Friday, May 10, 2019

Booknote: The Wilderness of Ruin

Roseanne Montillo, The Wilderness of Ruin: a Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer. New York: William Morrow, 2015.  ISBN: 978-0-06-227347-5.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: history, true crime, serial killers
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

The book is mainly the story of the youngest serial killer in the United States at the time: Jesse Pomeroy. Jesse, at 12 years old, was already torturing boys younger than him. He was eventually caught and sent to reform school. Upon release, he went killing. He was eventually captured and given life in prison. At the time, he was dubbed America's youngest serial killer, and much of the United States did not know what to make of him. Terms like "psychopath" did not exist yet. Men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville tried to figure Pomeroy out.

Pomeroy's tale happens in late 19th century Boston. In 1872, the Great Boston Fire happened. It was also the time of the Gilded Age. Writers like Melville were in their prime. A lot was going on, and the author tries to capture as much of it as possible. The author does go in depth with other tales, which was an issue for many readers who found the digressions excessive. I will say that in some instances I agree with that assessment. The author's look at Melville's life was quite lengthy and for a moment you might forget that Pomeroy was the main character and not Melville. I found the additional historical material interesting, but readers' patience may vary.

Overall, the book is really a history of Boston in the late part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. In the end, I really liked it, and I do recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes:

As today where video games often get blamed for youth violence, dime novels were a reason given for the violence at the time.  Jesse Pomeroy was a big reader of dime novels. Dime novels, which sold by the thousands per issue irked "serious" writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, both getting outsold by dime novelists. Dime novels were described thus in this book:

"The novels Jesse read, commonly referred to as dime novels, didn't have much to offer in terms of a plot or a narrative thread. Instead they were heavy with sex and bloodshed, abounding with characters who were always a step ahead of the law and who indulged in a lot of sex with prostitutes, who invariably possessed a heart of gold. They fought duels in the heat of high noon, butchered dozens of  Indians, and scalped a few heads for trophies. The savagery had been imposed by society, the novels implied, and had not been sought for the mere fun of it. They fought injustices, whether real or imagined, and did so to save their honor and their family. But always, they got away with their crimes" (44). 

The librarian in me found the segment looking at dime novels, the publishing, and the critics interesting. It was not unlike puritan moralists of today whining about two gay penguins or a video game. Some things never change.

The author looks at debates about insanity and moral deficiency at the time, going over some of the important thinkers and works of the time. From phrenology to brain fever, such theories were applied in attempting to explain Jesse Pomeroy. They mostly fell short. The press at the time did little helpful, adding flames to the sensationalist tale and even manufacturing parts of the story to sell newspapers:

"Before the trial, and also during it, newspapers in Boston and New York-- as well as many across the country-- were not entirely objective in their reporting about Pomeroy's doings. . . The doctors who had talked to Jesse before the trial were not given gag orders by the court, and several of them, eager for publicity, spoke to the papers. As expected, their words were twisted and reshaped with each retelling, further adding to Jesse's infamy" (156).

The book does have extensive notes for each chapter and a long bibliography for those who wish to learn more.

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