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Crime, Killers, and Alternate History

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

By Wm. Garrett Cothran

Everyone has thoughts on time travel. If one thinks of time travel, they in effect think of alternate history.

Yet for some that pesky question of time paradoxes always arises.

Be it the predestination paradox of going back in time and in effect causing the very event one desires to end, or perhaps the grandfather paradox in which the actions in turn lead to the time traveler not existing and thus being unable to go back in time to change things thus ensuring he or she exists only to go back in time and change the event from ever occurring only to… man, this is getting confusing...

Some have argued that to determine if a paradox exists, one would need to do a field test prior to going back in time. That way, one could view an event and determine the effect on the time line and how it in turn effects the time traveler.

To some it is a simple matter of buying Frosted Flakes instead of Cheerios in the morning. To Neil DeGrasse Tyson the answer was “Stop Adam Walsh from being kidnapped.” Some folks clapped at this, but most went “who is that?” Adam Walsh was the victim of a murder when he was abducted from a Sears in 1981. In the early 2000’s a serial killer named Ottis Toole was said to be the killer by police. Yet when Adam was kidnapped and killed, his father John Walsh become a rather prominent figure in the victim’s rights community and in criminal justice in general.

John Walsh most would know as the man who would host America’s Most Wanted. For those unaware, America’s Most Wanted was a weekly television show in which criminals or persons of interest would be shown to the nation at large and a tip line was provided to report sightings or suspicions. No doubt the entire thing comes off with a whiff of the police state but in the shows 25 year run it was cited as being directly responsible for the arrest and capture of over 1,200 criminals. Amongst this were men like John List who after murdering his entire family and eluded justice for over 18 years, or even Rickey Allen Bright whose crimes are best not repeated.

So What If Adam Walsh is never kidnapped? Well then John Walsh is not put into the public eye. The makers of America’s Most Wanted do not have the sympathetic and popular victims advocate as a TV host, but more likely a retired Marine General with an abrasive personality, or interestingly enough, Rudy Giuliani. Most analysts agree the show was only picked up thanks to John Walsh being the host. His voice, his conviction, even his clear drive all seemed to cement the shows survival on what was prime time TV on a Sunday.

Move forward from there, and a direct line can be made from a single horrible crime leading to the capture of over 1,200 criminals. Remove that crime and allow a child to live a nice happy life, and by all accounts a large amount of the criminals would remain free and in the open.

This brings us towards the central notion of crime in Alternate History. More often then not, crime is a literary tool. We see it all the time in more notable Alternate History works. It is an easy way to begin a story and create tension and conflict. Fatherland by Robert Harris begins with Kripo Detective Xavier March investigating the strange death of a Nazi party official. Two Georges by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss is all about recovering a stolen painting by an officer in the Royal American Mounted Police. Finally, perhaps shocking no one, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon the entire tale begins with a murder in a hotel room. However, to view crime only as a narrative hook or just something to move the tale along does a disservice to both history and the notion of Alternate History.

As with the example above, a single act of violence can have massive effects upon a society and culture. A single kidnapped child leads to over a thousand criminals apprehended. When you really get into how a crime can have an effect on history, things become weird. That fun kind of weird that only exists when you ask “What if?”

The ones which spring to mind are the assassinations of JFK or President Lincoln. Both great men, with great visions for the future of the USA brought down by an assassin’s bullet. These are almost cliché at this point in Alternate History: Lincoln is never killed by Booth and goes on to make a better and happier USA or he becomes a dictator which conquers the world depending on the author; JFK survives his run in with Lee Harvey Oswald and suddenly America has a colony on Mars or to some goes down as the most corrupt US politician in history.

For Lincoln’s murder the result was not so much criminal but political. A pro-Southern president takes office and gets the dishonor of being impeached. JFK, though, is different. The assassination of Kennedy led to the first US firearms regulation bill of any real degree. There were some moves prior to this, but most would agree that there was 2nd Amendment before the Gun Control Act of 1968 and 2nd Amendment after it. The Act of 1968 was viewed as a prime concern in the formation of the more militant views of the NRA from the 1970s until today. If JFK was not killed, maybe the NRA would just be teaching hunting safety out in Montana and not appearing from the shadows every time a Mass Shooting occurs to explain the evils of video games. Thus the crime requires a question not of the massive social changes but the little ones.

In the 1870s there was this family called The Bloody Benders. Go to their house in Kansas along the Osage trail and you would get a nice warm bed, and a nice family meal. Oh, and they would murder you and take everything you own. Horrid folks.

When law enforcement was closing in the Benders, perhaps the first real documented case of serial killers in the USA, fled. A vigilante party was called out. One man lifted a rifle off the shelf and went to join in the hunt. As time went on people would claim to see the Bender’s here or there, yet that man who took that rifle off the shelf would “say with considerable finality they will be never be found.”

That man? Pa Ingalls. Father of Laura Ingalls Wilders, the writer of Little House on the Prairie. Those stoic moments when Michael Landon who played Charles “Pa” Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie television show would look out at his land and speak of such wholesome things was rooted in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own memories of her father. A memory which she insisted was to be viewed from “not what my father did but that such a decent man could do such things to others in defense of his family.”

Now, that may come off as an interesting little tit-bits of history. Yet try to view it in terms of Alternate History both from an academic and a narrative perspective: What made a character in a famous American book and television show sound the way he did and act the way he did was influenced by what, in all honesty, sounds like a thrilling tale of vigilante justice in the Wild West against a family of serial killers. All that wholesomeness and “aw shucks” wisdom of hard-working settlers is set against a very dark and often ignored aspect of US history.

Another example is sadly yet another kidnapping. One Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped from the family home. It is perhaps one of the most important crimes in American history because of what came from it.

The first real example of a media driven criminal case, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby saw what is rather common in modern society. A celebrity, a shady criminal, the press being far too involved, and law enforcement doing their best to both do their job and look to the public like they are doing their job. Add to this was a bit of a moral panic against Germans and the lone suspect Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German-born carpenter, was instantly vilified by the public. The case against the man was mostly circumstantial but he was convicted and executed by 1936.

From this single case however, you can actually show a shift in American culture. The press, which was no stranger to yellow journalism, found something new. Not just celebrity reporting. Not just crime reporting. But a mixture of the two which the US press almost thrives on since the 1930s. Now was this action by the press a foregone conclusion? Maybe, or maybe the press saw the money you could make printing ten special editions in a day about a single crime. Would Nancy Grace and her ilk exist if not for this crime? Who knows.

What is to be focused on is the public reaction to this crime. There was a clear anti-German sentiment in the USA when Charles Lindbergh had his son kidnapped. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and even Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren both cited the “actions of foreign aliens creating an Achilles Heel on US soil” while pointing to the Lindbergh kidnapping. True, the internment of Japanese-Americans required much more then simple paranoia, but the notion of a foreigner striking at Americans where they are most vulnerable was perhaps exemplified in the Lindbergh Kidnapping. If it did not occur maybe the US response to its Japanese-American population would not have been so shameful. But to reach this particular What If, you need to look at the crime which occurred.

Crime is thus as important as wars, or political leaders. It is a way to view not only people but a culture. To show this we look to Nazi Germany and the S-Bahn killer.

Paul Ogorzow was a Nazi Party member in 1931 and held stable employment in the Berlin S-Bahn as part of National Railway. He wore a fine uniform, and in the Third Reich uniforms made quite the impression, and by all accounts was a decent hard-working German with an equally fine family.

Yet from 1939 to 1941 Ogorzow attacked multiple women, until deciding upon murder. In the blackouts of Berlin Orgorzow would be on the train, wait for his moment, strike, and then toss the body out while the train was still moving.

What followed was an investigation which was strikingly similar to what the Soviet Union experience in the 1970s and 1990s in Andrei Chikatilo better known as the Rostov Ripper. The Berlin police had a mixture of party appointees and actual detectives. The actual detectives promoted investigation and forensics while people in charge insisted that the criminal had to be deviants and the crimes themselves covered up, to prevent people from get panicked. Finally, it all ends in solid police work pointing to a person with access to the S-Bahn and also one who is able to easily hide in public. The result was capturing the most well-known, and, in some arguments, the only Nazi serial killer. If one is so interested in Ogorzow or even the Soviet Chikatilo by all means read up on the cases. Be warned they are not pleasant.

Crime is not just a fun hook for a story. It is a way to show, but not tell, a society in almost all areas. Both in the life of the criminal or police but also in the attitudes of the community: How is the victim viewed? How is the criminal viewed? In what way is an investigation halted or forced into a narrative?

Throughout history, one will see in both authoritarian and democratic society an odd urge to see a murder or series of murders and point not to what evidence suggests is a suspect but who is a deviant? Lindbergh lost his child and the public was eager to blame the German immigrant. Andre Chikatilo operated for decades while the Soviet police were busy insisting “serial kllers do not exist here” and hunting down homosexuals for the crime. Ogorzow meanwhile was free to act while Berlin police had to fight to allow female police officers to carry weapons.

So, when viewing Alternate History, from time to time view it not from large and grand wars, or even great men of the time but from the position of crime. Both in how the smallest criminal event can lead to rather large changes, to how crime is, by its very nature, forcing one to view a society from multiple angles, classes, and restrictions. How observing or living through a crime can influence artists, writers, and musicians.

Crime is a constant in society but too often we tend to view crime as something to move a story along, and not a catalyst for social and cultural change. So, next time you get to writing, try to take into account something as minor as a purse snatcher dealing with the police to something as horrific as a serial killer lurking in the fringes of your world. You may be surprised at what such things say about the world you have created.


Wm. Garrett Cothran is the author of How Tall Is The Grass In Germany? published by Sea Lion Press


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