In the appendix to Torso, Bendis says that people often think that the shantytown fire was made up for dramatic purposes. Maybe the idea that police would burn poor people out of house and home is hard to believe. Because that never happens. Parts of the book are fictionalized, of course, like the two main police characters. In that way it reminds me of American Tabloid, which makes no pretense to true crime. But the basic facts of the tale are verifiable and supported by archival material. And we’ve seen embellishments in true crime before, like William Fly’s wobbly knees at the gallows, or Alice Mitchell as the bloodthirsty Amazon.
Bendis says Ness took a lot of criticism for the fire, and that many think it ruined his political career. I was curious what was said about the fire at the time. I don’t have access to Cleveland papers, but was able to check national news from the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Looking at articles that mention “Kingsbury Run,” or “Ness” and “Cleveland,” from the day of the fire and the days that followed, I see no mention of it. The bodies get coverage, as do some of the leads, but burning down the encampment, which seems like it would be a newsworthy event, gets no mention. Why might that be? Was it not newsworthy? Or was it something the newspapers didn’t want to talk about?