Imagine a place where prostitutes are among the county’s wealthiest citizens. Or the evidence of a wanton massacre of more than 30 Chinese miners floats by on the river. Or a woman not only plots to murder the child of her husband’s mistress, but announces her intention to the neighbors.
Lewiston might be one of the last places you’d envision such scandalous news. But these are just three of the stories that make up the lurid history documented in the twistedly entertaining book “Wicked Lewiston: A Sinful Century” by historian Steven Branting.
Branting uncovered references to such stories of Lewiston during research for his previous publications on the history of the riverside town, “Historic Firsts” and “Hidden History.” For “Wicked Lewiston,” Branting assembles these stories into a pastiche of “paranoia, perfidy and puzzling predicaments.”
Depictions of crimes, their perpetrators and their victims are accompanied by a selection of historical photos that include everything from historic buildings to mug shots from the Idaho Penitentiary to potentially disturbing crime scene documentation with sprawling murder victims.
Like many frontier towns, Lewiston was rip roaring and wide open in its infancy. However, unlike other cities, which often settled into a relatively sedate middle age, Lewiston’s scandalous ways continued well into the 20th century, providing ample fodder for Branting’s tales.
In one instance, the historian notes that it took 90 years for the “working girls” to wear out their welcome in Lewiston. Other aspects of organized vice also continued well after World War II, despite varied efforts of the citizenry to clean up their town.
A chapter functioning as a compendium of criminal cases from local and regional newspapers starts with an 1870 murder case that ended in a vigilante hanging and ends with the Chickie Berman fraud and stock manipulation case, which was settled in 1963.
Those who enjoy a peek behind the usual Chamber of Commerce versions of local history will enjoy the unconventional history presented in Branting’s collage of vice. Some might find the extent of criminal history unnerving, and the author affords his audience cold comfort: “Readers of ‘Wicked Lewiston’ do well to remember that the facts are always going to be an approximation of what really happened. Things were most likely a lot worse.”
Elizabeth Ramsey is an assistant professor and librarian at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.