I have been in Battle Creek for the last few weeks taking care of some personal issues. Being back in town has proved useful because in the evenings and on weekends, I have been working on my book about Pump Arnold – Battle Creek’s First Kingpin of Crime. There is something that is nice about being in town while doing the research and writing about the subject. I like visiting the places I am writing about – though in this instance, most of the landmarks are long ago erased.
I’ve found some new things – including the image above – one of the best we’ve had of Pump to date. I have had to explore some things I hadn’t anticipated – such as the history of prostitution in Battle Creek. Pump is proving to be a fantastic vehicle for telling the story of early Battle Creek, before it became “Cereal City.” There’s something compelling about the Victorian Era.
The book has proven challenging. Pump and his son (and victim) George Arnold were constantly in court, either being arrested or resolving charges against them. How do you write about such events without totally boring the reader? I have tackled this head-on by emphasizing the humorous aspects of these arrests and lawsuits. Fortunately there is a lot of quite funny material buried in newspaper accounts from the period. The reporters of the period had their tongues firmly planted in-their-cheeks when writing some of their accounts of Pump and George Arnold.
It’s a new twist for me, interjecting a small amount of dry humor in a true crime book. Then again, that kind of humor was part of the Victorian era, so it oddly works. There is a dark overtone to the book, because this is a grim story of paternal filicide, a father killing his son. What is becoming clear to me as a researcher is that Pump and his son George were on a collision course throughout their lives. There was bound to something climatic between the two, something tragic that was preordained, inevitable.
My co-author (and daughter) Victoria Hester is working on “the biggest trial in the history of Calhoun County.” Her job is as daunting and challenging as my own. I can’t wait to see what she develops as our different parts of the book merge together.
I’ve gotten to do some detective work in too over the last few weeks. Willard Library’s local history section is a treasure trove of information. Each time I go, I find a little bit more. I have been able to take the time each night to explore every little tip, every lead, every fascinating sidebar. I keep poking and probing at the story, and each time something new tumbles out and gets my attention. I love it.
One of the big challenges is the changes to all of the street names. Some of the streets have changed names 1-3 times over the decades. This makes it tricky. You have to constantly remind yourself that Jefferson is Capital Ave, for example.
Later this week, in the evening, I’m visiting with some members of the Battle Creek Historical Society (Heritage Battle Creek) to get some additional images. Our publisher, The History Press, wants a lot of pictures. This is always a challenge. I don’t like just putting pictures in a book for the sake of putting them in. This means finding images that are representative of the period, that can put the reader there – on the streets of Victorian era Battle Creek.
From what I’m seeing, this book is going to be a romp in BC’s past, with one of the most colorful characters to emerge in Western Michigan History. I hope you agree.