Apr 17, 2006

Before Scott Peterson and 24-hour cable news

People read pamphlets of trial transcripts.
Readers of that era loved them. Nathaniel Hawthorne had a "pathetic craving" for pamphlets about trials, his son reported, and he was not alone in his guilty passion. In 1833, the New Hampshire farmer Chauncey Cochran was so engrossed by a murder trial that he stayed home to read it instead of accepting his wife's invitation to pick strawberries in a nearby pasture with her and the teenage hired hand—who in Chauncey's absence made an "insulting proposal" to Mrs. Cochran and, when she rejected him, beat her to death with a stake. The trial of her murderer, in turn, was published in at least three editions.

Printed transcripts were the Court TV of the 19th century, the true-crime thrillers of Victorian America. Publishers chose trials that were especially grisly, humorous, resonant, or mysterious. Then as now, trials exposed the sins of extraordinary criminals, and as an unintended but much-appreciated consequence, they put the daily lives of many ordinary people under similar scrutiny. They are not for the faint of heart, or the queasy of stomach, or the weak of mind. In more than a few, the reader reaches the verdict convinced that the guilty have gone free and the truth has been buried deeper than the victim's multiply autopsied corpse. But once acclimatized to the conventions of the genre, today's reader may find them compelling, even addictive—provided she has a taste for violence, duplicity, greed, sexual degeneracy, and lawyerly disingenuousness.

Via American Heritage.

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