Saturday, July 18, 2009

Delights of Research

I write a historical mystery series set in Oklahoma in the 1910s.  The first book of the series was set in 1912, and each subsequent book moves forward a year or so in time.  I’m on the fifth book now, which you will realize in a flash means it takes place in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. I find myself doing quite a bit of research about what was going on in Oklahoma at that time, which isn’t that easy when I no longer live there.  Local historical research is easy enough if you still live in the locale, and have easy access to library newspaper archives, historical societies, and museums.  

I’m able to find out a lot on the internet, but it’s surprising how difficult it sometimes is to find simple facts that would be readily available if I was on the scene.  So, I often end up on the phone, explaining what I need to a librarian or historian in whatever area of Oklahoma I am interested in.

The very best fun thing about doing research, if I may coin a phrase,is that even if you’re looking for the most mundane piece of information, you often discover amazing stories and connections that you could not possibly have made up on your own.  

Before I continue, you should know two facts, Dear Reader.  First, the Tucker family of my series is partially based on a branch of my own family by the name of Morgan, of whom there are gazillions in Muskogee County, OK.  My great-grandmother was named Alafair Morgan.  Second, for the past 25 years, I have lived in Tempe, AZ.

Here’s the tale.  I wanted to know the name of the sheriff of Muskogee County in 1917, but was unable to find the that seemingly easy piece of information online.  So I called the library in the city of Muskogee, and asked the local history librarian to look it up for me and e-mail the answer to me.  Later that afternoon, she sent me a wonderful campaign photograph of Sheriff J.S. Barger.  

Now that I knew his name, I was able to find his obituary online.  From this I discovered that it is indeed a small world, and time does not dim our connections to one another.

For after John Barger lost his reelection bid in 1918, he became a county “Speed Officer”, whose job was to curb the then-growing automobile menace, and was given a county patrol car to cruise country roads and highways.  In 1924, the county’s “speed patrol” car was stolen from the garage by the Lawrence brothers, “Babe” and Bill, young Muskogee desperadoes who were wanted for auto theft in several towns around OK.  After several unsuccessful attempts to catch them in OK, the sheriff was notified that the pair had been caught at El Paso, and he sent Deputy Barger and his partner, one Joe Morgan, who happens to have been a cousin of my grandmother’s, to pick them up and bring them back to Muskogee.  After taking charge of the prisoners, Barger and Cousin Joe started back with them in the county car.  Barger was driving and Morgan was in the rear seat with the Lawrence boys.

Barger heard a shot, looked around and found himself peering down the barrel of a gun in Babe Lawrence’s hand.  Cousin Joe was on the floor, shot through the head with his own pistol. The car, going at a rate of at least 20 miles an hour, crashed into a fence, righted itself and mowed down fence posts for 40 yards before stopping. The boys forced Barger to walk off the road into the woods and handcuffed him to a tree, before escaping again in the county car. Barger shouted until he attracted the attention of a ranch hand, who refused the help him.  He was handcuffed to the tree for 3 hours, until officers arrived and rescued him.  He then went back to Ft. Worth, where he organized a posse and went after the Lawrence boys.

They were later apprehended in Tempe, AZ.  Bill was later hanged in Arizona, and Babe served a life term in Texas.  Barger died in 1938 at the age of 77.

How could I make up anything better than that? 


Vicki Delany said...

Nice story.

Charles benoit said...

It's a ready-made plot - and when people hear stories like that they say 'there you go, write it up - it'll be a best seller'. As if it was that easy. Hey, this goes back to our plot/character discussion.

But still, cool story.

Donis Casey said...

I think I can cannibalize the elements of this incident and use them in several scenes in two or three different books. It surely is lucky for me that I have so many UNlucky and/or contentious/disreputable/sharp-shootin' forebears who were in the right/wrong place and the right/wrong time to get into such interesting scrapes.