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In 1929, the Boston Daily Globe ran a story about a prison transfer. The inmate, the reporter wrote, would finally "have a glimpse of the world denied him for 53 years."
But this wasn't a case of justice perverted, of an innocent man denied his freedom. The prisoner in question was one Jesse Pomeroy. A half-century earlier, he'd been imprisoned as the nation's youngest serial killer.
This was 1870s Boston. Pomeroy hadn't even entered his teens when the city was ravaged by the great fire of 1872. And it's against this charred backdrop that Roseanne Montillo tells us Jesse Pomeroy's story in her book, "The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer."
The stories of young killers are always gripping and disturbing. They are the monsters who lurk behind an innocent facade. We are horrified because they defy reason. Pomeroy was just 14 when he hacked to death a 4-year-old boy. We wonder, how could someone so young be infected by such bloodlust? And because it defies reason, it also challenges society's preferred punishments: should it be the death penalty, for a teenager? Or lifetime imprisonment, or attempts at reform?
Massachusetts wrestled with the moral implications of all three choices in Pomeroy's case. Ultimately, in 1876, Gov. William Gaston commuted Pomeroy's death-by-hanging sentence. And in April of that year the 16-year-old entered the Massachusetts State Penitentiary. He spent the next half century in solitary confinement.
But where does Pomeroy's story, his psychopathology, begin? Montillo says there were signs of trouble when he was a very small boy, just 4 or 5 years old, growing up on the Charlestown waterfront.
Warning: This conversation contains graphic descriptions of Pomeroy's life and crimes that could be disturbing to some listeners.
Roseanne Montillo, author of "The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer." She teaches at Emerson College. She tweets @rosemonti16.
This segment aired on March 17, 2015.
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