When 12-year-old Jesse Pomeroy tortured seven small boys in the Boston area and then went on to brutally murder two other children, one of the most striking aspects of his case was his inability to answer the question of why he did what he did. Whether in court or in the newspapers, many experts tried to explain his horrifying acts. Despite those efforts, and attempts since, the mystery remains.
In her latest book, Making a Monster, Dawn Keetley details the story of Pomeroy’s crimes and the intense public outcry. She explores the two governing theories at the time—that he was molded psychologically before birth when his pregnant mother visited a slaughterhouse, and that he imitated brutal acts found in popular dime novels. Yet Keetley, professor and chair of English, offers a new theory—that Pomeroy suffered a devastating reaction to a smallpox vaccination which altered his brain, creating a psychopath.
“Boston was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic at the time,” she says. “The Commonwealth told everyone to have their children vaccinated, but the vaccination wasn’t all that safe. His mother took him to a public clinic, and he had a horrible reaction. His mother noted how from age one month to six months he was covered in weeping abscesses, including one over his eye, which left a permanent white cast. That must have had all kinds of effects on his personality. That’s a critical period developmentally for any child, and he was living in constant severe pain. That’s likely why it distorted his personality so much he became what we now call a psychopath. Back then, many argued that he was ‘morally insane.’”