Wilderness of Ruin: A Boston Serial Killer

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer. By Roseanne Montillo. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
★★ ½ 

This review originally posted on the Website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.

Gilded Age Boston and Chicago shared a lot in common. Both had World's Fairs: Boston in 1883, and Chicago ten years later. Each suffered devastating fires, with Chicago being nearly destroyed in 1871, and Boston losing most of its commercial district in 1872. Both also had notorious serial killers, with Boston holding the dubious distinction of producing Jesse Pomeroy, the first juvenile serial killer to be sentenced to hang. Pomeroy's story is the subject of Roseanne Montillo's sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating The Wilderness of Ruin.

Montillo, who teaches literature at Emerson College, has an eye for a good saga, and that of Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) certainly qualifies. Jesse's is a biography that would challenge the fictive powers of an imaginative crime writer. He was born into an economically marginal working-class family in Charlestown, a seedy neighborhood best known for its grimy waterfront. A childhood illness damaged Jesse's right cornea and left him with a distinctive cloudy eye. He was taller than peers and, from an early age, demonstrated disturbing characteristics: social isolation, fascination with his father's butcher knives, a love of violent dime novels, and acts of animal cruelty. His waterfront jaunts yielded the revelation that twelve-year-old Jesse was responsible for a serious of brutal attacks on boys as young as four. His first victim was stripped naked, tied, hoisted ahigh, and whipped; subsequent victims were cut, stabbed, pricked with pins, and brutalized­–often in their genitals. Because there were no known deaths, Jesse was sent to a reformatory where he was supposed to remain until his 18th birthday.

Pomeroy was out in 14 months, paroled to his mother’s care in South Boston, where the family had moved to escape ostracism. Jesse was released in February of 1874, and in March, nine-year-old Katie Curran went missing. In April, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered, and Curran’s body shortly thereafter–each mutilated in ways suggestive of Pomeroy's earlier spree. Pomeroy was convicted of first-degree murder in December, and was sentenced to hang. Governor Gaston's refusal to sign execution orders led to a year and half of legal wrangling before Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Three months before he turned seventeen, Pomeroy was transferred from Suffolk County Jail to the state prison in Charlestown, where he spent the next forty years in a ten-by-ten-by-eight cell. During that time, he made a dozen serious escape efforts, exhausted the prison library, learned numerous languages, wrote a self-serving autobiography, and badgered a dozen governors with pardon requests. In 1917, he was allowed to intermingle with the general prison population, but showed no interest in doing so. Much to his chagrin, he was sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1932, and died there in 1934. Only two murders were directly tied to Pomeroy, though rumors–sometimes from Jesse and sometimes denied by him–suggest he was responsible for as many as nine.

This is dramatic stuff that Montillo wisely opts to tell in a novelistic voice. This makes swaths of the book highly readable. Her instincts are sharpest when she connects Pomeroy to his broader social milieu, as Erik Larson did in his masterful The Devil in the White City (2003), the tale of mass murderer Dr. Henry Holmes (Herman Mudgett). Larson placed Holmes within a grand narrative stretching from Chicago's 1871 fire through the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Montillo uses Boston’s 1872 fire as a partial explanation of how Pomeroy’s first spree took so long to solve, and she is in good form when describing the tawdry waterfronts and grimy neighborhoods of Jesse’s youth. Especially crisp is her account of Jesse taking his first and only automobile ride in 1932; she puts herself inside his eyes to “see” how Boston had changed during his 58 years of confinement.

Alas, she dowses her literary fires when she tries to connect Pomeroy to Boston glitterati such as Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wants us to view Jesse’s monomania as analogous to Ahab’s and launches into discursive and unconvincing analyses of Moby Dick. She also delves deeply into Holmes’ biography, though he was peripheral to Pomeroy’s case. There are also detours into Camus, Dickens, Irving, Poe, and others attracted to the dark side of the psyche. By the time I finished, I was reminded of times in which I was dazzled by the sight of a restaurant meal, only to taste it and conclude that the chef spoiled the dish by adding too many ingredients.

I wanted The Wilderness of Ruins to be a Boston version of The Devil in the White City; instead, it is more about Montillo than her subject. Note the subtitle. The “madness” part is mostly perfunctory unresolved psychological speculation; the “fire” offers little insight into a lad whose spree began a year earlier; the “hunt” was brief; and Pomeroy isn’t “America’s youngest serial killer,” only the Bay State’s. Too many ingredients! My advice is to borrow juicy material for your lectures, but only if it makes them more savory. 

Rob Weir


Folk Offerings for April

April Folk Roundup

I get asked from time to time, "Where has folk music gone?" Answer: It hasn't gone anywhere. There are plenty of folks taking up folk music these days, though in today's mashable culture their take on "folk" tends to collapse genres.

Colin Hay is still recalled by many as the front man and primary songwriter of the Aussie rock band Men at Work. That's weird as Fierce Mercy (Compass Records) is his 13th solo release. Like several other pop/rock stars—Natalie Merchant comes to mind–Hay amped down when he stopped living on the pop charts. Fierce Mercy is 13 tracks of hummable songs in the seams where folk, rock, country, and retro pop meet. Toss in some lifted riffs, Hay's distinct voice, and a collection that's heavy on love songs, and you have a very likable release. The album opens with a killer pop song, "Come Tumblin' Down," an homage to things past (wishing wells, railroads, Ferris wheels, dreams). It's the kind of song that latches onto your brain and sinks in its hooks. There are several such catchy songs, another being "I'm Outside In," which has the brightness of an old Hollies release. Hay doesn't confine himself to pop these days. Songs such as "Secret Love" have country grit, "I'm Walking Here" is soulful commentary on the Trayvon Martin shooting, "Blue Bay Moon" has a Jimmy Buffett vibe, and much of the melody from "The Last to Know" flat out lifts the tune from The Eagles "Best of My Love." Or shall I say re-purposes it? If you like folk that's more quiet, try "Frozen Field of Snow," or the poignant "Two Friends" and "She Was the Love of Mine," which are about loss–two comrades in the first and his mother in the latter. One of my favorites was "Hundred Million Reasons," whose poetry is a bit forced. But Hay does as a good singer should do and breathes emotion into lines such as these: When the sun comes up over Paris/It's like any other day/Except that you're in Paris/What more need I say? Indeed, the depths of love transcend poetry and a skilled singer makes us feel as well as hear. Hay fits the bill. Sample all of these tracks at: http://www.colinhay.com/news/http://www.colinhay.com/news/

The Western Den makes you feel cleansed just from hearing them. Their latest EP is titled All the Birds and it will make your soul glide. The Western Den is a Boston-based ensemble that embraces the term alt.folk. That one normally raises my hackles, but it's apt for a trio (Deni Hlavinka, Chris West, Alec Alabado) and a passel of friends whose music is dreamy and contemplative, but is more Nick Drake than New Age. It is, in turn, as gentle as the spring rain-like piano notes we hear in "Tumbling Down," yet as soaring in its build up as an avian flock taking flight. The EP's unstated themes are the constancy of love and moving forward despite obstacles. The title "Carter Hall" is suggestive of an old ballad, but it's actually about putting down roots as relationships grow and change. Ms. Hlavinka's gorgeous voice is one of the many things that will tear out your heart, as will West's dulcet tones, their delicate harmonies, the big-production choral swells, and sentiment such as: Been a while now, we're still in our house/Filling the void, and hoping our fates align from the aforementioned "Tumbling Down." Props for knowing you need to work on things and that as much as we'd like to freeze moments in time–a feeling expressed in "Stay the Sun"–that's not how it works. Also check out their retelling of the Biblical story of "Eden"–a smart look at the contrasting temptations in Paradise: Oh this kingdom is not for the dwellers/There's no vacancy for the other side of me.

It's usually not a good thing to describe music as somnambulant, but in the case of Galapaghost (Casey Chandler) it fits. Chandler's music often feels like being inside a dream. I Never Arrived (Lovely Lady) is deliciously ambiguous and vulnerable in the sense that Chandler's not afraid to say he doesn't have things figured out–perfect themes for his semi-dreamlike musical wrappers. "Science of Love" opens with sounds that evoke the music of the planets, but his chemistry is more earthly: Suppose I lie and say I love you/Suppose you do the same/Is it better not to know/Or is it better to be alone? Drifting, ethereal tones also show up in the title track with guitar and piano producing a tune that's somewhere between folk, cafĂ© music, and experimental music. "Secrets Our Body Keeps" establishes a repetitive groove that induces a soft trance. Chandler's voice is smooth and comforting, which adds to the ambience. This is especially the case in which it blends with a "female" voice on selections such as "Mazes in the Sky," "Somewhere," and "Salt Lake City," the last of these has little to do with Utah; it's the place where two lovers confront their differences with an eye toward resolving them or parting. This is typical of Chandler's candor. This shows up again in two songs–"Bloom" and "Mister Mediocrity"­–in which he confesses worries over whether his art is good enough. Yes. It is! About that "female" voice–it's Chandler, who also plays nearly all of the instruments as well.

The New York-based ChameLeon is a five-piece ensemble built around vocalist/keyboardist Chloe Lowry and vocalist/acoustic guitarist Andrew Ross–she with a whispery pretty voice and he with smooth tones that contain hints of rasp. A percussionist, bass player, and lead guitarist join them, and all five come from a rock background. Their EP White Movement One lies in that uncertain border between folk-rock and ambient rock. It's heavy on sonics, which sometimes drown the vocals. At their best, ChameLeon surrounds us with sound. I liked the jangly effects in the first part of "White Flag" and wish it had continued in that mode. To me, though, the project feels overproduced. My favorite track was "Fade." Sample this band on NoiseTrade and see what you think.



MLB East: Red Sox Should Rule

MLB 2017: The East

American League:

If the Red Sox don't win the AL East, Manager John Farrell will be looking for work. Price starts the season on the DL, but even without him they have two Cy Young winners, Porcello and Sale, plus Wright as a # 4. Not bad. The lineup looks solid top to bottom: Pedroia, Betts, Ramirez, Bogaerts, Benitendi…. The only things that can derail the Sox would be self-destruction or massive injuries.  Red Flag: There's not much left in the farm system, which makes the shallowness of the roster suspect.

The Blue Jays are a serious challenge only if you think Happ will win 20 games again. I don't. Stroman, Estrada, Sanchez, and Liriano make up a deep staff, but they look like five # 3s to me. Morales won't make up for the loss of Encarnacion and the Jays had better hope that Tulowitzki, Bautista, and Donaldson had off years in 2016. I suspect, though, the first two are on the decline. The rest of the lineup is meh! material until they prove otherwise.

The Orioles have guys approaching free agency and need to win now, but I don't see how that's possible with a staff with stiffs like Miley and Jimenez. Gausman needs to figure out life in the Bigs and Tilman and Bundy need to be better than okay. Machado is a stud who will soon be in greener pastures, Trumbo will add power to a lineup that includes Chris Davis, though I'm not impressed by his poor OBP or the fact that a guy who hit 38 homers only drove in 84 runs. Jones and Hardy are professionals, but losing Wieters will hurt.

The Yankees? Who knows? Second is possible, but last is more likely. Much has been made of the youth movement—Sanchez, Bird, Judge— but weak pitching is more likely to bring them down. It's not a good thing when 38-year-old Sabathia and his rebuilt knee is your # 2, that you're depending upon a big year from the enigmatic Pineda, and you're not sure who comes after them. The Yankees will score runs, but they'll also give up a lot. Their bullpen, though, is probably the best in MLB.

Same old, same old re: the Rays: young pitchers with promise and a lineup that, other than Longoria and Miller, couldn't hit Trump's ego. Think I'm kidding? No one on the team hit higher than .273 last year and his (Longoria) average was only one of two above .250. The starting catcher hit .186 in 2016. Archer, in my view, is overrated, but the staff is very good. Can they spin shutouts every time out? Of course not. 

National League East:

The Mets have the best top to bottom staff in baseball, even if Harvey can't make it back from injury. Syndergaard and deGrom sound like a Dutch law firm, but they're excellent. The Mets have the same problem as the Rays: not enough bats. They will go as far as Granderson and Cespedes take them and neither is someone you'd want to have in the same foxhole. Walker is solid, though, and Bruce has good power numbers, but I don't see enough bats here.

The Nationals are the main competition to the Mets, which is a good thing for Mets fans as no team chronically underachieves as badly as the Nats. Scherzer is the Real Deal, but would anybody bet the farm on Strasburg staying off the DL? Roark had a great 2016. Can he repeat? Gio Gonzalez and Ross need to pitch better, and Harper, Zimmerman, and Werth need to hit like 2015, not last year's doldrums. Murphy will hit and Wieters will help. I like the underrated Rendon, but there is no closer and this team's chemistry stinks.

The Marlins could contend—if they could pitch. That doesn't look likely after the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. Who's the ace? Volquez? Straily? Doubtful. Great lineup, though: Gordon, Prado, Yelich, Stanton, Ozuna…. But there still aren't any arms and the Fish have the worst minor league system in baseball.

The Braves are showcasing a new stadium and have added a few new/old parts to appear more respectable. Freeman is the Big Bopper and Kemp had a very good 2016. Are they, Markakis, Garcia, and Phillips enough? They'll need to score some runs as the pitching spotlights underachieving Teheran and when-will-they-finally-be-too-old Dickey and Colon.

The Phillies continue their rebuild. They will expect more from prized prospect Galvis and are excited by third base prospect Franco. It's simply impossible to know how a lineup whose veteran presence is Howie Kendrick will respond. They picked up Buchholz from Boston, a head case capable of winning to spite the Red Sox or of just collecting a paycheck. Helickson and Eickhoff will win more if they get run support. The rest? I'll just say that the current bottom of the staff might spend as much time in Allentown as in the City of Brotherly Love.


            AL East: Red Sox, Orioles, Jays, Rays, Yankees

            NL East: Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Phillies, Braves (you can flip the last two)


New Book on Marx Brothers Highlights Pre-Movie Years

Robert S. Bader
Northeastern University Press, 544 pages
★★★ ½ 

This review originally posted on the Northeast Popular Culture Association Website. 

I am a Marxist—a devotee of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. I’ve seen all the films numerous times, read every book I can get my hands on, seek out new documentaries, and scour DVDs and YouTube for lost clips. But until Robert Bader’s new book, my Marxist education was weak concerning their vaudeville days—those years before durable recording devices or movie cameras were there to capture moments in time for posterity. Bader—who also writes and produces for Warner Brothers—has unveiled a work that is meticulously researched and encyclopedic in scope.

It’s not news to scholars that many Marx memoirs­—Groucho and Me, Harpo Speaks, Growing Up with Chico, etc.—are filled with inaccuracies dutifully repeated by biographers and passed off as truth. Lots of these tales were embellishments and some were outright fabrications, but Bader forces us to consider that many resulted from the memory lapses anyone might have who led such vagabond lives as the children of Minnie Schoenberg Marx. She was the ultimate obsessed stage mother—determined that her children would make it in show business like her brother Al, part of famed comedy duo Gallagher and Shean. When Julius (Groucho) showed talent for singing, she pushed him onto the stage—his brothers to follow. Today, most people think of the Marx Brothers as film stars. From 1929 through 1949, the Marxes made 14 feature films and only Charlie Chaplin rivaled their comic fame. Overlooked in the big screen glamour is what it took to become stars. From 1905 on, the brothers toiled in vaudeville in a dizzying array of ensembles and acts—mostly musical variety sketches; their comedy evolved organically. Because the conniving Minnie angered vaudeville’s biggest booker, B. K. Keith, the Marxes were shut out of a lot of Eastern theaters and Minnie moved her family to Chicago so she could develop hinterland bookings. For her sons, it meant a whirlwind existence of three-a-day performances, split bookings, and if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Nacogdoches travel. Their grueling schedules were such that troupe members—often including Minnie–came and went quickly. Sometimes key members quit in the morning and instant replacements were readied for the afternoon curtain. It’s no wonder that the only reliable names the lads retained were those of the chorines they bedded, though that was quite a few!

Bader has sifted through playbills, newspaper advertisements, reviews, and archives to the degree that he knows the Marx Brothers performance schedule better than they ever did, and he corrects details in the extensive Marxian literature trove. Along the way he reveals little known tidbits, one of which might startle: Leonard’s (Chico) legendary gambling addiction was real, but the bonafide bad boy of the family was Herbert (Zeppo!), a street punk who was lucky to make it to adulthood. He also gives accurate particulars of events such as Groucho’s first use of a greasepaint moustache, how Arthur became Harpo, how the Marxes stumbled into comedy, and how many of Groucho’s patented “ad-libs” were not. 

That last point is critical. If the Marxes look natural on the screen, it’s because they spent time on the road perfecting small bits, such as the pilfered silverware falling from Harpo’s baggy clothing gag. The Marxes were workhorses until they finally had a Broadway hit with “I’ll Say She Is” in 1924, but they never really left the circuit; both The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were stage hits before they were films. Movies sounded the death knell for vaudeville in the early 1930s and closed a lot of “legitimate” theaters as well, but the Marxes continued to travel to test sketches and songs before they made they shot their films (and sometimes during). They continued touring into the early 1940s, by which time they were rich and tired enough to stop. In a palpable way, though, the vitality of the movie Marxes ended with their tours. Does anyone think that a Night in Casablanca (1946) is one of their great films, or that Love Happy (1949) has much to offer other than an early Marilyn Monroe performance?

We are indebted to Bader for his exhaustive research. My only nitpick is that Four of the Three Musketeers is also exhausting in places. Bader has compiled a vast array of material, but his insistence on presenting it all makes sections of the book read like a chronicle. You will savor this detail if, like me, you are a Marx Brothers fanatic, but many of his revelatory corrections will be lost on those unaware of the errors in the first place. Marxist comrades might disagree, but I think that shorter, snappier synopsis with expanded explanatory footnotes would have fit the bill better. Still, Bader’s book is indispensible for any Mark Brothers research project.

Rob Weir