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Murder Most Foul

Murder Most Foul

The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination

Karen Halttunen

ISBN 9780674003842

Publication date: 09/01/2000

Confronting murder in the newspaper, on screen, and in sensational trials, we often feel the killer is fundamentally incomprehensible and morally alien. But this was not always the popular response to murder. In Murder Most Foul, Karen Halttunen explores the changing view of murder from early New England sermons read at the public execution of murderers, through the nineteenth century, when secular and sensational accounts replaced the sacred treatment of the crime, to today's true crime literature and tabloid reports.

The early narratives were shaped by a strong belief in original sin and spiritual redemption, by the idea that all murders were natural manifestations of the innate depravity of humankind. In a dramatic departure from that view, the Gothic imagination--with its central conventions of the fundamental horror and mystery of the crime--seized upon the murderer as a moral monster, separated from the normal majority by an impassable gulf. Halttunen shows how this perception helped shape the modern response to criminal transgression, mandating criminal incarceration, and informing a social-scientific model of criminal deviance.

The Gothic expression of horror and inhumanity is the predominant response to radical evil today; it has provided a set of conventions surrounding tales of murder that appear to be natural and instinctive, when in fact they are rooted in the nineteenth century. Halttunen's penetrating insight into her extraordinary treasure trove of creepy popular crime literature reveals how our stories have failed to make sense of the killer and how that failure has constrained our understanding and treatment of criminality today.


  • The invention of [true-crime] detective stories is often ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe, particularly in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841. In Murder Most Foul, Karen Halttunen demonstrates that a longer view is required. Her book is a spirited and lively account, generously sprinkled with compelling anecdotes of grisly yet intriguing murders, murder sites and executions, accompanied by explicit contemporary illustrations. Beginning in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, she traces how accounts of murders changed from being seen as evidence of sin and evil to a more imaginatively complex perception of the murderer as a monster of Gothic terror...[Her] argument has a wide and expansive force.

    —Markman Ellis, Times Literary Supplement


  • Karen Halttunen is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis.

Book Details

  • 338 pages
  • 5-5/8 x 8-11/16 inches
  • Harvard University Press