Literary Murderers

Art can elevate the soul, but not all souls respond.

Posted Jan 25, 2013

Fox TV’s The Following offers the eloquent Poe scholar/writer/lit professor Joe Carroll as a sadistic serial killer. So, let's consider some actual killers-turned-authors who managed to dupe smart people into believing that their intellectual gifts had bettered them.

In 1976 in Austria, Jack Unterweger was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He used the time to improve his writing skills, acquainting himself with literary works and editing a prison newspaper. Eventually he wrote his own poems, short stories, and plays, which got attention from the outside world. In 1984, his prison autobiography Fegefeuer was a bestseller and “Endstation Zuchthaus" won a prestigious literary prize. 

Critics and prison reformists embraced Unterweger's honesty and the way he'd confronted his past. They hailed him as an example of how art can redeem a criminal. Journalists contacted him for interviews and it wasn’t long before the idea gained momentum to get him released. It seemed clear to several influential people that Unterweger could now contribute to society. On May 23, 1990, he won parole.

In his new life, Unterweger become the darling of Viennese intellectuals. He was in demand, attending book launches, literary soirees and opening nights. Fegefeuer was made into a movie, and Unterweger became a frequent guest on talk shows. A suave and stylish figure in white suits, silk shirts and gold chains, he showed up regularly in Vienna’s trendy champagne bars and nightclubs. He also worked as a freelance reporter.

It wasn’t long before someone had the idea that Unterweger ought to be covering murder, since he knew this subject first-hand. He avidly pursued these cases, wrote about them, and talked about them on television – especially the recent prostitute murders attributed to “The Courier.”

In his articles, Unterweger hounded investigators about why they had not yet arrested someone or offered the public any information. He interviewed prostitutes in the streets, alerting the public that their worst fears were true: Austria had a serial killer. In fact, this killer was Unterweger and he was covering his own crimes.

He killed women in other areas as well (including Los Angeles) before he was finally caught and exposed. To avoid prison, he committed suicide. Art had given him a stage, but it had not cured him.

Convicted felon Jack Henry Abbott became a celebrity from his prison-based book, In the Belly of the Beast, which became a bestseller and garnered support among America’s literary elite. The book had developed from a series of letters he'd written to Norman Mailer during the 1970s, and Mailer had helped him to get the collection published. Mailer and his associates then championed Abbott's release, with assurances to the parole board that Abbott was a "powerful and important writer." 

In 1981, Abbott got out of prison. Like Unterweger, he received numerous invitations to dinner parties and television talk shows. He was celebrated as a rehabilitated man, thanks to his ability to channel his thoughts into more elevated forms.

No one seemed to notice that Abbott had dedicated the book to a vicious predator Carl Panzram, an unrepentant rapist and multiple killer who had once described himself as the "spirit of meanness personified." He never hesitated to rape or kill when the mood hit him, and one story has it that he took six African men on a safari, killed them all and tossed them into the river for the crocodiles.

Six weeks into his freedom, Abbott got into an argument with Richard Adnan, a young waiter and aspiring actor, and stabbed him to death. Then he dismissed the killing in a sequel My Return as “necessary” and said that Adnan didn’t have much talent, anyway. Clearly, art had not granted Abbott any lofty spiritual sentiments.

Edgar Smith, another literary con-artist, was on death row for the rape-murder of a 15-year-old girl. He corresponded with William F. Buckley, Jr. over a period of seven years, convincing him that he’d been falsely imprisoned. Buckley helped Smith to write and publish Brief Against Death. With Buckley’s persistent sponsorship, Smith won release in 1971.

Smith appeared on Buckley's television show and became a member of Mensa, the genius club. He commanded impressive speaking fees as he toured college campuses to tell his story. But then he attacked a young woman in California. She escaped, turning him in, and Smith asked Buckley for help once more. A shaken Buckley turned him over to the FBI. Smith then confessed to having committed the original murder. His entire tale had been a lie.

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