The "Impossible" 1930s Murder That Still Fascinates Crime Writers

William Herbert Wallace
William Herbert Wallace
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On the evening of January 20, 1931, after a long trek through the Mossley Hill neighborhood of Liverpool, England, insurance agent William Herbert Wallace finally made it home. The house was dark, which seemed strange—his wife, Julia, should have been awake. He entered through the back door and went through the rooms calling her name, but received no answer.

When he arrived at his front parlor, he struck a match—his usual first step in lighting the room's gas lamps. The dim halo of light fell on the prone figure of a woman on the floor: Julia.

She was lying on her stomach, her feet pointed toward the gas fireplace, her head pointed toward the doorway in which Wallace stood, momentarily stunned. At first unsure of exactly what he was looking at, Wallace bent forward to examine his wife—and saw the blood pooled around her head. He quickly lit the gas light, which threw the brutal scene into stark relief.

Julia's head had been viciously bashed. The walls were covered in her blood, with some spatters up to 7 feet high. A partially burned raincoat lay underneath her. The quiet and retiring woman had met a terrible end.

The ensuing investigation and trial dominated headlines around the U.S. and UK and fascinated the public. Raymond Chandler called the case the "nonpareil of all murder mysteries," and "the impossible murder." The famed British crime writers Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James analyzed the evidence and put forward their own theories. Countless internet sleuths have scoured the web for damning details. And yet to this day—despite an arrest, a trial, a conviction, and a historic move by the Court of Appeal—mystery abounds: No one knows for certain who killed Julia Wallace.

THE FACTS OF THE CASE

A sign for Wolverton Street in Liverpool
Rept0n1x, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

The mystery began the day before William Wallace made the gruesome discovery in his parlor. At around 7:15 p.m. on January 19, 1931, Wallace—a 52-year-old employee of the Prudential Assurance Company—left his house at 29 Wolverton Street in the Anfield section of Liverpool, England. He walked to a tram and took it to the City Cafe, where he was due to play in the Liverpool Central Chess Club's 2nd Class Championship. A mediocre but enthusiastic player, Wallace was an off-and-on-again attendee.

Around the same time, a phone rang at the City Cafe. The caller asked for Wallace, but was handed over to Samuel Beattie, captain of the chess club, since Wallace had yet to arrive. The caller, who Beattie would later note had a "strong" and rather "gruff" voice, asked for Wallace again. Beattie told the caller that he wasn't there, and to try back later.

The caller said he couldn't call back, as he was at his daughter's 21st birthday party, but he left a message asking Wallace to see him about a business matter at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Mossley Hill, at 7:30 the following evening. He gave his name as R.M. Qualtrough.

Beattie caught up with Wallace not long after the latter arrived at the cafe. When he delivered the message, Wallace replied that he didn't know any Qualtrough, nor did he know where Menlove Gardens East was, but he figured he could probably find it. It was the Depression, after all, and Wallace wasn't keen to lose out on what he thought might be a new commission.

The next night, after having his tea, bidding his wife goodbye, and asking, per usual, that she bolt the back door of their home behind him, Wallace set off for Menlove Gardens East. He left his home shortly before 7 p.m., minutes after his wife was seen accepting their milk delivery, and around 7:06 was on a tram in the general direction of his destination. He made a point to ask the conductors on each leg of his trip if they knew how to get to Menlove Gardens East, and if they could tell him where to get off. Once he alighted at Menlove Gardens West, he began to search on foot, asking passersby, a policeman, and even the resident of 25 Menlove Gardens West if they knew where he could find the address. Everyone had the same answer—they had never heard of a Menlove Gardens East, or any Qualtrough, in the area. Finally, after checking a directory at a newsstand and striking out there, too, Wallace made his way home.

The next people Wallace interacted with were his neighbors, the Johnstons. They were leaving their house for an evening out at about 8:45 p.m. when they passed Wallace walking toward his back door. "Have you heard anything unusual tonight?" he asked Mrs. Johnston, his words shot through with anxiety. Their homes shared a wall, so there wasn't much that would have gone unnoticed by the parties on either side.

Mrs. Johnston said she hadn't noticed anything unusual. When she asked what the matter was, Wallace told her he'd tried his front door with his key, but it wouldn't open. The back door, too, wouldn't budge. Mr. Johnston suggested he try the back door one more time. Wallace approached the door, grasped the knob—and this time it opened easily.

Wallace disappeared into his home while the Johnstons waited outside. He lit gas lights in a couple of rooms before he arrived at the front parlor and the body of his wife, her head surrounded by a pool of blood. Wallace hurried back and called to the Johnstons, still waiting outside: "Come and see—she has been killed."

Julia Wallace's head was a battered mess, beaten so viciously that the brain was exposed on the left side. When the police arrived about 9 p.m., they discovered that four British pounds (about $350 today) was missing from Wallace's collection tin in the kitchen, which had been put back in its place with the lid on, but no other money—not from Julia's purse nor from the cache hidden in a vase in the bedroom upstairs—had been taken. Later, a cleaning woman would state that an iron bar and a poker used for the gas fireplace were both missing. No other weapon was ever identified.

Within a month, William Wallace was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. A self-described stoic, he was unemotional in court, which led to some antipathy from a jury expecting to see a grieving widower. Some observers have speculated that it was that, more than anything else, that resulted in his conviction—all of the evidence against him was circumstantial at best.

Wallace was sentenced to hang, but in an historic move, the Court of Criminal Appeal in London overturned his verdict due to lack of evidence. It was the first time the appeals court had tossed out a verdict on those grounds.

Wallace was a free man, but he wouldn't live long to enjoy it. Within two years he succumbed to chronic health problems and died.

Did he get away with the perfect crime—or was he a victim as well?

THE THEORIES

A Liverpool street in the early 1930s
A Liverpool street in the early 1930s
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In a case like the Wallace mystery, the facts can often weigh equally toward guilt or innocence. Three main theories have emerged out of the body of evidence so far.

Theory 1: William Killed Julia

Police considered William Wallace the primary suspect. But the biggest question mark in this theory is his possible motive. In short, there isn't much of one. Julia had very little life insurance and the Wallaces weren't especially hard-up for cash. According to friends and acquaintances, their 18-year marriage was not fraught with conflict. Wallace's diaries from prior to the murder indicate a placid and unexciting but contented union, one in which he shared his interests in music, chemistry, and chess with his wife. His later entries, made months after his conviction was overturned, indicate a deep grief over the loss of Julia. While one friend of the couple told the police there was tension between the two, the Johnstons had never heard any fights or raised voices coming from the other side. There was no suggestion that either Wallace or Julia was having an affair.

Setting the lack of obvious motive aside—perhaps William Wallace was unhappy with his wife in some way we'll never know—how would he have done it? Various authors and amateur sleuths have suggested some version of the following timeline: On January 19, Wallace left his house at 7:15 p.m., as stated to police. He called the cafe from a pay phone near his house, disguised his voice, gave a false name, and essentially created an alibi for himself for the night of the murder. (Police did establish that the call to the cafe came from a phone booth about 400 yards from Wallace's house, one that he would have passed on his way to the cafe at about the time the call was made. However, Beattie, who had known Wallace for years, testified that the caller didn't sound like his friend.)

The next day, Julia was seen between 6:35 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., very much alive, by the milk delivery boy and another witness. Wallace could have left his house no later than 6:50 p.m. to make the 7:06 tram toward Menlove Gardens, where he was seen by a conductor. If he killed his wife before leaving the house, he had only about 15 minutes to do so, then clean himself up, before going on his way. Let’s say he worked quickly.

Wallace then would have taken his trip to the fictional Menlove Gardens East, making sure to engage with plenty of people along the way: the resident at 25 Menlove Gardens West; a young man he met on the sidewalk; and a police officer. He asked them all for directions, and even checked the time with the policeman at 7:45 p.m. He then went to the post office and a newsstand, pretended to check the directory, engaged the clerk, and left shortly after.

He was next seen near his home on Wolverton Street at 8:45 p.m. by the Johnstons. It's also possible that he killed Julia after his return, but given the travel time back from Menlove Gardens, he probably only had 15 minutes to commit the deed, clean up, and make it outside before the Johnstons left their house.

Following this theory, regardless of when Wallace killed Julia, he needed witnesses to his "discovery" of the body. That's where the Johnstons come in. In this line of thinking, Wallace waited until he heard them coming out, made his way to the back of his house, and told them about his trouble getting in.

What about the mess in the parlor? Where were Wallace's blood-stained clothes? It is easier to stay clean if you wear nothing but a raincoat to murder your spouse, and then leave it under her blood-drenched body and change into your suit—which is exactly the theory the prosecution put forward. It should be noted no blood was ever found on Wallace's suit, nor was there evidence of anyone washing up in the house; aside from a small clot of blood on the toilet in the bathroom, and a smear on one of the pound notes in the bedroom, no other blood was found outside of the front parlor. (Wallace had touched the pound notes when he went through the house with the police shortly after Julia's body was discovered, although it's unclear if the blood on the money was his own.)

Dr. John MacFall, a professor of forensic medicine who served as medical examiner that night, put Julia's time of death at around 8 p.m. Problem was, he based his conclusion solely on rigor mortis, which is often considered an imprecise measurement. He'd later change his estimate to sometime closer to 6 p.m. Neither estimate pointed to a strong case for Wallace's guilt. For one, Julia was seen alive after 6 p.m. And at 8 p.m. Wallace was still traipsing around Mossley Hill.

Ultimately, the lack of time he had to commit the murder has exonerated Wallace in the eyes of many. Combined with the sketchy report on time of death and the lack of motive, it's hard to imagine Wallace himself committing the crime.

Theory 2: A Hired Assassin Killed Julia

A black-and-white photo of a person making a telephone call on a UK street
Three Lions/Getty Images

One popular theory of the crime follows the first fairly closely, except that instead of getting his own hands dirty, Wallace hired someone else to kill Julia. The hired man made the "Qualtrough" call, and the next day let himself into the house with a key provided by Wallace. He then killed Julia, and shortly afterward Wallace returned home, waited for witnesses, and then performed the discovery scene. This theory clears up the timeline, as well as other details problematic for the prosecution, such as the lack of blood on Wallace's clothes.

The theory is strengthened by the fact that during the trial a young typist testified that she saw Wallace talking to another man near Wolverton Street at about 8:35 or 8:40 p.m. the night of the murder. Wallace, meanwhile, had told police he spoke to no one on the way home. Is it possible that the typist caught Wallace speaking to his hired man?

We may even have the identity of the assassin, thanks to an investigation by journalist Roger Wilkes. In the early 1980s, Wilkes interviewed one John Parkes, who was a mechanic at a garage in Allerton, about seven miles from Wolverton Street, in 1931. At 1 a.m. on the night of the murder, Parkes was visited by Richard Gordon Parry, a local amateur actor and one-time colleague of Wallace at Prudential. Parry was also a known troublemaker who'd had multiple run-ins with the law for crimes of theft and sexual assault.

That night, an agitated Parry reportedly demanded Parkes wash his car with the high-powered hose. When Parkes opened the car door and saw a bloody glove inside, Parry said, "If the police got that, they would hang me!" He then recounted a strange and disjointed story about dumping an iron bar down a drain.

Parkes kept the story to himself until Parry died in 1980, after which he told his story to Wilkes as part of a radio documentary. Of course, the fact that half a century passed between the crime and the witness statement detracts from the credibility (Parkes claimed he kept the story to himself because he was fearful of retaliation by Parry). But Wilkes was not the first person to mention Parry in connection with the murder of Julia Wallace.

Theory 3: Someone Else Killed Julia

A stack of vintage diaries
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Shortly after his conviction was overturned, a series of articles purportedly by Wallace appeared in the press. In one of those articles was the shocking (or, depending on your point of view, not-so-shocking) revelation that Wallace knew who the murderer was. The man was never named in the articles. However, Jonathan Goodman's examination and publication of excerpts from Wallace’s diaries in The Killing of Julia Wallace reveals who Wallace thought the murderer was.

During his initial police interviews, Wallace named a few people as suspects, and one of them was Richard Gordon Parry. He and Parry had worked together at Prudential. Parry would occasionally make Wallace's collections when Wallace, who suffered from chronic kidney problems, was too ill, and he'd been to 29 Wolverton Street and met Julia several times. He was also known to have visited the same cafe where Wallace's chess club took place. A notice on the board at the entrance of that club listed the dates each member was due to compete, so Parry (or anyone else) could have seen Wallace's name down for January 19. All it would have taken was some discreet surveillance of Wolverton Street that night to spot Wallace leaving home and heading toward the tram.

Parry was in fact investigated at the time of the murder, and had an alibi provided by his then-fiancée Lily Lloyd, who said the pair had been together that night. According to Goodman, when Parry broke their engagement in the summer of 1933, Lloyd told one of Wallace’s lawyers that the alibi was made up—she hadn't been with Parry that evening. However, no one followed up on her claim (and modern scholarship has suggested that Parry's alibi did not rely on Lloyd's story alone).

Alibi or not, there is evidence that two years prior to the murder Parry made an agreement with management to leave Prudential after it was discovered that he’d been siphoning money from his collections. Some authors have said that Wallace actually noticed the missing funds from the collections that Parry ran for him, and informed his superintendent; whether or not Wallace informed on him, Parry's parents were forced to step in and repay what he'd taken, and Parry left the company. Did Parry know, or think, that Wallace had informed? Was this a revenge killing?

Or maybe it was just a case of robbery gone awry. Parry was known for his love of cars and his tendency to live beyond his means. Perhaps he assumed Wallace would have more than four pounds in collections at his home, and that if he got him out of the house, he could swipe the money out from under Julia. Maybe she saw him take the money and threatened to call the police. Or maybe murder was on his mind the entire time? Though far from perfect theories, the idea that Parry killed Julia—whether motivated by money or revenge—does provide the "why" that prosecutors of Wallace never could.

The fact is, barring a signed confession unearthed from some Liverpudlian attic, we'll probably never know exactly what happened at 29 Wolverton Street on the night of January 20, 1931. Eight decades from now, amateur gumshoes may still be debating this irresistible whodunnit. And with questions as maddening as these still unanswered, who could blame them?

Additional sources: The Trial of William Herbert Wallace

11 Terrifying Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True

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iStock

Urban legends—those unsubstantiated stories of terror that allow us to use our imaginations to fill in increasingly horrifying details with each retelling—have been with us forever. While the internet has made dissemination of them easier, humans have been goading one another with spooky anecdotes for centuries. Psychologists believe we respond to these tales because we have a morbid fascination with the disgusting; we also can’t help but enjoy gossip. Put those two things together and it makes for an irresistible mix.

Urban legends often come with a dose of skepticism. (No, a killer with a hook hand has never terrorized necking couples.) But sometimes, these stories turn out to be true. Have a look—preferably under the covers and with a flashlight—at these 11 terrifying tales that actually happened.

1. RATS IN THE TOILET BOWL

Two rats try to swim in a toilet bowl
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You stagger into the bathroom at 3 a.m. to relieve yourself. Groggy with sleep, you lift the lid and position yourself over the toilet. You hear splashing. Turning on the light, you see a rat looking back at you from the bowl. You’re never the same again.

Urban legends about animals in sewers have been a staple of scary stories, particularly the one about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and then growing to adult size in waste channels. Most often told about New York. (Not true. While alligators and crocodiles have been found in New York, they’re generally released and found above ground, and it’s thought that New York is too cold for them to survive for very long.) But finding a rodent in your toilet, inches from very vulnerable areas of your body, is a particular kind of domestic terror—and one that happens to be possible.

Drain plumbing for toilets is typically three inches in diameter or more, plenty of space for a rat to climb up. The animals are attracted to sewage lines due to undigested food in feces and can travel through pipes before emerging through an opening and into your bathroom. And yes, rats can be somewhat testy when they complete their journey. One aquatic rodent bit the rump of a female victim in Petersburg, Virginia in 1999. In Seattle, the issue is common enough that public officials have given advice on what to do in case you encounter one (close the lid and flush).

2. THE LEGEND OF POLYBIUS

An arcade game joystick sits next to buttons
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Vintage video gamers have long traded stories about a coin-operated arcade game circa early 1980s Portland that had strange effects on its players. The game, titled Polybius, was alleged to have prompted feelings of disorientation, amnesia, game addiction, and even suicide. The machine’s cabinet was said to be painted entirely black, and it was rumored that stern-looking men would sometimes visit arcades to collect information from the machine before disappearing. Was it a CIA experiment spun off from MK Ultra, the psychoactive drug study conducted on unsuspecting subjects?

While the entire story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, individual pieces are actually based in fact. Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, did some investigative work and found that a 12-year-old named Brian Mauro had become sickened during a 28-hour marathon video game contest in Portland in 1981. (He apparently drank too much soda and experienced stomach discomfort.) Just a few days later, Portland-area arcades were raided by federal agents, who seized cabinets that were being used for gambling. Coupled with the existence of a real arcade game named Poly-Play, these memories seemed to amalgamate into the Polybius legend.

3. CANDYMAN

A woman takes a photo of herself in a medicine cabinet mirror
jay~dee, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Released in 1992, Candyman—based on a short story by Clive Barker—remains a potent horror tale of the revenge undertaken by a black artist (Tony Todd) murdered in the 1890s for having a relationship with a white woman. While it’s not likely you’ll be able to invoke him by saying his name several times in a mirror, the pants-soiling idea of having a killer burst through a medicine cabinet is actually based in fact.

In 1987 the Chicago Reader published a story about Ruth McCoy, a woman living in a Chicago housing project, who made a frantic call to 911 insisting she was being attacked in her apartment. Responders eventually found her dead of gunshot wounds. Investigators determined that her assailants had gained access to her unit by breaking through the connecting wall in the adjoining apartment and climbing in through her medicine cabinet. The complex was built that way intentionally, so that plumbers investigating leaks could simply remove the cabinet to check the pipes. It became a frequent mode of entry for burglars—and in McCoy’s case, her killers.

4. CROPSEY

A man casts a shadow in the woods
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For years, kids living in and around Staten Island raised goosebumps by relating the tale of “Cropsey,” a boogeyman who lived in the woods and made a nocturnal habit of disemboweling children. Parents no doubt eased their kids’ fears by telling them no such monster existed.

But he did. In 1987, Andre Rand was put on trial and convicted for a child abduction. Rand, it turned out, may have been connected to a rash of child disappearances in the 1970s. He had once worked at Willowbrook, a defunct mental institution. While he denies involvement in other cases, it’s clear Rand’s activities had a heavy influence in the word-of-mouth stories that followed.

5. THE LEAPING LAWYER

Buildings stretch into the sky
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Sooner or later, Toronto residents hear the tale of a lawyer who had a peculiar fondness for running full-bore into his office windows to demonstrate how strong they were. This practice caught up with him eventually, as he crashed into a window and went sailing to his death. This hobby was actually practiced by Garry Hoy, a senior partner in an area law firm with an office on the 24th floor. On July 9, 1993, Hoy made his signature tackle against the window to impress some visiting law students. The pane finally broke and sent him plummeting to his death. In a eulogy, managing partner Peter Lauwers called Hoy “one of the best and brightest” at the firm.

6. THE BODY UNDER THE BED

A hand appears from underneath a bed
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Vacationing couples. Newlyweds. Disneyland guests. All have been the subject of an urban legend involving hotel occupants who fall blissfully to sleep, only to wake up to an awful stench coming from either under the bed or inside the mattress. Closer inspection reveals that a dead body has been stashed away. Presumably, not anyone who has died of natural causes.

This traveling tale has been confirmed multiple times over. At least a dozen newspaper stories have detailed hotel rooms that have doubled as body disposal sites. While the smell is usually apparent right away, at least one couple slept on a mattress containing a body in Atlantic City in 1999. Cases in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have also been reported.

In 2010, guests at a Budget Lodge in Memphis were horrified to discover they had been sleeping above the body of Sony Millbrook, a missing person. Fabric softener had been stuffed in the ceiling tiles to try and mask the smell. At least three other occupants had also rented the room since Millbrook’s disappearance. A court eventually convicted Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, of the crime.

7. THE MAINE HERMIT

A person's shadow is visible in a camping tent
iStock

For decades, people who vacationed in central Maine’s North Pond area were puzzled by items that would go missing. Batteries and food from cabins, flashlights from camping tents. Rumors spread that a permanent fixture of the area would forage for sustenance and supplies.

They were right. For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods, keeping tabs on the hikers, canoeists, and other temporary residents of the grounds. When he was confronted by a game warden in 2013, Knight admitted he was responsible for an average of around 40 robberies a year. Despite the likely protestations of family and friends who dismissed tales of a hermit lurking somewhere in the woods, his identification proved that someone had been watching—and waiting—for nearly three decades.

8. THE FAKE COP TRICK

Lights are visible on a police car at night
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You may have had an overly concerned parent or friend warn you of people impersonating police officers, using that veneer of authority to attack victims who have let their guard down. While there aren’t many who are in full patrol uniform or traveling in marked vehicles, there have been many documented cases of assailants posing as law enforcement—at least two this past summer alone. In Bloomington, Illinois, a man used flashing lights to get a vehicle to pull over. After walking up to the vehicle, the man tried—unsuccessfully—to overpower the driver before they managed to get away. In Fayetteville, Georgia, a man donned a uniform and pulled over a teenage boy on a bike, forcing him to empty his pockets. Talking to (real) police later, the boy told them a second car had pulled up with a man matching the description of someone who had been caught impersonating an officer two weeks prior.

9. THE LEGEND OF THE BUNNY MAN

A man in a bunny mask sits at a table
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If you lived in or around Virginia in the 1970s, you were probably exposed to the story of the Bunny Man. In the tale, an escaped mental patient takes to gutting bunnies and hanging them from a bridge underpass. Later, the maniac is said to have graduated to gutting and hanging teens in a similar manner. Locals were cautioned to never be caught near the underpass, which is now known to most people as “Bunny Man Bridge,” on Halloween night.

This story likely spawned from the very real presence of a roving madman in the area. In October 1970, a couple reported seeing a man dressed in a white suit and wearing bunny ears who began yelling at them that they were on private property. To punctuate his point, he threw a hatchet at their windscreen, apparently shattering it. There was a second sighting of Bunny Man two weeks later, when a security guard spotted a hatchet-wielding man chipping away at a porch railing. Police tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the man. While he didn’t disembowel anyone, the thought of an adult wielding both a hatchet and a pair of rabbit ears somehow manages to be just as disturbing.

10. CHARLIE NO-FACE

A man walks along a road near trees
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Imagine finding yourself outside and alone in the dark on a residential street. You hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly, a man with a misshapen face appears. You run, terrified beyond words. You spread the story of the man with no face throughout Pennsylvania.

“Charlie No-Face” (also called the Green Man) was actually a man named Ray Robinson, and he was no figment of anyone’s imagination. Born in 1910, Robinson was disfigured as the result of an electrical accident at the age of 8. He touched active wires, which effectively maimed him. Knowing his appearance could be disconcerting, Robinson took to taking strolls after dark. He often walked a path along Route 351 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. While his intentions were honorable, encountering Robinson in the dead of night inevitably led to spreading stories about a boogeyman haunting the town. Robinson died in 1985.

11. THE ALL-TOO-REAL CORPSE DECORATION

A toe tag is seen on a corpse in a morgue
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Notorious outlaw Elmer McCurdy took on a second life following his death. In 1911, the embalmed corpse of McCurdy became a grim sideshow attraction throughout Texas, with people eager to see the famed criminal on display in funeral parlors and carnivals. Though it’s hard to document all of his travels, he eventually wound up in Long Beach, California, where someone apparently mistook him for a prop. McCurdy was hung in a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park, his humanity discovered only after a crew member on The Six Million-Dollar Man—which was filming there in 1976—tried to adjust him, dislodging his very real arm. The following year, his corpse was put to proper rest. 

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. MAKING A MURDERER (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it's returning for a second season on October 19th.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. THE STAIRCASE (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's recent addition of new episodes earlier this year led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you'll want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. EVIL GENIUS (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck would detonate, as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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