Local author shares how family ties to historical murder inspired book

By Colin Willard, Advocate Staff Writer
Posted 5/1/24

VIENNA — The Heartland Regional Library System’s Author Talk series resumed for the first time in 2024 when Maries County resident John French visited the Vienna Library to discuss a book …

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Local author shares how family ties to historical murder inspired book


VIENNA — The Heartland Regional Library System’s Author Talk series resumed for the first time in 2024 when Maries County resident John French visited the Vienna Library to discuss a book he wrote detailing his family’s connection to one of the area’s most sensational crimes.

The book “I Shot Pa for Ma” tells the true story of a local murder spawned from the love affair of Ben French and Edna Westermann in the 1940s. They each had spouses and children of their own, but it did not stop them from becoming romantically involved. The affair turned deadly when Edna Westermann had her son Gene kill his father Henry. Throughout the book, French details the circumstances leading up to the deadly encounter, including allegations of abuse against Edna and Gene by Henry Westermann, and the fallout of the killing and ensuing trial and its effects on his family.

French began the discussion by thanking everyone for attending and showing their interest in the “wild Ozarks tale.” He described the public’s enthusiastic response to the trial, which occurred in the Maries County courthouse. The courthouse, which was completed in 1943, was only a few years old at the time. People from throughout the area packed the courthouse and lawn to hear the case.

“They let schools out for the trial,” French said. “It was a big deal. Anywhere anybody could stand inside the courthouse, someone was standing. When the inside was full, they filled around the outside.”

French said he expected to find information about the story from Missouri newspapers, but the story of the murder and ensuing trial garnered national attention. French said newspapers in every state picked up the story. In many places, it was front page news despite occurring right around the end of World War II, when space was extra tight from an abundance of news. Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper of the United States Armed Forces, also picked up the story.

“I was absolutely blown away by the degree that this story went,” he said. “It blew me away that they found room to print this article and, in a lot of cases, have the picture right on the front page.”

The media popularity of the case is what French said inspired him to write the book. At one point, French’s father had told him that magazines covered the story. He spent years trying to track down the magazines that highlighted the case. Eventually, he found a story online by a relative of Bill Parker, the sheriff who investigated the case, that mentioned one of the magazines in which the case appeared. French discovered that the story of the murder appeared in four detective magazines, which were a popular form of entertainment at the time. He bought a copy of each magazine and brought them to the discussion for everyone to see. He said they were “seedy” and compared them to tabloids such as the National Enquirer.

Although French had a personal connection to the story featured in his first book, he has plans to explore another local crime that occurred even earlier in 1915.

“I kind of wanted to write ever since I watched John-Boy Walton,” French said.

Someone asked French how he chose the title.

“I took it from (Gene’s) confession,” he said. “He confessed to Sheriff Parker. He said ‘I shot my dad down like I would a hog.’”

French asked the group of about 20 people when they had first heard about the murder. Some of the crowd said they had heard about the murder only by reading the book. A relative of Bill Parker said her family had a copy of one of the articles about the case.

French said that though his grandfather was directly involved in the story, he had not heard about it until he was an adult out of college. Even then, he only heard about it by eavesdropping on a conversation between his mother and his aunt. He decided he had to ask them about what had happened.

“They proceeded to give me a very sterilized, abridged story, which made my grandpa look like a saint and everybody else not,” he said. “And of course, as I started researching, I found that wasn’t exactly the truth.”

Later, French’s father shared everything he knew about the murder. The book includes his personal account of the events, including learning his father was in jail for murder after returning home from service in Iwo Jima following the end of World War II.

“It was a big family secret,” French said. “It was a big no-no to talk about.”

French’s interest in the story helped break the ice for his family to have more discussions about the case. His research for the book included interviews with his older brother and older cousins who remembered going to visit their grandfather at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Still, some members of the family were sensitive to the subject of the murder.

“I had eight aunts and uncles in this family deal,” French said. “And I didn’t dare make it public that I was writing this book until they were all gone because I knew they wouldn’t like it. I just researched. I’ve researched for 30 years.”

The French family was not the only one to tell its side of the murder story. French said while he was researching for the book, someone contacted his mother about visiting the place where the murder occurred because she was a Westermann. French got to know Audrey Schlote, the daughter of one of the other Westermann children, who wrote a book about the murder from the perspective of her family.

“I was not the first one to actually publish this book, which gets me off the hook if anybody blames me for spilling the beans,” French said.

The Westermann side of the story featured in “I Shot Pa for Ma ‘’ came from French’s discussions with Schlote’s father Pete Westermann, which she helped arrange.

“She came out and visited with me and my wife and has several times, so we’re pretty tight,” French said.

The graves of Henry and Gene Westermann reside locally at Red Rowden Cemetery.