The Third Degree: Chapter 22: County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

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 Twenty-two

County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

Terribly disappointed by the acquittal of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, a large group of citizens presented a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board on Monday, March 20, 1933, calling for the impeachment of Sheriff James J. Crosby and the removal of his entire force.

The Pekin Daily Times reported that about 2,310 people had signed the petition, and reported the following approximate breakdown of signatures by township:

Mackinaw, 160
South Pekin, 200
Washington, 175
Fondulac, 300
Deer Creek, 20
Tremont, 40
Delavan, 100
Groveland, 80
Morton, 25
Green Valley, 70
Hittle, 140
Dillon, 250
Little Mackinaw, 80
Hopedale, 60
Spring Lake, 170
Pekin, 190
Miscellaneous, 110.

The county board referred the matter to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff for his legal opinion. Elliff quickly prepared a report which he presented to the board that very afternoon.

“It is my opinion that there is no power of impeachment in the board of supervisors. It is my further opinion that the board of supervisors has no power to remove from office members of the sheriff’s force. The only action which the board can take upon the petition is, in my opinion, to make such recommendations as the members may deem fit and proper under the circumstances.”

Elliff also offered to contact the Illinois Attorney General for his opinion. The county board requested that he do so, and the Attorney General confirmed his opinion.

Having considered Elliff’s advice and the opinion of the Attorney General, the board reconvened in special session the following day and issued a unanimous and urgent statement.

“Whereas,” the county board declared, “it is the opinion of the said board of supervisors that the said Ernest L. Fleming, C. O. Skinner and Frank Lee are, because of the public opinion existing in said Tazewell county, not qualified to continue in their capacities as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell county, inasmuch as they lack the confidence and support of the people in general in said county.

“Therefore, we the members of the Board of Supervisors of Tazewell County, Illinois, do hereby recommend to the honorable James J. Crosby, sheriff of Tazewell County, Illinois, that the said deputy sheriffs . . . be dismissed from their offices as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell County.”

This 1928 photograph shows Tazewell County Sheriff Ernest L. Fleming, who later served as chief deputy for Sheriff James J. Crosby. Fleming was one of the deputies implicated in the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant in 1932, but was acquitted in 1933. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria Journal-Transcript

Sheriff Crosby did not immediately respond to the county board’s public recommendation, but rumors began to fly that some or all of the deputies implicated in Virant’s death had tendered their resignations.

However, on Thursday, March 23, the Pekin Daily Times published a short front page notice with the headline, “No Statement to Make at This Time, Says Sheriff.”

“Sheriff Crosby said this morning that he had no statement to make at this time, relative to the recommendation of the board of supervisors that he dismiss Deputies Fleming, Skinner and Lee, and would probably have none until he had conferred with his attorney, Jesse Black. There has been no change in his office force and no resignations as had erroneously been rumored.”

In fact, Sheriff Crosby would have nothing further to say publicly about the county board’s recommendation. He decided simply to ignore the board’s statement, choosing to weather the storm of controversy until it had blown over. He could not be impeached and was not subject to voter recall, and he was endowed by law with wide discretion in the use of his deputizing power, so the petition drive to remove him and his deputies was to no avail.

And there the matter would rest for the remainder of the spring and the whole of the summer of 1933. For a while it appeared that the storm had blown over.

In September, however, the controversy made its way back onto the pages of the Pekin Daily Times (although not the front page this time). At that time, a small group of citizens filed a complaint of criminal malfeasance against the sheriff.

In the edition of Sept. 13, 1933, the Daily Times announced, “Sheriff Case Is Revived; To Refer It to Grand Jury,” saying, “Among the several matters which will be presented or referred to the grand jury is a complaint against Sheriff James J. Crosby, charging that official with omission of duty and malfeasance of office. The complaint, signed by four persons, was filed by Neal D. Reardon in the office of the circuit clerk and by that official turned over to State’s Attorney Elliff.”

The Daily Times noted that there was doubt whether the complaint had been filed under the proper section of the law. That morning, Elliff affirmed that the case would be “referred” to the grand jury for their consideration, but it might not be “presented” to the grand jury, meaning there wouldn’t necessarily be a presentation of evidence and summoning of witnesses.

Just like the petition drive, however, this attempt to remove the sheriff also failed. On Sept. 20, the Daily Times reported that the grand jury had decided not to take up the criminal complaint against Crosby.

So ended the attempts to oust the sheriff and remove his tarnished deputies. Thwarted in the courts and at the level of county government, the outraged citizens’ only remaining recourse was to wait until Election Day in 1934.

But in the mean time, the case of the murder of Lew Nelan was still pending in Tazewell County criminal court.

Completely overshadowed and shoved off the stage during the attempts to prosecute the deputies and remove the sheriff, in the autumn of 1933 the case that had initially sparked these fires of public uproar finally returned to the public’s view.

Next week: The Nelan case goes to trial.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #neal-d-reardon, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 21: An armful of petitions for impeachment

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 Twenty-one

An armful of petitions for impeachment

The manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner ended on March 4, 1933, with their acquittal on all charges that they had caused the death of jail inmate Martin Virant. But the controversy surrounding Virant’s shocking death was far from over.

There was, naturally, a lull in news coverage after the jury’s verdict, as the Virant story was immediately pushed off the front page by the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Struck by an assassin’s bullet thought to have been aimed at FDR on Feb. 15, Mayor Cermak finally succumbed on March 6.

But before the month was over, the Virant story was back on the front page.

Despite the jury’s verdict, probably the majority of Tazewell County’s residents understandably remained convinced that Virant had died as a result of being tortured by sheriff’s deputies. Their desire for justice remained unsatisfied.

In prior decades, the death of a man as a result of harsh or violent interrogation methods may not have elicited much disapprobation, but by the 1930s attitudes about police brutality were changing.

Pekin Daily Times publisher and editor F.F. McNaughton probably spoke for many in his editorial on the front page of the Sept. 6, 1932 edition, entitled, “THE THIRD DEGREE.” McNaughton took what perhaps most people would have seen as a moderate position on police torture, opining, “Too little third degree is weakness; but too much is outrageous.”

He began by noting that, “Use of the ‘third degree is not confined to Pekin. In the days when my job was to cover police headquarters in New York city I used to cringe as I heard the screams of men being tortured as police sought to wring confessions from them. And I may as well confess to you right now that often I didn’t care how much they were tortured.”

McNaughton defended the use of torture by police as a necessary means of dealing with known, hardened criminals. “Criminals have no qualms in the methods they use,” he wrote. “So you can’t get anywhere by using the methods of a primary teacher on them.

“But,” he continued, “dealing with a known desperate criminal is one thing. Dealing with just you or me is another. . . .

“To slap a man may be all right; or to frighten him; or to keep him awake for hours and days till he becomes too tired to tell anything but the truth is good third degree work, particularly if mixed with clever trapping questioning.

“But if there has been ‘stepping on my neck, kicking me from one side to the other, breaking my ribs,’ and the like as the now mute lips of this dead man testified under oath, the thing has been overdone and the people of Tazewell county who hire and pay the officials demand that a stop be put to it.

“Because a man is foreign born is no reason to treat him as ‘just a damn foreigner.’ . . . They are all human beings and life is dear to them.”

But many people regarded any use of “the third degree” as a grievous violation of an individual’s God-given human rights. To cite one example, in the same week that the Tazewell County grand jury considered the case of Martin Virant’s death, the 109th annual Illinois conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church was under way in Springfield.

During the conference, a resolutions committee report was adopted condemning the employment of “third degree” methods to force confessions from accused prisoners. In his denunciation of police torture, the Rev. J. Williams of Bartonville specifically cited and discussed Virant’s death.

Soon after, at the annual convention of the Tazewell County Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, held at Deer Creek on Sept. 28, 1932, a resolution was passed saying the name of Tazewell County had been put to shame, and condemning “any cruel, brutal, or inhuman treatment in methods being used by its county officers, or its law enforcing body, in third degree methods, to obtain confession or information from suspected offenders, or criminals.” The women sent a copy of their resolution to Sheriff Crosby.

Evidently the sentiment aroused among central Illinois residents by Virant’s death was very strong. Consequently, when Fleming and Skinner were acquitted, some of the outraged citizens in Tazewell County began to look for alternative civil means to obtain the justice that had been denied.

So it was that on March 20, 1933 – just 15 days after the end of the trial of Fleming and Skinner – a group of Tazewell County citizens delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and of his entire force.

“To the honorable board of supervisors of Tazewell County,” the petition said, “We the voters of Tazewell county being desirous of clean, just government and safety for inmates of our county jail, do hereby declare the present sheriff’s force, namely Crosby, Fleming, Skinner, Garber and Lee a menace to good government and unfit to serve our county.

“We therefore petition the supervisors of our county to meet in special session and impeach said force and appoint a successor until such time as the office is filled by election.”

Next week: The county board responds.

After the March 5, 1933 acquittal of the sheriff's deputies accused in the jail beating death of Martin Virant, the Virant case disappeared from the news for a while. But on March 20, 1933, the case was back on the Pekin Daily Times front page, with the news that a group of Tazewell County citizens had delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and his entire force.

After the March 5, 1933 acquittal of the sheriff’s deputies accused in the jail beating death of Martin Virant, the Virant case disappeared from the news for a while. But on March 20, 1933, the case was back on the Pekin Daily Times front page, with the news that a group of Tazewell County citizens had delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and his entire force.

#anton-cermak, #charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #f-f-mcnaughton, #frank-lee, #franklin-delano-roosevelt, #hardy-garber, #martin-virant, #rev-j-williams, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #tazewell-county-womans-christian-temperance-union, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 18: The defense pleads its case

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 Eighteen

The defense pleads its case

At the end of a long succession of witnesses and physical evidence, the prosecution rested its case on Feb. 26, 1933, in the trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant by severely beating him during a so-called “third degree” interrogation.

The following day, the defense attorneys Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon began to call their own lengthy list of witnesses and experts, who would help the defense build its case that the deputies never did any violence to Virant, nor did they hang his dead body – rather, the defense contended, Virant had committed suicide. Heading the witness list was J. Hardy Garber, a deputy who helped Skinner bring Virant to and from the Lew Nelan murder inquest.

Garber and the three other deputies involved in this case – Fleming and Skinner, who both took the stand in their own defense, and Frank Lee, originally indicted by the Tazewell County grand jury but whose charges were dropped just before the trial began in Menard County – offered very important testimony.

Presenting a united front, they resolutely denied that anyone had done more than raise his voice at Virant while he was in the custody of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. The four deputies agreed that there had been absolutely no beating or kicking or any kind of rough handling.

The four deputies did state, however, that they noticed Virant had some cuts and bruises about his head and neck when he was first brought to the jail. They denied knowing how Virant had gotten those injuries.

The deputies also agreed that Virant became very frightened and upset, and refused to let them take his fingerprints, after Lee brought in a package containing two metal pipes and unrolled it in Virant’s presence.

Skinner and Fleming also supplied a very important element of the defense’s alternate scenario of Virant’s injuries and death. Flatly contradicting former Coroner A. E. Allen’s testimony that he had eased Virant’s body to the cell floor when he cut his body down, Skinner and Fleming claimed Allen had irresponsibly and unprofessionally let Virant’s body crash to the floor. Virant’s body had even slammed against the toilet as it fell, the accused deputies insisted.

Relying on their medical experts, the defense argued that most of Virant’s bruises and injuries, including his broken rib, were caused when Allen cut his body down and let it crash to the floor. Also backing up this claim were three jail inmates, Charles Cameron, 62, formerly of Delavan, Joe Hensley, and Thomas Davis.

Cameron, a jail trustee, told the jurors, “I saw Allen cut the strap and saw Virant fall on the toilet bowl. He came down awful hard . . . He was dropped. Mr. Allen didn’t touch him. . . . It jarred the whole floor of the cell.” Cameron even claimed that Allen jumped out of the way so Virant’s body would hit the toilet as it fell.

Hensley, another jail trustee, corroborated some of Cameron’s testimony, claiming, “I heard the sound when he was cut down. It came down hard. . . . I heard a loud thump on the iron floor – loud enough to be heard outside of the jail.”

In cross-examination, however, Elliff showed that Cameron’s testimony differed significantly from what he had previously told the Tazewell County grand jury and disagreed with a statement he had made to former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg on Sept. 9, 1932.

Cameron responded to Elliff’s questions by disavowing most of his prior statement, and in particular he denied speaking to fellow inmate Elizabeth Spearman. Cameron’s original statements had corroborated key elements of Spearman’s testimony, which supported the state’s case that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant.

Some of Hensley’s testimony was especially helpful to the defense’s contention that Virant had committed suicide. Hensley claimed that during Virant’s first night in the jail, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1932, “I heard the bunk chains rattling and then like someone came off the bunk onto the floor. That was after 2 o’clock. Then I heard moaning and groaning. . . . I heard him saying, ‘Poor John, he did I did too.’”

The words Hensley claimed to have heard Virant say, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan. A sense of guilt over his role in Nelan’s death was the reason he committed suicide, the defense attorneys claimed.

Davis also testified that he heard noises from Virant’s cell three times that night as of someone jumping off the bunk, including at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. In addition, Davis claimed to have heard the same kind of noise sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and to have heard Virant making a noise.

The defense argued that the noises Hensley and Davis said they heard Tuesday night were not the groans of a man who had been severely beaten, but were the sounds of Virant attempting to hang himself using some strings and threads that investigators found in his cell after his death.

The defense attorneys suggested that some of Virant’s injuries may have been caused during this purported first suicide attempt, but they did not try to explain why Virant would have opted first for strings that were unlikely to support his own weight and only two days later decide to use his own belt.

The defense also claimed that Davis had heard the sounds of Virant killing himself on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Or were they the sounds of deputies faking Virant’s suicide?

Next week: The defense rests.

In the sensational case of the &quotthird degree" death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he'd suffered at the hands of Sheriff's deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant's severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

In the sensational case of the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he’d suffered at the hands of Sheriff’s deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant’s severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

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#charles-cameron, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #hardy-garber, #jesse-black, #joe-hensley, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree, #thomas-davis, #william-reardon

The Third Degree: Chapter 13: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

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 Thirteen

The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

In the month following the shocking death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant on Sept. 1, 1932, readers of local newspapers saw a deluge of articles and sensational banner headlines announcing each new development in the story.

With the grand jury manslaughter indictments of three Tazewell County deputies in connection with Virant’s death, news coverage slowed down markedly, as the case began to wend its methodical way through the criminal justice system.

That initial flood of news coverage, however, was enough to convince Judge Joseph E. Daily that the accused deputies, Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, would be unlikely to get a fair and impartial trial in Tazewell County. On Nov. 12, 1932, Daily ruled that the trial of the deputies would have to be moved to Menard County, where the case was expected to go before a judge in February of 1933.

The Pekin Daily Times, which had been following this case in minute detail, continued to provide meticulous coverage of the story even after the change of venue. Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton sent one of his reporters, young Miss Mildred Beardsley, to Petersburg to cover the trial for the newspaper. Throughout the course of the trial, Beardsley would offer very lengthy and extensive transcripts of witness testimony as well as occasionally filling in the background with local color and explanation of legal niceties.

The deputies were to be defended by a team of three talented, veteran attorneys: Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon, who represented Fleming and Skinner, and J. M. Powers, who represented Lee. The prosecution team was made up of Menard County State’s Attorney J. W. Smoot, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, and East Peoria attorney Noble Y. Dowell, a friend of the Virant family brought on to assist Smoot and Elliff in what was for most of the attorneys probably (and for Elliff, certainly) the greatest case of their careers. Presiding over the trial would be Menard County Circuit Court Judge Guy Williams.

Although the deputies had already been indicted by a Tazewell County grand jury, due to the change of venue they were re-indicted in Menard County on Feb. 13, 1933. At that time, prosecutors agreed to simplify the case by dropping three of the eight counts of manslaughter that each of the deputies had faced in their Tazewell County bills of indictment.

Two days later, the prosecutors disclosed the list of witnesses they intended to call – 25 people, including medical experts, family members and acquaintances of Virant, and several individuals who were inmates of the Tazewell County Jail at the time their fellow inmate Virant was beaten to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

On Monday, Feb. 20, 1933, jury selection for the trial got under way – but not before a significant development that morning: the state agreed to drop all charges against Deputy Frank Lee.

“It is understood that Deputy Lee was away from Pekin during much of the time during which the events in controversy took place,” the Pekin Daily Times explained. Evidently the prosecution did not feel it would be possible to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee was at the jail during the times when Virant was beaten and hanged to make it appear that he had committed suicide.

Jury selection then proceeded throughout the rest of Monday and concluded on Tuesday, Feb. 21. The jurors chosen were: J. Kennedy Kincaid, farmer, Athens; Robert Fitzgerald, farmer, Sugar Grove; Donald Baugher, general store clerk, Fancy Prairie; Ted Buelter, repairman, Petersburg; Theodore Reinders, hardware merchant, Athens; Otis Harris, farmer, Athens; Roy Corkey, farmer, Petersburg; William Montgomery, farmer, Petersburg; John Gaddie, farmer, Greenview; Henry Market, farmer, Sand Ridge; James Bradley, farmer, Petersburg; and Charles Lockhart Jr., farmer, Greenview.

Over the next 10 days, the 12 jurors would be called upon to hear and consider a long litany of evidence and hours of testimony and arguments both for and against conviction.

After the jury had been sworn in Tuesday, the defense team won a critical victory. Black and Reardon moved that the testimony of Martin Virant at the Lew Nelan inquest be ruled to be inadmissible hearsay.

During his inquest testimony, Virant had shown and described his extensive injuries and had boldly accused Tazewell County deputies of nearly beating him to death. Virant had specifically named Skinner as one of the deputies who had tortured him.

Judge Williams granted the defense motion, instructing the prosecution, “You must NOT mention the testimony of Martin Virant at the Nelan inquest.”

The ruling made the state’s task more difficult, but Smoot and Elliff did not think it posed an insurmountable obstacle. Elliff immediately proceeded with his opening statements.

Next week: The state presents its case.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #j-m-powers, #j-w-smoot, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #nathan-t-elliff, #noble-y-dowell, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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.

#agnes-franko, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #ernest-fleming, #f-f-mcnaughton, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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 10: Six indictments in September 1932

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 Ten

Six indictments in September 1932

On Friday night, Sept. 16, 1932, the Tazewell County grand jury completed its inquiry into the shocking murder of Martin Virant at the Tazewell County Jail and the cover-up of his death, which deputies had tried to make look like a suicide.

The next day, newspaper front pages throughout central Illinois announced the grand jury’s decision.

3 PEKIN DEPUTIES INDICTED,” declared the Peoria Journal, with the subheadline, “Fleming, Lee and Skinner held for manslaughter in jail death of Virant who had been beaten.” (The Sept. 17 Peoria Journal devoted more than half of its front page to the story of the indictments.)

HOLD 3 FOR DEATH OF MARTIN VIRANT,” announced the Pekin Daily Times, with the subheadline, “Manslaughter indictments against Skinner, Lee and Fleming; all furnish bonds.”

The Daily Times reported, “The Tazewell county September grand jury, in a partial report to Judge John M. Niehaus in the circuit court this morning shortly after 11 o’clock, returned indictments against Deputy Sheriffs C. O. Skinner, E. L. Fleming, and Frank Lee, special agent of the Chicago & Northwestern railway, who also holds a deputy sheriff’s commission, charging them with manslaughter in connection with the death of Martin Virant, East Peoria miner who was found hanging in his cell in the Tazewell county jail on the afternoon of September 1. The report to the court was made by D. M. Shivlar (sic), of Delavan, foreman of the grand jury.”

These photographs of Tazewell County Sheriff's Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner were published in the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal following their indictment on murder charges in the beating death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

These photographs of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner were published in the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal following their indictment on murder charges in the beating death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

Soon after the indictments were handed down, the three accused deputies appeared in court with their attorneys, and each posted $10,000 bond and were released. Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby immediately returned them to active duty. “Sheriff Crosby says that he sees no reason why the deputies under indictment should be dispensed with and they are still on duty at the sheriff’s office,” the Sept. 19 Pekin Daily Times reported.

The sensational nature of these events was increased even further by the fact that one of the deputies was a former sheriff of Tazewell County. According to the Journal, “Ernest L. Fleming was a former resident of Delavan. He was elected sheriff of Tazewell county about six years ago. Two years ago, when J. J. Crosby, present sheriff, was elected to that office, Fleming was made first deputy under Sheriff Crosby.”

As for Skinner, he was a former East Peoria police officer and was appointed deputy by Crosby in 1930. Lee, however, had only been a deputy for about a year or so. “More than a week ago he left his activities in the vicinity of Pekin, and it is said that he has been stationed in the vicinity of Benld, Ill., the southern terminus of the Chicago & Northwestern railway.”

All three deputies pleaded not guilty when they appeared before Judge Niehaus on Monday, Sept. 26. Given the unusual publicity surrounding the discovery and investigation of Martin Virant’s death, “Counsel for the defendants, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon are expected to ask for a change of venue when the case comes to trial, to some other county,” the Sept. 23, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported.

Meanwhile, the grand jury reconvened on Monday, Sept. 19, and took up the related case of the murder of Lewis P. Nelan, who was beaten and then left on railroad tracks in East Peoria to be run over. Virant had been brought in for questioning as a possible witness to Nelan’s death.

As in the Virant case, the grand jury spent a few days on Nelan’s murder. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the September Tazewell County grand jury completed its work. That afternoon, the Pekin Daily Times announced: “Indict Three For Lew Nelan Murder . . .

The Daily Times went on to say, “A previous partial report had been made to the court and in the final report this afternoon the following indictments were returned:

“John Petji (sic), Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr., charged with the death of Lewis Nelan, indicted on charges of murder.” Petje posted 10 percent of a $15,000 bond on Monday, Sept. 26, and was released pending trial. Hufeld’s bond was set at the same amount, and he posted bail on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Following the initial avalanche of front page stories and banner headlines during most of the month of September, reports on the Nelan and Virant murders became infrequent as the cases proceeded steadily through the courts. The next noteworthy development came on Oct. 19, 1932, when attorneys for the three indicted deputies gave notice of their intention to move for a change of venue.

The attorneys filed their motion for a change of venue on Oct. 24, and the Pekin Daily Times reported on the change of venue hearing on the front page of the Oct. 31 edition, with a story headlined, “Too Many Read Times, Argues Lawyer, For Deputies to Get Fair Trial In Tazewell Co.”

Next week: The deputies prepare their defense.

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