A question of character…
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One day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. He told the cab driver that Maggie would be staying with the friends. Some months later, the putrified and unidentifiable remains of a woman and child were found by people out picking berries near Black River Road.
Debra Komar starts this true crime story by discussing the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the court’s decision that, despite the nature of his crimes, he was sane and could be held responsible for his actions. This decision was reached on the basis of evidence from Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, who developed the theory of “universal lethality” – that all people have it in them to kill, and it is only social institutions that train us not to. Komar suggests that before this, character played a large part in criminal trials, including John Munroe’s, at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy. There was, she suggests, a widespread feeling that men of good character (aka rich people) wouldn’t commit horrific crimes, and that moral degeneracy was the preserve of the poor.
Komar then takes us back to tell us the story of how Munroe and Maggie became involved. Munroe was the spoiled child of an indulgent father. By the time he met Maggie, he was an upcoming architect who had married well, but for social position rather than love. His wife, however, didn’t show him the adoration he felt he deserved, so Munroe looked elsewhere. Poor Maggie – unmarried, overweight, and not very attractive – was willing to adore him as much as he liked. When the inevitable happened and her child was born, Munroe attempted to dump them, but Maggie wasn’t so easily dumped. Munroe played hot and cold with her, sometimes turning up unexpectedly, other times writing to her that she should stop contacting him. And then Maggie and child disappeared. Maggie’s sister received a letter, purporting to come from the illiterate Maggie, to the effect that she had met another man and gone off to Chicago to marry him.
This part of the story is very well told, giving a real feel for the coldness of Munroe’s character, and the rather desperate attempts of Maggie, now with a ruined reputation, to force him to meet his obligations to her and their child. The focus of the book is very much on this particular story, but we do get some idea of the wider society of the time, with the usual hypocritical gender bias that despised and ostracised an unmarried mother while cheerfully continuing to respect a male adulterer.
The story then moves on to the investigation and subsequent trial, with Komar showing at each stage how Munroe’s respectable position in society led to a widespread refusal to accept his possible guilt. The newspapers ran stories in outraged defence of him, and thirty-five people were called to give evidence of his good character, even though some of them barely knew him except through business dealings. The problem of identification added a layer of difficulty to the prosecution, and Komar gives dramatic, well written accounts of witnesses having to identify pieces of clothing or, gruesomely, the hair of the corpse.
An interesting crime story, well researched and well written. Komar’s decision to leave all reference to her sources to the notes at the back means there’s a good flow to the narration of events. The fairly narrow focus on the crime keeps the book down to a fairly shortish length. However, it also means we don’t get an in-depth picture of the society, nor of Munroe’s life beyond the crime – for example, we learn little about his relationship with his wife and legitimate children, before or during the trial. Within those limits, though, it’s an enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of true crime.
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Spoiler ahead – if you don’t want to know the result of the trial, stop reading now!
True crime books tend to want to make a point and sometimes that rather works against them. I felt this was a case in point. During the trial, as many people were as willing to accuse Munroe as to defend him, though undoubtedly the establishment rallied round him to a large degree. But the police arrested him promptly, the trial allowed a good deal of leeway to the prosecution as well as to the defence, and when the question was finally put to the jury, they found him guilty in under an hour. If the argument is that good character was a strong defence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked in Munroe’s case. Despite appeals from his father, the government promptly refused mercy and Munroe hanged.
I had my doubts from the beginning, in fact, as to how well Komar would be able to make the case, because certainly Munroe was not the first “respectable” murderer to hang, nor the last. My cynical nature started out thinking that most humans probably had worked out long before Dietz made it a “theory” that murder is not the exclusive preserve of the obviously insane or degenerate, and I felt the outcome rather proved that than otherwise. This was a story that was interesting enough in its own right – it didn’t really need to make a point. In fact, I felt it made a quite different, and equally interesting, point – namely that, if the prosecution have good evidence, then juries are well able to judge guilt despite a defendant’s previous character, social position or the moral outrage of the press and establishment.
Overall, I’d have been happier to see rather less emphasis on that angle and a wider look at society and Munroe’s life instead. But these things are always subjective, and a different reader is quite likely to feel differently. I enjoyed it despite this reservation, and recommend it both for the story of the crime and as an interesting look at how the Canadian justice system worked at that time, quite efficiently it seems.
Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink. Thanks, Naomi!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Goose Lane.