Read The Alienist Online

Authors: Caleb Carr

Tags: #General, #New York (N.Y.), #Literary, #Historical Fiction, #Serial murders, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Psychological, #Mystery Fiction, #Historical, #Suspense, #Crime

The Alienist

BOOK: The Alienist
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

This edition is dedicated to
Those Readers Who Made It Possible
and to the memory of
Dr. David Abrahamsen


Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated,” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as


Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own mind.

William James,
The Principles of Psychology

These bloody thoughts, from what are they born?

from Verdi’s


January 8th, 1919

heodore is in the ground.

The words as I write them make as little sense as did the sight of his coffin descending into a patch of sandy soil near Sagamore Hill, the place he loved more than any other on earth. As I stood there this afternoon, in the cold January wind that blew off Long Island Sound, I thought to myself: Of course it’s a joke. Of course he’ll burst the lid open, blind us all with that ridiculous grin and split our ears with a high-pitched bark of laughter. Then he’ll exclaim that there’s work to do—“action to get!”—and we’ll all be martialed to the task of protecting some obscure species of newt from the ravages of a predatory industrial giant bent on planting a fetid factory on the little amphibian’s breeding ground. I was not alone in such fantasies; everyone at the funeral expected something of the kind, it was plain on their faces. All reports indicate that most of the country and much of the world feel the same way. The notion of Theodore Roosevelt being gone is that—unacceptable.

In truth, he’d been fading for longer than anyone wanted to admit, really since his son Quentin was killed in the last days of the Great Butchery. Cecil Spring-Rice once droned, in his best British blend of affection and needling, that Roosevelt was throughout his life “about six”; and Herm Hagedorn noted that after Quentin was shot out of the sky in the summer of 1918 “the boy in Theodore died.” I dined with Laszlo Kreizler at Delmonico’s tonight, and mentioned Hagedorn’s comment to him. For the remaining two courses of my meal I was treated to a long, typically passionate explanation of why Quentin’s death was more than simply heartbreaking for Theodore: he had felt profound guilt, too, guilt at having so instilled his philosophy of “the strenuous life” in all his children that they often placed themselves deliberately in harm’s way, knowing it would delight their beloved father. Grief was almost unbearable to Theodore, I’d always known that; whenever he had to come to grips with the death of someone close, it seemed he might not survive the struggle. But it wasn’t until tonight, while listening to Kreizler, that I understood the extent to which moral uncertainty was also intolerable to the twenty-sixth president, who sometimes seemed to think himself Justice personified.

Kreizler…He didn’t want to attend the funeral, though Edith Roosevelt would have liked him to. She has always been truly partial to the man she calls “the enigma,” the brilliant doctor whose studies of the human mind have disturbed so many people so profoundly over the last forty years. Kreizler wrote Edith a note explaining that he did not much like the idea of a world without Theodore, and, being as he’s now sixty-four and has spent his life staring ugly realities full in the face, he thinks he’ll just indulge himself and ignore the fact of his friend’s passing. Edith told me today that reading Kreizler’s note moved her to tears, because she realized that Theodore’s boundless affection and enthusiasm—which revolted so many cynics and was, I’m obliged to say in the interests of journalistic integrity, sometimes difficult even for friends to tolerate—had been strong enough to touch a man whose remove from most of human society seemed to almost everyone else unbridgeable.

Some of the boys from the
wanted me to come to a memorial dinner tonight, but a quiet evening with Kreizler seemed much the more appropriate thing. It wasn’t out of nostalgia for any shared boyhood in New York that we raised our glasses, because Laszlo and Theodore didn’t actually meet until Harvard. No, Kreizler and I were fixing our hearts on the spring of 1896—nearly a quarter-century ago!—and on a series of events that still seems too bizarre to have occurred even in this city. By the end of our dessert and Madeira (and how poignant to have a memorial meal in Delmonico’s, good old Del’s, now on its way out like the rest of us, but in those days the bustling scene of some of our most important encounters), the two of us were laughing and shaking our heads, amazed to this day that we were able to get through the ordeal with our skins; and still saddened, as I could see in Kreizler’s face and feel in my own chest, by the thought of those who didn’t.

There’s no simple way to describe it. I could say that in retrospect it seems that all three of our lives, and those of many others, led inevitably and fatefully to that one experience; but then I’d be broaching the subject of psychological determinism and questioning man’s free will—reopening, in other words, the philosophical conundrum that wove irrepressibly in and out of the nightmarish proceedings, like the only hummable tune in a difficult opera. Or I could say that, during the course of those months, Roosevelt, Kreizler, and I, assisted by some of the best people I’ve ever known, set out on the trail of a murderous monster and ended up coming face-to-face with a frightened child; but that would be deliberately vague, too full of the “ambiguity” that seems to fascinate current novelists and which has kept me, lately, out of the bookstores and in the picture houses. No, there’s only one way to do it, and that’s to tell the whole thing, going back to that first grisly night and that first butchered body; back even further, in fact, to our days with Professor James at Harvard. Yes, to dredge it all up and put it finally before the public—that’s the way.

The public may not like it; in fact, it’s been concern about public reaction that’s forced us to keep our secret for so many years. Even the majority of Theodore’s obituaries made no reference to the event. In listing his achievements as president of the Board of Commissioners of New York City’s Police Department from 1895 to 1897, only the
—which goes virtually unread these days—tacked on uncomfortably, “and of course, the solution to the ghastly murders of 1896, which so appalled the city.” Yet Theodore never claimed credit for that solution. True, he had been open-minded enough, despite his own qualms, to put the investigation in the hands of a man who
solve the puzzle. But privately he always acknowledged that man to be Kreizler.

He could scarcely have done so publicly. Theodore knew that the American people were not ready to believe him, or even to hear the details of the assertion. I wonder if they are now. Kreizler doubts it. I told him I intended to write the story, and he gave me one of his sardonic chuckles and said that it would only frighten and repel people, nothing more. The country, he declared tonight, really hasn’t changed much since 1896, for all the work of people like Theodore, and Jake Riis and Lincoln Steffens, and the many other men and women of their ilk. We’re all still running, according to Kreizler—in our private moments we Americans are running just as fast and fearfully as we were then, running away from the darkness we know to lie behind so many apparently tranquil household doors, away from the nightmares that continue to be injected into children’s skulls by people whom Nature tells them they should love and trust, running ever faster and in ever greater numbers toward those potions, powders, priests, and philosophies that promise to obliterate such fears and nightmares, and ask in return only slavish devotion. Can he truly be right…?

But I wax ambiguous. To the beginning, then!


n ungodly pummeling on the door of my grandmother’s house at 19 Washington Square North brought first the maid and then my grandmother herself to the doorways of their bedrooms at two o’clock on the morning of March 3, 1896. I lay in bed in that no-longer-drunk yet not-quite-sober state which is usually softened by sleep, knowing that whoever was at the door probably had business with me rather than my grandmother. I burrowed into my linen-cased pillows, hoping that he’d just give up and go away.

“Mrs. Moore!” I heard the maid call. “It’s a fearful racket—shall I answer it, then?”

“You shall not,” my grandmother replied, in her well-clipped, stern voice. “Wake my grandson, Harriet. Doubtless he’s forgotten a gambling debt!”

I then heard footsteps heading toward my room and decided I’d better get ready. Since the demise of my engagement to Miss Julia Pratt of Washington some two years earlier, I’d been staying with my grandmother, and during that time the old girl had become steadily more skeptical about the ways in which I spent my off-hours. I had repeatedly explained that, as a police reporter for
The New York Times,
I was required to visit many of the city’s seamier districts and houses and consort with some less than savory characters; but she remembered my youth too well to accept that admittedly strained story. My home-coming deportment on the average evening generally reinforced her suspicion that it was state of mind, not professional obligation, that drew me to the dance halls and gaming tables of the Tenderloin every night; and I realized, having caught the gambling remark just made to Harriet, that it was now crucial to project the image of a sober man with serious concerns. I shot into a black Chinese robe, forced my short hair down on my head, and opened the door loftily just as Harriet reached it.

“Ah, Harriet,” I said calmly, one hand inside the robe. “No need for alarm. I was just reviewing some notes for a story, and found I needed some materials from the office. Doubtless that’s the boy with them now.”

“John!” my grandmother blared as Harriet nodded in confusion. “Is that you?”

“No, Grandmother,” I said, trotting down the thick Persian carpet on the stairs. “It’s Dr. Holmes.” Dr. H. H. Holmes was an unspeakably sadistic murderer and confidence man who was at that moment waiting to be hanged in Philadelphia. The possibility that he might escape before his appointment with the executioner and then journey to New York to do my grandmother in was, for some inexplicable reason, her greatest nightmare. I arrived at the door of her room and gave her a kiss on the cheek, which she accepted without a smile, though it pleased her.

“Don’t be insolent, John. It’s your least attractive quality. And don’t think your handsome charms will make me any less irritated.” The pounding on the door started again, followed by a boy’s voice calling my name. My grandmother’s frown deepened. “Who in blazes is that and what in blazes does he want?”

“I believe it’s a boy from the office,” I said, maintaining the lie but myself perturbed about the identity of the young man who was taking the front door to such stern task.

“The office?” my grandmother said, not believing a word of it. “All right, then, answer it.”

I went quickly but cautiously to the bottom of the staircase, where I realized that in fact I knew the voice that was calling for me but couldn’t identify it precisely. Nor was I reassured by the fact that it was a young voice—some of the most vicious thieves and killers I’d encountered in the New York of 1896 were mere striplings.

“Mr. Moore!” The young man pleaded again, adding a few healthy kicks to his knocks. “I must talk to Mr. John Schuyler Moore!”

I stood on the black and white marble floor of the vestibule. “Who’s there?” I said, one hand on the lock of the door.

“It’s me, sir! Stevie, sir!”

I breathed a slight sigh of relief and unlocked the heavy wooden portal. Outside, standing in the dim light of an overhead gas lamp—the only one in the house that my grandmother had refused to have replaced with an electric bulb—was Stevie Taggert, “the Stevepipe,” as he was known. In his first eleven years Stevie had risen to become the bane of fifteen police precincts; but he’d then been reformed by, and was now a driver and general errand boy for, the eminent physician and alienist, my good friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. Stevie leaned against one of the white columns outside the door and tried to catch his breath—something had clearly terrified the lad.

“Stevie!” I said, seeing that his long sheet of straight brown hair was matted with sweat. “What’s happened?” Looking beyond him I saw Kreizler’s small Canadian calash. The cover of the black carriage was folded down, and the rig was drawn by a matching gelding called Frederick. The animal was, like Stevie, bathed in sweat, which steamed in the early March air. “Is Dr. Kreizler with you?”

“The doctor says you’re to come with me!” Stevie answered in a rush, his breath back. “Right away!”

“But where? It’s two in the morning—”

“Right away!” He was obviously in no condition to explain, so I told him to wait while I put on some clothes. As I did so, my grandmother shouted through my bedroom door that whatever “that peculiar Dr. Kreizler” and I were up to at two in the morning she was sure it was not respectable. Ignoring her as best I could, I got back outside, pulling my tweed coat close as I jumped into the carriage.

I didn’t even have time to sit before Stevie lashed at Frederick with a long whip. Falling back into the dark maroon leather of the seat, I thought to upbraid the boy, but again the look of fear in his face struck me. I braced myself as the carriage careened at a somewhat alarming pace over the cobblestones of Washington Square. The shaking and jostling eased only marginally as we turned onto the long, wide slabs of Russ pavement on Broadway. We were heading downtown, downtown and east, into that quarter of Manhattan where Laszlo Kreizler plied his trade and where life became, the further one progressed into the area, ever cheaper and more sordid: the Lower East Side.

For a moment I thought that perhaps something had happened to Laszlo. Certainly that would have accounted for the fretful way in which Stevie whipped and drove Frederick, an animal I knew him at most times to treat with complete kindness. Kreizler was the first human being who’d ever been able to get more than a bite or a punch out of Stevie, and he was certainly the only reason the young fellow wasn’t still in that Randalls Island establishment so euphemistically known as the “Boys’ House of Refuge.” Besides being, as the Police Department had put it, “a thief, pickpocket, drunkard, nicotine fiend, feeler”—the member of a banco team that lures dupes to the site of the game—“and congenitally destructive menace,” all by the time he was ten, Stevie had attacked and badly maimed one of the guards on Randalls Island, who he claimed had tried to assault him. (“Assault,” in the newspaper language of a quarter-century ago, almost invariably meaning rape.) Because the guard had a wife and family, the boy’s honesty, and finally his sanity, had been questioned—which was when Kreizler, as one of the foremost experts of the day in forensic psychiatry, had made his entrance. At Stevie’s sanity hearing Kreizler painted a masterful picture of the boy’s life on the streets since the age of three, when he had been abandoned by his mother, who put an opium habit above caring for her son and finally became the mistress of a Chinese purveyor of the drug. The judge had been impressed by Kreizler’s speech, and skeptical of the injured guard’s testimony; but he would only agree to release Stevie when Kreizler offered to take the boy in and vouched for his future conduct. I thought Laszlo quite crazy, at the time; but there was no doubting that in just over a year Stevie had become a very different youth. And, like almost everyone who worked for Laszlo, the boy was devoted to his patron, despite that peculiar quality of emotional distance that made Kreizler so perplexing to many who knew him.

“Stevie,” I called out over the din of the carriage wheels hitting the worn edges of the granite Russ slabs, “where
Dr. Kreizler? Is he all right?”

“At the Institute!” Stevie answered, his blue eyes wide. Laszlo’s work was based in the Kreizler Institute for Children, a combination of school and research center that he had founded during the eighties. I was about to ask what he was doing there at such an hour but swallowed the query when we charged headlong through the still-busy intersection of Broadway and Houston Street. Here, it was once sagely remarked, you could fire a shotgun in any direction without hitting an honest man; Stevie contented himself with sending drunkards, faro dealers, morphine and cocaine addicts, prostitutes, their sailor marks, and simple vagrants flying for the safety of the sidewalk. From that sanctuary most of them called curses after us.

“Then are we going to the Institute, too?” I shouted. But Stevie only reined the horse sharply left at Spring Street, where we disrupted business outside two or three concert saloons, houses of assignation where prostitutes who passed themselves off as dancers made arrangements for later meetings at cheap hotels with hapless fools who were generally from out of town. From Spring Stevie made his way to Delancey Street—which was in the midst of being widened to accommodate the expected traffic of the new Williamsburg Bridge, whose construction had only recently begun—and then we flew on past several darkened theaters. Echoing down from each passing side street I could hear the desperate, demented sounds of the dives: filthy holes that sold rotgut liquor laced with everything from benzine to camphor for a nickel a glass atop a dirty plank that passed for a bar. Stevie did not slacken the pace—we were headed, it seemed, for the very edge of the island.

I made one last attempt at communication: “Aren’t we going to the Institute?!”

Stevie shook his head in reply, then cracked the long horsewhip again. I shrugged, sitting back to hang on to the sides of the carriage and wonder what could have frightened this boy—who in his short life had seen many of the horrors that New York had to offer—so very badly.

Delancey Street carried us past the shuttered stalls of fruit and clothing merchants and on into one of the worst of the Lower East Side’s tenement- and shanty-strewn ghettos, the neighborhood near the waterfront just above Corlears Hook. A vast, maudlin sea of small shacks and shoddy new tenements stretched away to either side of us. The area was a stewpot of different immigrant cultures and languages, the Irish predominating to the south of Delancey Street and the Hungarians farther north, near Houston. An occasional church of some denomination or other was visible among the rows upon rows of dismal residences, which even on this crisp morning were draped with lines of laundry. Some pieces of clothing and bedding, frozen almost solid, twisted in the wind stiffly at what might have seemed unnatural angles; but in truth, nothing in such a place—where furtive souls scurried from darkened doorways to blackened alleys wrapped in what were often little more than rags, their feet bare to the frozen horse manure, urine, and soot that coated the streets—could truly be called unnatural. We were in a neighborhood that knew little of laws, man-made or otherwise, a neighborhood that gave joy to visitors and residents only when they were allowed to view its recession in the distance after making their escape.

Near the end of Delancey Street, the smells of sea and fresh water, along with the stench of refuse that those who lived near the waterfront simply dumped off the edge of Manhattan every day, mingled to produce the distinctive aroma of that tidal pool we call the East River. A large structure soon slanted up before us: the ramp approach to the nascent Williamsburg Bridge. Without pausing, and much to my dismay, Stevie crashed onto the boarded roadway, the horse’s hooves and carriage wheels clattering far more loudly against wood than they had against stone.

An elaborate maze of steel supports below the roadway bore us dozens of feet up into the night air. As I wondered what our destination could possibly be—for the towers of the bridge were nothing like completed, and the structure’s opening was years away—I began to make out what looked like the walls of a large Chinese temple suddenly looming ahead. Composed of huge granite blocks and crowned by two squat watchtowers, each of which was ringed by a delicate steel walkway, this peculiar edifice was the Manhattan-side anchor of the bridge, the structure that would eventually hold one set of ends of the enormous steel suspension cables that would support the central span. In a way, though, my impression of it as a temple was not far off the mark: like the Brooklyn Bridge, whose Gothic arches I could see silhouetted against the night sky to the south, this new roadway over the East River was a place where many workers’ lives had been sacrificed to the faith of Engineering, which in the past fifteen years had produced towering marvels all over Manhattan. What I did not know was that the blood sacrifice that had been made atop the western anchor of the Williamsburg Bridge on that particular night was of a very different nature.

Near the entrance to the watchtowers atop the anchor, standing under the flimsy light of a few electric bulbs and bearing portable lanterns, were several patrolmen whose small brass insignia marked them as coming from the Thirteenth Precinct (we had passed the station house moments before on Delancey Street). With them was a sergeant from the Fifteenth, a fact that immediately struck me as odd—in two years of covering the criminal beat for the
not to mention a childhood in New York, I’d learned that each of the city’s police precincts guarded its terrain jealously. (Indeed, at mid-century the various police factions had openly warred with each other.) For the Thirteenth to have summoned a man from the Fifteenth indicated that something significant was going on.

Stevie finally reined the gelding up near this group of blue greatcoats, then leapt from his seat and took the hard-breathing horse by the bit, leading him to the side of the roadway near an enormous pile of construction materials and tools. The boy eyed the cops with familiar distrust. The sergeant from the Fifteenth Precinct, a tall Irishman whose pasty face was notable only because he did not sport the broad mustache so common to his profession, stepped forward and studied Stevie with a threatening smile.

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