When snooty out-of-staters base their opinions about New Jersey on the huge oil storage tanks on the Jersey Turnpike, most New Jerseyans bristle and offer up their state’s advantages. Perhaps they reel off lists of the delightfully quaint, historic towns that dot its landscape. Or they may refer naysayers to the intellectual prestige of Einstein’s Alley and Princeton University. And of course there’s the Jersey shore.
But author Jon Blackwell, who lived in New Jersey for a number of years and is now in New York City working as a copyeditor for the New York Post, shows his affection for the state in quite another way in his new book, “Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels,” published by Rutgers University Press.
Blackwell will be one of three panelists discussing notorious New Jersey and national crimes of the 1930s, on Thursday, February 28, at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Cooper Conference Room in the Erdman Center at 20 Library Place. The panel takes place to coincide with the Princeton Historical Society’s exhibition, “Princeton in the 1930s,” on view through July at Bainbridge House on Nassau Street.
After graduating from Hamilton College in 1992 with a degree in history, Blackwell moved directly into journalism. He was a reporter in his hometown of Cortland, New York, near Syracuse, as well as in Oneonta and Schenectady, New York, and finally in Trenton at the Trentonian. Toward the end of his tenure in Trenton in 1999, before he left to become a copy editor at the Asbury Park Press, Blackwell wrote a series of articles on New Jersey history.
He had also contributed more than a dozen entries to “The Encyclopedia of New Jersey,” also published by Rutgers, in 2004. He realized that the press was always looking for books about New Jersey history, and the idea surfaced of a book about the state’s scandals and crimes.
He capitalized on the popularity of “list” books — such as the 50 greatest New Jersey artists or musicians or 50 things you didn’t know about the New Jersey shore — and hatched an idea for a book about 100 tales from New Jersey’s dark side. He divided his rogue’s gallery into six categories: crime and villainy before 1900; infamous murders; the Jersey underworld; politicians and other crooks; terrorists, radicals, spies, and invaders; and controversies and whodunits.
Blackwell’s approach to the writing process was methodical. “I gave myself a year to write it,” he says. “I tried to write it like newspaper assignments, two a week.” He would read as much as he could about each subject, poring over microfilm and contemporary accounts from New Jersey papers and looking through books and detective magazines. While conducting his research Blackwell particularly appreciated the Newark Public Library, where the Newark Evening News donated all its clippings when it closed in 1972. He says this “rare treasure covered a long period, particularly the prime gangster years of the 1930s and 1940s.”
Blackwell used different criteria to select who to include in his foray into the underbelly of New Jersey’s crime history. Certain pieces were a no-brainer, for example, the kidnapping of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr., which Blackwall calls “probably the most significant crime or court case ever to have taken place in the Trenton area.” Lloyd Gardner, author of “The Case That Never Dies: The Lindbergh Kidnapping,” is also a panelist at the February 28 event.
Many of his choices had national significance. “One of the things about New Jersey,” says Blackwell, “is that if it is a big story, it always seems to have a New Jersey connection.” Take the Unabomber, who successfully murdered the chief operating officer of the New York public relations firm Burson Marsteller, accusing him of being part of an effort to help restore Exxon’s image after the Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Another man he murdered with a letter bomb, Thomas Mosser, lived in Caldwell, NJ, with his wife, Susan, and children. Mosser was going through accumulated mail after returning from a business trip and had planned to go out after and buy a Christmas tree.
Other choices have historical importance. “There always seemed to be something happening in New Jersey that illuminates a period of American history,” says Blackwell. “We don’t think of World War II as being fought right here,” says Blackwell. But during the war, for about six months, German U-boats sank ships off the New Jersey shore, where they were entering or exiting New York and New Jersey ports. The U-boats killed 360 people and damaged or sank at least 19 vessels.
In the colonial period Ben Franklin’s Loyalist son, William, was appointed royal governor of the state. Contrary to his patriot father, he saw the independence movement as reckless radicalism. After spending a year in solitary confinement at the behest of the Continental Congress, he ended up forming a guerrilla group that shot patriot leaders and executed one, Captain Joshua Huddy. Perhaps not surprisingly, Franklin disinherited his son, saying that if the Loyalists had won, he would have had no estate to pass on.
Blackwell also considered the degree to which certain infamous characters made their way into popular culture, including a variety of mobsters, particularly the most powerful and infamous. “People can’t get enough of the mob,” he says, especially its lifestyle and subculture. And in New Jersey, he says non-Italians were also welcome to join the mob. “Maybe New Jersey shouldn’t be proud of that, but there is a little bit of a rainbow color of gangsters in New Jersey — more than any other state,” he says. In New Jersey gangsters were not just Italian but also Jewish, Irish, and Latino.
New Jersey was also host to a couple of groundbreaking ethics cases that Blackwell includes in his book. The first was the story of Baby M, whose lower-class birth mother, the wife of a sanitation worker, served as a surrogate mother for a professional couple — a biochemist and a pediatrician. When the birth mother changed her mind about the surrogacy contract after the baby was born, the couple took her to court and won back the baby. Even though the New Jersey Supreme Court later decided that surrogacy was only legal if the surrogate agreed to carry the child without pay or contract, the baby stayed where she was.
Another famous ethics case discussed in the book is that of Karen Quinlan, the 21-year-old woman in a vegetative state who was on a respirator in a New Jersey hospital. Her parents fought to remove her from the respirator and let her die. Although eventually the New Jersey Supreme Court held with the parents, Quinlan did not die for another decade.
Blackwell has an eye for the short and sweet, and his longest pieces are only five pages. “Reporting and copyediting enabled me to help keep everything fairly short and tight,” he says. His experience as a reporter in Trenton, where he had to keep his articles to 30 or 35 inches also tightened his writing style, “having to impose a lot of discipline to keep it short and not feel I had shortchanged the story.” But even with his skill at achieving conciseness, he had to go back to his manuscript and keep cutting it to reach its current trim 361 pages of tales.
He tried to allot more space to the stories that were truly national ones, like the terrorist takeover of Flight 93, which took off from Newark on September 11; the blind Sheik Omar Abdal Rahman, conspirator in the first World Trade Center bombing who lived in Jersey City; and the Johns-Manville Corporation’s cover-up of the deadliness of its asbestos product, whose fibers eventually resulted in 350,000 early deaths from asbestosis and asbestos-caused cancers.
Many of Blackwell’s tales sport lighthearted titles, a skill he developed writing headlines as a copyeditor. “At the New York Post, I do a lot of headline writing,” he says, “and in the Post it is something people probably remember more than the articles.” One recent Super Bowl weekend article about Obama’s gaining ground before Super Tuesday carried the headline “Super Poll Shuffle.” Another story cited on Blackwell’s website, about a fugitive Chinese food deliveryman, was headed “Moo Goo Guy Ran.”
Some of the headings of his new book are similarly amusing: “Big Shot” is the story about Vice President Aaron Burr, who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. “Family Man” is about John List, an accountant who murdered his family and then established a new identity for himself in Virginia, where he lived for many years before finally getting caught. “If Looks Could Kill” heads the story of Joe Adonis, a handsome Mafia leader.
For Blackwell, probably the most entertaining story has to do with what he calls “spectacular, comical political corruption” — Abscam — where Congressmen were fooled into accepting suitcases of money from policemen dressed as Arab sheikhs.
“This is not just a book about New Jersey history and not just about any crime,” suggests Blackwell. “There is something remarkable about them that peels away the surface of how people want to be perceived.” Referring to the handsome Robert O. Marshall, a successful Toms River insurance salesman who had his beautiful wife killed, Blackwell wonders, “How do you possibly comprehend something like that?”
The Great Crime Wave of the 1930s, Thursday, February 28, 7 p.m. Historical Society of Princeton, Erdman Center, 20 Library Place, Princeton. A panel discussion with Lloyd Gardner, author of “The Case That Never Dies, The Lindbergh Kidnapping;” Jon Blackwell, author of “Notorious New Jersey;” and John F. Fox Jr., FBI historian. $8. Register at 609-921-6748.