The Book That Keeps Writing Itself

Although I finished writing Killing Albert Berch in 2016, the book had not finished writing itself. After release by Pelican Publishing (Gretna, LA) in 2017, things began to happen. First of all, the children and grandchildren of characters in the book contacted me with their stories as to how they were connected to this 1923 true crime saga. This, I expected.

But the biggest surprise did not come until the book had been out for 6 months. If you’ve read the book, then you might remember a chapter title, “Where Have You Gone, Robert Johnigan?” This chapter was an account of my attempts to discover more about the African-American porter who was murdered along with my grandfather.

In the manuscript draft that was accepted for publication, I had hit a dead end, though I proposed a Johnigan family as Robert’s relatives, mostly living in Ardmore, OK at the time of the murders. But shortly before the book was finalized for the printer, I made a serendipitous discovery through re-checking Ancestry.com where a “private story” had been generated about Robert Johnigan, a murder victim in Marlow, OK.

Chasing this clue led me – not to the Johnigan family – but to a friend of a Johnigan who had found the old newspaper article about the 1924 trials. He had been asked by the Johnigan family member to keep it quiet, as the descendants, mostly in Minneapolis and Kansas City, did not know about the murder.

Then, I stumbled into their world with my research, prompting the friend to tell the family members that a book was being written about their ancestor. Indeed, I had found the correct Johnigan family and awaited all the details. But then, in my arranged telephone interview with the spokesperson for the Minneapolis branch of Johnigan descendants, she informed me that the family would be opting out of participation.  The story of the murder had come as quite a shock to many family members. The only interesting tidbit that I would learn was this: Even though the descendants hadn’t known about the murder, they had always been told, “Never live in a small town.”

And that’s how I ended my revised chapter in Killing Albert Berch, mere days before the printer’s deadline. I never expected to hear from the Johnigans again.

Then, in May 2018, six months after the book’s release, I received an e-mail stating this: “I am the 2X great-grandson of Robert Johnigan.” Christopher Harris informed me that he had been given my book as a gift, something he now cherished as much as any gift he’d ever received. As the self-described family historian (based in Kansas City), he had an inkling about the murder, but Killing Albert Berch confirmed it, plus all the bizarre details that had been lost to history. Then, he said, in response to my chapter title, “Where Have You Gone, Robert Johnigan?”…We are still here!

Christopher (photo above) is a project manager for a global medical technology company, a family man with wife and two young daughters. His brother is a pastor, and he used his brother’s Facebook account to contact me. Christopher gave me a wealth of new information. For readers of the book who recall Robert’s wife Lizzie whose legal paper trail led 90 years later to the lost trial transcripts, it turns out that Lizzie was Robert’s second wife, and step-mother to the four children. Robert and Lizzie Shaw were married November 13, 1919 in Ardmore, Oklahoma (4 years before the murders). Robert’s first wife and the biologic mother to four children was Willie Boyd, who died of unknown causes. Only one of Robert’s four children (Josephine, age 7 at the time of the murders) had children, but there were many descendants after that.

Christopher then sent me family pictures (siblings and children of Robert) that are now on the book’s web site, although we still don’t have a picture of Robert or Lizzie (Christopher is searching). You can visit this new web page by clicking here: https://www.killingalbertberch.com/photos/the-johnigan-family/

All this occurred just a few weeks before my visit to Marlow, a town event held at the public library (photos above), where citizens were invited to hear me discuss the book. About 100 people gathered, and we talked for 2 hours. It was certainly a highlight of the post-publication signing/speaking schedule. And the new Johnigan information was of great interest. There were many questions that I was able to answer by virtue of information courtesy of 2X great grandson of Robert.

Many of the attendees had strong connections to the story – a Gandy descendant, a friend of Lula’s sister-in-law Aunt Mittie, a daughter of the Johnson Hotel Café owner who later bought another café where Marvin Kincannon drank beer daily after his release from prison, and on and on. My key Marlow resources were there as well – Debbe Ridley, D.B. Green, Janet Loveless, while the 4th resource – 96 year-old Dr. Jack Gregston – passed away shortly after the book’s release. Sheila Gregston, his widow, wrote me a nice thank-you note, letting me know that she had read him the book, finishing shortly before he died and that he had enjoyed it immensely.

It was an eerie feeling discussing the murder of my grandfather, knowing the powerful impact it had on our family, and with the location of the event only a few blocks away from where the murders had occurred. Still overwhelmed by the shock of the Johnigan family coming forward only two weeks earlier, with Christopher noting the book was his best gift ever, I have to admit that the surrealism of the moment choked me up a bit.

One loose end – if the identity of the self-liberated slave girl on page 263 ever comes to light, I will be able to say, “My work is done.” But now that I think about it, it’s already done. It’s just that the book keeps writing itself.

 

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