Home USA Crime Was Starkweather/Fugate’s Killing Spree a Result of Sterile ’50s Environment?

Was Starkweather/Fugate’s Killing Spree a Result of Sterile ’50s Environment?

caril and charlie
caril and charlie

“Her demeanor was very unemotional , very a…, no expression on her face throughout the trial, the only time I ever saw a display of emotion was when she (was) found guilty and she broke down an’ crying when the jury verdict came in.” Del Harding-Reporter for the Lincoln Star in the late 1950s

Friday night I recorded the ID (Investigation Discovery) special Twisted, which is a documentary that covers the horrific rampages of spree killers Charles Starkweather and his poker-faced girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.

I didn’t get a chance to view the special until Saturday morning, but since Saturday last have watched it innumerable times, even taking notes, jotting down snippets of conjecture, and surfing powerful search engines of the internet with Starkweather and Fugate as the subject.

Smirking teenage deviants, Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather, a James Dean wanta-be with mean streak that wouldn’t say no to killing.

Heretofore, I’ve had a most romantic notion in my head about the ‘Flatland Killing Spree,’ compliments of Hollywood; the primary culprit can be directed towards the 1973 movie Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Don’t worry, I’m on the road to recovery now and am attempting to reshape a more realistic configuration (in my mind) of these unhinging calamities.

The ID special has made a consequential contribution to these newfound mutations, but lingering traces of romantic ambience cling to my Panasonic Viera, which acts as a medium filter for this melodrama in the heartland, revivified in the magical technology of High Definition television.

Don’t want to lose all of it; especially the James Dean part, The Rebel Without A Cause, or the sleepy ’50s’ Lincoln, Nebraska with cornfields growing in every citizen’s backyard. And let’s not leave out the bizarre romance of Caril and Charlie, that springs out of its cocoon to mirror the Depression Era anti-heroes, Bonnie and Clyde.

The frozen corpse of Robert Colvert, Charlie’s first victim, a humble Crest Gas Station attendant.

Nonetheless, the dormant historian inside of me yearns for a clear display of evidentiary paraphernalia, a laying out of factual ephemera on a visible table. But because of the passage of time, much is lost, as memories fade, or witnesses die – the leaves of the truth wither away and melt in the bleary soils of camouflage.

Sorry to report, but the truth will never be known, since there’s still an abundance of hanging clouds obfuscating the light of day, the trail of misdeeds done in Lincoln. An example is: a verifiable sequence is lost to time in the killing of Caril’s parents, Marion Bartlett, Velda Bartlett and little Betty Jean Bartlett, Caril’s half-sister.

Was Caril present during the killing of her parents? Did she conspire with Charlie beforehand to kill them? That is, was it premeditated? The ID special ascribes a larger role (on the nefarious end of the scale) for Caril than I’ve seen previously in the telling of the killing spree.

A former Lincoln Star reporter, Del Harding, who talks about the case frequently in the special, believes Caril was a willing participant in the crimes, and even thinks she mutilated Carol King’s sexual organs, who was the 7th and perhaps most innocent of the victims. The fact that Fugate was paroled in June of 1976 doesn’t quite jive so well with the testament of Del Harding, whose vantage point as a reporter of the time is a convincing one.

A stronger implication of guilt on the part of Caril Ann Fugate is a definite strength of the ID program. Another virtue was the use of specialists (Dr. Helen Morrison, Professor David Wilson and Dr. Michael Stone) practicing in the area of forensic psychology, who explain the psychology behind the pair of misbegotten lover/killers. These three experts sprinkle in some very insightful explanations for what was going on behind the scenes in these warped teenage minds, ala late ’50s landscape.

Professor David Wilson made some particularly astute observations on the Starkweather/Fugate phenomenon. One insight that resonates the strongest with me is the concept of Folie a deux, or a madness shared by two. In this way of thinking, when Caril and Charlie were together, they nearly formed a third identity, that has deviancies they wouldn’t normally project, had they gone on about their separate paths.

The malignancies, such as a desire to kill or a need to steal from the rich, is directly due to the interaction of their elastic personalities. An extension to this, as David Wilson describes, is the fantasy life lived out by the estranged teenagers. He terms it the ‘parallel world’ they lived in, where they parade through life caught in a romantic drama fighting against hostile forces, that attempt to curtail their ‘misperceived happiness.’

Dr. Helen Morrison has some nice bits in there too, such as her estimation that Fugate wasn’t suffering from Stockholm Syndrome at all, but rather played a proactive role with Charlie in these dastardly capers.

That is, Caril’s free will was invoked; she wasn’t a slave to Charlie, such as Charlotte Rampling was to Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter. Other witnesses who lived in Lincoln in 1958 added their own touch of realism to accounts of this juvenile madness.

Dennis Karnopp was a son of Lincoln’s Sheriff and lived directly across the street from Charlie. Dennis gives us a chilling portrait of Starkweather, who he was frightened to death of. Interesting also, is the fact that it was his own mother who provided legal counsel for Miss Fugate. She told him Caril was the “brains of the outfit.” This is moderately funny, since Charlie is often portrayed as a blithering imbecile!

Another 1950s contemporary, Bob Hale, gives me some relevant information about the case that helps me formulate my own theories about the flurry of slaughter in the Flatlands. School was dismissed at Lincoln on January 25, 1958, since the authorities were searching frantically for the wayward twosome. This is the day of the triple Ward homicides. Hale said he thought “the Russians were coming.”

The removal of the students from school that day struck me as significant in terms of revealing the ambience of the Cold War Era, that must have existed in Lincoln, Nebraska at that time. Conceivably, the atmosphere had characteristics that were stifling to young people, inhibiting and rigid to the point of extreme social neurosis in terms of fear for a possible nuclear war breaking out with the Soviets.

The rigidity may have caused a shutdown in sociability and feeds into the notion that the outbreak of killing had an iota of societal cause. This is evidence (for me) of a rebuttal to the ‘Born To Kill’ thesis. The ‘Born To Kill’ thesis is the primary zeitgeist projected forth in this case. See if you’re with me on this?

C. Lauer Ward’s Packard used by the couple to escape Lincoln and drive to Douglas, Wyoming, where they were finally captured.

The cosmetics of the ID show were essentially a combination of talking head interviews with lucid black and white photographs of the day – utilized to impart a charged narrative of unspeakable episodic nightmares – a slideshow from hell, you might say! Contemporary footage of Lincoln is clipped in with the black and whites to give you a good idea of how it was, and, in contrast, how it looks today.

A good example for you to look at is the photo of the Crest Service Station, where the first victim, Robert Colvert worked. The B & W snapshot is cold and clear. Then you can see footage of how it looks today (a stark antithesis); there’s a Sinclair station there today! Another one is the chilling Bartlett house with Caril’s note on the door against a shot of Hudson Street, with a mere vacant lot today, covered with shoots of green grass.

Robert Colvert was abducted from this Crest Gas Station when he denied Charlie credit for a stuffed toy he wanted to get for his girlfriend.

While I love the ID special, I feel compelled to level a few minor criticisms that dawned on me once I glanced over at some other sites posted on the internet. I was curious about the lack of event-specific film footage in Twisted, that could have come in handy to tell the story of Charlie and Karil’s crazy escapades.

YouTube has a terrific short film (Murder Week: The Story of Charles Starkweather Pt. 1, by Sadclown 456) that has plenty of news footage dating back to 1958. The black and white stills were wonderful, but some period footage would have brought it back to life, such as a clip of a stern-faced (stone-faced) Fugate walking out of court, with a thousand tales to tell, but mum as a gypsy in a fortuneteller tent without a stipend to her name for clairvoyant services rendered.

Moreover, ID failed to mention that the famous talk show host, Dick Cavett once lived nearby Charlie; this is a minor infraction, but worth mentioning. So therefore, what did I take away that is fresh and new from this special?

1. Fugate is more complicit (in the killing, stealing, and subsequent cover-up) than I’d previously suspected.

2. Class warfare plays a vital role in the killings – Charlie hated the rich and wanted what they had.

3. Environment is a salient factor – the malaise of the Cold War 1950s was like gasoline pouring down on a lit match (the matchstick is the fragile makeup of CS). 4. The combination of these two (Folie a deux) lost souls creates yet a third mutant personality, that explodes as combustible dynamite on the ho hum Flatlands of Nebraska! *(Note: I used the Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons” by Philip Glass, with Robert McDuffie featured on violin, as a backdrop while I typed.)

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