Monday, June 30, 2008

The Dime Novel Made Him Do It

In the 1950's rock 'n' roll was branded "the Devil's music" by some and blamed for every kind of juvenile delinquency. Today, violent video games and "gangsta rap" are under the same spotlight of suspicion. But back in the late 1800's, it was the low-tech dime novel which was viewed as the evil influence on youth.
In Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America's Youngest Serial Killer, author Harold Schechter gives readers the gory details of Jesse Pomeroy's spree of torture and murder in Boston, ending in his 1874 arrest at the age of 14. In an intriguing passage, Schechter explores the sordid reputation of the dime novel genre. These action-packed, melodramatic adventure stories were chock full of bravado and bloodshed. And they were readily available and inexpensive enough for even a working-class boy to buy on a regular basis. As is the case today, there were those who chose to blame an individual's bad deeds on a popular form of entertainment. Schechter writes, "Denunciations of the dime novel's supposedly corrupting effects on young minds began appearing everywhere, from the pulpit to the newspaper editorial pages to such venerable publications as Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly."
Soon after Pomeroy's arrest, incriminating stories arose about the boy's fondness for this violent fare. The Boston Globe found it relevant to note that "There is plenty of evidence to show that dime novels ... constituted a good share of the boy's mental nourishment," and quoted a friend of Jesse's who revealed that the boy had been smuggling these volumes into school and hiding them inside his text books where he would "devour [them] while pretending to study his lessons."

View related material from the City of Boston Archives. 

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