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Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You…

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

by Harold Schechter

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Harold Schechter is one of my favorite true crime authors. I have several of his books covering the crimes of Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Jesse Pomeroy and others and one day hope to find myself with time to read some of his fiction. He writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible and manages to speak about the unspeakable without the bombast and disgust that I am sure would mar my writing were I ever to try to write about killers.

So given his skills, I should not have been so smug as to think this book had little to teach me. I’ve stated on this site before that up until 2000 or so, I knew about almost all serial killers, and I did know quite a bit. But I certainly knew far less than I thought I did because in this book of more obscure American killers, some of whom are serial killers or mass murderers, I only knew of three killers out of the thirty-one presented. Among poisoners, sex killers, lonely hearts murderers and family annihilators, I knew of the Smutty Nose Killer, an angry seaman who killed a house full of women for money; Carlyle Harris, a despicable seducer and poisoner; and William Edward Hickman, a kidnapper and mutilator. I had sort of heard of Andrew Kehoe, having come across his name in reference to school mass murderers, but had never read about him in any depth.

Since I am attempting to write quickly for Halloween, I’m going to write about the two murders I know best, and hope I can give justice to this compendium as I do it. A lot of the true crime encyclopedias out there are tiresome cash grabs, covering the same ground over and over and discussing intricate and fascinating murders in so little detail that the reader finds herself longing for text at least as comprehensive as Wikipedia. Not so with Schechter, and even if my discussion doesn’t resonate, you should look into him if his name is new to you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s probably my fault.

Smutty Nose

I hate to call any of these murders my “favorite” but I find the Smutty Nose murders absolutely fascinating. This may be the murders most casual true crime readers know the best because it was written about in a fiction novel by Anita Shreve (called The Weight of Water) and the book was adapted into a film of the same name that featured Sarah Polley, Sean Penn and the amazing British actress, Katrin Cartlidge, who died too young from peritonitis.

The Smutty Nose murders get their name from the location of the killing – off the coast of New Hampshire there is a series of small islands that are pretty much the last place anyone would want to live but in 1873 some hearty folk decided to live on these islands and a Norwegian family lived on one of the islands called Smutty Nose. Quoting Anita Shreve, Schechter tells us the island got its name from “a clump of seaweed on the nose of a rock extending into the ocean.” On this island lived Maren Hontvet, a 26 year old woman; her husband John; Maren’s older sister Karen; Maren and Karen’s brother Ivan; Ivan’s wife Anethe; and John’s brother Matthew. The three men were commercial fishermen and occasionally worked with other fishermen in the area. They lived in a relatively small house, yet they took in boarders periodically, notably Louis Wagner, the 28 year old Prussian immigrant who would eventually slay everyone he found in the house on Smutty Island.

Louis Wagner was angry because he did not earn enough money and decided to rob the Hontvets.

Wagner was intimately familiar with the Hontvets, their financial circumstances, and the layout of their little home, having boarded with them for several months. By his own later admission, they had always treated him “like a brother.” During one of his recurrent bouts of illness, he had been nursed back to health by the women, who, in his words, “were most kind to him.” He would repay that kindness with the sort of atrocious cruelty that defies easy psychological explanation and tempts even rationalists to speak of pure evil.

Schechter isn’t being hyperbolic – what Wagner did to those women was appalling. Striking on March 3, 1873, Wagner knew the men of the house would be out. He had met them in Portsmouth and they told him they were delayed and would not go back to the small island until the morning. Wagner seized his chance. He stole a boat and rowed his way to the island. It was after ten pm when he reached the house, and all the women had gone to bed. Karen was sleeping on a cot in the warm kitchen, while Maren and Anethe slept in a bed in a nearby room. Around midnight Wagner burst into the house and launched an attack so quickly and without warning that Maren had no idea what was happening. She died believing that her brother-in-law John had snapped and was bludgeoning her – Wagner used a kitchen chair to beat her.

Maren heard her sister screaming and could not get the latch on the door to work and was unable to get to her sister to help her. Karen ran to the door and hitting the door she dislodged the latch and Maren was able to let her wounded sister inside, but Wagner made it inside the room too and began to beat the two women with a long piece of wood from the chair he broke over Karen. Somehow Maren got her sister inside and shut and locked the door with Wagner outside. Anethe ran for the window to escape and Maren told her to scream in the hopes people on nearby islands might hear her and send help. But Anethe was scared to the point that she couldn’t utter a sound. Wagner found her outside the house and Anethe finally was able to say something. Recognizing her killer, she said, “Louis! Louis!” letting Maren know who was waging this attack. Maren had made it to the window just in time to see Wagner pick up an axe leaning on the side of the house and strike her with it.

Maren had a dire choice to make – stay and try to defend herself and her mortally wounded sister, because Karen was too injured to flee, or run away on her own and leave her sister to die. As she heard Wagner reenter the house, Maren had to act quickly.

Now it was either flee or die for Maren. Grabbing the nearest garment, a skirt, she threw it over her shoulders, climbed out the window, hurried past the slaughtered corpse of Anethe and – with the little dog, Ringe, following close on her heels – searched desperately for a hiding place.

As she ran, she was able to hear Wagner killing Karen. She made her way to the far end of the island, she wedged herself between two rocks and she and the little dog huddled together for warmth. She could barely breathe as she heard Wagner searching for her.

It was a situation so nightmarish that it has become a staple of horror movies: an implacable monster hunting for a young woman who huddles nearby in absolute terror, barely daring to breathe for fear her hiding place would be discovered.
Ending here to avoid "spoilers and because this is yet another of my entirely too long looks at a book. You can read the rest of this and my other Halloween 2017 entries over on Odd Things Considered. ( )
  oddbooks | Oct 18, 2017 |
A well put together book that sheds light on so many sensational-for-their-time killers who have since fallen by the waysides of history. It's easy to read and nicely organized. The best and worst part about this book is that it's got more info on some very obscure killers (e.g., Lizzie Halliday) than you can find in most places. ( )
  majesdane | Aug 8, 2017 |
I like my true crime to have more to it than this. As a collection of people it would be interesting to learn more about, this book is fine, but it isn't interesting of itself. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Nov 12, 2014 |
"In this book, Schechter has compiled short but gruesome accounts of several of the most shocking murderers in United States history. These men and women were, in their respective times, considered to be the perpetrators of Crimes of the Century - the most vile and atrocious fiends this country had ever seen. But they have since faded into obscurity.

Now, however, Schechter has brought them back...

...Psycho USA is a great read for anyone who is interested in things that are morbidly fascinating. It took me longer than I expected to get through it, but only because school + two jobs leaves me precious little time for leisure reading most of the time. People with less time-consuming schedules could probably get through it in a night or two...

...Another thing I had a tendency to do whilst reading Psycho USA (and another reason this took so much longer than expected to finish) was I'd open up the internet and end up doing searches for the people mentioned in this book, especially the ones brought up in passing but who did not have a chapter dedicated to them...

...There were some technical aspects about the format of the book that I didn't care for, like the way the photo captions were in the same font size as the main text, which was a little confusing until I realized I was looking at a caption, and not misplaced text. That is my only real complaint, though...It was a very interesting read - I'm a fan of any book that prompts further research on my part, so Schechter wins points for that...

...Overall, I rather enjoyed this book, and I'd recommend it. However, and this is probably obvious because of the subject matter, but a lot of the descriptions in this book are pretty detailed, especially those that are in the killers' own words, so if that sort of thing tends to bother you...this might not be the book for you."

For full review, please visit me at Here Be Bookwyrms on Blogger:

http://herebebookwyrms.blogspot.com/2013/10/pyscho-usa-famous-american-killers-y... ( )
  here.be.bookwyrms | Oct 2, 2013 |
There's nothing I love more than reading about some true crime--the more unknown the better. Sure, I like learning new things about all the cases I've already heard about but it doesn't beat learning about it for the first time. I'm not ashamed to say I hadn't heard about any cases gone into detail here. The little asides, especially the ones about "murder ballads" were also fascinating. Everything about this book is a five star for your average true crime connoisseur.

a copy was given to me by a publisher via netgalley for an honest review. ( )
  lovelylime | Sep 21, 2013 |
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DURING THE LATE SUMMER AND EARLY FALL OF 2010 -- WHILE THIS BOOK WAS still in progress -- the country was riveted by the trial of Steven J. Hayes, accused of one of the most monstrous crimes in recent memory.
PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THAT WE LIVE IN A UNIQUELY VIOLENT AGE CLEARLY HAVEN'T been paying much attention to the past 250,000 years or so of human history. Our species has been committing appalling acts of savagery -- rape, mutilation, torture, cannibalism, et cetera -- since the days we dwelt in caves. (p. 95)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345524470, Paperback)

In the horrifying annals of American crime, the infamous names of brutal killers such as Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, and Berkowitz are writ large in the imaginations of a public both horrified and hypnotized by their monstrous, murderous acts. But for every celebrity psychopath who’s gotten ink for spilling blood, there’s a bevy of all-but-forgotten homicidal fiends studding the bloody margins of U.S. history. The law gave them their just desserts, but now the hugely acclaimed author of The Serial Killer Files and The Whole Death Catalog gives them their dark due in this absolutely riveting true-crime treasury. Among America’s most cold-blooded you’ll meet
• Robert Irwin, “The Mad Sculptor”: He longed to use his carving skills on the woman he loved—but had to settle for making short work of her mother and sister instead.
• Peter Robinson, “The Tell-Tale Heart Killer”: It took two days and four tries for him to finish off his victim, but no time at all for keen-eyed cops to spot the fatal flaw in his floor plan.
• Anton Probst, “The Monster in the Shape of a Man”: The ax-murdering immigrant’s systematic slaughter of all eight members of a Pennsylvania farm family matched the savagery of the Manson murders a century later.
• Edward H. Ruloff, “The Man of Two Lives”: A genuine Jekyll and Hyde, his brilliant scholarship disguised his bloodthirsty brutality, and his oversized brain gave new meaning to “mastermind.”
Spurred by profit, passion, paranoia, or perverse pleasure, these killers—the Witch of Staten Island, the Smutty Nose Butcher, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, and many others—span three centuries and a host of harrowing murder methods. Dramatized in the pages of penny dreadfuls, sensationalized in tabloid headlines, and immortalized in “murder ballads” and classic fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and Theodore Dreiser, the demonic denizens of Psycho USA may be long gone to the gallows—but this insidiously irresistible slice of gothic Americana will ensure that they’ll no longer be forgotten.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:36 -0400)

Shares the stories of lesser-known serial killers including "Mad Sculptor" Robert Irwin, "Tell-Tale Heart Killer" Peter Robinson, and "Man of Two Lives" Edward H. Ruloff, in an text that evaluates their mental statuses and motivations.

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