Crime In The Gilded Age? Grislier Than You Might Expect
By Jamie Larson
Murder and mayhem may not be the first two words that come to mind when you think of our lovely Berkshires, but during the region’s “Gilded Age” life was, at times, a bit less civil than we’ve come to know it. From the 1870s to the early 1900s the region saw booming industry and vacationing high society mix with folks with a frontier mentality and a wild country still fraught with perils. These uniquely exciting times bred uniquely intriguing crimes.
Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires, a new book by experienced regional crime reporter and frequent history writer Andrew K. Amelinckx, highlights some of the most intriguing crimes from the era. The tight and supremely readable collection of short stories is a captivating and dramatic read but it also serves as a meaningful addition to our local history cannon. One of the things Amelinckx says he enjoys about journalism and history is unearthing details about our shared history that deserve to be remembered.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage after it was hit by a speeding trolley car near Pittsfield, Mass., on Sept. 3, 1902. The accident resulted in the death of William “Big Bill” Craig, the first Secret Service agent to be killed protecting a president, and a jail sentence for the trolley driver.
“In the Gilded Age, the Berkshires was a really anomalous place. It was a playground for the super rich from New York but still considered backwater by most of New England,” says Amelinckx, noting that the culture clash is perhaps most pronounced in the book’s first story, “The Gentleman Burglar,” about a gang that preyed on the super rich.
“There were also a lot of ax murders,” the author adds.
Some tales may be familiar to locals, such as the incident in which President Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage was hit by an unwieldy trolley car outside Pittsfield, resulting in the death of the first Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty. Others, like “The Thanksgiving Day Double Murder,” are more obscure, and more emotionally impactful than titillating. In the Thanksgiving case, an African-American man was sentenced and executed on thin evidence. While on death row, he wrote a book of his own and recounts the struggles and persecution blacks living in the Berkshires endured at the time.
Fadlo Mallak, the Syrian-born millworker who shot up a trolley car near Adams, Mass. in 1911, killing three and wounding five.
“The justice system worked much more swiftly and more violently,” says Amelinckx, who pored through innumerable old records and newspaper clippings while researching the book. “In none of these stories was there a lynching but in three or four articles, about different stories, the reporters said that had the police not gotten there, there would have been.”
Amelinckx says his work as a modern crime reporter informed the way he approached investigating these stories from those long-ago days. Over the past decade he’s written countless crime and court stories for the Berkshire Eagle and The Register Star in Columbia County. With his first book behind him, he now has ideas for another book on the historical crimes of the Hudson Valley, as well as a true-crime story about the recent Berkshire triple murder trial involving the disturbing looking Caius Veiovis, which Amelinckx covered at length for the Eagle.
The author. Photo by Rob Ragani.
“[Crime reporting] has certainly colored my perception, but not in a bad way,” Amelinckx says of the job he fell into almost by accident after receiving an MFA. “You get to see the worst and best of humanity.”
Amelinckx will be featured at book reading and signing events to celebrate the release of Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires. The next will be at Magpie Bookshop in his hometown of Catskill, N.Y. on Saturday, Oct. 31 at 5 p.m.