One of the more infamous crimes in our local area is the gruesome 1912 murder of Ella Barham in rural Boone County, which is just next door to us here in Berryville. I must confess, I had never actually heard of the crime until I read this book. Author Nita Gould has family ties to the case–Ella is a cousin, though one who died long before she was born. As Gould quickly learned when she started researching the case, local oral tradition of the case is unreliable and contradictory, so she instead turned to the extensive news coverage of the crime and court files to detail the murder of the vivacious eighteen-year-old and the subsequent arrest and trial of one of her neighbors. Thank you to Julie for ordering this book for me!
Gould’s coverage is thorough, and she also makes a genuine effort to be fair to all parties, including the alleged murderer. The crime, as mentioned earlier, is a gruesome one. The details presented are not gratuitous, but they’re probably too much for the squeamish. Gould was prompted to write the book out of frustration over previous accounts that couldn’t even get basic details–like Ella’s name–right, and the early parts of the book where she focuses on Ella as a person are a nice, much-needed reminder of her individual personality and life before the tragedy.
There are a lot of unique aspects of the case that will likely appeal to true crime buffs and those interested in local history. The details on rural 1910s crime detection were more sophisticated, in many ways, than I had expected. The earlier chapters also provide a good look at life in the Ozarks during the time. The most attention, though, is devoted to the trial of Odus Davidson and the subsequent appeals process. Berryville actually is mentioned numerous times since the defendant was held in our local jail for fears of mob violence if he had been kept in Boone County. I like a good courtroom procedural, but there’s an awful lot of detail here, perhaps more so than the average general reader is interested in engaging with.
My only other complaint is that during the courtroom scenes, Gould often puts thoughts in the jury’s head, usually questions about the day’s events. I found that distracting since they were clearly her own (valid) questions about the testimony and not derived from any statements of the jury. Overall, Gould did a good job of dealing with spotty evidence and historical records regarding certain aspects of the case and elsewhere was always careful to clarify what was supposition, so those moments with the jury stood out to me as unnecessary.
Recommended for those interested in local history and true-life courtroom dramas.
By the way, you can find this book in our local Arkansas section. Sometimes, folks overlook this part of the library, but it is full of books of local or regional interest. Everything from books on local wildlife and plants to area sports to cookbooks to genealogical resources to general Arkansas history. Next time you’re in the library, make sure you stop by the Arkansas section!
Are you familiar with the story of Ella Barham? Did you know about the case’s Berryville connection? Which Arkansas true crime story do you find the most fascinating? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this item or to place a hold.