Hard Times

Hard Times

“By most accounts it was a surprisingly mild day in late March 1933 when McLean County sheriff’s deputy Charles Adams, accompanied by a DeWitt county deputy, went to the grocery store located at 1410 S. Main Street, Route 66, in Normal to arrest a suspect on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The suspect was also wanted for questioning about the robbery of a diner in Clinton. It should have been a simple, easy arrest.”

When the editor at Rio Nuevo Publishing approached me with a proposal to write a book about the dark side of Route 66, the idea intrigued me. In all that I do, be it books, presentations, podcasts, or walking tours, adding depth and context as well as historical perspective is a goal. Still, in the modern era Route 66 is viewed as an almost magical time capsule where only the remnants of good times are preserved. If the project was accepted I would be adding context and historical perspective, and tarnishing the romanticized image of a highway that has become an almost sacred place where the very best of America is enshrined.

Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman

Well, for better or worse the book is complete and pre-orders are now being accepted. And as been the case with the publication of the previous eighteen books, I can now begin worrying over content. I was fortunate to have a strong editorial team. Still, are there errors? Will the stories reopen old wounds? Will these stories from Route 66 and its predecessor, the National Old Trails Road, bring closure? Is it possible that these stories will solve decades old mysteries?

“By 1940, the era of the fast-driving roving bank-robbing gangs had passed. But Tulsa had grown into a bustling city, and cities had crime. In the early to mid-1940s the city faced something far more terrifying than an occasional murder, burglary, theft, or assault. There was a serial killer prowling the Brady Arts District a few blocks north of the Route 66 corridor.”

“Chester Comer, who often used the alias Jack Armstrong, was an itinerant oil field roustabout who never stayed in one place, or on a job, for long. His first wife, and possibly his first victim, was Elizabeth Childers of Oklahoma City. Initially identified and buried as a Jane Doe, she was shot five times in the head, and her body burned, near Kansas City, Kansas. Eighteen-year-old Childers was pregnant at the time of her death. Lucille Stevens, unaware of his first marriage, wed Comer in December 1934, four months after Childers went missing. A postcard with a McLean, Texas, postmark dated September 16 was her last correspondence with family. Comers killed her in the late summer of 1935, burned the body, and dumped it in the brush along the highway near Edmond.”

Joe Sonderman collection

In every book and feature article written I learn something new. My perspective of the past is changed as it is brought into sharper focus. With this book I developed a deeper understanding of hard times, of desperation, of how lawlessness can be nurtured and fostered, and the consequences of turning a blind eye to or making excuses for evil. With clarity this book illustrated the ripple affects of violence, and how a decision as simple as turning left instead of right can unleash a series of events that end in death and mayhem. To say the very least it was a sobering and fascinating project. It is my hope that readers will find value in it beyond simply adding depth to the Route 66 story.