Long-forgotten criminal cases are having a renaissance thanks to a resurgence in true crime entertainment. Nowhere is that more true than in books. With their exhaustive reporting, books breathe life and perspective into crimes both famous and unknown. Here are the best recent examples.
You might think that all Jonestown is known for is “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but Jim Jones encouraged his followers to embrace socialism and cultivate the land he later possessed in Redwood Valley, California. Because of the media scrutiny surrounding the Temple and that was soon to be published, in 1977 Jones decided to move several hundred members and himself to the fledgling compound he’d established in Guyana.
The members who followed him abroad cleared the land, tilled the soil, planted seeds, and built their own encampments. The purpose of the move was to create a controlled environment away from the politics of America, and it turned out the soil was too thin and very little was able to grow. Jeff Guinn takes you through every moment of Jones’s existence and all those affected by him, including the last moments of the Guyanese base.
Dubbed an Angel of Death, Charlie Cullen was a night nurse at nine hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and some of his supervisors were even aware of his “unorthodox” treatment of patients. He first started tampering with the contents of IV bags, enjoying the insulin shock victims experienced. He would go on to develop his skills, all while the hospital was behaving as though nothing had occurred, their reputation outweighing the public’s right to know.
He used his employment as a means to hunt his victims, and after he was arrested in 2003, journalist Charles Graeber is the only one he chose to correspond with— was published in 2007 in New York magazine. Graeber sought to make the larger issue of the hospitals’ failings known, and how they had protected him while he went on to kill as many as 400 over his 16-year career.
One of the many “crimes of the century,” this book focuses on O.J. Simpson’s trial in 1995 and was the source material for the 2016 Ryan Murphy show. Even with an overwhelming amount of forensic evidence, the LAPD mishandled some key items, leading to reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. With blood found on the handle of his car and his ex-wife Nicole’s blood found on a sock inside his bedroom, prosecutors thought it was a clear-cut conviction.
Forensics have come a long way in the almost 25 years since the trial, but Jeffrey Toobin shows that they are still complicated for laymen to understand. The American public was sure of his guilt, though, as the trial was televised for 134 days on Court TV and the verdict was viewed by an estimated 95 million people.
Daniel Burnham, famed architect, and H.H. Holmes, infamous serial killer, might not be names you recognize, but they were responsible for two separate yet intertwined events/sites in Chicago’s history. Erik Larson details Chicago, the location chosen for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, leading up to and after the exposition, including the development of the land, construction of the exhibits, and one man’s scheme to take advantage of such an event.
Holmes was already a con man when he decided to purchase land adjacent to the fairgrounds, his goal to construct a storefront with boarding rooms available. Using multiple contractors so no one truly knew his final blueprints, he constructed soundproof rooms, secret passageways, trapdoors, and a basement featuring acid vats, pits of quicklime, and a crematorium—the exact number of victims killed at Murder Castle is unclear, but he confessed to 27 upon his arrest.
Poisons have always been an option for killers looking to take a more silent and less overt route. But how were they discovered by scientists as instruments of murder? With each chapter heading titled as a chemical element, Deborah Blum illustrates the chemical revolution that occurred in the Jazz Age, coming to a head in 1918 with the appointment of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and his teaming up with toxicologist Alexander Gettler.
At that time in New York, Tammany Hall controlled all aspects of politics, including the coroner’s office, and corruption was ludicrously prevalent. Norris and Gettler set out to right the justice system and unwittingly became the pioneers of forensic chemistry.
On April 9, 1989, Jo Ann Parks runs from her flaming home to seek help for her three small children trapped inside. What seemed like a tragic accident soon turned suspicious after police discovered sabotaged wiring in the living room and the possibility that she had barricaded her four-year-old son in his closet to prevent escape. A previous apartment of the Parkses had also caught fire (though no one was harmed), and she was arrested, convicted, and is now serving a life sentence in California.
Thirty years later, the science behind arson investigation has revealed that what police believed in ’89 to be true was more likely guesswork. Read more about the way this firestorm specifically changed arson science here. The California Innocence Project is handling her case, asserting that bias and assumption were the reasons for her conviction.
Long before the term “serial killer” was coined, a killer labeled the Midnight Assassin savagely butchered women in the burgeoning metropolis of Austin. A dozen men were arrested for the crimes, but the charges were dismissed and the marauder was never caught. Skip Hollandsworth—a writer for Texas Monthly—is able to weave this true story with the city it’s so intimately tied to.
Relying on newspaper accounts, he reveals the story of Austin in the late 1800s: the railroad that connected Austin to the rest of the world, the Driskill Hotel that was erected, and a new state capital that was being constructed at the peak of Congress Avenue.
New York City’s Bellevue Hospital has long been a site of science and medicine, though its reputation still remains one of horror, dereliction, lunacy, and epidemic. In the three centuries of its existence, it’s not shocking that Bellevue launched the first civilian ambulance corps, the first nursing school for women, and the nation’s first clinical research laboratory and the first official Board of Health.
David Oshinsky—a Pulitzer Prize winner for —recounts its rise from an alms- and pesthouse to the institution it is today, not forgetting the city that houses it and its role in Bellevue’s existence.
If, like Gil Grissom from CSI, you find insects fascinating and are looking to take your knowledge to the next level, it’s time to discover entomology. Entomology is the application of insect biology to the investigation of crime, and Dr. Erzinçlioğlu helped solve more than 200 murders in his 25 years in the field, including the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Jason Swift.
His evidence showed that Jason had been killed indoors and not in the woods where his body was eventually discovered. He was also able to prove in the case of convicted murderer Dr. Samson Perera that the bones of the 13-year-old girl he dismembered had been cut recently, as a particular fly was still present on the bones. At the time of his death—he passed away in 2002—he was the director of the Forensic Science Research Center at Durham University and senior research associate at Cambridge University.
On November 2, 1833, George Bodle and members of his homestead complained of severe gastrointestinal pain and were prescribed a remedy of egg whites beaten in water followed by a dose of castor oil. All recovered but Bodle, and his doctor suspected poison, something much easier to obtain in the 19th century, and reported the case to the authorities.
Arsenic, in small amounts, was used to treat malaria, syphilis, scabies, and became an easy way to dispose of someone—until chemist James Marsh went on to develop the standard for arsenic testing. Like Blum does in The Poisoner’s Handbook, Sandra Hempel describes the early attempts to classify and identify poisons in her chosen locale of England.
What happens to your body postmortem? You can become a cadaver and take part in some of science’s greatest experiments—or, if we were born before the 21st century, you might have been subjected to nothing resembling science.
Mary Roach explores the strange lives of cadavers over the centuries, from body snatching to playing their part in the mystery of TWA Flight 800, and doesn’t leave readers questioning what her views on her own remains are.
Based on a 1995 article for The New Yorker, Susan Orlean investigates the story of John Laroche, a plant dealer who was arrested for poaching rare orchids out of the South Florida Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. He planned to clone them and sell to fanatics for a small fortune, embroiling himself in an environmental and legal battle.
Over two years, she followed him through swamps and into the underground world of collecting, smuggling, and obsession. The book was later adapted, with an unexpected twist, into the 2002 Spike Jonze film Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep.
Faulty and biased forensic evidence is still presented to juries in the 21st century, and two men in Mississippi were the victims of such testimony from a medical examiner, Steven Hayne, and an alleged bite-mark expert, Michael West. Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer were wrongfully convicted in separate cases of the rape and murder of three-year-old girls—later exonerated, Brooks spent 16 years in prison and Brewer 13.
A commentary on the larger issues in Mississippi and the court system, their cases unraveled along the same timeline as Hayne and West’s obstruction, leaving readers to question how these supposed experts were allowed to continue practicing.