By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Roslyn Torella didn’t want to give her father just any old thing for his 84th birthday.
She knew she needed to find a unique gift for the lifelong Lowellville resident who neither needed nor wanted anything in particular.
So, in the spring, inspired by her then 91-year-old aunt’s stories of the village’s surprisingly lively past, Roslyn Torella began poking around the Internet, looking for old newspaper articles to go along with those tales. What she found amazed her.
“It was a treasure trove,” said Torella, who graduated from Lowellville High School in 1984 and now lives in Maryland, working as a government analyst.
She spent hundreds of hours over the next few months collecting digital news clippings from the 1850s to the 1940s of the village’s tragic murders and disastrous fires, its heroes and criminals, and its saloons and street fairs, among other topics, which she then assembled into the first volume of “Murder, Mayhem, and More.”
And when she presented this 188-page collection of long-lost tales to her father in mid-September, complete with historical footnotes that reveal more about a story or the individuals involved, he was thrilled.
“I thought it was very good,” said Dave Torella, Roslyn’s dad. “There were a lot of [the stories] that I’d heard about, but they weren’t fully correct, and were hearsay. The book cleared it all up.”
Roslyn attributed her desire to collect these stories — using resources such as Google News Archive and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website — to a natural sense of curiosity, especially about the village where “a long line of family members” have lived for more than 100 years.
She didn’t necessarily expect, however, to learn so much about her family during the course of the project. No one in the family remembered hearing stories about members of the Black Hand extorting money from her great-uncle’s grocery store, or him testifying against them under the threat of death, for example.
She also found several articles involving not a family member, but George James, a man her father had once worked with and often spoke about. James, she discovered, was entangled in the notorious 1917 Johnson Quarry payroll holdup — during which bandits made away with thousands of dollars. The “Wild West-type robbery and shoot-out” flooded the news for days, she said.
“People think that life is so terrible today — that there is so much crime, and that it’s so much worse than it was back then,” she said. “I believe that is not the case.”
As her research continued, the number of “crazy, crazy stories” about the village’s people and its past only grew. And though her father always was the intended recipient of the story collection, she just couldn’t resist sharing these findings with others.
Shortly after beginning the project, she created the “Lowellville Ohio History” Facebook page, figuring that she’d post a few articles and maybe find a few others who also were interested in the information she’d found.
Today, the private group is just shy of 300 members, including a multitude of past and present Lowellville residents who have even contributed research. In fact, their questions about what had happened to the people she posted about on the group’s Facebook page spurred her to follow up on their stories.
By using genealogy websites, she was able to track down some descendents of those people named in the articles — most of whom today are spread all across the country. Even so, they were quite receptive to learning bits and pieces of their family history that they had no idea even existed, she said.
“We’re able to better appreciate where we’re from [with these stories],” she said, “and all the hardships that people who came before us had to go through.”
Torella added that soon after finishing the first volume, on which she stopped working only because her father’s birthday had arrived, she began compiling articles for a second volume. It will be similar to the first, she said, but perhaps with more research to set up some of the book’s topics, including the history of the streetcar line that once ran through the village.
The research is time-consuming, she said, but is so enjoyable that it doesn’t seem like work.
She discovered during work on the first volume, for example, that between 1910 and 1920, Lowellville was a “happening place,” with 1,024 arrests for intoxication and disturbances in 1910 alone — not to mention the 474 tramps found lodging overnight in the village jail.
The reason, of course, was because while nearby Pennsylvania was a dry state that outlawed alcohol, Ohio was not. During that time, she added, the village began having court all Saturday night long and doubled the number of holding cells in the jail from 20 to 40 to deal with the multitude of intoxicated visitors.
“When we think of Lowellville as a boring little town, it was one heck of a rowdy place to be from at one time,” Torella said. “I don’t think people realize how crazy it was.”
“Murder, Mayhem, and More” is available for free at http://www.villageoflowellville.com/blog.