For whatever reason, people love crime stories, from movies and TV shows to news accounts of murders, crashes and arrests.
Now, flavor that passion with people’s interest in local history and you have a recipe for what should be a popular new book, “Murder in the Fourth Corner.”
Todd Warger’s brisk, 308-page book explores 13 early homicides in Whatcom County. He wisely keeps the focus on long-ago cases, from 1880 to 1933, rather than stir the pain of more recent murders.
“I don’t want to step on the memories of any living relatives,” Warger said.
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Warger researched and wrote a dozen of the stories. The other story was contributed by Bellingham writer Candace Wellman, whose account of an unhappy clash between two pioneer Happy Valley families, the Clarks and the Paddens, appeared in the 2012 issue of The Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society.
The book retails for $16.95 from Chuckanut Editions, the publishing arm of Village Books.
Warger is a familiar figure in the local history scene. He works at Whatcom Museum, where he has curated history exhibits. He also co-wrote “ Images of America: Mount Baker,” and helped create two documentaries, “Shipyard,” about the famous Bellingham Shipyards operation, and “The Mountain Runners,” about the Mount Baker Marathon in the early 1900s.
Warger recognizes that crimes are an intrinsic part of any community’s history. He also knows the wrenching impact a murder can have on a community.
He was living in northern Massachusetts in 1988 when a young man brutally murdered a young woman in her home a week before Halloween. Police found the man’s bloodstained car abandoned nearby, but he wasn’t found for five weeks. In the meantime, fear gripped the town’s residents as roadblocks, curfews and alleged sitings of the suspect kept them on edge.
“It was literally like living in a Stephen King novel,” Warger said.
Police even brought in a psychic for help finding the culprit. In the end, a local resident found the killer hanging from a tree in some woods. He apparently had taken his own life just hours after killing the woman.
For his Whatcom County book, Warger combed prison and court records, newspaper accounts, probate records and other archival material. With details on a slew of cases, he’s already at work on a follow-up book that will include murders in Skagit and Island counties.
For his inaugural crime book — the first of its kind about Whatcom County, as far as Warger knows — he chose stories from various parts of the county, including Bellingham, Maple Falls and the vicinity of Blaine and Birch Bay. He includes several unsolved murders, and a murderous mix of crimes of passion, greed, drunken brutality and family tension.
For readers more interested in history than in bloodshed, Warger describes the “then” settings for the crimes, from Bellingham’s early commercial waterfront and red light district in “The Two Deaths of Snowball Wallace,” to the muddy streets and rugged characters of early Maple Falls in “Sam Thompson” and “The Maple Falls Monster.”
The latter story, the longest and most detailed in the book, introduces readers to Frank Romandorf, a coldblooded man of many aliases who likely is one of the state’s earliest serial killers. He was so proficient at his vile craft that the final body count will never be known.
Perhaps the saddest case is the tale of Ben Worstell, a simple-minded young man who fatally beat his mother, a religious woman who tried in vain to beat the Devil out of her son.