The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
In my last blog, I wrote about everyone’s favorite vampire, Bela Lugosi and his relationship to Brooklyn or, at least, Brooklyn gorillas. In this post, I want to discuss a real Brooklyn vampire. And, I ain’t foolin’.
His name was Albert Fish and he worked as a house painter from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression. As he aged, he resembled a cuddly uncle. But, over those four decades, he abducted, raped, killed and ate children all over metropolitan New York. His work as a house painter gave him access to perfect hiding and abduction spaces like cellars, basements, hallways and sheds; and lethal access to children. Four decades. We still don’t know how many tenement kids fell into the clutches of this real live boogieman.
One such unfortunate child was four-year-old Billy Gaffney. He had lived in my neighborhood. In fact, Billy was abducted in 1927 while playing in front of his tenement no more than five minutes from my 1950s boyhood home. His body was never found because Fish ate most of it. (If you are not of squeamish disposition you can read Fish’s description of that act in excruciating detail on Wikipedia. He makes Hannibal Lecter, Freddie Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and Norman Bates look like the Vienna Boys’ Choir.)
Billy’s abduction hit close to home for me (literally and figuratively) because of something that happened to me while I was playing in front of my tenement in 1957.
This was that incident…
One day, a strange man wearing dark sunglasses who was or pretended to be dumb appeared on my block accompanied by a large, menacing dog. He rang my tenement’s vestibule doorbells in an attempt to sell an obviously second-hand Mickey Mouse film projector. The Mickey Mouse Club was every kid’s “must watch” show so this projector was prime Pied Piper bait.
The stranger was quickly told to fuck off by the housewives annoyed at having been drawn away from their soap operas and quiz shows. I then inexplicably offered to take him around the corner to a neighbor I was sure would want to buy his piece of plastic crap. I trustingly placed my seven-year-old hand in his and lead the way with his dog nipping at my heels.
The neighbor’s vestibule door was unlocked so I didn’t bother ringing her bell and just lead my new friend into her very dark hallway. I heard her TV blaring and knocked on her door. She answered with an angry expression that quickly changed to alarm. She told the stranger to fuck off and slammed the door. (I still wonder why she didn’t pull me inside, then slam the door and call the cops! But, maybe she wanted to get back to her soap.)
I shrugged and lead the strange man and his snarling dog back out into the sunshine. As we exited the building a group of my friends shouted from the corner with obvious and uncharacteristic alarm, “Hey, Jackie, ya mother wants ya. She sez get up da house. Now!” I turned to apologize to the man but his dog bared its teeth and lunged at me. I jumped back, looked into the face of my new friend and saw that he was leering at me with an evil smile. Only then did I realize that I had broken the cardinal rule of childhood. He was a stranger. One of the strangers I’d been told not to talk to. Not to get into cars with. Not to take candy from. I was in danger. Stranger danger. With a sudden surge of fight-or-flight energy, I turned and bolted the fuck away from him and his mutt.
This incident (whether the threat was real or imagined) is why I have always been especially horrified and fascinated by Albert Fish. I can’t help wondering if Billy Gaffney also turned and saw his “new friend” leering down at him; if Billy felt the same shock of terror run through his little body as the one I can feel as I sit here typing more than six decades later.
Ironically, the sensational trial of Albert Fish was knocked off the front pages by the even more sensational Lindbergh baby kidnapping. But, I’m convinced it was not knocked from the collective folk-memory of my Brooklyn neighborhood; its shared shuddering-memory of a Brooklyn vampire who had stalked its children in cellars, basements, hallways and sheds not that many years before I played in those dark, hidden, dangerous places.
If you can stomach a disturbing but cathartic journey into the darkest of dark places then spend some time on the internet searching for Albert Fish the Brooklyn Vampire. There have been two awful movies made about Fish and countless TV documentaries and books of varying quality. I recommend the book Trail of Blood by Michael Angelella.
It was the summer of 1960 and my family was walking past Coney Island’s World in Wax Musee when the barker shouted out, “See the rapist Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber!”
“What’s a rapist?” I innocently asked my mother.
“Uh… ummm… a man who forces himself on a woman,” she flustered.
“Oh,” I replied with no idea of what she meant.
Soon after that we shared another awkward moment of sex education. It happened one night while I was watching TV. She and her friends were in the next room chain smoking and “gassing” when someone on TV mentioned “impotence.”
“Hey, Ma, what’s impotence?” I shouted into the room full of Catholic housewives.
Long frozen silence from the stunned women.
“Unable to perform like a man,” my mother eventually shouted in answer.
“Oh,” I shouted in return and (again) with no idea what she meant.
The World In Wax Musee was owned by one of Coney Island’s great characters, Lillie Santangelo. Caryl Chessman wasn’t the only predatory sex fiend rendered in wax in Lillie’s macabre collection. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in there, too; along with “full moon” killers, “vampire” killers, “bathtub” killers, “screwdriver” killers and Richard Speck the sub-human filth who tortured, raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck escaped Chessman’s fate but unfortunately enjoyed his life in prison. He even had a half-assed sex change and acquired a set of phoney tits. These helped him attract and suck every swinging Black dick he could get his lips around.
Chessman and Speck both had scores of bleeding-heart intellectuals, rootless cosmopolitans and Hollywood champagne-socialists pleading their cases and screaming for their release. But, to no avail. Both of these pieces of utter shit died behind bars. Hehehe.
Meanwhile, back at the Wax Musee, Lillie also had an entire exhibit dedicated to Lina Medina, the world’s youngest mother, a Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of five. The jury is still out on which of her loving male relatives raped the child.
Fast forward to 1981
I was directing an off-Broadway play and told my designer that I’d like our stage set to look and feel like the World in Wax Musee because it was the most frightening space I’d ever been in. The brutal artlessness of the exhibits made it so. Its dioramas-of-death captured a bottom-feeder, off-hand brand of sex-violence that even the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could not match.
It was the very cheapness of the materials and mannequins used that gave the murder scenes their terrible power. The ill-fitting clothes and ill-posed limbs evoked nothing of reality. Yet, it was this very absence of life, movement or any hint of reality that made the mannequins seem ready to burst into murderous life. It was the gouts of ketchup-like blood splattered on the walls and linoleum; the flickering fluorescent lights and the chicken wire that separated the viewer from the crime scenes that chilled to the bone.
There was something especially unsettling about a cheap dummy sticking a screwdriver into another cheap dummy’s neck or hiding under a female dummy’s bed. It was beyond the stuff of nightmares.
Lillie also had a Hall of Fame where you really needed a score card to tell the players apart. I suspect Lillie had only one Caucasian head mould and one Negro head mould coz Elvis looked like Harry Truman looked like John Glenn looked like Popeye. And, Muhammad Ali looked like Jackie Robinson looked like Louis Armstrong looked like Buckwheat.
Anyway… my designer visited the Musee and later cursed me for scarring her for life. While there, she spoke with Lillie who mentioned that she needed a new recorded announcement to draw a crowd but didn’t know any actors who could make one. Her budget was $10. My designer told Lillie about me and that’s how I got to spend an afternoon wandering around the World in Wax Musee (by my lonesome) gathering ideas and composing my spiel. (I have never looked over my shoulder so many times in my life!) P.S. I did the gig for free.
Lillie let me sit in her office to write my script. I noticed that she had a large ashtray on her desk filled with artificial eyes, ears and fingers that had been plucked or melted off. (I confess that I stole one of the fingers. I like to think it came from the hand of Red Foxx but it might have belonged to Hickman the Fox who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child in 1927.)
Lillie didn’t play my recording for long because she shut the Musee’s doors soon after my visit. (Jeez, I didn’t think I was that bad!) But, I wasn’t surprised when she cIosed. I had been there on a summer weekend and I’d had the Musee to myself for hours. Lillie had even tried throwing a few phrases of Spanish and Ebonics into her pitch in an attempt to draw in Coney’s new demographic but, alas, it was not to be. The writing was on the Musee wall.
In 1986, Lillie’s entire collection was sold at auction for a tidy sum – there has always been a lucrative market for circus and side show collectibles. And, her Musee was second in size and importance only to Madame Tussaud’s in London! Along with the dioramas-of-death, 100 wax heads found in Lillie’s attic were also sold. The auction catalogue listed heads of Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra. But, how could they tell? Those heads could easily have been Leopold and Loeb or Abbott and Costello.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
So many of those who shaped my life are dead – dead as the airline passengers who fell to earth one Brooklyn Christmas; dead as the woman I saw speared by a falling window pole on 42nd street. Dead. And, so many of the other souls who merely touched my life – they must also surely be dead. They could not have survived their fragile, reckless lives ’til now. I want to gather them all to me and bury them all in Green-Wood Cemetery – there to find eternal rest in a plot guarded by weeping Protestant angels, ivy-covered Civil War soldiers and by me. Their graves, a stone’s throw across the street from my boyhood stoop, will be dug in the sacred soil where Washington’s troops were slaughtered and the American Revolution saved.
I will spend my final days on that stoop staring into Green-Wood, staring into eternity. I will daily tend their graves while intoning Carrie’s poem – “What is death?” Maybe one of my dead will have the answer.
Forty-five years after Carrie’s murder, I search through the New York Library’s aptly named newspaper morgue. I read everything I can find about Carrie. I scan the New York and Indiana papers for months before and after her murder. The ephemera surrounding her death distracts me. Yankee scores. African famine. Watergate. Unimportant, long-ago-bullshit.
I give all the info I find to Sergeant Tom, my photographer, and ask him to look into Carrie’s murder for me. He’s long retired but has friends in the Cold Case Squad. They owe him a favor so they look long and hard but Carrie’s case file is missing.
“Don’t worry, Tommy. It’s in there somewhere. It’s just misplaced.”
Actress slain. File missing. Presumed misplaced.
Not much of an ending. So, I can’t end here.
Maybe this way –
Still chasing her ghost, I look online for everything, anything about Carrie. I wander around her Indiana town via Google Maps. I lay a wreath on her tombstone via Find-A-Grave. (Her father was buried in that same cemetery a mere seven years after Carrie was – no doubt her killer’s second victim.)
From a Kokomo, Indiana newspaper I learn that a teenage poem of Carrie’s had been read aloud at her funeral. The title of her poem? “What Is Death?” I don’t have the answer to Carrie’s question. Maybe she does. Now. Maybe her question holds the answer to mine – “Why does her murder haunt me so?”
Online I find a long-abandoned “Question-and-Answer” thread begun by an Indiana college student who was writing a term paper about Carrie’s murder. The student posted some questions. Someone in Indiana, who claimed to have known Carrie, posted some answers.
Carrie’s body was found at 5:30 AM by a milkman. Imagine. Brooklyn still had milkmen in 1973. A tenant reported hearing something at about the time of Carrie’s murder. It wasn’t a scream or a scuffle, just a “something.” There were reports of suspicious cars seen in the area but the cops checked and dismissed that angle. Remember Carrie’s street was a Dead-End so a getaway car was unlikely. No. Carrie had been followed from the subway. The cops were sure. They questioned people who’d been on her train, “See anything strange?”
No. No one had. The murderer had probably been lurking near the subway station in Brooklyn Heights. A crime of opportunity. Of impulse.
Committed in a minute.
Carried out in a frenzy.
That was the headline.
Tell me I’m dreaming. This is a movie, right?
The Daily News and New York Post ran the story big. For a few days. Carrie’s smiley 8×10 photo filled their front pages. For a few days. A pretty someone I knew was a tabloid headline. A pretty someone whose death I foresaw. A pretty someone from Indiana. Slain. The streets of New York became a B-movie nightmare-montage in which I saw Carrie’s face everywhere. She smiled at me from every newsstand I passed and from every TV screen in every bar. I found her smile abandoned on subway seats. Discarded in trashcans. Thrown in the gutter.
Mayor Lindsay took a big interest in the case. For a few days. Crime and New York had become synonymous under his libtard administration. He appointed extra cops to the hunt and invited Carrie’s parents to stay in the Mayor’s mansion. I could give him the benefit of a doubt but I won’t. He felt guilty and obligated.
“Dear God,” Handsome John Lindsay whined to his campaign manager “not another Kitty Genovese, not on my watch, not in ‘Fun City’.”
Then the faces of other murdered girls pushed Carrie’s smile from the front pages and from memory.
I told the cop who was interrogating me that a few days after seeing Carrie walk through Needle Park in a trance, I learned that she and her roommate’s possessions had been stolen. They had packed their car for the move from tenement, roach-infested Hell’s Kitchen to toney, roach-infested Brooklyn Heights. But, they’d committed a cardinal sin. They had loaded their car full of their stuff. I imagined a portable TV with a mouse-ear aerial wrapped in aluminum foil sitting on the back seat next to a hair dryer with the cord wound around it. I saw a bag of hair curlers. I saw Earth Shoes, sandals, magazines. I saw hangers. Everything they owned safely stowed and ready for transit, the girls laughed up the stoop, through the vestibule and up the five tenement flights to check they’d left nothing behind.
I’ll bet they felt like they were in one of those “kooky girls come to New York” movies – My Sister Eileen or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But, when they came back downstairs, their car was empty, the trunk wide-open like the maw of a hippopotamus. When I learned of this theft a dizzying dread crept up my spine. Did my hair stand on end? It may have. I know that I felt helpless against some deadly force, some irresistible undertow, some relentless riptide pulling Carrie under.
Jack Henry Abbott – a man who had murdered many times said that the last thing his victims said to him before they died was – “Please.” He and a young actor named Richard Adan had a lethal misunderstanding outside an East Village restaurant. Abbott was on trial for sticking a knife into the young actor’s heart. He testified, “I had the knife on his chest and he said, ‘Please’ – that’s what they all say.” When I read that, I flashed on Carrie pleading for her life and I wanted to kill Abbott. But, I didn’t. Still, a guy can dream can’t he?
Oh, almost forgot, the jackass, do-gooder Norman Mailer managed to get Abbott out on bail so he would be free to murder Richard Adan.