Murder and Mayhem: The Making of a Criminologist

Author Kristina Stancil has studied criminal cases for decades – even when she was a child. In North Mississippi Murder and Mayhem, she talks about some of the biggest cases within the region. A budding criminologist, she shared the experiences that led to her passion for studying crime with us, and an exclusive excerpt from her newest book!

Growing up, I had a few teachers who thought I was weird because my choices in reading or interests did not mesh with what they believed little girls should find interesting. While most of my class mates found The Cosby Show to be the best show on television, I was more inclined to watch shows like TJ Hooker, Hunter, A-Team, G.I. Joe, and my beloved Scooby Doo. Why these shows fascinated me, with the exception of Scooby, I really could never pinpoint. Scooby, on the other hand, originated in the 1960s and everything about them fascinated me. Two guys, three girls, and a huge dog sought to prove the existence of the paranormal, but always seemed to solve crimes the police could not. And amongst them was Velma, who was never disrespected for being brilliant. So Scooby, for me, had it all: a brilliant, albeit fictional female I could look up to for being smart and interested in all of the same things I was. I guess she could be considered the first detective that caught my attention to say, “Hey, I could do this too.”

As I got older and was allowed to watch more mature programming I had little time for dolls because I was surrounded by boys. My favorite cousins, Jimmy, Jeremy, and Carl and I would often play G.I. Joe, another show with a small handful of girls who could hold their own with the boys. It was something we could all do together, and I could be just as cool as the boys going after pretend bad guys. I, of course, was Lady J, and my fascination with archery and the martial arts began…. even if archery kind of went out the window after I injured my rotator cuff.  If there were only two of us, and usually it was Carl and I since our parents were the closest, we would play Hunter and McCall. We dreamed of going into the military together and being MPs.  He made it into the military, but changed his MOS because he had a family.

It was around the time Hunter was one of our favorite shows that I somehow came across the origins of Red Ribbon Week. I was about ten, and when I learned of the sacrifice Enrique Camarena made to make the world safe, I knew that I wanted to be in law enforcement too. This was much to the dismay of my fifth-grade teacher, as my reports gradually left the history nerd aspect of writing about John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King for my very first research project into mass murder. While I had initially hoped to write something on Manson, my teacher said this was not the sort of thing fifth graders should know about, and banned me from researching it. Somehow, I came up with researching Texas Tower Sniper, Charles Whitman instead, a story that came in handy when writing the section in Murder and Mayhem in North Mississippi about Ashlee Smith. The teacher ended up calling my mother and claimed I needed counseling, but my mom held her ground because my interests were academic rather than morbid… even if she prayed I’d never become a patrol officer because she felt it was to dangerous for a girl.

In the words of Chelsea Clinton, “nevertheless she persisted.” I persisted going as far as to pass my civil service and push up portion of my fitness test in my application to become a Thibodaux, LA police officer. While my asthma prevented me from becoming a patrol officer, I did end up meeting the chief, Dr. Scott Silveri, who has been a great inspiration to me as I work today toward becoming a criminologist.

From North Mississippi Murder and Mayhem

Mississippi has a bloodthirsty history. The state has the dubious distinction of being the first in the fledgling United States to house not one but seven confirmed serial killers. The first active serial killers in the United States, known as the Harpe Brothers, fought in the Revolutionary War. The Harpes—who were, in fact, born cousins—had become addicted to the bloodlust they had experienced in wartime. They would briefly team up with Mississippi’s third serial killer, Samuel “Wolfman” Mason.
The Harpe Brothers and Mason were ruthless and hunted at a time before the Wild West gunslingers began earning notoriety—more than a century before H.H. Holmes built his infamous murder hotel in Chicago. The Harpes and Mason were only the first of many serial killers who preyed on the residents of Mississippi, although, as with the serial killers prowling the state in the twentieth century, their territory also reached outside the boundaries of Mississippi. Two such modern serial killers, the Cross Country Killer and the Red Head Murderer, shared a similar victimology: the prime targets for both serial killers were young women with red hair.

Serial killers are frightening, but perhaps even more disturbing is how much blood has been shed throughout history because of hatred. Decades before the civil rights movement began making the news, African Americans and those who supported their rights to equality were often picked off with as much notice as someone swatting a fly. In most hate crime cases, the mutilation and humiliation suffered by those who supported equal rights rivaled that of many serial killers. Those who were charged with upholding the law were often the very people who were carrying out the crimes. In at least two cases, a sheriff and a state legislator murdered people who sought equal rights.

Perhaps the most notorious crimes to happen in Mississippi occurred during the civil rights era. Only a few of these killings happened in North Mississippi. However, the Freedom Summer Murders happened over decades. The three victims were a part of the movement known as the Freedom Summer, a time in the early ’60s when young people from the North ventured to the South to register African Americans to vote. At the time, Mississippi did not allow African Americans to vote, and all juries were white. This made it almost impossible to get convictions on cases of white-on-black crime. The murders of these civil rights activists were so infamous they became known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders. A movie by that name made in the 1980s starring Gene Hackman dramatized the murders, coverup and the search for justice. It would take decades for the families to receive any justice.
Having moved to this state rather than being born to it, I was treated at times as an outsider looking in by local law enforcement when researching these cases. Much of the writing that has previously been done on these cases, especially concerning the subjects covered in the “Hate Crimes” chapter here, was slanted with the view of people coming in from the outside to research. We are often treated as if we are questioning and condemning the people of Mississippi for the actions of the minority.
By using the website Area Vibes, a site dedicated to grading areas on an A-F scale on subjects such as crime, employment and cost of living, I compared the largest city in North Mississippi (Tupelo) with other cities nearby. I chose Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi; the popular Biloxi on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast; Memphis, Tennessee; and Birmingham, Alabama. The crime ranking for all the cities except Tupelo is an F.