Book Review: The Pirate by Harold Schechter

I picked this up as part of Amazon’s Prime Reading thing where a few books are included free with Prime. There are a series of true crime short reads, and going into a run of night shifts they sounded just the thing to help pass the time.

This recounts a grizzly triple murder aboard a boat off to collect oysters to sell in New York in the 19th Century (I hadn’t known that oysters were big business back then, and that there were hundreds of “oyster bars” all over the city). The abandoned boat is discovered, covered in blood and gore, the small rowing boat missing.

It soon turns out that one of the crew has murdered his shipmates and made off with some cash and personal items. Here fate lends a hand and luckily for the lawmen a string of witnesses allows them to track their man down.

Schechter does a great job retelling the tale and also capturing a sense of the shockingly calm killer and the media circus that erupts around the savage murders. It’s entertainingly told with excerpts from contemporary records and a wry look at the antics of figures like PT Barnum, who sees the killer as a potential cash cow.

It’s also interesting to see that ghoulishness and hyperbole around crime is nothing new, and in fact it seems the Victorian era was worse in a way, with thousands turning up to watch the execution, the penny dreadful “confession” selling like hot cakes and Barnum displaying a waxwork of the axe wielding killer which he advertised wore the actual clothes he’d committed the crimes in.

There are also some interesting facts too, including the fact that prosecutors worried that as they couldn’t produce the bodies (still never found) they might not get a conviction for the murders, and so instead tried him for piracy, which also carried the death penalty.

It’s short and easy to read, and Schechter shows skill in recounting events in an engaging way. I’ve already added the rest of the series onto my Kindle, because what’s better to read about on a night shift than brutal murders, right?

Verdict: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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