Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: My Grandfather's Prison

I recently read the book My Grandfather's Prison: a Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City by Richard A. Serrano.[1] I came across the book in a Kansas City bookstore in the section labeled "Local."

Although Mr. Serrano is a journalist, not a genealogist, this book is an intriguing example of family history writing. It is definitely lacking in documentation from a genealogist's standpoint. I would love to have seen footnotes, endnotes, bibliography -- anything to document the sources that Mr. Serrano details in his story.

The book basically tells of Serrano's search for what happened to his grandfather, James Lyons. Lyons abandoned his wife and child, Serrano's mother, when she was 2 or 3 and then died shortly before Serrano was born. No one really knew what happened to him except that he was a "lovable drunk" who died in the old jail.

Serrano discovers the death certificate lists his grandfather's death as "shock . . . fractured neck . . . traumatic conditions." Why was he in jail? "Drunk in public." His grandfather was murdered in the Kansas City Municipal Farm solitary confinement cell. How does something like this happen? Why did it happen? Who did it? The mystery begins.

The search for old records is detailed and so painfully familiar to genealogists - missing records, misfiled records, poorly stored records . . . it's all here. But there are lessons to be learned from Serrano. His persistence is admirable and pays off when he is allowed to dig through old records and when he finds people most of us would never even think to look for! But Serrano's ability to recreate the social environment that his ancestors lived in is key in ultimately understanding his grandfather's life and his death. Kansas City history is full of corruption and deceit. The story includes mob style murder and organized crime connections. If your family was in politics or police work in KC you might not like what you read here!  Kansas City history includes a large skid row population. Those people were all someone's family, too. Some of their stories make it into Serrano's book. Bringing Kansas City to life on his pages hit home to me when he discussed the 1930s in Kansas City. I suddenly remembered my grandmother telling me that she and grandpa went to Kansas City after they were married in 1931 and he left her alone in a hotel room to go to a "speakeasy." The draw of the Kansas City "speakeasy" during Prohibition was an irresistible lure for many men.

There is a lot of sadness in this story. The sadness of what alcohol abuse and addiction does to families is probably the most notable. But just as we all have discovered, there are things to be learned when we understand our ancestors including all their flaws. Serrano's journey brings him what he needs.

In spite of its lack of documentation, this book is a good and easy read and well worth it. One reviewer on Amazon called it "slow paced and unfocused" and his arguments had some validity but I found the writing to feel very sincere. I think it will inspire you - maybe to dig a little deeper for records, maybe to search for social history, maybe to write about a difficult ancestor. I recommend it. Just remember your citations.

Image courtesy of Dan at

[1] Serrano, Richard A. My Grandfather's Prison: a Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.

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