May 16, 2019

Genesis of the Bill Johnston Biography

The genesis of my soon-to-be published biography of "Pirate" Bill Johnston occurred in 1973 when a journalism prof at Humber College in Toronto told his students to write a 5000-word feature article on any historical topic.

While browsing through reference material at Toronto’s central library in those pre-Google days, I first read about Bill Johnston. One reference mentioned the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton, New York. I sent a letter (email did not yet exist) requesting additional information. The curator responded with 120 photocopies—the complete serialized biography of Johnston written by John Northman and published in the Watertown Daily Times in 1938-39. (No longer available.)

I completed the assignment and received an “A.” I pasted the photocopies into two large folios and set them aside, knowing I would need them some day. That was a rare bit of valuable foresight on my part.

They remained unopened for 37 years until I created my history blog on Pirate Bill Johnston in 2010. Those same yellowed pages provided important glimpses of Johnston’s life for this biography.

Between 2009 and early 2019, I added to my store of Johnston information. Much of the new information came from online sources. I augmented the research in the field, including visits to Watertown, Cape Vincent, Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg, Kingston and Prescott, plus kayak excursions in the Thousand Islands.

The biography has details no one has written before, and it debunks several significant mis-facts that dominate materials written by earlier historians. You can read about those bloopers on my Bill Johnston blog.

So, the roots of this new book stretch back 46 years to a time when I had a full head of long hair and we all composed on an unforgiving metallic beast called a typewriter.

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