The Main Line region’s interest in true crime coincides with a love of history that’s best explored through conversation and literature.
Kathryn Canavan had already “cobbled together” a respectable freelance career working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets when she fell somewhat reluctantly into true crime. While taking some time off to care for an elderly parent, Canavan toured the Petersen House, where President Lincoln was taken after he was shot on April 14, 1865. A popular tourist destination and part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the former boarding house draws bout 600,000 people each year—and they inevitably pause in silence in the back room where he died.
Working on assignment for AARP a few blocks from Ford’s Theatre at the time, Canavan found herself wondering about the doctors, reporters and ordinary folk who’d been there on that horrible day. She was so interested, in fact, that she literally ran to the Library of Congress to do some research on the stories of those who’d witnessed Lincoln’s final hours. Five years later, she had enough material for her first book. Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President was published in 2015 by the University Press of Kentucky.
The rave reviews for the book caught the attention of Lyons Press, which proposed a book on true crime. Canavan balked at first. Then the acquisitions editor reminded her that the Lincoln assassination was the most consequential true crime in American history. It was enough to convince Canavan. Just 14 months later, she’d finished True Crime Philadelphia: From America’s First Robbery to the Real-Life Killers Who Inspired Boardwalk Empire.
The 2021 book’s 16 Philly crimes include America’s first bank robbery (1798) and kidnapping for ransom (1874). There’s the South Philadelphia man who recruited unhappy Depression-era housewives for the largest mass murder plot in U.S. history—and the story of famed bank robber Willie Sutton, who made a bold daylight escape from Eastern State Penitentiary in 1945.
Canavan’s husband, John Sweeney— who grew up in Port Richmond area of Philadelphia—had a few suggestions, including the aforementioned South Philadelphia mass murder ring that involved arsenic-laced spaghetti. Ultimately, 75 people were exhumed to make a case that sent two convicted felons to the electric chair.
Lately, Canavan has been considering the forgotten women of the Lincoln assassination. She finds herself drawn to a “kinder, gentler” era of crime. “It’s fun to write,” says the Wilmington resident. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
And readers apparently can’t get enough. True Crime Philadelphia is currently in its second printing. The first batch sold out in 31 days.
“Women are always scared,” says Kate Shaw, Tredyffrin Township Libraries’ director of reference and technology.
Shaw runs the Crime Time Online discussion group. Its 10 or so members have met once a month for two years, moving online permanently during the pandemic. “We read books in the beginning,” Shaw says. “Now we do our own research into unsolved cases.”
Shaw posts initial resource links about a case, and the group goes from there. “Our independent research leads to opportunities to report the different sides of a crime—to explore what justice looks like for the victim,” she says. “They’re real tragedies that happened to real people—but there’s something cathartic about discussing them together.”
Jennifer Philips leads a monthly true-crime book club at Swarthmore Library that has continued on Zoom through the pandemic. They’ll soon be changing the format to watch true-crime documentaries on alternating months. “It’s dark humor—not funny at all,” says the adult services librarian. “But sometimes my daughter and I laugh when I check to make sure the back door is locked.”
Philips says most of the true-crime fans she knows also enjoy history. “It’s different than a detective novel with a nice, tidy conclusion,” she says. “I’ve asked people, ‘Why the fascination?’ For me, when I read something like that, I can’t fathom why one person can do those things to another. It’s a quest that can never be solved.”
Philips says most sparring among book club members occurs over motive. “No one ever agrees on the why,” she says.