Gilded Age Decadence and Decay: A Review of <i>The Alienist </i>

Gilded Age Decadence and Decay: A Review of The Alienist

Averill Earls

I’ve been pretty excited about the coming of TNT’s adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist since the announcement last summer. I read the book – and hated it – last year with my book club. That discussion was a fun one, because we love to hate a book. Our biggest qualm was that the author dropped famous historical characters into the narrative without any real reason for them to be there. Anthony Comstock, JP Morgan, and others traipse in without any plausible reason and without advancing the plot forward in any way. This was deeply annoying. The way it was written seemed to be Carr’s way of saying, “Hey guys, look, I read a biography about JP Morgan, and so here he is!” No, Mr. Carr. No.

But one thing we did agree on at that meeting of minds was what a great premise the book would be for a TV show. Lo and behold, people, it is here, and it is better than I expected.

The premise of TNT’s The Alienist and the rest of the novels in Carr’s Kreizler series is that Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (played by Daniel Brühl) is an extremely wealthy child psychologist (an “alienist,” in the parlance of the day) and, as a side hustle, an early (apparently the first) criminal profiler who tracks down serial killers. He went to college with good old Theodore Roosevelt, who was Police Commissioner in 1890s New York City, and who more or less lets Kreizler pursue his rogue investigations.

He’s aided by another old school chum, the devil-may-care reporter and artist John Moore (played by Dracula/Bard/Gaston heartthrob Luke Evans); Sara Howard (played by Dakota Fanning), who is Roosevelt’s secretary and the “first woman hired by the New York police department”; and the Isaacson brothers, detectives who use forensic science to examine crimes scenes.

Black and white photo of a horse-pulled carriage with the words Bellevue Hospital written across the side. It is parked outside a building, and there are men in servant uniforms and one man carrying a doctor's case milling around it.
Ambulance standing outside Bellevue, a psychiatric hospital, in New York City in 1895. (New York Times/Wikimedia Commons)

The series opens on the brutal murder of a teen boy, Giorgio. From the way he is dressed, in a woman’s negligee, the police quickly determine that he is one of the “girls” who work in a male brothel. The police want to bury the case, because Giorgio, who went by “Gloria” at his Molly house, is a poor kid with nobody to care if he was murdered. Enter Lazlo Kreizler and the team he assembles. They won’t let the police bury this one. And in the course of their digging, they discover Gloria wasn’t the only boy prostitute to go missing. There is – dum dum dummmm – a serial killer on the loose.

This show is action-packed, suspenseful, and disturbing. The decadence of Gilded Age New York is presented in sharp contrast to the slums and tenements of the city. It’s marvelous. But what I love the most is the sex and sexology history that roots the story and characters. As the Vulture recap of Episode 2 notes, the best parts of this show are not the cop drama or Kreizler’s speech of how he will have to “become the killer” to catch him. Instead, it’s the contextual clues of how the characters interact with and bristle against 1890s New York society. It’s like they read my Master’s comprehensive exam answer on the history of sex and gender and made a TV show — but obviously with some brazen sexual encounters in brothels and after Communist Party rallies, a little awkward Victorian romance, and a horrific crime narrative to pull it all together. There’s a little women’s lib in there, 19th century sexology, and even Molly-house style brothels.

I taught a class on Victorian Britain in the fall, so all of these themes are fresh in my mind. When Sara Howard’s maid peels the corset off of her thin frame, Howard comments on whether Victorian men love the female shape or hate it, if it requires a corset to produce the shape. Corsets literally deformed Victorian women’s bodies, moving or breaking ribs, pushing organs out of place and restricting the airflow into their lungs. That’s not something particularly well-addressed in Downton Abbey or Victoria. But the creators of the TNT adaptation of The Alienist have turned this murder mystery into a probing of these kinds of issues.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (Haack/Wikimedia Commons)

Because Lazlo Kreizler is an innovator in his field – he’s putting early psychology methods to work doing forensic criminology, after all – he’s obviously well-read on all the important treatises on the mind. His friend Moore provides ample fodder for discussion. Moore turns to sex workers and other sexual activity in order to deal with a failed engagement and other traumas. After Moore shouts at him, Kreizler gives Moore a copy of Richard Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886, which is effectively a catalogue of a range of human sexual behavior. It is credited with popularizing terms like “sadism,” and coining “anilingus.”

It’s written in a very academic tone of disinterest, but ultimately Krafft-Ebing, like most in that period, considered procreation the only legitimate purpose for sexual activity, and believed that any recreational sex was deviant. So, not exactly a friend of folks like John Moore, but still an important advance in the budding field of sexology.

Perhaps most exciting to me, though, are the male brothels. I will be playing clips from Episode 2 at the end of the semester in my Sex in Modern History classes, because they capture the spirit of these understudied spaces with all the heartbreaking frivolity and dispair one might expect of a whore house of teen boys. When John Moore visits Giorgio/Gloria’s former employer, the brothel is packed with underfed adolescent boys dressed in evening gowns and lingerie, some perched on the laps of older (sometimes much older) men.

One of the “girls” sings a song at the piano in a high falsetto, breaking into a tenor periodically to the delight of the audience. It’s a powerful sight, both to John Moore when he sits down at the bar, and to viewers like us. This space, full of impoverished boys forced to sell their bodies just to get by, as much in danger from serial killers as from the pollution, malnourishment, and poverty of their circumstances, was as much a key part of Gilded Age New York as Teddy Roosevelt, the robber barons, or anything else we associate with the era.

But viewers probably don’t know that. And plenty don’t even believe the boy brothel details to be part of the history of the city. I know this, because a ton of traffic has come to my podcast website searching for an answer to: “Were there really boy prostitutes in 1890s NYC?” Since the series started, people find those answers in our episode on selling sex in 19th century New York City. And yes, there were teen boy prostitutes. In New York, in London, in Berlin, in Paris. They are part of the sexual subcultures of every city, just like female sex workers. They often occupy the same spaces.

In a lot of ways, The Alienist is the more conventional version of BBC One’s Taboo, which explored some of these topics in vivid detail. But it requires us to empathize less with the murderer, which is nice (as wild a ride as Taboo was), and allows us to invest more in the historical context and flawed but intriguing characters. And as evidenced by the recent traffic at Dig, it’s even inspiring people to learn more about the parts of history that we don’t learn in high school. Or even most college history courses. It’s always thrilling to see interest in history unfold before my historian eyes. I’m four episodes deep, and I can’t wait for the next.

Featured image caption: Book jacket of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. (Courtesy Drummkopf/Flickr)

Averill Earls is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Dig: A History Podcast, and an Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College. She writes about same-sex desire in modern Ireland, with recent articles out in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (2019) and Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques (2020). Her forthcoming book, Love in the Lave: A Social Biography of Same-Sex Desire in Postcolonial Ireland is under contract with Temple University Press.