Working the Murders:
So far, I've collected just over 3,000 newspaper articles on murders up through 1956 in Lorain County, Ohio. Working steadily has, so far, brought me to rough-rough draft write-ups on the crimes up through 1923. It's been a long haul. I've found triple the murders here in Ohio than across the way in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
Why so many more murders?
Because of the lack of court records I was always certain my Pennsylvania list was incomplete. The criminal dockets here are readily available on microfilm. That makes it much easier to find the court cases. In PA, I had to start with the results of the Coroner's Jury in the incomplete set of civil dockets and work my way backwards from there. Here, I go right to the primary source material.
For Crawford County, only the Titusville Herald is online. It's a fine newspaper, but began publication decades after the county was founded. The major newspapers in Meadville, the county seat, have to be searched by hand. Here, in Lorain County, I can type "murder" into a web search engine and instantly pull up all related articles in a number of county papers. Makes it easier to find the crimes.
There are more and more different kinds of people in Lorain County. It's true they started with the typical mix of Germanic-Anglo-Saxon farmers, but the heavy industry of the county's northern cities and ports brought a wild combination of ethnicity and race. This results in increased tensions between different groups and a tendency for insular populations to settle thing like they did "back in the old country." Plus, since 1910, there have been far more people here than in Crawford. More people equals more murders.
Don't I get tired of murders?
I get discouraged seeing the same type of killings over and over. A husband beats his wife. Wife files for divorce. Husband kills his wife. I see this escalation of violence from abuse to murder with enough depressing frequency to know that a man who can hit a woman is a man who can kill a woman.
Any murder of a child is hard to take. From little ones killed through neglect and abuse to tiny bodies found in fields, along railroads, and in rivers and streams. The saddest thing, perhaps, is that most such victims go unnamed and their cases go unsolved.
The senseless killings get to me. Where a person is murdered over who won a dime in a poker game. Really? You shot the guy for a dime? Or because his horse chewed your fence? Or because he looked at you the wrong way?
The prevalence of handguns. I see case after case where a person walks into a store and buys a revolver a few minutes or couple hours before using it to kill. In all of the murders I've researched in Crawford and Lorain Counties (and that's more than 500, total) not once did an "armed citizen" discourage or prevent a crime. And in a fair number of the killings, the victim was also armed. Do those in the U.S. have a right to carry weapons? Yes. Does carrying weapons do any good for the community? I remain unconvinced.
And let's not forget booze. The single thing that ties many of these crimes together is alcohol. Drunken men are dangerous animals. Let me say that again: Drunken men are dangerous animals.
Why do I continue?
To give voice to the victims. Persistent court records typically only mention the name of the accused. The press usually "names" the case after the killer. The person killed nearly vanishes. We all know who Jeffrey Dahmer was. Can you tell me the name of any of the fifteen people he was convicted of killing? Researching and writing these books brings the victim to light and that's important.
To understand how the press reports crime. Some murders are front page news from the time they're committed to beyond the end of trial. Others get a single, short, paragraph that's buried on page eight. Why that is, how it's controlled, and the effect it has fascinates me.
To see how punishment is meted out to different kinds of people. For instance, a prosperous, married man and a poor, widowed woman are equally involved in the killing of their illegitimate child. The two are tried separately. What are the outcomes? Careful. It's probably not what you think. Add race and ethnicity and things grow very unpredictable.
To know how we got to where we are. I read about more than murders in those old newspapers. To see how things were years ago helps me to figure out why we have labor unions and the EPA. Why Miranda Rights are a good thing. Why Stand Your Ground Laws are based in questionable wisdom. Why making people sit in the back of the bus is a bad idea. Why tolerance is important. Why, sometimes, you need to put up your dukes and fight.
To understand that the world's not going to hell in a hand basket. People talk all the time about how everything's falling apart. Spending hours reading old newspapers is reassuring in that it proves that things really haven't changed all that much in the last couple hundred years.
That's reassuring, and a disappointment.
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