Editor’s Note: Clinton Sawmill Museum Director Matt Parbs and Clinton Public Library Director Brad Wiles are teaming up to provide a History in the Headlines column for the Clinton Herald in which they take an interesting look at our local history.
How we remember something is unfortunately shaped by the most unreliable of narrators, our brain. Putting everyone’s brain together oftentimes creates competing versions of the truth. An old trick of the collective mind has a new internet-inspired name, the Mandela Effect.
People flocked to the internet to share their vivid memories about the death of Nelson Mandela, who died in December 2013. The kicker was many stories were set prior to 2013. Their pre-2013 grief was their brain playing tricks. For a small group, they firmly believed they experienced Mandela’s death prior to 2013 in another dimension or on an alternate timeline.
For Clinton, our Mandela effect is Johnny Carson joking “if you want to get away with murder, go to Clinton, Iowa.” I know many Clintonians vividly remember watching him say that one late night. Would you believe me if I claimed he never said it about Clinton, and probably never made a joke like that at all?
First, some context. The joke is claimed to have been made between the 1980s and early 1990s. During the decade the joke was born, national homicide rates hit all-time highs. While murder rates rose for seemingly all communities, the national clearance rate for homicides dropped from 90 percent resolved in the 1960s to below 70 percent for most years since 1980. And there was a trend of backlogged cases waiting for trial.
America was facing two disturbing trends, rising homicides and fewer closedcases. In this context, at least 40 towns swear they heard either Johnny Carson or Paul Harvey say their town was the place to escape murder charges. In fact, more towns attribute Paul Harvey with saying it than they do Johnny Carson. So it’s forgivable that residents of these towns believed the joke was made about their town because they were reading about homicide trends daily.
The most legitimate source comes from a 1998 Galesburg Zephyr article. The lede is how a few years earlier, Carson asked an FBI agent on his show what part of the country had the largest unsolved crime rate. The agent answered a ‘small county in Illinois”, Fulton County, Illinois. Not to discredit the 1998 article but in a 1981 article in Bend Oregon’s Bulletin, a reader gave the police a D and referenced what Carson supposedly said about Bend, Oregon.
While I couldn’t watch the entire Carson catalog, I did reach out to the Carson archives. The wonderful team there searched the transcript database for the keywords: Clinton, Iowa. Nothing came up for Clinton, Iowa. Now, for the rest of the story. It does seem an FBI agent did reference crime rates once on the Carson show. Sadly, if you remembered him saying Clinton, Iowa or any town, you probably slipped into an alternate universe.
The most likely origin is actually Paul Harvey. In a 1976 Los Angeles Times article, Paul quipped you could get away with murder in the entire state of Ohio. His article, ironically, was about how 1975 judicial reform allowed for more criminal cases to be cleared. In doing so, he pointed out that you used to be able to get away with murder anyplace in America, but it’s getting tougher now in Ohio. So in a sense, keep on saying Clinton, Iowa, as Paul Harvey did say: “It used to be as true in Ohio as anyplace. You could get away with murder!”
Matt Parbs is the director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum and first discovered the power of history while participating in Model United Nations at Lincoln Land Community College and under some great teachers. The passion transitioned to a mania at the University of Illinois at Springfield under the tutelage of an amazing department. While originally planning to convert students into historians, an off chance visit to a museum turned into a career in museums. His historical interest can be summed up in one word, agency.