Book review Book reviews Non-fiction

#Bookreview THE 19TH CENTURY UNDERWORLD: CRIME, CONTROVERSY & CORRUPTION by Stephen Carver (@penswordbooks). A must read for anybody interested in London crime history

Hi all:

Today I bring you a review of a book that I think many of you will find interesting. And what a cover!

The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver
The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver

The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver

Underworld n. 1. the part of society comprising those who live by organized crime and immorality. 2. the mythical abode of the dead under the earth.

Take a walk on the dark side of the street in this unique exploration of the fears and desires at the heart of the British Empire, from the Regency dandy’s playground to the grim and gothic labyrinths of the Victorian city. Enter a world of gin spinners, sneaksmen and Covent Garden nuns, where bare-knuckled boxers slog it out for dozens of rounds, children are worth more dead than alive, and the Thames holds more bodies than the Ganges. This is the Modern Babylon, a place of brutal poverty, violent crime, strong drink, pornography and prostitution; of low neighbourhoods and crooked houses with windows out like broken teeth, wraithlike urchins with haunted eyes, desperate, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls: a grey, bleak, infernal place, where gaslights fail to pierce the pestilential fog, and coppers travel in pairs, if they venture there at all.

Combining the accessibility of a popular history with original research, this book brings the denizens of this vanished world once more to life, along with the voices of those who sought to exploit, imprison or save them, or to simply report back from this alien landscape that both fascinated and appalled: the politicians, the reformers, the journalists and, above all, the storytellers, from literary novelists to purveyors of penny dreadfuls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld…

Dr Stephen Carver
Dr Stephen Carver

About the author:

Stephen Carver is a literary historian, editor and occasional novelist. For sixteen years he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as a professor of English at the University of Fukui. He left UEA in 2012 to become Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, and to work with The Literary Consultancy in London. He retired from teaching in 2018 to write full-time, although he continues to be affiliated with TLC as a reader and a mentor. He is the biographer of the Victorian novelist W.H. Ainsworth, and his short stories have appeared in Not-Not, Cascando, Birdsuit, and Veto. His first novel, Shark Alley, was published in 2016. The 19th Century Underworld  was published by Pen & Sword last year and Steve has just finished a follow-up on Ainsworth and Dickens.

My review:

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.

The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.

The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.

To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.

Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.

In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion.  (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).

Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.

Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.

Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.

Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.

Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Rosie Croft, to the author, and especially to all of you for reading, liking, sharing, commenting, clicking, and for reviewing. Remember to keep on smiling!

Book review Book reviews Non-fiction

#Bookreview THE MURDER THAT DEFEATED WHITECHAPEL’S SHERLOCK HOLMES: AT MRS RIDGLEY’S CORNER by Paul Stickler (@paul_stickler) (@penswordbooks) #Truecrime

Hi all:

I bring you another non-fiction book that brings to life what a real murder investigation was like in Britain in the early XX century.

The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel's Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner by Paul Stickler
The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner by Paul Stickler

The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner by Paul Stickler. A fascinating true police-procedural account from the early XXc

In 1919, when a shopkeeper and her dog were found dead in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with brutal head injuries, there followed an extraordinary catalogue of events and a local police investigation which concluded that both had died as a result of a tragic accident. A second investigation by Scotland Yard led to the arrest of an Irish war veteran, but the outcome was far from conclusive.

Written from the perspective of the main characters involved and drawing on original and newly-discovered material, this book exposes the frailties of county policing just after the First World War and how it led to fundamental changes in methods of murder investigations.

Offering a unique balance of story-telling and analysis, the book raises a number of unanswered questions. These are dealt with in the final chapter by the author’s commentary drawing upon his expertise.

Author Paul Stickler
Author Paul Stickler

About the author:

Paul Stickler joined Hampshire Constabulary in 1978 and spent the majority of his time in CID. He spent many years involved in murder investigations and was seconded to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to study international perspectives of crime investigation. Since his retirement in 2008 he has combined his professional knowledge with his passion for history, researching murders in the first half of the twentieth century. He spends his days delivering lectures to a wide range of audiences. More can be found out about him on his website:

Although the above is the official information included in the book, I could not resist but copy the profile from his website.

A retired detective, Paul Stickler has turned criminologist and crime historian and explores the detail behind some of the most fascinating cases in criminal history. His experience in murder investigations coupled with his passion for history make his presentations absorbing, challenging, entertaining and informative. He has recently published his first book about a bizarre murder investigation in Hertfordshire just after the First World War. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Paul has featured in a number of television and radio programmes about his career and his research into early twentieth-century murders.

He studied history with the Open University obtaining a Bachelor’s degree (1997), graduated from the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia with a post-graduate diploma in Law Enforcement (1997) and read criminology at Solent University for his Master’s degree (2013) specialising in the research of historical crime. He is a Visiting Fellow of Solent University and his hobbies include gliding, high altitude walking and playing guitar (badly) and piano (even worse).

Oh, and the website is fascinating, to people interested in true crime and also those authors or scholars researching the topic. I recommend it.

My review:

Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I was fascinated by this book and by the way it is told. The case itself cannot compare to some of the sophisticated cases we read about in mysteries and thrillers, complex and full of twist and turns. A shopkeeper, widowed, that lived with her dog, and sold a bit of everything, appeared murdered on a Monday morning, next to the body of her dog. There was blood everywhere, she’d evidently been hit on the head, possibly with a weight that was found close to the body, and there was money missing. People had been at her shop on Saturday evening and one of her neighbours had heard some strange noises in the early hours of Sunday, but that was it. This was 1919, and, of course, forensics were not as advanced as they are now, but there was an investigation of sorts, although, surprisingly, in the first instance the local police decided it had been an accident. When the new police chief revised the case, he was not so convinced, and called on Scotland Yard for assistance. They sent Detective Chief P. S. Wensley, who had been involved (although only marginally) in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders and would become pretty well-known for the Houndsditch murders and the siege of Sidney Street. Unfortunately, two weeks had passed since the original crime he was sent to investigate, the body had been buried, and the evidence had not been well-looked after, but still… He and his team investigated and put together a case against an Irish immigrant who’d fought the war. And, well, the rest is history (and you’ll have to read it yourselves).

Despite, or perhaps because, of the somewhat ‘simple’ murder, the book is a fascinating read. The author —evidently familiar with current crime investigation techniques— explains his reasons for choosing to tell this story, to recover the case of a fairly anonymous woman, and to do it in this particular way, pointing out that he did not intend to set off on a ‘cold-case’ type of investigation.  In his own words:

That is the beautiful thing about history; trying to show exactly what happened using original material and putting it in a contemporary social setting so that the reader can better understand and make sense of it all. I hope that the narrative has not only thrown light on policing in the early part of the century but portrayed it as a piece of history and not as retrospective critique. (Stickler,  2018, p. 145)

In my opinion, he succeeds. Stickler’s method, which consists in looking over the shoulder of the people who were investigating the murder and those who participated in the court case, showing us what they would have seen, and guessing at what they might have thought, while at the same time providing us historical background, so we are able to understand how the police force worked, and what the atmosphere was like in the country shortly after WWI, works very well. As we read the book we can’t help but think about what we would have done, worry about their mistakes, and wonder about the missing details and the conflicting witness statements and evidence. We learn about the social make-up of the town, the relationships between the different communities, the way the police force worked at the time, and we gain a good understanding of the legal issues as well, without having to read long and dry historical treatises. The writer has done a great deal of research and his skill as a writer is evidenced in the way he seamlessly creates an involving narrative that never calls undue attention to it. For the sake of completion, the author includes a commentary at the end, where he provides a postscript, as it were, with information about what happened to the protagonists, and also with his own speculations (that he had kept to himself until then) as to why things happened as they did.

I recommend this book to people who are interested in true crime, especially in Britain, Criminology and Criminal Justice System students, readers who enjoy historical police procedural novels, and also writers of the genre interested in researching the topic (the bibliography and the author notes will be of great help, and there are also pictures from the time provide a fuller understanding of the story). And, as I said, I also recommend checking the author’s blog to anybody interested in the topic.

A great book and a fabulous resource.

Stickler, P. (2018). The murder that defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s corner. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.

Thanks to Alex and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling.

Book review Book reviews Non-fiction

#Bookreview #Non-fiction Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes: A Personal Account of a Senior Detective in Kosovo, Iraq and Beyond by Anthony Nott. (@penswordbooks) A true-life hero investigates.

Hi all:

Today I bring you a non-fiction book that proves that reality can, and often is, weirder and more fascinating than fiction. Thanks one more to Pen & Sword, one of my favourite non-fiction publishers.

Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes: A Personal Account of a Senior Detective in Kosovo, Iraq and Beyond by Anthony Nott
Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes: A Personal Account of a Senior Detective in Kosovo, Iraq and Beyond
by Anthony Nott, MBE.

Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes: A Personal Account of a Senior Detective in Kosovo, Iraq and Beyond by Anthony Nott. A great insight into international policing in conflictive zones provided by a true-life hero.

Tony Nott retired from the Dorset Police in 2002 at the rank of superintendent. He had spent most of his service as a detective, and had been involved in the investigation of a number of murder cases and other serious crimes. In 2000 he led the British forensic team on exhumations in Kosovo and describes the horror and brutality carried out by Serb paramilitaries. He then worked in Bosnia for the UN, where he was the commander of the eighty-strong UK police contingent. He describes in detail the investigation of human trafficking for the sex trade and illustrates some conflicting rivalries between the UN and the European Union police mission. He served a year in Iraq between 2004 and 2005 and gives insights into the Shia takeover of the police and other institutions; plus, some unsettling accounts of human rights abuses. He was involved in the investigation into the murder of British aid worker, Margaret Hassan, and is deeply critical about the role played by the UK government. He describes the difficulties he had in dealing with some senior members of the Iraqi Police; in particular, the refusal of a Deputy Minister of Interior, who declined to reopen an investigation into the murder of a British security contractor and four Iraqi citizens. The killers were suspected to be the local police. He then went onto serve two years in Israel and Palestine, where he worked with a US-led team to reform the Palestinian security services in cooperation with a European effort. Whilst this book covers the worst of human behavior, it also highlights the bravery and triumph of the human spirit, by those ordinary people who were caught up in these events.

Author Anthony Nott, MBE
Author Anthony Nott, MBE

About the Author

Tony Nott MBE joined the Metropolitan Police in 1971 before transferring to the Dorset Police in 1976. He has been involved in the investigation of numerous homicides and was the senior investigating officer in the case of Russell Causley in 1996. This case was the subject of a four-part documentary series called The Investigator: A British Crime Story, to which he contributed and was screened on ITV in July 2016. He has written about his experiences in police reform, in the Balkans and the Middle East, when working on contracts with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He retired at the rank of detective superintendent.

My review:

Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a Hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I might as well confess I am not a big reader of action thrillers or fiction about special operation units or single-handed special operatives that can sort any kind of dangerous situations anywhere in the world  by virtue of what seems to be an incredible array of all kinds of skills, from talking no-end of languages, fighting hand-to-hand, hacking into computers, or using the most sophisticated equipment, while, of course, never getting caught and keeping everybody safe (except for the bad guys, evidently). But I have read some of these stories, and watched films about similar characters. And, entertaining as they are, I always felt they stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit too far.

When I started reading this book, I realised what a distance there is between those fictional accounts and what really goes on in some of the places most of us only hear about in the news. The author, Anthony Nott, MBE (he talks about attending the ceremony where he was awarded the honour in 2010 at the end of the book) is a real-life hero, one of these people who feel a sense of duty, are professional and dedicated to the task at hand, have high moral and ethical standards, and despite their personal sympathies and alliances, are happy to give everybody the benefit of the doubt if they are willing to work to make things better.

After working for years for the Metropolitan police and then the Dorset Police (in the UK), including reviewing some high profile cases, he retired at the rank of detective superintendent. But a couple of years before he retired, he was asked to lead the British forensic team in Kosovo and that proved to be only the beginning of a new phase in his professional life, that took him, once he was retired, to Bosnia, Iraq and also Israel and Palestine. As I have said, this is not one of those stories we are used to in fiction, where no matter how many challenges our hero faces, things always go his way. The author was involved in some pretty well-known investigations, and despite his eagerness in trying to use his expertise and that of his collaborators to reach a solution, that was not always possible. I won’t go into many details, but the mixture of corruption at local level (the international teams were supposed to support the local police and help set their own teams, and not take over the task, and that often meant the old-ways of doing things prevailed, and sometimes the criminals and those supposed to catch them were far too close for comfort), lack of resources, complex political situations and alliances, and the threat of violence and revenge, meant that not all the cases were solved.

Despite that, the book is superb at giving us a first-hand understanding of the complex social and political situation in these places, and also at highlighting the difficulties of trying to work in such circumstances. It does take pretty special people to make it work, and Nott is one of them. Apart from his sense of duty, a very sharp and dry sense of humour, and a knack for understanding and evaluating the rules of the game wherever he lands, he is skilled at spotting people’s strengths and weaknesses and a great judge of character. He also excels at communicating with each individual at his/her level and at bringing diverse people together to collaborate in a variety of projects, spotting their chief abilities and making the best use of them. Despite reluctance all around, he manages to adopt some of the tried and trusted methods of policing he had used back home and sets up procedures that help the local forces deal with the crime in their mist.

The author gets involved in many investigations for some horrific crimes, from crimes of war, to human trafficking for the sex trade, terrorism, gang-related crime, murders, kidnapping, and everything in between. Although he comes across pretty nasty people, he always emphasises the many good professionals he meets along the way, from all nationalities, and also the kindness and the courage of most of the locals, who try to get on with their lives in very traumatic circumstances.

As I have mentioned before, the author’s style is straightforward and conversational, and one gets the sense that if we met Mr Nott, he would sound pretty much as he does in the book, and he does not create a fancy persona for his readers. It is clear that there are things he cannot reveal and he keeps them under wraps, and although we might or might not agree with his political stance (that he only mentions in passing), it is impossible not to appreciate his candour and his dedication. He is not one for complaining, even when circumstances can be frustrating, and he gets on with the task at hand without making excuses or blaming the difficulties on others. He never fails to give credit where credit is due and he makes clear that policing is a team effort. The book is mostly about his missions, although he offers glimpses of his personal life at home and the price he and his family had to pay for his dedication and involvement.

The book is not evenly divided, and the chapters dedicated to Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq are much longer than the rest, probably because they are further away in time, he can discuss them in more detail, and the cases feel more familiar and easier to understand from a general readership perspective. The hardback (and I understand the same applies to the e-book copy) has a number of great colour pictures, and maps that illustrate locations, settings, and protagonists of some of the episodes he describes in the book.

I could not resist and had to share a few samples so you can get a sense of what the writing is like.

Some examples of his dry humour:

“Now, the Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka were not generally too fond of the British, somewhat on account of the RAF bombing them in 1995” (Nott, 2017, p. 56).

Here, talking about one of the men he was working with:

“Amazing to think that if the cold war had turned hot he could have been one half of a two-man team to release his missile and fry millions of British and American citizens” (Nott, 2017, p. 103).

Here, a homage to one of the Americans he worked with, Robert Swann, that I find particularly touching in its understatement:

“He was one of those people who never seemed to be got down by the mayhem all around him and had a wonderful sense of humour; his men adored him. He was killed two years later in northern Iraq when he took a bullet in the neck above the line of his body armour” (Nott, 2017, p. 111).

Writing about the Iraqi Police, he acknowledges the incredibly tough circumstances they work under:

“The Iraqi Police Service (IPS) were claimed by one police general I worked closely with, to be losing 250 men and women killed in action each month, with 400 wounded. The police and country was struggling to survive and the whole operation was frequently likened to building a motorway with the traffic still running on it” (Nott, 2017, p. 117).

Most readers will find parallels with current political situations, will share the author’s outrage at some of the things that happen and at how the different criminal justice systems work (or don’t) and will likely gain insights into the complex situation and the recent history of those areas. Such details, that would be difficult to obtain from any other sources, are invaluable to anybody interested in the topic, and also to researchers or writers thinking about setting up their books or studies in the period and locations.

Although anybody reading the book will understand the author’s decision to retire from such activities, it is clear the international policing forces have lost a great man. I recommend this book to anybody keen on the recent history of the areas in question, also to those interested in international policing and cooperation at such level and to writers who want to research this period and are considering setting their books in that era. A great insight into international policing in zones of conflict provided by a true-life hero.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling! 

Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview #Booklaunch THE FACE OF A MONSTER: AMERICA’S FRANKENSTEIN by Patricia Earnest Suter. A book that will enthrall fans of Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and people interested in XIX century true crime.

Hi all:

I normally don’t share posts on Sundays but as this book launches today and I had run out of space on my usual days, I thought you might have a bit of time to catch up on some reading on a Sunday. Sorry if you don’t…

The Face of a Monster: America's Frankenstein by Patricia Earnest Suter
The Face of a Monster: America’s Frankenstein by Patricia Earnest Suter

The Face of a Monster: America’s Frankenstein by Patricia Earnest Suter

The year 2018 will herald the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The timing seems right for the story of a real monster. German-born immigrant Anton Probst arrived in New York in 1863. Within two hours of his arrival, he enlisted in the Union Army. During the American Civil War, Probst bore witness to mankind’s brutality. Afterwards, he became an inmate at the disreputable Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia.

Frankenstein was first conceived by Shelley in 1816. Her monster was an embodiment of abandonment and loneliness, feelings Shelley shared. In despair, the creature resorted to violence. Fifty years after Frankenstein’s conception, Anton Probst adopted characteristics of Shelley’s monstrous creation. He became Philadelphia’s first mass-murderer when he slaughtered members of the Christopher Dearing family.

After his death, Probst’s story continued. The creature that he had become left a deep impression on the people of Philadelphia and New York. Researchers used Anton Probst’s body to show the effects of galvanization, the same means by which Frankenstein’s monster stirred to life. Incredibly, similarities surface between Shelley and her circle, her monster, and events that transpired when the blood of innocents was shed an ocean away. One defining difference is present. Unlike Shelley’s creature, the story of America’s monster is very real.



Here is the Press Release with a bit more information.

The Face of a Monster: America’s Frankenstein 

Patricia Earnest Suter

Publishing 11th March 2018

Hardback: $14.99 E-book: $9.99 

2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Now is the time for the story of a real monster… 

An original and imaginative blend of fiction and reality, The Face of a Monster tells the true story of Philadelphia’s first mass-murderer –Anton Probst—and the events which occurred fifty years after Frankenstein’s conception. This absorbing and well-documented account weaves Shelley’s famous novel with a similar tale of a very real monster. 

As Patricia Earnest Suter researched atrocities committed in Philadelphia by a European-born immigrant named Anton Probst, it became clear he embodied all that is monstrous. The story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, a childhood favorite of Suter’s, easily came to mind.

Frankenstein, the classic gothic horror novel which has thrilled and engrossed readers for two centuries was first conceived by Shelley in 1816. Her monster personified abandonment and loneliness, feelings Shelley shared. In despair, the creature resorts to violence and the novel darkens into tragedy. Shelley’s masterpiece still maintains a strong grip on the imagination and has been the inspiration for numerous horror movies, television and stage adaptations. 

Fifty years later, Anton Probst adopted characteristics of Shelley’s monstrous creation. German-born immigrant Anton Probst arrived in New York in 1863. Within two hours of his arrival he enlisted in the Union Army. During the American Civil War, Probst bore witness to mankind’s brutality. He later became Philadelphia’s first mass-murderer when he slaughtered members of the Dearing family.

After his death, Probst’s story continued. The creature that he had become left a deep impression on the people of Philadelphia and New York. Researchers used Anton Probst’s body to show the effects of galvanization[1], the same means by which Frankenstein’s monster stirred to life. Incredibly, Probst’s circumstances parallel not only Frankenstein’s monster, but those of Mary Shelley. Relying on primary sources wherever possible, The Face of a Monster is brought to life through the words of Shelley and her inner circle, as well as contemporary accounts of Probst from Philadelphia’s journalists and attorneys.

This is a story of life imitating art. Over the course of researching and writing The Face of a Monster: America’s Frankenstein Suter discovered that monsters exist and that her childhood belief was right: they almost always adopt human form.


Author Patricia Earnest Suter

About the author: 

Pat Earnest Suter lives in Delaware with her family. She operates Earnest Archives and Library, a clearinghouse of Pennsylvania German documents. She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and is the author of The Hanging of Susanna Cox: The True Story of Pennsylvania’s Most Notorious Infanticide and the Legend that has Kept It Alive, The Forgotten Nephew: D. E. Lick and Old Stumpstown and Peter Montelius: Printer and Teacher, Teacher and Printer.

For more information visit:;

[1] Originally in the 19th century, the term “galvanizing” was used to describe the administration of electric shocks

My review:

I was provided an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Most of us have wondered more than once about the nature of fiction and the, sometimes, thin line separating reality from fiction. Although we assume that, on most occasions, fiction imitates reality, sometimes fiction can inspire reality (for better or for worse) and sometimes reality seems to imitate fiction (even if it is just a matter of perception). And although Slavoj Žižek and postmodernism might come to mind, none of those matters are new.

Suter’s non-fiction book combines three topics that are worthy of entire books (and some have been written about at length): Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Mary’s own life, and Anton Probst’s life and the murders he committed. Each chapter of the book alternates between the chronological (up to a point) stories of Shelley and Probst, and comparisons of the developments and events in the “life” (fictional, but nonetheless important) of Frankenstein’s creature. The author uses quotes and close- text-analysis of Frankenstein, and also interprets the text based on the biography of Shelley, to explain how the creature ended up becoming a monster. Although the novel is an early example of science-fiction/horror, many of the subjects it touched belong in literature at large. Nature versus nurture (is the creature bad because of the parts used to make him, or because nobody shows him care and affection?), science versus morality and religion (can knowledge be its own justification, or should there be something of a higher order limiting experiments), prejudice, mob mentality, revenge, loneliness and isolation…

Shelley’s life, marked by tragedy from the very beginning (her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died when Mary was only eleven days old) was dominated by men who never returned her affection and who were happy to blame her for any disasters that happened. She was part of a fascinating group, but, being a woman, she was never acknowledged and did not truly belong in the same circle, and it seems an example of poetic justice that her book has survived, and even overtaken in fame, the works of those men that seemed so important at the time (Lord Byron, Percy B. Shelley…).

I was familiar with Frankenstein and with the life of Mary Shelley and her mother (although I am not an expert) but had not heard about Probst. The author has done extensive research on the subject and provides detailed information about the life of the murderer, and, perhaps more interesting still, his trial and what happened after. That part of the book is invaluable to anybody interested in the development of crime detection in late XIX century America (his crimes took place in Philadelphia, although he was born in Germany), the nature of trials at the time, the history of the prison service, executions, the role of the press and the nature of true crime publications, and also in the state of medical science in that era and the popular experiments and demonstrations that abounded (anatomical dissections, phrenology, galvanism were all the rage, and using the bodies of those who had been punished with the death penalty for experiments was quite common). Human curiosity has always been spurred by the macabre, and then, as much as now, the spectacle of a being that seemed to have gone beyond the bounds of normal behaviour enthralled the public. People stole mementos from the scene of the crime, queued to see the bodies of the victims, and later to see parts of the murderer that were being exhibited. Some things seem to change little.

Each part of the book is well researched and well written (some of the events are mentioned more than once to elaborate a point but justifiably so) and its overall argument is a compelling one, although perhaps not one that will attract all readers. There are indeed parallels and curious similarities in the cases, although for some this might be due to the skill of the writer and might not be evident to somebody looking at Probst’s case in isolation. Even then, this does not diminish from the expertise of the author or from the engrossing topics she has chosen. This is a book that makes its readers think about fame, literature, creativity, family, imaginary and true monsters, crime, victims, and the way we talk and write about crime and criminals. Then and now.

I’d recommend this book to readers interested in Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s work and life, also to people interested in true crime, in particular, XIX century crime in the US. As a writer, I thought this book would be of great interest to writers researching crime enforcement and serial killers in XIX century America, emigration, and also the social history of the time. And if we feel complacent when we read about the behaviour of the experts and the common people when confronted with Probst and his murders, remember to look around you and you’ll see things haven’t changed that much.

The author also provides extensive notes at the end of the book, where she cites all her sources.

In case you want to check, I dedicated a post to Mary Shelley and her mother, here.

Thanks to the publisher, to the author, and to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and REVIEW!

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