Hollywood Horror in Small-Town WV

Nov. 17 2013


When June Langford Berkley was growing up near Harrisville in the 1940s, she and her brother would sit in an upstairs hallway and listen to a wind-up Victrola recording their parents had that told the gruesome and grisly tale of Harry Powers, the man who moved to Clarksburg, then lured at least two women here through a lonely hearts club and killed them for their money.
“I didn’t know anything except what I heard on that ballad,” said Berkley, a retired distinguished visiting educator at Ohio University in Athens who taught creative writing.
Berkley, who lives in Ohio, was born in Glenville five years after the 1931 murders that eventually captured the imagination of many writers, including the one who penned “The Crime of Quiet Dell.”
“The song, I remember it was mournful,” Berkley said. “The idea that someone would lure another person to the murder scene — it wasn’t very far from where we were born and grew up. It was near Clarksburg, where our relatives lived, near Quiet Dell. My grandmother had lived near that site.”
Berkley will be one of four members of a panel that will discuss the murders committed by Harry Powers, focusing on how the case has inspired fiction and nonfiction books; feature films, a documentary and a play; and, in the case of “The Crime of Quiet Dell,” songs.
The 6:30 p.m. Tuesday panel discussion, led by Phyllis Wilson Moore at the Bridgeport Public Library, has many works from which to choose, including both the acclaimed book and film versions of “The Night of the Hunter” by one-time Clarksburg resident Davis Grubb and one of the more recent offerings on the topic, “Quiet Dell,” a part-fiction, part-fact novel by Buckhannon native and acclaimed author Jayne Anne Phillips published last month by Scribner.
“We’re not trying to emphasize Powers,” said Wilson, a retired nurse who pursued her interest in regional literature and was the chair of the first committee to establish a literary map of West Virginia. “I think what he did is terrible.”
Other members of the panel include Steve Goff, who portrayed Powers in an area production of “The Harry Powers Murder Mystery” about the case ; and John J. Fazio.
Powers was born in Holland as Herman Drenth. His family first immigrated to Iowa and then to Clarksburg, where Powers married a local woman named Luella Strother. They lived at her family home in Broad Oaks but she also owned property in Quiet Dell. He convinced her that he needed to build a garage there and then placed ads through “lonely hearts clubs” in an effort to attract wealthy women.
Several answered, including Asta Eicher of the Chicago area, a widow with three children; and Dorothy Lemke of Massachusetts. Eicher appears to have had a comfortable lifestyle upon the death of her husband but ironically, her funds were dwindling and she was seeking someone to take care of her.
Instead, Powers killed Eicher; her children, Greta, Harry and Annabel; as well as Lemke.
Powers might have kept on killing but police in Chicago, alerted to the missing Eicher, began looking around and found a trail that led them to Clarksburg, Harry Powers and the property at Quiet Dell, where an excavation turned up the bodies.
In a society where the term “serial killer” had yet to be coined, the trial at Moore’s Opera House — the current Harrison County Courthouse was under construction — attracted a lot of media attention.
“Reporters came from all over the country,” Moore said.
She learned from the book “The Mail Order Serial Killer: The Life and Death of Harry Powers,” by Vance McLaughlin, published in 2011, that some seats in the courthouse were designated for reporters and others for Harrison County residents “so not everybody could be from out of town.”
The atmosphere reached “carnival” proportions, she added, when the garage was torn apart by gawkers and sold in fragmented bits.
In fact, author Phillips first learned of the case from her mother, who told her the story of walking down a dusty road at the age of 6 and finding “cars parked as far as they could see as they walked past the murder garage, and they could hear the crowd taking it apart piece by piece for souvenirs,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
Phillips decided to take on the story she had been told growing up when she ended up writing what became the introductory paragraphs of the book for another project 20 years ago, told from the viewpoint of the youngest victim.
“It was the voice of a child talking about a magical time of the year,” Phillips said. “She refers to birth and death and stories her grandmother tells her and it ends with the line, ‘Everything in front of me is white and open like a field and then I start dreaming.’ I realized that was Annabel’s voice.”
While “Quiet Dell” follows the facts of the case, it is a fictional novel. In addition to many real characters who actually were involved in the story, Phillips created a few, including a female reporter from Chicago as well as a boy from an original photo taken by Floyd E. Sayre that she worked into the book.
“I’ve always said that history tells us the facts and literature tells us the story,” Phillips said. “The facts have been repeated many times in many guises. That’s what the panel is about. But this is an invented world presented through the perceptions of invented characters.”
Ripley resident Bob Wilkinson also decided to explore Harry Powers, a topic he stumbled across while doing research on former Clarksburg resident and UFO enthusiast Gray Barker at the West Virginia Collection of the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library. Wilkinson’s documentary, featuring a title — “Romeo Must Hang” — taken from a 1931 newspaper article, has won festival awards but has not found a distributor.
“I was hesitant,” said Wilkinson, who is not a part of Tuesday’s panel discussion. “I didn’t want to do a film about a serial murderer. I didn’t want to glorify it. I took the time to find the angle I like.”
That idea was how the culture tends to “glorify these events.”
“That’s what gets the attention, not schools or homelessness,” Wilkinson said. “These are horrific things. This is what we want.”
Just as Berkley grew up listening to a song about the murders, bluegrass artist Chris Stuart wrote another, more recent one that will be played Tuesday. Stuart’s song has a similar title, “The Crime At Quiet Dell, and was inspired by an article he read in Goldenseal magazine about the lynch mob that prompted Powers’ removal to the state penitentiary in Moundsville, where he was hanged in March 1932, less than seven months after his crimes were discovered.
The song that Berkley grew up listening to fueled her imagination to the point that she was frightened of the cellar in her family’s home; she had an uncle who was a mail carrier in Quiet Dell and she fantasized that he delivered the letters Powers sent until she discovered the murderer had used a post office box.
“We would ask our parents, who were still horrified about the incident, about what happened,” Berkley said. “The record was my first encounter with the case, and I was terrified of basements because I was told her buried them in the basement.”