I love receiving books as gifts, but sometimes it takes me a while to get around to reading them.
That’s what happened when my friend Tatiana gave me a book called “25 Diabolical Adirondack Murders: The Twisted, Fiendish Deeds of North Country Killers” several years ago. I said thank you, put it in the bookcase and left it there to collect dust. The subject matter just didn’t interest me very much.
Unread books — especially those given by friends — have a way of making me feel guilty, and in December I pulled “25 Diabolical Adirondack Murders” off the shelf and began reading.
I thought I would dip into the book whenever the mood struck me, but the stories were well-written, well-researched and rich with detail, and it wasn’t long before I was tearing through the text. I didn’t always understand why — what, exactly, made these real-life murders so compelling — but I couldn’t stop reading.
Last month I got in touch with the author, Lawrence P. Gooley, to learn more about his work, which I thought might be of interest to Daily Gazette readers.
“I started out as a history writer,” Gooley, 63, told me, when I reached him at his Plattsburgh-area home. “I consider murder stories a part of history. . . . For me, it’s not so much that I’m interested in the macabre. It’s more that these things have gone on here. I’m fascinated to find out things that happened in the Adirondacks and foothills.”
Gooley specializes in local and regional history.
He writes a history column for the online news journal The Adirondack Almanack and has published 20 books through the self-publishing company he runs with his wife, Jill Jones, who he described as “the brains” behind the operation.
Gooley’s most recent titles are a seventh volume of “People & Places of the Adirondacks & Foothills,” a collection of North Country stories, and “Escape From Dannemora: 170 Years of Escapes, Tortures and Infamous Inmates at New York’s Most Notorious Prison.”
Until speaking with Gooley, I had never given much thought to whether murder stories are an important part of history.
I’ve since come to the conclusion that they are — that they provide a valuable window into how our criminal justice system has evolved over the years, and how it has remained very much the same. One thing we don’t have to worry about anymore is angry mobs intercepting criminal suspects and lynching them before they receive their day in court. One thing we do still have to worry about is punishing and containing those who commit shocking and brutal crimes.
The criminals featured in “25 Diabolical Murders” are a mix of psychopaths, people with mental health issues and ordinary folks overcome by anger, greed or passion. The stories take place between 100 and 150 years ago, but the petty disputes and incomprehensibly evil urges that fuel their narratives will be familiar to anyone who follows local crime.
One of the most memorable stories in “25 Diabolical Murders” is called “Evil Personified: Neighbor in a Trunk.”
It details how a deranged woman living outside Watertown scammed the couple next door out of their property, killed the wife and hid the dismembered body in a trunk. When local police officials opened up the trunk, “A ghastly odor filled their nostrils,” Gooley writes. “Although repulsed by the smell, they lifted the black cloth shielding the contents, revealing the back of a human leg.”
What’s impressive about Gooley’s literary output is that all of his books were written after he retired from a pharmaceutical plant more than a decade ago. His first book, a detailed history of the Altona Flat Rock, a pine barrens located in the North Country, was published in 1980.
“If I could have written when I was younger, I would have 50 or 60 books by now,” Gooley said.
As to whether the murder stories of the past have anything to teach us, Gooley was uncertain.
“Murder stories are interesting, but I’m not sure how much we can learn from them,” he said.
It would be wrong to say Gooley hasn’t learned anything from researching and writing these lurid and disturbing tales, though.
“I know evil when I see it,” he told me.
Of that, I don’t have any doubt. Some of his stories still give me chills. If you’re interested in local history and the darker side of human nature, “25 Diabolical Murders” might just be the book for you.