Butcher’s Work: True Crime Tales of American Murder and Madness by Harold Schechter

Butcher’s Work: True Crime Tales of American Murder and Madness by Harold Schechter

The premise of Schechter’s Butcher’s Work is intriguing enough to entice any fan of true crime to pick it up: Serial killers and murder are nothing new, why have we forgotten some crimes and remembered others? And, more curiously, what are those cases which we have forgotten? The easy answer is that they weren’t horrendous enough, disgusting enough, criminal enough to earn a place in our long, collective memory. But the cases in Butcher’s Work dismisses that possibility quickly; the crimes highlighted in this work are all that and more chilling. The fact that they have disappeared from our remembrance is itself quite a horrific notion.

Butcher’s Work is divided into four sections: Butcher’s Work, The Poison Fiend, Lady-Killer, and The Ragged Stranger. As their titles suggest, each one focuses on a particular method or victim of murder. There is a featured case of each, but interspersed within the pages of the chapters are cameos of other criminals employing the same method. Collectively they form a creepy landscape of crime, where trusting another human being is something to fear. Lady-Killer was one of my favorite sections. Marriage and murder form the central focus here, a gendered violence perpetrated by men against women. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but DANG, how did these men get away with this? Oh, right, but still!

Schechter is a marvelous story-teller. The prose flows, as compellingly as the stories and characters. And, as a researcher myself, I deeply appreciate the depth and details Schechter has excavated in this work. The result is not only a focused, historically rich, and keen archival piece of work; Butcher’s Work is also a nuanced landscape of American life in the 19th century. Schechter brings to the reader’s attention how it is not only the ambition of the criminal, but also the systems and structures of society that permit and foster these crimes. How else might a man such as Hoch in Lady Killer commit bigamy and murder so successfully and remain for so long undetected? What gave him the confidence to believe in his own acquittal? Of course, the criminals here were apprehended, so there is a more optimistic ending. We can rest knowing the authorities — police, witnesses, lawyers, courts, etc — did succeed in forcing them to confront their crimes. But, I could not help but wonder how many others got away with it altogether? The idea is spine-chilling.

Butcher’s Work is a fantastic read for any fan of true crime and 19th century American history.

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