Ginger Strand's new book recounts a series of killing sprees in 20th-century America and attempts to establish a link between mass murderers and the rise of the interstate highway system.
Killer on the Road: The rise of mobile murderers
Since the "Discovering America" series from University of Texas Press claims that America is a "largely undiscovered country with much of its amazing story yet to be told," it was perhaps inevitable that the series would gravitate towards cars and killers, two woeful signatures of modern American culture. The genius of Ginger Strand's Killer on the Road - a problematic and not entirely successful genius - is to combine those signatures: her subject is the connection between serial killers and the huge postwar expansion of the American interstate highway system.
In the 1970s, she contends, discontents had settled in about that highway system: "It had mowed down mountains, ploughed through communities, and divided up farms with little regard for the opinions of affected citizens. It had cost at least three times what it was expected to cost. It had accelerated white flight from cities, contributed to urban blight, and abetted the spread of environmentally destructive, aesthetically awful suburbia."
From its very conception, the system was immense: 69,000 kilometres of highways, sprawling and linked across the face of the entire country, responding to the growing craze of car ownership and personal mobility. The distances involved and the speed and convenience of personal transport were a new combination in the world, and that combination promptly darkened with new dangers, to the point where the staid Saturday Evening Post could report: "Drivers have had their heads bashed in with stones, have been dismembered and have been disembowelled by strangers they picked up on the highways." A writer of Strand's natural spirit and inquisitiveness hardly needs more than this to start digging.
The bulk of Killer on the Road, therefore, consists of a series of tense and vividly effective recountings of various killing sprees in 20th-century America. Strand is very good at retelling these stories and her readers will be riveted while she dramatises the story of stereotypical "juvenile delinquent" and car aficionado Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend-accomplice Caril Fugate, who terrorised 1958 Nebraska with a killing spree Strand explicitly connects with the open road: "The nation's well-being depended on growth, and that growth depended on cars."
After 11 murders, the pair went on trial in May 1958, and the jury took less than a day to turn in a conviction of first-degree murder. Strand tells us that the national response to Starkweather's crimes and conviction was "practically a referendum on automobility and all that it implied", but even this early in the book, cracks begin to appear in such contentions, since despite Starkweather's love of cars and driving, almost all of the murders for which he was electrocuted happened within walking distance of his house.
A far better illustration of Strand's central idea comes in the form of Ed Kemper of Helena, Montana, a physically enormous psychopath who preyed on hitchhikers he picked on highways in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s.
Kemper certainly used cruising as a method of predation, and the roads figured in his imagination as well, fuelling his dreams of being a California Highway Patrolman. He got a job as a flagman with the California Division of Highways and used his official insignia and clean-cut appearance to lure young female hitchhikers into his car, where he would murder them before bringing their bodies back to his home in Alameda for beheading and dismemberment, after which he would dispose of their body parts at various points along the road network. When Kemper was apprehended and confessed, he told the police he would never have acted out his dark fantasies if he hadn't been tempted by female hitchhikers, which certainly seems to shore up Strand's contention that America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
But Kemper didn't exactly wait for highways in order to start killing people. When he was 15, he stood behind his grandmother as she sat at the kitchen table and shot her in the head with a hunting rifle, later blandly commenting: "I just wondered how it would feel to shoot Grandma."
Example follows counter-example throughout Strand's book. For every Dean Corll, who picked up 27 men in Houston and Pasadena and killed them all, there is a Wayne Williams, convicted in some of the murders of 20 young black boys around Atlanta in the early 1980s, crimes that were merely facilitated by efficient roadways, not inspired by them. Strand quotes a letter-writer to The Washington Post saying: "The sight of the uselessly large and elaborate cars on our roads often makes me think: The things are getting better; the people are getting worse." But the case that things were making people worse remains just out of reach.
Strand neatly captures the ideological shift regarding interstate highways, how by the late 1970s, the public relations spin of greater freedom had twisted - helped, in part, by a phantom menace: "The killer on the road, a small danger amplified to a mythic threat, would change the nation's relationship to its car culture," she writes. "His increasing hold on the national psyche paralleled the nation's transition from loving its new roads to hating them."
Interestingly, this paradigm shift was followed by another: Americans began to develop a certain weird affection for the specific kind of killer whose profile had been raised by the advent of superhighways. "Between the early 1980s, when the nation experienced a widespread panic about its epidemic of serial murder, and the decade's end," Strand tells us, "serial killers morphed in the public mind from figures of fear to figures of fascination. Murder has always intrigued the public, but this was a new kind of murder, and a new kind of fascination." The key figure, she's almost certainly right to assert, was the notorious murder Ted Bundy.
He'd been preceded in the late 1970s by other high-profile serial killers, famous names like David Berkowitz (the "Son of Sam"), the "Zodiac Killer", the "Hillside Stranglers," and the "Killer Clown" John Wayne Gacey, but Bundy himself was in a different class, almost literally. According to Strand, he was "handsome, personable, apparently middle class, and with a penchant for victims who made good copy - pretty coeds, ski instructors, sorority sisters".
He became an emblem of this new breed of criminal, and he helped to reinforce the growing image of serial killers as "mobile predators, roaming the nation in search of victims". Bundy had committed crimes across the entire country, from Washington state to Utah to Florida to Washington, which, as Strand points out, tended to draw attention away from the fact that he committed most of his killings in a very small area, in and around Washington.
The idea of the mobile predator struck deep roots into the American imagination. Monsters like the "I-5 Strangler" Roger Reece Kibbe or the murderous duo of Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, who committed at least 28 murders in eight states in the early 1980s, strengthened the imagination. During a series of Senate hearings on serial murder held in July 1983, John Walsh, the host of television's America's Most Wanted, gave voice to the common fear: "When we talk about 6,300 unsolved murders in this country last year, random murders, someone is committing these murders and someone is doing these murders, and they are going through this country and police agencies are not linking them up."
Concepts like this - shadowy figures roaming from state to state racking up victims whose disappearances are too widely scattered to trigger the instincts of local law enforcement - certainly have some basis in fact (as Walsh, whose young son was abducted and killed by Toole, knew better than anyone).
But there's far more than simple fact at work in the resulting picture, as Strand gamely acknowledges late in her book. "The nation had created a panic over mobile serial killers," she writes. "But the most-talked-about killers - John Wayne Gacey, Jeffrey Dahmer, Son of Sam, even Ted Bundy - were mostly geographically focused. With the exception of Bundy, they weren't mobile at all." Indeed, this was the genuine pattern, laid out by Eric Hickey in his definitive 2006 study Serial Murderers and their Victims: the large majority of all serial killers have stayed stubbornly local in their crimes. In fact, the percentage of such murderers who travelled actually declined from 1975 to 2004.
It didn't matter, Strand concludes, "because the nation had come to associate motorways and violence. Meanwhile, real freeway killers - mobile predators using the highways to find vulnerable victims - were out there, but they got far less attention. Like the highways themselves, they were grand, unappealing, and lacking in taste." The ironic twist of Killer on the Road is that it so often succumbs to this misleading picture even while painting it. The reader is left with the strong impression that the expanding American highway system merely acted as a vector for a plague. Not the inspiration for Jack the Ripper, if you will, but merely the means for getting him out of Whitechapel. This is slightly different from the argument Strand makes - although not one small bit more comforting.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.