MURDER MOST FOUL: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination by Karen Halttunen

MURDER MOST FOUL: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An involving account of the shifting social constructions and understandings of murder in pre-20th century America. Drawing on a wealth of sources, including confessions, trial accounts, and court documents, historian Halttunen (Univ. of Calif., Davis; Confidence Men and Painted Women, 1983) traces how the burgeoning romantic movement--and particularly its most extreme manifestation, the gothic--utterly transformed the Puritan conception of crime and punishment. She holds that the Puritan belief in predestination meant that ""the early American murderer was regarded as a moral representative of all sinful humanity, and was granted an important spiritual role."" Murder was not seen as an aberration but as the terrible culmination of a series of small, quotidian sins, from drinking to deception. The attitude of everyone from preachers to their congregations was one of ""There but for the grace of God, go I."" And while punishment in this world was still required, the important thing was to get the murderer to truly and sincerely repent. With the arrival of the gothic/romantic, Halttunen convincingly argues, murder came to be seen as a monstrous aberration, something outside the pale of ordinary humanity. This shaped everything from methods of punishment to the conduct of trials. For example, the insanity defense became widely accepted and its scope enlarged. Repentance was downplayed. Criminal procedure became regularized, and more importance was placed on detective work (tellingly, in the 1840s, Poe would create the detective story). With murder no longer a stem moral warning, the public began to hunger after the goriest details, fueling a rise in ""true crime"" accounts that often bordered on the pornographic. If all this seems familiar, Halttunen notes that much of our modern view of crime comes directly from the conventions and tenets of the 19th-century gothic. Formidably researched and well argued, but frequent discursions and inordinate details make this feel like a terrific article padded out to book length.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1998
ISBN: 0674003845
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.