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Description - Murder Most Foul by Karen Halttunen

Confronting murder in the newspaper, on screen, and in sensational trials, it is often felt that the killer is fundamentally incomprehensible and morally alien. But this was not always the most popular response to murder. In this text, Karen Halttunen explores the changing view of murder from early New England sermons read at the public execution of murderers, through the 19th century, when secular and sensational accounts replaced the sacred treatment of the crime, to the true crime literature and tabloid reporting of the late 1990s. The early narratives were shaped by a strong belief in original sin and spiritual redemption, by the idea that all murderers were natural manifestations of the innate depravity of humankind. In a dramatic departure from that view, the Gothic imagination - with its central conventions of the fundamental horror and mystery of the crime - seized upon the murderer as a moral monster, separated from the normal majority by an impassable gulf. Halttunen shows how this perception helped shape the modern response to criminal transgression, mandating criminal incarceration, and informing a social-scientific model of criminal deviance.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780674003842
ISBN-10: 0674003845
Format: Paperback
(221mm x 143mm x 19mm)
Pages: 338
Imprint: Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2000
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions - Murder Most Foul by Karen Halttunen

Book Reviews - Murder Most Foul by Karen Halttunen

US Kirkus Review » An involving account of the shifting social constructions and understandings of murder in pre-20th century America. Drawing on a wealth of sources, including confessions, trial accounts, and court documents, historian Halttunen (Univ. of Calif., Davis; Confidence Men and Painted Women, 1983) traces how the burgeoning romantic movement - and particularly its most extreme manifestation, the gothic - utterly transformed the Puritan conception of crime and punishment. She holds that the Puritan belief in predestination meant that "the early American murderer was regarded as a moral representative of all sinful humanity, and was granted an important spiritual role." Murder was not seen as an aberration but as the terrible culmination of a series of small, quotidian sins, from drinking to deception. The attitude of everyone from preachers to their congregations was one of "There but for the grace of God, go I." And while punishment in this world was still required, the important thing was to get the murderer to truly and sincerely repent. With the arrival of the gothic/romantic, Halttunen convincingly argues, murder came to be seen as a monstrous aberration, something outside the pale of ordinary humanity. This shaped everything from methods of punishment to the conduct of trials. For example, the insanity defense became widely accepted and its scope enlarged. Repentance was downplayed. Criminal procedure became regularized, and more importance was placed on detective work (tellingly, in the 1840s, Poe would create the detective story). With murder no longer a stem moral warning, the public began to hunger after the goriest details, fueling a rise in "true crime" accounts that often bordered on the pornographic. If all this seems familiar, Halttunen notes that much of our modern view of crime comes directly from the conventions and tenets of the 19th-century gothic. Formidably researched and well argued, but frequent discursions and inordinate details make this feel like a terrific article padded out to book length. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Karen Halttunen

Karen Halttunen is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis.

Books By Karen Halttunen

Companion to American Cultural History by Karen Halttunen
Paperback, December 2013
Moral Problems in American Life by Karen Halttunen
Paperback, December 1998
Confidence Men and Painted Women by Karen Halttunen
Paperback, July 1986