Hi, Everybody! Today, I am very pleased to welcome special guest Sue Coletta, sharing her latest book, a non-fiction work entitled Pretty Evil New England.
Many of you are familiar with Sue’s fictional thriller/murder/crime novels, but I think you’ll enjoy finding out more about how
her new, non-fiction book came to be.
NOTE: To win a free paperback copy of Pretty Evil New England, all you have to do is leave a comment below. I will be drawing names from a hat at the end of the day, and the winner will be posted tomorrow. Good luck!
Now, without further ado, here’s, Sue!
Thanks, Marcia. Nice to be visiting you today.
Writing true crime has many moving parts. My background as a thriller writer helped, but I also needed to maintain a factual narrative. Thankfully, I’ve always been a research junkie, so that wasn’t a problem. Combining the two was a little trickier. I can’t tell you how many times I feared blowing the opportunity. For those who don’t know me, in May 2019 a large publishing house reached out to me to write true crime. Not just any true crime book. They asked for historical true crime about female serial killers of New England prior to 1950.
Sounds like a dream opportunity, right? I mean, c’mon, it’s not every day a publisher seeks out a writer. It’s usually the other way around.
I wrote fiction. Not historical fiction, either. Contemporary psychological thrillers/serial killer thrillers. See why I panicked?
To my credit I’d written true crime stories on my blog — still do — but never an entire book. What that means is, I didn’t have a signature style for true crime. I’m not the type to travel Easy Street, so while writing I also had to develop a unique style to attract readers within my core audience and beyond.
During those early weeks of my deadline, I’d rip my hair out, totally convinced that I could never pull this off, that I “fake it till you make it” my way right down an endless pit. Every time I panicked my husband reminded me that I do the same thing with every book. Why should Pretty Evil New England be any different? He’s right, of course. Part of my process is to convince myself that I’ll never be able to outdo my previous book. Why do writers do that? We’re our own worst critics.
Once I’d moved past the self-doubt stage, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing in this genre. And now, I’m hooked! The same day I submitted the full manuscript of Pretty Evil New England to my publisher, I searched for an exciting new female serial killer to feature in my next true crime book. I even created a tagline for my true crime persona: Breathing new life into dead serial killers. 😊
Did all my worry and frustration work out in the end? Well, I made my deadline, and the publisher couldn’t be more thrilled. Early reader reactions are also encouraging, but only you can judge whether Pretty Evil New England is right for you. I will say, some readers might find the book frightening, creepy, or both — cough, Marcia — because whenever possible I wrote from the killer’s perspective.
Living inside the mind of female serial killer isn’t for everyone. Try living inside five at once. David Attenborough became my savior. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by murderous thoughts and actions I flipped on Netflix and sank into one of his amazing nature documentaries. Still do.
Before boarding with Mr. and Mrs. Beedle, Jane Toppan lived down the road at 19 Wendell Street, the home of Israel and Lovey Dunham. “Mr. Dunham was getting pretty old—about seventy-seven—and was feeble and fussy,” she would later confess. “I thought a little morphia would do him good, but I gave him too much and he never woke up. It was just as well for him.”
Israel Dunham died on May 26, 1895. The doctors misdiagnosed the cause of death as heart failure.
I continued to live in the same place, and two years later I found Mrs. Dunham rather troublesome. She was old and cranky, so I gave her the same dose as her husband, and she passed away [on] September 19, 1897.
After murdering the Dunhams, Jane moved in with Mr. and Mrs. Beedle. They, however, employed a live-in housekeeper named Mary Sullivan. As far as Jane was concerned, Mary’s services were no longer required. So, she drugged the young woman into a stupor with morphia. When Jane beckoned Mrs. Beedle up to Mary’s room on the second floor, the housekeeper lay spread-eagle on the bed. Jane insisted Mary had a drinking problem, probably sneaking alcohol during work hours, too. Mrs. Beedle fired her housekeeper on the spot.
Jane sniggered. The plan had worked better than expected.
Now with full control of the household, Jane poisoned the Beedles on a whim. She only gave enough of her deadly cocktail to cause gastrointestinal upset. Perhaps this was her way of reminding Mr. and Mrs. Beedle just how helpful and convenient a live-in nurse could be, thereby securing a warm place to sleep without the threat of eviction hanging over her head.
As Mattie Davis knocked at the Beedles’ front door that June evening, the family was just sitting down to dinner. Eliza Beedle insisted that Mattie join them. Jane hustled into the kitchen and returned to the dining room with a glass of Hunyadi (a medicinal mineral water) for her friend.
“You must be very thirsty after your trip,” she said as she passed Mattie the glass.
During dinner, Mattie told the embarrassing story of falling in full view of everyone on the train. By the end of the meal she’d drained the last drop of mineral water. Jane suggested they walk to the bank so she could withdraw the funds to pay her overdue balance. Since Mattie needed to deposit cash anyway, she agreed. But when she rose from the table, the room spun off its axis. Woozy, Mattie slapped a hand on the back of her chair.
“Perhaps it was that fall,” suggested Jane. “Should we wait for a while?”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Mattie couldn’t let her condition stand in her way, not with being so close to achieving her goal. After all, collecting the money from Jane was the main reason she’d traveled to Cambridge in the first place. Her family had waited long enough for payment.
Once Mattie stepped outside into the sultry night air, she let out a groan and crumbled to the street.
With no one else around, Jane bent down to wrangle Mattie to her feet. Perhaps she added too much morphia to the Hunyadi water. Now she had to practically carry Mattie into the house. Thank goodness she hadn’t gotten far before she collapsed.
Grunting, Jane heaved the lethargic woman back inside. Melvin Beedle jogged over to assist in carrying a limp Mattie Davis up the stairs to the guest bedroom. When Melvin dashed back down the stairs to fetch a cold glass of water for Mattie, who looked like she’d fainted from the heat, Jane darted into her own bedroom and swiped a hypodermic needle from her bag. Back in the guest room, low whimpers escaped Mattie’s lips.
So I gave her another small dose of morphia. And that quieted her.
For four centuries, New England has been a cradle of crime and murder—from the Salem witch trials to the modern-day mafia. Nineteenth century New England was the hunting ground of five female serial killers: Jane Toppan, Lydia Sherman, Nellie Webb, Harriet E. Nason, and Sarah Jane Robinson.
Female killers are often portrayed as caricatures: Black Widows, Angels of Death, or Femme Fatales. But the real stories of these women are much more complex. In Pretty Evil New England, true crime author Sue Coletta tells the story of these five women, from broken childhoods, to first brushes with death, and she examines the overwhelming urges that propelled these women to take the lives of a combined total of more than one-hundred innocent victims.
The murders, investigations, trials, and ultimate verdicts will stun and surprise readers as they live vicariously through the killers and the would-be victims that lived to tell their stories.
BUY Pretty Evil New England here:
Amazon (all countries, Kindle & paperback)
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BookShop (paperback pre-order sale)
Rowman & Littlefield
Author Sue Coletta
Sue Coletta is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as one of the “Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (Murder Blog sits at #5) for four years in a row. She also blogs at the Kill Zone, a multi-award-winning writing blog, and writes two serial killer thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and narrative nonfiction/true crime for Globe Pequot, trade division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
You can reach Sue on Social Media here: