What with all the CSI television dramas, books by FBI profilers and frightening news stories about serial killers, we’ve become quite familiar with the concept of the criminal psychopath, a person without remorse. But even now, most of us are shocked when a child is a murderer. In 1874, when our current ideas about mental illness were still in their infancy, 14-year-old Jesse Pomeroy seemed to many like a demon from hell.
As what we would now call a tween, Jesse kidnapped and tortured little boys not far from his home in Boston. A stint at a reform school just taught him better criminal techniques: After his release, he killed a girl and a boy in South Boston. He was quickly captured (though not quickly enough to save the second victim). The troubling question for Bostonians: What next for Jesse? Execution, imprisonment, treatment? Attitudes toward him changed as the study of mental illness evolved.
Roseanne Montillo’s absorbing The Wilderness of Ruin explores Jesse’s crimes and the decades-long debate that followed in the context of 19th-century law, medicine and literature. She particularly focuses on the life and social circle of writer Herman Melville, whose emotional troubles influenced Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, among other works. Melville’s friend Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the Supreme Court justice) was among those who argued that Jesse should be studied, not hanged.
Perhaps most compelling is Montillo’s portrait of Jesse, who was intelligent and resourceful, but in modern terms clearly a dangerous psychopath. Bostonians were likely very lucky that he started his criminal career before he was sophisticated enough to cover his tracks.