11 Historical Crime Books That Aren't About Jack The Ripper
Look, I get it: I like a good Jack the Ripper story just as much as the next person. I like the morbid documentaries and the weird fringe theories about who Jack The Ripper actually is. I even like that Star Trek episode where Jack the Ripper somehow takes over the ship as an alien space ghost or whatever (unless maybe I just hallucinated that one?). But there comes a time in every true crime fan's life when one has to wonder, were there any historical crimes other than Jack and his very nasty Whitechapel business? As it turns out, the past was chockablock full of murders. Long before we had murder-based podcasts and Netflix docuseries, there were still serial killers, art thefts, kidnappings, deep cover sting operations, and all manner of other vintage mysteries. Here are just a few books to get you started down the dark and twisted path of non-Jack-related historical crimes.
If you're looking for more tales of true Victorian terror to fill that Whitechapel-shaped hole in your heart, then you are in luck (the Victorians sure loved their murder). But if you're a little over 1800's London, then you are also in luck, because many crime authors have taken it upon themselves to explore a wide variety of other eras and cities (yes, it turns out that murders happened outside of old-timey London too!). Check out some of these fascinating and gruesome crime books for an authentic historical thrill:
'Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men' by Harold Schechter
Belle Gunness, also known as Lady Bluebeard, is the subject of Hell's Princess. She was America's most notoriously violent lady serial killer, and she spent her time luring hired hands and fancy bachelors to her farm in Indiana, where she would gleefully murder them and chop them up into bits just for the fun of it. This gripping retelling is not a read for the faint of heart — or stomach.
'Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI' by David Grann
It's the 1920s. Jazz is happening, the old school "Wild West" is dying out, and the members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma are the richest people in the world. And now they're dying, under increasingly suspicious circumstances. Killers of the Flower Moon is an absolutely fascinating look at one of the 20th century's most significant murder sprees, and the formation of the FBI.
'The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York' by Deborah Blum
The Poisoner's Handbook doesn't just explore one historical crime. Rather, it explores the myriad ways in which poison shaped the Jazz Age of New York and beyond, from poisoned pies to crumbling bones to blue circus performers. It's a grisly business, but if you're a crime fanatic with a passion for chemistry, then it's also a must-read look as some of the weirdest toxic cases in history.
'Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime' by Ron Stallworth
There is so much more to the world of true crime than serial killers and more serial killers. Black Klansmen is the memoir of real life detective Ron Stallworth, who pulled off a near-impossible sting operation to infiltrate the Klan as a black man in 1970s Colorado. His book is a searing look at hate groups from the inside out, as well as a captivating true story that you'll never forget.
'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey
OK, so technically this is a fictional novel about a fictional detective, but he does solve a very real and very historical crime: the mystery of the princes in the tower. The infamous King Richard III supposedly murdered his two young nephews to secure his spot on the throne... but was he really the twisted villain we've made him out to be? Or was he the victim of some very bad PR? The Daughter of Time follows one frustrated detective as he cracks this very cold case while stuck in a hospital bed.
'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell
Historical crime doesn't always have to be so grim. If you're looking for a light, breezy series of essays on America's bloodiest assassinations, then check out Sarah Vowell's hilariously informative Assassination Vacation. It's part travelogue, part memoir, part well-researched dive into the political killings that have shaped every facet of our country as we know it.
'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher' by Kate Summerscale
In England, during the June of 1860, a little boy was found dead at the bottom of an outdoor toilet. His throat had been slit. The horrific case became a national obsession, simultaneously raising the status of detectives at large and utterly destroying the career of London's greatest investigator. If you want to know where all this true crime and detective nonsense started in the first place, this is the book for you.
'Truevine' by Beth Macy
In Truevine, Virginia, in the year 1899, two little boys were offered a piece of candy by a stranger. George and Willie would not see their mother again for 13 years. Truevine is the remarkable story of the Muse brothers, their devastating kidnapping, their rise to international stardom as circus freaks, and their mother's tireless quest to find them again. It explores the brutality of the Jim Crow South, the exploitation of the "freak show" circuit, and the bonds of family when set against impossible odds.
'Murder in the First-Class Carriage' by Kate Colquhoun
Hey, every once in a while, you just want to read a good old fashioned book about a British person being murdered on a train. And this is the train murder that started it all: Murder in the First-Class Carriage tells the sordid tale of Thomas Briggs, who vanished from his train compartment in 1864, leaving behind a pool of blood and a stranger's hat. The search for Thomas and his potential killer gripped both England and America, as the murderer fled across the Atlantic in a thrilling manhunt the rocked the world of crime reporting (and inspired a thousand locked room mystery novels).
'Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis' by Alexis Coe
What's a list of crime books without at least one tragic love story? In 1892, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell dressed herself up as a man so she could marry her girlfriend, Freda Ward. The young lovers were caught and forbidden from ever speaking again. Freda adjusted to the heartbreak, and tried to return to her life. Alice stole her father's razor and became one of history's best known teenage murderers. Alice + Freda Forever is a gut-wrenching story of love, death, and the dangers of intolerance.
'Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History' by Tori Telfer
So you could read a book about one historical female murderer... or you could just lean into it and read a book about all the historical female murderers. I mean, it's not that I condone murderers of any gender, but Lady Killers is still a supremely entertaining look at the vintage exploits of deadly women all across the globe. Leave your expectations about spurned women and femme fatales at the door, because the truth is much stranger (and grosser) than fiction.