When Serial Murderer Charles Manson Tried to Move to Moundsville, WV

 

 

 

In 1983, cult leader, musician and serial murderer Charles Manson was in California state prison when he wrote to the warden of the West Virginia state penitentiary in Moundsville, requesting a transfer there.

This is one of the stories about the prison that paranormal collector Steve Hummel tells in our movie, Moundsville (which you can watch by ordering here) and it’s a popular one in town.

Manson, who died in 2017, was born in 1934 in Cincinnati to a 16-year-old girl, Kathleen Maddox, who went on to live a life of petty crime. Charles’ youth was spent bouncing around West Virginia and Kentucky, including long stretches in McMechen, a small town near Moundsville in Marshall County.

Locked up in 1971, for seven murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate, he requested to be moved to West Virginia.

“Dear Sir,” he began, in a letter to the warden that’s displayed in the Moundsville pen, which closed in 1995 and is now a museum. “You may know some of my ken folks God knows they been enough of us in & out of your place. I’m a beanie brother from way back. California prison people had me in the hole for 14 years. They done told a pack of lies & built up so much fear.”

“Would you accept me at your place?” Manson continues in the letter. “I’m a good worker & I give you my word I’ll start no trouble. I’ve been in prison hallways over 30 years & never lied to you & never rated. That should count for something somewhere. Thank you, Charles Manson.”

Warden Donald Bordenkircher declined, telling the United Press International that it would be a “a cold day in hell” before he admitted Manson.

“I’m not really into Charles Manson,” Steve says in a phone call. “There were prisoners in the Moundsville pen who were a lot more violent than he was.”

At his own museum in Moundsville, “Archives of the Afterlife”, which I recommend visiting, Steve has a postcard from Charles Manson to a PO Box address in Orange, CA, with a certificate of authenticity. He texted me pictures of the front and back of the card:

 

So why the fascination in town with the Manson anecdote? “We don’t have too many celebrities associated with this area,” says Steve, listing baseball player George Brett, singer Brad Paisley and the writer Davis Grubb.

Maybe, I suggest, a small town yearns for any connection to the wider world. Steve agrees.

John W. Miller

 

USW To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Dialogue on Politics, Economics

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PRESS RELEASE

United Steelworkers Local 3657 To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Conversations About Politics, Economics

Pittsburgh, PA– United Steelworkers Local 3657 will screen the documentary film Moundsville for its members, the international union’s technicians, auditors and administrative assistants, over two days, March 20 and 21, 2019 and host a conversation with co-directors John W. Miller and David Bernabo.

“Many of our members and retirees live in communities struggling to establish new economic identities after factories and manufacturing jobs disappear,” says Tony Montana, a member of Local 3657 who facilitated the screening for USW. “As we begin to prepare for the 2020 elections, I think we can learn from the conversational approach John Miller and David Bernabo have taken in the documentary film, Moundsville, which examines the history and culture of a West Virginia town not far from here – but is unmistakably set in Donald Trump’s America.”

“I think the film really succeeds by letting the people of Moundsville tell their own stories,” says Montana. “They reveal what’s important to them, and we learn that they are far more than the caricatures of bigotry, bitterness and anger that we expect to find in a place where Trump received more than 70 percent of the votes in 2016.”

“Screening at USW fits squarely in the evolving social mission behind the movie,” says Miller. “There’s been too much talk about what people in small towns think about Trump, and not enough talk about the reality of what’s happened in those places, and the shape of their future economies. Healing divisions starts with a shared narrative based on reality.”

Moundsville is the economic biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of WalMart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out. Told through the voices of residents, the story covers an arc that includes Moundsville’s Native American origins, white settlement, Marx toy plant (it made Rock’em Sock’em robots), legendary prison, first African-American mayor, post-industrial decline, and current small businesses. The constant is the 2,200-year-old mound left behind by a Native American people, a Greek chorus reciting time’s insistence on change. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, stereotypes, or talking about Trump, Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

USW Local 3657 represents the technicians, auditors and administrative assistants employed by the United Steelworkers international union to support and serve its 1.2 million active and retired members in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Members are located throughout the country in district offices and at the USW International headquarters in Pittsburgh. Improving the way we individually communicate about important issues with the members we serve as well as each other will only strengthen our collective voice and make us more effective advocates for fairness, equality and dignity for all workers.

For more information call John W. Miller at 412-298-0391 or Tony Montana at 216-308-4798

Moundsville At Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, Sunday, March 17 at 4pm

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Steve Hummel, paranormal collector, in the film “Moundsville”

(PRESS RELEASE)

Pittsburgh, PA—Row House Cinema (4115 Butler St, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 in Lawrenceville) will show Moundsville on Sunday, March 17 at 4 pm.

Filmmakers John W. Miller and David Bernabo will make a short presentation before the 75-minute movie.

Book tickets ($10) http://www.rowhousecinema.com

See www.moundsville.org for trailer, info, and options to rent/buy.

Moundsville, which has been shown in New York, Pittsburgh and Moundsville, and is available to rent or buy online, is the economic biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of Walmart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out.

Told through the voices of residents, the story covers an arc that includes Moundsville’s Native American origins, white settlement, Marx toy plant (it made Rock’em Sock’em robots), legendary prison, first African-American mayor, post-industrial decline, and current small businesses.

The constant is the 2,200-year-old mound left behind by a Native American people, a Greek chorus reciting time’s insistence on change.

By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, stereotypes, or talking about Trump, Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

Row House Cinema is a single screen theater in the historic Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Each week it selects a new movie theme. Its concession stand features natural popcorn with real butter & pure sea salt. In addition, it sells tasty chocolate popcorn, craft beer, locally made ice cream, pepperoni rolls, hot dogs, popsicles, coffee, tea, as well as vegan options.

For more information, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391

A Reflection on Moundsville and Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

I went to see Deborah and James Fallows last night at City of Asylum, a marvelous literary non-profit, restaurant, event space and bookstore on the North Side of Pittsburgh.

While we were making Moundsville last year, I bought and read the Fallows’ book Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into The Heart of America. It’s the result of dozens of trips they took to American towns, including Pittsburgh, between 2012 and 2017, in a single-engine prop plane.

Their mostly two-week stops included bigger post-industrial towns like Erie, PA; Louisville, KY and Columbus, OH; Southern outposts I’ve never heard of like Demopolis, AL, Starkville, MS, and Greer, SC; and Western communities like Rapid City, SD, Bend, OR and Riverside, CA.

What inspired me most reading the book was their basic approach to reporting, which Dave and I were slowly figuring out in our parallel Moundsville adventure.

As James Fallows, a longtime Atlantic correspondent, said last night in presenting the book, his advice to anybody seeking to escape the poison of national politics is to visit towns “and don’t ask about national politics or anything they’ve seen on cable news, just ask people about their lives.”

We usually begin our visits talking about dollars-and-cents topics – how the economy was doing, whether businesses were moving into downtown or away from it, how the schools were funded and how well they were preparing students for opportunities in the area or beyond.

It’s what Dave and I ended up doing while making Moundsville, mostly because our questions about national politics yielded such predictable, cliché answers. The stories about people’s lives, jobs and families were the ones with depth and heart.

Our Towns is a rich argument for assessing the reality of the current moment, grieving the past when necessary, and then getting on with it. The Fallows’ don’t pretend to have the policy answer to how to rebuild the middle class out of an economy currently based, in many places, on $10ish-an-hour services jobs. There are no utopias. Change happens slowly, and it starts by acknowledging the truth of people’s lives, and by cheering their successes, as loudly as possible. It’s the only way to avoid the traps of fantasy and nostalgia, and their dire political consequences.

As James Fallows writes:

After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in towns we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital but who work together “at home.” Their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they might ever imagine.

The last chapter of Our Towns is a checklist of “the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work.” These include:

People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.

They have, and care about, a community college.

They have distinctive, innovative schools.

And this: People know the civic story.

The future of Moundsville the town is unclear to me. After all, it doesn’t have a community college, or a big employer promising a future of good middle-class jobs. Like a lot of places, it’s been getting progressively poorer. There is hope, but not all towns will last forever.

What Moundsville does have is a great story, and our goal in making the movie, like the goal, I think, of Our Towns, was to show that the way forward for all of us is to tune out the other stuff and give depth and dignity to the true story of every place. This can’t be happening often enough.

John W. Miller

Moundsville To Screen at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, MD March 14

(PRESS RELEASE)

Emmitsburg, MD—Mount St. Mary’s is showing Moundsville, co-directed by John W. Miller (C’99). The movie will be shown on Thursday, March 14 in Laughlin Auditorium in the Coad Science Building at 7:00 pm.

Filmmakers John W. Miller and David Bernabo will take questions after the 75-minute movie. Admission is free and open to the public.

See www.moundsville.org for trailer, info, and options to rent/buy.

Moundsville, which has been shown in New York, Pittsburgh and Moundsville, and is available to rent or buy online, is the economic biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of Walmart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out.

Told through the voices of residents, the story covers an arc that includes Moundsville’s Native American origins, white settlement, Marx toy plant (it made Rock’em Sock’em robots), legendary prison, first African-American mayor, post-industrial decline, and current small businesses.

The constant is the 2,200-year-old mound left behind by a Native American people, a Greek chorus reciting time’s insistence on change.

By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, stereotypes, or talking about Trump, Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

For more information, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391

or Ed Egan of Mount St. Mary’s at 301-447-8398

When Americans Took to the Rails to Find Work, Inspiring Books and Songs; Some Vets Became Hoboes to Cope with PTSD.

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From the spread of railroads in the 1870s until the suburbanization of American life in the 1960s, millions of Americans took to the rails.

Although boxcar life acquired a romantic whiff of freedom, it was a difficult, dangerous life, and illegally riding train cars had a practical purpose: Most hoboes were itinerant workers, traveling until they found the next job at a mill or in a field.

Most hoboes were men, although an estimated 5%, including Cora D. Harvey, who became secretary of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, were women. Some, like Railroad Bill and Hobo John, became legends, inspiring a genre of magazine article, books and songs.

Hoboes were a large enough class of people that their plight became wrapped in wider labor struggles in the decades before World War Two. Unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World, organized them. The first popular recording of the hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was made by a former IWW activist named Harry McClintock. The community even had a newspaper, Hobo News, published by James Eads How, the heir to a railroad fortune who became a socialist and himself lived as penniless itinerant.

There are different theories about the origin of that word, according to Iain McIntyre, editor of On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, 1879-1941. One is that it comes from the Latin Homo bonus, or “good man.” It could also have come from the salutation “Ho, boy!” or the designation of farm laborers at “hoe boys.”

I picked up McIntyre’s completely fascinating anthology after an artist from Moundsville, John Mowder, invited me to his home in Pittsburgh to show me a series of paintings he’s working on to celebrate his cherished 1950s childhood. “After growing up there, I could go anywhere in the world,” he says. “I had a small town in my pocket.”

In the painting featured here, John is bringing an ear of corn to the town’s hobo camp. By that time, cars were pushing railroads into decline, and the hobo community dwindling.

But for a number of men, the lifestyle, even if often hard and lonely, provided community and support.

One was Mowder’s uncle, also named John.

He had served in World War Two, was part of a troupe of veterans who helped each other as they wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder from the anguish and suffering of the war. In the 1950s, they often hung out in Moundsville, Mowder says, and he ran errands for them.

“Uncle John lived by himself,” Mowder told me. “He drank too much, but he was a nice man, and his friends were nice. They took care of each other. They didn’t have a real diagnosis for PTSD back then, so this was how they coped.”

John W. Miller

Moundsville Mayor Phil Remke on Trump, Traffic and Where He Gets News, and other things not in our doc (We also talked about our doc)

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Phil Remke, who turns 65 this month, became mayor of Moundsville in December. Phil has an important role in the film, and is a representative small-town citizen– and Republican. He’s spent almost his whole life in the town, running a furniture store and medical supply business, and managing tourism at the shuttered state penitentiary. He tells stories about playing basketball as an 18-year-old against a team at the pen. “I got fouled hard into the wall” by an inmate, he recalls. Another time, after his family’s furniture story was robbed, he traded a TV with an inmate in exchange for information about where the stolen goods, worth around $4,800, were located. After the goods were recovered, he got the TV back.
I decided to follow up with Phil on national politics, the prospective gas cracking plant across the river, and some of the other stuff we didn’t cover in the movie.
How do you feel about Trump these days? (Marshall County, where Moundsville is located, voted 73%-22% for Trump over Clinton in 2016)
I’m still a supporter. I watched some of the union thing last night, and I see some Democrats clapped for him. Unforunately, you have the people who want to fight him. From the time he won the office, he has been bashed every day. How many times when the Democrats ran the office did they get bashed? Not many. I don’t believe in what he’s done in his personal life, but what he’s doing in politics, it’s all about business and trying to create jobs. But unfortunately, the news media doesn’t show it that way.
What are your sources of news?
Local TV: Channel 7 and channel 9. Nationally, I watch Fox. My wife does not watch Fox. She doesn’t understand. My son and I are devout Republicans. My daughter and my wife are true Democrats. If you ask them questions they always go back to issues in Trump’s past. We’re looking to the future. Podcasts, I like Motley Fool and Fox podcasts. Newspaper; the Wheeling News-Register. I don’t know how to use Twitter.
Do people in town support Trump?
Oh yeah. I don’t feel uncomfortable walking around this town wearing my Trump hat. If I went to LA I’d probably get shot, but in this town, people understand we need business. What he’s doing with bringing jobs and doing this and doing that. If it doesn’t work at least he’s tried. Those other people aren’t even trying.
Do you think there are any Democrats that get people in Moundsville excited for 2020?
It’s too early to say.
What are the biggest issues Moundsville faces in 2019?
It’s a mess around Route 2 because of the rain and the weather’s been bad, but you have to tear things up to make things happen. They’re replacing a bridge and fixing a new bridge. It’s taking 45 minutes to get through town. It’s like driving through LA. That’ll be over at the end of 2019, supposedly. This town has never really worked with cost of living. I don’t want an area that’s depressed. I want to see medium to upper income coming in.
A lot of residents in Moundsville work service jobs at WalMart and other businesses along Route 2. Do you support a higher minimum wage?
The problem is when the minimum wage goes up everything else goes up. It’d be fine to have a $2 minimum wage if prices were the way they used to be. The only way I can see [wages going up] is if they go across the river and start building. Then Moundsville’s going to have to look to getting truck licenses and earning higher pay. Then [the service employers] will have to adjust wages to meet demand.
What the latest on the cracker plant? (A consortium led by PTT of Thailand has secured permits to build a plant that turns natural gas into the raw material for plastic, creating thousands of jobs, across the river from Moundsville, but hasn’t said yet if it will build it.)
Things are quiet. They’re going to have a meeting in [Ohio] soon. I just got a gut feeling they’re waiting to get more done, and then they’ll start moving people. I’ve heard the power company did eminent domain on some property, but that’s hearsay. They were talking about March but they told us that two years ago. I can’t say but when it happens, it’s going to be heck on earth.
What if it doesn’t happen?
That’s possible, but something will go there. In Marshall county (where Moundsville is located), I’ve heard there’s more gas and oil than anywhere else in the world.
Have people in Moundsville benefited from gas royalties?
Some people have done well. Some haven’t gotten any yet. This world is tied up with lawyers. I don’t want the gas well people to collect all the money. I want everybody to be happy.
What have you done since becoming mayor? 
It’s only been a few weeks. We’re moving along. The one hotel is intending to start digging in April. It’ll be a Holiday Inn Express with 123 rooms. Two restaurants are in negotiations. One will be a steakhouse, and the other a Japanese restaurant, I hope.
Will they be chains?
Not necessarily. The chains won’t come into this area because we don’t have that big a population. But if they build that cracker plant across the river, we’ll be working on numerous other ones.
Are there any other big sources of jobs in the works?
Nothing for now.
What are the things you hope to accomplish this year and next?
The sky’s the limit. I want better roads. With the one-percent sales tax we got off home rule. If I can put that into water and sewer, we can get better infrastructure.
What did people in town think about our movie?
The movie was a downer to some of them. But that’s the way society was, and what’s happened. I want to make Moundsville the premier city in West Virginia and a model in the United States. We just have to keep pounding and making things positive.
We tried to show the truth, in a way all sides can agree on.
And that’s what I’m about, bringing people together.
When people in Moundsville talk about the way things were in the 1950s and 1960s, does it make them proud, sad, angry or what?
We had an issue last night at council. They want to put in trailers on first street, to make some money. There were 80-year-olds and 88-year-olds fighting it. It passed 4-3. You can’t stop progress. We have to think of our future generations, and I understand that’s going to be trailers and that’s going to be in and out. But that’s the future.
John W. Miller

Meet the Fokker: Making Airplanes in 1920s West Virginia

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Anthony Fokker standing next to an F-10 tri-motor, one of Pan-American Airways’ first-ever fleet flying passengers between the U.S. and Cuba.

There’s only a brief reference to the Fokker aircraft company in Moundsville, so I wanted to tell a full version of its story:

In the 1920s, as fledgling passenger transport firms raced to connect towns all over the world by propeller, one of aviation’s most famous pioneers came to northern West Virginia to make airplanes.

Anthony Fokker was a Dutch-born entrepreneur and inventor who made propeller planes in Germany before and during World War One.  He built the fighter used by Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron, and invented a machine gun that timed its bullets to avoid the propeller in front of it.

After the war, with Germany’s aviation ambition curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles, Fokker left and looked elsewhere.

At the same time, in northern West Virginia, as in other prospering places, aviation was becoming popular. It was an easy way to travel in a hilly state with a lot of country roads. And with industry thriving, local leaders saw airplane-making as a logical step.

The Ohio Valley Industrial Corporation, backed by investors, pitched leading aviation engineers free land, a supply chain of nearby factories making glass, steel and other raw materials, and funds to build a factory. They even had an airfield: Langin Field, which welcomed Charles Lindbergh on a cross-country tour in August of 1927.

Fokker bit, and in 1928, supervised the building of a factory on the banks of the Ohio river, in Glen Dale, adjacent to Moundsville. (In practice and in spirit, the two constitute one town.)

The Glen Dale plant employed 500 workers and made the Fokker F-10 tri-motor plane, one of the world’s first commercial planes. It could seat 12 passengers and two pilots, and cruise at around 120 miles per hour. Pan-American Airways bought it as part of its first-ever commercial passenger service between the U.S. and Cuba. The fuselage was made out of fabricated metal, the wings out of laminated wood.

Here’s how Thomas O. James describesits maiden flight:

 The flight originated on the grassy airfield located on the banks of the Ohio River adjacent to the Fokker plant. Teams of men pushed open the accordion style doors at the northern end of the factory and the plane was towed into the daylight. Ignition of the three engines produced a distinctive oscillating sound from the combined output of 1,275 horsepower. Captain Haynes taxied the craft under its own power to the southern edge of the airfield where he performed his pre-flight checks, and at four o’clock, with the sun low on the western horizon, the new airplane raced down the uneven turf runway and ascended gracefully into the air over Glen Dale. The beautiful starch-white craft banked easily to the left over the Ohio River climbing an upward spiral until reaching a height of 4,000 feet.

The West Virginia Fokker factory also made the tri-motor bomber for the U.S. military. In 1929, General Motors bought the Fokker plant, retaining Anthony Fokker as technical director. The plant cranked out a plane every couple weeks or so.

In 1931, a Fokker-10, flying for Transcontinental and Western Air, with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne aboard, hit a thunderstorm over Kansas and crashed, killing Rockne.

The company was already struggling because of the Great Depression, but bad publicity from the crash sealed the factory’s fate. It closed. Fokker went back to Europe. The Marx toy company bought the the Glen Dale plant in 1932.  (There’s lots about Marx in Moundsville.)

Our movie is in large part about the cycles of capitalism, how they change people’s lives, and how to reckon with that change – by going through the stages of grief, by accepting change, or by fighting back.

But it’s also about the wonder of what’s been lost– and one of the first things that filled me with wonder me when I first came to Moundsville in 2013 was this: Wow, they used to make airplanes here.

John W. Miller

On Loving Small-Town Newspapers

 

 

Every time I report in an American small town, I am drawn to its newspaper building. I like to drop in, buy a paper and chat with a journalist or two. Then I go get a coffee and read about a famous son or daughter who just died, the drama of the high school football game last week and the op-ed decrying or celebrating the president from afar.

Believe it or not, almost every small American town still has a newspaper. (Moundsville has the Echo.) It’s one of the reasons I love making these visits: I can’t believe all these papers are still going! It amazes and delights me. Many readers depend on their paper, and many older people don’t like reading news online. Some tiny newspapers are brilliant and win Pulitzer Prizes.

The newspaper is often housed in a grand building that looks like a bank. Typically, in the back is an ancient printing press, made a hundred years ago in Germany or Chicago. Usually, it’s a monument, but sometimes, as in Moundsville, that is what is still printing the paper. Sometimes, there are plaques or even statues commemorating legendary newspaper editors. Journalists used to be heroes in small towns. They were leaders in the community, people you knew you could count on. Some of that spirit of admiration remains. I’ve seen old people walk in to drop off the checks for their subscription, as they chat with editors wrapping their newspapers in rubber bands before piling them into delivery trucks.

Today, I was in Washington, PA, a bit under an hour south of Pittsburgh, on assignment for a start-up online magazine, and I dropped in on the Observer-Reporter‘s beautiful old stone building. The paper has roots dating back to 1808 and a circulation a bit over 20,000, and it’s experimenting with a paywall it hopes will keep it profitable, an employee told me, adding that things have been hard. The paper was recently purchased by the Ogden Newspapers, which belongs to Bob Nutting, owner of the Pirates.

These days, my love for these old newspapers, and enthusiasm for these visits, is tinged with sadness. The industry is in turmoil, bleeding readers and jobs. Fewer and fewer people understand and love newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post are doing fine, but these little papers are on death’s door. It’s likely that in a few decades, most will be gone.

But even as they die, we should watch carefully, and cherish them, and grieve their loss. And think about what they represent, and what they still are– an entire industry dedicated to the assembly and publication of the truth, with precious principles of integrity and verification, shared and enforced broadly by editors and reporters around the country. That, when done right and done well, is worth more than any billion-dollar tech company, political cause or phone app. I wish more Americans understood what’s being lost.

John W. Miller