It’s amazing how a story idea can hit you when you aren’t looking for one.
That’s what happened to me last year while I was paging through a Sunday edition of The Morning Call.
The paper has a terrific feature that shows images of Morning Call front pages from 100 years ago, 50 years ago and 25 years ago. I like to see how the news of the day was handled.
On this particular Sunday, a two-column headline atop the Allentown Morning Call of April 11, 1918, caught my eye.
SERGT. JAS. BOYLE OF THIS CITY
RAN AMUCK AT FORT WRIGHT;
TWO KILLED AND FOUR WOUNDED
What happened, exactly? Where was Fort Wright? I couldn’t read the text, because the photo reproduction of the page was too small. But I subscribe to Newspapers.com, and that’s where I learned about Sgt. James J. Boyle’s dark deed at a fort off the Connecticut coast. He was posted there with the Coast Artillery Corps, getting ready to go to France as World War I raged. In “a crazed state of mind,” he went through a barracks shooting other soldiers, then killed himself.
Papers across the country carried the story, but nothing had been written about Boyle and his rampage since April 1918. I wanted to change that.
Old newspaper clippings wouldn’t be enough. I needed Army records, especially a report of investigation, assuming there had been one. It turned out that the National Archives at St. Louis has paperwork on Boyle, but not his official military personnel file, which an archivist said might have been destroyed in the massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.
The National Archives does have Boyle’s burial case file, which documents the disposition of his remains and briefly mentions how he died. It has a VA master index card for him, showing such details as date of birth, service number and unit information. And it has his deceased veteran claim file, which tracks the benefits Boyle received in and out of service, and the benefits his family received after his death. This file also has the key item – a report about the incident.
I was thrilled.
The material totaled 216 pages and was rich with information. But when I got to the middle of the stack and saw the two-page typewritten report of investigation, I was sorely disappointed. The first photocopied page was almost completely unreadable; the other I could just barely make out. A call to the archivist resolved the problem. That afternoon, he emailed me two scans of the illegible page, one of which he worked on to sharpen the image, the other untouched. Calling these up on my screen, I could zoom in on the text and make out the words.
The report by four Army officers was critical to my story. It gave an account of Boyle’s behavior before the shootings, a moment-by-moment narrative of his spree; and the Army’s conclusion that he was physically ill and insane at the time. It put the toll at five dead, including Boyle, and two wounded. It noted that one of Boyle’s victims didn’t die from gunfire, as newspapers reported, but from trying to avoid being shot – he jumped from a second-floor porch and fractured his skull on the steps below.
One blustery cold Saturday morning, I stood at Boyle’s grave in an Allentown churchyard. Later, a visit to the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle gave me background information on the units he served in: the 6th Field Artillery Regiment, the 311th Machine Gun Battalion and the Coast Artillery Corps.
The Morning Call posted my story online on December 29 and ran it in the Sunday paper the next day. Here’s the link: https://bit.ly/2sDnyiY
I’m glad I could tell the story of Sgt. Boyle’s life and death. To a great extent, I was lucky. If the newspaper hadn’t reproduced the April 11, 1918, front page, and if I hadn’t looked at it closely, I might never have known about this tragic soldier.