Book 'Em, Dano: Talking Shop with ChicagoNow's History Cop

Book 'Em, Dano: Talking Shop with ChicagoNow's History Cop

Here’s what I love about this town and its people—you never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet on any given day.

The beauty of blogging is its ability to open doors to new conversations and experiences, and the email exchange I most recently had with fellow blogger and Chicago History Cop Ray Johnson is a perfect example of that. Ray, a former west suburban detective, has found a second career through writing. History buffs and paranormal geeks may already be familiar with Johnson’s work—in fact, since retiring from police work, he’s published two books—Chicago’s Haunt Detective and Chicago History—The Stranger Side, and is working on a third.

Johnson’s passion for history—both personal and that of his surroundings—is palpable. With that in mind, I asked him 5 questions …

You love genealogy — what’s the single strangest or most interesting fact you’ve dug up researching your family history?

I’m going to give you a couple quick facts about my family. I had located my mom’s birth mom (she was adopted) and she found out she had 15 brothers and sisters she didn’t know about, one of my great grandfathers on my father’s side was a clown (which explains a lot), one of my direct descendants was going to be executed for aiding the British during the Revolutionary War but George Washington pardoned him because he was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs, and my last name wasn’t originally Johnson.  It was Zerath!

History and genealogy trend toward older generations as a form of hobby or trivial pursuit. What can kids learn from studying the past, whether it be the city’s or their own?

Youth has the advantage of learning from history and not making the same mistakes over and over again. I hated history in school because it was so terribly boring! None of it related to me (at least I thought at the time) and the teachers I had from grammar through high school did nothing to help history come to life.  It wasn’t until I started looking into the history of my family did I see how it related to myself and my family.

The investigation of your family also gets you excited about the research process. I volunteer to teach a module at our local high school on family history research for one of the life skills teachers and at least get the kids interested in their own history. If nothing else, to watch out when they find someone with a link to let’s say the Civil War. Then all of a sudden they want to know all about the Civil War and the dates, places and lessons stick in their sponge—before they know it they are learning without even realizing it!  If there is one complaint I always get from people taking my classes or lectures on genealogical research it is “I wish I would have started when I was younger!”

Three authors that get you fired up include …

I’m a history and horror buff so I have a ton of favorite authors but if I had to pick three they would be Anne Rice, Erik Larson and Deborah Blum. I loved all of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and while many people have a hard time reading her stuff because she takes a long time setting up the details of the surroundings, I love that! I haven’t read her witch stuff but love the vampires! (Don’t love the “Twilight” vampires, they lost me at sparkly).

I loved Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City.” It seems as though he is talking to you in his stories. I particularly loved “Devil” because it jumped back and forth between the criminality of Holmes and the intrigue behind the scenes with the White City.

I loved Deborah Blum’s “Ghost Hunters.” I thought she did a wonderful job of bringing the characters of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) and ASPR (Amercian Society for Psychical Research) to life and what sort of ridicule they received when trying to apply the scientific method to the investigation of consciousness after death.

As someone who has switched career paths, what’s the single best piece of advice anyone gave you in starting that second chapter?

I think the advice that I would give someone about starting a new career would be the same as the advice I would give them about starting the first.  Pick something that you love, do it the best you can and you will never work a day in your life.  I’m sure I stole that from someone but it is so true.  If you are working for yourself then it will definitely be the hardest job you have ever loved! (I stole that one too.) I have been called a workaholic and I do realize I need to relax quite a bit more, but when you love something you really don’t feel like you are working.

If you couldn’t have been a police officer at all, what do you think you might have been first before becoming a writer? Was there a road not taken?

If I wasn’t a police officer I might have went into psychology a bit more, although I know that would have required becoming a professional student. I have taken quite a few roads including the military, the corporate scene (HR and computer networking) and the police. I never intended to be a lifer when it came to the military and my first choice of scholastic study was psychology so If I didn’t become a cop, I probably would have went back to psychology because I love talking to people and people say I am pretty easy to talk to.

Thanks, Ray! Check out his books below:


Chicago History: The Stranger Side


Chicago’s Haunt Detective

I like books. All kinds of books. If you want to know what I am up to, type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

I also love to know what you’re reading—drop me a line on Facebook!

Filed under: mumbo jumbo

Leave a comment