the oklahoman

The Oklahoman

Feb 25, 2018
Writer: Ken Raymond

Dr. Alan Berch Hollingsworth leads a public life as the medical director of Mercy Breast Center in Oklahoma City. Among his many tasks is overseeing the center’s assessment and genetic testing program and maintaining active projects in screening research, currently funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

He limits his practice to high-risk patients, and with that tight focus, he’s become one of the top experts in risk analysis, genetics and breast MRI screening. He is also on the board of The Breast Journal and has written commentaries, book chapters and a book on breast cancer screening controversies.

But Hollingsworth, an El Reno native, isn’t just a physician and researcher. In his 20s, he began dabbling in creating writing. He had the typical luck of new writers: He didn’t get any of his fiction published until he was in his 50s. His novel, “Flatbellies,” a coming of age story, was lauded by Barnes & Noble, USA Today and a group of 12 East Coast sports writers, who named it one of the top 10 golf books of all time. A sequel, “University Boulevard,” was selected for the centennial “Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma” celebration.

Now he has written a nonfiction book called “Killing Albert Berch.” It’s a surprising account of a crime that could have been lost to history, and Hollingsworth writes it as part investigative report and part memoir. After all, Albert Berch, the inspiration for Hollingsworth’s middle name, was the physician’s maternal grandfather.

The Oklahoman spoke with Hollingsworth about his latest work.

Q: Will you provide a quick synopsis of the book?

A: In 1923, at peak popularity of the KKK, hotelier Albert Berch chose to violate a social taboo in Marlow, Oklahoma, a sundown town, by hiring an African-American to work as a porter, and to live in the hotel as well. Ten days later, both men agreed it had been a mistake based on the death threats to the porter, Robert Johnigan, referred to in all accounts as a “crippled Negro.”

My grandfather wrote Johnigan a check for severance pay, saying “I’m indeed sorry to lose you,” but on Johnigan’s way out of the hotel, headed back to Duncan, a mob stormed the lobby and shot Albert Berch at point blank range, then shot and beat Johnigan who died the next morning.

The lobby was full of witnesses, including Lula Berch, wife of Albert, who was holding my 2-year-old mother in her arms. One stray bullet pierced the baby gown, forever cementing this story into our family folklore. But all of this is revealed in the first few pages of the book.

Lula teamed up with the newly impeached-and-removed governor of Oklahoma, Jack Walton, in order to discover the identity of the “mastermind” behind the murders, a strong belief that Lula took to her grave, but without solving the mystery. Two of the mob were convicted and served relatively short sentences in prison, but Lula saw them as lackeys doing the bidding of a puppet master.

Then, in midlife, their only child, Almarian Berch (Hollingsworth) began to research the story as part of her new career in creative writing, whereupon the book circles back on the story, and some of the blanks are filled. But these blanks are still plentiful when I take over after the death of Almarian. Now, the third generation is obsessed. Not only is the probable “mastermind” identified, but also Albert Berch’s motive for breaking the color barrier in Marlow becomes clear through a fortuitous discovery.

Q: This became a very personal book for you. Why is that?

A: Being the namesake of Albert Berch played a big role, as I would recount a one-line version of this story to playmates in grade school. I didn’t understand any of the details, other than my grandmother’s claim that Albert Berch had been killed by the KKK. Of course, I pictured white robes and hoods, never occurring to me that there might have been behind-the-scenes influence.

Still, it was my mother’s story to write about, and she worked on it from midlife until her health failed 30 years later. It was going to be her entree as a published author, a dream that never happened for her beyond a few magazine articles. So when I took over her work in 2011, it meant much more than a fascinating story that history had handed me on a silver platter. In fact, I was finishing the lifelong work of two remarkable women — my mother and my grandmother.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on the book?

A: I was repeatedly shocked at coincidences and discoveries made online, helped greatly by a “murder memorabilia box” of my grandmother’s that I found in an attic that I believe my mother missed.

Another world opened up, too, when Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger located the missing trial transcripts for the two men who went to prison. From the original transcripts, I got a completely different feel for all the characters as I read their exact words in trial testimony. Justice Kauger was gracious enough to write the foreword for the book in addition to her direct contribution.

But nothing matched the shock of discovering where Albert Berch had been during his “missing years.” We still don’t have a birth certificate for this “stranger who came to town.” My mother had worked out his first six years of life, raised part-time in Los Angeles, but living in an orphanage in Fargo, North Dakota, by age 6, even though he was not an orphan.

The next documentation of his life comes in the Marlow newspaper when he shows up at age 27 as a new barber in town. Twenty-one years missing, and my mother was never able to account for him during that time. Even more strange, neither could my grandmother, at least not that she would admit. So when I filled in this enormous blank, the discovery took my breath away. No details here, of course, as it would be a major spoiler.

Q: Your book comes at a time when race relations are perhaps more fraught than at any time since the 1960s. Are there any lessons you learned during your research, or can you talk about the book in light of today’s issues?

A: Good question. When I began work on this story in 2011, I believed that readers would say, “Look how far we’ve come.” The more I studied the time period and the powerful influence of the KKK (in all states), the more I realized how easy it would have been for an innocent verdict for both men, or perhaps, no charges filed at all. After the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting, however, it seems like things have been going downhill ever since. It’s much harder now to say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

Q: You think you’ve solved the case. Do you want to reveal your solution here, and if not, will you explain how you came to that conclusion?

A: Working at a great disadvantage, essentially as a detective arriving at the scene of the crime 90 years after the fact, I can’t be absolutely sure I’ve solved the case. But after I had enough circumstantial evidence to convince myself that my grandmother was not exaggerating after all — that, indeed, there had been a mastermind — I discovered a notation from my mother’s research that she had come to the same conclusion, that is, the same two individuals.

While she was alive, I didn’t know enough about the murders to ask a decent question. So, to come to that conclusion after five years of research and then discover she was of the same opinion, yes, I believe I confirmed the mastermind and his right hand “muscle.” I think part of the intrigue of this story is for the reader to make a judgment call as to whether or not I’ve closed the case. As for the names, I’ll hold back as it would be another spoiler.

Q: Is there anything else you think readers should know about the story?

A: Anyone who has dabbled in investigative journalism knows that only a fraction of one’s research makes it onto the printed page. The excess words are usually rabbit trails of fascinating vignettes that don’t advance the story. My first draft was much longer than the current book. Even after acceptance by the publisher, I was instructed to “keep cutting.” Thirteen of those passages can still be found on the book’s website, listed as “Annotations” (

Also on the website are over 100 photos that were not included in the book. Then, the menu bar has “Lists” that might be of interest to Oklahoma readers as it includes everything from jury membership to those who dined regularly at Johnson’s Hotel Cafe in Marlow. I believe I’ve been very thorough in researching and telling this story. One reviewer on Amazon noted that if Amelia Earhart had been my grandmother, we’d know where her skeletal remains are today.

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