24. The Devil’s Rooming House – M. William Phelps
This is the best true crime book I have read thus far. Traditionally, the main things that I’ve noticed about true crime books are their propensity to be published in paperback with glossy pages of sensational photos in the middle that cause the binding to last a very short time and the fact that the main people who check them out of the library are little old ladies. I generally prefer my true crime information to come in the form of Cold Case or American Justice, the two shows narrated by Bill Kurtis, partially because the murders bother me less in television form. Reading gets into my head in a way that sometimes leaves me with paranoid feelings depending on the subject matter and those are not so great.
In short Amy Archer-Gilligan was the proprietor of a house for ill and infirm people, essentially a prototype of current nursing homes. She had her Bible, a firm and solemn expression, a morphine habit, and needed to increase the turnover on her beds to make more money and so she poisoned her husbands and other people’s relatives with arsenic-laced lemonade. Just lovely. Phelps frames the story with contextual detail about the time period, beginning the story with an account of an early 1900s heat wave that was very easy to visualize and allows me to understand how terrible heat can be without any air conditioning or easy access to water and ice in one’s home. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live with allergies in the past. I assume that like any allergic hominids, those with allergies in the before time died strangely labeled and possibly misleading deaths. It’s hard to say “dust killed her,” or “she was consumed by rashes and swelling after a neighborhood cat passed by,” I’m sure it sounds just as strange now as it would have then. It would be an interesting topic for a bit of research.
Anyhow, the events were contextualized and depicted in such a way that made this much more of a story and didn’t have that ring of “expanded journalism” that some of the other true crime books I’ve read had. I noticed that the Amazon reviews of this book express that others do not feel the same way I did about the inclusion of social context and felt the sensational photos were lacking….my background that relates to reading or critiquing non-fiction is essentially a cross between studying art history (context is always important there) and reading essayists; I’m not as interested in “just the facts” I must say.