Rampage is the story of Howard Unruh, a man who, in 1949, would murder thirteen of his neighbors (and people passing through his neighborhood) before returning to his apartment and returning to bed because he’d run out of ammunition. As the killer himself indicated during an interview, he’d have killed a thousand if he’d had sufficient ammunition. Repressed homosexuality, experiences during the conflict of WWII, and assorted petty grievances against his neighbors simmered for years until finally exploding in a cold, meticulous series of killings that would thoroughly destroy the relative peace of Camden, NJ. Considered the face of modern mass murder, Unruh had no apparent interest in committing suicide at the end of his bloody rampage, nor any plan to be killed by the police. He simply wanted to kill the people he perceived as being aligned against him or of having committed one slight or another, and once Unruh started, he didn’t seem interested in stopping until he had no choice but to do so. The descriptions of the murderer’s flat affect and calm demeanor both during the rampage and during the subsequent questioning, while a bullet remained lodged in his thigh, were unnerving in a way I can’t quite put into words. Steven Weber’s narration was as high quality as it has been for the rest of the Bloodlands stories, and I would love to hear him narrating further true crime audiobooks and even documentaries.
The Brick Slayer provides us with an in-depth study of a series of home invasions and killings that transpired in Los Angeles and Chicago in the late 1930s. The title comes from the killer, Robert Nixon, using bricks to incapacitate the victims. As interesting as the crime details might be, the vastly more interesting component of this particular narrative is the focus on the trial and the socioeconomic elements that contributed to the conditions of Robert Nixon’s life. It’s fascinating to think that Richard Wright’s Native Son was largely inspired by the circumstances surrounding Robert Nixon’s admittedly reprehensible acts and the reaction of those in law enforcement and the media to such horrific crimes committed by a young African American man. The barely suppressed racism of 1930s America seemed to be on full display throughout the investigation and subsequent trial, but it’s the more subtle and insidious racism of American culture that may very well have set Nixon down the path he ultimately found himself traveling. Schechter’s insightful case studies are always profoundly interesting, but this one perhaps more so than many others, simply because of the tangential aspects of the society and culture at large during the years when these things took place. Steven Weber’s narration is superb and well-suited to the Style of Schechter’s writing.
Harold Schechter’s The Pied Piper tells the sordid tale of Charles ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr., The Pied Piper of Tuscon. A strange, diminutive man, Schmid developed a carefully crafted bad boy image and a demeanor reminiscent of Elvis Presley that aided him in drawing attention and devotion from other loners and outcasts. With the assistance of two of these friends circling in his orbit, Schmid committed his first murder in 1964. He didn’t stop there, murdering two sisters only a little over a year later. Bragging about these killings whenever the occasion arose, he displayed neither shame nor remorse over what he’d done. Schechter’s portrayal of Schmid and his friends is less than flattering, though much of what he shares seems to be descriptions of these people from either Schmid himself or others in his circle or involved with the case. It’s interesting to see so much detail packed into such a short narrative, and it was fascinating to learn more about one of the lesser-known serial killers from the annals of American criminal history. Steven Weber provides terrific narration, proving again to be articulate and eloquent in his delivery of the story.
Harold Schechter’s Panic showcases an early American example of moral panic, mass hysteria, and pattern recognition gone horribly awry. This well-researched narrative begins with details of a tragic event, the result of the sort of irrational, hysterical panic arising in the 1930s surrounding the fear of child rapists and murderers surging across the American landscape. One father’s need to protect his daughters from a danger he perceived as being right around the corner erupts in a disastrous and heartbreaking conclusion. From that awful event, Schechter traces backward to the small number of isolated incidents that had been blown up and made to seem like part of a growing trend. Each of these individual cases was certainly terrible, but they were hardly part of a nationwide surge in that sort of criminal activity. Looking at the world we live in today, one can see that we haven’t grown beyond this sort of outrage-driven crusade where we perceive the boogeyman du jour in every shadow. Steven Weber’s narration is perfectly suited to this gripping non-fiction essay. I’m pleased to see that he continues to narrate other short samples of Schechter’s larger body of work contained in Bloodlands.
Little Slaughterhouse On the Prairie shares the story of the Bender family, contemporaries of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family in Kansas during the late 1800s. A family of serial killers operating an inn in the remote, seemingly endless fields and plains of Kansas, the Benders were responsible for an unknown number of missing persons. Like something out of the fictional Splatter Western tales published by Death’s Head Press, the Benders were a monstrous family. Inviting guests into their inn for dinner and sleeping accommodations, those guests would frequently be greeted with a sledgehammer to the head before being further mutilated, robbed, and disposed of on their sprawling homestead. Men, women, and children alike fell victim to the predations of the Bender clan. The mystery of where the Benders disappeared, and what might have happened to them as they evaded justice was the primary focus of this narrative. Unfortunately, Schechter doesn’t seem to have any answers, even after all of his research. Ultimately, we’re left with more questions as multiple theories are proposed, some more appealing than others. Steven Weber’s narration is, again, fantastic. His delivery of these gruesome, historical details is satisfying and articulate.