Author: Roseanne Montillo
Title: The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2015)
This book appeared to follow the formula of The Devil in the White City, focusing on a city in 19th century through the lens of major events and a mass murderer operating in that city. In this case the city is Boston, the murderer is Jesse Pomeroy, and the event is the Great Fire of 1872. Except, that the book isn’t really structured this way.
It is in fact more of a straightforward biography of Pomeroy, a teenage boy in Charlestown and then South Boston who tortured smaller children, and eventually began murdering them in the 1870s. He is sometimes called “America’s First Serial Killer,” although that is not factually true, but his crimes occurred in a period of growing moral panic about children’s behavior (also not for the first or last time). Montillo documents Pomeroy’s abusive family life, his gruesome crimes, his trial and public denunciation, and his long life in prison where he spent decades in solitary and made several escape attempts.
I’m not a fan of the true crime genre, so with the book so focused on Pomeroy it doesn’t appeal to me as much as a general history of Boston at the time of Pomeroy’s murders would. Montillo’s attempts to link in other events are few and feel a bit forced and unrelated to the lifelong biography of the murderer. She does also focus greatly on the life and work of Herman Melville, who has a connection to Boston but had moved to New York prior to the Pomeroy murders. Montillo draws on themes of family dysfunction, mental illness, and monomania to draw Pomeroy and Melville together, but again the links feel strained rather than illuminating.