The Boy Fiend
By the spring of 1874, Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill had finished two complete dramatic tours. The first, The Scouts of the Prairie with Ned Buntline, had taken the heroes of dime novels and thrust their real life counterparts to a level of fame previously unimaginable. The modern day equivalent would be reading a Spider-Man comic book on Monday, and then going to see Peter Parker as Spider-Man appearing at your local theater on Tuesday. Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack were larger than life, and the public's appetite for stories about them was such that actors pretending to be them played shows in Savannah, Georgia, and dime novelists filled hundreds of pages with stories about Buffalo Bill saving pioneer families in Kansas or Texas Jack rescuing captured maidens on the Mexican border.
In Boston, newspapers followed the scouts' every move, reporting not just on their appearances in the city as performers, but on such minutiae as Omohundro's trip with Morlacchi to the opera or the fact that Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill had come to town to catch a performance of the play Davy Crockett at the Boston Theatre in January. Cody and Omohundro returned to the city in June to perform, but between those trips newspapers in the city were consumed with one of the most sensational stories in the city's history.
In March, newspaper notices and posters advertised a reward of $500 for aid in the "detection and conviction" of whoever had abducted a young girl from South Boston. The girl's name was Katie Mary Curran, the ten-year-old daughter of John and Mary Curran. Despite the offered reward, the police were no closer to finding out what happened to Katie Curran on April 22nd, when the body of a four-year-old boy named Horace Millen was discovered in the marshes around Boston's Dorchester Bay. Suddenly, there were two murders to add to a serious of attacks on children that had gone on for the last three years.
In December of 1871, a child had reported that an older boy had stripped him of his clothing and whipped him. The following February, in a similar attack, a boy stated that an older child he did not know had stripped him, whipped him, and then thrust pins into his naked body. Another attack in August had established a pattern; young boys lured by an older child they did not know to a remote area, beaten, tortured, cut, and tied to telegraph poles. The attacker made his victims repeat obscenities and profanity, even going so far as to dance around one bleeding victim. Police noted that the attacks were becoming both more violently brutal and more sexually charged over time. Though there were up to ten victims, all of whom agreed that their attacker had lured them with promises of candy or money, the police had nothing to go on except for one of the victim's recollection that his attacker had "a bad eye."
But those crimes had stopped after the police arrested Jesse Pomeroy, the twelve-year-old son of a local dressmaker. Jesse had been sent to a state reform school, and parents of South Boston had returned to allowing their children to play outside and to sending them on the occasional errand. It wasn't until those two boys walking across that marsh on April 22nd had discovered the mutilated and tortured body of little Horace Millen that police were made aware that Pomeroy had been released from the reform school with a record of exemplary conduct just six weeks earlier, just before the disappearance of Katie Curran.
Police picked up Jesse Pomeroy, his pants covered with mud and his boots matching tracks discovered in the marsh. When they showed him the body of his victim and demanded to know if he had been the one to end the child's life, Pomeroy began to shiver and whimper before admitting his crime. A trial was held, but Pomeroy was found to be innocent by reason of insanity. Shortly after the trial, the new tennants of Pomeroy's mother's dress-shop were cleaning out the cellar when they discovered the remains of Katie Curran. The young girl had come to the shop while Jesse's mother was away, and with the promise of candy he had lured her to the cellar, killed her, and buried the body beneath a pile of ashes.
This was America's first serial killer, and no one knew if there had been more victims. A new trial was the sensation of the decade, Pomeroy was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but Massachusetts Governor William Gaston was opposed to the death penalty, and refused to sign the warrant for Pomeroy's execution. Pomeroy went on to spend the next 38 years in solitary confinement, and then another 21 in prison before his death at the age of 72 in 1932. Pomeroy explained that he had tortured and murdered his victims simply because "I can't help it." During his years in prison he had studied and learned the law, taught himself to speak five languages including Arabic, and penned a book of poetry that he signed 'Grandpa.'
If Jesse Pomeroy had killed people in 1989, his violent acts might have been blamed on rap music. If he had killed in 2019, perhaps it would have been said that violent video games were behind his desire to inflict pain. But in 1874, his cruel acts were said to be caused by his consumption of dime novels. Lehigh University professor Dawn Keetley, who wrote a book about the Pomeroy Murders titled Making a Monster: Jesse Pomeroy, the Boy Murderer of 1870s Boston, says that based on the accounts of Pomeroy's victims, his actions “really echoed the torture scenes in dime novels, which were mostly about Native Americans capturing white frontier settlers and torturing them in various ways: tying them up, sticking them with knives and pins, dancing around them, scalping them. All of these things—all of them—Jesse Pomeroy tried to enact on his victims.” One Boston newspaper summed it up this way: "Pomeroy has been a close reader of dime novels and yellow-covered literature until, as one of the gentlemen stated in his argument before the council, "his brain was turned, and his highest ambition was to be the 'Texas Jack' of South Boston."