Bruce Mowday is the author of Jailing the Johnston Gang: Bringing Serial Murderers to Justice. He will be speaking at 7pm on March 13th at the Elkton Central Library. During the height of the Johnston Gang’s criminal activities, Mr. Mowday was a reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. He was often there when police investigated the latest crime scene and he covered the gang members’ trials. We thought we’d ask him a few questions about the book and his experiences covering our region’s most infamous criminal gang.
The Johnston Gang was active in the 1970s in Cecil County and Chester County, Pa. Can you sum up their criminal activity that ended ultimately in several murders?
The members of the Johnston Gang would steal anything that would bring them money. There were more John Deere tractors stolen in the Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania area than the rest of the nation combined. They also stole Corvettes. When law enforcement began to use a federal grand jury to investigate the gang, the Johnston brothers began to murder witnesses, including members of their own family, to escape punishment.
What was the most interesting fact you learned about the Johnston Gang and their crime ring?
I’m not sure about the most interesting fact, but I’ll tell you about what I still don’t understand. How can anyone put a gun to the back of the head of a family member and pull the trigger? How can uncles take out a contract on the life of their nephew? I don’t understand those morals.
Many people in Cecil County recall the manhunt for prison escapee Norman Johnston in the 1990s. What was his role in the gang?
Norman was the youngest of the three Johnston brothers. Bruce Johnston Sr. was the eldest and David Johnston was the middle brother. Norman was more of the follower of the three and did as his older brothers said. Bruce, as the eldest, was in charge for the most part. I always thought David was the smartest and most certainly the most ruthless.
The film “At Close Range” (starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken) depicts the Johnston Gang’s exploits and makes mention of Rising Sun. Do you think the movie is accurate?
The movie is accurate in parts but it is most definitely Hollywoodized. Some of the scenes are composite accounts of several incidents and some of the scenes never took place. Also, Bruce Johnston Jr. was made more sympathetic than he was. Hollywood was looking for someone that the audience could like but there wasn’t any such person in the gang, including Johnston Jr.
What book project are you working on now?
My book on Jim Herr, founder of Herr Foods, will be released in September by Barricade Books of Fort Lee, N.J. I have an October deadline for my book on Gettysburg, Defending Pickett’s Charge. I’ve been working on the book for several years and it should be available by the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.
Many thanks to Bruce Mowday, and we look forward to hearing much more at his upcoming program – sign up by clicking this link or call 410-996-5600 ext. 481.
What are your family’s memories of the Johnston Gang?