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A Tale of True Crime

  • The Diary Murderer of Lynn by Francis P. “Tip” O’Neill, Wood Detective Agency Records, Box 5-38

    Detail of an article about the William A. Dorr Murder Case, written fourteen years after the 1912 murder.

  • Sacco Family [1919?] by Neville Photographer, Sacco-Vanzetti Case Records, Box 4-27

    This photograph was a stock image that appeared in many local and international newspapers.

  • AP Wirephoto of Anna Hauptmann

    Anna Hauptmann in courtroom, Hunterdon County Court House, January 4, 1935

    Detail of Associated Press Wirephoto including photo editor's white crop mark. Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Photographs, 1995.5.56

Crime fascinates us and the public consumption of crime narratives has existed for centuries, from the dissemination of crime broadsides in the eighteenth century to today’s true crime television shows such as 48 Hours.  Featuring materials from the Harvard Law School Library’s Historical & Special Collections, this exhibit examined a short chapter in the United States’ history of true crime narratives. Topics included serialized true crime literature, crime photography in newspapers, and the representation of family life in the media’s coverage of the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

By the 1830s, American true crime writing had become increasingly commercialized with a focus on “purely exploitative accounts of real-life horrors.” At the turn of the twentieth century, when the sensational headlines of Yellow journalism were in full effect, newspaper readers were inundated with articles on crime and justice, despite low national crime rates. And by 1924, interest in crime literature spawned the creation of True Detective Mysteries, considered the first true crime serial. True crime magazines hit their peak in the 1930s and criminals who were featured gained instant fame while Hollywood looked to these true stories for plot ideas. 

Highlights from the exhibit include an early example of an Associated Press Wirephoto, a photograph album compiled by an expert witness in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and materials from our collection of Wood Detective Agency Records, the first private detective agency in New England.

See also: Law & ...