By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
Members of a Yukon civic group were sitting on the edge of their seats this week as they listened to the story of a racially charged murder that occurred nearly a century ago in Marlow during the Oil Boom.
The Yukon Rotary Club at its April 16 meeting welcomed Dr. Alan Berch Hollingsworth, who has written a book that surrounds the story of his grandfather being shot to death by an angry mob at a hotel he operated in December 1923.
Hollingsworth, of El Reno, discussed many years of exhaustive research that went into his new book “Killing Albert Berch.”
“This was my first attempt at a true crime story,” Hollingsworth told his Yukon Rotary audience.
Hollingsworth, a breast cancer specialist and the founding medical director of the University of Oklahoma Institute for Breast Health, has written medical publications and two fiction books.
But nothing that he’s penned compares to “Killing Albert Berch,” a combination of investigative journalism and memoir.
“I’m essentially the detective working on my grandfather’s murder but arriving at the scene of the crime 90 years after the fact,” he said.
Yukon Rotarian Betty Corn highly recommended that people read “Killing Albert Berch,” published by Pelican Publishing Company.
“It’s a remarkable book,” Corn said. “It’s really a fascinating story!”
‘DIDN’T GO OVER WELL’
Hollingsworth’s maternal grandparents, Albert and Lulu Berch, were owners and managers of Johnson’s Hotel in Marlow during the oil boom of the 1920s. Klu Klux Klan popularity was at its all-time high, with an estimated five million members across the U.S.
His grandparents chose to violate the “sundown law” by hiring a “crippled Negro” to work – and sleep overnight – as a porter in the hotel.
“That didn’t go over well,” Hollingsworth said.
Death threats were issued to both Berch and his porter, Robert Johnigan, such that the porter resigned after 10 days.
After Berch wrote out his severance check, Johnigan headed out of the hotel and was planning to leave town on the next train.
But a 30-person mob had formed and stormed the hotel, killing both Berch and Johnigan. The author’s grandmother and two-year-old mother barely avoided the spray of bullets.
Seven people were arrested, but only two would end up going to prison.
While ostensibly Berch died trying to protect his African-American porter from the angry mob, after his death the case unraveled revealing layers of deception on all sides.
Hollingsworth, in writing “Killing Albert Berch,” investigates whether the murders were typical mob insanity or a planned assassination – and if Berch was the primary target or had just gotten in the way of a bullet intended for Johnigan.
By tracing his family history, Hollingsworth discovered everyone had something to hide.
He looked into why his grandfather insisted on hiring an African-American porter, violating the era’s Jim Crow segregation laws. He found out how the Klu Klux Klan was involved in the violence.
As he unlocked the secrecy of his grandfather’s murder, Hollingsworth uncovered a story of racial violence at the turn of the last century that resonates today.
The El Reno author, Albert Berch’s namesake, has carried the family story as a companion throughout his life.
“My grandfather was always the ‘mystery man’ of my family,” Hollingsworth said.
He did not actively research the saga until his mother’s death in 2011 at age 89. Almarian Berch Hollingsworth had spent her lifetime trying to piece the story together, but it never quite fell into place. She herself spent many years on the story, even writing a fiction book based on the incident – but couldn’t get it published.
Hollingsworth’s mother did not have access to the Internet, which the author found invaluable during his far-reaching research for this book.
Hollingsworth relied heavily on many letters and detailed accounts his grandmother had written about the incident that he discovered in an unmarked box while clearing out the attic of the family home many years later.
The author studied copious court transcripts that provided details about the murder and subsequent investigation.
AUTHOR’S FIRST NON-FICTION
“Killing Albert Berch” is Hollingsworth’s first effort at non-medical, non-fiction. The book is available online from the Pelican Publishing Company, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
A great deal of Hollingsworth’s time is now spent on scientific writing. He publishes original articles, writes invited editorial responses, serves on the editorial board of The Breast Journal, and is author of a book on the history of mammographic screening.
His writing focus took a temporary detour in 2001 with publication of “Flatbellies,” a coming-of-age novel set in small-town Oklahoma where a high school golf team vies for the state championship.
“Flatbellies” in 2002 was selected by a panel of 12 East Coast sportswriters as “One of the Top Ten Golf Books of All Time,” published in the Washington Times.
At this request of his publisher, Hollingsworth wrote a 2003 sequel titled “University Boulevard” that is the story of the boys as they attend college in the turbulent ‘60s.