The 1920s and a serial killer stalks North America – a true story

I like to read true crime which is well written and doesn’t sensationalise the crimes depicted. I suppose that I always wonder how these people can think so differently from me and how they can cross the line which most of us have into doing something so terrible. Bestial by Harold Schechter is about an historical serial killer, Earle Feral who, under a number of pseudonyms, committed at least twenty murders in America and Canada in the 1920s and is described in this book as possibly the first serial killer in the area.

The author describes Feral’s life as a child and young adult in some detail including an accident which caused brain trauma. He then switches to describe each murder in turn giving us a view of the sort of person who became his victim and how he seized every opportunity. We also follow the various police departments involved and see how long it took to match up the similar crimes in different parts of the country and some of the bizarre explanations they had for the murders. The press coverage is equally interesting especially as they equated the awfulness of the crimes with how they thought the murderer must look and described him as a beast with ape like features – there was also a lot of comparison with the facial features of black people. I also found the social history of the time, the prevalence of widows as landladies and the number of places where you could pawn your clothes or buy a second hand outfit fascinating.

The book is pretty straightforward and follows a chronological narrative. Every person killed gets their own passage and that might make it a little repetative at times but it also reminds us that each of these people was an individual and deserves their story to be told. I really didn’t have a problem with this because I could see how it all built into a coherent whole.

I would have liked a little more analysis from the author about theories about what caused Feral to kill. Was it his childhood ? Was it the head trauma ? What did his strange habits in adolescence before he started killing indicate about his sanity ? I also wondered how he lived while he was committing these crimes and how he got about the country. The book is very much a description of what happened rather than an analysis of what caused it to happen. I would have preferred it to take that extra step.

Nonetheless this is an interesting book. The author shows how one man could commit so many murders and get away with it for so long. He adds snippets of current events so that you can see the background against which these murders took place although he mostly references American events some of which didn’t mean a lot to me as a British reader. Again we see how vulnerable people, especially women, could be to someone who lives completely outside the norms we expect in society – Feral was an opportunistic killer and it was women’s lives and vulnerability that gave him the best opportunities. I also admire the way that the author avoided making assumptions about what Feral, and others, thought.

If you are interested in true crime then you may well find this account interesting – it is certainly a lesser known series of murders and the victims deserve to have their stories told and understood.

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