Master of Disaster

John Stark Bellamy II is the keeper of our city’s darkest tales. After moving away from Cleveland five years ago, he returns this month with a new anthology and a local lecture series.

While John Stark Bellamy II was researching his first book, They Died Crawling, he found himself in a basement archive of the East Ohio Gas Co., sifting through records he would ultimately use to retell the tale of a 1944 explosion that leveled 79 homes.

The company representative showing Bellamy around was helpful but also curious. First, he asked, what kind of person would want to write such a book. Then, he inquired as to what kind of audience would want to read it.

After Bellamy explained his lifelong fascination with history and shared that such events often included acts of great heroism, Bellamy’s guide asked his final question: Was this book going to make the East Ohio Gas Co. look bad?

“I said, ‘heck, no,’ ” Bellamy recalls. “Once you get past the 130 people incinerated, … it’s going to make them feel good all over.’ ”

Fifteen years and five books later Bellamy was right that readers want to know about decades-old murders and calamities. He’s revisiting the latter in his newest book, Cleveland’s Greatest Disasters! (Gray & Company, $14.95), an anthology of 16 previously published tales that includes the tale of the East Ohio Gas Co.

If it seems like you haven’t heard from Bellamy in a while, that’s because the former full-time librarian retired and moved to Vermont five years ago. After launching a successful side career as the voice of “Cleveland dismalia,” as he likes to call it, Bellamy disappeared.

“I like to think of myself as the J.D. Salinger of Cleveland,” he says with a chuckle. Well, he’s certainly more social. His new book will be accompanied by a weeklong visit to Cleveland this month to talk at libraries and bookstores about his life and writing.

“I’ve always thought you could learn a lot more from your failures than you can from your successes,” Bellamy says. “Cleveland has those scars. You just have to know where to look for them. My books are guidebooks to that.”

Bellamy even wrote a collection of historic Vermont murders in 2007. He doesn’t anticipate there will be another.

“Not only was Vintage Vermont Villanies my first Vermont book, it was my last Vermont book,” Bellamy says. “It was damn difficult to cobble together 12 interesting-enough murders, and I had to cover almost 200 years to do that.”

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