It has probably not gone unnoticed that one of the main murderers in my new novel, ASHES TO ASHES, a nameless contract killer who enjoys his work to an inordinate degree, is known as ‘the Incinerator’ because he uses one of the most horrible weapons imaginable, a flame-thrower, to despatch his victims.
Just consider for one minute how hideous that would be.
We all know what flame-throwers are, and we’re well aware that they can be used for all kinds of benign purposes such as land-management, roofing, asphalt-laying and even snow-clearance. But we also know how truly terrifying they can be when utilised as weapons. For instance, during the two World Wars, when methods called upon to destroy enemies included poison-gassing and the eventual detonation of atomic devices, flame-throwers were seen as being so controversial that even the Axis powers called for them to be banned.
With ASHES TO ASHES, I anticipated from the outset that there’d be some debate on the matter, but thankfully it hasn’t reached any kind of fever pitch. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is because in the hands of the world’s murderers – and I’m talking about real-life murderers here, not fictional ones – it seems that any kind of implement can and has been used to take away human life.
There are plenty of famous examples of this.
In 1940, Leon Trotsky was killed when his skull was split open with an ice-pick. In 2009/10, Bradford serial killer, Stephen Griffiths, earned himself the soubriquet ‘Crossbow Cannibal’ because he felled at least one of his female victims with – yes, you’ve guessed it – a crossbow. Between 1969 and 1971, deranged Connecticut preacher, Ben Miller, garrotted five women with their own brassieres.
In all these cases, the implements were originally designed for innocent purposes (though there might be an argument with the crossbow), but it’s easy to see how they could be adapted for more fiendish use. However, there are many other cases where much more mundane and unusual items were pressed into the service of bloodshed. Indeed, some of the world’s most grisly murders were committed by individuals who’d found themselves minus gun or knife, and instead made use of whatever they had to hand, no matter how unlikely it might have been.
Here are five of the weirdest and most gruesome:
1) Ramon Novarro, a Hollywood heartthrob of the silent era, and one of the original ‘Latin lovers’ – who starred in such iconic movies as Ben Hur (1925) and Across to Singapore (1928) – suffered a truly bizarre and quite ghastly death, when in 1968, at the age of 69, he was beaten in his own home by a pair of hustlers he’d invited round for sex, and was finally asphyxiated, or so the rumour tells it, when they forced him to swallow an Art Deco dildo, which had been given to him as a gift by Rudolph Valentino many years earlier.
2) In 1978, political dissident, Georgi Markov, living in London at the time and a constant critic of the communist government in his native Bulgaria, was assassinated when a tiny pellet fired into his leg from an umbrella, of all things, infected his system with ricin. No one was ever charged with the crime, but Russian defectors later arriving in the UK claimed that the assassination had been the work of the KGB and that the actual assassin, one Francesco Gullino, was still alive and well and living in the European Union.
3) In Texas in the 1930s, World War One veteran, bootlegger and career criminal, Joe Ball hit on a truly heinous method – not just of killing his victims, who were mostly women he had lured to his home, but for disposing of the evidence afterwards. He would throw them into a specially-constructed subterranean pool, which he had filled with alligators. By this MO, he allegedly accounted for at least 20 of them. If the story sounds too horrible to be true, indeed it may be. Ball’s crimewave owes almost as much to folklore as fact; he definitely existed, but as he committed suicide before arrest, it is not known whether he fed his victims to the voracious reptiles while they were still alive, or after they had died.
4) In 1935, a notorious crime rocked Wise County in backwoods Virginia, when Edith Maxwell, a well-regarded local schoolteacher, murdered her own father by stabbing him in the head with her high-heeled shoe. It is difficult to imagine such an assault taking place, and again it may be that the shoe factor was a journalistic embellishment to sensationalise an otherwise tragic but humdrum tale. Maxwell was apparently dominated by her tyrannical parent, who objected to her going out after dark, and on this particular evening they fought – fatally. As reporting pressmen later described Maxwell as a blonde bombshell when she actually wasn’t, it’s also possible that the exotic murder weapon was somewhat more mundane in real life. In more recent times, a club or shoe-iron have been suggested.
5) During the golden age of American gangsterism, Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss was one of the underworld’s most feared hitmen. A full-time assassin for Murder Inc. (the official enforcement arm of the US Mafia), he is estimated to have eliminated at least 100 targets during his career, and in all cases using non-traditional weaponry, never carrying a gun or blade in case he got arrested en route, and always improvising at the scene, selecting such simplistic tools as a broken bottle, a piece of wire, an old chair-leg and the like. Strauss met his own demise more straightforwardly in 1941, when he was electrocuted at Sing Sing.
Ashes to Ashes by Paul Finch is out now. You can find out more information about Paul Finch and his writing on his blog. You can also find him on Twitter @paulfinchauthor