Ciao, amici! If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know I kind of have a thing about serial killers. My WIP has a totally twisted one, and I used to have a feature about them right on this site (but I don’t have the time to do that anymore). If you came here today hoping to get your “serial killer fix” — and isn’t that just a bit disturbing? let’s not dwell on that — you won’t go away disappointed. I’ve got the perfect post for you.
Today, I’m SO HAPPY to welcome Sue Coletta back to talk about her upcoming nonfiction release, Pretty Evil New England. I’ve long considered myself among her biggest fiction fans. (Have you read her Mayhem and/or Grafton County series? If not, you really should. ) Now I’m a fan of her true crime writing, too.
Before I get carried away, I’m going to turn things over to the master. Sue, the floor is yours.
There are several ways to use research to our advantage when writing true crime. The top two approaches are journalistic or novelistic. Journalistic is more “Just the facts, ma’am.” Novelistic reads more like fiction only everything is true. All true crime books use a little of both, but I prefer to lean heavier on the novelistic approach. Some writers fictionalize true crime, which is fine as long as they label the book as “based on true crime.”
Without that label, nothing we write can be our fictional interpretation of what occurred during the case. If we don’t find source material for, say, dialogue, then we can’t put words into our subject’s mouth. It’s not easy to find all the pieces to the puzzle, but when we do, we breathe new life into our “characters.”
While writing Pretty Evil New England, I developed a fondness for resurrecting dead female serial killers. LOL This may sound crazy to some, but it’s one of my favorite things to do now. As a writer, I love the challenge. Below is an excerpt of how I used pieces of a confession to help drive the story. Enjoy!
Another scorching summer day, another unexplained death.
In 1901 on Cape Cod, seagulls squawked over the catch of the day in fishermen’s nets, osprey nested along marshlands and sandy beaches, waves lapping against miles and miles of shorelines on the eastern, western, and southern tips of the Massachusetts peninsula, where horse-drawn carriages kicked up sorrel dust clouds, iron-shoed hooves clomping against pressed-gravel streets. Salt scented the air for miles. But by August 15 of that year, something evil veiled the peaceful seaside community of Cataumet.
Jane Toppan vacationed in the area for the first time in 1897. As a trained nurse and Cambridge Hospital graduate, Jane looked the part in every line of her face, every curve of her ample figure, every movement and mannerism. At that time she stayed at the Davis cottage with the prominent family of L.W. Ferdinand of Cambridge, next door to a rambling seasonal hotel called Jachin House. Guests from the city would congregate on Jachin House’s wide wrap-around porches to relax, rocking away the evening hours, cooled off by crisp ocean breezes sweeping in from Buzzards Bay.
The Davis family owned both properties. Alden Davis, considered by many to be Cataumet’s most influential citizen due to his reorganization of the railroad system so the train stopped at the Cape, worked as the town’s postmaster, station agent, and had a successful marble business. He also ran the general store across from Depot Square. Some say he founded the town.
Most of the headstones in the local cemetery were engraved by Alden Davis’s hand, a fact that seems ominous in hindsight.
Jane Toppan fell in love with Cape Cod. So much so, she returned to Jachin House year after year to spend the summer, thereby avoiding the hustle and bustle of city life. During one such summer, in late August of 1889, Jane’s foster sister, Elizabeth Brigham, decided to come down from Lowell to visit Jane—a little “girl time” for the two women to reconnect.
Jane had something else planned for their reunion.
Over the years Jane had maintained a cordial relationship with Elizabeth, but deep down she harbored resentment. Twenty years her senior, Elizabeth represented everything Jane wasn’t. Not only was Elizabeth pampered by her biological mother, Ann Toppan, while Jane was treated as the family slave, Elizabeth was also wealthy, attractive, and married to Oramel A. Brigham (known as “O. A.”), a well-liked, highly regarded deacon of the First Trinitarian Congregational Church in Lowell and depot master for the Boston & Maine Railroad.
When Ann Toppan, Jane’s foster mother, died she excluded Jane from the will. And Jane touched on this in her confession:
I felt rather bitter against Mrs. [Elizabeth] Brigham after Mother Toppan’s death, because I always thought she destroyed the will that left me some of the old lady’s property. Mrs. [Elizabeth] Brigham came down to visit me at Cataumet on Buzzards Bay, where I was spending the Summer of 1899 in one of the Davis cottages. That gave me a good chance to have my revenge on her.
On August 26, the day after Elizabeth arrived on the Cape, Jane suggested a picnic on the beach might lift her foster sister’s spirits. For several weeks Elizabeth had been suffering with a mild but persistent case of melancholia (known today as depression).
Weaved picnic basket in hand, Jane escorted Elizabeth down to Scotch House Cove, where the two women spent several hours chatting away the day while munching on cold corned beef and taffy. Salted ocean breezes swept its fingers through their hair as they basked in the summer sun. But deep within Jane a volcano of resentment was about to erupt.
She was really the first of my victims that I actually hated and poisoned with a vindictive purpose. So I let her die slowly, with griping tortures. I fixed mineral water so it would do that and then added the morphia to it.
All that sun drained Elizabeth of energy, so she retired early to her upstairs bedroom. The following morning, Jane called Elizabeth down for breakfast. When she didn’t respond, Jane rushed to the home of her landlord, Alden Davis, and asked if he could summon the doctor because “her sister had taken sick.” Jane then telegrammed O. A. in Lowell, informing him that his wife was in grave condition.
Alarmed, O. A. took the first available train to Cape Cod. By the time he arrived the next morning, Monday, August 28, Elizabeth had fallen into a coma. She died in the early morning hours of August 29. The doctor said Elizabeth had suffered a stroke of apoplexy (cerebral hemorrhage or stroke).
But Jane knew better.
I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.
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I love the way Sue brought this history to life. It was so much more engaging than textbook reading. If you’re interested in what makes the criminal mind tick, you’ll love this book.
Thanks for spending these few minutes with me and Sue today. I hope you’ll take a few more to use the like and sharing buttons, the purchase link of your choice, and the comment box below to leave her any questions you might have and/or a note of support. Grazie!