History doesn't have to be a dry subject. Author Paul Della Valle is having quite a lot of fun with it. After the Sterling resident wrote "Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers and Radicals from the Bay State" (Globe, Pequot Press 2009), its publisher approached him for a second book, one that was right up this history buff's alley: a profile of people behaving badly, titled "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Boston History." A topic more suited to Della Valle's biting wit may not exist.
Della Valle, familiar to locals as a bluegrass musician and
journalist, has turned his talents toward teaching and historical
writing. He's having as much fun as ever.
A former reporter with the Telegram & Gazette, he founded
the Lancaster Times & Clinton Courier, covering both towns with a
vigilant eye for nearly a decade before selling the paper several years
ago. He teaches English at Clinton High School, having previously taught
at Southbridge and Ashburnham public schools. (He has also taught
writing at Clark University and journalism at Northeastern.) One can
sometimes find one of his bands — Lizzie O'Dowd and the Sheep Shaggers
and the Worcester County Bluegrass All Stars — performing at a local
nightspot, festival or town square.
His first book launched the second.
" 'Troublemakers' was my idea," he said. "Then, they asked me to
do this one, part of a series they have in different states and cities.
There must be at least 25 of them with the same title — Jerks in
Colorado, Jerks in Arizona." He laughs.
Don't think that means Della Valle simply filled the book with
tried-and-true tales, however. This book is a quirky, funny read,
bursting with choice bits of history, employing his trademark candor. He
applied both wit and skill from his newspaper years toward researching
his choice of 18 notorious bad guys. The publisher insisted that his
subjects be dead for at least 50 years. ("You can't libel dead people,"
Della Valle quips.)
He talked Pequot into letting him break that rule, however, to
profile Charles Stuart, one of Boston's most shocking modern-day
killers. Stuart joins Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler), Charles
Ponzi and Mayor James Michael Curley in the book. Perhaps less
predictable were historical figures like A. Bronson Alcott (father of
author Louisa May Alcott) and Gov. Henry J. Gardner, whose drive to rid
Boston of Irish scum personified the Know-Nothing Party of the
mid-1850s. Even Abe Lincoln criticized Gardner's viciousness toward
From the get-go, Della Valle had some characters in mind: "My
grandmother loved James Michael Curley because he gave a pillow to her
brother in the Fernald School (in those days, pillows weren't always
standard issue); she loved him for that. That's the way he operated — he
gave things to people; he sealed loyalties. The 'mayor of the poor' was
also a total crook. I love the joke line from the times — when the
City of Boston bought his house after he died, it was the second time
they'd paid for it. Curley was outrageous and powerful, with friends as
staunch as his enemies."
Another subject in the book is serial killer Jane Toppan. "Karen
(his wife, poet Karen Sharpe) came up with Jane. I had never heard of
her before. She killed at least 31 people. She did it for sexual kicks;
she'd get in bed with her victims as they were dying. And she was
He wanted to profile more women, but couldn't find suitable
subjects. "There aren't that many females that are jerks," he said. He
opted to leave Lizzie Borden out, since so much has already been written
about her case.
He has one regret. "I would have loved to put in Whitey
(Bulger)," he said. But the incarcerated mob leader doesn't fit the
profile: "You can't have someone who is still alive."
Della Valle has woven historical tidbits with wicked twists.
With an 18-month window to write, he chose to cram the work into six
months before its due date. The guy still prefers being on deadline.
"I need to have the gun to my head," he said. "I worked during
vacations and school breaks, but not much at night, 'cause you're tired
from teaching; there's so much you have to do for teaching, to prepare
He has another book in his head, and is working on a plan for it, centered on the concept of "banned in Boston."
"I love histories that reveal the stuff the history books didn't
teach you," he said. "The Mass Bay founders were hateful, despite what
good they did. A lot of people say the U.S. is a Christian nation, but
Thomas Paine was so anti-Christian. He wanted complete separation of
church and state. It was the age of reason, of free thinkers. The
Founding Fathers did not intend us to be just a Christian nation."
He's also fascinated by Horace Mann, whose accomplishments inspired Della Valle to become a teacher.
In the meantime, he has his English classes, and he's started an
acoustic café on Thursdays at the high school, having discovered a
multi-national chorus of voices at the school when he brought his guitar
to class. "They love it. Kids are so talented," he said. "They all know
every word of every pop song. They all know the harmony parts. One
class said we should just do some after-school stuff. There are about 20
kids a week who come, and they're from all over."
On his own, Della Valle can sometimes be found playing with the
Sheep Shaggers — a band his son, Rocky, and daughter, Lisa, are involved
with — at the Black Sheep Tavern, or, in better weather, golfing. And
then there are the grandkids, 4 and 1, to occupy him. Life is good.