Cover of Slaughter on a Snowy MornSlaughter on a Snowy Morn
by Colin Evans (Icon)

I will be brief. This is not Truman Capote getting behind the gun on the slaughter of the Clutter family. And it’s not Raymond Chandler either, even though the hero, Charles Stielow, no “kind of moxie”, is just “flat busted and out of work” and will “fry for sure”. It’s got the language but not the brevity. Still, we “finally hit paydirt” when Charlie’s dodgy murder conviction is overturned by a “sloe-eyed” female lawyer, Grace, just before the bad chaps, who have to make do with their surnames, “start slicing everyone up like salami”.

This is a story sensational in itself and it doesn’t really need added punch in its telling, but it was obviously hard to resist. History, if well written, is far more penetrative than any fiction or film-fan-magazine mix of fancy and fact.

Stielow was a poor, illiterate, immigrant farm hand with a family to support who, just when he finally got a job, found his employer and the housekeeper shot dead at dawn in an attempted robbery. Local politics required a quick conviction and Stielow was vulnerably childlike and, better still, German. It was 1915, the Lusitania had just gone down and xenophobia was rampant and useful. He’d do. Various locals in authority stepped up to line their pockets and send an innocent man to the chair: the malevolent, lying district attorney Knickerbocker, with his hoodlum associates, and the private dick and loose canon George W Newton.

They tried every trick in the book and Stielow went to New York’s Sing Sing prison, where he was to spend three years looking at the Green Door to death. He was given four dates for his execution and once was only minutes from the chair before another stay was granted. The prison guards, it was said, “feel as you would expect them to feel if they had to strap a big, scared baby into the chair”. Luckily for Stielow there were also men like Thomas M Osborne, Chief Warden at Sing Sing, a Quaker, innovative reformer, opponent of the death penalty and, oh yes, multi-millionaire. You couldn’t write fiction like this. The impressive Grace Humiston, “scarcer than snowballs in August”, the one with the seductive eyes (though she looks like a perfectly straightforward, educated, humane woman in her photograph), took up the case, supported by the Humanitarian Cult, who, when Stielow was eventually proclaimed innocent, gleefully bragged that they were “true humanitarians and not sentimentalists” before reneging on their offer of financial support for the destitute convict and his kin.

This is said to be the first time scientific testimony was instrumental in overturning a murder conviction. Two former lawyers visited the crime scene and discovered, by a process of deduction and measurement, that the sequence of events didn’t tally with Stielow’s confession. They raked over the evidence of a charlatan who compared himself to Sherlock Holmes, a small, bald, bespectacled pharmacist with a sly intelligence who had set himself up as an expert in forensics, having spotted a gap in the market. Albert H Hamilton’s evidence on the murder weapon was roundly discredited, despite his having been on the stand in over 300 cases. The upshot was that arms manufacturers began keeping closer records of their products and the first laboratory for the study of firearms identification was set up.

The story slides from Sarajevo to Salt Works Road in Orleans County, upstate New York, from European “slaughter on a scale” to small-town sordid violence, and from the apparently indisputable to the forensically defined. Before this case, American interest in scientific forensic investigation was still largely confined to the pages of Conan Doyle. In 1900 a test was developed to determine if blood was human or some other animal’s, followed by the unlocking of ABO blood grouping. Both carried huge implications for justice. Gun-toting lawmen were giving way to scientists and pathologists.

This is a tragic tale full of desperate twists and turns, but it’s too long. It plods, but perhaps this reflects the nature of detection and forensic work, with just the odd lightning strike here and there.