Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America

Image of Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree That Changed America
Release Date: 
November 28, 2023
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In January 1958, Charles Starkweather, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, embarked on a killing spree in Nebraska, leaving ten people dead in their wake. In Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree that Changed America, Harry N. MacLean, award-winning author of four bestselling true-crime books, revisits this crime, one that partially inspired the 1994 Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers, and the song, "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen on his acclaimed album of the same title.

The crime was disturbing not only for the callousness of the murders, but because it was likely the first nationally broadcast case of mass murder (defined by the FBI as "someone who kills four or more people in close succession in a single locale or closely related locales," MacLean notes). As MacLean writes, "Before Charles Manson; before John Gacy; before Ted Bundy, the Son of Sam, The Hillside Strangler, the Zodiac Killer; before Charles Whitman, Jeffrey Dahmer, and all the rest—there was Charles Starkweather. With the Starkweather killings, rural America lost its sense of pastoral safety, its ethos of people knowing and trusting their neighbors; no longer would folks in small towns and villages leave their doors unlocked.

MacLean has a special interest in revisiting this case, as he grew up in the same town and was an age-cohort to Starkweather. "I was fifteen in 1958. Caril was thirteen; Charlie was nineteen. We all lived in Lincoln," he writes, noting that his house was just over mile from the Ward home, where Starkweather brutally and senselessly killed a husband and wife and their housekeeper. MacLean recalls a phone call from his mother, her voice shaking, while he was at boarding school in the east. "'Do you remember Mike Ward?' she asked. 'Yeah,' I responded. 'His mother and father were murdered. The killers are still on the loose.'"

Other than synthesizing documents and historical records to masterfully recreate the chilling story, the main thrust of MacLean's book is to evaluate whether Caril Ann Fugate, at 14, was an accomplice in the heinous murders, or a hostage to her boyfriend, with whom she'd split up just before the killing began. "Those who seek to bring the hammer of justice down on the head of Caril Fugate must deal with one dilemma," MacLean writes. "How does a young girl with no history of violence or aggression turn into a knife-wielding, trigger-pulling monster for eight days and subsequently transform into the perfect prisoner for eighteen years, become a trusted and caring nanny for a nursery full of kids at a local church, and basically hold a job and lead a normal, spotless life for forty-five years after her release without any hint of her previous incarnation as a cold-blooded murderess?"

MacLean carefully analyzes the crimes based on testimony, forensic evidence, police reports, and court documents, and his perspective on Caril's role derives from this deep research and thoughtful analysis. In applying contemporary methods of crime investigation and judicial standards, MacLean seeks to re-litigate Caril's guilt or innocence. MacLean writes about crime, he says, "to explore larger themes." In Starkweather, the theme is the culpability of a juvenile, who'd been tried as an adult and convicted "in the justice system of the 1950s."

MacLean writes in a straightforward manner, though not without the sensory details that create atmosphere. "The day is clear and cold, but it has warmed up just enough to melt a few inches of snow that had fallen the night before. The tires break through the crust and churn the dirt to a muddy slush," in which Charlie gets his car stuck. The man from whom Charlie seeks help will become his fourth victim, after the death of Caril's parents and her baby sister. In this section of the book, MacLean tacks back and forth from Charlie's account of the events and Caril's, aiming to suss out discrepancies and when possible, the truth of what happened.

Starkweather is a gripping tale, artfully told by a seasoned crime writer, whose deep dive into the historical records sheds new light on an old but still disturbing crime, and on the 1950s criminal justice system that was ill-equipped to handle this new genre of crime: the murder spree.