Just past midnight this date in 1959, Charles Starkweather was electrocuted in Lincoln, Nebraska, for a mass-murdering road trip with his jailbait date that claimed ten lives.*
A loner and loser, Starkweather’s spree in January 1958 caught the national imagination and has never quite let it go since — the prototypical despair of miscarried white masculinity, a primal scream from the underbelly of the American dream.
Bowlegged, myopic, slightly speech-impaired, Starkweather was an outcast at school and fought back with his fists, then dropped out entirely and into a yawning dead-end economic life collecting garbage from the wealthier quarters of Lincoln. “The more I looked at people the more I hated them because I knowed they wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed,” he said in his confession. Starkweather palliated his isolation by aping James Dean, dreaming of a big robbery score, and losing his heart to 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, in whose adolescent eyes the beaten boy felt his stature grow.
He — or maybe they together — killed her parents when they tried to interfere in the relationship, and then eight days of murderous desperation ensued that riveted Lincoln and the nation: they lived a few days with the corpses, shooing neighbors away with a story about the flu, then fled like animals, killing ruthlessly for a couple of cars and a place to spend the night and heading for Wyoming — all to no end that would make a lick of sense, not even the cockeyed hope that there was somewhere to go to outrun the gore. Killing and running had just become what they did to keep from having to stop.
I had hated and been hated. I had my little world to keep alive as long as possible and my gun. That was my answer. (Source)
Four months after he murdered the Fugate family and not yet 20 years of age, Charles heard his own death sentence from jurors in the city he’d briefly but unforgettably terrorized. (There’s a pdf timeline of the case from the Lincoln Evening Journal here.)
He lived cruelly, and it went cruelly with him to the last; offered a chance to donate his eyes, Starkweather retorted that “nobody ever did anything for me when I was alive. Why should I help anybody when I’m dead?” According to the Los Angeles Times, the doctor who was supposed to pronounce the prisoner dead himself suffered a fatal heart attack minutes before the electrocution.
Fugate’s tender age and sex spared her a death sentence, even though Starkweather said that she ought to be “sitting in my lap” when he went to the chair. She was paroled in 1976 and has mostly stayed out of view since. Laura James at CLEWS recently posted an update on her whereabouts.
More detailed annotations of this notorious duo’s life and times can be found here and here; the Lincoln Journal Star recently published an online 50-year retrospective on the case with high production values.
But if Starkweather’s James Dean fixation denoted the pull of celebrity glamor culture, his death left an enduring legacy for a world that had nothing for him in life, a haunting name recognition few school shooters or bell tower snipers have been able to hold since. He captivated the boyhood Steven King:
I do think that the very first time I saw a picture of [Starkweather], I knew I was looking at the future. His eyes were a double zero. There was just nothing there. He was like an outrider of what America might become.
The title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is written as a first-person narrative by Starkweather, to the tune of a desolate acoustic accompaniment that imbues the killer’s brutality with an aching loneliness.
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
Martin Sheen wonderfully rendered a (heavily fictionalized) Starkweather character opposite Sissy Spacek on the silver screen in Badlands (1973):
Rather less artistically consequential, the 1963 low-budget film The Sadist, also based on the Starkweather case, is in the public domain and available free on Google video:* Starkweather killed a gas station attendant in a separate incident weeks before, so his body count is 11, with ten of them on his infamous spree.