The best books about true crimes that are fascinating, but not so well known

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m both a history buff and a criminal defense attorney. I grew up in a small North Carolina town, as the son of two educators who encouraged me to read anything I could get my hands on. My favorite stories were adventures and mysteries, especially courtroom dramas. Clarence Darrow was my historical hero, so I guess it wasn’t surprising that I would attend law school and try my hand at legal practice. I practiced criminal law for about 15 years, long enough to get a feel for how investigations and trials really work. That experience had a major impact on my own writing, and how to pick out a really fascinating true story.


I wrote...

Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind, and the Quest for Justice

By Charles Oldham,

Book cover of Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind, and the Quest for Justice

What is my book about?

Ship of Blood is the first full account of a fascinating true tale. On an October night in 1905, a horrifying scene unfolded on a wooden vessel off the coast of North Carolina. One crewman lay dead, his blood streaming down the deck. The four officers were all murdered too, their bodies dumped overboard. Only three sailors remained alive, telling different stories, blaming each other. The three sailors were Black, the dead officers were white.

So began a legal spectacle that would fuel a sensational trial in Wilmington, where a violent race riot had occurred not long before. Now the city was in the clutches of white supremacists. Most would have predicted a quick verdict and a triple hanging. Yet the legal drama would defy all predictions, lasting seven years.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story

Charles Oldham Why did I love this book?

In one of my very favorite books of the past twenty years, Tim Tyson describes the brutal racist murder of a Black man in small-town North Carolina in 1970. He also goes into the aftermath, which Tim personally observed with the eyes of the ten-year-old son of the town’s Methodist minister. His father tried sincerely, with little success, to bridge the town’s racial divide as militant young Blacks took to the streets, burning warehouses. Tim is a remarkably poignant storyteller, and every page is stamped with his compassion, his wit, his keen eye for human nature. And most especially, with the wisdom that he learned from his father over the years. Some folks have compared it with To Kill a Mockingbird, and I definitely agree. And on a personal note, Tim’s father, Reverend Dr. Vernon Tyson, was a friend of my family for many years.

By Timothy B. Tyson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood Done Sign My Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The “riveting”* true story of the fiery summer of 1970, which would forever transform the town of Oxford, North Carolina—a classic portrait of the fight for civil rights in the tradition of To Kill a Mockingbird
 
*Chicago Tribune

On May 11, 1970, Henry Marrow, a twenty-three-year-old black veteran, walked into a crossroads store owned by Robert Teel and came out running. Teel and two of his sons chased and beat Marrow, then killed him in public as he pleaded for his life. 
 
Like many small Southern towns, Oxford had barely been touched by the civil rights movement. But in the…


Book cover of A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial

Charles Oldham Why did I love this book?

This book tells of the shocking axe murder of a white woman in rural Virginia in 1895, and the trials of three Black women who were accused of the crime. Given the time and place, you would not expect things to go well for those Black defendants. But as with the murder drama that I describe in my book, many things about this case defy expectations. A surprising group of people, Black and white, worked together to achieve some measure of justice. This book definitely served as a model for me as I was writing my own. And the author’s attention to detail, with every fact carefully documented, truly makes it a marvel of historical research. 

By Suzanne Lebsock,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Murder in Virginia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's 1895 in Virginia, and a white woman lies in her farmyard, murdered with an ax. Suspicion soon falls on a young black sawmill hand, who tries to flee the county. Captured, he implicates three women, accusing them of plotting the murder and wielding the ax. In vivid courtroom scenes, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Suzanne Lebsock recounts their dramatic trials and brings us close to women we would never otherwise know: a devout (and pregnant) mother of nine; another hard-working mother (also of nine); and her plucky, quick-tempered daughter. All claim to be innocent. With the danger of lynching high, can…


Book cover of Until You Are Dead

Charles Oldham Why did I love this book?

The story of a horrific miscarriage of justice in rural Canada in 1959. Fourteen-year-old Steven Truscott was charged with the rape and murder of a 12-year-old schoolmate, mostly because he was the last person seen with the victim, riding a bike along a country road. Today, modern crime analysts would look at this case and see immediately that the likely perpetrator was an adult pedophile, not an adolescent boy. But at the time, local law enforcement jumped to the wrong conclusion. Steven was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, and although the sentence was commuted on humanitarian grounds, he spent ten years in prison. It took more than four decades of work by attorneys, and a few diligent journalists, to clear Steven’s name. This book tells the whole tale.

By Julian Sher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Until You Are Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

FULLY REVISED AND UPDATED

National Bestseller
Winner of the Canadian Authors Association Birks Family Foundation Award for Biography
Finalist for the Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

The investigation that helped Truscott get a new appeal.

In 1959, a popular schoolboy, just 14 years old, was convicted and sentenced to hang for the rape and murder of his 12-year-old classmate. That summer, Canada lost its innocence and the shocking story of Steven Truscott became imprinted on the nation’s memory. First published in 2001, “Until You Are Dead” revealed new witnesses, leads and evidence never presented to the courts.…


Book cover of Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

Charles Oldham Why did I love this book?

Frank Lloyd Wright is undoubtedly America’s most famous architect. Everyone knows his name, and those who study the field know how his distinctive styles changed the face of architecture in the early 1900s. But few realize the impact that a brutal mass murder had upon Wright’s life and work. It happened at his Taliesin estate in rural Wisconsin in 1914. One of Wright’s house servants, Julian Carlton, went on a rampage with an axe, hacking to death Wright’s lover Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her two children. Four others also were killed when Carlton set the house on fire. Of course the tragedy was personally devastating for Wright, and it also changed the creative course of his life. After Taliesin was destroyed, he moved away from the Prairie House style of organic architecture, for which he had originally become famous.

By William R. Drennan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Death in a Prairie House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most pivotal and yet least understood event of Frank Lloyd Wright's celebrated life involves the brutal murders in 1914 of seven adults and children dear to the architect and the destruction by fire of Taliesin, his landmark residence, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Supplying both a gripping mystery story and a portrait of the artist in his prime, William Drennan wades through the myths surrounding Wright and the massacre, casting fresh light on the formulation of Wright's architectural ideology and the cataclysmic effects that the Taliesin murders exerted on the fabled architect and on his subsequent designs.


Book cover of Met Her on the Mountain: The Murder of Nancy Morgan

Charles Oldham Why did I love this book?

A story of a brutal crime, of a long hunt for justice, and of small-town corruption at its worst. In June 1970, Nancy Morgan was murdered in a remote mountain cove in Madison County, North Carolina. The case lay dormant until 1984, when one of Nancy’s friends was unexpectedly charged with the crime. But the prosecution’s case fell apart at trial, and the author lays out a persuasive theory that the county sheriff—long known for his family’s style of local machine politics—instigated the charges against an innocent man in order to boost his re-election bid, when he knew full well that the real murderer was the son of one of his political supporters. For anyone who has ever posed the question—how bad can politics get?—this story provides a very disturbing answer.

By Mark I. Pinsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Met Her on the Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In June of 1970, the body of 24-year-old Nancy Morgan was found inside a government-owned car in Madison County, North Carolina. It had been four days since anyone had heard from the bubbly, hard-working brunette who had moved to the Appalachian community less than a year prior as an organizer for Volunteers in Service to America. At the time of her death, her tenure in the Tar Heel State was just weeks from ending, her intentions set on New York and nursing school and a new life that she would never see. The initial investigation was thwarted by inept police…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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