From the Author’s POV: “Killing Albert Berch”

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. 

berchThis 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

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/killing-albert-berch-alan-berch-hollingsworth/1125579111#/

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“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

Osage_murders_9

Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon