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Friday, November 2, 2018

True Detective Magazines: The Golden Era

     In 1988, on my way to Chicago to interview Fred E. Inbau, the John Henry Wigmore Professor of Law at Northwestern University, I stopped in Beloit, Wisconsin to visit with Chester Rose. Mr. Rose, a worker in a Rockport shoe factory, had sent me a long letter following the publication of my book, The Lindbergh Case. Since then we had corresponded regularly with the most informative letters coming from him. Chet was a true crime buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of murder cases he had read about in thousands of fact-crime magazines published in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. By the 1970s, Chet had amassed a huge collecton of true detective magazines he kept in his detached garage. His wife, tired of his true crime obsession, burned the garage to the ground. A few years later they were divorced. (Her mysterious disappearance would have made a better story.)

     While never a fan of true detective magazines (Chet called them "tru-dicks"), I became interested in the golden era of this form of nonfiction crime publishing. Aimed at the adult male reader, the pulp art covers--often featuring sexy women in distress--promised stories of salacious violence and mayhem. Unlike many writers for crime fiction periodicals such as Black Mask who went on to become famous authors of mystery novels, the literary contributors to the fact-crime magazines remained relatively unknown. Exceptions include writers Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, and Alan Hynd.

     True crime magazines usually featured ten murder cases per issue. (Occasionally there were accounts starring con men, counterfeiters, safe crackers, forgers, pickpockets, and extortionists.) Because true crime readers were armchair detectives, good investigative work comprised a major element of each story. Editors liked cases solved by the emerging forensic sciences of latent fingerprint identification, blood stain analysis, tire impression evidence, biological time of death estimation, handwriting identification, and forensic ballistics. It also helped if the homicides were exceptionally grusome such as one cover-story that featured a woman tied to a tree to be eaten alive by hyenas.

     True crime magazines in the golden era reflected the history of crime in America. In the 1920s and 30s the magazines featured depression era bank robbers like John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson, and Ma Barker and her degenerate son Fred. Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, Alivin Karpus and "Machine Gun" Kelly all made regular appearances between the covers of fact-crime publications. In 1931, True Detective Mysteries started a regular feature called "Line Up." Police departments across the country sent in mug shots and descriptions of fugitives on the run. Readers who recognized these criminals and turned them in received small cash rewards. By 1944 "Line Up" had been responsible for the apprehension of more than 300 fugitives. The magazine also ran an ongoing piece called "Crime Doesn't Pay" consisting of photographs of bad guys who had been recently brought to justice. (Crime did pay for True Detective Mysteries.) Many of the men shown in this feature were destined for the electric chair.

     In 1933, True Detective Mysteries started a series of articles by the famous Seattle criminalist, Luke S. May. All of these pieces involved criminals who had been outfoxed by scientific crime detection. By 1940, Luke May was also writing a regular question and answer column about forensic science. May also authored several books featuring his most interesting cases.

     True Detective Mysteries, first published by Bernard Macfadden in 1924, is considered the first fact-crime magazine. Within a few years Macfadden would be publishing several true crime periodicals including Master Detective. At his peak, Macfadden was selling two million magazines a month. In the 1930s, a true crime buff could choose between 100 magazines with titles like, Front Page Detective, Official Detective, Baffling Detective, True Gangster, Detective Yarns, Spicy Detective, Current Detective, and Detective World.

    By the end of World War II, the golden era of the true detective magazine came to an end. Mass market paperbacks and television would finish off the last of the true crime magazines. Macfadden Publications, in 1971, sold off  True Detective Mysteries to a British firm. In the summer of 1995, the company ceased publication altogether. In the 1960s, Macfadden managing editor Marc Gerald said, "Our readership of blue-hairs, shut-ins, Greyhound bus riders, cops, and axe murderers are old and dying fast."

     Today, true crime buffs (mostly women), have access to mass market paperbacks, cable television, and the internet. Patterson Smith, the antiquarian bookseller doing business in New Jersey, had a database of 30,000 articles out of 2,000 fact-crime magazines. To request a search of this repository, the crime researcher could submit the name of the crime victim, the name of the perpetrator, the location of the crime, the year it took place, or a brief account of the case. In researching my book Fall Guys, I read a couple of 1950s true detective magazine articles about the axe murder of Helen Zubryd. Both pieces were quite inaccurate.    


  1. Sorry, you forgot to mention the writer Andy Stack who wrote many articles for the true crime magazines. Andy Stack was actually the best seller true crime writer Ann Rule before she became well known. She supported her family of five children writing for these publications.

  2. Thanks for your remembrance of True Detective Magazines. I began writing for
    True Detective Magazine in 1983, a writing career that lasted 10 years with over 300 feature stories published including stories that I wrote for Globe Detective fact-based magazines. Many of my stories appeared in the same issue with Ann Rule back in the 1980s'

    1. Macfadden also published my junior-high favorites: True Confessions, True Story, Modern Romances, etc. We traded them back and forth, and if our mothers found them, oh, were we in trouble!

  3. I was going to mention Ann Rule, too. Several of her magazine articles were collected into case files anthologies, sometimes with updates. I have been hoping that someone will continue to edit these and release posthumous case files books. With the advent of ebooks, a format in which short stories and articles can be published as stand-alones, she had announced plans to release some of her old articles by themselves. However, she only released one that I know of before she died, and I don't know if any more have been released since then.