Despite the lurid title, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer by renowned true crime writer Harold Schecter is a straightforward account (if such ghastly deeds can be considered straightforward!) of the life and crimes of Boston’s infamous “boy fiend”, Jesse Harding Pomeroy. As a boy of 12, Jesse terrorized South Boston in the 1870s with a series of brutal torture-assaults on young boys. Sent to the reformatory for what should have been the rest of his childhood, Jesse, a model prisoner, secured an early release, and the fourteen-year-old went on to torture and murder two other children.
Massachusetts, and indeed the nation, then grappled with the question of how young is too young to sentence a murdered to death. Schecter does not spare the reader details of the crimes (particularly hard to read when the victims are children), but his purpose is not to exploit the horror. Jesse’s crimes are a mirror through which Schecter explores both historical and contemporary crime and shows that, like the poor, child killers have always been with us. Sadly, after a recounting of some of these horrible crimes, the exploits of the “boy fiend” of Boston don’t seem so shocking after all.