Saturday, February 25, 2012

Severed Heads, Torsos, and Other Mayhem



















If you’re at all squeamish, maybe you’d better skip this post. Then again, if you like mysteries and crime novels, you’re in the right place, because I’m going to talk today about the grislier aspects of crime. We’ve heard in the news several weeks ago about the discovery of a severed head in L.A.’s Bronson Canyon, where, ironically, many an L.A. film crew shoots crime dramas. It’s as noir as it gets, all right, since the head was found near the iconic Hollywood sign. And as if that didn’t satisfy our prurient curiosity, they soon found the severed hands and feet of the same victim. And because I’m just as grisly as the rest, I kept thinking, “Where’s the torso?”

On a clear day in Los Angeles, you can see the Hollywood sign from quite a long way away. It is a universal symbol of Hollywood, the studios, and all the dark deeds of a gritty Los Angeles in the thirties and forties. Minor actress Peg Entwhistle found lasting fame when she dove from the "H" in the sign, committing suicide.

L.A. is home to many a noir story and the recent murder falls right into the same category. In fact, it was the same week in 1947, that the severed body of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, was discovered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, an area in the heart of Los Angeles. She was found nude, mutilated, drained of blood, with her torso nearly severed in half. The corners of her mouth were slashed giving her an eerie semblance of a rictus smile. Her murder remains in the minds of crime enthusiasts because of its grisly nature as well as the fact that it is unsolved, although many have tried to claim that they solved it.

The Cleveland Torso Murders were the act of a serial killer, also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, committing his crimes between 1935 and 1938 in Cleveland, Ohio, though some investigators credit 40 victims to the serial killer, with a victim as early as the 1920s and as late as 1950. The killer killed his victims by decapitation, and often mutilated the body, castrating the men, and sometimes severing the extremities. Headless torsos were found abandoned. Sometimes the heads were found, sometimes not. Again, the killer was never found.

Why are we drawn to such things? Why is it that the news will always lead with, if they could, “the nude body of a woman was found today…”? We are all prurient, always have been no matter what we claim. There but for the grace of God go we, perhaps. But it might be more. In a series of studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers came away with the knowledge that women are particularly drawn to crime stories, more so than men, out of their own fears of being a victim of violent crimes. Forewarned is forearmed?

We now know the identity of that most recent victim of the January murder as 66 year old Hervey Medellin, who lived in an apartment off Sunset Boulevard. (Are you feeling the noir?)

But Medellin is more than merely a plot device. Authors are careful, or at least we mostly try to be, when we lift stories "ripped from the headlines." It's better to disguise it a bit, especially if these are recent crimes and victim's families might feel the harm of it. Crimes of years and years ago, on the other hand, as in the case of Jack the Ripper, are certainly fodder for authors. Here again is a slashing, disemboweling set of serial murders. It seems the public never gets tired of new iterations of Jack the Ripper, also unsolved.

Let us hope that this most recent killer is soon found and that there are no other victims. Meanwhile, the circus continues.

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