Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Perils of "What Happened Here" Journalism

From December 2001 until late 2003, I edited a column called “The Way We Were” in the Elkhart Truth. It involved going through issues of the paper from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago, finding interesting stories, and condensing them into a few sentences. Most of the stories were local, though I did include major national and international stories, such as Lindbergh’s flight in 1927 and Stalin’s death in 1953. I tried to include sports and society news along with hard news. And I avoided stories that might embarrass people still living. For me, that meant being careful about the 25 and 50 years ago entries. What happened 75 or 100 years ago, I figured, wouldn’t upset anyone. I found out I was wrong.

Right before Christmas, 2002, I received two letters about my column. The first, from Charlene Potterbaum, was a sweet note from a gracious woman, in response to this December 11 item:

“In 1977: Charlene Potterbaum has the ability to laugh at herself, and she knows how to share the laughter with others. Her new book, ‘Thanks, Lord, I needed That!’ has hit both the humor and religious sections of the bookstores, a rare feat for any work. The Walden Book Store refers to her as ‘the religious Erma Bombeck.’”

But the other letter was scathing: “Dr. G. [I’ll omit the name] made a mistake when he was young but paid his dues. My brother called me about the article and thought it was in poor taste. He [Dr. G.] was my father-in-law and my son’s grandfather. The older generation all know about it and the younger couldn’t care less, In the name of God, let him rest in peace.”

Here’s the December 19, 2002 entry she was referring to:

“In 1902: Dr. H. G. was brought into court at Goshen this morning to be arraigned on the charge of shooting Miss L. B. with intent to commit murder. He pleaded not guilty when the indictment had been read to him. His bond was fixed at $1,500.”

It was a pretty sordid affair. Dr. G., who had been rejected by Miss B., shot her twice with a revolver. Luckily for both the doctor and his victim, L. B. survived. Dr. G. was convicted in January, 1903, and received a sentence of two to fourteen years in the state reformatory. In a bizarre postscript to the affair, Miss B. said Dr. G.’s sentence was too harsh and pleaded for an early reprieve.

Obviously Dr. G. not only got out of prison, but married, had a son, and stayed in Elkhart. I didn’t print any more stories about the case. But it never ceased to amaze me that a 100-year old story was the only one that got a negative comment. Especially considering the 1927 entry on that same day:

“In 1927: BENTON HARBOR, Mich., (AP)--Benjamin Purnell, ’king’ of the House of David, is dead. He died at 11:30 last Friday morning, and today, the third day after his death, the body still lay in the bed where he died. Colony officials, believing in the teachings of Purnell that the faithful could not die, have refrained from summoning an undertaker…”

Sometime I’d like to do more research about the House of David colony. It was a multiracial, even international cult based in Benton Harbor. Purnell really did die, and his followers finally buried him. (The 1929 date of death in the Wikipedia link conflicts with the AP story.) And the colony is still around. People from the House of David used to solicit donations in front of my local Kroger store in Elkhart. But my December 19, 1927 entry, along with earlier entries about the sex scandal concerning Purnell, provoked no response from the House of David. Go figure.


Patry Francis said...

Wow. Interesting stories--both of them. I see a couple of novels there.

Peter said...

Maybe the House of David is inured to investigative journalism. And perhaps blood is thicker than spirit.

Very interesting read. Thank you.