City fathers produced many fine history books about the earliest days of Oklahoma City, and by and large, they portray a community led by brave, pioneering souls.
The books tell the required history of groups feuding to control early development and leadership of a town that arose overnight in 1889, recounting the early ambitions, struggles and accomplishments of those who shaped the city over its first quarter-century.
For some reason, the city's finest historians never sought to share stories about the prostitutes brought into town to entertain the visiting cattlemen's convention. Books never detailed the houses of ill repute that flourished where the Cox Convention Center is now located. Oklahoma City was a God-fearing Prohibition town where liquor flowed and gamblers openly consorted with women of the night with little fear of the law.
Nope. Those stories couldn't be told openly. But they were shared among the old-timers in smoke-filled rooms. Such tales might have been lost forever, if not for Albert McRill, who published them as a series of “Inside Oklahoma City” columns in a community newspaper more than 60 years ago.
The stories are uncensored accounts that name names, places and guilty parties. They paint a rich picture of a town torn between the ideal of a modern, orderly American city and the decadence of an old West Deadwood.
With ample anecdotes of political intrigue, booze, gambling and whoring mixed with civic and religious zealotry, McRill's stories would make a great HBO series.
McRill's columns unveiled a history that definitely did not have the chamber of commerce seal of approval. In 1955, the columns were stitched together with illustrations and photos for the book “And Satan Came Also …”
McRill, a former city manager, died shortly after the book's release. By the time I first learned about the book a decade ago, the few available copies at used bookstores and online were selling for hundreds of dollars.
My own copy of the book is a photocopy of a photocopy owned by Lee Allan Smith. I consider myself well versed in city history, yet, I must confess, the structure of McRill's writings and obscure language and outdated references make the book a frustrating exercise in following this otherwise juicy storyline.
Larry Johnson, an old high school friend, fellow author and city historian, admits he had a similar reaction. The book needed context, better illustration — and a chance at being reintroduced to today's readers.
Johnson sought out the last known living heir to McRill and obtained permission to reprint “And Satan Came Also …” with Full Circle Press. With a clever bit of design by Carl Brune, the book incorporates an ongoing set of side-notes written in a sometimes ironic, sometimes amused voice by Johnson.
Think of Johnson's notes as a literary version of the old VH-1 music video “pop-ups.” The reader is being transported back to that smoke-filled room where the old-timers, their lips loosened by too much drink, are sharing forbidden tales of the city. But this time around, Johnson is at the reader's side whispering helpful explanations and challenging the rare error in fact as needed.
The re-release of “And Satan Came Also …” is a rare opportunity to add a classic to one's bookshelf without paying a few hundred dollars. Of all the books I've read relating to Oklahoma City, none compare to “And Satan Came Also …” and Johnson's notes are a colorful, intriguing and entertaining read (he also names names).
But procrastinators beware: I predict these books will sell out quickly and will once again command a high price on the used market.