Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Crime Beat Column: Arthur H. Lewis, A Look Back At A True Crime Writer

Last month I caught a news item from The York Daily Record in York, Pennsylvania about a promotion company’s plans to turn the site of a sensational 1928 murder into a tourist attraction.

The story mentioned Hex, the 1969 true crime book that covered the trial of a murdered "powwow" doctor – a Pennsylvania Dutch witch – Nelson Remeyer. Remeyer purportedly placed a hex on another powwow doctor, John Blymire. Blymire and two confederates broke into Remeyer’s house looking for a lock of his hair and his book of hexes. They encountered Remeyer and murdered him.

I was privileged to have met the unusual man who wrote Hex and many other unusual crime stories.

Back in the mid-1980s, I attended a series of seminars by Arthur H. Lewis, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author of several non-fiction best-sellers. Lewis, who died in 1995 at the age of 89, conducted the seminars at the Philadelphia Free Library in South Philadelphia.

I heard of the offered seminars and having wanted to be a crime writer since I was 12, I quickly signed up. I hoped to learn about journalism and publishing from a true professional.

Lewis, a short man with short-cropped white hair, came across as a lively, unpretentious man who truly loved being a writer. He called himself a reporter rather than a best-selling author. He told our small group of writers and aspiring writers that being a writer can be interesting and fun, but it took hard work and discipline to sit down and write books.

At the time, I was a Defense Department civilian employee and I was writing news and features for in-house Defense Department magazines. I hoped to graduate to working for newspapers and magazines and eventually write short stories and novels.

During the course of the seminars, Lewis was complimentary about my writing and at first I thought he was merely being polite. But then, after a reading, he told a woman in the group that she was not and probably would never be a writer.

"You just don’t have it," he told her in cold, blunt terms. He went on to criticize her submitted work and pointed out in detail why she didn’t have the skills, abilities or talent to be a writer.

After the seminar, I walked Lewis to his Center City home, a half-dozen blocks away from the library, as I had after the two previous seminars. As we walked, I told him I thought he was too harsh with the woman. He replied that she was wasting her time trying to be a writer. She ought to pursue something else.

I enjoyed the walks and private conversations with Lewis. Looking back, I think I learned far more about journalism and publishing from these talks than I did from attending journalism courses at Penn State and Temple University.

Although he is not well-known today, in his time Lewis wrote several best-selling books about true crime and other subjects.

He wrote 15 nonfiction books and two novels. He was nominated for an "Edgar" award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1965 for Lament for the Molly Maguires.

The book covered the true story about the secret society of Pennsylvania Irish coal miners who took the name of a legendary heroine who led insurrections against the British during the Irish famine. The Molly Maguires fought against the truly awful living and working conditions in the mines, yet many would say that the Molly Maguires were terrorists due to their violent actions.

Led by Jack Kehoe, a tough ex-miner turned saloonkeeper, the Molly Maguires initially committed violence only against brutal mine bosses and dynamited the mines and company trains. Later, like any organized crime or terrorist group, they cut off the ears and tongues of suspected informants and took to beating and killing anyone who offended a member of the powerful secret organization.

In response to the violence, the mining companies hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkertons sent in an Irish undercover detective named James McParland. McParland posed as a murderer hiding out and he quickly infiltrated the secret society. For three years, McParland worked his way up to the leadership of the group.

The detective, an early day-Donnie Brasco, gathered evidence that helped convict and hang the Molly Maguire leaders, including Jack Kehoe, in 1877.

Lewis’ book was later made into a 1970 film starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.

The film, directed by Martin Ritt and written for the screen by Walter Bernstein, was notably more sympathetic to the Molly Maguires than Lewis’ book. (Ritt and Bernstein, it should be noted, were political leftists and communist sympathizers in the 1950s).

Arthur Lewis was born in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania on September 1906. He dropped out of college to become a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1927. He said he loved being a reporter, which he likened to going to a new show every day. He later worked in radio and did public relations work for several Pennsylvania governors.

He published his first book in 1956 when he was 49. The book was The Aaronsburg Story, the true story of the founding of a Central Pennsylvania town in 1786 by Aaron Levy. Four years later he published The Worlds of Chippy Patterson, a fascinating book about a Philadelphia criminal lawyer who took on the vilest cases and defended gangsters, madams and sexual deviants. Patterson was also a lover of classic literature. Years after reading Lewis’ book, I would watch the British TV series and read John Mortimer’s short stories about his fictional character, British lawyer Horace Rumpole, and think of Patterson.

Patterson was the scion of a wealthy and socially prominent family, yet he identified with criminals and social outcasts. The book covers a wonderful period of time in the Philadelphia court system and all levels of Philadelphia and American society.

Another favorite Lewis true crime book of mine is Murder by Contract: The People v. "Tough Tony" Boyle. Lewis’s book covers the 1969 murder of Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter and the subsequent trial of Boyle, who was the head of the United Mine Workers.

In 1969 Joseph "Jock" Yablonski challenged Boyle for the union leadership. He lost in what most observers believed was a fraudulent election and Yablonski asked the Department of Labor to investigate the fraud. "Tough Tony" then hired three hit-men to kill and silence Yablonski. Lewis’ story is also about an interesting Philadelphia lawyer named Richard A. Sprague, who acted as the prosecuting attorney.

Lewis also wrote books about carnivals, prostitutes, eccentrics and the Philadelphia Kellys, including one Kelly named Grace who became a movie star and real life princess. The Princess and the Kelly family were not at all happy with the book, as it exposed family secrets.

Lewis loved being a writer. He used a restored 1917 L.C. Smith typewriter and well into his 80s; he continued to type 1,000 words a day.

Lewis died on January 25, 1995. He led a full and fascinating life, it seems to me, and he left behind his loving wife of many years and children and grandchildren.

Arthur H. Lewis was a very good interviewer and researcher long before the Internet and Google. And thanks to his enthusiasm for people and stories, and his down-to-earth and likeable personality, he was able to get his unusual subjects to tell all, or nearly all. And the rest is history, as they say.

Although his books are largely out of print today, thanks to the Internet and, E-Bay and other Internet-based book traders, you can still purchase Lewis’ books at reasonable prices.

Arthur H. Lewis’ books are part of my library and I suspect his books are also part of the libraries of many a reader who is interested in history, in crime, and in a good story about fascinating people and times.

Note: The column originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2007.

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