Pekin’s Mardi Gras . . . in October?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The annual tradition of Mardi Gras carnivals arose in the Middle Ages in Europe, originating as a practical way for cities and towns to get rid of all of their meat in preparation for the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstinence every February and March.

In those days, Catholics completely abstained from eating meat during Lent. Because there were no freezers or refrigerators all the available meat had to be eaten before Lent started on Ash Wednesday, since the meat otherwise would spoil long before Easter. Hence came the custom of having a “carnival” (Latin carne vale, “meat farewell”) on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent begins. This community-wide celebration is called Mardi Gras (“Tuesday of fat”) in French-speaking Catholic countries. America’s most famous and popular Mardi Gras of course is the one held in the former French Catholic colony of New Orleans.

Many years ago, however, Pekin had its own Mardi Gras carnival. Unlike a traditional Mardi Gras, though, Pekin’s celebration took place in October instead of February or March. In fact, Pekin’s Mardi Gras wasn’t even on a Tuesday.

This event was held in downtown Pekin on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Oct. 5-7, 1950, being sponsored by the Irin Grotto of Pekin, a local Masonic organization. News reports describe it as the “first annual” Irin Grotto Mardi Gras, but it’s unclear if the event became an annual tradition. (This was about two decades before the first Marigold Festival.)

A clown announces Pekin’s first Mardi Gras in early Oct. 1950 in this detail from a Pekin Daily Times advertisement.

The 1950 Mardi Gras featured a carnival midway with a circus calliope, a parade, live music from four bands (including a Hillbilly band and a Hobo band), a talent show, a Mardi Gras costume ball, and the crowning of a Mardi Gras king and queen. Attendees were encouraged to come to the carnival wearing outlandish costumes, and judges awarded prizes for the best costumes.

“Twenty-five cash prizes will be awarded for the different types of costumes worn by the children and adults at the Mardi gras street dance this evening,” reported the Oct 5, 1950 Pekin Daily Times. “The committee urges everyone and particularly the children to come in costume or comic dress in order to help make the festivities a success for the opening night.”

Mrs. Marilyn McCabe was the Mardi Gras hostess, Mr. Louis Dunkelberg was general chairman of the Mardi Gras, Mr. U.S. Sullivan was the parade chairman, and Miss Joan Shade was mistress of ceremonies for the Friday night talent show. Crowned Mardi Gras King during opening night ceremonies was Fred Peterson of 1010 Chestnut St., a maintenance man at Pabst Blue Ribbon in Peoria. During the Saturday night Mardi Gras ball in the girls’ gymnasium of the old West Campus high school building, Miss Ellyn Morse, 17, of Radio City (North Pekin), was crowned Mardi Gras Queen. Runners-up were Miss Norine Holiday of 300 Woodland Ave., Pekin, and Miss Marilyn Schaff of 1310 S. Ninth St., Pekin.

Children enjoy the rides on the Mardis Gras carnival midway along Elizabeth Street in downtown Pekin on Oct. 5, 1950. The photograph is from a newspaper clipping recently given to the library by Glen “Bud” Christopher, whose face is circled in the picture. With him in the “tub” are Larry and Billy Conarro. The boys weren’t playing hooky from school, though — the Daily Times said there was no school during Mardi Gras due to a teachers’ institute.

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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 19: The deputies’ defense team rests 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 Nineteen

The deputies’ defense team rests its case

During the two weeks of the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner in late February and early March 1933, the prosecution and the defense presented the jury with their explanations of how Tazewell County jail inmate Martin Virant had ended up dead and hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932.

The state contended that because Virant denied any involvement in the murder of Lewis Nelan, the deputies administered a so-called “third degree” interrogation of Virant, beating and torturing him to extract useful information or a confession. The prosecutors said Virant succumbed to his injuries, and the deputies, finding Virant dead, arranged the death scene to make it appear that he had committed suicide by hanging.

But the defense insinuated that Virant had in fact participated in Nelan’s murder, and, overcome by guilt, he hanged himself in his cell.

One of the witnesses for the defense, jail inmate Joe Hensley, even claimed to have heard Virant say, “Poor John, he did I did too.” Those words, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Nelan.

To establish their alternate scenario, the defense had to explain the compelling evidence that Virant had been horrifically beaten and that he had already died prior to being hanged. To overcome that evidence, the defense called three medical experts, who cast doubt upon the death investigation and the findings of the state’s experts.

The defense’s experts offered no explanation for the testimony of former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen, who said Virant’s body showed none of the usual signs of a hanging death. To deal with Dr. Allen’s testimony, the defense attorneys endeavored to impeach his credibility by insinuating that Allen was involved in a personal political vendetta against Fleming and Skinner.

Allen, a Republican, had recently lost his re-election bid to the Democrat’s candidate Dr. Nelson A. Wright Jr., and Fleming and Skinner had quietly encouraged people to vote for Wright. Fleming and Skinner, both Democrats, also had campaigned against Allen four years earlier. During cross-examination of Allen, defense attorney Jesse Black Jr. suggested that Allen harbored resentment against Fleming and Skinner.

In effect, Black insinuated that Allen had framed Fleming and Skinner, with the implication that Allen had lied about Virant’s body not showing the usual signs of a hanging death, and also had lied about easing Virant’s body to the floor when he had really, so Black and several defense witnesses claimed, allowed the body to crash to the floor.

Also called to testify at the trial was former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg, who according to the defense’s scenario would have been Allen’s co-conspirator in the framing of Fleming and Skinner. The four deputies who testified for the defense claimed Dunkelberg had seen Virant briefly during part of the time he was interrogated by the deputies.

However, when the state called Dunkelberg to the stand and asked him to describe Virant’s appearance, the defense objected and Judge Williams upheld their objection, so Dunkelberg was not allowed to say if Virant had any injuries on him when he saw him.

Notably, one person central to the drama of Virant’s death was never called as a witness in this trial: Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. Neither the prosecution nor the defense summoned him to testify, because Crosby was still convalescing from the severe heart attack he’d suffered on Nov. 5, 1932.

As indicated in this excerpt from a March 2, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, the credibility of the prosecution's key witness Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria was thrown into doubt by the defense in the manslaughter 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.

As indicated in this excerpt from a March 2, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria was thrown into doubt by the defense in the manslaughter 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.

To put the finishing touches on its case, the defense called a series of character witnesses, who testified that Deputies Fleming and Skinner were men of character and virtue who would be very unlikely to commit acts of violence.

The defense also called another series of character witnesses to undermine the credibility of jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman, whose testimony for the prosecution had strongly implied that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant. The testimony of these character witnesses was very helpful to the defense – and the defense lawyers also made a great deal of Spearman’s error that Fleming and Skinner, rather than Skinner and Hardy Garber, had taken Virant to the Nelan inquest.

The defense’s attack on Spearman was so effective that in the end, when the defense rested on Thursday, March 2, 1933, the defense attorneys made a motion to have the whole of Spearman’s testimony quashed and stricken from the record.

Next week: ‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

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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 12: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Twelve

The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

Election Day in 1932 was historic, dealing an overwhelming victory to the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his party, and ushering in the era of “the New Deal” which was to bring about a revolution in the scope and power of the federal government and its relationship with the American people.

But the outcome of the national election also had an immediate effect on local affairs in Tazewell County, where Republican office holders were swept out by the Democratic tidal wave. That included two incumbents: the coroner, Dr. A. E. Allen, and the state’s attorney, Louis P. Dunkelberg, both of whom had sought a third term in office.

Dunkelberg was ousted by Nathan T. Elliff, a young and comparatively inexperienced Pekin attorney. As Elliff prepared to assume his duties, the Pekin Daily Times (Dec. 3, 1932) offered a brief farewell tribute to Dunkelberg, and welcomed Elliff as one who “has already shown much ability in his chosen profession. Thruout the county he is well favorably known. The public has confidence in him and knows that the office of states attorney will be in good hands and that faithful and conscientious service will be rendered . . . .”

Despite the Daily Times’ optimism, Dunkelberg’s replacement by someone much less experienced did not necessarily bode well for the prosecution of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, who had been indicted for manslaughter in the beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant. Unsurprisingly, Elliff’s fellow Democrats Fleming, Skinner and Lee had quietly worked for Dunkelberg’s defeat.

Meanwhile the deputies’ boss, Sheriff James J. Crosby, was in a fight for his life – not his political life, however, for he was only in the middle of his four-year term and therefore not up for re-election, but his very life. Stricken down by a severe heart attack two days before Election Day, Crosby was moved to Methodist Hospital in Peoria on Nov. 7.

In the follow week, the Pekin Daily Times published almost daily updates on Sheriff Crosby’s health. His condition was very grave, and at one point it was feared that his death was very near, but he rebounded and eventually was able to resume his duties.

While Crosby was hospitalized and at death’s door, the sister of Martin Virant, Agnes Franko, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff on Thursday, Nov. 10. Franko sought $10,000 in damages, a hefty sum in those days.

Then on Saturday, Nov. 12, Circuit Court Judge Joseph E. Daily issued his ruling on the motion seeking a change of venue for the manslaughter trial of Fleming, Skinner and Lee. Their attorneys, Jesse Black and William J. Reardon, had argued that the unusual publicity given to this case by local newspapers, especially the Pekin Daily Times, had made it impossible for their clients to obtain a fair trial in Tazewell County.

In defense of its news coverage, on Nov. 2 Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton had reprinted an editorial from the Peoria Transcript, which declared that if the deputies are guilty of killing Virant, local newspapers “will be glad to endure criticism for having condemned the officers and the system which led to his death.

“The deputies are entitled to fair trials. They were officers of the law, and their task was not easy. Nevertheless, this newspaper, at least, is proud that it has been vigilant in behalf of the public interest and protestant in the face of the possibility of official cruelty.”

Even so, Judge Daily agreed with attorneys Black and Reardon, announcing that the trial would be moved to Petersburg, county seat of Menard County.

“Judge Daily said that he had considered the case very carefully, taking the affidavits which had been presented by counsel for both the state and the defense to his home and going over them leisurely and with care and he was of the opinion that the defendants had established their fear that they might not get a fair and impartial trial in this county.

“In considering what county the case should be sent to he had made inquiry and investigation in to the circulation of Peoria, Bloomington and Pekin papers in the county and he had found the circulation very small in Menard county. One Peoria paper has 13 subscribers in the county and another has but two, the court learned.”

The trial was expected to be delayed until February of 1933, “as the next term of circuit court convenes there the first Monday in that month,” the Daily Times reported on the front page of its edition of Nov. 26, 1932.

Next week: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg.

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

The Third Degree: Chapter 11: The deputies prepare their defense

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Eleven

The deputies prepare their defense

Even prior to the manslaughter indictments of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee for the “third degree” beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant, the deputies and their attorneys, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon, had already begun to plot out their defense strategy.

Black gave a hint of that strategy when he issued a broadside attack against Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in early September, accusing Allen of inflaming the public against his clients and boasting that the deputies would be exonerated.

On Oct. 24, 1932, Black and Reardon filed a motion for a change of venue. Their motion was expected, because Virant’s murder was one of the most sensational crimes in Tazewell County’s history, and inevitably had dominated the front pages of all the newspapers in the Pekin area for almost the entire month of September 1932.

Judge Joseph E. Daily heard arguments for and against the motion at the Tazewell County Courthouse on Oct. 31.

“In the first exhibit offered by Attorney Black,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “was a front page of an issue of the Pekin Daily Times, which paper the court was again reminded, had a wide circulation thruout Tazewell county, containing articles relating to Virant’s death, which the attorney contended tended to create a prejudice against the defendants, and also containing alleged testimony which would not be admitted by a court of record.”

Judge Daily took the matter under advisement, saying he would not issue his decision until Nov. 12. Not just the gravity of the case, but also the fast-approaching general election, gave him a good reason to delay ruling on the question. In the autumn of 1932, the Great Depression was in full swing, and incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover was facing a formidable challenge from Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But while action on the case paused in the courtrooms, the accused deputies continued efforts in their own defense. While their attorneys had charge of legal strategy, the deputies opted for an unorthodox and somewhat cynical angle of counterattack: taking their cause into the political ring, the deputies quietly but determinedly campaigned for the defeat at the polls of Coroner Allen and State’s Attorney Louis Dunkelberg.

In the case of Allen, their campaigning for his defeat seems to have been simply out of spite. If Allen were defeated by his Democratic challenger Dr. Nelson A. Wright Jr., it would have little if any effect on their prosecution or on their chances of conviction or acquittal.

The electoral defeat of Dunkelberg, however, would very likely deal the prosecution a very serious setback. Then nearing the completion of his second four-year term in office, Dunkelberg was an experienced and accomplished prosecutor, and it was he who had filed the charges in the Virant case and had midwifed the case through the grand jury.

His Democratic challenger was Nathan T. Elliff, a young barrister working in the law office of his father, Pekin attorney John T. Elliff. In fact, he was a mere 23 years old and had only been an attorney for four years, passing the bar at the tender age of 19. The contrast between the legal and prosecutorial experience of Dunkelberg and Elliff almost could not have been greater.

We may also wonder whether or not, in quietly opposing Dunkelberg’s re-election, the deputies may have wanted to create a feeling of gratitude or debt in the mind of the little experienced and untested Elliff. Did they hope to influence how, or whether, Elliff would proceed with their case?

No matter how quiet their campaign, though, the family of the murder victim eventually got wind of what the deputies had been doing. Just before Election Day, the family of Martin Virant took out a last-minute political advertisement in the Nov. 7, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, entitled, “A WORD FROM THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF MARTIN VIRANT, DECEASED,” and signed, “Frank Virant, Mrs. Agnes Franko.”

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant's family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant’s family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

“We have just found that the deputy sheriffs who are now being prosecuted for our brother Martin’s death are going around trying to get their close friends to vote against Dr. Allen and States Attorney Dunkelberg. They think that if Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg are defeated it will help them a lot in their trial.

“We want the people to know that Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg did all in their power to investigate Martin’s death and it was through their work that the truth was given to the people. We have been helping them in every way, and we want the people of Tazewell County to know that we want them elected again so that they can go on with Martin’s case. If there is any justice in Tazewell County, Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg will get the votes of all honest Americans who want to see us and our brother, Martin, get a square deal.”

Their last-minute appeal, however, was in vain. Although initial election returns looked promising for Allen – the Daily Times on Nov. 7 even incorrectly predicted, “Coroner A. E. Allen Will Be Re-Elected” – nevertheless both he and Dunkelberg were swept away by the Democratic tsunami that swept the Republican Party out of power almost everywhere in the country, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.

Since most voters blamed the Republicans for the Great Depression, the accused deputies may have had no need to lend their support to Wright and Elliff – voter antipathy for Republicans that year was so strong that the Democrats probably could have run almost anyone against Allen and Dunkelberg and been assured of victory.

Next week: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved.

#agnes-franko, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #frank-virant, #jesse-black, #john-t-elliff, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #nelson-a-wright, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #dr-william-d-mcnally, #ernest-fleming, #george-genseal, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #the-third-degree