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Books > Lit Up

Lit up

Area hate-crime murders that caused panic, and a coffee-table tome of shuttered insane asylums

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Published 11/4/2009

The Slasher Killings: A Canadian Sex Crime Panic, 1945-1946
by Patrick Brode
Wayne State University Press
$22.95, 232 pp.

In the mid-1940s, Windsor, Ontario, was a freewheeling incubator of vice. Troops returning from the war were welcomed home with a bevy of booze, houses in which to play cards and shoot dice, and brothels in which to grind their war-torn memories away. Unlike Detroit, Windsor was an "open city." As long as law and order was maintained — which it was for the most part — the livin' was (relatively) easy.

That all changed in the summer of 1945, when an assailant levied a series of attacks — some of them fatal, all of them with a knife — on the city. Not all citizens though, just the city's men. And not all men, just those, it would seem, who'd meet with other men at night for anonymous sexual soirees in overgrown fields and hidden ditches. These men were being stabbed and slashed and left for dead in gruesome blood-soaked scenes.

In the recent Wayne State University Press publication The Slasher Killings, Windsor-based lawyer Patrick Brode investigates these attacks, the police department's inability to catch the murderer, the resulting media blitz, and the effect it all had on the cities of Windsor and Detroit. Brode balances meticulous reporting and first-person testimony with material evidence and the linear approach to an otherwise winding road that only a lawyer could navigate.

It's not a ferocious page-turner. The pages steadily roll as Brode carefully unfolds this true tale of murder, sex and deceit. To his credit, Brode has much to say on this topic and has therefore delivered a comprehensive commentary. While laying out how each attack took place, the way they were played up in the media, and the inefficiency of the detectives in trying to read the evidence, Brode also points out the ways in which these knifings — which started and stopped again in 1946 — affected the city's laws and outlooks from then till now. (The prime suspect had his conviction overturned.)

Writes Brode: "Above all, the panic generated a vicious campaign that vilified all those who did not belong: drifters, the unemployed, racial minorities and, ultimately, sexual outsiders. It led to a crackdown on suggestive literature and to the heightened surveillance of young people." There were slasher sightings in Detroit too, which led to an illegal rounding-up of the city's gay men.

"While there is always an element of theater in the law," Brode writes, "the illogical and melodramatic conduct of those involved in the Slasher trials indicated that the process could all too easily veer from a search for justice to a public condemnation of the unconventional." Brode goes into great detail to show not just the communal effects but also the ways in which these attacks and murders changed (for a moment) the legal process.

Sure there are lots of juicy details — creepy letters, threatening notes etched into the wall in the Windsor Tunnel, accounts by the victims and police reports ("six stab wounds in the deceased's back and the trousers almost cut away from the body ...") but we have to keep in mind that Slasher is pieced together with information, not rhythm, in mind. Be patient. Still, traffic accident gawkers should get as much out of this book as case-studying grad students surely will.


Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne; Essay by Oliver Sacks
The MIT Press
$39.95, 210 pages.

In the greater American consciousness, when we think of insane asylums don't we think of the besieged mind of R.P. McMurphy, his buddy Chief Bromden's thousand-yard stare and their wretched nemesis, Nurse Ratched? I do. Everything inside is sterile. And there are too many beds to a room, but even with all those people (and even more minds) crammed together there's an uncomfortable aloneness blanketing each patient. OK, maybe some think of the bizarre inmates inside Arkham Asylum, where the Joker, the Riddler, Scarecrow and the gang plot escape and revenge on our caped crusader. But for Michiganders, the word brings to mind real-life villain, Gov. John "the Mangler" Engler. Throughout the 1990s, Engler successfully shut down mental health facilities statewide, including the historic Detroit Psychiatric Institute, Pontiac's Fairlawn Center and Clinton Valley Center, and the Ypsilanti State Hospital. Among others, Engler also oversaw the elimination the children's program at Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital, Michigan's largest asylum. And what happened to all those patients? Just take a drive around those city's downtowns — they didn't go far. It's not like Traverse City had a real problem with homelessness until their state-run psychiatric hospital closed its doors in 1989. It was one of those, "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" scenarios.

Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these institutions featured weird facilities (electro-shock therapy rooms, crematoriums, autopsy theaters) and architectural nuances (Victorian breezeways, steeples and picturesque gardens) that left these derelict structures with some sort of obtuse eerie magnificence.

Not that there wasn't a dark beauty that existed while these asylums were in operation, but an overgrown garden that looks up to empty iron-clad windows or a closet of abandoned brass urns and stained straitjackets, or a room entirely empty save for a rusted gurney are filled of subversive splendor. That's what photographer Christopher Payne set out to capture with Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals.

Though there are shots from Traverse City (above) and Ypsilanti State Hospitals, and early drawings of the Fairlawn Center in Pontiac, the bound photo collection (with an eye-opening essay by neurologist and psych-ward doc Oliver Sacks) mainly focuses on institutions found on the Eastern seaboard. Payne shot 70 institutions in 30 states between 2002 and 2008, and thus gives us a world to, albeit briefly, get lost in.

The photography is, um, well-executed; like filmmaker Wes Anderson, Payne (trained as an architect) has a knack for finding an image's natural frame and pattern, yet he doesn't overdo it. Architecture and American history buffs will dig the large-format prints, as they capture, as Payne puts it, "palatial exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors never intended to be seen again."

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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