True crime offers a perspective on our past that you don’t often get from historical accounts, which is why Dean Jobb decided to delve into Nova Scotia’s criminal past with his upcoming book Daring, Devious & Deadly.
The Halifax author, journalist, and teacher looks at a Lunenburg triple murder from 1791, an infamous bank robbery, bloody piracy, and more. “I’ve done a lot of research into historic cases over decades really,” he says. “I combined my interest with local history with covering courts and learning about the law. It shows us how people thought in the past. Justice in the 19th century gives a sense of the moral code of the time, how they viewed the world.”
He believes that popular fascination with crime stories isn’t new. “People haven’t changed all that much in some ways,” Jobb says. “There’s a deep interest in true crime and that’s always been the case. Newspapers of a century ago gave the same kind of vast attention to crime we see today.”
The stories resonate because they’re morality tales. “They tend to show the worst in people but also people at their best,” he says. “For every crime, there’s a detection. For every case of harm, there’s redress through the justice system that gives some confidence. There is that moral reckoning that we try as a society to impose.”
Jobb’s book upends the theory that crime is ever-worsening. “They show that upright people are always just as susceptible to greed or hatred or jealousy as anyone else,” Jobb says. “They’re a window on human nature.”
He’s not just documenting facts; he wants readers to get to know these people. “What I really think is important in recreating these stories is to create them in real time as much as you can,” he says. “Dig into the transcripts. Get the authentic voice. Let the events unfold. Create a little mystery.”
Contemporary news coverage helps do that. “The newspaper accounts are amazing,” he says. “They gave verbatim transcripts of the trial, which is something that doesn’t usually survive for older cases… I did go further into the historical record when I could. It’s a matter of digging. Some of these cases were appealed so there were records from the higher court. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in county histories.”
His research also reveals moral context. “You also see how people viewed them,” he says.
“You have to look at them with a bit of caution. Journalists sometimes get it wrong, they bring an agenda. There weren’t a lot of qualms about saying someone was guilty long before trial… There were so many newspapers if someone had it wrong it would be instantly corrected. They’d feast on the errors of their rivals.”
As you might expect with Nova Scotian stories, familiar names recur. Paths cross with crusading journalist/politician Joseph Howe and future prime minister John Thompson. One of the most famous figures is circus promoter P.T. Barnum. This fall, Jobb shares an excerpt of his story with Halifax Magazine readers.
Meanwhile, he offers a preview. In 1876, Barnum’s travelling circus visited Halifax. “Part of the promotion was a parade down Hollis Street with exotic animals, wagons, performers,” Jobb says. “Everybody wanted to see the parade, so clerks at this bank locked the door and went out to watch the parade.” When they returned they discovered someone had pilfered the bank in their absence and $22,000 (a small fortune at the time) was missing.
Newspaper writers were incredulous, depicting the clerks as hapless bumpkins. “It almost defies belief how it could happen,” he says. “You can just see them checking the drawers when they came back, thinking it was a prank, and the realization slowly donning. And there’s P.T. Barnum in the middle of it.”
Daring, Devious & Deadly is scheduled for publication from Pottersfield Press in September 2020. See an exclusive excerpt here.