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
Virant’s death: a tale of two juries
On Sept. 1, 1932, East Peoria miner Martin Virant was found dead and hanging in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail.
The sheriff’s office claimed that Virant, a witness at the coroner’s inquest into the murder of Lew Nelan, had hanged himself, but Virant’s body showed none of the signs of a hanging death. Instead, his body displayed vivid evidence of a terrible beating – a beating Virant had said at the Nelan inquest he had suffered at the hands of Deputy Charles O. Skinner and other sheriff’s deputies.
Even more sensational, two autopsies and Chicago criminologist Dr. William D. McNally determined that Virant was already dead when his body was hanged, and that he had died as a result of the beating. All of central Illinois was shocked to learn that Virant’s “suicide” had been staged to cover up the truth: he had been beaten to death by deputies who refused to believe his protestations that he did not learn of Nelan’s death until the following morning.
Skinner was arrested on Sept. 6 for the murder of Martin Virant and was arraigned Sept. 8. That same week, Tazewell County’s top prosecutor, Louis P. Dunkelberg, and the county’s chief death investigator, Coroner A. E. Allen, dutifully readied the case for presentation before two juries that would be seated simultaneously: the Tazewell County grand jury, and the coroner’s jury that would render its verdict on the cause and manner of Virant’s death. The Virant inquest had to be delayed until grand jury week because McNally needed more time to prepare the report he would present at the inquest.
Meanwhile, news of Virant’s murder had spread far beyond Illinois, and newspapers throughout the Midwest were following the story with great interest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Speaking to a Post-Dispatch reporter, one of Skinner’s attorneys, Jesse Black, unleashed an attack on the Tazewell County Coroner’s Office.
As reported on the front page of the Sept. 9, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, Black said, “I don’t blame a certain section of the people for being somewhat prejudiced on account of the newspaper articles that have been printed. But when the proper time comes and in the proper form, the falsity of the assertions that have been made by the coroner and his associates will be apparent,” confidently predicting, “Skinner and his associates will be vindicated.”
Black said he exempted the press and the state’s attorney from his criticisms, but alleged that Skinner and other deputies had been “covertly attacked,” claiming, “The policy of the coroner’s office so far in my judgment has been to inflame the public mind. I think they have done so successfully.”
That weekend, according to the Daily Times, Skinner took his wife and two children, Louis and Lillian, on a short trip to visit relatives so Skinner could avoid the community’s eye and rest up in preparation for a grueling grand jury week.
The September 1932 grand jury was tasked not only with the consideration of the murders of Martin Virant and Lew Nelan, but also with a third murder (that of Richard A. Bohlander, who was shot to death by Jack Larkin of 218 Derby St., Pekin, on June 6, 1932) and several other serious crimes.
The roster for the September grand jury, as reported in the Pekin Daily Times, was as follows:
V. A. Wertsch, Boynton; Wesley Bennett, Cincinnati; H. Marshall, Deer Creek; Carter Harrison, Delavan; D. M. Shivelar, Delavan; Frank Becker, Elm Grove; Faye Fowler, Fondulac; Harvey Staker, Groveland; C. R. Hieronymus, Hittle; R. F. Maurer, Hopedale; Frank A. Hine, Little Mackinaw; Howard Viemont, Mackinaw; Fred Radefield, Malone; Valentine Strunk, Morton; Herman Lauterbach, Pekin; Battiste Benassi, Pekin; Frank H. Smith, Pekin; George W. Weyrich, Sand Prairie; Louis Coombs, Spring Lake; J. E. Morris, Tremont; W. O. Decker, Washington; and George C. Mahle, Washington.
The same week those 22 men heard testimony in the cases of Nelan and Virant, the following six residents of Tazewell County were empaneled as the coroner’s jury for the Virant inquest, which would begin on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 1932:
W. M. Beardsley, foreman; J. Logan Unland, William Shay, Congress Miller, Glee Hellyer and B. F. Waltmire.
Deputy Skinner and his family returned from their trip Sunday night, Sept. 11. The following day at 1:30 p.m. the grand jury convened at the Tazewell County Courthouse.
The first case on their docket was the murder of Martin Virant.
Next week: Standing room only at the inquest.