in most of them. My grandparents’ house in Knoxville, for example, was built at the turn of the century, and had clawfoot bathtubs and a big attic. I can remember being transported as if into another world when I was in that house. I would go off by myself and “feel” the past, not only there but in nearly any old house I went into.  I think I really entered another dimension. My parents used to say “I’ll bet you’re going to grow up to be a historian” but it was much more than a simple interest in history. I was able to enter into the world of the past, of the spirits.

As an adult, I have lived in several houses where spirits made themselves known to me. First, in college, I lived for a year in a beautiful Gothic structure in Athens, Georgia that was built in the late 19th century. I lived upstairs, and used to hear footsteps at all times of the day and night. Usually it was the sound of someone running down the stairs, at breakneck speed. Then they would get to the bottom of the stairs and stop. I would wait for the front door to open, as I hoped it was one of my roommates on their way out, but it never did. I would go look down the stairs and there would be no one there. Usually when this happened I was the only one home. We also heard things moving in the walls at that house, almost like the sound of someone breathing. But it was inside the walls.

I had another odd experience while living in Atlanta in my late 20s. I bought a piece of fabric at an antique store, and planned to use it as a tablecloth. It was cotten cloth with designs on it, maybe a batik. The man who sold it to me said it had been an altar cloth. I didn't really think anything of it, just like it because it was pretty and interesting. I brought it home with me and left it folded up in the linen closet for a while. One day I remembered it, and decided to air it out on the porch, then put it on my kitchen table. I went outside, where it was a very nice sunny spring day. I walked to the edge of the porch and opened up the cloth and started shaking it to get the dust out. As soon as I did, a wind came up and started blowing the trees. It got stronger and began to blow the plants around on my porch, and blew my hair into my face. I stopped shaking the cloth and looked up at the sky. These huge dark clouds had moved in, and now blocked out the sun. The wind really started to howl. I got scared and knew it had something to do with the cloth. I folded it up quickly and put it down, then went inside, leaving it on the porch. It rained for a while, then cleared up. Later in the day I took the cloth immediately to the trash can and threw it away. Someone said I should have burned it, but I would never had done that. It felt like doing anything other than getting rid of it immediately would have unleashed more power into the world.

Orb in Reed House hotel room, Chattanooga Tennessee

The most significant experience I have had was in the house I lived in right after getting married. It was in Decatur, Georgia, just a regular 1950s brick ranch house. When I first looked at the house, my friends lived in it, but were thinking of selling. I was attracted by the warm, homey feel it had. We eventually bought it and moved in, but from the moment we moved in the homey feeling was gone, and instead I felt nervous and uncomfortable in it. Soon afterwards I started smelling odd things from time to time – cigar smoke, perfume, mothballs, bacon—smells that would appear and disappear completely at random. They were very strong, and definitely not coming from any natural source.

I was pregnant at the time, and went to bed very early every night. Our bedroom shared a wall with a smaller room we used as a den and t.v. room. One night, after I’d fallen asleep but my husband was still up watching t.v., I heard him open the bedroom door. “Are you okay?” he said. “Yes, I’m asleep. Why?” “Oh, never mind. I must be imagining things.” This happened again a few nights later, and then again, and finally I asked him what was going on. He told me that as he was watching t.v., he kept hearing the sound of someone crying. Each time, he would turn the volume down on the t.v., and hear the crying that seemed to be coming from my room. He thought it was me, but I never was crying, but sleeping. This went on for months, and finally he stopped coming in to check on me, though he kept hearing the crying.

We finally moved out of that house about a year after my son was born. The last night that we officially owned the house, my husband went back to gather a few last minute items we hadn’t yet moved, and the baby and I stayed behind at the new place. When he got back from cleaning he was shaken up. He said that after he had gotten all our things out of the house, he went back in to sweep. Each time he cleaned out a room, he would close the door and move on to the next room. He said he would pass back by cleaned rooms and find the doors opened. Finally, he heard a door slam in the back of the house and decided to leave. He is not easily frightened but was obviously upset.

Other experiences involve a healing ability and dreams that come true. Several times I have held my hand over someone (usually one of my children) and feel warmth coming out of my palm. The children feel the warmth and feel better. The most significant experience of this kind was when at the age of five or six, my son had fluid on his hipbone and suddenly couldn’t walk. We took him to the ER and they took x-rays and told us it would eventually be reabsorbed by the body, and that he should rest for several days. He was in a lot of pain and slept in bed with me that night. I woke up before him, and held my right hand over his hip for quite a while, sending healing energy to him. He woke up a while later and said “Mom! My leg isn’t hurting at all!” He jumped out of the bed and was able to walk completely normally, which was amazing given he had to be carried in to bed the night before.

My premonitory dreams occurred only once, over the period of about three months in my late 20s. I had a series of dreams about insignificant things which later materialized. One was a dream about an old abandoned building I drove by on my way to work every day that had been standing desolate for several years. In the dream I was with a dear friend in the upstairs window of the building. We were looking across the lawn at a bulldozer that was coming to tear down the house. We were very upset, and rushed downstairs to try to stop them from coming. Then the dream ended. Two or three days later I was on my way to work. I saw a bulldozer standing in the yard of the house. On my way home, the house was gone.

The second dream involved my boyfriend, with whom I had recently broken up. It occurred the night of his birthday, He and I were supposed to have gone out during the day to celebrate, but he had stood me up. I went to bed very angry. I dreamed that he called me the next day and said “I am so sorry about yesterday. My sister came into town unexpectedly and said she would take me out to eat anywhere I wanted to go. I told her I wanted to go to the Grill in Athens, so we drove up and spent the whole day there.” The day after dreaming this, I called him to berate him for standing me up on his birthday. He said, “I’m sorry! I went to Athens with my sister and we didn’t get back till late.” I told him about the dream, and how weird it was that he actually had gone to Athens with his sister. He replied, “Oh my God. You’re freaking me out. Do you know where we ate lunch?? The Grill.”  

My daughter is also a psychic, perhaps stronger than me. She lacks any training but is in touch with spirits in my mom's house and at her school. She is a healer as well. Is this hereditary? Is it something we can hone and develop and really put to use? I wonder.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Who is this person who kills?

I have often wondered about what makes a person a murderer. Are there certain qualities he possesses from birth that predispose him to kill? Is he that different from me? Is it fair to say that we are two different versions of the same species, one normal and one an anomaly?

I tend to look at the act of murder as stemming from two suprisingly opposing possibilities: either a carefully thought-out plan (in legal terms, a premeditated murder) or a sudden explosion of rage and frustration (crime of passion, temporary insanity). As indicated by their relative positions in the judicial system, these two crimes share many qualities, but the key distinguishing point is the activity before (or perhaps "behind") the moment of killing. I want to look at both of these types of murder, to see just who these people are whom we call "killers." Are they a different type of human? And if so, where and when does that distinction occur? At birth? At adolescence? At the moment of the crime? Or are killers sociopaths, insensitive to the feelings (and sometimes, existence) of others? Of course, it's impossible to say with any certainty how (or if) these persons differ from us, but we can still attempt to make a determination about the parameters of murder and murderers by attempting to pinpoint just where that shift to "murderer" takes place.

Since the ability to commit such a crime is ostensibly something we do not all possess, let's start with a very personal examination of the potential for murder in each of us. Perhaps in this way we can determine the line between rational and irrational, law-abiding and law-breaking, innocent and guilty. Who among you has at some point in your life really hated someone, with a white-hot hatred that grew such that the individual was no longer a person, but instead a stumbling block to your life or your happiness: he was in the way of something and refused to budge? How many of you have said to yourselves, however jokingly, "I could kill him"? Have you gone so far as to actually conceive a plan in your head, just a fantasy, that would involve a clever series of events, ending with your being able to kill that person and get away with it? Have you daydreamed about it, laying out in your head how you could survey his house, or his workplace? Have you considered the location of potential hiding places from which you could observe the goings and comings of others and note the times when the person was actually alone? Have you compared your plan to movies you've seen, or episodes of CSI, mentally noting which pitfalls to avoid ("if there is a dog, it must be silenced before proceeding")? In short, have you ever mentally traced a plan, however casually, of how best to access your victim?

Somewhere in this scenario is the first potential stopping point. I admit that I am guilty of all of the above, yet I am not a murderer. But if we stop here, in all honesty, how different are we from the murderer, who does all this and then some, who takes the next step and determines a good time/place/excuse to have the little scenario actually materialize, and then actually puts it into motion? Can we qualify what the difference is between "him" and "us"? Is it moral? Is it a lack of conviction? Is it weakness? Is it love for another human being, perhaps not my intended victim but my children, my friends, my community? Whatever it is, something makes me stop where others continue.

Now it gets tougher. How many of you have researched certain poisons or firearms, to see how they work, and the possibility of obtaining them, just out of curiosity? How many have bought poison or guns, or at least gone to look at them, see what they felt like in your hand, what they looked like, how they smelled? Have you printed out maps of the area where you plan to attack your victim? Have you bought gloves, looked into renting a car vs. going there on foot, planned an escape route? I am happy to say I have never gone this far, but what about those who have, and have not killed anyone? Are they closer to the murderer than I?

And what about those who have moved beyond this point, to package up the tools, maps, guns, binoculars and headed towards the intended victim? Who is the individual who stops short of pulling the trigger, leaving the victim traumatized but still alive, bound and gagged but still breathing? Is that person even closer to being a killer then the daydreamer, or do we lump all these people into the non-killer category with a sigh of relief?

I have often heard killers described as having "crossed a line" and wondered about that line. In the above exercise it is clear that the line is a multitude of lines, and at some point an individual moves forward with something that makes it impossible to go back. Is the line buying the gun? Is it the moment the killer is actually seen by the victim? Is it once a shot is fired, or poison ingested? The point seems to be that a great many people could be viewed as potential murderers, and the question suddenly shifts from "what kind of person could do that?" to "what makes me NOT do that?"

As I indicated before, in some ways the inability to carry out this crime is a kind of unfinishing, where effort and thought are put into a plan that is ultimately not even abandoned so much as left to trickle away on its own. When looked at in this way, the murderer is different from the non-murderer only in that he is the one who is strong enough to complete what he started, a kind of Nietzschean superman, following through what his heart desires and refusing sentiment and fear of punishment.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Papin Sisters and the Murder Narrative

On February 2, 1933, the mother and daughter of the Lancelin family were killed by their two maids, Christine and Léa Papin, in an unexpected and violent attack. The maids assaulted their employers in a remarkably brutal manner, ripping the eyes out of the two still-living women, beating them to death with a pitcher and a hammer, then slicing their faces and bodies with a kitchen knife to such a point that they were no longer recognizable. The women’s bodies were found hours later by the husband and father, Monsieur René Lancelin. He arrived home to find the house seemingly empty, yet bolted from the inside. Unable to obtain entry, he called police, who helped him break into the house, then accompanied him inside where the grisly discovery was made on the staircase landing.

The two victims had been beaten and stabbed, but perhaps oddest detail of all, their legs had been slashed...striated, a manner curiously reminiscent of loaves of bread, like the lines on top of a baguette. Their undergarments had been pulled down, but they had not been raped. Blood covered the carpet.

Since the killers were unknown at the time these bodies were discovered, the two maids were assumed to have been killed as well, and the men fully expected to find more bloody carnage upstairs in the women's attic bedroom. Instead, they found the women alive, huddled together in a single bed behind their locked bedroom door. Between the time of the slaughter and the return of Monsieur Lancelin to the house, they had performed their domestic duties as usual, cleaning the blood off their bodies and changing into clean nightclothes. They had rinsed the butcher knife used in the killing and placed it in the kitchen along with the other cutlery in the drying rack. In short, they cleaned up their mess and got ready for bed. The police took them into the station for questioning, and they admitted to having murdered Madame and Mademoiselle with the kitchen knives and pewter pitcher.

What happened in the Lancelin house that evening is not a mystery in the traditional sense of the word. Whereas investigators of most murder cases initially look for the killer, in this case the identities of the murderers were known from the moment the crime was discovered. Neither Christine nor Léa ever denied her involvement in the killing—in fact, Christine was more than willing to provide details about the moment of the murders, giving police a clear account of the chronology of the attack. Yet over and over, she stumbled on one point: why had she and her sister slaughtered their employers? What provoked such a brutal killing? When investigators asked her the reason for the assault, she was unable to give them an answer. Similarly, younger sister Léa reported that she did not know why she had acted as she did, instead offering her own gruesome details about who stabbed whom, the words spoken by her sister, and the cries made by the victims.

As a result, this one unresolved element of the story—the motive—has haunted the crime ever since. How could two apparently rational women kill with such violence? Did something provoke them? These questions lead to others: Should their potential for violence have been noticed before the crime? Was the wrath they obviously carried with them somehow visible in their faces? In their actions? In their lifestyle? Should someone have known they "had it in them," to kill, given the odd upbringing of the women and their unhealthy attachment to each other? In short, how could this have happened without anyone seeing it coming? And what exactly is "it"?

Society needs an explanation, which is usually provided in the form of some kind of logical narrative. When chaos erupts, disrupting the (often imagined) smooth flow of events, logic and order are thrown into disarray, necessitating an explanatory narrative to put it all back into place, as it were. If we can grasp what happened, and why, we feel satisfied and the world is, if not put exactly right again, at least somehow understandable. Any violent crime is upsetting, of course, but if it can be packaged and placed into the existing tapestry of society, we can move forward. But the world becomes a very disturbing place when something this messy, this chaotic, this unexpected just happens, with no explanation whatsoever. Where do we file away this violence?

In the years since the murders, various writers have come up with possible explanations for the crime, some focusing on sociocultural causes for the unexpected violence, others examining it from a psycho-sexual point of view, taking into account the hints of an incestuous lesbian relationship between the sisters. Many have used the crime to support their own ideologies, bolstering psychoanalytic analyses of self and other, or theories about hidden violence in the female. Yet none seems completely satisfactory, as there is something about this crime that cannot be contained in one single explanation. What is important here is that the inability to resolve key mysteries around the event seems unexpected, as if the crime should be understandable. But on what are those expectations based? Why do we think motive can be pulled out, clearly stated, and analyzed?

Put another way, given the violence and chaos of a bloody murder, isn't it more logical that any explanation will be insufficient, that the logic of language is not compatible with the illogic of slaughter? What explanation for the above image of the two women could possibly satisfy us?

O poor Mary Bellows

They found Mary Bellows cuffed to the bed
With a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head
O poor Mary Bellows

It only seems fitting that I begin this new blog with a Nick Cave quote. As the ultimate singer of murder ballads, Nick and his ability to bring out the beauty and the horror and the inevitability of killing epitomize what pulls me to this subject. I am working on a book about murder, about the popularity of murder and the reasons behind it, among other things. Somewhere in my dissertation research I remember stumbling upon a quote by someone that stated people shouldn't be surprised that we have so many murders in our society, but that there are so few.

I've been thinking about this quote, and the implication that human beings need an outlet for violence. While murders have always been a part of society, the rise in crime and its coincidence with the industrial revolution and the resulting leisure time and sedentary lifestyle cannot be ignored. Professor Bonnefis pointed out to me the interesting correlation between the decline of public executions and the increase of aesthetic representations of murder in the form of stories and plays about the guillotine, something that seems to indicate that society needs this outlet, this vicarious living out of a violent fantasy.

On the other side of the coin is the desire to kill in the form of the actual murderer. I recently ran across some audio clips of Ted Bundy talking about various murders he committed. The obvious coldness of the psychopath and his ability to recount his activities as if her were discussing a baseball game -- I did this, I felt this way, I did that, she reacted in this way -- implies that for him, this IS the same as a baseball game. In Bundy's world, the brutality and horror of abducting, torturing and killing strangers is simply the way he deals with his needs and desires. Far from showing evidence of brutal outrage, his voice, demeanor and words reflect a calm mundanity that is chilling.

But what if we move past this chill? Is it possibly to see the act of killing as a necessity for some individuals? And if we can imagine such a scenario, will it change our view of the role of the killer in society? Put another, and slightly frightening, way, in our society, is the killer in some way necessary for our own collective sanity?

In this blog I plan to examine a series of well-known murders, to analyze their crimes in a variety of ways. I will also look at the popularity of murder as tabloid fodder, especially as it concerns unsolved crimes that remain in the public eye for years after their occurence. I will examine the implications of gender in the crime of murder, and the assumptions that are associated with each possible scenario, i.e. male killer/female victim, female killer/male victim, etc.

I want to close with the words of housemaid Christine Papin, who with her sister, Léa, slaughtered their employers one February night in 1933:

When Madame returned home, I let her know that the iron had broken down again and that hadn't been able to finish the ironing. When I told her that, she wanted to attack me...we were at that time, my sister and I and our two mistresses, on the landing of the second floor. Seeing that Mme Lancelin was about to attack me, I jumped towards her face and ripped out her eyes with my fingers. When I say that I jumped on Mme Lancelin, I am mistaken; it was Mademoiselle Lancelin I jumped and her eyes that I ripped out. During this time, my sister Léa jumped on Mme Lancelin and also ripped out her eyes. When we had done this, they were lying or crouching on the floor. Then I went downstairs to the kitchen to find a hammer and a kitchen knife.

Happy reading.