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Murder can be funny — everything from Weekend at Bernie’s to Death at a Funeral proves that point — as long as the gory details remain palatably vague. Yet a soft touch is not what several million listeners have come to expect when they download episodes of My Favorite Murder, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark’s Über-popular true-crime podcast for the Exactly Right network, every Thursday.
The public appetite for true crime is at its zenith despite (or because of) the fact that consuming it as entertainment is morally dubious. But Kilgariff and Hardstark are connoisseurs of the tastefully macabre, and their show, which revisits mysterious and tragic deaths in history, rarely avoids the most gruesome tales. Both hosts are broadcast veterans, however, so while the tones of their stories toggle between frightening and unexpectedly effervescent, they are never morose.
This daring mix of tragedy and comedy has earned the podcast a frenzied fan base of “Murderinos,” who collectively revel in upsettingly graphic descriptions of crimes both sexual and violent like children around a campfire. For many in its “Fan Cult,” MFM hit its stride barely four months into its run on May 27, 2016, in what remains its most troubling and entertaining episode ever, which fans voted as the podcast’s best just last month.
Episode 18, “Investigateighteen Discovery,” is slow to get off the ground. It was early days for Kilgariff and Hardstark, and it’s a hoot to hear them struggle goofily in the first few minutes. “Watch your hand on that,” snaps Hardstark. Maybe “we should have mic stands?” Kilgariff responds. No one even seems sure if the show is recording until about ten minutes in.
At that point, they settle comfortably into what has since become an episodic staple: fan appreciation. This is a particularly charming iteration, with Hardstark labeling the hosts of their Facebook appreciation group “Murderators” while Kilgariff hawks fans’ Etsy pages and craft websites. Kilgariff also reveals that she’s in “emotional recoil from telling my period story” — the story gets edited out, but this deeply personal admission helps to couch the horrific tales coming up, as if to say, “Remember, this show is supposed to be fun!”
Three minutes later, Kilgariff opens with the story of Mary Vincent, a 15-year-old hitchhiker whose life was ruined when she met retired merchant marine Lawrence Singleton outside of Berkeley in 1978. On her way back to Las Vegas, Vincent was picked up by Singleton — a “balding,” “paunchy,” “mid-60s” (Singleton was 50 at the time) alcoholic who posed no clear threat. “He looked like a grandpa,” jokes Kilgariff, which explains why Vincent fell asleep in the passenger seat.
When she awoke in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, Vincent confronted Singleton, who responded by bludgeoning her, tying her up in a pervy van, raping her, and — “it peaks in fucked-upness here” — hacking her arms off with a hatchet. Vincent’s bloody body, Kilgariff reports, was thrown into a Sacramento reservoir, and Singleton drove away.
Those alive in 1979 or familiar with the episode of Lifetime’s I Survived about Vincent may recall her fate. “This was on the news every night,” Kilgariff tells Hardstark, “and my parents were livid.” Thankfully, the young lady did not die; she instead used her own blood to make a muddy poultice, then crawled naked onto the California freeway. At the hospital, she described Singleton to the police, who arrested him promptly. He was sentenced to the maximum of 14 years in jail, served eight, and upon parole, murdered a 31-year-old mother of three and sex worker named Roxanne Hayes.
In Kilgariff’s intoxicating, feverish telling, Vincent’s and Hayes’s stories become opposite ends of a Coen Brothers–esque seesaw, grotesque and darkly comic at various points. Had Vincent died that night, the hosts speculate, Singleton may never have needed to relocate, therefore ruining two lives instead of just one; then again, it was Vincent who brought Singleton to justice for Hayes’s murder, leading to his death in prison.
Both women are quick to praise the innate female strength embodied by Singleton’s victims while acknowledging the monstrous patriarchal id that tried to annihilate them. But the intense vibes permeating the room don’t last long: Almost in the same breath, Hardstark giggles, “Anyone who needs to use the bathroom, go use it now.”
She then begins to weave the equally insane tale of Franklin Delano (“ROOSEVELT?!,” jokes Kilgariff) Floyd, an incestuous child predator and murderer. Immediately, the hosts come for Floyd’s parents. “No wonder you’re a murderer. It’s almost like making sure your kid’s a narcissist by naming him almost after a president,” Hardstark says. “It’s the worst name,” Kilgariff adds, to which Hardstark says, “Let’s just call him Floyd.”
Floyd was 19 when he kidnapped and molested a toddler in 1962, broke out of jail, robbed a bank, and went back to prison for ten years. On parole, he attacked one woman and later married another, Sharon Marshall (revealed soon after to be his stepdaughter), who in 1990 “was found dead in a suspicious hit-and-run.”
This atrocious but deliciously twisty tale is more studiously (and quickly) told, with Hardstark sounding almost professorial in her dedication to notes. Ultimately, however, the polished approach is abandoned, with both women finally snapping and declaring Floyd a “huge piece of shit” and the “worst kind of person.” When Hardstark reveals that Floyd got the death penalty, it is cathartic and almost gleeful; Kilgariff, acting as the audience surrogate, unleashes an audible hiss of pleasure.
Their stories told, the hosts deliver their signature outro in playful tandem: “Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.” Despite its grimness, the episode concludes in a rebellious, triumphant space, with the hosts having waded into and out of perhaps the darkest waters in MFM history. Few podcasts ever get to explore those depths, but even fewer come out funny on the other side.
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