Readers of crime on the Web have come to expect engaging tales of 19th-century murder and mayhem on Murder by Gaslight, and The National Night Stick promises to follow in this same tradition with illustrated stories of “Crime, Eccentricity and the Sporting Life in 19th-Century America.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Wilhelm about his new project for Early American Crime.
EAC: Tell us about your new website and how you came up with the idea for it.
While researching 19th-century murders, I came across non-murder stories of people and events that were, to me, incredibly fascinating. Like Steve Brodie, who may or may not have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886 and who then created a character for himself that he played, on stage and off, for the rest of his life. Or the Crush Collision where 50,000 people gathered in a field in Texas in 1896 to watch two locomotives collide at full speed.
I was also looking for ways to deliver information beyond the standard blog format. I decided to put the two together and create a mythical 19th-century scandal sheet called The National Night Stick.
EAC: You say on your new website that it is modeled after The National Police Gazette. Can you tell us about that publication and about how your website follows in the tradition of that serial publication?
The National Police Gazette was the first nationally distributed men’s magazine in America. It began publishing in the 1840’s and lasted well into the twentieth century. During its heyday in the 1880’s and 1890’s, it printed stories of crime, sexual scandal, and general sensationalism—all told in short concise prose and accompanied by lavish illustrations. That is the content and style that the National Night Stick will attempt to emulate.
One recurring feature in the Police Gazette was “Lives of the Felons,” which told stories about individual criminals. With a nod to this feature, The National Night Stick has “Rogue’s Corner” with criminal portraits and biographies form Inspector Thomas Byrnes’s 1886 book Professional Criminals of America.
EAC: You also write Murder by Gaslight. How did you decide to start writing blogs, and why are you starting another one?
I began Murder by Gaslight after researching the stories behind American murder ballads. Though some American ballads have roots in the British Isles, most were written about actual American murders. What I found was an abundance of source material about American murders in general. True crime has always been popular here in America, and in the 19th century, as now, murder trials were a source of entertainment.
I thought it would be good to have all the information I found in one place. The result is Murder by Gaslight, which has been well received. I think the appeal, both then and now, is not the gruesome nature of the crimes—and some were quite gruesome—but the fact that there is always a good story before and after the crime itself.
I decided to start another blog because not all crimes are murders.
EAC: How did you become interested in nineteenth-century American crime?
It was a natural regression from murder ballads to society murders to serial killers to con-men, prostitutes, pimps and pickpockets.
EAC: The National Night Stick currently advertises that a work of serialized fiction will be appearing soon on its pages. Can you give us a preview of what The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt is about?
Most magazines and many newspapers in the 19th-century published serialized fiction, so I thought it would be a good feature to add to The National Night Stick. The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt will be a strange, and hopefully humorous, story set in a historical context and told in brief but frequent posts.
The story is set in New York State during the 1840’s, because that was a time and place dominated by weird and extreme religious, political, and social movements, with a constant undercurrent of violence. We follow an innocent farm boy from New England who enters this volatile world, meets some characters who would be memorable in any era, and gets deeper and deeper into trouble. Think Candide meets Deadwood in antebellum New York.
Look for The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt in late spring 2011.