Thursday, April 24, 2008

Demon Rum and Murder: A Review by Robert A. Waters

Not long ago I purchased The Postcard Killer just before taking a trip with my wife. We arrived at the motel exhausted. Then I lay across the bed, opened the book, and my tiredness vanished. I couldn’t put it down and spent most of the night reading while my wife slept. The Postcard Killer did what every book should do—-it kept me interested page after page until the very end.

The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D. (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006)

There is nothing new under the sun. It’s my opinion that the first serial murderer was born shortly after Adam and Eve left the Garden. Or, if you prefer, after the first Caveman came out into the open.

Albert Fish. H. H. Holmes. Peter Kudzinowski. The Axe Man of New Orleans. These are but a few serial killers who plied their bloody trade in the decades between 1880 and 1920. Now add J. Frank Hickey to that list.

On October 11, 1911, seven-year-old Joey Joseph disappeared from the streets of Lackawanna, New York. After his father, an immigrant laborer, reported his son missing, police launched a full-scale search. But it seemed the boy had vanished into thin air.

Joey Joseph may have never been found if the killer had not begun sending letters and postcards to police and the parents. Some messages described the heinous crime while others expressed an obviously false remorse. The killer was enjoying his control of the situation. Finally, in one letter, the writer gave police directions to the body. The next day, authorities dug up the skeletal remains from the pit of a communal outhouse near Joey’s home.

As the case was sensationalized by the media, a young psychiatrist named Nelson “Kid” Wilson published a detailed description of what the killer might be like. His “profile” was so close to the truth that the prosecution team later hired him.

With no real leads, police decided to publish copies of the postcards in a local newspaper. Almost immediately, several people contacted authorities to say they recognized the handwriting as that of an eccentric drunkard and prolific correspondent named J. Frank Hickey.

After his arrest, Hickey confessed to three murders and numerous sexual assaults of children. Along with Joey Joseph, ten-year-old newsboy Michael Kruck and 34-year-old Edwin W. Morey were also victims of the killer. Hickey was suspected of at least twelve other murders. During the two decades he roamed New England, dozens of children went missing or were found murdered. (At least two other serial murderers, Albert Fish and Peter Kudzinowski, were also active in the general area at the same time.)

J. Frank Hickey was a hopeless alcoholic. He was something of a dandy while sober, but when drunk he confided to detectives that he harbored a secret sexual attraction for children. Most of his numerous assaults were spontaneous—-when he was tipping the demon rum, he claimed that he couldn’t control himself.

I emailed the author and asked how he came to write The Postcard Killer. Dr. McLaughlin wrote: “As usually happens, I [was] researching some other topic and [stumbled] on to something else. I was collecting a great deal of data on homicides in Buffalo. While looking through old newspapers, I kept stumbling into Hickey. So I decided to write a book.”

I’m glad he did. The Postcard Killer is well-written and brings to life a case that that I’d never heard about. It also presents a view of blue-collar New England that is usually ignored. For instance, among the working class in the Victorian era, children in the Northeast were required to work to help support the family. Many pre-teen boys sold newspapers for money to add to the family coffers. They were constantly harassed by “chicken hawks,” or child molesters, who attempted to entice the children into committing sex acts. These newsboys were Hickey’s favorite victims.

Somehow Hickey escaped the electric chair. He was instead convicted of second-degree murder and sent to Auburn prison. When jurors were interviewed as to their curious verdict, one said, “Would you shoot a dog because he acts this way?” The jury thought he was insane. But Hickey was too dangerous to be placed in a mental institution where he might escape or be released so the second-degree murder conviction effectively kept him locked up until he died.

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