I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt For America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

This book is much more than about Jesse Pomeroy, who in 1874 was arrested for the brutal murder of a boy, and eventually they would charge him for the murder of a girl who had going missing when they found her body.  He was only fourteen when this happened.  This book tries to explain how such a boy and these events could come about, in Boston.  It is also the tale of the horrific fire of 1872 that could have been prevented and the exploration of madness in general, and most especially in himself, by Herman Melville.   This book puts you firmly at a time when things are changing and the environment that these events occurred.

Jesse Pomeroy was the second son and was routinely beat while naked, black and blue, all over his body, while he was barely a child.  Eventually his mother divorced her husband over this, but in a way, it was too late.  A "monster" had been born.  When Jesse was twelve he began to lure younger boys away to quiet places, unclothe them, and beat them with a belt, making them say filthy things while he masturbated.  By the time of the last boy, he was starting to use a sharp object to inflict pain.  The boy was able to recognize Jesse because of his eye.  When he was a child, he had an illness that caused his eye to become albino white and prompted much bullying by other children that he began to act out and was forced to drop out of school.  But he was an avid reader of the penny dreadfuls, full of violence and sex, and Herman Melville's first book Typee.

Melville's father left his large family in dire straights when he suddenly died.  He had possibly suffered from a mental illness and his mother was often depressed.  When Melville would write, he would shut out the world and often in his book he studied madness, because he suspected he might also be afflicted, and his family was sure he was.  Melville would use clinical terms in his books, that captured the eye of Jesse.  And if you really want to stretch things, Moby Dick was an evil white whale, just as Jesse had a white eye that people saw as evil. 

The Fire Chief of Boston had been complaining for years about how unprepared Boston would be if a fire occurred.  They needed updates and improvements.  After the Chicago fire of 1871, he examined that fire and noticed that town had similar layouts to Boston and that such a thing could easily happen in Boston, but no one would listen to him.  Unfortunately, when the fire struck in the business district, the horses all had influenza.  It was a disaster.  The Fire Chief was trying to fight the fire the best he could, but was being overridden by the Mayor and Council on how stop it, which only made it worse.  And who was the one everyone blamed?  That Fire Chief.  Rebuilding was going on in 1872 when strange things began to happen.

After being caught, Jesse readily confessed to what he had done to the boys and was sent to that era's Juvenile Delinquent facility.  He was supposed to remain there until adulthood, but he was such a model inmate and his mother and brother really needed him to help run their business, that two men, one a cop, legally petitioned to have him be able to leave.  It never made the papers.  Not long after was when a ten-year-old girl went missing.  There was a search, which yielded nothing and police gave up on the case.  Then a four-year-old boy is found in the water, beaten and cut up.  The detective in charge thought this reminded him of Jesse and when he found out Jesse was out, he had him arrested.  Eventually Jesse would get a lawyer who would try for the insanity plea, a new idea at the time, but instead, he was found guilty.  Now the governor had to determine whether to hang such a young boy or give him a life sentence instead.  No one believed he should be roaming the streets and most had such moral outrage they believed hanging was to good for him.  Eventually after two years he would be placed in prison in solitary for the rest of his life.  This did not seem to bother him even though he made numerous escape attempts (and almost made a few of them).  He spent his time reading and learning and trying to get released.  But that was not meant to be.  He would spend over fifty years there before being sent to a farm for the infirm, which he was completely against.

The author asked a retired FBI Forensic Profiler to examine the evidence and try to come up with a diagnosis.  His was sexual sadism.  And the profiler said that if they had not caught him, he would have continued, but only gotten better and harder to catch.  Its hard to believe that someone so young could be so bent and twisted and oddly enough, more boys began popping up around New England committing similar crimes after Jesse was sent to prison.  Some, like today, blamed the boys reading materiel, but there is a lot more to it than that.  Nothing is ever that easily explained.  This is an incredible book.  It even made me want to read Melville, which is quite a feat.  People rather quickly forgot this notorious young man and I have never heard of him.  I think that would have made him unhappy; not to be remembered, and perhaps that is for the best. 

Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Wilderness-Ruin-Madness-Americas-Youngest/dp/0062273485/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469731872&sr=1-1&keywords=a+wilderness+in+ruin

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