Editor's Note: Sarah Stillman, a visiting scholar at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the recipient of their inaugural Reporting Award. She recently published The Invisible Army in The New Yorker. Check out her website here.
By Sarah Stillman – Special to CNN
There is something about pretty white girls, bloody knives and the slightest whiff of sex that gets the international news machine humming like nothing else. All three factors merged explosively Monday in a crowded appeals court in Perugia, Italy. There, before several hundred journalists and other spectators, American college student Amanda Knox, 24, was cleared of murdering her study-abroad roommate, Meredith Kercher, in a sexually-motivated crime four years ago. Already, feature film rights to Knox’s story are flying, and book publishers, too, are salivating.
Until recently, the prevailing explanation for “Foxy Knoxy’s” guilt had been a surreal one. A game of rough sex went terribly wrong that evening in 2007, alleged Italian prosecutors. The young American student, her boyfriend and a local immigrant man were behind the perverse ordeal - or so echoed tabloids and reputable papers on both sides of the Atlantic - ending up in Kercher’s bloody death.
This orgy-centered narrative was bandied about by lawyers in the Italian courtroom, as were terms like “she-devil” and “witch.” But was any of it true? After four years of Knox’s incarceration based on an increasingly shaky set of extracted confessions and problematic forensic evidence, prosecutors’ made-for-late-night version of the crime has finally been snuffed this week. Knox, now officially freed, is heading home to Seattle.
All this has left the press to ask, somewhat sheepishly: were mainstream theories about Knox’s guilt driven primarily, as Slate.com’s Katie Crouch argued last month, by our collective lust for a kinky tale?
This hypothesis, it turns out, does have some historical weight behind it. Since the advent of the penny press nearly two centuries ago, American journalists have done some of their briskest business when selling tales of unlikely female perpetrators - the more frail and photogenic, the better. With each successive decade, the “girl killer” genre of true crime reporting has hewed more and more closely to the fading industry model of d-list porn films: a sloppy mash-up of stock characters (the femme fatale, the lesbian psycho-slasher, etc.) prone either to overly-hasty climaxes, or, inversely, to long, drawn-out sagas that test the stamina of even the most dedicated voyeurs.
Here, briefly, are four women in American history whose sensational murder and assault trials became, much like Knox’s, vehicles for serving our most base collective appetites, sometimes spawning whole industries unto themselves and often reflecting larger cultural battles.
1. Alice Mitchell: “Girl Slays Girl”
On January 25th, 1892, a young Memphis teen named Alice Mitchell allegedly attacked her former “girl lover,” Freda Ward, with a knife, slitting her throat. Her motivation? Perverted love sickness, according to the feverish press coverage that began locally but quickly spread across the state, and then the country. American readers, it turned out, were fascinated by the prospect of female sexual deviance at the turn of the century, at a time when young women were first entering public life en masse as workers, consumers, and sexual agents, increasingly bending the rules of traditional gender roles.
The trial sparked the production of hundreds of lurid articles about the two lovers (“Girl Slays Girl”!), medical studies on the disputed topic of Ward’s insanity, folk ballads and a whole raft of other cultural products detailed in Lisa Duggan’s brilliant Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. It ultimately culminated in Mitchell’s conviction, followed by her psychiatric hospitalization, with the judge calling the crime “the most atrocious and malignant ever perpetrated by a woman.”
2. Lizzie Borden: The Girl of Forty Whacks
Just one year later, America was gripped by an even more sensationalized trial: that of Lizzie Borden, a young woman from Fall River, Massachusetts, charged with killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet. Borden’s case, too, sparked a veritable cottage industry of commentary, with hundreds of reporters covering each twist in the trial and dozens more writing books about Borden’s surprising acquittal. Again, speculation after the trial was rife about Borden’s sexual identity (was she dating female silent film star Nance O’Neil?!), as well as her sanity.
More than a century later, Borden still features in children’s jump rope rhymes (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/and gave her mother forty whacks…”), academic dissertations, award-winning documentaries, themed bed-and-breakfast retreats and a well-reviewed punk rock musical, “Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe.” Most recently, HBO announced the development of a mini-series based around the lurid murder, starring Hollywood it-girl Chloe Sevigny, who apparently regards Borden as a “countercultural icon.”
3. Patty Hearst: Good Girl Gone Armed
How did Patty Hearst cross the line from being a perfect girl-victim to an unforgivable girl-perpetrator? Around 9 pm on February 4th, 1974, the 19-year-old heiress to the Hearst family publishing fortune was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, where she sat with her fiancé in her blue bathrobe. After ten weeks of captivity in the hands of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Hearst was photographed participating in the armed robbery of a San Francisco bank; in a stunning turnaround, she appeared to have joined her captors as a self-proclaimed “urban guerilla.” Next came a sensational courtroom drama that many deemed “the trial of the century,” in which Hearst was found guilty of bank robbery despite pleas of having been brainwashed and sexually traumatized by the SLA.
Her case helped to popularize the psychological theory of “Stockholm syndrome,” sparking a national debate about its legitimacy as a legal defense. In Patty’s Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America, William Graebner, Hearst’s biographer, contends that the case also caught on because it provided audiences with a convenient symbol of what many Americans, particularly those on the right, feared most about 1970’s counterculture: “[F]eminism run amok, armed and sexualized; the pathology of left-wing politics; the arrogance of the moneyed elite; the coddling of criminals,” and so much more.
4. Casey Anthony: 'Tot Mom'
The most recent contender for the category of femme fatale of the century, Casey Anthony, is still woefully fresh in the American consciousness. This past summer, the pert young single mom from Florida stood accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. When Anthony was acquitted in early July, many pundits visibly seethed at their certitude that a villainous “tot mom” had escaped her rightful due, with cable news star Nancy Grace erupting in an impassioned anti-Anthony tantrum that went viral.
But Anthony’s saga, and all the attention it garnered, also sparked a counter-trend: vocal and often eloquent critiques of the 24/7 news cycle that has made a lucrative enterprise of sensationalizing stories of young white female victims and perpetrators, while ignoring countless other cases of equal moral gravity (say, crimes committed against non-white, non-poster-child populations).
So perhaps kink doesn’t get the last word. Knox’s acquittal in Italian appeals court seems, at least for the moment, to mark the defeat of a racy narrative that privileged Hustler-ready “let’s imagine ifs” over solid facts. It may even portend that accountability in well-publicized cases like hers - and, in a more surprising way, the recent case of Troy Davis - is now, more than ever, susceptible to global intervention, not just by lawyers and mainstream journalists, but also by a growing cadre of bloggers, social media users, and all manner of citizen journalists who’ve come to realize that justice doesn’t always coincide with the juiciest story.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Sarah Stillman.