Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cleveland's Master of the Macabre

My years as a crime reporter cause me to chart the streets of Northeast Ohio in an unusual manner.

I don’t remember streets by their name, houses by address or businesses by their trade. Instead, I remember them by calamity.

A car ride with me (or a coroner, police officer or fireman— frankly anyone who works in the morbidity and mortality trade) often becomes a clip show of the macabre.

“Oh, that’s where the guy shot his wife and, then, himself.”

“When the train derailed, this whole neighborhood was evacuated for two days.”

“…is where they found his body, slumped in a car. They’re still looking for the killer.”

Reading The Last Days of Cleveland is akin to taking a similar ride with author John Stark Bellamy II, except the car is a time machine that covers Cleveland’s entire history and Bellamy is a better tour guide than me.

Bellamy’s a veteran of the gruesome. Last Days is his sixth volume of crime and disaster in Cleveland. Having already written about torso slayers and Standard Oil explosions, Bellamy is free to explore stories that even dedicated amateur historians may not know.

Bellamy, a librarian by day, scours old newspapers for stories and weaves them into tales of suicidal children, cop killers, infanticide and stick-up kids. His stories stretch from Ashtabula to Newburgh Heights, Bedford to Wickliffe. They involve 19-year-old prostitutes and the premier families of industrial Cleveland. He tells a story of an apocalyptic cult that I had never heard of, even though I grew up less than a mile from where it happened.

Bellamy does not merely recount twice-told stories. He writes like newspapermen used to write before journalists were trained to write formulaic, AP-style abominations. He writes as if his supper depended on the evening’s headline. He is not afraid to sprinkle words like “mephitic” or “conflagration” into a short biography of legendary firefighter George Wallace.

He tells the story of an Ashtabula family in which one sibling (Jeannette McAdams) gradually murdered all of her siblings and mother. He writes:

It is at precisely this juncture of the narrative that the intelligent reader will stop and say to herself: “How much of this story could possibly be true? Is it probably—or even possible—that no one, whether in the McAdams family or outside it, tumbled to the suspicious pattern and circumstances of the family deaths?” Well—the facts are these. There was a McAdams family and they all died at the times stated … and you can still find all of the McAdams graves standing in the Edgewood Cemetery. But as for the rest of the story … well, here it is, and you can believe it or not…

If Bellamy has a flaw, it emerges when he indulges in stories of history for history’s sake. It’s not that his eulogy for S.J. Kelly (in the chapter “Cleveland’s Greatest Historian) is poorly written; but it’s not what the reader came to see. After more than 200 pages of all sorts of horrors, you’re subjected to an enthusiastic, but distracting, pontification about a Plain Dealer columnist. There’s also an amusing but unnecessary coda in which Bellamy talks about how he and a neighborhood boy played with explosives. (It reads like a sample chapter for Bellamy’s upcoming autobiography Wasted on the Young and seems out of place with these other stories.)

Forgive me for sounding morbid, but readers don’t pick books that are sub-titled “more true tales of crime and disaster from Cleveland’s past” for harmless reminiscences.

But when Bellamy sticks to the subject, he is unimpeachable. And it’s not just his knowledge. More than anything it his enthusiasm and affection for his subjects (and their city) that makes Bellamy so compelling.

-Jason Lea,

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