The period 1920 to 1940 marked the golden age of the fact crime magazine. 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 included 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 gruesome 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, Alvin 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 criminals on the run. Readers who recognized these fugitives and turned them in received small cash rewards. By 1944, "Line Up" had been responsible for the apprehension of more than 300 criminals. 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.