In 1923, Albert Berch Jr., a 30-year-old hotel co-owner, was murdered by Ku Klux Klan followers, largely because he had hired an African-American to work in his hotel.

A few months after Albert Jr. had been born, he was taken in by O.J. and Helen deLendrecie, who lived in Fargo. Helen, Albert Jr.'s great-aunt, brought him into her home because the boy's mother was terminally ill and his father was apparently self-consumed and irresponsible.

Albert Weldon Berch Jr. was born Oct. 5, 1893, in California, to Albert and Emma (Robinson) Berch. Emma died March 27, 1895, and Albert Sr. drifted out of the life of his son. Despite Helen's busy schedule with helping to manage a thriving mercantile business, serving on the school board, establishing an osteopathy hospital and college and actively campaigning for women's suffrage, she agreed to care for her infant grand-nephew.

Helen's sister, Marian Berch, was the paternal grandmother of Albert Berch Jr. Because Helen was often away from Fargo, Albert Jr. spent much of his time during his preschool years at the St. John's Orphanage, operated by the Presentation Sisters. When Albert Jr. was old enough, he was sent to a military academy for his schooling.

Helen often told Albert Jr. stories about the heroic deeds of his grandfather, Jesse Berch, who was Marian's husband. Jesse had served with distinction in the Civil War, and he was a member of the Union Army's Abolition Regiment, risking his life to help slaves escape to the North via the Underground Railroad.

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Helen deLendrecie was a prominent Fargoan featured in “Killing Albert Berch,” a story about an Oklahoma murder. NDSU Archives / Special to The Forum
Helen deLendrecie was a prominent Fargoan featured in “Killing Albert Berch,” a story about an Oklahoma murder. NDSU Archives / Special to The ForumNDSU Archives / Special to The Forum

When Albert Jr. was 12 years old, he ran away from his Fargo home and ended up in Kansas, where he ran out of money. In desperation, he stole money from a pool hall, but was caught. Realizing that he wasn't able to make it on his own, Albert Jr. returned to the deLendrecies, who had a winter home in Los Angeles.

Albert Jr. trained to become a barber in Los Angeles, and in late 1919, moved to Marlow, Okla., and found employment at the Medcalf Barber Shop. In Marlow, he met and began dating the recently widowed Lucinda "Lula" Combs Garvin, and the couple was married March 17, 1920.

After Lula's husband had died in 1918, she purchased the Johnson's Hotel in Marlow, but struggled keeping up with all of the duties required to run it. Albert Jr. quit his job as a barber to help Lula run the hotel, and it began turning a big profit. Albert worked closely with other Marlow businessmen and often sought their advice in making important decisions. The town newspaper, the Marlow Review, wrote that Albert was "one of Marlow's substantial and respected citizens."

During the first years of their marriage, their life together was mixed with hardship and joy. One month after their marriage, Guy Garvin, Lula's son, died unexpectedly from a heart attack on the school athletic field. On Feb. 15, 1922, Albert Jr. and Lula welcomed the birth of their only child, Almira, named in honor of her father.

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Business at the hotel was so brisk that the couple needed to hire another porter. Albert Jr. was encouraged to hire Robert Johnigan, who worked at the Wade's Hotel in the town of Duncan 10 miles south of Marlow. Johnigan was an African-American, and at that time, Marlow had a population of more than 2,000 people and none of them were black. In fact, one of the signs leading into Marlow issued the warning, "Negro, Do Not Let the Sun Go Down on You in This Town."

Aware of the strong prejudicial feelings of some Marlow citizens, Albert Jr. asked the advice of some of his business friends about hiring Johnigan, and they offered no objections. With the blessings of his friends, Albert Jr. traveled to Duncan and offered Johnigan a salary increase to work at his hotel, and Johnigan agreed.

Albert Jr. was a relatively new resident of Marlow, having lived most of his life in North Dakota and California. He was aware of the prejudices of some white Protestants, but other than some possible harassment, he didn't expect any serious problems. In less than two weeks after Johnigan was hired, both he and Albert Jr. began to receive threats on their safety and lives, because the new porter remained in Marlow after the sun went down.

Albert Jr. ignored the threats, but Johnigan clearly understood that the KKK and their supporters meant business, and he decided he would leave town. On the evening of Dec. 17, 1923, Johnigan turned in his letter of resignation at the hotel, and Albert Jr. told him, "I'm sorry to lose you." Johnigan then started for the door to catch the next train to Duncan, but a hotel patron asked him to shine his shoes.

No sooner had Johnigan bent down when "a gang of young men burst through the door, shooting and killing Albert Jr. and fatally wounding Johnigan." Although there was an obvious commotion at the Johnson's Hotel, the police never responded, and the assassins made an easy getaway. H. R. Gandy, the "night-watch-policeman," said that he believed the shots he heard were firecrackers. As it turned out, the apparent ringleader of the gang was his son, Elza Gandy.

Marvin Kincannon and Elza were later arrested and stood trial for the deaths of Albert Jr. and Johnigan. In separate trials, both of the young men were convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sent to prison. However, Lula did not believe that justice had truly been served because, to her, it was a clear case of murder.

With the death of her husband, Lula struggled financially to try and keep the hotel open. The fact that the murders occurred in the lobby of the hotel discouraged many would-be patrons from staying there. Helen helped out by sending money, but Lula was forced to sell the hotel after Helen's death in 1926.

Much of the information about this article comes from the excellent book "Killing Albert Berch" by Dr. Allan Hollingsworth, the grandson of Albert Berch Jr. and son of Almira. For those of you who may be interested in reading Hollingsworth's comments about my contributions to the book, I encourage you to read Pages 271-272.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.