By Suzanne Wardle
Most people know that Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks, but how many know that Lydia Sherman got some arsenic, and then her husband, he got sick? Or that Harry Powers brought women and children to Quiet Dell, and he kept them where no one could hear them yell?
Borden became legend while Sherman and Powers faded into obscurity, even though they killed far more people. Finally they come to the forefront along with dozens of other long-forgotten killers in Harold Schechter’s work “Psycho USA.”
This is a compilation of killers’ stories from the 1780s through the 1960s. Schechter draws from witness and media accounts to build gruesome tales of poisoners, ax-wielders, gunmen and sexual sadists. The primary sources jibe well with Schechter’s brisk writing to create fascinating accounts of his subjects’ brutal stories.
The question Schechter would have readers keep in mind is why these people, each hailed as the monster of his or her time, failed to reach infamy. In some cases, the answer is easy; Harry Powers killed two women and three children, the same number of victims attributed to Jack the Ripper, but his capture means he has none of the allure of the unidentified English killer. Andrew Kehoe’s final death toll of 45 people included an attack on a school, but the adult’s act pales compared with the horror that mere teens perpetrated the attacks at Columbine some 70 years later.
But in some cases, Schechter’s question is a valid one. Lydia Sherman poisoned three husbands, six children and two stepchildren in the mid-19th century; why does no one remember her horrible crimes? Schechter doesn’t answer the question, just provides us with evidence to draw our own conclusions.
Interspersed with the stories are articles that provide historical context, such as the prevalence of arsenic in 18th-century household products, copies of “murder ballads” about various slayings and stories about the criminal justice system.
It all combines to make a book that is interesting from start to finish. “Psycho USA” is a season of “Criminal Minds” in book form, except this time, the bad guys are real.