A Body in the Potato Patch! A Shootout in Sumas! What’s in the Well at the Kickerville Road Farm? Find Out at the Chuckanut Radio Hour at WCC

The next Chuckanut Radio Hour, hosted by Village Books, feature Bellingham’s Todd Warger, who’ll talk about his recently published book, “Murder & Mayhem in the Fourth Corner: True Stories of Whatcom, Skagit & San Juan Counties’ Earliest Homicides” on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Center Theater, 237 W. Kellogg Road. Music by The Penny Stinkers begins at 6:30 p.m.; and taping for later broadcast by KMRE 102.3 FM starts promptly at 7 p.m. Tickets to the show are $5, and are free if you purchase a copy of the book from Village Books (they’ll be on sale at the event).
The book is the third book in Warger’s series of true crime stories that take place in Washington State’s northwest corner during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Our region has had a vivid history of slayings much like anywhere else, including beheadings, shootings, stabbings, poisonings, hangings, strangling, and bludgeoning.
Warger, who is on the staff of Whatcom Museum, is an Emmy Award-winning nominee for the documentary film “The Mountain Runners,” a history of Bellingham’s famous Ski to Sea Race. He’s a recipient of the Washington State Historical Society’s David Douglas Award for the documentary film “Shipyard,” and is co-author “Images of America: Mount Baker.”
After meeting with him at the Colophon Cafe, I emailed him a few questions about the book.
Margaret: What first sparked your interest in researching the murders in our area?
Todd: The interest arose as I was combing through microfilm for various projects over the years. As I did so, I would come across some outlandish headlines. Not just area murders, but other interesting headlines as well. I would print these articles and make a file thinking one day I would go back and explore the subjects more deeply. My area if interest would be the time of settlement and through the Great Depression, this being the period it seems that the term was coined “If it bleeds it reads.”
The reporting was very detailed with lots of interviews. You have to remember this was the only source of news and there was competition to get the scoop. By writing about murders in our area I could have better access to research materials, and I could more easily connect the event to what was happening historical here when the murder occurred.
M: What were some of the best places where you found the details you needed?
T: Finding the material wasn’t all that difficult. And the best part is that most of it has gone untouched. Once I have a list of convicted murderers, which I easily find on Washington State Digital Archives, I can make my rounds. The most important: the state archives in Olympia. There I make copies of any prisoner entry records, the prisoner’s personal record, governor pardon papers, prison communication, mugshots and such. In Bellingham: I pull the trial transcripts at the Superior Court. I look at the old newspapers.
The regional archives and Center for Pacific Northwest Studies have probate records, police records and other sources. Then, from all these sources and a host of others I find photos of the period. Depending on the case I could list a number of avenues of other sources depending on the period. These may include various website, previous written material, other museums in the area. I have a friend and writer who is a 30-year retired Fed, who has sources. Another bought the rights to old defunct detective magazines and that has been a help. There are so many possibilities.
M: Was the dialogue you include part of the actual testimonies?
T: Yes, fortunately I have found a wealth of dialogue for the stories. In most cases courtroom testimony from the trials are in the record at the office of the clerk of the Superior Court. Sometimes a case will go to the state Supreme Court. Also, at the turn of the last century, given several decades either direction, reporters would sit in on the trials. Each day pages of newspaper would have testimony written out. I have on several occasions compared these to the actual courtroom testimony in the court file. They were very accurate.
The big plus that was when newspapers reported this, they added expressions and response in the room, where the court stenographer only wrote what was said. Also, back in the day reporters had free access to prisoners and witnesses for stories. In the prison records in Olympia, as mentioned above, I have found hundreds of pages of correspondence, letters, telegrams, interviews, and evaluations.
M: Did you conduct any interviews with family members?
T:  I haven’t made efforts to contact families, but I have had family members contact me to write about a murder in their family. I did this in one story of a murder/suicide in Blaine in 1919. Others have contacted me to thank me for clearing up a family mystery. And, I have had members of both the victim and murderer of Addie Roper, and murder in 1907 which appeared in book two. I have also had families of cold cases contact me.
M: I’m interested in the psychological background of some of these people–both the perpetrators and the victims. Anything you can decipher about the common elements in these cases?
T: Psychological background. Interesting, indeed. I could go on and on. One benefit of looking back at these murder cases is that I have several advantages today that didn’t exist in 1888 or 1915. Time and technology. Many cases were rammed through the system, not because no one cared, but small communities back then had little taxpayer funds to afford a lengthy trial. I wrote about two murder suicides cases. They didn’t go to trail of course. Newspaper stories indicated how these were great neighbors and very nice people, but during the last year of their lives they were not the same person. Mean, nasty, strange, etc.
One of them, in an online newspaper search I discover a decade before he was hit in the head by a sledgehammer and for weeks was thought would die. Could he have had a brain tumor growing? In the other case, I looked at the man’s probate record to see what happened to his property. I discovered for a year he had been taking laudanum and other opiates. He owned three doctors. Something was happening. In the first book the story of Romandorf comes to mind. He was probably the state’s first serial killer, claiming to have killed 100 people from Germany, across the USA and Washington, including at least five in Whatcom County. His MO was incredible.
M: What else have you learned as you wrote this series?
T: These are true stories written as accurately as I could make them. After the second book, I came to realize something important. For the most part, these were ordinary folk who were struggling to live simple lives. Maybe establishing a homestead, surviving a bust in the economy. Most would have worked hard daily, had families and just lived. Maybe a few would have become noted. And we really don’t know what was in the minds of the perpetrators.
But I do know this. For a brief time, while these books exist I have given their lives a meaning. A voice. I could tell their stories and give their existence some meaning. And after people read my books they may talk to others about one of victims and in doing so they will say their name. A name not remembered for perhaps a hundred years will roll off their lips and they will be remembered again.
More about the series at http://www.murderinthefourthcorner.com.
More on the event at 360-671-2626, villagebooks.com.