"Crimes of the Century": Background information when reading American Lightning

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American Lightning

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century

by Howard Blum

American Lightning by Howard Blum X
American Lightning by Howard Blum
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Kuhns
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About this Book

"Crimes of the Century"

This article relates to American Lightning

Print Review

Tacking down a precise date for when the term "Crime of the Century" was first utilized is not easy, but most scholars would attach the name of Jack the Ripper to the creation of that notorious slogan. The killing spree in 1888 that resulted in the deaths of at least five accountable victims and possibly ten more was never solved, but the fear it provoked in England, and across the world for that matter, is legendary.

In the United States, the list of highly publicized crimes is no less spectacular. Arguably, at the top of list is the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. Yet, some 22 years earlier, Los Angeles newspaper headlines broadcast the shocking horror that Blum recaptures in American Lightning.


The Los Angeles Times journalists who referred to the explosion at their newspaper's headquarters as "the crime of the century" might have been inspired by the 1889 publication of The Crime of the Century by Henry Hunt. This 576-page work chronicles the murder of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish-American who threatened to reveal the involvement of the Clan-na-Gael (United Brotherhood) in several explosions in England throughout the early 1880s in an attempt to secure Irish independence from British rule.

For those with an interest in reading about the lesser-known criminal minds of the Victorian era, two titles are worth searching out: Angus McLaren's A Prescription for Murder (1993), which documents the killings of Dr. Thomas Neil Cream, who is considered to be the first serial murderer in the English-speaking world; and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a superb story of death and destruction during the innovative Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The former is geared towards academia and professional historians, while the latter will attract the same audience that will enjoy American Lightning – those who want a little history with their murder mystery.

Interesting Link: A 2007 Time magazine article listing the Top 25 "Crimes of the Century".

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Jamie Kuhns

This "beyond the book article" relates to American Lightning. It originally ran in October 2008 and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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