The 1950s: Death and the American Dream

I’ve always been intrigued by the 1950s. On one hand, you’ve got poodle skirts and soda shops and greaser guys in fast cars and leather jackets; on the other, there’s Mom, her full-skirted dress pulling freshly baked cookies out of the oven just as Dad walks in the door with a big smile and a briefcase in hand. The ’50s were an idyllic age, an atomic age where wholesome values and classic Americana was king. And that’s exactly why I find the 1950s so damn creepy.

On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay jettisoned an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, and the world was never the same again. At that very moment, America unleashed a horror so unfathomable that we were immediately afraid of retaliation. While Mom whipped up batches of her “famous” chocolate chip cookies, her children practiced duck-and-cover drills in case of atomic attack.

But the atomic bomb also brought a sense of optimism. We had harnessed nuclear power, and soon, with that technology at hand, all of America would run on clean, efficient energy; we would have the power to desalinate water, grow lush vegetation in the desert, drive flying cars on elevated beltways, and populate planets in deep space. America was hopeful, sitting down with the family each evening first for a home cooked meal, and then in front of I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. But America was far from innocent. Behind white picket fences and perfectly preened lawns, darkness wasn’t brewing, it had already manifested, and proof of its existence had come out long before 1950 made its debut.

In January of 1947, the body of

Elizabeth Short, a brief and tragic life.
Elizabeth Short, a brief and tragic life.
Elizabeth Short was found in the Leimert Park district of Los Angeles, California. While children watched Howdy Doody with glazed-over eyes and pop guns clutched in their sweaty hands, Los Angeles police officers were busy counting body parts along South Norton Avenue, and the case of the Black Dahlia found its place in the annals of the most gruesome crimes in history. A pretty girl of five feet five inches who’d come to L.A. with the hopes of becoming an actress, Short was cut in half at the waist and completely drained of blood,  her face slashed into a Glasgow smile.

But it was easy for America to shield its eyes, because at least Elizabeth Short hadn’t been another Suzanne Degnan. Pieces of Degnan, who was just six years old, had been found in a storm drain almost exactly a year earlier in Chicago. Discovered missing from her bedroom, an anonymous tip pointed police toward the sewers near the Degnan home. That’s where they found the six-year-old’s head in a storm sewer a block away, then discovered her right leg in another, then a torso, then her left leg, each location progressively farther away from the little girl’s home. It took the police a full month to locate Suzanne’s arms. When the police searched the apartment building near where little Suzanne’s head had been found, they discovered four tubs of blood in a basement laundry room. Meanwhile, people in that same building ate dinner and dreamt the American Dream—picket fences and prize rosebushes and wholesome, happy families.

But even virtuous families had their share of problems.

Charles Raymond Starkweather had just turned eighteen when he murdered eleven people during a two-month spree-killing road trip with his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. He started with a service station attendant who refused to sell him a stuffed animal on credit (most likely a romantic gesture for Caril Ann), killing him with a single shot to the head. He then walked into his girlfriend’s home, killed both her parents with his rifle, and killed Caril Ann’s two-year-old baby sister by strangling and stabbing her. Caril Ann didn’t seem to mind. She helped hide the bodies behind the house before fleeing to Nebraska with her beau, where their car got stuck in the mud and had to be abandoned. The duo were picked up by a pair of good-hearted local teens, both of whom were assaulted, mutilated, and shot to death before having their car stolen.

Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather pre-killing-spree.
Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather pre-killing-spree.
With a fresh set of wheels, Charles and Caril Ann headed toward an affluent section of Lincoln, Nebraska, where they entered a random home, stabbed a woman and her maid to death, and snapped the neck of the family dog. There, they waited for the man of the house to return from work, killed him, stole his 1956 Packard and his wife’s jewelry, and fled the scene.

What Charles and Caril Ann didn’t know was the man they had murdered had been a high profile industrialist, and his murder caused an uproar within Lancaster County. The police immediately began tracking the Packard, so the duo ditched the car when they found a traveling salesman sleeping in his Buick along the highway outside of Douglas, Wyoming. They shot him dead, but the salesman’s car had a push-pedal emergency brake that Starkweather didn’t know how to operate. He stalled the car and couldn’t get the engine to restart. When a good-natured motorist stopped to help, the motorist recognized the teens. The police caught up, and after a 100 mile per hour chase, the duo was captured. Starkweather was put to death a year later, and the moms of the world continued to wear their gingham dresses and put on full makeup to greet their men at the door.

The 1950s were a time of stark contradiction, where ideals and morals played against darkness, where families retained their optimism by turning to God and blaming Satan for all the evils in the world. In that way, the world hasn’t changed much since the atomic age. But horror is always best reflected when it shines in the eyes of the perfect housewife, her hair curled, her high heels shining, her mouth cherry red, pulled into a perpetual plastic smile.

Poodle skirt image courtesy of Shorts and Longs, The Both And via Flickr.


Born in Ciechanow, Poland, Ania Ahlborn has always been drawn to the darker, mysterious, and sometimes morbid side of life. As a child, she’d spend hours among the headstones of the large wooded cemetery next door, breaking up bouquets of silk flowers so that everyone had their equal share. Her new novel, The Neighbors, will be out on November 27th. A cross between Blue Velvet and Basic Instinct, it goes beyond Norman Rockwell's white picket fence to discover the true horror of those whose lawns meet ours.

Read other posts by Ania Ahlborn on Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Dorothy Hayes

    In all fairness, the times did seem more simple, maybe boring, but more safe and certainly more simple. We believed that doctors were doctors because they cared, and not just to make money, and lawyers were honest and wanted to practice law. The Doc made house visits, imagine?
    I know there are good lawyers and doctors today, too, and not all were honest then, but we trusted then.
    Times have changed.
    Dad could work in a factory and could afford to send his kids to college and Mom could stay at home. Life was home baked chocolate chip cookies, simple and good, the house that Dad could also afford on his salary was filled with Christmas spirit and fun, and yes, life was far from perfect, we’re humans.
    But alive in those days was a profound appreciation for this steady life and gratitude for having survived WWII and watching the country prosper. Optimism carried the day. People were attempting to leave the memory of the Great Depression and the sorrows of the two world wars to history.
    Regarding your examples of heinous crimes of the times, the sociopathic couple and the butchered beautiful starlet, these cases made history, and would make history today. Life, I know, was not absent of crimes, but…
    In those day, I lived in West New York, NJ, we kids walked to school without fear. We shopped in departments stores and played in parks never worrying about being kidnapped. It was common to go to five story apartment buildings and to countless strangers’ doors on Halloween without a care. Also our schools were safe havens in comparison to the incidents of students’ shooting rampages of today, an unheard of crime in the day. Now serial killing is not shocking, and gun violence in our cities is shameful, the killing of a child, accidental or otherwise, far too common an occurrence.

    So, from somebody who actually lived in those times, in comparison, the 50s was our “Age of Innocence.”

    My mystery[b], Murder at the P&Z[/b] will be published in May.
    Visit me at http://www.dorothyhayes.com

    • Fcorso

      Beautifully said dorothy

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