How to write a history of your office

By Vincent Giardino
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant County

Let me tell you a story.

            County Attorney J.D. McLean had a problem with illegal game rooms in Tarrant County. He heard about the gambling from folks in the community every time he was out to dinner with his wife, and he knew if he did not crack down on it, voters would find someone who would. But nothing scared J.D., so he not only started a series of raids on the game rooms, but he also insisted that he get to break through the windows and be the first guy the gamblers saw coming into the room. He seized thousands of dollars, made lots of arrests, and quickly earned a reputation as tough on gambling.
            One week in February, J.D. had a weekend off but knew a raid was going down while the Stock Show was in town—which is sure to attract a lot of attention from important people. Taking part could raise his statewide profile, and J.D. was becoming an ambitious man. He invited his brother and his wife to come watch the raid, which was upstairs from a bar along Main Street. The raid went smoothly, and the County Attorney went back to his car to check on his wife (and who knows, maybe see if there were some cameras around watching), then he returned inside—and was promptly shot in the throat by the game room owner, a one-armed degenerate named Thomason who was tired of having his establishments shut down. J.D.’s wife heard the shot and ran to him, but he died in her arms.
            Thomason ran out the back door, fatally shot a pursuing officer, stole the dying officer’s gun, and ran to a lumber yard. An angry crowd surrounded the yard, and someone called to light the wood on fire to flush out the bad guy, but officers bravely ventured in to capture the assassin after a brief shootout. Achieving the high profile he desired, J.D.’s death got nationwide coverage and led to state-wide changes to liquor and gambling laws. The man was Jefferson Davis McLean (his father was a confederate veteran) and the year was 1906. He was replaced as County Attorney by Robert E. Lee Roy (naming people after famous Confederates was a bit of a common theme), and the laws passed after McLean’s death outlawed women and certain music in Texas saloons.
            Here is another story. Imagine the media circus today if the pastor of the biggest mega-church in Texas was accused of setting his own downtown church on fire—but he is acquitted by a local jury. Then, a few years later, that same pastor murders an unarmed man in his office in front of several witnesses and claims self-defense. He keeps preaching, now to ever-larger crowds, about the inalienable right to self-defense and about the growing conspiracy of people he thinks are out to get him. After months of tampering with the jury pool and making parishioners pay for his expensive defense team, he claims moments before jury selection that he cannot get a fair trial because the city of Fort Worth and the Catholic Church are conspiring against him. The trial is moved to Travis County, where he is again acquitted. He returns to Tarrant County triumphant and continues to spread the gospel. The pastor was J. Frank Norris, and the year was 1927.
            Having lived in Tarrant County my entire life, I am embarrassed I never knew I sometimes have drinks at the spot where a prosecutor died in the line of duty. I never knew one of the first pastors of our largest Baptist church was an accused arsonist and murderer—and that both events occurred where I get tacos. We had a criminal district attorney who hired the first female assistant prosecutor in the state, another who hired the first African-American assistant in the entire South, one accused of being bought by the mob, one who brought pre-trial diversion programs to Texas in the 1960s, and another who opened his files to defense attorneys 50 years before the Michael Morton Act. Very few people in my office knew any of this.
            We have a fascinating history, and now we have a book to share it with everyone else.

Writing a history book
The assignment started slowly enough. Sharen Wilson, our elected Criminal District Attorney, told me about a year ago that the office was turning 100 in 2019, and she would like to have some fun historical facts. I had done some light historical research before, such as making posters showing the history of every judge on each bench and helping police departments track down the stories of fallen officers. Wilson and I imagined some neat bullet points to share with the office and the community, such as how many CDAs we have had, their names, and maybe some interesting cases. I had a few irons in the fire but told her I should be able to have some stuff to her by mid-December. At that point, we did not know the actual anniversary of the office, so I was a little concerned about getting the information quickly so we did not miss any big dates. It turns out we had plenty of time—our birthday was October 19, 1919.
            I went to a conference the next week (non-TDCAA, so it was kind of dull) and found myself in a hotel room at 5:30 p.m. with nothing to do. I planned to poke around online to see what I could find and then take a walk—but I didn’t get up from the desk until I stumbled across the room to fall into bed at 2 a.m., having researched and written eight pages of material. The project was really hard to put down after that, and I worked on it all that weekend. Over the next nine months, a request for bullet points turned into a 100-plus-page book with around 80 photos, some of which have never been printed before, 221 footnotes, and a dozen personal interviews.
            I do not wish a rushed book on anyone who is not super-excited about the project and does not have a love of late nights and strong coffee. However, for anyone interested in researching the history of their office—and I’ve heard from a couple of you—I am here to help you get started with some advice and resources.

Good resources
The best news is no one has to start from scratch. I guarantee that someone in your community has at least a partial list of former elected prosecutors, even if it is only in their heads. That leads to the best resource: the retired attorneys, secretaries, and investigators, plus close-to-retired folks in and around your office or defense bar. Invite them to sit down for a cup of coffee, and interview them like you would a witness for a case. You will not only get a ton of intelligence for your later research, but you will also hear details never before put in print (and some stuff you cannot put in print). Getting a basic list of elected officials and about what year they started will give you a framework to start filling in the gaps. Do not be shy—asking a retired person to share some old war stories is the easiest conversation starter ever, and it will be the most fun you have ever had in a witness meeting.
            Another resource I did not realize I needed was local history authors. Just as I can guarantee there is someone in your office who is excited to share old stories, there is also someone on your local history board, who teaches history at a nearby college, or who just keeps a blog about historical events in the community. If some light Googling does not yield names, reach out to the closest college, ask for the email addresses of history professors, and invite them for a cup of coffee—they cannot help themselves and will have already looked some things up that can help you.
            Once you have some names, you can start diving into old newspapers. If you have not played around with historical research before, it is not as library- or microfilm-intensive as it used to be. There are amazing newspaper resources online whose search fields work just like a Google search: Type a name you want to research, put quotes around “district attorney,” and you will get narrowed results with the words you wanted highlighted on the page. One of the best databases online is NewsBank, usually available through your local library or community college, where hundreds of thousands of newspapers have been digitally scanned and are searchable almost like a PDF. Another amazing resource available for free is the Portal to Texas History from the University of North Texas. Similar to NewsBank, it lets you type in a name or event, and you can read about it in the papers as far back as 1813. Also consider checking the Texas State Historical Association, which has a stunning amount of local history written by people from your town.
            As addicting as getting these results will be, know that there is a lot to click through. There were trials or other events I “watched” unfold by basically opening and reading every paper for a couple of days straight before jury selection and every day during the case to get all the details. It will make you miss good journalism and trial coverage. Since papers were once the only way to get news and journalism was a lot more in-depth, larger papers had beat reporters on the payroll in numerous cities. These reporters had relationships with locals and mined for details. If I wanted to find stories about something in Tarrant County, sometimes the best reporting was in the Dallas Morning News or even some papers out of Houston. Checking multiple sources is rewarding, but labor intensive.
            While you are checking the papers, enjoy the funny advertisements showing the latest cure-all medicine (and compare it to the promises made then those made by CBD oil retailers today), comic strips from the 1930s (I have some new favorites), and even stories that make you think you accidentally pulled up a current newspaper. For instance, the Bexar County DA (his name was, appropriately enough, D.A. McAskill) announced a crack-down on illegal voting—in 1904.
            Here are some of the other perennial stories you will see rinsed and repeated every few years starting in the 1800s:
•          High turnover in prosecutor’s offices is blamed on the low salary, so DA’s offices can only seem to get baby lawyers fresh out of law school. They train the newbies, then the scamps run off to become defense attorneys.
•          Letters to the editor complain police have much better things to do than enforce certain laws the writer disagrees with, but then other letter writers complain the DA is not doing enough about the exact same issue and, by the way, they are not getting long enough sentences.
•          The media talk about new bad guys as what terrifies the community slowly changes—from drunken cowboys to mobsters to drug dealers to serial killers to child predators. Many times there is frustration when someone got off easy on an earlier case only to commit new crimes later on.
•          Murder always gets the biggest headlines, and wealthy people accused of murder is like catnip to journalists.
            Collecting these stories is a great deal of fun, but remember your reader and your subject. Staying factual is priority one, but never forget you are telling forgotten stories about fascinating people, not just playing journalist yourself. Once you have marinated in these details long enough, you will have become one the few people on the planet who knows these people best—so do them justice and bring out their personalities. For instance, one of the most fascinating people I found was Doug Crouch. He was the Tarrant County CDA twice, from 1959 to 1966 and from 1971 to 1972. He played fast and loose with the rules, loved to push boundaries, and really loved to be the center of attention. He called a defense attorney into his office and sucker-punched the guy in the face during a disagreement over a case, but he also hired the first African-American prosecutor in the South (not just in Texas, the first one South of Kansas City), hired an African-American receptionist, and publicly fought the commissioners to desegregate the courthouse. His receptionist was not getting the respect he thought she deserved so he installed a locked door only she could open—if you wanted access to see the CDA, you had to be nice to Ms. Dearleace Johnson first.
Crouch created the first diversion program in the state after reading an article about one in Michigan and appointed himself “judge” of the “Court of No Record,” where he called defendants up to the bench to see him and threatened to bring the hammer down unless they cleaned up their act. But he also got cross-ways with organized crime and an assassin came to his house and got into a shoot-out with an office investigator posted there as security. Crouch declined to talk about why the mob was after him and rejected calls to step aside from the case. He was going to prosecute his would-be assassin himself, but when the shooter was mysteriously murdered a few months after indictment, Crouch assigned himself the investigation of catching that murderer as well. All the while his picture was in the paper almost every day and he eventually called a press conference to complain about all of the extra media coverage—which is kind of rich, right? He also published a fictional book about a DA who tangled with a criminal mastermind. Who wouldn’t love to have a drink with this guy! (But alas, Mr. Crouch is deceased.)

Other things to remember
The best advice I received was from local historian Quentin McGown, who never lectures or publishes history newer than 25 years old. He told me to talk to people to get context but to recognize that more recent history is hard to write about in-depth. Our book tapers off greatly after about 1985 and becomes a lot more like a news report. This is true of the study of history in general—we do not fully appreciate the impact of events until decades after they occur. Let the new stories simmer a few more years for the next person to write about.
            Save your research. I ended up with a lot of footnotes, but I lost a lot of hair trying to re-locate about a dozen articles I did not save. Don’t be like me—start saving the newspaper, date, and page of every article early.
            I could have tinkered with the book until 2020, but the week after I finally put it to bed, I met a few members of the defense bar with amazing stories and pictures I definitely would have included. That will never stop. I heard from another author to think of writing as collaborative with the reader. You only learn what you should have known by pretending to know some small part of it first. I am going to bear this in mind when I get an email that starts: “Dear Mr. Giardino: Decent book, but you left out …”
            If you are writing something for the office, your book may be a bit hagiographic. Like the recent slate of movies about rock stars and bands that don’t quite go into all the salacious and embarrassing personal details, your book should not touch rumors such as affairs or other family issues. However, you will uncover some things the office is not necessarily proud of, such as racism, ties to organized crime, and police scandals. Don’t shy away from these. The headlines are out there, and it is important to talk about such things. You will be proud of how far your office has come, as well as prosecution as a profession.
            Lastly, you need a few people helping you. Get a good editor who is willing to join you on interviews, help with research, and provide fresh eyes when yours are tired (thank you, Amy Bearden). Also, get an experienced writer to read your stuff who is willing to savagely tear your prose apart (thank you, Dr. Selcer).
            One of the themes of our book is that history does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. Crimes may change, but society will always produce violent people, thieves, and victims, while legislators will always seek to reform the same laws over and over when they find themselves in the cross-hairs. But through these rhymes our laws evolve, based on the mistakes and successes of our predecessors. We are reckless if we ignore the past. It is important for every community to know where they came from to fully appreciate where they need to go next.
            And it is a ton of fun. Happy writing!