Literary violence being common among the writing classes, readers of the letters page in The Times Literary Supplement have grown accustomed to the occasional slaughter of a reputation. But recently we were startled by the appearance of a letter from a genuine murderer, and a famous one at that -- Ira Einhorn.
He wrote only a brief note to correct a minor error in the review of a book unrelated to his crime, but his name jumped off the page. Einhorn is legendary in two distinct ways. In the 1970s in Philadelphia, he became known as the prince of the counterculture, a leader of the peace movement and a famous environmentalist. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania and (it was said) once distributed pot to his students. He evolved into a New Age guru who liked to be called The Unicorn.
He acquired another reputation when he was indicted for murder in 1977, jumped bail and remained a fugitive in Europe for two decades. As he explained many years later, on television with Connie Chung, "I felt that I could not get a fair trial. I didn't escape -- I just left the country."
The story began in the late 1970s when Holly Maddux, who had lived with him for five years, decided to end their relationship. She made one last trip to their apartment for her belongings -- and disappeared. When friends asked about her, Einhorn said only that she had gone out to the food co-op and never returned. Her family reported her missing, received no satisfaction from the police, and hired private detectives.
They found a tenant in the apartment beneath Einhorn who had noticed a dark-coloured liquid dripping from the ceiling. Eighteen months after her disappearance, police finally visited Einhorn, opened a closet, and discovered a trunk containing Holly's body and a copy of the Philadelphia Bulletin for the day she was reported missing. "When you opened the closet door," one of the detectives said, "you could smell death." Einhorn claimed he had been framed by the CIA because he knew about "psychotronic" weaponry, a mind-control system that, he claimed, the government was creating.
As his trial approached in January, 1981, he was out on bail of only US$40,000, his lawyer having arranged for several well-known Philadelphians to praise his character at the bail hearing. Suddenly, he was gone. The lawyer, Arlen Specter, now a U.S. senator, would like to forget this case, but his enemies raised it again when they tried without success to replace him in the recent Republican primary.
Einhorn's bail money was provided by a friend, Barbara Bronfman, the ex-wife of Edgar Bronfman Sr., who shared his interest in the paranormal.
In 1993, when he had been on the run for a dozen years, prosecutors had him tried in absentia, in case witnesses died or disappeared before they could testify against him. He was convicted, and he also lost the Maddux family's civil case for wrongful death. While he remained at large, Steven Levy wrote a book about him, The Unicorn's Secret, the basis of The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer, an NBC mini-series made in Toronto in 1999.
Early in the case, a literary element began appearing. Einhorn, a prolific writer, left behind 63 books of florid diary entries, each of them 150 pages long. These fell into the hands of another literary man, Richard DiBenedetto, an investigator in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, who was to play for 16 years the role of Inspector Javert, the unrelenting pursuer in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
DiBenedetto also sounds like the main character in a police procedural novel. A book collector, he happens to be familiar with long stories; he owns various editions of The Iliad. As one chronicler of the case wrote later, Einhorn "was being tracked by a hard-boiled, law-and-order renaissance man." DiBenedetto studied those diaries with care, noting references to the attractions of sadism.
Meanwhile, Einhorn was shuffling through Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and finally France. DiBenedetto was on his trail; in Dublin, Einhorn was almost caught. Finally he was tracked to Champagne-Mouton, a village near Bordeaux, where he was living under the name Eugene Mallon, sharing a handsome old mill with his Swedish wife. She made the mistake of applying for a driver's licence under her original name, not knowing the police had connected her with Einhorn. In 1997, he was arrested, but it took five years to extradite him from France.
His French lawyers argued, among other things, that his conviction in absentia had been unfair. To satisfy France, the Pennsylvania legislature had to pass a law stating he would get a new trial. There were many more appeals, including one to the European Court of Human Rights, and he attracted a coterie of supporters interested in defaming the U.S. justice system as "barbaric." They kept insisting he might face the death penalty, though it didn't exist in Pennsylvania when the crime was committed.
Literature again played a part. A French journalist who campaigned against extradition said he and his friends were impressed by Einhorn's voracious reading and his constant references to literature. He was their kind of American. Another Einhorn supporter in France, the local secretary of the Communist Party, admired Einhorn and his wife because "They're intellectuals -- cultivated, intelligent people."
Finally he was returned to the United States. In 2002, now aged 62, he was convicted again. At sentencing (he got life), Einhorn faced another literary opinion when the judge called him "an intellectual dilettante who preyed on uninitiated, uninformed, unsuspecting, inexperienced people" and a "pseudo-classicist" who pretended to be a talented eccentric like Jack Kerouac.
Today The Times Literary Supplement editors are happy to have Einhorn on their subscription list. "Reader loyalty is a treasured thing around here," said a recent editorial note. They have received another letter from Einhorn, expressing his appreciation of their paper. He first subscribed while in rural France because he couldn't find the TLS in a local library. It's not available in the prison library either, perhaps partly because "Most of my fellow inmates could not match up London and England." Nevertheless, a few are eager to know what the TLS has to say, and about 10 inmates read Einhorn's copy. As for himself, "I would be bereft without it."