... Richard Lindberg on writing about Chicago, History and Serial killers
: I am a lifelong resident of Chicago who has been writing and publishing books about the city since 1978. I have often heard that a writer should always compose stories about that which he knows best, and I have always followed that advice. I write about Chicago because it is a wonderful “canvass” for me to paint on. It’s colorful, often outrageous history populated by corrupt politicians, gangsters, rogues and assorted n’er-do-wells of every kind provides me with enough interesting material to develop and author a hundred books. Writing non-fiction for me is not so much an avocation, as it is a passion and a calling. I have written 16 books thus far, but I have always maintained a full-time job unrelated to the book projects or publishing. In 1978 when my first book came out, I was selling men’s shoes in a Sears Roebuck retail store in Chicago. Today I am a Vice President in the Marketing Department of UGL Services – a commercial real estate firm. I write because I must. It is something I have done since the age of 11 when I began keeping a diary, a practice I continue to this day. But I write my books around my full-time job, meaning that there is little time for me to relax, take vacations, or enjoy other hobbies. However, as a result of writing so many volumes about Chicago crime, history, politics and sports it has made it rather difficult for me to break out of the “regional writer” label. I have not succeeded in placing my work with the large publishing houses in New York. How many times have I presented proposals to them only to have them advise me to take it to local, regional publishers in the Midwestern United States? I have lost count. “Heartland Serial Killers” continues my interest in the notorious aspects of Chicago. I was familiar with both of these characters for a long time. But a British television documentary company came to Chicago in 2007 to interview local experts about famous Chicago criminals. They asked me to comment on John Wayne Gacy and Belle Gunness. There has been so much press about the 1970s serial killer Gacy, but so little about Hoch and Gunness that an idea for a book took root. Johann Hoch was a figure lost in the vapors of history. There had never been a book before about this glib little conman and serial bigamist from Horrweiler, Germany who claimed to have invented a “scientific method” of seducing and marrying women. His criminal career was bizarre and surreal, and an idea for a book took shape. So I decided to “bookend” the more familiar story of Belle Gunness with Hoch. I also have a deep interest in the 19th century “Gaslight (Victorian) Era” of our history, and Belle and Johann lived in those times – incredibly just 60 miles apart! So I went to work immediately and began my research. I can’t help but believe that a movie about Johann Hoch, if a production company would commit to do it, would be most compelling. It would be a period piece and an expensive costume drama to be sure, but here’s the kicker. My research has turned up strong evidence that Hoch worked for the Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes, the subject of Eric Larson’s international best seller, “The Devil in the White City.” And that is something that until the publication of my book was not previously known.
: Well, as mentioned, they committed their crimes during my favorite historical era, but more importantly their crimes mirrored the times in which they lived. The plight of unattached women living in an era of limited opportunity and the desperation of middle-aged widows with no safeguards against poverty made them vulnerable to the attractions of a suave, smooth-talking con artists like Johann Hoch with evil intentions. If they were left alone or suddenly widowed and without means, so often these women were forced by economic necessity to enroll in “marriage bureaus” with the hope of meeting and connecting with eligible bachelors with substantial incomes they were looking to marry. The prevailing hardships of the times provided Hoch with willing, but tragically naïve and trusting matrons to marry, embezzle and ultimately murder from across the U.S., and for that matter in Europe where he began his nefarious work. Belle Gunness, a contemporary of Hoch, was the flip side of the same coin – but she was what we would describe as a nesting “Black Widow.” While Hoch traveled across the country in search of new victims, Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant, through the placement of notices in the Scandinavian newspapers of the day, lured roughly 30-40 men to her Indiana farm located 60 miles from Chicago, where she would steal their money, poison them, and bury their remains in her spacious farm. Amy Archer Gilligan (1873-1962), known as the “Arsenic and Old Lace” killer (she inspired the famous 1944 Hollywood movie of the same name starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra), from the State of Connecticut was the only female serial killer of that era with a higher body count than Gunness. Gilligan stacked up the coffins containing the remains of her victims in the basement of her boarding house. Also, the parallel lives of Gunness and Hoch fueled the rise of sensational “tabloid journalism,” a style of writing championed by William Randolph Hearst early in the 20th Century that placed great emphasis on scandal, crime and the lurid underbelly of American life that is still very much with us today.
: I consider myself a historian – not just a writer of grisly true crime stories. A lot of my work also covers politics and political corruption. With regard to writing crime stories, I prefer to frame my subject around broader, important historical themes, and place the subject within the context of the times in which he or she lived. When I read the work of other crime writers, the means and method of how their killers committed the crime is less important to me than the author’s ability to flesh out the vivid details of circumstances of the criminal’s background, where and when they lived and the times they lived in; their upbringing and their motivations. The small tidbits of personal information that an author can deliver to the reader is the “mortar between the bricks” that really juices the story. I greatly enjoy the historical period detail – a hallmark of the work of Harold Schechter of Queens College, New York and the author of “The Devil’s Gentleman,” the fascinating story of accused poisoner Roland Molineaux in 1899. Another terrific author of historic true crime in the States is Rose Keefe, author of “The Starker: New York City’s First Gangster Boss.” Rose is one of a very few women authors to specialize in this particular genre, but she is also a research historian of great note.
: There were few protections afforded unattached 19th Century women if they were unmarried or living alone. What choices did they have? There were no government “social security” programs to provide them with old-age income or financial security in their declining years. In those days if women worked at all, most often they were employed as low-paid domestic housekeepers, cooks, factory workers, or department store clerks. The pay was lower than what men typically earned – and those that had no work history or ability to find gainful employment would often end up on the streets. A percentage of these unfortunate women were drawn into prostitution in the commercial vice districts that flourished in the big cities at that time. The alternative of course, was to identify a would-be suitor and future husband through advertisements in newspapers and listings in marriage bureaus, which were mostly outlawed in the Chicago area following the Belle Gunness revelations.
: I have also written books about the ethnic settlement of the City of Chicago; a pictorial narrative of the modern and historic city; a political history of the Chicago Police Department from 1855-1960; a first-ever biography of Michael C. McDonald, the powerful 19th Century gambler who built the foundation of the modern Democratic Party “machine” that has governed Chicago continuously since 1931, and now I am beginning work on an authorized history of Northeastern Illinois University, my alma mater. I strive to not become a “typecast” author who is known to focus exclusively on only one subject matter, but most often the projects I write about end up relating in some way to crime. I have learned through experience that the public is fascinated by true crime stories. Each year, I am invited to speak to numerous libraries, membership associations and other groups. Most often, my audience is composed of people over the age of 60 and they love hearing these old stories. My book “Return to the Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago” has sold over 21,000 copies and has gone through at least six re-prints since it was first published in 1999. I also lead annual bus tours of famous crime scenes in the city and suburbs for the Chicago History Museum. All of my tours have thus far sold out....every one of them, proving again that there is continuing interest in this subject matter. In academic circles, there is a growing recognition that the study of crime pathology and patterns of criminal behavior contribute to a deeper understanding of our culture and its people at any given moment in time. Subject matter that would not have been considered important by academic publishers 30 or 40 years ago are now warmly embraced. If I lived in Germany, the book I would most want to write would be a critical examination of crime in the time of the Third Reich. Did street crime and the so-called “victimless” crimes of prostitution and gambling flourish, or were they vigorously suppressed? What about the city homicide rates each year? Did they decline or increase during Hitler’s reign compared to the Weimer Republic years for example? How were criminals dealt with by the courts during that period? I would think that would be a fascinating area of study and would bridge both the academic and popular reading markets. My most recent books, “Heartland Serial Killers,” “Shattered Sense of Innocence: the Chicago Child Murders of 1955,” and “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine,” were all published by university presses here in Illinois. Each volume is heavily footnoted with serious accounts of criminality that do not border on the sensational, but hopefully they have succeeded in addressing the epoch of urban history, patterns of immigrant displacement and settlement, with critical analysis of socio-economic factors.
: It is a given that women are less violent in the ways and means of carrying out murder than their male counterparts. Poison has been the preferred weapon of female killers down through the ages, although in violent domestic disputes between husbands and wives, a greater number of women are using handguns these days at least that is what I sense of things here in the U.S. In the early 20th Century, Belle Gunness used arsenic and a variety of plant poisons to dispatch her male victims to another world. After they were dead, she used a butcher’s knife from her kitchen to cut them up and bury the severed body parts in the pig sty in back of her home.
: The enormous size of the United States in an era when communications were poor and the U.S. government did not keep track of its citizens as it does today (the Social Security card is also our national identification card), provided perfect cover for criminals traversing the open road, east to west and north to south. One could easily change his or her identification, assume aliases and move from place to place like Johann Hoch did, and avoid detection for years. There were no scientific criminal laboratories, forensic investigators and finger printing did not gain currency until after 1904 in most large urban areas of the U.S. There was little cooperation and sharing of information between police departments from different geographic regions of the country at that time. Big city detective bureaus within police departments were often riddled with graft, corruption and incompetent men who had earned their position through political entanglements, that is “having it in” with someone in an official capacity to place them in a choice job as a detective who was allowed to wander the streets at will and unaccounted for, was not assigned to a “beat,” and who was not required to wear uniforms. It was as they used to say in the old days of Chicago policing, “a soft snap,” meaning easy job. Even today, the serial killer is the most difficult of all criminals to identify and apprehend, simply because they do not kill people who are known to them. Imagine what it was like in that earlier era before the advent of DNA and sophisticated technology.
: Research techniques vary from project to project, depending on the era I am writing about. When I wrote “Shattered Sense of Innocence,” the abduction and murder of the three adolescent boys who were coming back to their Northwest Side Chicago homes following an afternoon movie downtown, was still fresh in the memory of people who were still around from 1955. It was fairly easy for me to identify retired police officers, detectives, friends and families of the victims, and others close to the case. I left no stone unturned as they say, and even came up with a new suspect completely overlooked by the police and prosecutors in the 1950s – but a compelling suspect nevertheless who simply slipped past law enforcement. I interviewed scores of people for this book – although the parents of one of the boys who was still alive in 2003 refused to discuss it, and I respected their wishes. I grew up in the same area of the city as these three boys, although they were 10 years older than me. But I went to school with the youngest brother of one of the three, You must understand that his was a very shocking crime that we grew up hearing about in our little corner of the world and it took 40 years for an indictment to finally be handed down. Historical crime, before the span of memory, requires different procedures. The newspapers are the best primary sources to utilize. They provide an accurate roadmap of what happened, where, and to whom. Chicago newspapers are catalogued on microfilm at the main library and are easily accessible. The Chicago Tribune dating back to 1847, is available through on-line subscription. I begin there to craft the framework of the story. Next I identify all books written about the subject, both in and out of print – some of them are very obscure. Next, I try to access court records, that is, if they can be accessed and are still available. There is no central filing system in place in Chicago for court cases older than 45 years. The Internet is a resource, but generally what I find on the Internet us usually everything I have already discovered, and often the person who posts a “blog” is untrained in research technique and not a serious historian. They often get it all wrong, or publish unsubstantiated rumors or hearsay. I will scour the research libraries – the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry, The Illinois State Library. I try to leave no stone unturned, and for me at least, the discovery process is the most enjoyable aspect to writing a book.
: The book that is most special to me (and in some ways most painful), is one that has nothing to do with true crime. It is my memoir of my Swedish immigrant father, a tragic family secret he carried with him to the grave, and growing up as a first generation Swedish-American in a divorced household in Chicago. It is titled “Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family My American Life,” and was published in September 2011 by the University of Minnesota Press in paperback. It is a book that was 22 years in the making, and it is a painful look back at my father Oscar Lindberg’s alcoholism, his broken marriages and the shattered lives of the people he left behind. Oscar was born in 1897. I was born in 1953, to give you an idea of the generational difference between us. The book title I conceived in 1989, refers to the cocktails he would drink at 11:00 in the morning to start his business day. An avowed socialist and left wing radical trade unionist in Mother Sweden, he came to America in 1924 and became a wealthy builder of luxury homes and a successful capitalist, but he had little time to spare for his two American-born children, my half-brother Charles and I. I found out much later that he had sired two other children to two unwed mothers in Sweden – abandoned them and never saw them before he fled to the U.S. to avoid the military draft and the obligations of fatherhood which the Swedish authorities were holding him accountable for. (Both children died in early childhood). This book is mostly about the Sweden-to-America epic; a multi-generational immigrant saga spanning over 100 years, hard times and lessons learned. “Whiskey Breakfast” has been highly praised by Publisher’s Weekly and the Kirkus Reviews, and those who have read it have compared the real-life characters described in my book to the many villains, bounders and tender-hearted folk portrayed by Charles Dickens in his wonderful works of literature. To have this book called “Dickensian” by any stretch of the imagination is perhaps the highest compliment and honor anyone has ever bestowed upon my work.