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The crimes were horrific to begin with, and then they got worse. The first victims were young boys, found stripped naked and bound with ropes, bruised and bleeding from being beaten. As 1871 turned into 1872, parents in Chelsea worried about their children being tortured by the figure a Boston Globe article called “A Fiendish Boy” and an “inhuman scamp,” who had lured boys to the waterfront and left them near dead. But these early victims, at least, survived.

Jesse Harding Pomeroy was 12 when he was caught, identified by a 5-year-old boy he had assaulted in South Boston (where Pomeroy’s family had recently moved, after leaving Chelsea). He confessed to his crimes and was sentenced to a reform school for the remainder of his childhood — observers noted his “eerie calmness” when led out of the courtroom — but it seems his incarceration there did no good. In fact, as Roseanne Montillo notes in her supremely creepy chronicle of Pomeroy’s murderous life, the boy savored hearing stories of the physical abuse the officers imposed on his fellow delinquents, their gruesome details “the only bright spots in the entire institution.”

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When the body of 4-year-old Horace Millen was found half-naked and stabbed to death on a South Boston beach in 1874, police noted the similarities between this crime and the work of “a young scoundrel we’ve got in the Reformatory,” only to learn the sickening truth: For some unknown reason, Pomeroy had been released prematurely and was back home in South Boston. He was quickly apprehended and held for Millen’s murder, to which he confessed, then recanted. While Pomeroy awaited trial, workers cleaning a basement under the Pomeroy’s small shop found the decaying body of Katie Curran, a 10-year-old girl who went missing a month after Pomeroy left the Reformatory.

Crimes as lurid and horrifying as Pomeroy’s are difficult to read about, but Montillo, who teaches in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, wisely chooses to draw back from time to time, lingering instead on the context in which they took place. Boston in the 1870s was newly self-anointed as the Hub of the Universe, but it was also a city undergoing growing pains, some gradual and others immediate — such as the massive fire that destroyed much of the city’s downtown in 1872. Eminent Bostonians such as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who argued in the Atlantic magazine that Pomeroy should not be put to death for his crimes, make appearances here, as do other cases of murder and madness that helped lay the groundwork for insanity defenses, such as Pomeroy’s counsel waged on his behalf.

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It didn’t work. After a long-delayed trial and repeated examination by doctors and ministers, Pomeroy was convicted and sent to prison in 1876, a few months shy of 17, to serve a life sentence in solitary confinement. He never stopped appealing for his release, nor did his attempts to escape end with age — at 71, he was caught by prison officials with “a selection of knives, some sharp files, and several little cutting instruments.” He died soon after.

In tracing Pomeroy’s crimes and punishment, Montillo ponders the nascent field of psychology, just then emerging from its origin as an aspect of philosophy and ushering in a new way of seeing the individual and the world. Montillo leaves it to the reader to decide the extent and meaning of Pomeroy’s mental illness: Was he simply evil, his strangely clouded right eye a mark of warning and danger? Was he damaged by early physical abuse at the hands of his father? Would he have recovered from his violent urges if he had been treated — or was he an irredeemable monster?

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Alongside these questions, Montillo posits as a kind of parallel narrative the life and work of Herman Melville, whose Ahab is perhaps the most famous example of monomania in literature. This is a bold move that doesn’t entirely work — one would have liked it if Montillo had more clearly drawn the lines of connection she here only suggests — still, readers drawn to historical crimes will find this book as thrilling as it is disturbing.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.