Date of Project

4-28-2017

Document Type

Honors Thesis

School Name

College of Arts and Sciences

Department

English

Major Advisor

Dr. Jon Blandford

Second Advisor

Dr. Annette Powell

Third Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Barker

Abstract

True crime is often dismissed as a genre of cheap paperbacks with little literary merit and highly sensational, pornographic content. By contrast, my paper proposes an alternative literary history of true crime which merits further investigation because of its focus on advocating for justice where the justice system failed. I begin with Catharine Williams’ 1833 piece Fall River: An Authentic Narrative, an early example from true crime literature. The text disputes the acquittal of a Methodist preacher for the murder of a female mill worker, arguing that the trial was unfairly slanted in the defendant’s favor. More than a century later, Erle Stanley Gardner advocates for the wrongfully convicted in his 1948 column The Court of Last Resort, in which he frames his argument for an imprisoned man’s innocence in pro-establishment language that would earn the trust of a public largely unreceptive to critique of major governmental institutions. Finally, modern viral narratives like the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer advocate for two men who claim their innocence from their prison cells--one, a young Muslim, and the other a poor white man who was wrongfully convicted twice. These texts are just a few examples of many that complicate true crime’s sordid reputation in their ability to develop arguments that influence the cases they cover. The enduring popularity of these texts in American culture makes them impossible to ignore, and their focus on advocacy while subscribing to the conventions of the true crime genre creates a literature which rewards close analysis.