Forgotten stories are remembered in 'Raw Deal'

by Sarah Warlick | 10/27/98 6:00am

Stories about the bad luck of others fascinate people, perhaps because we hope to be immune to the same disasters ourselves. Ken Smith, author of "Raw Deal Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans," thinks there's even more to our intrigue.

"Raw Deal" is a collection of 22 disturbing stories of American misfortune. There's the story of Frank Olson, a CIA employee unknowingly given LSD on a company trip, who loses his mind.

There is also the story of Ebenezer Cade, who, along with many others, islied to by his doctors and injected with radioactive plutonium-239 as part of a 1940s army experiment. The stories are angering but still enjoyable and end leaving the reader wanting more.

Smith's writing is strong and to the point. He does an excellent job of clearly explaining the circumstances and irony surrounding each case. He makes it obvious why each is truly a raw deal.

Smith told The Dartmouth, the purpose of "Raw Deal" is to "point out the difference between the myth of America and the reality of America." The people in the book all share the ideals of the American dream, but rather than being rewarded by the system, they are destroyed by it.

Smith, who said he is "not a scholar or a historian," was inspired to write "Raw Deal" after reading a couple of brief paragraphs about Nathan Stubblefield, the 1908 inventor of the wireless telephone who lost both his invention and fortune to big business.

Looking for more raw deals, Smith began his research using the "greatest soapbox in history" -- the internet. Others had already researched most of the stories in "Raw Deal."

"The information was there, but not in an available form," Smith said. His job, then, was to take the facts and assemble them into coherent, readable stories. This task took about 18 months.

There were stories that Smith chose not to include in "Raw Deal": some because they were not interesting enough to him, others because he wanted a balance of different types of stories. He followed what he calls the "25-year rule," meaning that his subjects had to have been dead for at least 25 years, long enough for the truth to have come out about their lives.

Smith said his favorite story depends on his mood. He enjoys the story of Jerry Tarbot, a war veteran with amnesia who was never able to receive veterans benefits because the government denied that he had ever been involved in World War I. Smith undertook the Tarbot research on his own, as the case had never been researched before.

Smith said although most of the stories in "Raw Deal" are lost stories, the book is not a collection of conspiracy cover-ups. Take, for example, Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio forced into bankruptcy by RCA. Armstrong's story was out in the open and witnessed by the public during the 1940s and '50s.

Smith said he is sure there are similar raw deals in the making today. He mentioned the case of Matthew Shephard, the 21-year-old, gay University of Wyoming student murdered earlier this month.

Smith said, though, "We're more sensitive today." Public reaction to Shephard's murder, for example, was one of outrage. Society finds it more difficult today to simply stand by and watch as raw deals take place around them.

Smith's first book was titled "Ken's Guide to the Bible." He is also a co-author of the bestselling "Roadside America" travel books, and a co-creator of the award-winning website.