Friday, October 30, 2020

61. Famous Trials 5 edited by James H. Hodge

This is the last of the Famous Trials Penguin paperbacks that I found at the Concordia book fair and bought almost out of pity and because they were just so beautiful.  Now, having finished this one, I find I am surprisingly pleased by their contents as well.  I would pick up any others that I may find in the future.  I can see why they were so popular.  Each one contains an essay, retelling of 4 or 5 famous trials.  They have a fairly consistent structure, beginning with a narrative of what actually happened, the ensuing investigation and then the trial.  They conclude with the author's thoughts on some social, legal or philosophical aspect of the trial.  Basically, they are true crime for the discerning reader (said in a slightly self-mocking snobby voice) and interesting and enjoyable at their base just for the retelling of these various disturbing and sordid human tragedies.  It is the various authors' voices that elevates these essays to sometimes quite enjoyable reading places.

Famous Trials 5 has 5 essays and I will give a brief summary of each, mainly for my own future reference. Overall, this was pretty enjoyable, highlighted by the last essay that had particularly rich writing and some nice critique of British moralism.  A bonus was that there were several Canadian connections in these trials.  Quite a lot of poison and drug use as well.

Thomas Neill Cream
Cream was a ne'er do well doctor who studied at McGill at the end of the 19th century and then went to England. His thing was hooking up with women, trying to get them to take pills that he claimed were to abort any potential pregnancy but would usually kill them. He would then send anonymous blackmail letters to some other well-known person claiming that he had evidence that they had poisoned the person.  It was all incompetent and kind of crazed, driven I guess by money needs, due to his addiction to "morphia" and his own misogyny.  

Neville George Clevely Heath
This charming fellow was recently demobbed and met two different women and horribly sexually tortured them then murdered them.  What was weird about his story is there was nothing in his past to indicate that he might become a sexual sadist. He was, however, a total cad and career criminal, getting kicked out of several armies and involved in many petty crimes.  This was one of the least interesting essays because it went on for pages and pages about how to define if someone is criminally insane (as his defense tried to do) and when to use it to excuse the death penalty.  As an empiricist, I don't really care about these kinds of arguments, though I recognize their value in making life or death decisions.

John Watson Laurie
Two young men meet on holiday in Scotland and go on a hike where one bashes the other with a rock to the head and then takes his stuff.  This was another truly incompetent murder where the killer returned home wearing the victim's clothing, among other sloppy actions.  This was more interesting for the history and geography of the Isle of Arran, which sounds incredibly beautiful.

Dr. George Lamson
A drug-addicted (and thus money desperate) doctor poisons his poor crippled 18-year old brother-in-law to get his inheritance.  This one was really quite sad because the boy, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal defect, was quite loved by his housemates at a boarding school. He already had a tough row to hoe but seemed to keep up good spirits.  His death was agonizing and took hours.  The uncle once in prison and off the dope later realizes it was the addiction that drove him to do it and though not truly remorseful, you do get a feeling that it was just a shitty business all around.  

Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse
This essay was the gem of the book, so I add the author's name in case I should run across it again. It was written in a particularly enjoyable style. The author really had fun with it, including a hilarious letter from Benjamin Franklin (see image below) on the advantages of having an affair with an older woman.  The story here is that Mrs. Rattenbury, a woman in her thirties and married to Mr. Rattenbury, a wealthier man in his sixties, starts to have an affair with their 18-year old chauffeur, Stoner.  The latter becomes infatuated and kills old Mr. Rattenbury by hitting him in the head three times with a mallett.  It was portrayed in the media at the time as a classic affair murder and initially Mrs. Rattenbury tried to take the fall for young Stoner. She was aquitted and he did life but she killed herself not long after the trial by stabbing herself in the heart six times (!).  The essay is very sympathetic to her and portrays her as a bit unbalanced, but actually very loving. According to the author, the arrangement itself while the affair was going on was not even that bad of a situation.  Mrs. Rattenbury was very kindly and loving the Mr. Rattenbury, who was more concerned with his business and his nightly bottle of whiskey. He didn't seem to mind the affair. It was just the melodramatic nature of an 18-year old working class boy suddenly thrust into a grown-up love affair that turned it deadly.  Everybody suffered.  Quite sad, but very enjoyably written.

I draw your attention to the Fifth point


Roger Allen said...

Shortly before the Rattenbury & Stoner trial F. Tennyson Jesse had written a novel, A Pin to See the Peepshow , inspired by a very similar crime to Stoner's, the 1922 Ilford Case. It's well worth reading if you come across it.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Oh nice! Thanks for the tip. I will add it to my list. He certainly is a good writer for non-fiction.

OlmanFeelyus said...

OMG, F. Tennyson Jesse is a woman. I am such an asshole. No wonder she was so sympathetic in her portrayal of poor Mrs. Rattenbury.