- Don't call him a hack.
Already tired of those evergreen Christmas tales of toy soldiers and sugarplum fairies? Don't despair -- there's plenty of blood to splatter your halls red this holiday season in John Stark Bellamy II's new book, The Corpse in the Cellar, a collection of 25 true gut-wrenching tales of Cleveland's crime-ridden past. Relive the "Gothic doom" little Maggie Thompson encountered in a Tremont basement or experience the wrath of a Medina stepmother who makes "Mommy Dearest" look like Mrs. Claus.
Bellamy's latest book completes his trilogy of "bathroom" paperbacks, including They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. "The one enduring reason I wrote these books is I wanted to read books like these and sit down and be entertained by them," says the boisterous Bellamy during an interview at the Fairview Park library, where he works as a history/biography specialist.
The 51-year-old author, who lives within screaming distance of the site where the Collinwood School fire killed 172 youngsters in 1908, fondly recounts how his taste for the dark side first surfaced when he was a precocious youth growing up in Cleveland Heights. "I was a "Gothic' before there were Goths," declares Bellamy, whose grandfather was former Plain Dealer Editor Paul Bellamy. "When I was an adolescent, my idea of a good time was to hang around Lake View Cemetery, which is where many of my subjects are buried."
Fascinated by the cryptic tombstones and the often mangled bodies that lay below, Bellamy decided to pursue a career in historical writing. He first attended St. John's College in Annapolis, which he proudly refers to as the "Great Books School." He graduated from Vermont's Goddard College, an "experimental college," as Bellamy puts it, "which means everyone was doing drugs and having a great time."
The infamous criminals and helpless victims that fill the pages of Bellamy's books were researched through old newspaper clippings and interviews with people involved. His one rule before researching any crime or disaster is simple: It must be at least two generations old.
That's when, he says, a tragic crime or disaster is no longer considered upsetting and painful, but downright entertaining -- even for surviving relatives. "[Relatives of murderers] are secretly proud of it," Bellamy asserts. On more than one occasion, he says, he's autographed books for those whose relatives he's featured in his paperbacks. "People are almost proud to be related to Jack the Ripper."
The freshest case Bellamy has tackled is Cleveland's most infamous whodunit -- the 1954 slaying of Marilyn Sheppard. For years, Sam Reese Sheppard, whose father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted and later acquitted of the murder, has demanded a legal clearing of his late father's name. The Sheppard case, which Bellamy chronicled in They Died Crawling, is scheduled for its third trial early next year.
"The only reason I was willing to write about it is because [Sam Reese Sheppard] doesn't mind talking about it at all," says Bellamy, who vociferously spouts, "I always thought Sam was guilty as hell." He scoffs at claims that Sheppard never received a fair trial because the case was tried in the media before it went in front of a jury. "Well, guess what? Every accused murderer in Cleveland history got the same treatment."
So what's next for the bushy-haired crime writer? A titillating true-crime story -- not set in Cleveland -- is in the works. "It's a vintage murder," he says. "It's got everything -- sex, celebrity, politics. It's got suspense, intrigue, bad women, and worse men. Inquiring minds should be interested." -- Ginger Burnett