A Treasury of Victorian Murder
Rick Geary’s graphic novel series A Treasury of Victorian Murder presents the details of famous murder cases from long-ago eras, several of which are unsolved or contain a number of questions still unanswered. Because the mysteries are so old, instead of seeming creepy, the situations feel quaint, and the reader is flattered by having their interest assumed to be historical instead of prurient. Still, the motives are universal, and human nature no different from then to now. Think of this as a literary CSI.
A Treasury of Victorian Murder
This anthology starts the series with three stories, as well as providing brief background on the era and its prominent personalities. The first story presents the unsolved Ryan murders, in which a quiet-living brother and sister are found with their throats cut. After that comes the longest piece, about Dr. Pritchard, arrested for poisoning his wife and mother-in-law. He appears to be a braggart and a fake, incompetent but too egotistical to realize it. The last story deals with a murderous widow seemingly driven mad by lust.
Jack the Ripper
Next, the series begins focusing on one case per volume, starting with the best-known unsolved series of Victorian murders, the story of Jack the Ripper. They’re presented in faux journal form, putting the emphasis on facts and details, including maps and the societal context of the region and the time. Specific attention is paid to the activities of the police and other officials.
All the various theories and possibilities are noted, with none particular deemed the correct one. This book is a handy primer to the case, even though all we have left this many years later is speculation.
The Borden Tragedy
The Borden Tragedy retells the slaying of Lizzie Borden’s parents, when a stifling Massachusetts summer was punctuated by the brutal double murder, with the story narrated by a hypothetical town inhabitant and friend of Lizzie. The contrast between the violence of the act and the reserve of a Sunday school-teaching spinster, combined with a number of mysterious happenings before the tragedy, add to the air of confusion surrounding the event.
After a list of questions that remain unanswered to this day, the book concludes with reproductions of newspaper articles from the time and a copy of Borden’s indictment. The back cover draws a number of parallels between this case and that of O.J. Simpson.
The Fatal Bullet
The Fatal Bullet is subtitled “a true account of the assassination, lingering pain, death, and burial of James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, also including the inglorious life and career of the despised assassin Guiteau.” After that mouthful, what more to say?
How about the contrast Geary draws between the two? Both were born in the Midwest, with strong strains of religious thought affecting them. Both dreamt of a larger role for themselves on a national stage. Garfield worked hard, studied, and served his community in government and in the Civil War. Guiteau griped, ran out on debts, cheated others, and mistreated the women who cared for him.
Guiteau eventually became a hanger-on, buttonholing Republican officials and boasting of his non-existent prospects. He pestered anyone he could find. Clearly, his opinion of himself was extremely out of sync with reality. (I would have found it unbelievable if I hadn’t met people like that, people convinced that their two-sentence conversation with (say) Joe Quesada made them a candidate to become the next big comic book writer.) After a revelation that the president was the only one standing in his way, Guiteau bought a gun and stalked Garfield for a month. The president suffered for over two months after the shooting before finally passing away.
The Mystery of Mary Rogers
This 1841 unsolved murder inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Mystery of Mary Roget”. Mary Rogers was a popular cigar salesgirl in New York City who had many suitors, some jealous. Her body was found floating off the Jersey shore; she’d disappeared a week before.
Official mistakes began early, with delays and odd omissions in collecting basic evidence. New York and New Jersey argued over who should handle the investigation, and the newspapers took up the case, fighting for sensational coverage. It wasn’t until a private reward was offered two weeks later that officials were goaded into beginning a proper investigation, which raised rumors of rape or a possible botched abortion.
If the reader wants an easy solution to the mystery, they will find this book (and series) frustrating. The concluding chapter sums up the many unanswered questions left sixteen decades later, and while several promising theories are presented, none is definitely shown as true. We’ll never know what happened to Mary Rogers; not all true-life stories have a conclusion or moral.
The Beast of Chicago
The Beast of Chicago, H.H. Holmes, popularly known as America’s first serial killer, ran a rooming house that was a kind of murder factory during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It’s still unknown exactly how many people he killed.
He started as a druggist in a Chicago suburb before constructing an unusual building, full of trap doors, air-tight windowless rooms, and a basement with a huge furnace. His “castle” had shops on the first floor, with offices and rooms for rent above. He was flirtatious, involving himself with a variety of women who were either working for his businesses as secretaries or renting rooms while visiting the exposition. Many of them disappeared after pressuring him or otherwise becoming annoying; others seem to have been experiments or sold as cadavers.
It’s disturbing to realize that such selfish destruction and mass murder schemes have a longer history than previously thought.
The Murder of Abraham Lincoln
Like Jack the Ripper, this is another extremely well-known case where people think they already know the history but likely aren’t aware of the details. Geary covers two months in 1865 during which a conspiracy was hatched, Lincoln was shot, the assassin was pursued, and the funeral train traveled through the country.
The book begins on March 4, 1865, when Lincoln was inaugurated into his second term as President and the Civil War was drawing to a close. The details Geary provides as context to the time are fascinating, a catalog of missed opportunities and “what if”s, and his retelling of Lincoln’s prophetic dream of his own assassination is chilling in its matter-of-fact presentation. Events unspool rapidly, with a number of unanswered questions summed up at the end, as is typical of the series.
The Case of Madeleine Smith
In 1857 Glasgow, Scotland, the 21-year-old Madeleine Smith was arrested for the arsenic poisoning death of Emile L’Anglier. She was a proper young lady, born into a well-off family and a graduate of a respected finishing school. She was also, apparently, bored with her lot in life, which basically consisted of waiting to be married to someone of the correct position.
Thus, she began a flirtation with Emile. The two caught each other’s eye while shopping in a fashionable district. An introduction was contrived, and soon they were sending letters and sneaking meetings after dark. He was only a clerk with a string of passionate but failed romances behind him, and a foreigner, too, which made him completely inappropriate for her.
In public, she was seen often with a much more respectable choice of fiancé. The assumption is that she became tired of Emile’s insistance on making their relationship public and decided to dispose of him, but history is undecided, and events take a surprising turn before the book ends.
The Saga of the Bloody Benders
The subtitle tells us that the Benders were “the infamous homicidal family of Labette County, Kansas”, so the stage is set for creepy frontier murders. Suspense is unnecessary — we know what happens, we only want to learn how, how many, and why.
After opening with a brief history of Kansas statehood and homesteading, the crime is introduced: travelers through the area have been disappearing, and their absences gain attention in the media of the time. The Benders are four, representing themselves as mother, father, son, and lovely daughter. They run an inn and grocery store along a popular trail.
The details of meals, home-building, social events, and the like that make up daily life in the 1870s Midwest are what make the story chilling. Daughter Katie represents herself as a spiritualist and healer, but she seems more mentally ill than her potential patients.
Due to the neighborly tendency to think the best of people, it’s not until much later that everyone puts together the hints and odd behavior to realize the truth and discover the murdered bodies. (Although I have to wonder how many of the later “oh, that almost happened to me” stories were plausible and how many were exaggerated by those who wanted their share of the reflected infamy. Human nature doesn’t change that much over time, and I’ve seen what happens to a town where a normal-seeming person is revealed to be a serial killer.) Finally, mob justice runs rampant, with curious onlookers destroying the property for souvenirs and the family vanishing into history, leaving behind only skeletons and rumors.
The Series Overall
Geary’s unique, speckled art style looks like an old-fashioned pen-and-ink drawing, with thick lines and dark details. There’s no shading on the pages, just crosshatching to add weight to the settings and characters and lots and lots of lines to fill the shapes. The details make the stories real to the reader, and the people are often distinctive caricatures. The historical appearance echoes the content. His hand-done text is immediately recognizable, with slightly ball-tipped letters.
All the books in this series are well-researched, complete with bibliographies and hand-drawn maps. They provide fascinating views of different times and places, revealed through the worst of events. Geary also makes note of the surrounding culture, including popular entertainments and news of the day. Although lifestyles may have drastically changed, human passions remain timeless.
The NBM website has more information on this series. Geary created another historical comic series, The Adventures of Blanche. Geary also illustrated Cravan, about the life of a con artist, poet, and boxer who vanished in 1918.