True crime might not be for everyone, but for local author Betsy Longenbaugh, it’s a driving force that led her to uncover the unremembered history that helped shape the capital city into what it is today.
The local author and former reporter recently released her debut book, “Forgotten Murders from Alaska’s Capital,” a collection of 10 stories that bring back to life long-forgotten Juneau murders between 1902 and 1959.
The book came to fruition during Longenbaugh’s time volunteering at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum as a recent retiree, when she began to sift through a collection of historic news articles to pass any free time she had.
Doing research for fun was a bit of a habit she formed after years spent as a reporter at the Juneau Empire decades ago. But it turned out a useful skill, as through exploring these old newspapers, she discovered murder stories in the Juneau-Douglas area that she had never heard of in her almost four decades in the area.
“I was really struck by the articles, I always loved covering cops and courts back when I was a reporter,” Longenbaugh said. She found herself spending hour upon hour reading those old newspapers, fascinated by the crime and murders that were being covered at the time. But, that wasn’t enough. She wanted more.
“Most of these victims have gravestones that have long since disappeared. I felt the sense to bring people back to life again,” she said. And so she did. She began her search by using the keyword “murder” on the U.S. library of congress’s website and then worked her way to the Alaska State Archives to chase leads there. She even created an ancestry.com account and found success finding family members of victims and murderers.
“Writing wasn’t the hard part, it really was the research,” Longenbaugh said. “I was trying to find every bit of information I could find on the characters in these stories.”
Around this time she and her husband, Ed Schoenfeld, began giving “Capital City Killers tours” in Douglas and Juneau about the murders that occurred in the area along with presentations at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum which they continue to give to this day.
She researched for more than five months and compiled a spreadsheet of more than 80 murders that were lost in the past. Then, she whittled it down to 10 stories where she found “layer upon layer” of information to create the most accurate narrative of each crime.
Schoenfeld helped her with the research process and said this book is important because it covers a bigger picture than just the murders.
“It’s not just a story about someone being killed, but about communities and how the legal systems treated things like race and domestic abuse,” he said.
Schoenfeld, who also worked as a reporter for the Empire for around 18 years, said the process was fascinating to go back in time and said they both had a lot of fun learning about local history.
“We’d spend hours going through old microfilms and newspapers and most of the time it was hit or miss, but sometimes when something interesting came up I wanted to yell ‘bingo!’” he said.
Now, weeks after the book’s release, Longenbaugh said she felt a sense of duty to write these stories and feels proud to share these stories and remember the victims. “People really were forgotten, I loved the ability to bring people back to life and remember the victims of the crimes — you’re not forgotten,” she said.
John Straley, a multi-hyphenate writer in Sitka known to many for his crime novels, said he was skeptical of the book at first, but once he started “it was a great read.”
“I really enjoyed it and it was written well,” said Straley, who also wrote the foreword in the book. “Studying crime is a very interesting way to get a picture of the culture of a place. It’s not just a book of curiosity, but a book of history.”
Longenbaugh’s book, “Forgotten Murders from Alaska’s Capital,” is available for purchase at Hearthside Books or online. The next “Death in Douglas” walking tours are 1-3 p.m. Saturday, July 9 p.m. and Saturday, August 20, 1-3 p.m. The next “Capital Killers” downtown murder tours are Saturday, July 23, 2-4 p.m. and Sunday, August 7, 2-4 p.m.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.