Former reporter’s book details cold cases from region
BURGETTSTOWN – A. Parker Burroughs’ book on mysteries, murders and mayhem lost to time came about through serendipity.
Burroughs, former Washington Observer-Reporter executive editor, wrote “Washington County Murder and Mayhem: Historic Crimes of Southwestern Pennsylvania” after losing himself down the rabbit hole of clippings collected by newspaperman Earle R. Forrest during the course of his career.
Forrest worked for both the Washington Record and the Washington Reporter for approximately 40 years from 1920 to 1960. During that time, he accumulated several file cabinets’ worth of clippings, which remain in the possession of the Observer-Reporter. He wrote a daily column of forgotten news items of historical interest for more than 30 years and authored “A History of Washington County, Pennsylvania.”
“These file cabinets aren’t indexed. They’re arranged alphabetically,” Burroughs said of Forrest’s trove of clippings.
The History Press had contacted Burroughs while he was working full-time as the newspaper’s executive editor and inquired whether he was interested in writing a history of the county, but Burroughs wasn’t interested – at least, not until several years later.
“I told them to find someone else, I wasn’t interested,” he said.
Then Burroughs decided to write a serial story for publication in his newspaper.
“I came across an envelope marked ‘Smith, Eli,'” he said.
As Burroughs would research one story, others would catch his interest.
“As I was looking for information (on the Eli Smith murder) I kept coming across the story of this scandal – the discovery of the body of a teenage girl in the Lyric Theater,” he said. “There was a lot going on there besides films and stage shows.”
The discovery drew back a veil on Washington’s darker side – one that included corruption, gambling, prostitution and debauchery, driven by the population explosion following the oil and gas well boom.
“There was an enormous growth in population,” Burroughs said. “The gas and oil fields led to the establishments of factories, and people came here to work in the glass and steel factories.”
The resultant scandal led to a reform movement.
“It was that reform movement that was most responsible for the change in attitude toward Prohibition,” said Burroughs. “I had never heard of (the scandal) – it was completely lost to time.”
Burroughs wrote a serial story about the case, “A Death in The Lyric,” which was originally published in the Observer-Reporter, along with “The West Enders: A Story of Murder in Desperate Times” and became one of six stories featured in the book.
“People started saying to me, ‘I missed one (of the serials), is there anywhere you can read it all at once?'” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea to put these in a book, but there were only two.”
He decided to write a book about the most interesting historical murders and tragedies in Washington County.
“In my experience, people want to read about it – murder and mayhem, death and disaster,” he said.
The reporter who covered accidents, obituaries and the police beat was called the “D and D reporter,” he added.
“In between obituaries, he covered car wrecks and bank robberies,” Burroughs said.
Once he retired two years ago, Burroughs went back to the back issues and Forrest’s files and began to research and write.
“I ran across photos from an explosion in 1891 on East Maiden Street,” he said. “I looked into this – what happened? There was a nitroglycerin explosion. ‘Shreds of quivering flesh’ was the banner headline in the Daily Reporter the day it happened. Newspaper people and their readers had an interest in prurient journalism.”
The explosion and its aftermath would be detailed in “Shreds of Quivering Flesh: The Explosion That Rocked Washington.” While researching that story, Burroughs came across frequent mentions of a man-hunt for prison escapee Martin Reed.
Reed was a farm hand and lived in Candor, a tiny hamlet outside of Burgettstown. Burroughs described him as a large man, frequently drunk and in trouble, but someone who had a good number of friends.
“He was the type of person who you saw in the police reports over and over,” he said. “But he wasn’t a bully or cruel, he was well-liked. When he was in jail (for murder), his friends and his estranged wife came to visit him. They brought him saws and hammers and guns – all of which he used to escape.”
Estranged from his wife and at odds with his siblings, Reed fell in love with Agnes Chappell – but she was married to his friend and drinking companion Alexander Chappell. One evening in 1890, Reed stopped at the Chappell home, looking for Alexander Chappell, who was due to return that evening. Agnes Chappell invited him to wait, but Alexander Chappell didn’t return home that evening – and Reed never left.
“Not much later, Alexander died a horrible death,” Burroughs said.
Reed’s story and that of the four-month hunt for him after his escape is detailed in “An Unholy Passion: The Tragic Tale of Martin Reed.”
Burroughs continues to research local crime cases, with an eye to compiling a second book.
“I prefer to write about things that have been lost to time,” Burroughs said.
He is currently researching the murder of Isabel Stewart, the oldest unsolved murder in the country. Stewart was murdered in Mount Pleasant in 1796.
“It’s somewhat difficult, since a lot of places no longer exist,” he said.
Burroughs, an award-winning writer, was a newspaperman for more than 40 years and taught writing courses at Bethany College. He also has written “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor” and edited “200 Years: Our History Through the Pages of the Observer-Reporter.”