Writing Jerry’s Riot

Readers often ask how I found the high level of detail that appears in Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.

The short answer is this: from people who were there. The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

Calamities yield personal stories big and small. In major influential tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the resulting impressions, reactions and eyewitness accounts might stretch to infinity. And what older American today can’t remember exactly what he or she was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated?

The riot happened 49 years ago this April. To people who were involved, inside or outside the walls at Montana State Prison in downtown Deer Lodge, the riot happened yesterday. That’s how clearly they remember it. But like in any calamity, people remember best what was right in front of them. It’s the author’s responsibility to assemble the memory fragments into whole cloth.

In researching Jerry’s Riot I conducted hundreds of interviews. Almost all of those people remembered details that emotion had branded to their brain. Guards remembered dripping water, the warden recalled being served slices of cake after being taken hostage, and women described watching the prison for hours on end for sign of their husbands. Inmates gave me first-hand accounts of the takeover.

I corroborated the personal stories with legal documents such as affidavits taken from inmates in the weeks after the riot. It became easier to see the total picture, especially as details brought history to life. While many people involved in the riot had died long before I started my research, many others remained. In some cases relatives of people who had died remembered critical detail. Most of it turned out to be credible and accurate, to the extent that an author can determine such things more than 40 years afterwards. I discarded some of what was described to me as fiction.

Capturing genuine detail is a race against time. Several people I interviewed for the book are now gone as well, including some of the guards held hostage, wives of hostages and a National Guard commander involved in the rescue efforts. But since 2005 when the first edition of Jerry’s Riot was published, more people with personal stories have stepped forward to offer even greater detail.

As I concluded in the acknowledgements portion of the book:

In some interviews, tears told the story when words failed.

 

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