3 out of 4 stars
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True crime books have always been a popular genre, but this particular story is unique in that it was inspired by the author’s genealogy. Brian Forschner’s Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders takes an in-depth look at the Dayton, Ohio murders of several women in the early 1900’s. The author became interested in these crimes after he discovered a personal connection to one of the victims while researching his family tree; Mary Forschner was his grandfather’s sister.
Ada Lantz, Dona Gilman, Anna Markowitz, Elizabeth Fulhart, and the author’s great-aunt were murdered over a 9-year period. Ada went missing during an evening party at her home and was found dead that night in the septic tank of the outhouse on the property. A coroner’s examination reveals that she was raped and strangled. The Dayton Police Department is quickly beset by criticism from the public and media for failing to solve the crime. Four more murders occur within the decade in the same downtown area of the city, with the same modus operandi. Fears run rampant and pressure mounts for law enforcement to solve the crimes. A man is tried and convicted of the Markowitz murder, but there is lingering doubt among the Dayton police that he did it. Eventually, the unknown assailant becomes known as Jack the Strangler due to similarities to the Jack the Ripper murders in London.
I enjoyed reading this well-written book. I felt like I was transported to Dayton in the early 1900’s with a detailed picture of the social and political climate. It’s clear that the author meticulously researched the cases, including the actions of the police, coroner, other local officials, and media. The local newspaper reporters actively covered the story and presented their own theories. It’s interesting that it took several years for the newspapers to report that the murders were probably committed by the same person.
The author vividly describes the socio-economic conditions when discussing the victims’ backgrounds. It was commonplace for teenage girls to work full-time to contribute to the family income. This often put these young women in a position where they were walking home alone from the train station on dark streets.
The crimes are recreated based on interviews, witnesses, and sparse evidence. The author presents an interesting backstory for each of the victims, including photos. Forensic techniques were unheard of at the time. Much of the investigative work was conducted intuitively rather than scientifically. It’s mind-boggling to read about the ineptitude of law enforcement and the coroner’s office. Suspects, including family members, were often arrested based on pretty much nothing other than the police or coroner’s feelings.
Each murder and ensuing investigation is showcased in its own long chapter. I found the individual cases compelling, but there is a somewhat disjointed feel when one chapter would end and another victim’s story would begin. I believe this was partially due to the long chapters and detailed backstories of each victim. The way the book is formatted with an unusually long chapter for each case made for a slow experience for this normally fast reader. Still, I was blown away by the climax. Without giving spoilers, all I will say is the ending was shocking and thought-provoking.
I rate this story 3 out of 4 stars. The author should be commended for his detailed research and ability to turn the wealth of information into a fascinating book. Fans of true crime and mystery books would find this an absorbing read. The book made me appreciate the things we take for granted in criminal investigations, such as advanced forensics and the use of computers. Our current criminal justice system has problems, but it is certainly preferable to what people dealt with at the turn of the 20th century.
Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders
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