A Pinch Of Arsenic

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This is the twentieth issue of American Heritage that we have given over to travel. In April 1987, when we put together the first one, we were confident that our readers would enjoy exploring the way the past has shaped all the appealing places we head to on vacation or simply come upon on the way to somewhere else—the shuttered mansion you pass every day while going to work, for instance.

As the years went by and we added more April issues to our little library of travel, others took note; not just publications but cities, rural regions, and entire states began to talk about, and put their money toward, the appeal of “heritage travel.”

A few years ago I began to watch and then become fascinated by the most unlikely version of our franchise, a cable television show produced by A&E called “City Confidential.” Merging the noir sensibility that the title suggests with the eye of a historian, an almost deliberately sleazy low-budget look, and a salting of archival photos familiar to any reader of this magazine, this is a weekly examination of real-life murder stories and how they entwine with the past. A present-day scandal in Virginia’s hunt country looks back at the Middleburg of George Washington’s time, and in a show about the murder of a Federal Express pilot we learn of the impact of the Tennessee Valley Authority on the Knoxville area.

These crimes couldn’t have flared into being without the help of history. Memphis, the silken-voiced (and now deceased) narrator Paul Winfield confides, “had a past as shaky as Elvis’s hips.” Charlotte, North Carolina, home in 1799 to the nation’s first gold rush, had by the time of a 1999 drive-by shooting “one hand on the buckle of the Bible belt and the other one in its wallet.” On to Knoxville and its early days as a rough-and-tumble river city, today “a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and a whole lot of rocket science.” Or Youngstown, Ohio, governed for decades by the mob, where frequent car bombings came to be known as “the Youngstown tune-up.” You get the idea. And if you feel a pull to the 1940s films of Dick Powell or the novels of Raymond Chandler, that’s underlined by the snappy opening titles with a woman’s voice intoning, “If you think about it, it was like a movie… .”

I imagined the show was my own guilty secret until I recently came upon an appreciation of it by a New York Times reporter who called it “ingenious and intriguing, creating the feeling that we may suddenly glimpse something completely unexpected or shocking.”

In this 2006 travel issue, as in all the ones that preceded it, we try to provide the unexpected. But we will generally leave the shocking to “City Confidential.”

Carla Davidson