The enduring popularity of true crime stories

Created date

July 8th, 2016
London's Illustrated Police News is an example of a true crime tabloid newspaper.

London's Illustrated Police News is an example of a true crime tabloid newspaper.

From heroic bandits and highwaymen to methodically brutal killers, these stories are as irresistible as they are terrifying. They appeal to a species of curiosity, a natural human appetite for macabre titillation. 

The genre itself has been around for some time, roughly dating back to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the modern incarnation of true crime nonfiction emerged around the mid-1800s.

Famed novelist Alexandre Dumas, for one, spent three years compiling an extensive series of essays that chronicled the exploits of notorious criminals. Published as an eight-volume set in 1841, Celebrated Crimes surveyed a range of nefarious characters, including murderers Antoine Francois Desrues, Karl Ludwig Sand, and Beatrice Cenci, as well as ruthless political figures like Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. 

The incredible demand for stories of wrongdoing gave rise to weekly publications devoted exclusively to the coverage of crime. London’s Illustrated Police News, for instance, provided its readers with graphic depictions of the week’s shocking murders, the most notable of which were the Jack the Ripper attacks in the fall of 1888.

Why the allure?

This new breed of villain—the serial killer—captivated audiences. The sheer notion of a string of ghastly murders committed seemingly without motive and by a spectral fiend who could vanish into the night puzzled and horrified the public.

That probably explains how, by some estimates, serial killer stories account for close to half of the entire true crime genre. Indeed, characters such as Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, Marcel Petiot, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the Son of Sam) have been the bases for scores of investigative and psychoanalytical books; yet, readers don’t seem to tire of them.

And true crime author Skip Hollandsworth knows why.

“There are a number of reasons why true crime—and serial killers in particular—enthralls so many of us,” he says. 

“Above all, the fact that someone can be so evil is mind boggling. You look at examples like Jack the Ripper or H.H. Holmes and ask yourself: ‘How does something like that happen? Who are these people?’”

Hollandsworth asks these very questions in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer (Henry Holt, 2016). The book explores the untold story of a madman who terrorized the denizens of Austin, Tex., for nearly a year.

This long-forgotten killer, known variously as the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” “the Austin Axe Murderer,” and “the Midnight Assassin,” viciously dispatched eight victims (mostly servant-class women) between December 1884 and December 1885. He is perhaps history’s earliest recorded serial killer, predating Jack the Ripper by almost four years.

To this day, his identity is a mystery.

‘Like a ghost’

“The Midnight Assassin’s story is attractive true crime because it remains unsolved,” notes Hollandsworth. “As is the case with the Ripper murders, the anonymity lends a mystique both to the narrative and to the killer. He’s like a ghost.”

Hollandsworth spent countless hours in archives, combing through hundreds of pages of contemporary newspaper reports in search of this ghost. Not surprisingly, he can only speculate as to who it was.

Still, Hollandsworth’s beautifully written book cinematically recreates the reign of terror that the Midnight Assassin held over Austin 130 years ago. More importantly, it speaks to the popularity of true crime as a genre.

Much like a car wreck on a highway, a freak show tent at a carnival, or Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner’s gruesome portraits of the dead at Gettysburg, the horror is precisely what draws us irresistibly closer. Criminals such as Jesse James, Al Capone, and Charles Manson are, each one, an aberration. 

Manson is the subject of Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime classic Helter Skelter (W.W. Norton, 1974), the genre’s biggest-selling book ever. 

“If you think about it, there’s an irony underpinning true crime,” says Hollandsworth. “Why do we voluntarily expose ourselves to stories about people doing awful things, whether it be kidnapping, theft, or murder?”

Like the Midnight Assassin’s identity, the mystery of it all is at least part of the answer.

Notable true crime books

Alexandre Dumas, Celebrated Crimes (1841) 

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)

Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter (1974)

Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (1979)

Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me (1980)

Erik Larson, Devil in the White City (2002)

David King, Death in the City of Light (2011)

Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin (2016)