Joseph Usher novel details rarely-discussed Cedar Rapids family story

Published: January 26 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:41 am in
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When farmhand William Garrity was murdered outside of Cedar Rapids in 1903, the story made headlines. But citizens didn’t know the true story of what happened that night — or its far-reaching implications — until now.

Author Nancy Panoch is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Usher, who stood trial for the murder of William Garrity. In her self-published book “Accountable: The Joseph Usher Story” she explores this rarely-discussed chapter in her family history.

Panoch does her best to tell the story like a historical episode of Law and Order. She takes the time to explore each character and provide engaging details of life in Cedar Rapids in 1903, including a wonderful account of Joseph Usher’s milk route. Perhaps most moving are the connections between the Usher family and their stoic neighbors: Panoch is certainly at her best when illuminating the love and support of this small farming community.

However, “Accountable” seems to be intended more as a document of Panoch’s family history than a story for general readers. When the trial of Joseph Usher begins, Panoch shifts away from her narrative style and instead chooses to include nearly every statement offered before the court, including the complete opening and closing statements, scores of witness testimonies and all 14 points of instruction offered to the jury.

While these details would certainly be appreciated by family members, focusing on the highlights would have made for a more cohesive narrative.

Panoch also mentions a number of interesting sources — such as sketches completed by a Gazette artist of the farm and Garrity’s room — but she fails to include them in the text. These illustrations, as well as a family tree, would have provided a welcome foundation.

“Accountable: The Joseph Usher Story” is a true labor of love, sure to inspire renewed interest in the history of Cedar Rapids — and of our own families.

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