Almost all families have secrets.
Sometimes, those secrets are ‘open’ – everyone knows about them, and that’s that. Sometimes, they’re hidden – the grandchildren or great-grandchildren may learn about them accidentally, but all evidence has been destroyed and they’re left with a handful of rumors and not much else. And sometimes, the secret isn’t as much a secret, as a mystery.
This is the case with Dr. Alan Hollingsworth book, Killing Albert Berch.
I had the chance to go see Dr. Hollingsworth yesterday at Watermark Books in Wichita. In large part, I wanted to go because the era and subject matter are shared by my YA work in progress (1920s, race relations), and because it’s a nonfiction historical, and therefore has a lot in common with my work on the disappearance of George Kimmel. But also because I think as an aspiring writer, I should go see as many authors as I can. You never know when that one moment might spark an idea or answer a question.
Growing up, Hollingsworth had always heard the story that his grandfather was murdered. It was his grandmother’s obsession, trying to bring the murderers to justice while remaining safe. When she died, it became his mother’s obsession – and in turn, it became his.
What Hollingsworth knew of the murder was little more than some scant facts. Albert Berch was only 30 when he died. He and his wife Lula owned a hotel in Marlow, OK. In 1923, Berch hired a black porter, Robert Johnigan, for the hotel – an experiment which lasted only a few short days. Marlow, like many towns in Oklahoma at the time, was a ‘sundown town’ – no Negroes could be in the city limits after dark. These towns even had signs on the outskirts of town as ‘friendly reminders’ of the rule. And like many towns across the country, Marlow had a sizable Klan population. So the family’s belief was that Berch had been killed for daring to hire a black man, and that Robert Johnigan had been killed simply for being a black man.
And until Hollingsworth’s mom died, that was as far as it ever really went.
After her death, Hollingsworth and his family returned to Marlow for a short visit, and went to the local museum, where they found an entire scrapbook about the murder. (Notice the similarity here with Killers of the Flower Moon? Never bypass the chance to go to museums!) From there, Hollingsworth spent every weekend researching.
Of course, as a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research methodologies. For Hollingsworth, some of it was really easy – he and his sisters found a box in their attic marked “Murder Memorabilia,” which included their grandmother’s research notes, interviews she’d done with suspected murderers, and letters. I wish I could be that lucky with Kimmel!
And then – tucked away at the bottom of the box – Hollingsworth found something that made him stop.
I asked him if there was a moment when it all became real to him, when he reached a point of no return. Because I had that, when I found the “Missing” poster for George Kimmel. A moment where the world stops and you realize that this thing you’ve chased for years, is real. Hollingsworth smiled, and held up a 1920s collar and black necktie – the things he found at the bottom of the Murder box. There was a note with them, in his grandmother’s handwriting, saying that this was the last collar and necktie Al Berch ever wore. “I was alone in the house,” he said. “It was eerie.” He pointed to a faint stamp inside the collar. “I saw the size stamped here, 15 1/2, and I thought – this can’t be his. Then I realized that I, too, had worn a size 15 1/2 in my thirties.”
So sure. Finding an entire box marked “Murder Memorabilia” sounds great! But Hollingsworth found that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Men were put on trial for the murder; he knew it. He had the case numbers. But he couldn’t locate them anywhere. A friend finally found them languishing in the courthouse at Oklahoma City, where they had been sent for an appeal, and then never sent back. That gave him a thousand pages to work with. And of course, though the trial transcript answered some questions, it raised many more.
Hollingsworth was frank about the reactions of the descendants, and his interaction – and lack thereof – with them. Marlow is still home to many of the families who were involved, directly and indirectly, with the murders. At first, Hollingsworth had a ‘point person’ in Marlow who acted as an intermediary – though after some time, she backed away from the position. It took longer to find Johnigan’s family – in fact, not until the book was nearly done did Hollingsworth find a post on Ancestry.com, asking about murders that had occurred in Marlow, Oklahoma. That person turned out to be a family member of the porter.
Hollingsworth feels that he has answered the questions his grandmother and mother always had about the murder. He feels confident that he knows who the mastermind behind the murders was, and that the mystery can be laid to rest.
http://www.killingalbertberch.com/ – the official site for the book