Recently, while driving my work roads, I stumbled on a true-crime podcast, one which scratched an itch I’ve had for the genre ever since I read Truman Capote’s signature work “In Cold Blood.”
The name of the podcast was Criminalia, narrated by Maria Trimarchi and Holly Frey. The episode for that day told the story of Tillie Klimek, a Polish-American serial killer and resident of Chicago who committed her crimes during the 20th century’s teens and early 1920s. Klimek, once conjuring up sufficient justification to “off” someone, had a habit of predicting the dates of her victims’ demises. The victims usually were boyfriends or husbands, and her modus operandi was poisoning using arsenic.
Klimek didn’t just use poison to eliminate those with whom she’d fallen out of love, but others as well who were relatives or neighbors with whom she had contentious relations. Her victims were given arsenic-tainted food as peace offerings after some harsh words. After finally being discovered and arrested, she allegedly told the arresting officer the next person she’d like to cook for was he. In all, it was discovered after some investigations and occasional exhumations that she’d poisoned some 20 people, 14 of whom died.
The podcast’s narrators went on to point out that Klimek was by no means an attractive woman. As for how she managed to attract several boyfriends and three different husbands, perhaps indeed the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (sorry, couldn’t resist). Seriously, what may be at play here is that there is more than a dollop of veracity to the idiom that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
The purpose of bringing up the murderess’ unattractiveness and lack of charm was, at that point in time in Chicago, there were other more attractive women tried for murdering their husbands and routinely found not guilty. Such was not the case for the squat Polish-American who spoke only broken English. She was sentenced to life in prison and eventually died in the Joliet Correctional Center in 1936.
Apparently, prior to the conviction of Klimek, of the 28 women accused of murdering either husbands or boyfriends that they suspected of infidelity, 24 of them were acquitted, all, researchers opined, considered conventionally attractive.
The narrators went on to point out that even today, the trend is still quite noticeable when it comes to those facing charges that are considered attractive. While there is a certain amount of arbitration when it comes to assessing someone’s looks, most agree when looking at those who are very good looking. While not supplying specific scientific data, Trimarchi and Frey went on to say that not only are more attractive people found guilty less often, but, even when they are found guilty, they receive lighter sentences than those who aren’t the beneficiaries of good looks, as much as 22 months less time.
In my unofficial role as arbiter in matters of assessing physical appearance, I’ll admit I have noticed in the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment, there seem to be more attractive people, say, quarterbacking football teams, casting Senate and House votes and headlining movie casts than repugnant types.
While I suppose some degree of bias in the courtroom by jurors and their verdicts and judges and their sentences is possible, I’d like to think it’s rarer than the podcast seemed to indicate.
I did read about some studies at Cornell University which determined that more physically appealing defendants are less likely to be found guilty. When monetary damages are involved, better-looking plaintiffs seeking recompense often tend to be awarded higher amounts.
However, researchers conducting the studies said that much of their findings involved less serious crimes. When the cases involved more serious crimes, especially when damning evidence was present, bias in favor of more attractive people wasn’t as evident.
I sought some local perspective on my topic from one of our community’s legal vets who’ve seen the inside of a courtroom almost as much as Perry Mason. I walked across the street to one of my all-time favorite neighbors, Brad Kelley, and told him of the podcast and the studies done by Cornell on the issue of whether physical appearance did matter in the legal arena. I found Counselor Kelley’s remarks to be as interesting as he is.
“To think that appearance or attractiveness plays no factor in the justice system is simply naïve,” he said. “We should all know that the statue of Lady Justice with the blindfold is an inanimate object. The people who represent her are humans, subject to the same foibles, influences and biases as anyone else. Despite the concerted efforts of those who pass judicial judgments, that blindfold just might slide down a bit from time to time.”
It was sociologist and best-selling author Martha Beck who said, “Good-looking individuals are treated better than homely ones in virtually every societal situation, from dating to trial by jury.”
I’ll offer no conclusions on today’s topic, rather a quick piece of advice. If, upon waking, your first thought is you’re scheduled to be sitting beside Counsellor Kelley in a courtroom that day, don’t rush the grooming phase of your morning routine!
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected]