Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South

Article excerpt

The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South. By Michael Ayers Trotti. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 320 pp. Paper: $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-5842-4.)

If (part of) your name is Ayers, then perhaps you too should write a book about crime in nineteenth-century Virginia. Edward L. Ayers, of course, published a book on honor and crime a quarter century ago.' Although the title encompassed the whole South, it focused to no small extent on Virginia. So too have several other works on crime and the South. Admittedly, none of the other authors have the word "Ayers" in their name. All of the ones this reviewer can bring to hand, however, are different from Michael Ayers Trotti 's new work, and more like Ed Ayers's earlier one. The earlier ones are social histories, via the tried-and-true route of tunneling through incredible heaps of legal papers in the Virginia State Library and other such dark and wonderful archival storehouses. Their authors try to explain the way ordinary cases happened: who was murdered or raped, who was arrested and charged, who was tried (or lynched). They want to show how the administration or maladministration of justice revealed the deep cultural patterns of the South, whether these were changing or unchanging - patterns of violence, criminality, honor, and - above all - of race.

Trotti, by contrast, has written a cultural history that considers only a few illuminating cases - but these, he argues, reveal the way that Richmond's inhabitants were, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, more accurately described as modern than as Southern. In an engaging and at times refreshingly informal style, he tells us how Richmond sensed sensational murders. Trotti sets the stage: you can almost hear the portentous first few notes of Law and Order's music. Here is a strangled woman, floating in the cold water of the reservoir. Here are the early-morning walkers who find her. She is soon identified as one Lizzie Madison, a young woman from the country. Soon the motive (inconvenient pregnancy) makes its appearance. And here comes the suspect (the too-kissing cousin Thomas Cluverius).

People had been killed in Richmond before 1 885. But this was when, Trotti argues, sensational murder "came of age" in Richmond. The city's press, which had grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades, had in fact become a true "penny press" in which several dailies competed against each other to attract the attention of a mass reading public. And now they pulled out all of the emotional stops. They made it their main story for months, presenting testimony, analyzing motive and character (often without a shred of what a court would admit as evidence). As Trotti's own reading of diaries and letters shows, the editors and reporters succeeded in drawing many Richmond readers into an obsession that made the case and its figures personal objects of focus for many readers.

The Cluverius coverage, Trotti argues, focused on discerning the character of the victim and the killer. Was he honest? Or was he a liar? Could religious faith have saved either the definitely dead victim or the accused killer, who was eventually executed? In such questions hide still other anxious quandaries driven by the core uncertainties of modern life. How can we "know" people in an ever-changing society, where neighbors move in and out of our lives, and where people cover lies with professions of faith and other kinds of false performance?

In the end, the evidence against Cluverius was mixed, and contradictory, in both the public and in the formal courts. The next stages of sensationalism would breeze beyond such nineteenth-century worries and accept that all the world was a stage. By the time the twentieth century dawned, Trotti argues, Richmond sensationalists seemed disinterested in the evidence - whether of guilt, or of character - and more interested in the drama. A full panoply of characters familiar to us from more recent cultural texts: gritty young women sleeping their way to the top; faithless husbands; brutal killers driven by animal madness. …

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