2013-08-14 / Arts & Entertainment News

Missing motive complicates true-life mystery


¦ “Accountable: The Joseph Usher Story” by Nancy Panoch. Expert Subjects. 272 pages. Trade paperback $17.99. Kindle e-book $3.99.

What began as an attempt to uncover the facts about a family secret back in Iowa led Punta Gorda resident Nancy Panoch to develop a fascinating narrative that captures the flavor of early 20th century rural life, reveals the nature of several fascinating real-life characters, and examines in detail the process of a murder investigation and the consequent legal proceedings at that time.

In May of 1903, a murder takes place on the farm of Joseph Usher and his family. Joseph had built up his dairy farm, on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, into a successful business. As we meet him, the farm family consists of Joseph, his second wife, and his two youngest sons by his first wife. Otto, at 16, is a sturdy and reliable worker on the farm, a good role model for hhJ his 9-year-old brother. The woman of the house is Lucy, a very young woman whom Joseph had taken in marriage some time aftera the death of his first wife. Lucy is vsi a very pleasant and attractive person, but she shows some signs of mental instability.

PANOCH PANOCH The family has already suffered some degree of scandal from a relationship between Joseph and one of Lucy’s sisters, but that problem seems to have been smoothed over.

William Garrity is a frequent worker on the Usher farm and a good friend when he’s not drunk. On May 26, Garrity, who has been staying at the Usher home following a drinking bout, is killed. The circumstances of his death are murky, as are the reports to local officials after he is found dead in his room. At first, it seems as if he dies of natural causes, but soon enough a bullet wound is discovered. It seems to be from a weapon in the Usher household that had been hastily and ineffectively hidden.

The investigation begins with Joseph insisting that he simply found Garrity dead in his room after hearing some odd noises, but then he admits to being the murderer and claims it was an act of self defense. Suspiciously, the bedding had been burned before the investigation began. Also, Garrity’s body had been removed from the scene of the crime without proper authority.

The heart of “Accountable” is the record of the trial, an extended affair involving detailed testimony over a prolonged period. Though what seem to be verbatim presentations of witness and expert testimony are largely repetitive, they nevertheless create suspense as we are put in the position of Joseph and Otto while the nails of circumstantial evidence are slowly hammered into the coffin of their souls. Flashes of hope are dashed, rekindled, and dashed again. Ms. Panoch handles the resourcefulness and professionalism of the attorneys on each side very effectively, turning the advocates into authentic, distinctive individuals.

The ups and downs of the case, including conviction, a sentencing, a successful motion for a new trial, and even further developments stretch on into 1909. All along the way, Ms. Panoch continues to deepen and extend our understanding of and sympathy for her main characters: their inner strength, their loyalty and their love for one another.

More and more, young Otto shines. He takes on the major role in running the family business and keeping the family together. Yet he is regularly at the courthouse in Cedar Rapids to comfort and support his father. Members of the extended Usher family come from various locations to support Joseph, and the once-adversarial relationship between the Ushers and Lucy’s family is softened, especially after it is discovered that Lucy is pregnant and Joseph will have (at least) one more child.

The primary mystery of this murder case is the question of motive. If not self-defense, what other motive could Joseph have for shooting Garrity? All of the character witnesses felt that Joseph was a fine, upstanding man incapable of cold-blooded, premeditated murder. If the self-defense claim was genuine, why did he come up with another story when first questioned? The inconsistency of his responses compromised his chances for acquittal. To probe deeper into these matters, dear reader, requires that you explore Ms. Panoch’s carefully researched family history-mystery on your own.

When not laboring on her next truelife mystery, Ms. Panoch owns and operates the Petite Beauty Salon in Port Charlotte. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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