A bestselling true crime writer chronicles the true story of Charles Starkweather, often considered to be the first mass killer of the modern age of America and served as a precursor to the violence of contemporary America.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF
THE KILLING SPREE
THAT CHANGED AMERICA
BY HARRY N. MACLEAN
EDGAR AWARD WINNER & NEW YORK TIMES
Harry MacLean is an Edgar Award winning writer and lawyer living in Denver, Colorado, who writes true crime books. His latest book Starkweather will be released on November 28, 2023. This is the definitive story of Charles Starkweather, often considered to be the first mass killer in the modern age of America.
“MacLean offers the most comprehensive work to date on the horrific murder spree launched in Nebraska by nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather. As a community insider, MacLean presents a convincing case that the myth of teenage lovers on a murderous lark must be remedied. True-crime fans will be enthralled.”
—Dr. Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and award-winning author of Confession of a Serial Killer
“A magisterial study of the infamous murders committed by 19-year-old Charles Starkweather across Nebraska and Wyoming in the 1950s. . . . Propulsive. . . . An instant true crime classic.”
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review)
Charlie Starkweather in 1958 after his arrest (Lincoln Journal Star)
Two photos of Charlie and Caril in a photo booth. Date unknown. Note the change of appearance. (Credit: Lancaster County, Nebraska)
“Spellbinding.... Anyone today who seriously wonders how our crimescape became so freakish must read this book. It's one of our most meticulously researched and important crime-history books in a long time.”
– Ron Franscell, New York Times bestselling author of
ShadowMan: An Elusive Psycho Killer and the Birth of FBI Profiling
On January 21, 1958, nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather changed the course of crime in the United States when he murdered the parents and sister of his fourteen-year-old girlfriend (and possible accomplice), Caril Ann Fugate, in a house on the edge of Lincoln, Nebraska. They then drove to the nearby town of Bennet, where a farmer was robbed and killed. When Starkweather’s car broke down, the teenagers who stopped to help were murdered and jammed into a storm cellar. By the time the dust settled, ten innocent people were dead and the city of Lincoln was in a state of terror. Schools closed. Men with rifles perched on the roofs of their houses. The National Guard patrolled the street. If there is a cultural version of PTSD, the town suffered from it.
Starkweather and Fugate’s capture and arrest, and the resulting trials about the killing spree, received worldwide coverage. The event would serve as the inspiration for the movie Natural Born Killers and Springsteen’s iconic album Nebraska. Today, the story has dropped far from the national consciousness. With new material, new reporting, and new conclusions about the possible guilt or innocence of Fugate, the tale is ripe for an updated and definitive retelling.
In Starkweather, bestselling author Harry N. MacLean tells the story of this shocking event and its lasting impact, a crime spree that struck deep into the heart of the heartland.
“A bestselling true crime writer chronicles the true story of Charles Starkweather, often considered to be the first mass killer of the modern age of America and served as a precursor to the violence of contemporary America.”
Charlie and Caril a few weeks before the killing spree.
Starkweather, still wearing Lauer Ward’s shirt, and Sheriff Karnopp at Douglas jail after his capture (Shutterstock)
Caril in front of a mic at a press conference prior to her trial in the fall of 1958
(Courtesy of Del Harding)
STARKWEATHER BOOK EXCERPT:
So the stage was set as 1957 came to a close. The country was filled with self-confidence and a bustling optimism. There was no real fear of an evil out there, no real fear of an evil inside. As cruel as war was, it was never random. You knew the face of the enemy. Someone won and someone lost. Play by the rules, be decent ad respectful of another, take care of your family and go to church, and life will be good. Yes, terrible things happen, like a car-versus-train accident that kills a family of four, but seldom at the hands of another, here in Nebraska.
The American lexicon did not include the word mass murder. Or spree killer. Or serial killer. Not that some hadn’t existed in the past, but they were never mythologized or given a categorical title. They hadn’t been brought into your home through the eye of television or given front-page coverage day after day for weeks.
Enter Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
Charlie ejects the spent shell, slips a live round in the chamber, and slams the bolt closed. Caril jerks the gun away from Charlie and tells her mother she’s going to blow her to hell. Velda gives Caril a shove, knocking her to the floor, and Charlie grabs the gun from Caril and whirls around and shoots Velda in the mouth. Betty Jean is watching from the doorway. Velda reels but does not go down. She gets herself past Charlie and heads toward the baby but then turns around and looks Charlie in the eye, knife still in her hand. Charlie raises the rifle butt in the air and brings it down on her head. She falls down, but not all the way—she’ sitting on the floor—so he smashes the butt into her head again. She topples over and lies on her right side.
Charlie wanted to become famous, he wanted to go down in history as a very, very bad outlaw, and he proved to whoever was watching or listening that you could do that with a knife and gun. By the time of his execution, the “bandy-legged runt” was known far and wide, even in lands across the sea. On leaving the courthouse, he would inevitably pause at the top step for a few moments and pose with an amused smirk and the ever-present cigarette pressed between his lips. The Huntley-Brinkley Report featured him and Caril night after night. The AP story on his conviction was carried with photos in hundreds of photos around the country. Charlie’s execution was a national event. Anybody of a similar mind watching would get the idea: Here’s how a nobody can become a somebody. Here’s how motherfucking payback works. Here’s a way to make yourself feel better. To have some fun.
“I saw her standing on her front lawn, just twirling her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died
From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”
Not too many songs have been written about Nebraska, much less by the likes of Bruce Springsteen. . . The song is a narrative of the crimes and execution as told by Starkweather. He tells of the killings and says he’s not sorry for any of them. “At least for a while, sir, me and her had us some fun.”
“Starkweather is a comprehensive, poetic, and brutal examination of American violence and our collective propensity for self-deception that upends everything you think you know about these so-called natural born killers. MacLean has penned an instant classic.”
—Tod Goldberg, author of Gangsters Don’t Die
Starkweather is available for pre-order now at your local bookstore, Amazon, or get the audiobook on Audible.