Category Archives: Go read this book now!

How a pair of Topekans became Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Despite spending the better part of the past decade with my ear to the ground, listening for stories about Kansas’ most interesting crimes and criminals,  Ben and Stella Dickson–two bank robbers who would eventually make the FBI’s Public Enemies list–never blipped on my radar.

At least, not until this year, when I spotted Matthew Cecil’s The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2 listed among the University Press of Kansas’ new releases.

Author Matthew Cecil’s fascination with the Dicksons stems from his childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, the location of one of Ben and Stella’s bank robberies. Cecil spends years tracing the Dicksons’ movements, from the bad luck and bad decisions that set them on their destructive path to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive need to take them down by any (legal or not so legal) means.

Benjamin Johnson Dickson was born in Topeka in 1911. His father taught chemistry at Topeka High School, and his household was, by all accounts, a warm and happy place where reading and education were highly valued. Ben was a Boy Scout who was commended for saving a woman from drowning in a local pond. He was both studious and a good athlete, and he became known for his skills as a featherweight boxer.

In 1926, when Ben was 15, he and some friends were arrested for joyriding in a neighbor’s car without permission, and Ben was sentenced to serve time in the Kansas Industrial Reformatory. This–and his skills as a boxer–put him on the radar of the Topeka police, and he became one of their favorite suspects for every crime. After a cab driver accused Ben of knocking him unconscious and stealing money and the cab (a crime he likely didn’t do), Ben’s life became a series of thefts, aliases, and stints in prison, including time in “The Walls,” the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eleven years his junior, Stella Mae Irvin also hailed from Topeka. She was a typical teen until she was 15 years old, when she accepted a ride from a stranger and was violently raped and infected with gonorrhea. Treatment at that time was brutal and dehumanizing, and when Stella refused continuing treatment, she was referred to the Shawnee County Juvenile Court system.

By 1938, neither Ben nor Stella was in a good place. They met in Topeka (Stella was introduced to Ben as Johnny O’Malley), and eventually Stella would run away from home, meeting up with Ben in California. Ben and Stella married. In a matter of months, they would rob two banks (patiently waiting for the time-lock safes to open while determining whether customers inside could afford to give up a little cash), kidnap people (who were later compensated financially for their troubles), and steal (and wreck) several vehicles along the way. By April 1939, Ben was dead and Stella was left to answer for their crimes.

Cecil also documents the consequences of overzealous law enforcement. The descriptions of the Topeka Police’s gun “battle” with Ben at a motor camp–a gun battle that involved shooting in only one direction–are chilling, especially when, at that time, the Topeka police only wanted Ben for punching a guy in the face and stealing a car. Worse, though, is the FBI and Hoover’s almost desperate need to keep the bureau relevant in the public eye–even if it meant greatly exaggerating the threat the Dicksons posed to the public and inventing their own gun “battle” with Ben, which resulted in the bank robber being shot in the back, no weapon drawn, in St. Louis.

It’s hard to know what would have happened to Ben and Stella Dickson had Ben not been gunned down in front of a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939. Maybe they would have gone the way of Bonnie and Clyde and taken a violent turn. Or maybe, as the books and college pamphlets in their abandoned cars would suggest, they would have reinvented themselves and faded into obscurity. The question The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae really asks, though, is who Ben Dickson and Stella Irvin might have become had fate dealt them a better hand early on.

Go read this book now: Home, Home Plate on the Range by Tony Hall

Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony HallDespite not being a die-hard baseball fan, I am completely in love with what has to be the ultimate historical encyclopedia of baseball in Kansas: Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony Hall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book deserves to be on the shelves of every Kansas library and in the home of every Kansas baseball fan.

Like many kids, Tony Hall collected baseball cards as a child. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that Hall–a writer with a passion for sports–and his son took to collecting cards at yard sales, rummage sales, and estate sales. Their interests began to focus on players who were born in Kansas or played in Kansas.

That’s when Hall’s passion for Kansas baseball history took off. Decades later, it turned into an amazing 600-page book that traces baseball to its origins in Kansas, follows it to the tiny towns with their own home teams, and on to the players who would play in the majors.

Remember the first time you opened a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and how you found your self just flipping through it, fascinated and amazed by the information you never knew you wanted to know? That’s what Home, Home Plate on the Range is like.

This carefully organized book is easy to read cover to cover, but it’s also fun to just open up for the sake of discovering some amazing little factoid. For example:

In 1925, the all-black Wichita Monrovians team played the all-white Ku Klux Klan club. To discourage favoritism, the game was officiated by two white Catholics.

Topekan Gil Carter hit was might be the longest home run in history. The ball sailed over a 60-foot light poll at the 330-foot mark and kept going. It was found the next day under a peach tree two blocks away. Some estimates suggest it was a 733-foot hit.

Four Kansas women played on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the movie A League of Their Own.

There are chapters on Kansans who played in the Negro League, lists of the long-forgotten minor leagues that used to exist in Kansas, biographies of Major League baseball players born in Kansas, and information on umpires, sports journalists, and MLB administrators from the Sunflower State.

Because this book often examines the biographies of players and the times during which they played, it’s a unique historical perspective of the state of Kansas. And that’s why it is perfect for the sports fan and the history buff. If you’re from Kansas, chances are good you’ll find your town–no matter how small–somewhere in the pages of this book.

So if you’re feeling a little sad that the baseball season has drawn to a close, pick up a copy of Home, Home Plate on the Range. The book itself and the field trips recommended in Chapter 17 should tide you over until spring training.

This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through your favorite independent book store.


Disclaimer: I first saw this book in manuscript form several years ago and fell in love with it. I was overjoyed to receive a copy of the finished book from the author a couple of weeks ago.

Go read this book now: Waiting on the Sky by Cheryl Unruh

Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People EssaysI try, really try, to articulate the soulful bond I feel with the Kansas earth and Kansas sky, but I doubt I will ever do it as skillfully as author Cheryl Unruh, a native Kansan whose second book, Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People Essays, just hit the Kansas bookstore shelves earlier this month.

Unruh wrote a column for the Emporia Gazette for more than a decade, and I rarely missed it. Even though her book is a compilation of those columns, she’s edited and arranged them in a way that makes them fresh and meaningful and provides a window into her own heart as well as the heart of every Kansan who knows what it means to pull over on a country road and look west because a sunset is too beautiful to ignore.

Waiting on the Sky is a biography, and Unruh guides us through her life and her relationship to the world around through carefully selected essays on community, death, childhood, and the act of being. Her pieces on lost family members, especially her father, are reverent, and I was particularly moved by her descriptions of the everyday moments with her father–maintaining the local cemetery, working in his woodworking shop.

Waiting on the Sky is also the story of the bond between Kansans and the earth and the sky, and why, once we have that connection, we’re loathe to want to live anywhere else because Kansas is part of who we are. Or, as Unruh writes, “The skies over Kansas have absorbed our stories, our conversations…Our existence here has been noted. This geography holds our biography.”

If you’ve ever felt a little weepy at the magnificence of the Kansas prairie, if you’ve ever felt your worries blow away while watching the the wind push the clouds across the sky, if you’ve ever found your inner peace driving down a gravel road without another soul passing you by–you’ll find your kindred spirit in Cheryl Unruh and Waiting on the Sky.

My Favorite Books About the Weather

Right at this very moment, it’s pretty darned cold here in Kansas, and the temperatures are just beginning to drop. We have about 3 inches of snow on the ground in Ottawa (though the drifting makes it hard to guess just how much we really got last night) and I was shoveling snow in a -10 degree wind, giving up when the fog on my fogged-up glasses froze. I love my old 1901 house, but I’m really thankful for the double-pane glass replacement windows right now. They’re not as pretty as the original double-hung wood-frame windows probably were, but I suspect even the original owners of our home would prefer the replacement windows to a cold and drafty house.

Cold weather makes me want to curl up on the couch and read, and right now, I’m binging on books about weather. Some of them are about Kansas weather, some of them are about weather on the plains, some of them are about weather on the coasts. All of them are about what happens when humans don’t understand that the earth’s weather patterns are so much bigger than we are and try to defy it. And thanks to the miracle of eReaders, online shopping, and online library services, I don’t even have to go out into the weather to read about it.

Here are some of my favorite weather books. I’d love to hear your recommendations, too!

COLD

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard by David LaskinIn 1888, a powerful cold front blew across the Dakota-Nebraska Prairie, turning a comfortable winter day into a raging blizzard as children began their walks home from their rural one-room school houses. By the next morning, more than 100 children were found dead on the prairie. Laskin does an incredible job of weaving together the stories of nature, the fledgling U.S. weather service, and the lives of immigrants who didn’t understand their the weather patterns of their chosen homeland. You’ll become very attached to these children as he tells their story, and you won’t know who survived and who didn’t until the end of the book.

Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy

Blizzard! by Jim MurphyA few months after the Children’s Blizzard, a catastrophic blizzard hit New York. What makes this book fascinating is that it’s an account not only of the devastating storm, but also the resulting overhaul in municipal policy, such as the development of city-wide snow removal and the burying of power lines. This book was written for a YA audience, but it is a great read for adults, too.

WET

The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns

Great Hurricane: 1938Burns gives an hour-by-hour account of a powerful hurricane that took New England completely by surprise. She also paints a picture of the people on the coast that day–the wealthy in their mansions and the poor who worked in and alongside the ocean. It’s an interesting account of a bygone era as well as a cautionary tale of how vulnerable any of us–regardless of wealth or power–are when it comes to the weather.

Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Johnstown Flood by David McCulloughWe’ve all heard about the 1889 flood that wiped out Johnstown, Pennsylvania. What most of us don’t realize is how a handful of industrialists–Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flick, and Andrew Mellon–were part of the reason why it was so devastating. More than 2,000 lives were lost when heavy rains caused the dam at their improperly maintained private lake to burst, sending a wall of water into Johnstown. This book is also an account of the newly formed American Red Cross, which was called into action to help the survivors.

WINDY

And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado by Bonar Menninger

And Hell Followed With It by Bonar MenningerI’ve recommended this one before, and I’ll recommend it again. This is an well-written account of the 1966 tornado that destroyed much of Topeka, Kansas, as well as the efforts of various citizens who worked to keep the public informed of its path. It’s chilling to think about how many lives would have been lost had the radio and weather people not worked on a homegrown warning system.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy EganMuch like Laskin’s Children’s Blizzard, Egan’s book really demonstrates the peril of not understanding your environment. The Worst Hard Time is a powerful account of the people who moved to areas like Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, and Western Oklahoma, and how their farming and ranching practices, combined with natural weather patterns, created the Dust Bowl. It’s an important read for anyone who wants to understand just how quickly we can alter the landscape. Also, I found my lungs seizing up just reading about all of that dust in the air.

METEOROLOGISTS

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith

Warnings by Mike SmithAnd here’s the book I’m reading now: a history of storm prediction and the development of a storm warning system, as told by meteorologist Mike Smith, who himself witnessed the Ruskin Heights Tornado. This book does not make me feel fond of the earlier leadership at the National Weather Service, who actively discouraged tornado research and the issuing of tornado warnings, but it does make me want to cheer for the meteorologists who pursued it both for science and the common good. Also, I never realized how scary flying in a plane would have been before meteorologists discovered downdrafts. Eeek.

Happy reading!

BREAKING NEWS! Shadow on the Hill is hitting the shelves!

Imagine my joy (and surprise!) to discover that Town Crier Bookstore, my favorite hometown independent bookstore, has my book ON THE FRONT COUNTER! If you’re in Emporia, you can buy a copy right now and experience INSTANT GRATIFICATION!

Places I’ve found the paperback so far:

Town Crier Bookstore

Amazon

As for me…this is the best picture I could find to express my feelings on the matter.

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Dying to read about Kansas murders?

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is weeks away from being available to read. In the meanwhile, here are some famous (and not so famous) Kansas murders worth reading about.

The Bloody Benders – Labette County, Kansas – 1870-1873

Saga of the Bloody BendersThe Benders appeared to be an average family of homesteaders who ran a store and restaurant in Labette County, just a few miles away from where the town of Cherryvale would be platted. While many families would purchase goods and pass through without any trouble, the lone traveler might not be so lucky. The Benders killed at least nine people, including two young children, stole their belongings and then buried them in the garden. It was not until nearby counties began to wonder about the number of people gone missing that they made the connection to the Benders, who escaped and were never apprehended. Books about the Bloody Benders include Robert Adleman’s The Bloody Benders, and Rick Geary’s graphic novel, The Saga of the Bloody Benders. The basic story can be found at the Murder by Gaslight blog and at Legends of America. There is also a movie in the making.

The Walkup Murder – Emporia, Kansas – 1885

AdventuressWhile in New Orleans for the World’s Fair in December 1884, James Reeves Walkup fell for a 16-year-old girl named Minnie Wallace. Just a few months later, he would die of arsenic poisoning. The courtroom was packed for Minnie Walkup’s trial, but the all-male jury just couldn’t bear the idea of sending a teenaged girl to the gallows. Minnie moved on to at least two other wealthy husbands, both of whom died very shortly after marrying. Virginia McConnell documented Minnie Wallace’s life in The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. You can read the basics in The Vamp of New Orleans.

Ax Murders – Ellsworth, Kansas – 1911, Paola, Kansas – 1912

Rollin and Anna Hudson of Paola.

Murder victims Anna and Rollin Hudson of Paola.

A series of ax murders happened in the Midwest during the 1910s, and two of the families hit were in Kansas. Other attacks happened in Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, and it is believed that the famous murders in Villisca, Iowa, may also be connected. Although Lee Moore was convicted of the murders in Missouri, the other cases remain unsolved. The Ax Murderer Who Got Away is available online through the Smithsonian Magazine web site. Actual articles from the time period are available through the Miami County Historical Museum, Millers Paranormal Research, and the Villisca Ax Murder House website.

The Clutter Family – Holcomb, Kansas – 1959

In Cold BloodHands down, this the most famous Kansas murder story of the Twentieth Century. Hearing rumors of a safe full of money, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith carefully planned an attack on the Clutter family. Unbeknownst to them, there was no safe full of money, and they brutally murdered a respected small-town family for about $50. The story of the murder, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith was captured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a piece of literature that would shape the way we write about murder and think about Kansas. It was also made into a movie that was shot in Kansas. In recent years, movies about the writing of the book have come out. I recommend watching Capote, which really delves into the psychological impact the book had on its author and the people he portrayed.

The New Orleans Sniper – New Orleans, Louisiana – 1972 and 1973

Terrible ThunderAlthough the events took place in Louisiana, the man involved–Mark Essex–was from Emporia. After dropping out of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), he joined the Navy and went AWOL. He then became involved with Black radicals in California and would later join the New York Black Panthers. On December 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973, he would became involved in a spree killing that would kill nine people and injure thirteen others. Essex was fatally wounded by police officers shooting from a helicopter. Peter Hernon wrote about Mark Essex in A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

David Harmon Murder – Olathe, Kansas – 1982

Cold Blooded BusinessIn 1982, David Harmon was bludgeoned to death while sleeping. Although his wife Melinda and friend Mark were immediately suspected, justice did not find them until two decades later. Marek Fuchs wrote the book A Cold-Blooded Business: Adultery, Murder, and a Killer’s Path from the Bible Belt to the Boardroom  in 2009.

The Bird Murders – Emporia, Kansas – 1983

Murder OrdainedAsking someone what they were doing in Emporia when they heard about the deaths of Sandy Bird or Marty Anderson is kind of like asking other people where they were during the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Murders aren’t unheard of in Emporia, but the deaths of Sandy Bird and Marty Anderson shook and divided the town, and to this day, people still feel very strongly about whether Rev. Tom Bird and his secretary, Lorna Anderson, were both involved in the deaths of their respective spouses.  This particular case caught the attention of newspapers and news stations all over the country. While there is no definitive book on the subject, you can find many articles about the subject online. The story was also made into a movie called Murder Ordained, starring John Goodman, Kathy Bates, and Keith Carradine. A few examples of articles include this one in the L. A. Times, 20 years later. If you’re in Emporia, visit the public library and ask about the binders of newspaper clippings from around the country.

BTK Murders – Wichita, Kansas – 1974-1991

Nightmare in WichitaMany books have already been written about Dennis Rader, the BTK strangler who terrorized Wichita for nearly two decades. An average family man who installed security systems for a living, Rader was a Cub Scout leader and church goer. He was also responsible for the torture and deaths of at least ten people. Books include Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie; Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer by John Douglas and Johnny Dodd; and Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, and L. Kelly. Read the basic story online at the Crime Library.

Deborah Green and the Farrar Family Murders – Prairie Village, Kansas – 1995

Bitter HarvestDeborah Green was a smart physician whose personal life was out of control. After her husband, Mark Farrar, filed for divorce, she made numerous attempts to poison him to death and finally resorted to setting her own home on fire, killing two of her three children. She would eventually plead no contest to two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. The famous true crime writer Ann Rule told the story in Bitter Harvest: A Woman’s Fury, a Mother’s Sacrifice. Read the basic story online here.

Bobbi Jo Stinnett Murder – Skidmore, Missouri – 2004

Murder in the HeartlandMelvern, Kansas woman Lisa Montgomery desperately wanted a baby of her own. When she met pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett online through a forum for dog breeders, she concocted a plan to drive to Skidmore, Missouri, kill Bobbi Jo Stinnett, and steal her unborn child. This tragic story changed the way law enforcement handles Amber Alerts and made many a little more cautious about how they interact with others online. M. William Phelps chronicled the story in the book Murder in the Heartland. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

The Kansas Center for the Book honors Doc

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

 

A year ago, I listened to the audiobook version of Mary Doria Russell’s book Doc, a very human perspective of the legendary Doc Holliday. I fell in love with the book and never miss an opportunity to recommend it for its storytelling, beautiful language, and fascinating perspective of post-Civil War Kansas.

The Kansas Center for the Book just named Doc a 2012 Kansas Notable Book, which means that Doc isn’t just a great book, it’s worthy of being included in the canon of Kansas literature.

Buy it, borrow it, download it, read it, listen to it. Doc will change the way you understand history and humanity.