Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Bite-size (ahem!) information

The World's Most Infamous Killers is a collection of more than 150 tales of the most prolific and shocking murderers to have made the world’s headlines over the years is not a treatise on the psychology of serial killers. As noted on the introduction page, the book “does not discuss how to build up a profile of a killer to fit a particular crime”.

Yet you can gain an insight into the modus operandi of men and women who kill for various reasons. The book groups the perpetrators into several categories like thrill killers, unlikely killers, partners in crime, etc., although the classification appears rather ambiguous at times.

Some of these killers, such as Elizabeth Bathory, sound like they had committed genocide rather than serial killing. And the reason for such mass extermination? “We have the right to do what we wish to those beneath us,” she [Bathory] said. “We are of royal blood.”

If the number of killings is the yardstick for inclusion, surely Adolf Hitler should have made the grade? He didn’t. Instead, another military leader, Cesare Borgia, was an unlikely candidate for the execution of his political opponents and personal enemies. As for the case of Al Capone, it could be argued that, while the mob was responsible for many killings, Capone’s direct involvement pales in comparison to some of those listed in the book. Furthermore, if indirect involvement counted in his or her favour, no one could have rivalled the Nazi leader.

Fortunately, this is just a minor selection contradiction in “The World’s Most Infamous Killers”.

Although murder is too horrifying a topic to make light of, the book is peppered with wry humour. Some examples:

In “Murder Inc.”, Abe Reles, who was due to give evidence against members of the mob, “fell” out of a hotel window even though he was guarded by six policemen. Twenty years later, [Lucky] Luciano, head honcho of Murder Inc., revealed that it had cost his henchman a bill of $50,000 to the police department to check whether the singing canary [referring to Reles] could also fly.

In “Neville Heath”, there is a distinct irony in the statement that the meeting of Margery Gardner (a masochist) and Neville Heath (a sadist) “provided both of them with some satisfaction”.

In “Frederick Deeming”, the story left plenty to imagination with the following statement: Soon the family disappeared and the room had an excellent new cement floor.

In “Burke and Hare”, it was noted that another double killing was scored “when the daughter of an old prostitute, already in the tea chest, came searching for her, and was reunited with her mother for ever”. Curiously, the beginning of this chapter also highlighted that to “burke”, according to the dictionary, is to murder by suffocation so as to leave no mark. Next time you go to Burke’s Coffee, be careful.

Of course, not all the elements of humour are provided by the description. Sometimes, the characters themselves got involved. Al Capone, for instance, commented on his income tax evasion charge by saying, “I didn’t know you paid tax on illegal earnings.”

The last laugh also befell George Smith, a man who had a surefire way of making money – killing his wives and collecting the insurance. Whether that backfired because he bumped off one wife the day after the wedding is another issue. According to the narration, Smith was hanged on 13 August 1915 – a Friday. His only legal wife – the one who had emigrated to Canada – had turned up to give evidence at his trial and joyfully remarried the day after he died. Poetic justice, perhaps?

The World’s Most Infamous Killers also highlights many examples of police inefficiency in investigations.

Javed Iqbal, who set himself a target of killing 100 young boys, sent a detailed confession to both a local newspaper and the police upon meeting his quota. Amazingly, due to the inefficient bureaucracy of the police, the confession ended up in a waste basket!

The tale of Fritz Haarmann is equally shocking. Haarmann, whose butcher’s trade meant he had a good way to dispose of his victims’ bodies, expertly filleted them and chop them into choice cuts. When one woman who noticed the peculiar flavour of the meat brought it to the authorities, where it was analysed by the police expert, she was told that it was as good a piece of pork as could be obtained in the city!

Reading this book will also make you realise that there is indeed a thin line between sanity and madness. Oftentimes, it takes only an incident to tip the balance in the latter’s favour. But don’t be mistaken. It’s not just imbalanced people who will go on a killing spree. Perfectly normal people, as history has shown, have the same tendency to slaughter their own kind with no apparent reason.

Conclusion: If you have no appetite for gory details, avoid this book at all cost.

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