When it comes to writing true crime, historians should be on publishers’ radar. We’re consummate researchers; chances are high that we were terriers in our former lives.
True crime involves crafting portraits of individuals, giving their lives context, and helping readers understand what led them to commit criminal acts. True crime writers interview subjects and gather evidence.
None of this is foreign to historians, whose expertise lies in researching personalities of the past and placing them in their proper historical context. To get there, we also interview people and gather evidence. Very often, explaining the historical underpinnings of events helps to explain social, cultural, and political motivations found among both groups and individuals. What if the crime took place in the distant past and the individuals involved left little evidence about their lives? Here, I believe, is where the historian has the edge.
When I began the project that would become Goat Castle, a story of murder set in Depression-era Natchez, Miss., I was challenged by the fact that the one person convicted and sent to prison for the crime was virtually unknown to the community where the story has been retold over several generations. It made national headlines in the fall of 1932 and is considered the town’s “crime of the century,” yet the life of Emily Burns, the black domestic incarcerated for the murder, was a mystery to be solved if I wanted to write a complete account of the crime.
My skills as a historian kicked in. Newspaper accounts referred to her only as a “negress” and noted her confession, but little else. Who was she? What was her life story? How had she come to be implicated in the first place?
I began my research by going through U.S. census records, which gave me details about the year of her birth, where she had lived and with whom, and the specifics of her occupation. I combed city directories and discovered she’d been widowed by the age of 35. I interviewed a member of the black community who led me to those who knew her more intimately; they had attended church with the woman they called “Sister,” a detail that personalized her.
In hopes of meeting people who knew her, since she had no direct descendants, I visited her church. That’s where I met her second cousins—five sisters who provided me with the only photograph of Burns known to exist. It was a family portrait that also included her mother, aunts and uncles, her cousins, and her grandmother, who had been born into slavery. No mug shot existed, but this photograph was even better; it gave her life context.
It was also important to try to locate any original court documents, but the sensationalism surrounding the case had led people to take things from the courthouse. I found some of them in an archive hours away.
Then there were court ledgers being warehoused in a building whose conditions were unfit for historical records. The building had once been a pie factory, and early-20th-century court ledgers were being housed in what had been the freezer for the pie crusts.
My spirit animal—the terrier—worked in my favor. With gloves, headlamp, and a mask to filter the bad air, I went looking through a haystack and found the needle. It was the witness docket that provided me with a case number. That one detail led me to the actual court records, which, while they did not include a trial transcript, provided insight into the particulars of the case.
Though I ran into brick walls in my search, being a historian worked in my favor. I recovered the backstories of all of the principals, explained the historical context that sent one person to prison while others were set free, and wrote a thorough examination of the crime, which even contemporary newspapers had not.
The best part is that the book is not an academic account, despite its dependence on the historian’s skills. It’s for readers of both history and true crime.
Karen L. Cox is a historian of the American South. Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South (Univ. of North Carolina, 2017) is her first book of true crime.