Title: Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard of
Author: Harold Schechter
No. of Pages: 400
“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. 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. “
Thoughts: Psycho USA is one of those nonfiction novels that are interesting without containing a lot of substance. The individual stories themselves are curious in their macabre details but contain little else other than a rundown of the events and persons involved. In spite of the lack of details or insight, among the collection of killers are quite a few that are memorable either for their collective interest or from sheer horror at the crimes. These include the “American Borgias” and the fascination/use of arsenic as the go-to poison for housewives everywhere, as well as Charles Freeman and his wife, who murdered their daughter out of religious zeal, convinced she too would rise after three days and signify the advent of the Second Coming. Essentially, Mr. Schechter’s findings showcase that people are willing to commit the most atrocious of acts for a multitude of reasons.
Psycho USA reads like a Dateline expose, broken up by date and divided into easily tackled chapters on individual killers who made headlines and then faded into obscurity. This makes it an easy book to set down and even easier to avoid picking back up for further reading. The information presented is fairly sensationalized, as Mr. Schechter uses direct quotes from news sources of the period, complete with its embellished language. After a while, the stories do tend to bleed into one another, making it difficult to distinguish one killer from another and doing much to prove how quickly a person can become desensitized to the most gruesome crimes.
Mr. Schechter is not afraid to use judgmental language in describing the killers he is referencing. While its usage ties together his own words with those from the newspapers and court documents he frequently quotes, a reader will still be surprised given the fact that nonfiction is best without the personal opinion of its author interspersed among its pages. Still, it is unpredictably appropriate given the subject matter. He is describing psychopaths and sociopaths who were found guilty of some absolutely horrific crimes against others. Being pronounced as evil or depraved is fitting if unconventional.
What is truly interesting is the lingering question as to why some crimes capture the imaginations of an entire population and never leave the collective consciousness and yet others, equally ghastly, quickly become forgotten and slip into oblivion. Mr. Schechter cannot answer this question as to why even today, people remember Andrea Yates but not Dena Schlosser, nor does he really try to solve this mystery. It is a question to be answered another day and perhaps by another author, but a reader will frequently ponder it as reading about these killers who remain inexplicably forgotten. In fact, it is an opportunity lost that would have made Psycho USA go from merely interesting to absolutely fascinating.
While Psycho USA is brutal in its graphic descriptions and highly judgmental language used to describe each killer, it is easy for a reader to distance oneself from all of the horror and depraved violence depicted. Without an overarching narrative to tie the individual vignettes together, it is a book meant to be read in pieces, thereby furthering the reader’s ability to remove oneself emotionally from the details. Interesting without being thought-provoking, Psycho USA is more “fun facts” than serious academic psychoanalysis of the human mind.