The Postcard Killer by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey

Author: Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a weakness for true crime. There was once a time when I could have told you the name and victim count of every serial killer from recorded time to present but I have since lost that ability as serial and mass murder became sort of commonplace in the Internet and on television and I lost interest via excessive immersion. However, I still appreciate a good true crime yarn, especially about a killer I have never heard of before.

Availability: Published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The case of J. Frank Hickey was a fascinating read. Though I disagree with the assertion the author makes, that Hickey was the first man ever captured as a result of profiling, that does not render this book any the less absorbing and hard to put down.

Because I discuss books in depth, there is no way for me to discuss elements of this book that would not spoil elements of it for some readers. I think this is a book worth reading, and if you think my many words will ruin aspects of the book, stop reading now. Just go buy the book. It’s not going to be a book that inspires a lot of thought or cause much internal contemplation – it is simply telling the tale of a sadistic man who killed 100 years ago, and as true crime goes, it is better than most.

J. Frank Hickey was a man who confessed to three murders, and if contemporary knowledge of serial killers is of any use, then it is very likely he killed far more than those he confessed to. As a young man, he killed an older drunk whom he feared might take his job, and a couple of decades later, he killed a newsboy. The book focuses, however, mainly on the murder of Joey Joseph in Lackawanna, New York. In 1911, Hickey lured the seven-year-old boy with a trip to a candy store, then took him into a multi-seat outhouse outside a saloon and strangled and raped the child. He then threw the boy’s body down one of the outhouse seats into the latrine below and went back into the saloon and drank. No one ever suspected him and he very well might have gotten away with the murder had he not overplayed his hand: He began to send taunting postcards to the family.

This is where I contend that Hickey was not caught by profiling. He was caught because newspapers ran copies of the postcards he sent in the hopes that someone would recognize the handwriting, which is exactly what happened. Two separate men recognized Hickey’s handwriting and it was downhill for the police from there. It was a capture due to police exercising certain procedural discretion, not because of profiling.

Three things stand out the most for me in this book. First is that Hickey, likely needing the thrill that finding the body would cause, became frustrated when the local police chief failed to find the boy. He sent a postcard to the chief of police telling him point blank that Joey Joseph was in a cesspit, giving the exact location. He did this within a month of the murder. The police chief sent a couple of cops to check out the outhouse and they peered into the filth below, unable to see much. They did not drain the cesspit, they just looked. Had the police performed even the most casual due-diligence, Joey’s body would have been found sooner. But the chief of police patted himself on the back, finding a silver lining in his cloud of incompetence: Had they found Joey’s body sooner, Hickey would not have written more postcards and they might not have caught him. It took over a year for Joey’s body to be recovered once the police finally pumped the cesspit and found him.

Second is how Hickey toyed with the family. Not even Jack the Ripper or the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, letter writers both, taunted directly the victims of their killings. Neither did the Zodiac Killer, who remains uncaught to this day. But Hickey did. His postcards were not as horrific as the letters sent by Albert Fish to the family of his victim, Grace Budd, whom he tortured and then ate, but they were upsetting enough. He said that since Joey’s mother was known as a nervous, unstable woman, he could not bear the torture she was undergoing and hoped his letters to the family, confessing the murder, would lead to finding the boy’s body. More likely, he did not receive the catharsis he needed when Joey’s body failed to be retrieved from the muck and needed some release via upsetting the Joseph family. However, if that was his goal, it backfired for a long while as the elder Joseph did not initially turn the letters over to the police, hoping against hope the letters were hoaxes and his son was alive somewhere. But he also sat on the letters because he feared that if the police knew his son was murdered, they might stop looking for the boy.

Third, I had no idea the life of a newsboy was as horrible as it was until I read this book. Young children in urban areas, sent out to sell papers by families barely scraping by, were of course open prey for pedophiles. Some even became prostitutes, selling themselves for meals and sometimes just the price for admission to a cinema, to be in out of the cold. Joey Joseph was not a newsboy but one of Hickey’s admitted victims was, and reading about the terrible life these children faced, the poverty, the potential victimization and similar, has made me want to read more about the topic. Newsboys seem a romanticized part of history in many large American cities and it was appalling and interesting to see how that romance crumbles under the most casual scrutiny. It seems to me, on many levels, that kids selling the news have always been natural victims. From newsboys to boys abducted as they delivered newspapers on their bike routes in more modern times, it seems odd that the technological advance that so many fear imperils children helped stopped one of the perils – the lone child peddling the news.

All in all, a very interesting, well-written book.

One thought on “The Postcard Killer by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

  1. Excellent summary of this material.
    I’ve been a psychologist for many years, and studied crime a long time.
    Number one reason people kill people ……………………………embarrassment.
    Everything else finishes a distant second and so forth.

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