Investigative Book Digs Into Cold Murder Cases

Daily Nebraskan Online
University of Nebraska at Lincoln

Victorian-era women interested in the gruesome details of murders were not considered ladies. Luckily for Virginia A. McConnell, she was not born into a Victorian home.

McConnell is fascinated by unsolved murders and wrote “Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven'' and “Sympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San Francisco'' as a result of that fascination.

McConnell is an instructor of English, literature, speech and criminal justice at Walla Walla Community College's Clarkston Center in Washington.

Her teaching background and career gave her the credentials and time during breaks to research the four murders discussed in her books.

“Arsenic Under the Elms'' discusses the cases of Mary Stannard, an unwed mother and house servant, and Jennie Cramer, daughter of German immigrants and the “Belle of New Haven.'' Both were murdered by arsenic poisoning within three years of one another. Although people were brought to trial in both cases, no one was ever convicted.

“Sympathy for the Devil'' is a modern treatment of the strangulation of two independent women, Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams.

The man convicted of their murders, Theo Durrant, was maligned for years as a sadistic religious fanatic. Although McConnell believes Durrant murdered the girls, she does not simply attack Durrant. Instead, she investigates how and why a mild-mannered youth minister could become a killer.

“I love reading about the past, and researching these cases is like spying on people from an earlier time,'' McConnell said in an e-mail interview.

“Murder fascinates me – and judging from the number of books and television programs on the topic, I'm not alone in this – especially murder from previous eras.''

These are decidedly cold cases. The primary players in all the murders are dead and buried. This can make investigation problematic for an amateur detective.

In spite of time's passing, McConnell provides in-depth background of the main players in each case and gives a profound analysis of all aspects of the cases. This required quite a bit of resourceful fact-checking and reading on McConnell's part.

“I read the New York Times if they covered it, and one or more daily newspapers from the area where the crime happened,'' McConnell said.

In the Durrant case, this involved reading six daily newspaper accounts of the ongoing investigation and trial.

“I also background all my `major players' by doing their genealogy forward and backward. For this, I use census reports, death indexes and any other helpful databases.''

Using genealogical research, McConnell was able to track down living descendants of those accused and those murdered. In some cases, she knew more about the seedy aspects of the family history than those she spoke to.

“It's interesting to talk to descendants of the victim and the murderer to see what, if anything, they have been told about the case,'' she said. “So far, I've found that most families never talked about it, and their descendants are shocked to find out that Great-Grandpa was involved in a famous murder trial.''

The crimes discussed in both books give fascinating insights into the social dynamics of the Victorian era. Innocent girls were treated as though they brought on their own murders simply by showing a bit of free will.

Class struggle enters the picture in the differential treatment of those accused and those mourned. In the New Haven cases, the accused murderers were of a decidedly higher social standing than the murdered. The preference of the lawyers and judges for the higher class is appalling and overt.

Also interesting is the role perjury played in the Victorian court system. It was assumed that lawyers and witnesses who believed in their client's innocence would lie to protect the accused.

All in all, this is a well-researched, well-written and engrossing account of crime in an era very different but surprisingly similar to our own.

The cases covered in these books cannot be reopened, but with careful attention to detail and engaging prose, McConnell ensures that these cases will not be forgotten.