The Third Degree: Chapter 25: Aftermath and Epilogue

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we conclude 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-five

Aftermath and Epilogue

Voters finally achieve deputies’ ouster

The failure to convict Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner of Martin Virant’s death provoked abortive attempts during the spring and fall of 1933 to oust Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby and remove his entire force of deputies.

It was no surprise, then, that Crosby decided not to run for re-election in 1934. Crosby had two very good reasons not to run again: in addition to the simmering discontent over the Virant affair, Crosby’s health remained fragile following the nearly fatal heart attack he had suffered in November of 1932. To replace of Crosby, the Tazewell County Democrats put up Lawrence Lancaster, while the Republicans opted for Pekin Chief of Police Ralph C. Goar.

In 1934, voter antipathy toward the Republican Party over the Great Depression was still very strong, and the midterm elections that year would again prove to be a near total rout nationally as well as at the state and local levels. In light of those facts, it is a testament to the intensity of popular dissatisfaction with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department that Goar’s photograph would end up on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1934 Pekin Daily Times under the headline, “ONLY G.O.P WINNER.”

The election of Goar ensured that the county would get a sheriff who would “clean house” and replace the deputies who were seen by many as Crosby’s cronies. Evidently voters did not trust that would happen if they replaced the Democrat Crosby with another Democrat. Goar also had an added advantage with the voters: He was the law enforcement officer who had personally arrested Deputy Skinner and had provided the grand jury with important testimony against him.

Sheriff Goar did not waste any time in getting around to the housecleaning at the Sheriff’s Department – on Dec. 1, 1934, his first day in office, it was out with the old and in with the new.

“Deputy Sheriff Fleming, who is retiring,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “will move to his residence property at 614 S. Eleventh street and Sheriff-Elect Ralph Goar will move into the jail residence . . . . Goar will assume the duties of sheriff. Elmer Eiler will be the office deputy under Sheriff Goar and Earl H. Whitmore of Pekin and Arthur Puterbaugh of Mackinaw are to be the outside deputies, Mr. Whitmore being the chief deputy. Sheriff Crosby, Deputies Fleming and Skinner will remain in Pekin, but have made no announcement of their future plans . . . .”

Elliff departs, but no comeback for Dunkelberg

The failed prosecutions of Fleming and Skinner, and the unraveling of the case against Petje, also did little to endear voters to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, who perhaps wisely did not seek a second term in 1936. Instead, it was a race between Democratic candidate R. L. Russell, a former mayor of Pekin, and former State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg, who had been defeated by Elliff in 1932.

However, Dunkelberg again was defeated at the polls. He would not seek his old office again, but would remain in Pekin, where he was a part of the law firm of Dunkelberg and Rust, located on the second floor of the old Pekin Times building. Dunkelberg died on March 27, 1976, at age 79. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin.

As for Elliff, he also never again sought his former job of state’s attorney. In 1940, he joined the U.S. Department of Justice, returning to his law practice in Pekin in 1947 and becoming an active community leader. He died on Dec. 3, 1993, at age 88, and also is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Tazewell County State's Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Poor health, heart troubles claim Black, Reardon, Allen, and Crosby

Most of the other main players in this drama died much earlier than Dunkelberg and Elliff. After successfully defending Deputies Fleming and Skinner in the Virant manslaughter trial, Jesse Black Jr.’s health failed. Following several months of illness, Black died on Oct. 11, 1935, at age 64. His fellow attorney in the Virant case, William J. Reardon, died of heart trouble on June 27, 1941, the day before his 63rd birthday. Black and Reardon are both buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

After losing his re-election bid in 1932, Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen, who investigated the Lewis Nelan and Martin Virant deaths, continued his medical practice in the Green Valley until 1946, when he moved to California. He served as house physician for the Santa Fe Railroad at Los Angeles until suffering a heart attack in March 1961 from which he never fully recovered. He died at age 82 on May 30, 1963, in West Los Angeles, and is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Not quite five years after the end of his single term as Tazewell County Sheriff, James J. Crosby at age 72 succumbed on May 23, 1939, to the heart problems that had plagued him for several years. The Pekin Daily Times published a front page obituary and tribute to Crosby, recalling his many years as a local teacher and school administrator, and respectfully passing over the controversies of his time as sheriff. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Fleming, Skinner, and Garber summoned to Highest Court

The Daily Times showed similar respect for Fleming, who died at age 81 on March 22, 1955. His obituary notes only that he was “a former Tazewell county sheriff for several terms and a baker here for many years.” He was entombed in Lakeside Mausoleum.

After Sheriff Goar dismissed him from the Sheriff’s Department, Skinner later moved back to East Peoria, where he died at age 54 on June 7, 1938. He is buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria. Deputy J. Hardy Garber also left the area after Goar dismissed him. He served in both the Army and Navy during World War II, settling in Des Moines, Iowa, after the war. He died on March 26, 1968, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Iowa City, and was buried in Glendale Veterans Cemetery in Des Moines.

What of the Nelan defendants?

Of the three defendants in the Nelan case, Edward Hufeld later served in the Army during World War II, returning to East Peoria after the war. He never married, and he died at age 62 at Proctor Hospital in Peoria on March 20, 1965, being buried in Fondulac Cemetery, East Peoria. Frank Keayes Jr. moved to Pekin, dying at age 82, also at Proctor Hospital, on Dec. 26, 1982, also being buried in Fondulac Cemetery.

As for John Petje, following his acquittal on charges of murder, he remained in East Peoria and lived until age 62. On March 26, 1943, the Pekin Daily Times reported on page 2 that “Mr. Tetje (sic) was found yesterday afternoon at 2:30 o’clock hanged by a light cord fastened to a door sill in his house on S. Main Street.” The following day, the Daily Times reported that a coroner’s inquest jury ruled Petje’s death a suicide “while despondent over ill health.”

The reports of Petje’s death do not mention the Nelan case, saying only that Petje was “a prominent East Peoria citizen” without explaining what had made him “prominent.” He is buried in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria, the same cemetery where the family of Martin Virant laid him rest.

APPENDIX AND AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD

The decision to re-tell the scandalous history of the Lew Nelan and Martin Virant killings came about in the late summer or early autumn of 2012, when David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society shared with the Pekin Public Library copies of some old Pekin and Peoria newspaper articles and funeral home records pertaining to the Nelan and Virant cases. At first it appeared that the stories could be succinctly reviewed in two or three weekly “From the Local History Room” columns in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times. As I researched these stories, however, it became clear that they needed a much fuller treatment which would call for an extended re-telling in a weekly serial format in the newspaper.

Prior to the publication of the “Third Degree” serial in the Pekin Daily Times in 2012-2013, the deaths of Nelan and Virant had been all but forgotten in Pekin. The late Robert Dubois, during his tenure as Tazewell County Coroner, once told me of the Nelan and Virant cases in a conversation with me around 2003. Dubois, who had read the inquest file on Virant’s death, explained at some length how the evidence and observations at the death scene made obvious that Virant was already dead before he was hanged. Though I found the facts Dubois recounted to be remarkable, I did not commit these details to memory (not even the victims’ names) and soon forgot our conversation, and only remembered that he had talked about it while I was in the process of researching their deaths for the Pekin Public Library’s weekly “From the Local History Room” column.

I doubt very many others in our day besides men such as Coroner Dubois or those with an interest in local history knew of Nelan and Virant and the controversies surrounding their deaths, which were probably all but forgotten in Pekin and Tazewell County prior to 2012. Although the saga frequently was front-page news in 1932-1933, the long and sorrowful story was reduced to a single paragraph on page 69 of the 1949 Pekin Centenary, which included a historical narrative that was mainly researched and written by retired Peoria Journal Star editor Charles Dancey:

“The discovery of the body of Martin Virant, a material witness, in the Tazewell county jail caused a storm which lasted for months. After the inquest there was a near lynching of accused deputies, who were later tried on manslaughter charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree’. Even after their acquittal, there was an effort to impeach the entire sheriff’s office on the part of the Tazewell county board of supervisors.”

That somewhat inaccurate paragraph would later appear in almost identical form in the historical narrative of the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume, on page 173:

“After a material witness named Martin Virant was found dead in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail, there was a storm of public outrage which nearly resulted in the lynching of some accused deputy sheriffs. (They were subsequently tried for manslaughter on charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree.’) There was an effort to impeach the entire Sheriff’s office by the County Board.”

As we have seen, the few lines in the Centenary and Sesquicentennial volumes omit several important details and really only begin to hint at that “storm which lasted for months.”

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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.

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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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The Third Degree: Chapter 14: The state presents 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 Fourteen

The state presents its case

With a jury of 12 men selected and sworn in, the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner immediately got under way on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1933, at the Menard County Courthouse in Petersburg, Ill.

The two deputies were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant of East Peoria by beating him severely while administering what was in those days euphemistically known as “the third degree” (i.e., the police beating and torture of suspects and witness in order to extract confessions or useful or incriminating information).

Before the actual trial began, however, the prosecution was dealt a setback when Judge Guy Williams ruled that Virant’s testimony at the inquest into the murder of Lewis Nelan, when Virant publicly accused Skinner and other deputies of beating him, was inadmissible hearsay.

Long-established procedural rules dictated that hearsay, and testimony from dead persons, are usually inadmissible as evidence at trial. Virant’s inquest testimony was explosive, and particularly damning for Skinner, so understandably the state argued that the circumstances and substance of Virant’s inquest testimony constituted an exception to the usual rules and therefore should be admitted.

Judge Williams was unconvinced by their arguments, however. His ruling made the task of tying Skinner and Fleming to Virant’s death more difficult, but the state had known that the quashing of Virant’s accusation was a real possibility. Menard County State’s Attorney John M. Smoot and Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff would have to try to link Skinner and Fleming to the crime through the testimony of Tazewell County Jail inmates.

One of those inmates was Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who gave testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 22, that was potentially at least as damning as the Virant inquest testimony that had been disallowed.

One of the prosecution's most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant's severe "third degree" beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day's report on Spearman's testimony.

One of the prosecution’s most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant’s severe “third degree” beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day’s report on Spearman’s testimony.

Spearman testified that around 2:45 p.m. on Aug. 30, 1932, she saw Skinner and Fleming take Virant out of the jail. They brought him back about three hours later, just before the 6 p.m. supper. She then overheard Virant tell the deputies, “My side – him hurt.”

Spearman said Fleming responded, “Your side will hurt a lot worse if you don’t tell us something.”
Virant then said, “How I tell you anything if I know nothing. You take my fingerprints and make me murder man.” Skinner replied, “We’ll take your fingerprints or else.”

Then, according to Spearman, about 7 p.m. Fleming and Skinner again took Virant out of his cell. Spearman said she saw them take Virant around the corner of the jail and not to the courthouse (this was actually on Aug. 31, when Virant was taken to the Lew Nelan inquest, but it was Skinner and Hardy Garber who took Virant to the inquest, not Skinner and Fleming). The deputies brought him back to his cell around 9 p.m., after the courthouse lights had gone out.

At that time, Spearman heard Virant imploring the deputies, “Please get me a doctor and my sister in Peoria.”

Spearman testified, “He said that they had beaten him and he was going to die. Fleming said, ‘You are a long way from being dead – we’ll get you a doctor in the morning.’”

She also said that at one point Virant was “close enough to touch with my crutch,” and it was obvious that Virant was severely injured.

“He could hardly walk – had blood on his suit. The right side of his face and ear were bloody,” she said.

According to the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times, “Mrs. Spearman then related how she heard Virant moaning and groaning during the night. The next afternoon about 12 o’clock she said Deputy Fleming came upstairs. He went and looked out the window toward Hackler’s drug store; then went in where Virant was. After about five minutes he came out and went downstairs. She heard nothing, but saw him leave.

“About an hour later she saw Skinner about the cell. Still later she said she saw Skinner come out of the courthouse followed by two or three men and women. Skinner came across and reached the porch; then Fleming came hurrying after him and the two deputies started into the jail together. Skinner went on up to the cell, and Fleming hollered to him, ‘Bring that boy down here.’

“Skinner called back down, ‘He’s hung himself.’

“‘Hung himself!’ echoed Fleming.

“‘Yes.’”

Fleming then hastened upstairs, coming back down very soon after. Coroner A. E. Allen arrived on the scene shortly after that, Spearman said.

Next week: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case.

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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 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.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-hufeld, #ernest-fleming, #george-genseal, #hardy-garber, #j-p-st-cerny, #john-petje, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

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.

#charles-skinner, #ed-hufeld, #ernest-fleming, #frank-keayes, #frank-lee, #george-genseal, #hardy-garber, #john-petje, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #the-third-degree