Melissa J. Ganz


Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 322. $29.95.

Murder narratives have long been an important part of American culture. When the citizens of Ipswich, Massachusetts, hanged Esther Rogers in 1701 for smothering her newborn infant, a printed account of her crime and punishment circulated through the town. When twelve-year-old Hannah Ocuish confessed to killing six-year-old Eunice Bolles in 1786, a written report of the incident swirled through New London, Connecticut. Half a century later, when a New York jury acquitted Richard Robinson of murdering the beautiful and notorious prostitute Helen Jewett, printers churned out a succession of pamphlets recounting the details of her bloody death.

Karen Halttunen's lively and engaging Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination examines hundreds of such narratives published between the late seventeenth and midnineteenth centuries. Juxtaposing sacred and secular texts, the book charts a crucial transformation in the popular perception of killers. According to Halttunen, Americans initially viewed murder as a sign of universal human depravity. A deeply religious people, they thought of killers as "common sinners" and reacted to them with compassion and concern. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, Americans came to view human nature as essentially good and capable of self-control. To protect this liberal Enlightenment faith in human nature, they reconceptualized killers as "moral monsters" and recoiled from them in horror and fear. Skillfully weaving together religious, legal, and literary history, Halttunen develops provocative interpretations of extraordinarily rich sources. Unfortunately, however, she tends to exaggerate the extent to which Americans agreed on the meaning of murder. She gives us a fascinating but flawed analysis of popular responses to evil.