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Monday, July 11, 2011

Harold Schechter on two strikingly similar murder trials: Casey Anthony and Alice Crimmins

Alice Crimmins with her two children
Guest blog post by Harold Schechter, professor of American literature, Queens College, the City University of New York, and editor of True Crime: An American Anthology

Besides satisfying our secret need for “murderous excitement” (in William James’s phrase), sensational homicide cases demonstrate timeless truths about the human condition, one of which receives its definitive formulation in Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Apart from a few specifically current-day details—the accused taking part in a “Hot Body” contest a few days after her daughter went missing, the celebratory “Bella Vita” tattoo she had etched on her shoulder around the same time—there is little in the recent case of Casey Anthony that we haven’t seen before. As several commentators have observed, it strongly resembles another tabloid sensation that riveted the public nearly a half-century ago: the case of Alice Crimmins, aka “The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills,” (as Albert Borowitz entitles his masterful account in the Library of America volume, True Crime: An American Anthology).

On the morning of July 14, 1965, Crimmins—a twenty-six-year-old Queens homemaker who had taken a job as a cocktail waitress after separating from her husband and becoming embroiled in a nasty custody dispute—reported that her two children, five-year-old Eddie and four-year-old Missy, had vanished from their ground-floor bedroom. A few hours later, Missy’s corpse was found in a nearby vacant lot, her pajama top knotted around her neck. Another week passed before Eddie’s badly decomposed body turned up on a highway embankment about a mile away.

From the instant he set eyes on her, Detective Jerry Piering, the lead investigator on the case, was convinced of Alice’s guilt, not on any sound forensic basis but because she didn’t conform to his conception of proper motherhood. An attractive redhead who favored tight-fitting toreador pants, high-heeled white shoes, and a teased bouffant hairdo, she struck the strait-laced Piering as a heartless hussy—an impression seemingly confirmed when she failed to react with a sufficient degree of hysteria to the sight of her slain daughter’s remains.

Branded as a brazen tramp by the tabloids—a deplorable “symptom of America’s sex revolution”—Crimmins was put on trial in May 1968 for the murder of Missy. Never wavering from her original story, she repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to protest her innocence and finally took the stand in her own defense. The prosecuting attorney, however, turned her testimony into an opportunity to catalogue her long, titillating history of boyfriends and casual flings. Even her own attorney called her “amoral.” The trial ended with a conviction by a jury of twelve married men of first-degree manslaughter, subsequently overturned on appeal. She was tried for the second time in April 1971 and convicted again, of first-degree manslaughter of Missy and this time of first-degree murder for Eddie’s death.

As in the case of Casey Anthony, the Crimmins verdict provoked a good deal of outrage—though for the opposite reason. Feminists in particular believed that Alice had not been justly convicted but punished for her free sexual behavior, scapegoated by a society threatened by the burgeoning women’s movement. Times have changed in this regard. No such charge has occurred in the Anthony case. The countless people (myself included) outraged by the verdict believe that this time a mother has gotten away with murder.

Also of interest:
  • TruTV's online crime library devotes several pages to the story of the Alice Crimmins case
  • On Forbes.com Kiri Blakeley questions the phenomenon of sensational murder trials and explains “Why I Won’t Follow the Casey Anthony Trial”
  • Harold Schechter is the author or editor of several books on true crime, most recently Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend
Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology  (includes "The Media of Kew Garden Hills" on the Alice Crimmins case)


  1. The Crimmins case was a real puzzler. As I recall, there were reasons to doubt her guilt, but you were left with the question: If she didn't murder the children, who did?

    And, of course, IMO, Casey Anthony makes Ms. Crimmins look like a Girl Scout.

  2. Also there were lots of evidence of forensics in the case of Anthony to prove her guilt, such as the findings of the hair in the trunk, and many other clues they just dismissed as circumstantial?? IN this case, it was really a lot of circumstantial with the partying anyway.


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