The Third Degree: Chapter 15: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the 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 Fifteen

The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

On Feb. 21, 1933, the first day of the Martin Virant manslaughter trial in Petersburg, Ill., prosecutors began to build their case that Virant, an inmate at the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin, had been brutally beaten by Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner.

Virant, a potential witness in the Lew Nelan murder case, was found hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932, but investigators and a coroner’s inquest jury found that he was already dead when he was hanged, and that the hanging had been staged to try to cover up the true cause of death.

Many of the same people who testified at the Virant inquest on Sept. 14, 1932, also testified during the manslaughter trial. For example, the first witness for the prosecution was Frank Franko of Peoria, Virant’s brother-in-law, who repeated for the jury what he had previously testified at the inquest.

Next, the jurors heard testimony from Tazewell County Jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who provided crucial testimony on behalf of the prosecution regarding Virant’s treatment and statements he made, as well as the injuries he suffered while in the custody of the county’s deputies.

Spearman’s testimony was vital to the state’s case, because, on account of Virant being dead, Judge Guy Williams had excluded as inadmissible hearsay the entirety of Virant’s testimony at the Lew Nelan inquest, when a noticeably injured Virant boldly accused Skinner and other deputies of nearly beating him to death.

After Spearman’s testimony, the state called Peoria attorney Vic Michael, legal counsel for the Virant family who was representing them in a wrongful death lawsuit against Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. On Sept. 1, Michael had accompanied Virant’s sister and Frank Franko to Pekin to get Virant released from jail.

According to the Pekin Daily Times, “Michael related that he had gone to the sheriff’s office in the courthouse and talked to Deputies Skinner and Fleming. Finally Skinner said, ‘Oh, go get the —– out.’ Skinner started to walk across the yard with Attorney Michael and his party following. Then, related Michael: ‘All of a sudden I saw a newspaper man named Watson of the Pekin paper go by on the right. He ran up the jail steps into the jail. I decided something must be up and I followed. The door was shut, but a lady let me in. Dr. Allen was just pronouncing Virant dead after trying to revive him with artificial respiration.’ Michael related that Virant’s right ear was swollen and he had bruises on the back of his head and a hole in the head was bleeding.”

Like Michael, several other witnesses provided testimony establishing that Virant had no visible injuries when he was first brought to the jail on Aug. 30, 1932, and describing Virant’s injuries that they saw at the Nelan inquest or on his dead body. Among those witnesses was Pekin attorney James St. Cerny, who was called to the stand after Michael and who testified that Virant had no visible injuries when he was booked into the jail.

Similarly, in testimony on the second day of the trial, Feb. 22, 1933, Edward Tucker, East Peoria city clerk, George Reichelderfer, superintendent of East Peoria water works, and Charles Schmidt, East Peoria justice of the peace, all said that Virant had no visible injuries when they saw him with Deputy Skinner in East Peoria on Aug. 30. Frank Virant, however, saw his brother’s body at the undertakers on the day of his death, and noticed “a black spot on his left ear that extended down to his jaw,” which obviously could not have resulted from a hanging.

The next to testify was George Genseal, who, like Virant, had been brought to the jail as a suspect in the Nelan murder case, but subsequently was released. He reiterated what he had said at Virant’s inquest, substantiating key points of Spearman’s testimony. After Genseal, Edward Hufeld, one of the defendants in the Nelan case, was called to the stand.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

In relating the events of how Virant was found hanging in his cell, Hufeld told much the same story as Genseal. However, Hufeld provided an important additional detail. As the Pekin Daily Times reported on Feb. 22, 1933, Hufeld testified, “When Skinner came into the jail I could hear him when he called up to Martin. He said ‘Martin’ a couple of times. Q. Was he outside the cell then? A. Well, before he went clear up he said, ‘That damn monkey must have hung himself.’”

If Hufeld was remembering truthfully and accurately, this comment would suggest that even before he had ascended the stairs to the upper tier of cells, Skinner already knew he would find Virant dead and hanging.

On the third day of the trial, Feb. 23, the state called H. A. McCance, jury foreman at the Nelan inquest, and asked him to describe Virant’s appearance and demeanor during the inquest. Though Virant’s testimony at the inquest was inadmissible, McCane still was able to tell the jury that Virant appeared to be in pain or distress, and that his face appeared to be in misery.

Also called to describe Virant during the Nelan inquest was Janese Shipley, stenographer at the Nelan inquest. She testified that Virant had two black eyes, a swollen ear and blood on his shirt shoulder, and that Virant spoke in a voice that was “louder than an ordinary person.”

As the trial continued, the state made its way down its lengthy list of witnesses, methodically and painstakingly – and at times tediously – laying out its case for the deputies’ guilt.

But thanks to defense attorney Jesse Black Jr. of Pekin, the trial proceedings never stayed boring for very long.

Next week: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 9: The coroner’s jury issues its verdict

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 Nine

The coroner’s jury issues its verdict

On Thursday, Sept. 15, 1932, a Tazewell County Coroner’s jury concluded its work and issued its verdict in one of the most shocking and sensational deaths in the county’s history. Two days later, the grand jury indicted three men in connection with that death.

The grand jury had convened Monday, Sept. 12, and the first case Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg brought before them was the death of Martin Virant of East Peoria, 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. The deputies thought Virant witnessed the Aug. 28 murder of Lew Nelan, and tortured Virant because they did not believe his statement that he didn’t find out about Nelan’s murder until the following morning.

While the grand jury considered the Virant case, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen conducted a two-day inquest into his death. On the first day of the inquest, the coroner’s jury heard testimony from several witnesses which established that Virant had no injuries when he was taken to jail. Virant’s sister and brother-in-law also told the jury that Virant feared Deputy Charles O. Skinner would beat or kill him when Skinner took him in for “questioning.” At the Nelan inquest, Virant had named Skinner as one of the deputies who beat him.

The former Kuecks-Woolsey Funeral Home on Capitol Street (now the local of the Tazewell County Justice Center) is shown in this 1966 photograph. The inquests into the deaths of Lew Nelan and Martin Virant took place here in 1932.

The former Kuecks-Woolsey Funeral Home on Capitol Street (now the local of the Tazewell County Justice Center) is shown in this 1966 photograph. The inquests into the deaths of Lew Nelan and Martin Virant took place here in 1932.

Most of the second day of the inquest was taken up with the presentation of the findings of the two Pekin doctors who had conducted two separate autopsies on Virant’s body, and with the testimony of expert Chicago criminologist Dr. William D. McNally, whom Allen had called in to do his own examinations and investigation.

All three specialists agreed that Virant did not die of hanging, but was already dead when someone at the jail used Virant’s belt to hang his body in his cell. They determined that Virant died of extensive, severe injuries he had suffered in a beating.

“From my findings at this autopsy,” McNally told the coroner’s jury, “this man should have been in a hospital instead of a jail. . . From the injuries that I found were quite extensive, he had received a horrible beating.”

Also testifying at the inquest that day was George Genseal, a suspect in the Nelan case who was brought to the county jail a day before Virant (Genseal was later released when it was found he was not involved in Nelan’s death). Genseal said Virant made no complaints of any injuries when Virant first arrived. Skinner later came for Virant and took him away for awhile.

According to Genseal, upon his return Tuesday night, Skinner told Genseal, “Talk to this damn fool so we can take his finger prints, or we’ll send him to Washington, D.C., first and then send him back to the old country where he belongs.”

After Skinner left, Virant told Genseal, “They hurt my head.”

“I told him to come over closer to the bars and let me feel his head. I felt a bump [at] the back of his ear. Then Martin said he thought he had some ribs broken. I wanted to feel and he couldn’t stand for me to touch them.”

Genseal also said Virant told him that all of the deputies on duty “had taken turns” at beating him, “but that Skinner had done most of it.” When Genseal asked him why he wouldn’t let them take his fingerprints, Virant became hysterical. “He said that they had nearly killed him now and if he let them take his fingerprints they would probably kill him altogether,” Genseal said.

On Wednesday, according to Genseal, Virant told Deputy Ernest L. Fleming that he wanted a doctor and wanted to phone his sister in Peoria. Neither request was granted. Genseal said he heard no words or sounds from Virant’s cell that night or on Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon around 2 p.m., Genseal said, Skinner came to the cell block and called to Martin. “Then he immediately said, ‘That ____ has hung himself.’ Then he fumbled around for about five or 10 minutes at the cell door.”

Neither Skinner nor Fleming made any move to cut Virant down or initiate resuscitation attempts. Instead, Fleming called the coroner, and it was the coroner who cut Virant down and personally began attempts to revive him. Coroner Allen, testifying as a witness at the inquest, said, “I said that in view of the circumstances that has (sic) already attended this man’s confinement in the jail here, all possible efforts should be made to revive him.”

The inquest was still under way when the Pekin Daily Times went to press on Sept. 15, 1932. The banner headline of that edition was, “MCNALLY IS BEFORE CORONER’S JURY.” But not long after going to press, the coroner’s jury returned with its verdict. The Daily Times then hastily put out an “extra” edition (which rapidly sold out) with the blazing headlines:

JURY SAYS DEATH HOMICIDE” and “SAYS VIRANT DID NOT HANG HIMSELF

Their verdict was that he died at the jail “from injuries and shock, resulting from external violence inflicted by others than himself, while in the custody of the sheriff of Tazewell county.

“We recommend that Deputy Sheriff C. O. Skinner be held to await the action of the grand jury, now in session. We further recommend that the grand jury make thoro investigation of the implication of other parties unknown to this jury.”

Next week: Six indictments in September 1932.

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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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The Third Degree: Chapter 3: Martin Virant and the third degree

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 Three

Martin Virant and the third degree

On Aug. 31, 1932, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen held an inquest into the death of Lewis P. Nelan of East Peoria. At the inquest, the coroner’s jury heard testimony that on Aug. 27, Nelan had gone to the East Peoria speakeasy of John Petje, where he and Petje quarreled and fought.

According to the testimony, Petje struck Nelan on the head with an iron bar, knocking him unconscious. Mistakenly believing that Nelan was dead, Petje and his companions, Edward Hufeld and George Genseal, placed Nelan on the tracks in the East Peoria railyards so Nelan would be run over and his death appear to be accidental.

The facts of Nelan’s death were sensational enough – but those who attended his inquest were once more appalled and mortified by the testimony that they heard next.

After the coroner’s jury was presented with the reports of the investigators and the testimony and confessions of Petje, Keayes, Hufeld and Genseal, Coroner Allen called Martin Virant of East Peoria to testify.

Virant, a coal miner, was a lodger living above Petje’s speakeasy. Born Nov. 3, 1895, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the son of George and Rose Virant, he was an Austrian Army veteran of World War I but had become a U.S. citizen. He had a brother and a sister living in Peoria, as well as siblings in Europe.

In a front page story about the Nelan inquest, the Sept. 1, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported, “According to the testimony of Deputy Sheriff Fleming, Martin Virnt (sic), who was being detained by the sheriff’s office for questioning, was named by Genseal saying that Virnt was present at the time of the fight and was talking to him.

“Virnt was brought from jail by deputy sheriffs, handcuffed. No warrant had been sworn out for him, but he was believed by the officers to have a knowledge of the fatal quarrel. . . .

“He was told by Coroner Allen that he did not have to testify if he did not want to, and asked if he wanted to say anything, to which he answered, ‘Yes.’

“Virnt appeared nervous and disturbed and at this juncture Attorney J. P. St Verny (sic – St. Cerny), altho not retained by Virnt, asked the witness if he had been threatened, Vrnt (sic) replying that he had been.

“Virnt said he was home the night of the fight, that he had talked to Petji during the evening, but that he went to his room and to bed between 9:30 and 10 o’clock. He said he knew nothing of the fight until the next morning.”

To learn why Virant “appeared nervous and disturbed” and who he said had threatened him, we will quote the transcript of Virant’s testimony that was published in full on the front page of the Sept. 6, 1932 Pekin Daily Times and the front page of the Sept. 17, 1932 Peoria Journal.

Virant said, “I’m not afraid to die and I am not afraid to tell the truth. I fight four years in the trenches in the World war in the Austrian army and I see much and I not afraid to die. After the war there was nothing to do there so I decide to try here. But I got too much beating last night I tell you, they pretty nearly kill me!

“Coroner Allen: Who beat you?

“A – One officer and then another.

“Q – Where were you when they beat you?

“A – In the city hall in Pekin. I am not afraid to show the people. I look you in the eye and tell the truth. They push me, hit me in the head and slap me and I think they have broken two ribs.

“(At this point he stood up and started to pull up his shirt to show his body bruises. The coroner advised that this was not necessary.) The witness continues:

“They hit me on the ear (pointing to right ear which was swollen) they hit me on the head (showing blood on shirt).

“Q – Did more than one beat you?

“A – Yes, they beat and shoved me across the room, and Mr. Skinner (pointing to him) knocked me down and kicked me and stepped on my neck.
(Note: Skinner was a big man, more than 6 feet tall and heavy, weighing more than 250 pounds, while Virant was about 5 feet 7, weighing 150 pounds.)

“Q – What did they say to you?

“A – Nobody said a word, no nothing.

“Q – Did you fight the officers?

“A – No. Somebody kick me and somebody slap me.

“Q – They were trying to make you talk?

“A – I cannot talk and they call me a damn liar and then they knock me down. They kick me again. I am ashamed for the American people. I tell you it is a shame for the City of Pekin – a shame to treat anybody like that. I am a foreigner but I have my citizen’s papers and I am citizen of America and I think I have as much right as you fellows as American people.”

Virant wanted to continue testifying about the torture he had endured at the hands of Deputy Charles O. Skinner and Deputy Ernest L. Fleming, but because Allen concluded that Virant knew nothing about Nelan’s murder, he sent Virant back to the county jail, expecting Sheriff James J. Crosby to release him.

Skinner and Deputy Hardy Garber took Virant back to the jail, placing him in Cell 11.

The next day, Virant was found dead in his cell – hanging by his own belt strap.

Next week: A hanging in Cell 11 — Crime and Cover-up at the County Jail.

This excerpt from Martin Virant's testimony at the inquest into the death of Lew Nelan was published in the Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1932 Pekin Daily Times.

This excerpt from Martin Virant’s testimony at the inquest into the death of Lew Nelan was published in the Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1932 Pekin Daily Times.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 2: A fatal brawl at Petje’s speakeasy

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we revisit a 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 Two

A fatal brawl at Petje’s speakeasy

Early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1932, Lewis P. Nelan was run over by a train in the East Peoria railroad yards. But evidence and eyewitness reports indicated that Nelan had not been hit while crossing the tracks, nor had he passed out on the tracks. So, how did his body get there, and how did he get those head injuries, the telltale signs of a beating?

As reported in the Sept. 1, 1932 edition of the Pekin Free Press, faced with this suspicious death, “Deputy Sheriffs E. L. Fleming, C. O. Skinner, J. H. Garber and Frank Lee followed the leads which indicated that Nelan’s body had been placed in the railroad yards after death and by Tuesday [Aug. 30] had established the fact that Nelan had been killed in a fight which took place at John Petji’s speakeasy, 416 Main street, East Peoria. They arrested Petji, who is 45 years of age, Ed Hufeld, 29, George Geansel (sic — Genseal), 40, and Frank Keayes, Jr., 32.”

However, after hearing all the testimony and considering the autopsy results, the coroner’s jury found that Nelan was not, in fact, killed in that fight. Their verdict, reported on the Sept. 1 front page of the Pekin Daily Times, reads:

“We the jury find from the evidence that Lewis P. Nelan came to his death from injuries received when he was run over by a C. and A. engine in the P. and P. U. railroad yards at East Peoria on Aug. 28, 1932 between the hours of 1:30 and 4:30 a.m.

“We further believe from the evidence that said Lewis Nelan was struck on the head with an iron bar by John Petji and was placed on the P. and P. U. railroad track while unconscious by John Petji, Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr., for the purpose of covering up their crime, they thinking that said Lewis Nelan was dead from the injuries received when struck with the iron bar.

“We further recommend that said John Petji, Edward Huffeld (sic) and Frank Keayes Jr., be held to await the action of the grand jury on the charge of murder.”

(Note: In these accounts, Petje’s surname is sometimes spelled Petji and Petzi, but “Petje” is the usual, and apparently correct, spelling.)

The investigation of Nelan’s death had led the deputies to Petje after they found Nelan’s hat, which had holes in it indicating the wearer had been struck, lying on the ground just six to eight feet from the Petji’s speakeasy. Mrs. Peckenpaugh, Nelan’s landlady, told the deputies that the holes were not in the hat when Nelan had left home on Saturday.

The deputies then brought in Petje, Keayes, Genseal and Hufeld for questioning, along with Burton Heller, 20, of Peoria, and an East Peoria resident named Martin Virant, 37.

“Genseal was with Keayes, Hufeld and Nelan, but left the scene and had no part in the fight or disposition of Nelan’s body,” the Daily Times reported. After the fight, Heller had “taken Keayes and Hufeld to Peoria in his car, simply as a matter of accommodation and he knew nothing about the fight or other incidents connected with it.” Genseal and Heller were released Thursday morning following the Nelan inquest.

Petje admitted to deputies that on Saturday he let in Keayes, Genseal, Hufeld and Nelan, and “they had several drinks,” but he denied there was a fight. However, as reported in the Sept. 1, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, Keayes, Hufeld and Genseal told the investigators that “Nelan and Petji quarreled and Nelan was put out. Petji followed Nelan outside and the row was continued. Petji struck Nelan several times with his fist then picked up an iron bar and struck him over the head, Nelan falling to the ground.

“Hufeld said, ‘He is Dead.’

“John [Petje] then said, ‘Take him on the railroad track and an engine will run over him and they won’t know how he was killed. Don’t tell anybody.”

Petje, Keayes and Hufeld took Nelan’s body to the railroad track, after which they went back to Petje’s speakeasy and had more drinks. Keayes and Hufeld then headed to Peoria with Heller. The fight reportedly took place around 1 to 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28.

After the coroner’s jury was presented with the reports of the investigators and the testimony and confessions of Petje, Keayes, Hufeld and Genseal, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen called Martin Virant to testify.

What Virant had to say was at least as disturbing and troubling as anything the coroner’s jury had yet heard that day.

Next week: Virant’s shocking testimony.

East Peoria map from 1929 atlas

The location of John Petje’s speakeasy and the railyards where Lew Nelan was beaten and dumped on the tracks to be run over on Aug. 28, 1932, is shown in this detail from a 1929 map of East Peoria reprinted in “The Heritage Collection Illustrated Atlas: Combined 1910 & 1929 Atlases of Tazewell County, Illinois.” Petje’s speakeasy was in a building, long since demolished, located near the northeast corner of South Main and Center streets.

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