The best books on murder in America’s Gilded Age

Who am I?

I have been researching and writing about 19th-century American murders since 2009, and my blog, Murder by Gaslight (murderbygaslight.com), includes illustrated stories of more than 500 murder cases. My book, The Bloody Century: True Tales of Murder in 19th Century America, compiled fifty of the most famous murders. In researching these stories, I prefer to use primary sources such as newspaper articles, pamphlets, and books from the time of the murder. They present the attitudes surrounding the crime without modern analysis and preserve details that tend to disappear over time. My latest book, So Far from Home: The Pearl Bryan Murder, draws almost exclusively from newspaper accounts in 1896 and 1897.


I wrote...

So Far from Home: The Pearl Bryan Murder

By Robert Wilhelm,

Book cover of So Far from Home: The Pearl Bryan Murder

What is my book about?

A headless corpse discovered in the woods of Northern Kentucky in February 1896 disrupted communities in three states. The victim was Pearl Bryan, daughter of a wealthy Indiana farmer, and her suspected killers were students in Cincinnati, Ohio. How her decapitated body ended up in the Highlands of Kentucky is the subject of So Far from Home: The Pearl Bryan Murder.

In the age of yellow journalism, sensational murder cases drove newspaper circulation. Local crimes became national news, and readers followed police investigations and murder trials as if they were serialized mysteries. Pearl Bryan’s murder, featuring a headless corpse, remorseless villains, and threats of civil unrest, fit the bill perfectly. So Far from Home revisits the story as it unfolded in the daily press.

The books I picked & why

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why this book?

The Devil in the White City tells the terrifying story of the cold-blooded serial killer, H. H. Holmes. His killing spree peaked during the World’s Columbian Exposition (The Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893 when dozens, if not hundreds, of missing fairgoers, met their end in Holmes’s “Murder Castle.” By telling the parallel story of the fair’s development and operation, Erik Larson paints a vivid picture of time and place, setting the stage for Holmes’s murderous career. The optimism and achievement of America’s gilded age, embodied by the Exposition, compared with the ruthless efficiency of H. H. Holmes, provides a narrative deeper and more satisfying than either story told alone.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Devil in the White City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Chicago World Fair was the greatest fair in American history. This is the story of the men and women whose lives it irrevocably changed and of two men in particular- an architect and a serial killer. The architect is Daniel Burnham, a man of great integrity and depth. It was his vision of the fair that attracted the best minds and talents of the day. The killer is Henry H. Holmes. Intelligent as well as handsome and charming, Holmes opened a boarding house which he advertised as 'The World's Fair Hotel' Here in the neighbourhood where he was once…


The Trial of Lizzie Borden

By Cara Robertson,

Book cover of The Trial of Lizzie Borden

Why this book?

The 1892 ax murder of Andrew and Abby Borden has become a staple of American popular culture. Everyone familiar with the case has a firmly held opinion on the guilt or innocence of their daughter Lizzie. There are many theories on what may have happened that day, but we have no way of knowing the whole truth. Then, as today, the best we can do is a trial by jury. The Trial of Lizzie Borden is a detailed and well-researched book presenting evidence, testimony, and events surrounding that momentous trial, leaving the reader with the same question that faced the jury—did Lizzie do it? Though unlikely to change many opinions, it gives the reader a greater understanding of why that jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden

By Cara Robertson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Trial of Lizzie Borden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NEW ENGLAND SOCIETY BOOK AWARD

In Cara Robertson’s “enthralling new book,” The Trial of Lizzie Borden, “the reader is to serve as judge and jury” (The New York Times). Based on twenty years of research and recently unearthed evidence, this true crime and legal history is the “definitive account to date of one of America’s most notorious and enduring murder mysteries” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and…


Stagolee Shot Billy

By Cecil Brown,

Book cover of Stagolee Shot Billy

Why this book?

Stagolee, the bad man who will not back down, is an icon of African American mythology. His defining moment, the Christmas night murder of Billy Lyons is the subject of folk and blues songs from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day. Though many know the story, before Cecil Brown’s book, most did not realize that the story was true. On Christmas night, 1895, in St. Louis, “Stack” Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a fight over a Stetson hat. Stagolee Shot Billy documents the events leading to the murder while shining a light on the culture, attitudes, and politics of the St. Louis black community in the 1890s. The shooting of Billy Lyons is a Gilded Age murder that continues to resonate.

Stagolee Shot Billy

By Cecil Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stagolee Shot Billy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although his story has been told countless times - by performers from Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway and the Isley brothers to Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown and Taj Mahal - no one seems to know who Stagolee really is. Stack Lee? Stagger Lee? He has gone by all these names in the ballad that has kept his exploits before us for over a century. Delving into a subculture of St. Louis known as "Deep Morgan", Cecil Brown emerges with the facts behind the legend to unfold the mystery of Stack Lee and the incident that led to murder in…


Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

By Virginia A. McConnell,

Book cover of Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

Why this book?

Arsenic Under the Elms tells the story of two sensational but unrelated murders in New Haven, Connecticut, in the late 19th century. Mary Stannard a 22-year-old domestic servant was found stabbed and poisoned on a path near her home. The prime suspect was her pastor, former employer, and alleged seducer, Rev. Herbert H. Hayden. Jennie Cramer, a beautiful young woman from a poor family was also poisoned, her body found floating in the ocean. Suspicion fell on Jimmie and Walter Malley, nephew and son of the richest man in New Haven. In both cases, the disparity in social class between victim and suspect became the defining feature of the case and the greatest impediment in obtaining justice for the murdered woman.

Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

By Virginia A. McConnell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arsenic Under the Elms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The attorney Virginia A. McConnell provides a riveting view of Connecticut in the late 1800s as revealed through the unrelated but disturbingly similar murders of two young women. The first, Mary Stannard, was an unmarried mother who worked as a domestic and believed herself to be pregnant for a second time. The man accused of her murder, Reverend Herbert Hayden, was a married lay minister whose seduction of Mary was common knowledge. Three years later, Jennie Cramer, another woman of low social status, was found floating facedown in Long Island Sound off West Haven. The characters involved in the commission,…


Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts

By George R. Dekle Sr.,

Book cover of Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts

Why this book?

Carlyle W. Harris was a promising young medical student in 1891 with an unfortunate obsession with sex. He would constantly regale his friends and associates with tales of his sexual conquests. When he failed to seduce 19-year-old Helen Potts, he convinced her to marry him but keep the marriage a secret. Six Capsules tells the story of Harris’s plot to murder Helen with a poisoned capsule to keep the secret from being revealed. The author, George R. Dekle Sr., a retired law professor and former prosecutor, provides a detailed analysis of Harris’s sensational trial for murder. The book’s vivid account of the murder and its consequences contrasts the moral and legal atmosphere of the 1890s with that of today.

Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts

By George R. Dekle Sr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Six Capsules as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As Ted Bundy was to the 20th century, so Carlyle Harris was to the 19th. Harris was a charismatic, handsome young medical student with an insatiable appetite. His trail of debauched women ended with Helen Potts, a beautiful young woman of wealth and privilege who was determined to keep herself pure for marriage. Unable to conquer her by other means, Harris talked her into a secret marriage under assumed names, and when threatened with exposure, he poisoned her.

The resulting trial garnered national headlines and launched the careers of two of New York's most famous prosecutors, Francis L. Wellman and…


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