America's Dark Side: A Journey to Ten Sites of Historic Violence
Americans have a long history of violence against one another. In recent years, the Aurora Theater Attack, the Charleston Church Massacre, and a rash of shootings involving law enforcement have spotlighted the dark side of American society.
Here are ten historic misdeeds by Americans against Americans. And here is a look at the sites where these deeds were done, sites that anyone can visit for free today.
10. The Son of Sam Murders
“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C.,” the letter began. Its author showed a talent for creative writing and an interest in cryptic monikers, suggesting for himself the labels “Duke of Death,” “Chubby Behemoth,” and “John Wheaties.” The name that stuck was “Son of Sam.”
From the summer of 1976 through the summer of ‘77, the Son of Sam terrorized New York City through his crimes and letters. The victims were mainly young couples sitting in parked cars, shot from behind in the darkness. In August 1977 police arrested David Berkowitz of 35 Pine Street in the borough of Yonkers. The twenty-five-year-old postal worker immediately confessed.
For years Berkowitz played the crazy card, taking credit for shooting all thirteen victims; seven wounded and six dead. He told police his neighbor, Sam Carr, had commanded him to kill through the incessant barking of Carr’s dog. Later though, Berkowitz denied being the lone gunman, claiming he’d acted as part of a murderous cult attended by his neighbor’s sons, John and Michael Carr. The cult, known as “The Process Church of the Final Judgement” or simply “The Family,” is said to have met on a former estate overlooking the Hudson River, known as Untermyer Park.
There is strong evidence of cult activity in Untermyer Park during the late 70’s, and of Berkowitz’ and the Carr brothers’ involvement in the Process Church. Witnesses to the Son of Sam crimes also associated multiple people and vehicles with the murder scenes, suggesting a group could be responsible. Intriguingly, John Carr’s nickname was “John Wheaties,” as mentioned in one of the Son of Sam letters. Both John and Michael Carr died under suspicious circumstances in the years following the shootings. Today Berkowitz remains in prison, a self-described convert to Christianity. The apartment where he lived still sits atop a hill overlooking the former home of Sam Carr, a five-minute drive to Untermyer Park.
Yonkers, New York
9. Philadelphia's Mob Wars
For over twenty years, Angelo Bruno, known as the “Gentle Don,” served as the undisputed mafia boss of Philadelphia. He preferred negotiation over violence, and took a low-key approach, avoiding the spotlight. In 1980 one of his own men shot Bruno in the head as he sat in a parked car outside his South Philadelphia home. Bruno’s murder marked the beginning of an extremely violent and tumultuous decade for the Philadelphia mob.
Enter Phil “Chicken Man” Testa, Bruno’s underboss. Testa hadn’t been involved in the boss’ unsanctioned death, and was trusted by the New York mob families. The problem was, there were ambitious mobsters in Philly who wanted the new boss out of the way. A year after his ascension, Testa returned to his home late one night, only to be blown up by a bomb placed under his front porch.
The ambitions of Testa’s underboss, Peter Casella, lay behind the boss’ unfortunate demise. Like the Bruno hit, Testa’s death was not sanctioned by the New York families, and Casella soon fled town, abandoning his bid for power. The void in leadership was filled, somewhat by chance, by a man who would become the most violent of the modern mafia Dons.
Nicodemo “Little Nicki” Scarfo led the family into a shooting war with a dissident faction, known as the Riccobenes. He also didn’t hesitate to order the deaths of his own men. In sharp contrast to Angelo Bruno, Scarfo used violence and death in place of negotiation, and enjoyed the media spotlight. Estimates reveal approximately thirty mafia-related deaths during Scarfo’s reign, the result of factionalism, ambition, insecurity, and greed.
8. The Freedom Summer Murders
Northbound from Meridian Mississippi, State Highway 19 has an open feel with two-lanes and broad ditches. Reaching Nashoba County, the highway transitions into a single, dark lane, enclosed on both sides by tall pines. On a June morning in 1964 three civil rights workers drove northbound on Highway 19, and they would be murdered just off the highway that night.
Freedom Summer was part of the 60’s civil rights milieu. Young people, largely northern college students, spent the summer of ’64 in the Deep South, helping African Americans register to vote. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were volunteers with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and worked out of CORE’s Meridian Mississippi office. Needless to say, their activities didn’t go over well with many white residents of the area, particularly given Goodman and Schwerner’s northern, urban origins.
The local Ku Klux Klan responded with an organized murder of the three young volunteers. The civil rights workers had visited the site of a rural church burning on the morning of June 21, 1964. On their return to Meridian they were stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who held them on a speeding charge at the jail in Philadelphia Mississippi. Price released the men at 10 pm, then followed their car southbound on Highway 19. In the darkness he pulled them over again, and this time a prearranged carload of Klan members hurried to the seen.
Price drove the three men back toward Philadelphia, with his Klan accomplices following close behind. From Highway 19 the cars turned left onto County Road 515, then drove a short distance uphill to the intersection of County Road 284. There, under the light of car headlights, at the intersection of two desolate county roads, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were shot.
Two months later the FBI uncovered the bodies, buried deep in an earthen dam on the property of a local Klan member. Seven of the Klansmen involved, including Deputy Price, were convicted in federal court on civil rights violations. None served more than six years in jail. Cecil Price died in 2001 after a fall from construction equipment. One of the acquitted defendants from the original trial, Edgar Ray Killen, was tried in 2007 under state law, and found guilty on three counts of manslaughter.
Neshoba County, Mississippi
The 1999 attack at Columbine High School was not America’s first school shooting. Wikipedia maintains a long list of firearm violence in our schools, dating back to 1840. Unlike earlier examples, “Columbine” became part of our vernacular because it was planned and carried out in an idyllic American community, by youths who were the product of safe streets, good schools, and traditional two-parent households.
Eric Harris was a natural leader; Dylan Klebold a follower. The two existed on the edges of high school society, not quite fitting in with the mainstream cliques, but not outwardly violent or threatening. They worked together at a pizza shop in a Littleton Colorado strip mall, and spent time watching movies and playing video games. Yet below the veneer of relative normality a toxic mix was brewing, which ultimately turned violent adolescent fantasies into reality.
After a year of pre-planning, on April 20, 1999 Eric and Dylan parked their cars in the school lot, and carried duffel bags containing homemade bombs into the Columbine cafeteria. When the bombs failed to explode they fired their guns, first outside and then inside the school, most notably behind the aqua-colored glass of the school library. The two friends killed twelve of their fellow students and one teacher before taking their own lives.
Today, Littleton appears much the same town that it was before Columbine, a safe middle-class Denver suburb with a distant view of the Rockies. Single family homes predominate, with franchise restaurants and corporate retail stores lining major thoroughfares. Blackjack Pizza, where Eric and Dylan worked, still exists not far from the school, which also remains much the way it looked in 1999. There has been one notable addition, on a height in Clement Park known as “Rebel Hill.” There, within view of the school is a memorial to the victims, where visitors ponder how two of our own went so tragically wrong.
Columbine High School
6. The Unabomber Killings
A boy genius becomes a math professor, then throws it all away to live in a one room cabin with no plumbing or electricity. He develops an anti-industrial and anti-technology philosophy, and targets intellectuals and business leaders with homemade bombs. This was the unusual, intriguing and demented life of Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber.
He had been the youngest professor ever hired at UC Berkley, but gave up on the modern world at the age of twenty-six. Following his abrupt resignation in 1969 Ted sought isolation, and in 1971 bought 1.4 acres at the base of a mountain near Lincoln, Montana. A small stream cut through the property, and he built a single-room cabin, adding a few more hand-built structures as the years unfurled.
While he was relatively secluded and lived a subsistence lifestyle, Ted wasn’t totally free of outside influences. There were neighbors down the hill, on a gravel road in a valley splitting his mountain from the next. And over the years Ted noted intrusions in the wilderness surrounding his land: a new logging road here, a new dirt bike trail there. By the late 70’s Ted Kaczynski realized he couldn’t totally isolate himself from modern society, and his mind turned from flight to revenge.
His first two bombs, in 1978 and 1979, caused minor injuries, but Ted’s bombs would grow in strength and sophistication. In the end the Unabomber, as the FBI termed him, released his manifesto of anti-technology views in the media. This in turn came to the attention of his younger brother, who turned Ted in to the FBI in 1996. By then, the Unabomber had mailed or personally placed sixteen hand crafted bombs, injuring twenty-three and killing three.
The Unabomber's Mountain Home
5. The Branch Davidian Standoff
The Branch Davidians separated from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1955. By 1993 they were led by Vernon Howell, who gave himself the name David Koresh. The Davidians lived in a compound outside Waco Texas known as “Mount Carmel,” and attracted the attention of federal agents for their alleged illegal modification of firearms.
ATF agents pulled up at Mount Carmel on February 28, 1993, disguised in cattle trailers. They assaulted the complex, and before news cameras were driven off by gunfire from within the compound. A fifty-one-day siege ensued, ending in a wind-whipped conflagration, the origins of which remain in dispute to this day. In the initial assault four ATF agents and six Davidians died. In the fiery end to the standoff more than a month and a half later, seventy-six Davidians perished, including twenty-two children.
Today the Branch Davidians still own the same property along a gravel lane known as Double E Ranch Road, where Mount Carmel once stood. There are a few small homes now, and a newly constructed church stands near the disused concrete swimming pool, the only remnant of Mount Carmel to survive the flames of 1993. A memorial to the Davidians who died stands within the gates of the windswept property east of Waco.
The Branch Dividian Compound Near Waco, Texas
4. The Murrah Federal Building Bombing
The siege at Waco Texas was one of several incidents involving federal agents in the 1990’s, which spurned a young Army vet to violence against his own. It was retribution against the federal government, Timothy McVeigh later explained, which drove him to act.
On the morning of April 19, 1995 McVeigh parked a large box truck loaded with homemade explosive outside the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. With the fuses lit, he walked off, only to be arrested ninety minutes later by an alert state trooper. The explosion collapsed much of the nine story structure, resulting in one hundred sixty-seven deaths, including children in the building’s day care center.
The site of the Murrah Federal Building is now a memorial to those who died, and more generally to violence committed on Americans by Americans. An elm tree which survived the blast has an honored place on the grounds today, where the time “9:02 am” carved in stone, marks the moment when a city in America’s heartland changed forever.
2. The Assassination of Martin Luther King
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is especially significant for two reasons. First, his leadership and methods set the tone for American social movements which characterize our times. Second, while we know with good certainty who pulled the trigger in Memphis, there is significant evidence that the gunman did not act alone.
On April 4, 1968 James Earl Ray peered through a rifle scope, out the open bathroom window of a Memphis boarding house. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood less than 100 yards away, outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. A shot rang out and King fell dead on the second-floor balcony. The assassin fled the scene, abandoning his rifle in a doorway of a neighboring building, only to be captured after a shadowy flight from justice spanning three countries.
Today the Lorraine Motel looks as it did on the day of King’s assassination, and the sniper’s nest still looms on the hill above. We know that a career criminal named James Earl Ray shot King from the boarding house, and we can mark the spot where Dr. King fell, but a cloud remains over the question of who was really behind King’s death.
The Lorraine Motel, Memphis
2. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
For Americans living today, there is no more significant historical event than the death of President John F. Kennedy. The tragedy in Dallas, as it has become known in the American conscience, haunts us all, young and old.
Conspiracy theories abound, not on the strength of the evidence, but because we want to believe there’s some grand explanation for it all. The idea that an insignificant nobody with a rifle can snuff out a leader of such promise, changing the course of history, makes us all uncomfortable. It appears though, that it may indeed be as simple as a man with a gun at a critical moment in time, and a daring leader left vulnerable by his inclination toward risk-taking.
According to the official account, which has more evidentiary value than any other, Lee Harvey Oswald spent the night before the assassination with his wife, at the home of Ruth Paine. The next morning Oswald got a ride into work with a co-worker at the Texas School Book Depository, explaining the long package under his arm as a set of curtain rods. Immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination in the street below, Oswald took a route of escape that led first to his boarding house, where he picked up a revolver, and eventually to the Texas Theater where he was arrested. Between Kennedy’s assassination in Dealey Plaza and the arrest at the Texas Theater, Oswald also shot to death Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit.
The police headquarters downtown, where Jack Ruby in turn shot Oswald, is under renovation today, and sits among modern downtown high rises. Nothing remains of Ruby’s former strip club, the Carousel, where new construction now predominates. Here are six photos of what does remain of the shocking events of November 22, 1963.
It was by chance that Union and Confederate Armies met at Gettysburg Pennsylvania in July 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, emboldened by a string of victories, ventured north in search of desperately needed supplies, with the capture of Harrisburg Pennsylvania as his immediate goal. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac had known few victories to that point, and his intentions were to locate and contain Lee’s army, though not necessarily to engage it in a decisive battle.
On day one of the three-day engagement Lee occupied the town of Gettysburg, while Union officers grabbed the high ground south of town. In general, Union lines overlooked Confederate positons, and were compact enough to shift troops efficiently from one point to another. General Meade took a decidedly defensive posture, deploying his army from Cemetery Hill in the north, along Cemetery Ridge in the middle, to Little Round Top in the south. General Lee took an offensive stance, maneuvering to exploit Union weak points, though with little progress by the bloody end of day two. On the third day a massive Confederate attack against Cemetery Ridge, "Pickett’s Charge," failed when a perceived Union weak point held off thirteen thousand Confederates.
In the end Gettysburg was the wrong place and time for General Lee to stake so much on a single outcome. The result was significant both locally in the Gettysburg area, and for the wider war between the states. The dead littering the fields south of town outnumbered residents by four to one, and the Confederate dead in particular lay in the fields where they fell for years. The larger outcome of Gettysburg was to insulate the economy and industry of the North from the war’s effects, ensuring that the ravages of war would fall disproportionately on the southern states.