In newspaper parlance, we often refer to stories that “write themselves.”
Such stories are so humorous, so rich in detail, so surprising in circumstance that little interference from the writer is needed to convey an interesting tale.
To borrow the phrase, Ben Welter’s book has essentially written itself.
The news copy chief for the Star Tribune is the author of “Minnesota Mayhem: A History of Calamitous Events, Horrific Accidents, Dastardly Crime and Dreadful Behavior in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.”
The book is a collection of news stories from the Star Tribune’s archives, a place Welter mined for material during dinner breaks and spare moments from his duties on the copy desk. The material he exhumed provides the basis for his ongoing blog “Yesterday’s News” as well as his book published in June by The History Press.
“I hesitate to say ‘I wrote a book,’” said Welter, who is hosting a book signing in Mankato on Friday. “Really, I found a book.”
Like the blog he updates weekly, Welter lets the story tell itself. He introduces himself only to offer a short introduction to the story when needed, and to deliver post-scripts in the form of interviews conducted many years after the fact.
For instance, one of the accounts included in the book is the curious story of Tom and Barry Bundhus, a father-son duo whose anti-war, anti-draft sentiments culminated in Barry’s arrest for dumping two buckets of human excrement into the files of the Sherburne County Draft Board in 1966.
Welter called Barry in 2008; in the book, he summarizes the subsequent interview as well as the contents of a thick manila envelope (provided by Barry) that includes a one-page essay on the choice to use human excrement and his father’s declaration of war against the United States.
Welter said such moments are “one of the more satisfying aspects” of the project.
“It’s really interesting to talk to people years later,” he said.
Many of the folks featured in the stories included in “Minnesota Mayhem” are, however, unreachable.
Those who survived the state Capitol fire in 1881 or the influenza outbreak in 1918 -- news stories illustrating both are included in the book -- have long since passed.
So, too have the Younger Brothers -- the famed outlaws who rode with Jesse James and were featured in a remarkably eloquent and self-aware interview in 1901 -- and William Williams, whose gruesome, 14-minute execution was told in stunning, if horrific, detail in a 1906 news story.
But the book also includes feature stories and lighter fare: a 3-year-old who stopped traffic in 1913; a dramatic interview with an organ grinder grieving simultaneously for his dying wife and his runaway monkey; a stripper who blamed a wardrobe malfunction for a burlesque dance that bared too much.
“That was one challenge: making sure the book wasn’t all death and crime stories,” Welter said.
The book also illustrates the differences between newspapers of today and yesterday. Especially before 1940, stories were often over-written and under-reported. Many stories appeared with no byline and with substantial errors.
Even the headlines often began as large, two- or three-word phrases that cascaded into a half-dozen increasingly smaller lines of text. Hence the long-winded and cascading title of Welter’s book.
“I wanted to give a nod to newspapers of yore,” Welter said. “But I did get some grief from my publisher.”