When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

 

 

 

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Photo Challenge: Variations on a Theme

This will be a little odd for this week’s, but it sort of fits.

The 14th Street Bridge has served Winfield since 1928. For thousands of 4-H kids, it’s served as a rite of passage – to cross the bridge pulling a livestock trailer is scary! For thousands of Bluegrass fans, it’s served as a gateway to the best month of the year.

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bridge 8 g

But this was its last weekend. Tomorrow, demolition starts, and the last awesome, historic, beautiful bridge left in Winfield will be a memory.

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Happily, there was a group of people who weren’t going to let it go quietly. On Saturday, a group of classic car enthusiasts gathered to take a “Last Drive” across the bridge, and send her out in style.

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Model A’s and T’s, 1950s Chevies . . . all came out to pay their respects a final time.

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/variations-on-a-theme/

 

Those who ignore history . . .

As I’ve been working on my young adult historical, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the local area. This includes reading the local paper for 1924 – the year that most of my novel takes place. Since my protagonist, Nicky, is a bootlegger, I’m focusing especially on any articles that have to do with those issues – local stills being raided, etc.

But the KKK was also active in this area. There were, as far as I can tell, chapters of the KKK in Winfield (approximately 15 miles north), Newkirk (about 10 miles south), and Blackwell (about 35 miles southwest). I suspect there were numerous other small chapters for which there’s not much documentation. Heck, I even found this rather creepy advertisement in the Winfield paper:  klan barbershop

(This is actually pretty typical of Klan advertisements. A student even told me that there’s an abandoned building in her hometown that used to be a grocery store that still has a sign in the door that says “Klan Friendly!” I admit, as a historian, part of me wants to salvage it. Part of me wants to burn it at a crossroads.)

But there was one article that has continued to haunt me. I know it well; it features prominently in a major scene in my book. On February 7, 1924, Z.A. Harris, a ‘Klan lecturer’ (who knew there was such a thing, right?) appeared at the Fifth Avenue Theater to a “capacity crowd” and gave a rousing speech. The Fifth Avenue Theatre was THE theatre of Arkansas City in 1924 – it was the most upscale, the most lavish. Or, as my protagonist Nicky says, “Only four theatres in town, and I knew they wasn’t gonna be at the Rex. The Strand – maybe. The Isis – not big enough. That left the Fifth Avenue Opera House, and it was the biggest and nicest theatre in town and I reckoned the Klan didn’t do nothing by halves. They wanted to recruit people, they’d get the best.”

Though the article doesn’t quotefifth avenue theatre Harris verbatim all the time, it gives enough quotes to get the majority of the speech. So I want to post parts of this here. I put the actual quotes in italics. As you may pick up, the reporter wasn’t terribly keen on the guy. 🙂

‘Like any other secret society there are restrictions placed on membership. We have a right as Americans to form such an organization. Our membership is confined strictly to white, native born, gentile, protestant American citizens.’ He spent twenty minutes or so in defense of the organization . . . In his defense of the United States constitution and Americanism he directed his shafts, by innuendo or inference only, against Catholicism, the Jews, and another clement ‘constituting a membership of one and a half million,’ which probably alluded to the IWW or the Bolsheviks or perhaps the socialists.”

So far, not so bad. But! Wait for it . . .

“He pictured a big task which is to engage the attention of the Klan organization – ‘the preservation of American nationalism, American ideals, American institutions, the preservation of the flag and the liberty, freedom, and manhood for which the flag stands, as understood by the founders of the American government.’

AHA! Here we go! The usurpation of ‘American ideals’ and God help me, the ‘founders of the American government.’ Written clearly by people who don’t understand a bloody thing about the founding of America. I’m waiting for someone in Trump’s campaign to find and plagiarize this.

But it goes on!

“In the last twenty years we have been taking in more immigration than this country can assimilate. We have, according to the last census figures, 94,820,915 white inhabitants. Of these, only 58,421,987 are of native born parentage. There are nearly 15,000,000 of foreign born parents, 6,991,665 had one parent born abroad, while 13,712,754 were foreign born.

“He pointed out that laws passed to restrict immigration were evaded by reason of the fact that the nations restricted did not include Mexico and Canada. ‘Something like 750,000 foreign immigrants have found their way into the United States by the Canadian or Mexican route, being “bootlegged” into the country by law evaders for profit,’ Harris charged.”

See? Not much has changed. ‘Coyotes’ still charge outrageous fees to bring people across the border. Sometimes, those people are left to die in the deserts. But back to the program:

“‘Of these hordes who come, speaking a foreign language, many of them are so ignorant that they would never be able to learn the English tongue. The east is overflowing with foreigners. Eighty percent of the population of New York is made up of foreigners. To get into America, in fact, it would be necessary to come west of the Allegheny Mountains.'”

Harris claimed that in 1924, the Klan had membership of 5 million. That number might seem high, but it certainly was over 3 million members by 1923, so 5 million might not be too far off the mark. Today, we might think that these people were whites against blacks, but that’s actually not entirely true. As you can tell from this lecture, the Klan of the 20s was against everyone who wasn’t Just Like Them. Catholics, Jews, divorced people, men who were unemployed, Eastern Europeans (Commies, you know!) – and, of course, bootleggers. Sure, they lynched blacks as well, particularly in the South, and burned black churches and homes – but the major push of the Klan was pretty simple:  enforce Prohibition, keep ‘undesirables’ out of America, and keep America as white and Protestant as possible.

What scares me the most is not that we still have this crap going on – of course the Klan still exists, and so do neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups, each one as hateful and ignorant as the next – but that we have a presidential candidate that is spouting the same godforsaken nonsense.

Now Trump is encouraging his followers to go to the polling places on Election Day and ensure that there is no voter fraud. Hmm. The Klan did this, too, in the 1860s and 70s, and again from the 1920s – 60s. To ensure there was no ‘voter fraud.’ Dressed in their hoods and robes, grabbed their shotguns, and stood in front of polling booths. Imagine you’re a black man in the 1920s coming to vote for the first time, and that’s the first sight you see when you get there. Of course you’re going to turn around and go back home.

Because if you don’t, you’ll get a cross burning on your front yard – or worse.

What strikes me as I watch Trump and listen to his ignorant, fictional rhetoric is how very, very close he comes to being Z.A. Harris. How very, very close he comes to being the spokesperson for hate. You can tell from the original speech that Harris 100% believed every word he said. Though the Klan of the 1920s attracted all kinds of people for all reasons, one thing remained the same:  the purpose of the organization. Which, of course, boils down to just one thing:

Hatred.

The same hatred Trump shouts in every single speech.

The same hatred his followers seem to embrace.

Just like people did in 1924.

 

 

 

Now fifty, now sixty, now . . . My Adventures at an Auction

Yesterday, I went to an auction.

Ever been to an auction? Most people in my neck of the woods have – heck, most people make a hobby of it – but I know there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t. So here’s what happens:  auctioneers, who spend a long time in school learning this craft, sell items to the highest bidder. It goes fast, you may get lost, you may think you’ve won something that you didn’t, and you may end up spending WAY more than you thought on something you only kind of wanted. Or they may sell items “times the money,” which means they’ve got 2 or more of an item, and you’re bidding on the price of JUST ONE . If you want more than one, you pay double the price. They may also do “choice,” which means they’ll line up several sort-of-similar items and you bid on first choice.

In truth, I hadn’t intended to go – but then I looked at the auction site on Friday night, and realized that I had no choice. Because some very rare newspapers – several months’ worth of the Winfield Free Press – were being sold, and I needed them for my research into my YA novel, and they’re not available anywhere else. It felt sort of – ordained. I’d been looking for these papers for a long time, and suddenly, here they were, at this random auction!

I HAD to go. And those papers HAD to come home with me.

Some people go to auctions like that – there’s one or two items they want, and they’re bound and determined to leave with them. Others go because it’s a social activity. Meet old friends, meet new friends. See what’s there. It’s like going to the park, or the coffee shop. They may buy a few things; they may buy a ton of things. My dad went to an auction once where he was practically the only person bidding on anything. He came home with an entire stock trailer full of boxes. I still don’t know what was in all of them.

Some tips for attending an auction:

  • Be prepared to freeze to death. Dress appropriately.
  • Bring cash for the lunch counter.
  • Bring a book or something. I arrived at 9:30am. Know what time the newspapers sold? 5pm. In between there was furniture, pottery (SO . . . MUCH . . . POTTERY . . .), and tons of STUFF.
  • Look through the boxes. You never know what you’re going to find. For example, I brought home a box of World War II letters. But in that box, I found some really great things, including a ration book from WW II and passes to the White House from the Nixon administration! 🙂
  • Set a max price in advance – and don’t go over it. That’s the biggest thing. What are you willing to pay for something? Will you die if you don’t take it home?
  • Prepare to fight to the death! In some cases, you’ll have to fight to be seen and heard, fight to have your bid taken, fight for a spot at the front of the crowd, and fight for what you want. One lady stood on a chair in the back while she was bidding. Like me, she’d come for one thing and one thing only. She bought it. She went home at 10:30am. Lucky.
  • YES, auctioneers really do talk that fast. It’s a learned skill. Pay attention. Sometimes, if they realize you didn’t mean to bid on that particular item, they’ll start over, but you won’t make any friends doing that. And sometimes, they’ll make you buy it anyway.
  • And never, ever bid against someone who just holds their number up in the air and doesn’t ever take it down. They came for that item. Get out of their way. 🙂

So. Yes. I came home with my newspapers. Seven books in total, each spanning two months in the early 1920s. The Winfield Free Press was the KKK-friendly newspaper in my area in the 1920s, and if you want to know what they were up to, you have to have that paper. And since my YA protagonist, Nicky, is up against them, I need to know what they were doing!

The thing was, a lot of other people wanted those papers, too.

They tried to start the bidding at $100 – and then they dropped it to $50 and I started. For a while there were about five of us bidding; then, when we got to about $150, we lost a couple, and when the bidding hit $200, it was just me and another guy. He ran me up to $270, and stopped (after I gave him The Glare – you know, ladies, the one that says yeah, why don’t you just keep on with what you’re doing and see what happens, buddy!) and then . . .

They kept asking for bids!

It was five minutes – FIVE FREAKING MINUTES – before they finally let me have them. Five looooong minutes of them asking the crowd, going back to each of the original bidders – and me giving them all The Glare – before they finally dropped the gavel.

Sheesh!

All I can say is, they’d better be worth it.

As for what I’m going to do with them – well, once I finish with my research, I’m donating them to the local historical society, where they can be digitized and accessed by other historians. I think it’s important that all of these primary sources be available, in some way, to everyone. And because these are so rare, and so fragile, it’s important that they be conserved and stored properly, too.

And now – I’m off to start reading. 🙂

I’m Thankful For . . . (Writer’s Edition)

Right. I know it’s hokey and trite, but everyone else is doing “what I’m thankful for” things this week, so . . . here goes.

1.) Beta Readers. If you have good beta readers, you know there’s nothing better. They’re supportive, they’re honest, they make great comments, and usually, they’re right.

2.) My Characters. Let’s face it:  there’s no way to have a story without a character. Heck, I wrote a short story once about a Kleenex, of all things, but by gum, that Kleenex was a character! 🙂 But I mean the characters that choose us. The ones that appear out of nowhere, stories and conflicts tucked away in their suitcases, and make themselves at home. The ones you can’t shake, and don’t know what you’d do without.

3.) My Laptop. This is, by far, the hokiest of the hokey, but . . . I love my laptop. It’s a Dell Inspiron, 15″ screen, pink, with a black piano lacquer keyboard. It’s been my companion for seven years. It still runs Office 2003 . . . and I like it that way!

4.) The National Archives. For finally coming through with the HUGE case file I needed for my nonfiction book research! I just got the email today, three months after I first contacted them. It’s 2,500 pages, give or take, and they are keeping it for me at the site closest to me until I can go view it in person, in two weeks. Maybe sooner. 🙂

5.) On that note . . . Local History. Like a lot of small-town papers, mine, the Arkansas City Traveler, isn’t that great. But they do run this little “100 Years Ago Today” feature, which is where I found the case that hopefully will become my first nonfiction book. Those little nuggets of history were gifts, and I’ll never, ever forget that. It’s also the paper that keeps me laughing over things such as a local sheriff – and the D.A. – being arrested for possession of liquor and public drunkenness during Prohibition. Things that someday, will make Nicky’s story come alive.

6.) My Local Coffeehouse. Without which I would have to travel 1 hour to find the nearest Starbucks’. Not to mention free Wi-Fi, the greatest coffeehouse owner you could ask for, and some great conversations. It’s a great place to sit and write without interruption. You bury your head in your laptop and type away madly, and people do tend to leave you alone. 🙂

7.) Bits of Inspiration. Or, as I also have referred to them, “history’s orphans.” I can look at an object and think about its past, and sometimes even find a way to incorporate that into a story I’m writing. But the items have to find me first. And if they’re meant to, they do.

8.) Purple Pens. I used to edit in red, but I’ve moved to purple now. It’s a bit friendlier. Oddly, I even find myself writing fewer nasty comments to myself, and more comments that are constructive and funny. If you don’t have a purple pen, get one. You’ll love it. I promise. 🙂

There are other things I’m thankful for, but . . . when it comes to writing, these are definitely my Top Eight.

History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

I’m a historian. I teach history for three local colleges, and while I started out as a medievalist, and still love that, I’ve gotten much more into American history since I started teaching eight years ago. There’s something about it – we learn one thing in elementary school, mostly propaganda (at least, that’s how it was when I was in elementary school!), and then you don’t learn anything else unless you really start to get into it and study it more.

All the little stories. All the hidden history. All the things you never knew, or took for granted. (For example: did you know that the KKK of the 1920s was far more likely to attack Catholics or bootleggers, than African-Americans? It’s true!)

I also collect historical items – vintage items, to be more precise. Some, I sell through my store on Etsy. But sometimes, I find those things that I can’t quite let go. That 1930s passport. Research for a book. A wood cheese box that I store Post-It notes in. More than a hundred snapshots and World War II letters, left behind. To some, they’d be things to throw away. To me, they’re orphans. Not perfect; sometimes I can’t even put them in my shop because they don’t meet my own standards. But I keep them nonetheless, because I think everything has a story behind it. My shop’s motto is “Finding homes for history.” Sometimes, that home is with me.

For example: I collect vintage dresses. This week, I found a 1920s silk flapper dress at an estate sale. It’s fragile, but beautiful; a golden yellow with purple edging. Flowers dancing down the skirt. This is my third flapper dress. I showed it to a friend, and then I told her about one of my other dresses. One that I know has a story behind it.

I found it in a trash bin at an antiques shop – it was wadded up in a box of stuff to be thrown away. It’s gorgeous: white silk, sleeveless, with a blue and red striped skirt with heavy glass beads, in red and blue, all down it. So heavy, in fact, that the dress can’t be on a hanger; it has to lay flat. But all that would just be interesting if not for the fact that the dress is also covered in blood stains. I definitely understand why the shop decided to toss it – but I couldn’t let that happen. What tragedy did this dress see? What happened on a summer night in the 1920s? Why were the stains never washed out?

So many stories. So much imagination. I’ve no idea. Yes, I know I’m strange; a normal person would not bring that dress home. But I’m not normal. I’m a historian. And more – I’m a writer. This orphaned dress needed a home. I am slowly working on cleaning it, but the fact is, I’m not sure I want to. Every time I touch it, my mind wonders what the girl who wore it was like. What happened to her – or more likely, to the person she held, as there are no holes in the dress itself. Clearly, it was never taken as evidence. Was it an illicit relationship gone wrong? Where did the tragedy take place? And why?

These are the questions that haunt me sometimes, when I pick up objects, as I decide whether or not to bring them home. Photographs do this to me the most – so many times, the photos I collect have no names attached to them. They are strangers to me, but their stories are still there, somehow, in the paper and ink. But then there are those “orphan” items, like the christening gown I picked up at an auction a month or so ago, clearly tossed in a box and forgotten for generations. I intended to put it in the shop, but . . . I spent so much time cleaning it, I fell in love. 🙂

And that’s why I haunt estate sales and rummage sales. It’s true that sometimes, one man’s trash is just another man’s trash. But it’s also true that sometimes, there’s an item that doesn’t belong in the trash. That deserves better. Those are the items – those orphans – that come home with me.

Going . . . and now Gone

History is lost — and found — all the time. Just a few years ago, a Benjamin Franklin letter was discovered, filed in the wrong place, at the British Museum. People find things at rummage sales and thrift shops. Diaries, letters, paintings. vine and window 3

But it’s just as easily lost. And this week, I lost a piece of history that has a lot of meaning to me.

door looking out 1As far as I can tell, this set of buildings once belonged to a stone company that tried to have a quarry where there just wasn’t a place to have one. They were then allowed to fall into ruin — along with the old Plymouth — and they quickly became one of my favorite places to run away to, and photograph. So quiet and peaceful.

When I started writing my young adult novel last fall, I knew that Nicky’s partner in crime needed an out-of-the-way place for his moonshine operation. This set of buildings came immediately to mind. And so whatever else they were in real life, to me, they became Simon’s home and still. A small place, but his. Hidden away. Peaceful. And maybe more importantly for a black man in the 1920s, his. And so this place became inextricably intertwined with my novel, and with Nicky’s story. old house snow 2

I haven’t been able to get out and run as much as normal lately, but when I did get out this week, I saw that I could no longer see the buildings. Or the car. I think they are now gone. I knew it would happen, but . . . something in me died that morning, standing with one foot balanced on the barbed-wire fence, trying to see over the grass and down the hill to the spot where the walls should be visible. Knowing that now, the only place they exist is in my memory and in these photos.

window in snowAnother piece of history lost. Forever.old house snow 4