With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.
THE THIRD DEGREE
By Jared Olar
A hanging in Cell 11
Crime and cover-up at the county jail
During the Aug. 31, 1932 inquest into the death of Lewis P. Nelan, witness Martin Virant of East Peoria shocked those in attendance with bold accusations that he had been severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies who refused to believe his protestations that he knew nothing of the fight that led to Nelan’s death.
Virant had even shown some of his injuries to the inquest jury. He wanted to continue testifying about the torture he had endured, but because Virant knew nothing of Nelan’s murder, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen sent him back to the county jail, expecting Sheriff J. J. Crosby to release him.
The Sept. 1, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported, “Virnt (sic) had a bruise on the forehead, there was a little dry blood in the left eyebrow, his right ear was swollen and there was blood about the neck of his shirt. He told the jury he believed some of his ribs had been broken. Whether these injuries were received as Virnt declares, or at some other place and in some other manner, is a question . . . That Virnt had been beaten or in any way abused or mistreated while he had been in custody of the officers for questioning, is vehemently denied by Sheriff Crosby and all members of his force.”
Law enforcement use of torture and violence in order to extract confessions from suspects, or useful information from witnesses who were thought to be less than cooperative, was then an accepted (or at least tolerated) practice commonly known by the euphemism “the third degree.”
Two other witnesses at the Nelan inquest who were not involved in Nelan’s murder, George Genseal and Burton Heller, were released from the Tazewell County Jail on Thursday, Sept. 1. Learning of Virant’s plight, his brother-in-law secured the services of Peoria attorney Victor Michael, who came to Pekin Thursday afternoon and told Crosby that if he did not release Virant he would initiate habeas corpus proceedings. “It was also reported that if Virnt’s release is secured he will be taken before physicians for examination and the X-rays will be taken of his injuries,” the Pekin Daily Times reports.
Crosby granted Michael’s demand and, while Michael and Virant’s relatives waited outside the jail, sent Deputy Charles O. Skinner – whom Virant had named as one of his torturers during his testimony the night before – to let Virant out of jail.
As reported in the Sept. 17, 1932 Peoria Journal, according to Genseal, Skinner came into the jail around 2 p.m., went to the upper cell block and called, “Martin.” Genseal heard no reply, and then heard Skinner say, “The —- has hanged himself.”
Chief Deputy Ernest L. Fleming telephoned Coroner Allen and told him Virant had hanged himself. Allen rushed to the jail. Fleming and Skinner led Allen to Virant’s cell, where Allen found Virant hanging by his belt from the top bar of the cell. Allen cut Virant down and his body was taken into the corridor and resuscitation was attempted without success.
Faced with this sudden and extremely shocking turn of events, the Pekin Daily Times delayed its printing and hastily reworked its Sept. 1 front page so it could run a story along with its Nelan inquest story. The Times announced “VIRNT HANGS SELF IN COUNTY JAIL” – but by the time most Daily Times subscribers got to read those words, investigators were already casting doubt on the sheriff’s department’s account of how Virant had died.
Immediately noticing that Virant’s body displayed none of the signs of a hanging death, and with the memory of Virant’s testimony and injuries from the night before till fresh in his mind, Allen ordered an autopsy by Pekin physicians L. F. Teter and L. R. Clary. The autopsy, conducted Thursday night at Kuecks Funeral Home, found the following, according to the Sept. 17 Peoria Journal:
“Cut over left eye: Extensive evidence of external injuries to the head, chest and body. Cut over left eyebrow, eye badly discolored; internal hemorrhage in rear portion of left eye. Severe bruises back of right ear, extending down the neck. Bruises on back and ribs: one fractured rib on right side. Broken cartilage in right ear. Left eye bruised and discolored. Bruises on top of head. Right side of brain congested, causing concussion. Both shins badly bruised and discolored. Numerous bruises on various portions of the body.”
Virant’s funeral was set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, at Keucks Funeral Home, to be followed by burial in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria. The funeral rites took place as planned, but Allen delayed the burial plans so he could conduct further investigation. At the visitation, Virant’s sister Agnes Franko of Peoria broke down and screamed that her brother “did not hang himself, he was killed!”
On Saturday night, Sept. 3, Allen phoned Chicago criminologist Dr. William D. McNally and explained what Teter and Clary had found in their autopsy. McNally replied, “If the cartilage of Virant’s neck is as described, Virant did not die from hanging.”
That same night, Allen and Teter conducted a second autopsy and concluded that Virant’s death was not due to hanging but to “shock and external violent injuries,” according to the Peoria Journal. McNally also came from Chicago to Pekin on Sept. 5 and did his own thorough examination of Virant’s body, whereupon he concluded: “Martin Virant did not die of strangulation by his own hand. He was terrifically beaten. My opinion is that he died of shock and external violent injuries.”
The Journal reported, “Many witnesses stated that they saw Virant only a few minutes before he surrendered himself to Deputies C. O. Skinner and Hardy Garber in East Peoria on Tuesday afternoon, [Aug. 30], and that he bore no marks of injury.”
Considering the results of the Nelan inquest, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg now prepared to prosecute John Petje, Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr. for the murder of Lewis Nelan.
Also, on Monday afternoon, Sept. 5, Dunkelberg swore out a warrant for the arrest of Deputy Skinner for the murder of Martin Virant.
Next week: Deputy Skinner issues denials.