The Third Degree: Chapter 12: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

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
Library assistant

Chapter Twelve

The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

Election Day in 1932 was historic, dealing an overwhelming victory to the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his party, and ushering in the era of “the New Deal” which was to bring about a revolution in the scope and power of the federal government and its relationship with the American people.

But the outcome of the national election also had an immediate effect on local affairs in Tazewell County, where Republican office holders were swept out by the Democratic tidal wave. That included two incumbents: the coroner, Dr. A. E. Allen, and the state’s attorney, Louis P. Dunkelberg, both of whom had sought a third term in office.

Dunkelberg was ousted by Nathan T. Elliff, a young and comparatively inexperienced Pekin attorney. As Elliff prepared to assume his duties, the Pekin Daily Times (Dec. 3, 1932) offered a brief farewell tribute to Dunkelberg, and welcomed Elliff as one who “has already shown much ability in his chosen profession. Thruout the county he is well favorably known. The public has confidence in him and knows that the office of states attorney will be in good hands and that faithful and conscientious service will be rendered . . . .”

Despite the Daily Times’ optimism, Dunkelberg’s replacement by someone much less experienced did not necessarily bode well for the prosecution of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, who had been indicted for manslaughter in the beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant. Unsurprisingly, Elliff’s fellow Democrats Fleming, Skinner and Lee had quietly worked for Dunkelberg’s defeat.

Meanwhile the deputies’ boss, Sheriff James J. Crosby, was in a fight for his life – not his political life, however, for he was only in the middle of his four-year term and therefore not up for re-election, but his very life. Stricken down by a severe heart attack two days before Election Day, Crosby was moved to Methodist Hospital in Peoria on Nov. 7.

In the follow week, the Pekin Daily Times published almost daily updates on Sheriff Crosby’s health. His condition was very grave, and at one point it was feared that his death was very near, but he rebounded and eventually was able to resume his duties.

While Crosby was hospitalized and at death’s door, the sister of Martin Virant, Agnes Franko, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff on Thursday, Nov. 10. Franko sought $10,000 in damages, a hefty sum in those days.

Then on Saturday, Nov. 12, Circuit Court Judge Joseph E. Daily issued his ruling on the motion seeking a change of venue for the manslaughter trial of Fleming, Skinner and Lee. Their attorneys, Jesse Black and William J. Reardon, had argued that the unusual publicity given to this case by local newspapers, especially the Pekin Daily Times, had made it impossible for their clients to obtain a fair trial in Tazewell County.

In defense of its news coverage, on Nov. 2 Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton had reprinted an editorial from the Peoria Transcript, which declared that if the deputies are guilty of killing Virant, local newspapers “will be glad to endure criticism for having condemned the officers and the system which led to his death.

“The deputies are entitled to fair trials. They were officers of the law, and their task was not easy. Nevertheless, this newspaper, at least, is proud that it has been vigilant in behalf of the public interest and protestant in the face of the possibility of official cruelty.”

Even so, Judge Daily agreed with attorneys Black and Reardon, announcing that the trial would be moved to Petersburg, county seat of Menard County.

“Judge Daily said that he had considered the case very carefully, taking the affidavits which had been presented by counsel for both the state and the defense to his home and going over them leisurely and with care and he was of the opinion that the defendants had established their fear that they might not get a fair and impartial trial in this county.

“In considering what county the case should be sent to he had made inquiry and investigation in to the circulation of Peoria, Bloomington and Pekin papers in the county and he had found the circulation very small in Menard county. One Peoria paper has 13 subscribers in the county and another has but two, the court learned.”

The trial was expected to be delayed until February of 1933, “as the next term of circuit court convenes there the first Monday in that month,” the Daily Times reported on the front page of its edition of Nov. 26, 1932.

Next week: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 11: The deputies prepare their defense

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
Library assistant

Chapter Eleven

The deputies prepare their defense

Even prior to the manslaughter indictments of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee for the “third degree” beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant, the deputies and their attorneys, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon, had already begun to plot out their defense strategy.

Black gave a hint of that strategy when he issued a broadside attack against Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in early September, accusing Allen of inflaming the public against his clients and boasting that the deputies would be exonerated.

On Oct. 24, 1932, Black and Reardon filed a motion for a change of venue. Their motion was expected, because Virant’s murder was one of the most sensational crimes in Tazewell County’s history, and inevitably had dominated the front pages of all the newspapers in the Pekin area for almost the entire month of September 1932.

Judge Joseph E. Daily heard arguments for and against the motion at the Tazewell County Courthouse on Oct. 31.

“In the first exhibit offered by Attorney Black,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “was a front page of an issue of the Pekin Daily Times, which paper the court was again reminded, had a wide circulation thruout Tazewell county, containing articles relating to Virant’s death, which the attorney contended tended to create a prejudice against the defendants, and also containing alleged testimony which would not be admitted by a court of record.”

Judge Daily took the matter under advisement, saying he would not issue his decision until Nov. 12. Not just the gravity of the case, but also the fast-approaching general election, gave him a good reason to delay ruling on the question. In the autumn of 1932, the Great Depression was in full swing, and incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover was facing a formidable challenge from Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But while action on the case paused in the courtrooms, the accused deputies continued efforts in their own defense. While their attorneys had charge of legal strategy, the deputies opted for an unorthodox and somewhat cynical angle of counterattack: taking their cause into the political ring, the deputies quietly but determinedly campaigned for the defeat at the polls of Coroner Allen and State’s Attorney Louis Dunkelberg.

In the case of Allen, their campaigning for his defeat seems to have been simply out of spite. If Allen were defeated by his Democratic challenger Dr. Nelson A. Wright Jr., it would have little if any effect on their prosecution or on their chances of conviction or acquittal.

The electoral defeat of Dunkelberg, however, would very likely deal the prosecution a very serious setback. Then nearing the completion of his second four-year term in office, Dunkelberg was an experienced and accomplished prosecutor, and it was he who had filed the charges in the Virant case and had midwifed the case through the grand jury.

His Democratic challenger was Nathan T. Elliff, a young barrister working in the law office of his father, Pekin attorney John T. Elliff. In fact, he was a mere 23 years old and had only been an attorney for four years, passing the bar at the tender age of 19. The contrast between the legal and prosecutorial experience of Dunkelberg and Elliff almost could not have been greater.

We may also wonder whether or not, in quietly opposing Dunkelberg’s re-election, the deputies may have wanted to create a feeling of gratitude or debt in the mind of the little experienced and untested Elliff. Did they hope to influence how, or whether, Elliff would proceed with their case?

No matter how quiet their campaign, though, the family of the murder victim eventually got wind of what the deputies had been doing. Just before Election Day, the family of Martin Virant took out a last-minute political advertisement in the Nov. 7, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, entitled, “A WORD FROM THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF MARTIN VIRANT, DECEASED,” and signed, “Frank Virant, Mrs. Agnes Franko.”

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant's family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant’s family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

“We have just found that the deputy sheriffs who are now being prosecuted for our brother Martin’s death are going around trying to get their close friends to vote against Dr. Allen and States Attorney Dunkelberg. They think that if Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg are defeated it will help them a lot in their trial.

“We want the people to know that Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg did all in their power to investigate Martin’s death and it was through their work that the truth was given to the people. We have been helping them in every way, and we want the people of Tazewell County to know that we want them elected again so that they can go on with Martin’s case. If there is any justice in Tazewell County, Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg will get the votes of all honest Americans who want to see us and our brother, Martin, get a square deal.”

Their last-minute appeal, however, was in vain. Although initial election returns looked promising for Allen – the Daily Times on Nov. 7 even incorrectly predicted, “Coroner A. E. Allen Will Be Re-Elected” – nevertheless both he and Dunkelberg were swept away by the Democratic tsunami that swept the Republican Party out of power almost everywhere in the country, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.

Since most voters blamed the Republicans for the Great Depression, the accused deputies may have had no need to lend their support to Wright and Elliff – voter antipathy for Republicans that year was so strong that the Democrats probably could have run almost anyone against Allen and Dunkelberg and been assured of victory.

Next week: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 8: Standing room only at the inquest

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
Library assistant

Chapter Eight

Standing room only at the inquest

At 1:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12, 1932, the Tazewell County grand jury took up the case of the shocking murder of Martin Virant, whose dead body had been hanged in the Tazewell County Jail on Sept. 1 after he had succumbed to severe injuries he had suffered at the hands of county deputies while he was in their custody.

Over the next five days, the grand jury would devote its attention solely to the Virant case. While the grand jury was in the midst of its proceedings behind closed doors at the Tazewell County Courthouse, the coroner’s inquest into Virant’s death also got under way nearby, at Kuecks Funeral Home on Capitol Street.

The inquest began at 2:10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, “before a crowd that filled every seat, doorway and window of the place,” said the story on the front page of that day’s edition of the Pekin Daily Times. “Attorneys, stenographers, and reporters from afar are present as the most debated death in Tazewell county in many years faces official investigation.”

A large crowd attending a coroner’s inquest is unusual, but then Virant’s death was unusual and had outraged many. As the Sept. 9, 1932 Pekin Daily Times had said, “. . . the sensational stories and circumstances attending this man’s death [have] been a general topic for discussion not only in Pekin and Tazewell county, but in neighboring communities and thruout the state. Stories of this death have been carried, under glaring headlines, by newspapers and press bureaus in almost every state in the central west, and it has gone over the radio to probably every section of the country.”

Another thing that was unusual about the inquest is that it took place over two consecutive afternoons. Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen summoned a long, solemn procession of witnesses to give testimony at the inquest. Many of the same witnesses also testified before the grand jury.

The first witness at the inquest was East Peoria City Clerk E. W. Tucker, one of several people who had seen Virant on the day he was taken in for questioning by Deputy Charles O. Skinner and Deputy J. Hardy Garber. Tucker and other witnesses testified that Virant had no visible injuries before he was taken to the sheriff’s department.

Another witness, Charles E. Schmidt, an East Peoria justice of the peace, said that he was told by Virant’s brother-in-law Frank Franko that “Martin had been in a happy spirit when he had left with the officers.” But Franko and his wife both told the coroner’s jury that Virant was worried that Skinner might do him harm.

Virant’s brother-in-law said Virant, a coal miner, wanted to change into some clean clothes. “Then that big fat fellow, Skinner, said, ‘No, he don’t need any clothes.’ But I told him that Martin wanted to change his dirty clothes. He said, ‘He don’t need them for he is going right with me.’ Well that made Martin pretty nervous because of what happened the day before when he heard about a friend of his getting beat up . . . Martin said, ‘Frank, I’ll tell nothing but the truth, but I’m afraid to go, I know I’m going to get beat up.’”

It’s unclear from Franko’s testimony why Virant would have been expected to get beaten up. Franko did not specify if it was Skinner or someone else who allegedly beat Virant’s friend (did Franko mean Lew Nelan?), but he mentioned that on the day before Virant was taken in for questioning, Virant “wouldn’t go back to his house to live ’cause he was afraid of getting kidnapped or mobbed or something.”

This detail from page 4 of the Thursday, Sept. 15, 1932 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows some of the testimony of Martin Virant's sister Agnes at the coroner's inquest into Martin's death.

This detail from page 4 of the Thursday, Sept. 15, 1932 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows some of the testimony of Martin Virant’s sister Agnes at the coroner’s inquest into Martin’s death.

After Franko finished his testimony, his wife Agnes, Martin Virant’s sister, was called. She also said her brother was afraid that he would be beaten when the deputies took him to jail. Even more, she claimed her brother told her just before he was taken to Pekin that Skinner had threatened to kill him.

“At ha’ pas’ six in the evening he say ‘Skinner kill me. A car follow me from East Peoria, when I was in the car and when I was in the street car, clear to the curb here.’ I watched the car come and I know that there was something,” Agnes Franko told the coroner’s jury. “. . . Martin say, ‘I know I be killed’ and he take me in arms and kiss me and say, ‘I do not want to go back.’ He say, ‘Skinner told me he kill me.’”

Agnes Franko said her husband tried to see Virant at the jail on Wednesday, Aug. 31. “They wouldn’t let husband see Martin Wednesday morning. Say he kept for witness. Husband come home, say ‘Give me money – hundred dollars – I get lawyer and doctor – Martin get beaten and near killed.’ I cry and give him money I saved, $120, and say, ‘He killed alread.’”

The last time she saw her brother alive was the day Skinner and Garber took him for questioning. Concluding her testimony, Agnes said, “Last word I hear out of his mouth was ‘They kill me, Sheriff and Skinner.’”

Next week: The coroner’s jury issues its verdict.

#agnes-franko, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #hardy-garber, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 4: A hanging in Cell 11 — Crime and cover-up at the county jail

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
Library assistant

Chapter Four

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.

This front page article in the 6 Sept. 1932 Pekin Daily Times announced the arrival of expert criminologist Dr. William D. McNally of Chicago to examine the body of Martin Virant, found hanging in his Tazewell County Jail cell on 1 Sept. 1932. McNally concluded that Virant was already dead before his body was hanged in the cell.

This front page article in the 6 Sept. 1932 Pekin Daily Times announced the arrival of expert criminologist Dr. William D. McNally of Chicago to examine the body of Martin Virant, found hanging in his Tazewell County Jail cell on 1 Sept. 1932. McNally concluded that Virant was already dead before his body was hanged in the cell.

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