There are certain criminal cases that capture people’s imagination, even years later. Sometimes they inspire crime fiction; but even when they don’t, they have a hold on our consciousness in some ways.
I’m not talking here of those rare cases of psychopaths who kill. Those stories may get the headlines for a while, but as a rule (with a few exceptions, of course), they don’t quite hold the public consciousness in ways that certain other cases do.
Not having a background in psychology, I don’t have the exact, definitive explanation for why certain cases get our attention. But if you read enough crime fiction, you see that they’ve certainly made their way into the genre.
Some cases, I think, hold our imagination because they’ve never really, conclusively been solved. The Whitechapel Murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ – killings in London at the end of the 19th Century serves (at least to me) as one example of this kind of case. There’ve been many, many attempts to learn who ‘Jack the Raipper’ really was, and several different theories. But to my knowledge, no-one has yet posited a theory about the case that everyone agrees is probably the truth. As far as I know, there’s never been a credible confession.
This sort of case invites people to speculate about what really happened, which is part of why there’ve been so many fictional stories inspired by this case. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is said to have been inspired by the Whitechapel Murders case. And it’s not the only one, by any means.
Another case that remained open for a long time was the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who died as an infant in 1980. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that she was killed by a dingo, but there was also evidence that implicated them. They were convicted and went to prison, but later evidence supported them; and they were eventually released and compensated. Yet there was debate for quite a long time about this case. Recent DNA evidence has shown, to the satisfaction of many people (including the Northern Territories coroner) that Azaria did die as a result of a dingo attack. Still, there are those who aren’t satisfied. It’s exactly the sort of case that people speculate about because it isn’t conclusive – at least at first. Little wonder it’s shown up in books such as Wendy James’ The Mistake, which concerns the case of Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children; in short, she’s living a life many would envy. But then comes the shocking news that she had a child years earlier – a baby not even her husband knew existed. She claims the baby was given up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support what she says. That’s when the questions begin, and soon enough, talk begins that she might have had something to do with the child’s disappearance. There are several people who compare Jodie to Lindy Chamberlain.
Some cases fascinate people not because they are unsolved, but because they are unusual, or shocking (at least for the times). Here, there is sometimes ‘shock value,’ but there’s also the larger question: What would make someone do that? For instance, in 1928, Ruth Snyder was execute for the murder of her husband. Her partner in crime was her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. This case got a lot of publicity in part because her execution was caught on camera, and a photograph like that gets people’s attention. But the question of what, exactly, would have driven Gray to participate in a crime like this is also interesting. James M. Cain speculated on just that sort of question in Double Indemnity, which is loosely based on the Snyder case. There, too, we have a woman who decides to kill her husband and takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. While other details aren’t the same, the novella explores that question of what makes people behave as they do.
We also see this in the 1931-33 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary who was found guilty of killing two of her friends, allegedly over the affections of Jack Halloran. The case has been referred to as ‘the Trunk Murders case’ because the bodies of the victims were discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders. The case raised several questions. What would make someone commit murders like this? Could love be such an obsession? What would these people be like? These questions are addressed in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on this case. In the novel, she explores the relationships among the people involved, and shows how the whole thing might have come about.
And then there’s the case of James Bulger. He was killed in February, 1993, at the age of two by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both ten years old at the time. There was, of course, great public sympathy for the victim’s family and shock that he was so young. Just as shocking was the youth of his killers. There were many questions raised about how to deal with offenders who are this young. On the one hand, the two boys committed a horrendous crime. On the other hand, they were children. Most justice systems aren’t set up for such young offenders who are guilty of such horrific crimes.
Along with this set of questions is another set of questions about what would drive boys of this age to commit such a crime. And are children really capable of the kind of premeditation that adults are? Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B addresses this sort of question. It’s not, per se, based on the James Bulger case. But it takes up the topic of juvenile criminals, and brings up the kinds of challenges that those who work with them face.
And that’s the thing about some famous cases. They capture our imagination, even decades or more afterwards, because they raise these difficult questions. Or they’re unsolved. Or they are of real psychological interest. There are also cases (which I’ve not had space to bring up here) that raise really important legal questions. All of these things can keep people interested in a case for a very long time.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.