Monday, November 5, 2012
by Deborah Blum
When first thinking that I might tell the story of Albert Fish – the cannibal killer who stalked New York City in the 1920s and '30s – all my friends advised against it. Did I really want to spend hours of my life with a subject this warped? “Call me if you if you really decide to write that book,” a long-time friend at NPR said. “So that I can talk you out of it.”
And yet the story haunted me. It tapped me on the shoulder when I was working on other projects. If you write for a living, you know what that means. I decided finally that I would write it but not as a full-length book. So I pitched the shadowy, murderous path of Albert Fish as a long narrative story – an e-single – to the rising star digital publisher, The Atavist.
Last week, that story – titled Angel Killer – was the number-one selling non-fiction single on Amazon (number eight out of all Kindle singles). Partly, I think, because it’s just an incredible story of murder and detection and of scientists wrestling with their own definitions of justice regarding a madman. Partly, I hope, because I told it with style.
But also because this turned out to be just the right format for my story set in shadows. I just participated in a panel on e-books at the National Association of ScienceWriters meeting in Raleigh, N.C. I’m including a link to that session here because you can download a pdf there with all kinds of great information about e-publishing, from commissioned pieces like my own to self-publishing.
We talked about this newly wonderful opportunity to write a long-form story, a place where you could publish in the 10,000 to 20,000 word length (mine’s about 11,000) as opposed to a full-length book of 100,000 or more words. We talked about all the digital possibilities not available in print. In the enhanced editions, for instance, Angel Killer contains video, audio (by me), music, interactive murder maps. We talked about what the future looks like for writers and publishers.
But here’s the thing. Every person on my panel agreed that in the end, it wasn’t the bells and whistles that made this most exciting. It was the story itself. And the opportunity to tell it a really good length, long enough to do it justice, but short enough to make it a fast read. Which brings me back, of course, to the dark journey of Albert Fish and why I couldn’t quite let it go.
I’m not a writer who specializes in serial killers. I am a science writer who specializes in poisons and toxicology, so I do often tell stories that you might consider true crime. My book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, for instance, is subtitled “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz-Age New York.” And it was because I spent so much time researching criminal justice in that time period, that I encountered the crimes of Albert Fish.
At first his story looks like that of many serial killers. White, male, poor and poorly educated, abused as a child, angry. He was born in 1870 in Washington, D.C. scraped out a living as a painter and handyman for most of this life in New York City. He was thin, gray, a shadow man drifting through the city streets. He stalked, he killed, and for well over a decade, he got away with it. One of the nicknames for him, after he became infamous, was the Gray Man.
But he was crazier than most. And, yes, it’s hard to argue with that description of a cannibalistic serial killer who sends recipe-infused letters to the families of his victims. I say that because he was delusional. He suffered from hallucinations, heard voices, believed that he followed the instructions of vengeful angels (hence the title of my story.)
And the question of his sanity was why I became so interested. During his 1935 trial, that was the most important, really the only question about his future. Was he crazy enough to escape the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison? The psychiatrists for the defense didn’t see it as escape. They saw a desperately mentally ill man who had become a successful killer. They wanted him locked away, studied, used to gain new understanding of multiple murders. The state of New York, though, just wanted him dead.
As a result, the trial provided one astonishing scene after another of psychiatrists facing off over a killer’s sanity. Even today, the testimony of some of the state experts – one scientist described Fish’s habits as “just a matter of taste” – is some of the most egregious on record. It was that extreme scientific testimony, the question of how we define sanity that first caught my attention.
But it was the ethical, moral dilemma that kept me interested. How should we deal with the dangerously crazy in the criminal justice system? Is there a best answer for what to do with a killer like Albert Fish once we’ve managed to catch him? One person wrote me to say engraving his name on a tombstone was a good enough result. But of the defense psychiatrists at the time likened executing an insane old man to witch burning in the Salem trials of long ago.
So, that’s why I wanted to tell the story of Albert Fish. I wanted to put myself – in the way writers do – on that wooden bench with the jurors and see if I could answer that question. And did I find it? Some days I know exactly what I’d do. And on others the story still taps on my shoulder, letting me know that I’m still wrestling with the question. But that’s okay. A good story should haunt you for a while anyway.