author: Jack Olsen
published: 1 February 2017
genre(s): true crime
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Little Artie Shawcross bullied classmates, insulted teachers, started fires, tortured animals, and roved the woods of New York's hardscrabble North Country with imaginary friends, talking in a high squawk. He also scored top grades, excelled in sports and shared his money and toys with the children who ridiculed him. From the second grade on, he was subjected to psychiatric examination, regularly confounding the experts. Years later, while serving in Vietnam, Arthur John Shawcross wrote bloodcurdling letters about his battlefield ordeals, then returned to Watertown to commit a string of arsons and burglaries. He served two years in prison, was paroled to his respectable parents - and murdered a boy and a girl. Back in the penitentiary, he proved as enigmatic as ever. Some counselors saw him as a Frankenstein monster, beyond hope, irredeemable. To others he was a troubled young man who could be saved. No two psychiatrists seemed to agree. Shawcross served fifteen years, then conned a parole board into an early release. He settled in Binghamton, but angry citizens learned of his bloody history and ran him out of town. After two smaller communities turned him away, desperate parole authorities finally smuggled the child-killer into Rochester in the dead of night - neglecting to alert the local police. Soon the corpses started turning up, locked in winter ice, covered by reeds in swamps, floating in streams. The homicidal pedophile had changed his M.O., this time murdering diminutive women. As the body count grew, Rochester streets swarmed with police, and still the serial killer managed to snare his tenth victim, then his eleventh.
The story of Arthur Shawcross is appalling in so many ways. There is just something utterly monsterous and reprehensible about him that I often felt almost viscerally as I read this book. But it was this ability to make me feel so intensely that made this possibly one of the best books of the genre I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot.
The late Jack Olsen truly was truly remarkable at his ability to write true crime. The amount of research behind this book was obvious. And I love the way he captures the voices of not just the killer, but the victims and the killer’s family members, not to mention those of everyone involved with the cases. I thought I knew a lot about this killer before reading The Misbegotten Son, but Olsen’s drive to chase down every fact showed me I did not.
Shawcross was brought up not far from my hometown, in Watertown, NY. I was only two when the first two murders occurred, but he was still a part of the infamous side of north country history. That only increased when the murders in Rochester came to light. He’s an interesting person in that, well, he’s really not that interesting as a garden-variety sociopath. It was the crimes themselves, and the people involved, that were so fascinating. It was that that kept me riveted to the page. It was the perspectives that spanned the spectrum that were so fascinating. Mary Blake was the mother of the first victim, 10 yo Jack. She rode the police mercilessly to find her son, and later to find justice for him. She pushed them to investigate Shawcross. But how she felt about her son’s killer changed wildly over the years. Clara Neal, a longtime girfriend, could see no wrong in him, even after his arrests. The voices of law enforcement, those of mental health professionals… all of it created an intense picture of Shawcross and his brutality.
It was just a gripping read, one I highly recommend for true crime buffs.
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