The Third Degree: Chapter 24: A sudden ending to John Petje’s murder trial

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-four

A sudden ending to John Petje’s murder trial

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933.

On Friday morning, Dec. 8, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff called two witnesses to the stand that morning: William Peters, brakeman for the C. and I. M. railroad, and Engineer W. S. Kirkwood. Peters and Kirkwood operated the train that ran over Lew Nelan in the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1932.

Nelan, along with two of Petje’s acquaintances, Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld, had been drinking at Petje’s speakeasy on Saturday night. At the coroner’s inquest into Nelan’s death, Keayes and Hufeld testified that Petje and Nelan had fought, and that Petje struck Nelan on the head with an iron bar. According to their inquest testimony, thinking Nelan was dead, the three men took Nelan’s body to the railroad tracks nearby so he would be run over.

The testimony of Keayes and Hufeld would be crucial in establishing that Petje was guilty of Nelan’s murder. However, according to the Pekin Daily Times, after Petje’s attorney, James P. St. Cerny, had concluded his cross-examination of Engineer Kirkwood around 10 a.m., “Attorneys St. Cerney (sic) and P. A. D’Arcy and State’s Attorney Elliff gathered in front of the judge and they had written into the court’s records certain facts as to why the state did not call in Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufelt (sic) as witnesses.”

Judge Joseph E. Daily then questioned Keayes as to where he was on the evening of Aug. 27, 1932.

Keayes replied, “I refuse to testify.”

Judge Daily asked him why he refused, and Keayes replied, “I might incriminate myself,” availing himself of his constitutional right against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.

Next, the judge called Hufeld and asked him the same two questions, and Hufeld responded in the same words that Keayes had used.

Judge Daily dismissed Hufeld, and then, turning to the jury, instructed the jurors to return a directed verdict of “not guilty.”

With Keayes and Hufeld “taking the Fifth,” the state could not tie Petje to Nelan’s death. “Trial of the case developed that the state had little direct testimony and the court instructions to find the defendant not guilty came as little surprise to those who had been following the trial,” the Pekin Daily Times explained.

Elliff’s attempted prosecution of Petje had followed a similar course as, and had collapsed in much the same way that, his prosecution of Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner had.

In the case of Martin Virant’s death, Elliff dropped the charges against Deputy Frank Lee and then went on to lose the case when he and his fellow prosecutors were unable to tie Fleming and Skinner to Virant’s beating and hanging.

In the case of Nelan’s death, Elliff dropped the charges against Keayes and Hufeld and then lost the case when he had no way to link Petje to Nelan’s beating and the dumping of his body on the track.

Tazewell County’s residents had now seen the unraveling of the prosecutions in the cases of two related, very sensational homicides, along with fruitless attempts to oust the county sheriff and his deputies.

These events helped to create a general sense of great dissatisfaction with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office, and a debilitating loss of confidence in both elected offices.

This inevitably would have notable political repercussions.

Next week: Aftermath and epilogue.

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933. On Friday morning, Dec. 8, however, as reported on the front page of that day's Pekin Daily Times, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

After months of delays followed by an unusually slow jury selection process, the murder trial of East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje finally got under way on Thursday, Dec. 7, 1933. On Friday morning, Dec. 8, however, as reported on the front page of that day’s Pekin Daily Times, it all came screeching to a very sudden halt.

#edward-hufeld, #frank-keayes, #j-p-st-cerny, #john-petje, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #p-a-darcy, #the-third-degree, #w-s-kirkwood, #william-peters

The Third Degree: Chapter 23: The Nelan murder case finally goes to trial

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-three

The Nelan murder case finally goes to trial

In the autumn of 1933, more than a year after the gruesome death of Lewis P. Nelan of East Peoria, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff took action to bring Nelan’s killers to trial.

Nelan had gotten into a drunken brawl with East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje, who struck Nelan on the head with a metal pipe and knocked him unconscious. Believing that Nelan was dead, Petje and his accomplices Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld tried to cover up what had happened by carrying Nelan to the nearby railroad tracks so he would be run over.

Nelan’s death on Aug. 28, 1932, had been overshadowed by the far more scandalous and sensational death of Nelan’s acquaintance Martin Virant, who had been brought in for questioning as a potential witness to Nelan’s death and then savagely beaten while in custody at the Tazewell County Jail.

The furor over Virant’s death and the attempt to prosecute three of the deputies believed responsible was the focus of attention throughout the fall of 1932 and the winter and spring of 1932-33. After the deputies were acquitted on March 5, 1932, groups of Tazewell County citizens made attempts to oust Sheriff James J. Crosby and his deputies, but by September it was evident that the only recourse for outraged citizens was to wait until the end of Crosby’s term in office in 1934.

With the Virant controversy subsiding, Nelan’s murder returned to center stage – and also returned to the pages of the Pekin Daily Times. On Oct. 10, 1933, the Daily Times published a summary of upcoming cases on the jury calendar, noting that, “The most important case on the calendar is that of Petji (sic), Keayes and Hufeldt (sic), charged with the murder of Lewis Nelan of East Peoria. State’s Attorney Elliff says he will make an effort to have this case come to trial, but it may go over to a later term.”

The trial once more was delayed, this time until the December jury calendar. On Dec. 2, the Daily Times reported that the Nelan case was the first on the calendar, and on Monday, Dec. 4, the newspaper ran a front page story headlined, “Trial of Lewis Nelan Murder Case Starts Tuesday Morning.”

That story reported on a very important development in the case: Elliff had decided to drop all charges against Keayes and Hufeld.

The Times reported, “When the case of John Petje, Frank Keayes and Edward Hufelt (sic) . . . was called in the circuit court this morning, P. A. D’Arcy, counsel for Keayes and Hufelt, withdrew from the case. He had been appointed by the court to defend Keayes and Hufelt. Following the withdrawal of Attorney D’Arcy, Attorney J. P. St. Cerny, counsel for Petje, moved the court to grant a continuance.”

Rather than accept yet another continuance in this case that had already been delayed a year and three months, Elliff moved to have the case against Keayes and Hufeld dismissed. Judge Joseph E. Daily granted the motion and then set the trial for the following day.

Though he had avoided further delay in the case, Elliff’s decision was likely to make the task of prosecuting Petje much more difficult. As the Times explained, the state was “in possession of alleged confessions by Keayes and Hufelt (sic), but these cannot be introduced as evidence against Petje, it is claimed, because he was not present when they were made.”

Jury selection got under way at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5, but the process was unusually slow-going. Only four jurors were approved that day: Harold Ruth, Tremont, laborer; P. A. Barnes, Hopedale, garage proprietor; Carl Ary, Green Valley, truck driver; Irvan Kunkel, Pekin, mechanic.

The next day seven jurors were accepted: H.R. Clayton, Cincinnati Township, laborer; R. D. VanNattan, Pekin, laborer; Clark Braden, Morton, machinist; Orin Aupperle, Morton, farmer; Albert Herman, Tremont, merchant; and David Hasty, Mackinaw, painter.

The 12th and final juror was finally approved around 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7 – Edward Erxleben, Pekin, unemployed. Elliff and St. Cerny then made their opening statements, and the state began to call its witnesses at 11:30 a.m.

The first witness was Hubert G. Brown, special agent for the C. & I. M. railroad, who had assisted with the investigation of Nelan’s deaths. It was Brown who had found Nelan’s hat near a rear door of Petje’s speakeasy very soon after Nelan’s body was run over on the P. & P. U. railroad tracks in East Peoria.

However, Brown’s memory was much the worse after the 15-month delay since Nelan’s death, and when Petje’s attorney, James P. St. Cerny, showed him the hat, Brown said he couldn’t be sure it was the one he’d found. Similarly, Mary Peckenpaugh, who had identified the hat as Nelan’s during the initial investigation, told the court she wasn’t positive the hat shown in court was Nelan’s.

Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, shown in this 1928 photograph, was a key figure in the investigations and criminal prosecutions pertaining to the 1932 deaths of Lewis P. Nelan and Martin Virant. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, shown in this 1928 photograph, was a key figure in the investigations and criminal prosecutions pertaining to the 1932 deaths of Lewis P. Nelan and Martin Virant. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

The state next called Dr. L. F. Teter, who had conducted the autopsy on Nelan’s body, and former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. A. E. Allen, who had headed the death investigation. Teter and Allen testified that the injuries to Nelan’s head were not caused by the train that ran over him, but had been caused by a blunt instrument. The blow to his head was not enough to cause death, they also testified.

Several other witnesses were called to the stand that day, including Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles O. Skinner, one of the deputies who had been acquitted of manslaughter charges in connection with the “third degree” torture death of Martin Virant. Skinner told the jurors of his part in the investigation of Nelan’s death that had led to the arrests and indictment of Petje, Keayes and Hufeld.

Court was dismissed at 4:15 p.m., and the trial recessed until Friday morning.

Next week: A sudden ending to Petje’s trial.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-hufeld, #frank-keayes, #hubert-brown, #j-p-st-cerny, #john-petje, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #l-f-teter, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #mary-peckenpaugh, #nathan-t-elliff, #p-a-darcy, #the-third-degree

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.

#charles-schmidt, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-hufeld, #edward-tucker, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #frank-franko, #frank-virant, #george-genseal, #george-reichelderfer, #h-a-mccance, #j-p-st-cerny, #janese-shipley, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #victor-michael

The Third Degree: Chapter 6: Skinner sees the judge

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 Six

Skinner sees the judge

Formerly an East Peoria police officer, in 1930 Charles O. Skinner was appointed a deputy sheriff by Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. During his time in law enforcement, Skinner had put his share of criminals behind bars.

In a dramatic reversal of roles, on the night of Sept. 6, 1932, Skinner found himself behind bars – under arrest and awaiting arraignment for the murder of East Peoria miner Martin Virant, who had been found dead and hanging in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail on Sept . 1.

Shown is the former Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff's residence, where Martin Virant was found dead and hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932, the day after publicly accusing Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies of beating and torturing him. The McKenzie Building on Fourth Street in downtown Pekin was built on the site of the old jail.

Shown is the former Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s residence, where Martin Virant was found dead and hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932, the day after publicly accusing Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies of beating and torturing him. The McKenzie Building on Fourth Street in downtown Pekin was built on the site of the old jail.

Autopsies and a Chicago criminologist determined that Virant was already dead when he was hanged, and Skinner was accused of beating Virant to death while he was in custody as a potential witness to the murder of Lew Nelan. Upon his arrest, Skinner was taken to the Peoria County Jail as a precaution, due to the strong feelings that had been aroused in Pekin and East Peoria at the news of Virant’s murder.

At 11:20 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, Skinner was arraigned in the court of Judge W. H. Williams. Not many noticed when Pekin Police Chief Ralph Goar brought Skinner to the courthouse, but the Pekin Daily Times learned of his arrival almost immediately because Goar stopped his car in front of the Times offices.

The Daily Times that day reported, “There were but few persons around the stairway entrance leading to Justice Williams’ court this morning when Chief of Police Ralph Goar, Officer Harry Donahue, Attorney W. J. Reardon, counsel for the defendant, and Skinner arrived here this morning from Peoria, about 11:1[0] o’clock.

“A short time prior to the beginning of court proceedings, while those in the justice office were exchanging remarks, Deputy Skinner said, ‘This is the first time for me. I have never before been arrested in all my life.’

“’Well, I am sorry,’ said Justice Williams, ‘that I had to be responsible for it, in a way, but it was my duty to issue the warrant.’

“’I don’t blame you one particle,’ said Skinner. ‘That was your duty and you could not do anything else. I sure have no ill feeling toward you.’”

Reardon then asked that Skinner’s bail be set at $5,000, saying that Skinner was not a flight risk. State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg responded that the question of an appropriate bail bond should await the findings of the coroner’s inquest into Virant’s death, which Dunkelberg expected to take place the following day (as it happened, the inquest would be delayed until the following week).

Dunkelberg added, however, “that if the court felt it a duty to release the defendant on bond, he would not offer further objection. He did, however, think the bond should be placed at $30,000, and a $5,000 bond was grossly inadequate,” the Daily Times reported.

Judge Williams decided to fix Skinner’s bond at $20,000, and Skinner posted bond shortly after and returned to active duty as a Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputy. “For the present Skinner will remain as a deputy, Sheriff Crosby said this afternoon,” the Daily Times reported.

Also appearing in Tazewell County felony court that day was East Peoria speakeasy operator John Petje, who along with Frank Keayes Jr. and Edward Hufeld had been arrested for the murder of Lew Nelan.

Petje “appeared in the court of Justice W. H. Williams this morning,” reported the Sept. 8, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, “and his preliminary hearing was continued to September 15 on account of the absence of important witnesses. He was represented by Attorney J. P. St. Cerny. Petje, Frank Keayes Jr., and Edward Hufeld are out on bonds of $15,000 each in connection with the Nelan murder.”

Later the same day, Martin Virant’s family at last was able to bury the body of their loved one, at 2 p.m. in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria. Virant’s funeral and graveside services had taken place on Sunday, but Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen had delayed burial so a more thorough investigation of Virant’s death could be completed.

Virant’s family indicated that they intended to file a wrongful death civil suit against Sheriff J. J. Crosby and his deputies after Virant’s inquest.

Next week: A tale of two juries.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-hufeld, #frank-keayes, #j-p-st-cerny, #john-petje, #judge-w-h-williams, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #ralph-goar, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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