A Non-Fiction Book by Alan Berch Hollingsworth
It was fortunate, no – essential – for my two sisters and me that our maternal grandfather be murdered at age 30 in the lobby of the Johnson Hotel in Marlow, Oklahoma, December 17, 1923. Had Albert Berch lived to continue as proprietor of the hotel, we three siblings would not have appeared on this planet. The unusual cascade of events that followed the murder led to our existence, and the murder profoundly altered our family’s history and more. Our mother would have met and married a different man and had different children, her life trajectory fixed in a different time and place, a dimension not reachable except through speculation. And, for those who consider all events predetermined since the beginning of time, Albert’s death reflects a metaphysical mandate more powerful than my original key word – essential – whereupon the cascade would be a more divine Cascade.
The Johnson Hotel was owned and operated by Albert and Lula Berch when our mother was born in one of the hotel’s rooms located only steps away from where her father would be murdered. Our grandmother and mother barely avoided the spray of bullets that killed Albert Berch and the primary target, a “crippled negro” by the name of Robert Johnigan.
Almarian, named for her father Al, was a few months shy of her second birthday when the murder occurred. She was in the arms of her mother, and according to Lula, the mother-daughter duo entered the lobby at the exact moment gunfire erupted, whereupon a bullet intended for Lula pierced Almarian’s baby gown without causing harm. Our mother spent an 89-year lifetime in wonder, and in research, as to the “why” of it all and was finally laid to rest in a Marlow grave 88 years after the murders. Oddly, prior to her death, Almarian orchestrated a family burial plot that included her father Albert, her mother Lula, and herself, the only child of the Berch couple.
“Odd” for several reasons. First, Marlow had not offered consoling arms after the murders. In fact, when our grandmother left town with her life in jeopardy and her daughter in tow, Albert was resting eternally in a poorly marked grave, with Lula vowing never to return during her lifetime. She came close to fulfilling that promise, and the single day exception will be forthcoming. Odd, too, that our mother had such a strong need for the three of them to be together, even though they had been a family for a mere 22 months. She had no memory of her father and no recollections as a Marlow resident. My sisters and I marvel at this bond, so powerful for our mother that our father’s remains went along for the ride. We can’t help but be mildly amused that the ashes of Francis W. Hollingsworth, MD are now part of the landscape of a town that he had barely visited. Meanwhile, the cemetery in our hometown of El Reno, Oklahoma doesn’t host a single blood relative.
By coincidence, when Lula and Albert fell in love in 1920 Marlow, they boarded a train that was steps away from the front door of their own hotel and rode the Rock Island line north to El Reno, 65 miles away, where they were married by a local Baptist preacher. They honeymooned at the still-standing Southern Hotel across from the train depot, never returning to El Reno as a couple. Over 60 years later, however, Lula moved to El Reno to spend her final months at the town that had become the lifelong home of her daughter.
When F.W. Hollingsworth, MD finished his residency in 1954, he had chosen El Reno as a small town near Oklahoma City where he and Almarian could raise their family, already with two children and a third to follow. I point out the Southern Hotel honeymoon of Albert and Lula Berch as one of many interwoven facts that, remarkably, I did not know until age 60 when the story that follows began to slip from my mother’s fingers into mine.
I am 4th generation Al Berch. Indeed, the Berch saga should begin with Albert’s father, “Doctor” Albert Berch, Sr., the quotation marks as apt today as when they encased the title in one of my historical sources – a 1924 anonymous letter to my widowed grandmother claiming bizarre scheming on the part of “Doctor” Berch. At the same time, newspapers after the murder refer to Albert, Sr. as a “prominent physician,” a peculiar description for my grandmother’s father-in-law given that he was new to Marlow, having arrived there apparently free of the nagging need for credentials.
Let me interject a comment about the personal pronouns that will be scattered throughout this story. When I say, “my grandmother” or “my mother,” it is really “our grandmother” or “our mother.” For Susan Hollingsworth Aggarwal and Dawn Hollingsworth, my two sisters, this is their family story, too.
My name is Alan Berch Hollingsworth, and this is my take on the murder of my grandfather, Albert Berch. But it’s Lula’s story, too. And, my mother’s. Indeed, it is a family plot.