The 1955 murder story behind ‘Pittsburgh’ the poem, published in The New Yorker
Walter Henry was an unemployed steelworker when he was shot and killed at a Pittsburgh hotel in 1955.
He attempted to intervene in a neighbor’s dispute but died in the arms of another tenant while his assailant — a jilted lover who kidnapped an ex-girlfriend, a resident of Henry’s building — drove the outskirts of Pittsburgh before turning himself in at dawn.
Ed Skoog is Henry’s grandson. He’s also a widely published poet whose work has been compared to that of Wallace Stevens, a 20th-century American poet known for his technical expertise and sweeping vocabulary. Skoog’s recent poem “Pittsburgh” tells the story of Henry’s murder and appears this week in The New Yorker, the nation’s most prominent magazine that regularly publishes poetry.
Skoog’s family did not talk about the murder. He learned of the incident decades later from newspaper clippings and letters tucked away in a little shoe box in his mother’s house. He wanted to know how the incident shaped how his mother, Beth Henry, viewed the world.
“How that frames how she raised me, and all my brothers, and knowledge of the world that she knew was much more violent than she wanted us to know,” said Skoog, who is 48 years old.
The poem is part of Skoog’s collection “Travelers Leaving for the City,” which will be published next year by Copper Canyon Press. All of the poems in the collection explore Walter Henry’s murder and how it impacted Skoog’s family.
“Everything is about family,” Skoog said, noting that family and love are recurring themes in his work. “It’s sort of a lens — when you talk about your own family, a reader understands it through the lens of their family, for good or ill. It’s a way of talking about the complexities of life, the many roles that we play over the course of our lives.”
A native of Kansas, Skoog lives in Portland, Ore., and is a visiting professor at the University of Montana. He traveled to Pittsburgh while researching his poems, and his family has roots in Aspinwall and Tarentum dating back to the 1850s. The man who killed his grandfather, Russell Winterbottom, lived in Turtle Creek.
“The names mean a lot to me,” Skoog said. Aspinwall, Tarentum and Turtle Creek are all mentioned in the poem. “They seem like places of legend, places of the past. You can attest that they are places of the present as well, but they have a little glimpse into American antiquity I think, these little places.”
“Pittsburgh” was published Monday on The New Yorker website and appears in the print issue dated Oct. 21.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .