Collateral Damage: John List Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about John Emil List who murdered his family in Westfield, New Jersey in 1971.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEXUAL MATERIAL AND VIOLENCE THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

While others have written the story of John List’s murders, he wanted the world to hear the story from his own point of view. Journalist Austin “Red” Goodrich, himself quite a character (During the Cold War he spied for for the CIA posing as a journalist), first met List when he visited him in the New Jersey State Prison in 1990. Like John List, he had grown up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan, and served in the same platoon as John during World War II. With so much in common, they quickly became friends and decided to collaborate on a self-published book about John’s crimes from which he hoped the proceeds could financially help his struggling second wife. They apparently failed to vet the project legally, as it is against federal law for a convicted criminal or his family to benefit from any enterprise that involves the crime. Red Goodrich became the sole beneficiary of the proceeds.

I have read the 115-page account and will save you the trouble: It is an awful book, deplorable literature and rife with uncorrected proofreading errors. In the introduction, List explains his reasons for writing the book: “It may be helpful to psychiatrists and moralists (Christians and others) and I hope will ease the pain caused by my actions to the friends and relatives of my victims.” In light of what he says after that, it is hard to believe it could ease anyone’s pain. Helen’s mother and sister Jean were alive at the time, as were Patty’s coach Ed Illiano, and Alma List’s relatives.

He describes an idyllic childhood, although he admits his mother was overly protective and a close relationship with his father, although neighbors and relatives describe the elderly John Frederick List as a cold, distant man who concentrated on his small business and paid scant attention to his family. His family’s history is summarized in considerable detail, and he seems to be proud to claim a distant relative, German Army General Wilhelm List who reportedly had a regiment named for him and was promoted to Field Marshall, serving in World War II under Adolf Hitler.

John quotes a military associate who hypothesized that John’s desire to move up the ranks of the U.S. army had a genetic basis. In point of fact, List never rose beyond the level of an enlisted man in the infantry, served only five months in Europe, and saw very little combat. Perhaps his lifelong love of complex military games where he always controlled Hitler’s army was also genetic! He devotes nearly a quarter of the book to discussing a somewhat exciting military career of which he was much more impressed than his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. While he wrote detailed letters to his mother during his deployment and named many soldier friends and colleagues, few of them noticed him at all.

He goes to considerable lengths to fairly portray his first wife Helen and to describe a relatively happy marriage. As seemed to be his habit, he could not keep up a narrative for long that did not center on him and his needs. In a few sentences he casually manages to destroy his wife’s reputation. He implies that as the proverbial hot-blooded widow she seduced him, then faked a pregnancy to get him to marry her. Years later she wanted a divorce, an event that would have been a first in the List family (and in Helen’s too, he adds as an afterthought). She spent lavishly, had contracted syphilis from her first husband and hide the fact from John for some time, was an alcoholic, and they had an unsatisfactory sex life. Then he started in on Helen’s daughter from her first marriage, Brenda. Apropos of nothing, he says that Brenda became pregnant when she was 16 and married the baby’s father from whom she was frequently separated. John visited her to “keep her spirits up” but without Helen, who he claims was too upset to see her daughter. The piece de resistance was a remark he attributed to his daughter Patty when she was three or four years old:

Our Patty commented that Brenda had certainly messed up her life. I wonder [said John] if Patty would have acted the same way at that age. Sadly, she died before she reached Brenda’s age. Patty was 16 years and 10 months old at the time of her death. (Italics added for emphasis.)

He accomplished two goals by repeating–or more likely inventing–this scene. First, he raises the question of whether Patty’s life would have been ruined by immorality had she lived longer and second, he totally abdicates responsibility for her death. “Sadly she died,” he says, not “I killed her.”

His unsuccessful accounting career is attributed obliquely to his wife’s excessive social drinking, or to company politics or changes in business venue. List is silent on the subject of his inability to earn more than $25,000 a year, even when his position was briefly Vice President and Comptroller of the First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His lack of job success resulted from his inadequate social skills, his rigidity on the job and failure to keep up with the times as accounting began to reply more on computers, and his insistence that he deserved promotion. John List rarely saw himself as others saw him. While some people described him as kind, generous, and mannerly, others saw him as peculiar, cold, and self-centered.

His self-serving narrative goes on to describe teenaged children whose behavior was out of control. The evidence? — He discovered Patty playing with a Ouija Board with her friends, and all the children were in the kitchen with him when he discovered a small snake on the drainboard. They knew he was afraid of snakes and Patty was the ringleader behind this prank, he assumed.

Now as to the murders. He says he wishes he had not killed his family and prays daily for forgiveness. He explains his long decision-making process, the perceived infutility of leaving his family helpless without him, and his fear that committing suicide would severe his connection with God and prevent him from being reconciled with his family in heaven. His ability to weigh the moral equivalence of suicide compared with the murder of five people is astonishing. Reverend Alfred Scheips was John’s college Lutheran chaplain and he was called as a witness at the List trial. He was asked to compare his church’s relative views on suicide compared with murder. Finally, he was asked whether he believed there was a greatest sin, one for which there could be no forgiveness. He thought for an instant, then replied with a quote from Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis: “Pride is the greatest sin.”

Regarding the acts themselves, he recalls them in horrifying detail and explains that he killed all of his victims from behind so as not to cause them undue fear, and that his bullets killed each of them painlessly and quickly. All, that is, except for possibly John:

“…After I shot my namesake, his body twitched with convulsions. Seeing this, which had not occurred with any of my other victims, I must have panicked because I emptied the Styre and some of the .22 bullets into John. …I am sure that John was killed by the first shot and that his body movements were only muscular reflexes operating in some automatic manner. In any case, the tragedy was finished.”

He reproduces his five-page confession letter he left for his minister, Pastor Rehwinkel. It ends with this: “p.s. Mother is in the hallway in the attic–3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.” John List was a cold, cold man. Among his final chapters, one is titled “Fast Forward Into a New Life,” an apt description for what John did after he cleaned up the blood, ate his dinner, got a good night’s sleep, and headed off for Colorado. Unfazed by what he had done, John recorded his activities every day between November 9, 1971, which he describes as “the killings,” through November 20th when he arrived in Denver, in his Perpetual Calendar.

There he was “born again” (his words) as Robert P. Clark, a man who found work, a new church, and a loving wife “Out West Where It’s Best.” In his narrative he slips in a few paragraphs about the handwriting analysis ordered by his friend and co-author, Red Goodrich. Mark Hopper of the Handwriting Research Corp., apparently concluded that List’s handwriting revealed a writer who was “very intelligent, analytical, disciplined, curious, careful, conscientious and cautious.” On the other hand, Hopper also found a person who could not sustain employment, had poor social skills and “a low capacity for social tolerance along with high levels of anger, aggression, and instability.” He concluded that this was the handwriting of a person who needed psychiatric intervention. Hmmm.

His final chapters describe his arrest and conviction and life in prison which, for the most part, sounds pretty compatible with John List’s love of routine, order, solitude, and lots of rules. He divides one chapter into sections for “Bad Stuff” and “Good Stuff.” While you would not be surprised to hear what he considers “bad,” you would perhaps be caught off guard to hear what he considers “good.” It is, he says, human kindness. I wonder if he ever thinks about human kindness in the context of his actions. Is everything finally forgivable? John List died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia in 2008. Now I believe he knows the answer to that question.