The Third Degree: Chapter 16: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black

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 Sixteen

The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black

Three days into the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the Sept. 1, 1932 death of jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors had made great progress in laying out their case.

Ample witness testimony had established that Virant was uninjured when he first came to the jail on Aug. 30, but somehow had acquired several noticeable injuries about the head and neck by the time he was brought to the Lew Nelan murder inquest on Aug. 31. Testimony from jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria also strongly suggested that Virant’s injuries had been caused by Skinner and Fleming.

In response, during cross examination the deputies’ attorneys, Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon, diligently attempted to discredit or throw doubt upon the testimony of the state’s witnesses. Black and Reardon were both retired Tazewell County judges, and their great legal skill and extensive courtroom experience were prominently displayed during this trial.

Black’s style and personality often broke up the trial’s tedium and monotony, though it wasn’t always clear whether his approach was helping or harming the defense. At times Black’s enthusiasm could get the better of him, and Judge Guy Williams would have to admonish him for being too aggressive or too hostile in his cross examination.

Black also reveled in the use of his own body, or the body of co-attorney Reardon, as if they were exhibits for the defense.

One of those times came on Feb. 23, 1933, during Black’s cross examination of Edward Jackson, embalmer at Kuecks Funeral Home, who was present at the Lew Nelan inquest and saw that Virant was hurt.

“I noticed that his right ear was black and his neck down to his shirt collar was black and what I took to be blood on his shirt collar,” Jackson said, also noting “a black spot that looked like coagulated blood under the skin or a bruise on the back of his neck.”

Also, after Virant died, Jackson took his body from the jail to back to Kuecks. Jackson saw that Virant had two black eyes, the right ear was black, the neck was black, and he had about six large bruises in the middle of his back and on the shoulder blade.

As he questioned Jackson, Black asked him to explain how he embalmed Virant’s body. Black took off his jacket so Jackson could “demonstrate” embalming on his own body, but the demonstration didn’t get very far before Judge Williams upheld the state’s objection that Black’s line of questioning was irrelevant.

Probably the liveliest – and no doubt the most (unintentionally) humorous – moment of the trial came on Feb. 24, during Black’s cross examination of former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

An absolutely crucial element of the defense’s strategy was to cast as much doubt as possible upon the findings of investigators that Virant was already dead prior to being hanged, and to try to undermine the credibility of the prosecution’s expert witnesses. Black had already attacked Allen’s honesty and impartiality in the press, so there probably was no love lost between the two men as they faced off against each other during an occasionally testy or even heated cross examination at the Menard County Courthouse.

So it was that the Pekin Daily Times headlined its story of Black’s confrontation of Allen, “BLACK SQUIRMS WITH NECK IN STRAP,” giving it the subheadline, “Ex-Coroner And Ex-Judge Furnish Court Example of Hanging; Ends In Laughter.”

An unintentionally humorous episode in the Martin Virant jail hanging trial was featured on the front page of the Pekin Daily Times on Feb. 24, 1933.

An unintentionally humorous episode in the Martin Virant jail hanging trial was featured on the front page of the Pekin Daily Times on Feb. 24, 1933.

Daily Times staff writer Mildred Beardsley reported, “Attorney Jesse Black’s penchant for acting things out in court nearly resulted today in giving the jury first hand information about how a hanging man looks . . .

“Facing each other were Ex-Coroner A. E. Allen, the witness, and Ex-Judge Jesse Black, defense lawyer who was cross examining the witness. They had been glaring at each other all day, the examination of Allen having taken practically all day long.

“Attorney Black, who is about to wear his coat out taking it off and having different imaginary operations performed upon his body, had asked Dr. Allen to take the ‘death belt’ and ‘show the jury on my wrist how it was tied.’

“State’s attorneys promptly objected that a wrist and neck were far different and Judge Williams ruled that if Black wanted the demonstration it would have to be on his neck.

“Dr. Allen was only too glad to put a strap about Black’s neck and did so.

“‘Tighten it up a little,’ said Black, or words to that effect.

“The next thing the crowd knew, the Pekin attorney was gasping for breath.” (Elsewhere, Beardsley reported that Black protested, “I don’t want you to pull so much.”)

“A few moments more and the jury could have seen first hand the blackened face, the protruding tongue, and the frothing mouth of a hanged man – which is the whole point in dispute in this trial.

“The next time Attorney Black decided to take his coat off, he hesitated, glanced at Judge Williams, changed his mind and left his coat on.”

Next week: Clash of the medical experts.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-jackson, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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 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.

#charles-skinner, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #hardy-garber, #j-w-smoot, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 13: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

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 Thirteen

The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

In the month following the shocking death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant on Sept. 1, 1932, readers of local newspapers saw a deluge of articles and sensational banner headlines announcing each new development in the story.

With the grand jury manslaughter indictments of three Tazewell County deputies in connection with Virant’s death, news coverage slowed down markedly, as the case began to wend its methodical way through the criminal justice system.

That initial flood of news coverage, however, was enough to convince Judge Joseph E. Daily that the accused deputies, Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, would be unlikely to get a fair and impartial trial in Tazewell County. On Nov. 12, 1932, Daily ruled that the trial of the deputies would have to be moved to Menard County, where the case was expected to go before a judge in February of 1933.

The Pekin Daily Times, which had been following this case in minute detail, continued to provide meticulous coverage of the story even after the change of venue. Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton sent one of his reporters, young Miss Mildred Beardsley, to Petersburg to cover the trial for the newspaper. Throughout the course of the trial, Beardsley would offer very lengthy and extensive transcripts of witness testimony as well as occasionally filling in the background with local color and explanation of legal niceties.

The deputies were to be defended by a team of three talented, veteran attorneys: Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon, who represented Fleming and Skinner, and J. M. Powers, who represented Lee. The prosecution team was made up of Menard County State’s Attorney J. W. Smoot, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, and East Peoria attorney Noble Y. Dowell, a friend of the Virant family brought on to assist Smoot and Elliff in what was for most of the attorneys probably (and for Elliff, certainly) the greatest case of their careers. Presiding over the trial would be Menard County Circuit Court Judge Guy Williams.

Although the deputies had already been indicted by a Tazewell County grand jury, due to the change of venue they were re-indicted in Menard County on Feb. 13, 1933. At that time, prosecutors agreed to simplify the case by dropping three of the eight counts of manslaughter that each of the deputies had faced in their Tazewell County bills of indictment.

Two days later, the prosecutors disclosed the list of witnesses they intended to call – 25 people, including medical experts, family members and acquaintances of Virant, and several individuals who were inmates of the Tazewell County Jail at the time their fellow inmate Virant was beaten to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

On Monday, Feb. 20, 1933, jury selection for the trial got under way – but not before a significant development that morning: the state agreed to drop all charges against Deputy Frank Lee.

“It is understood that Deputy Lee was away from Pekin during much of the time during which the events in controversy took place,” the Pekin Daily Times explained. Evidently the prosecution did not feel it would be possible to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee was at the jail during the times when Virant was beaten and hanged to make it appear that he had committed suicide.

Jury selection then proceeded throughout the rest of Monday and concluded on Tuesday, Feb. 21. The jurors chosen were: J. Kennedy Kincaid, farmer, Athens; Robert Fitzgerald, farmer, Sugar Grove; Donald Baugher, general store clerk, Fancy Prairie; Ted Buelter, repairman, Petersburg; Theodore Reinders, hardware merchant, Athens; Otis Harris, farmer, Athens; Roy Corkey, farmer, Petersburg; William Montgomery, farmer, Petersburg; John Gaddie, farmer, Greenview; Henry Market, farmer, Sand Ridge; James Bradley, farmer, Petersburg; and Charles Lockhart Jr., farmer, Greenview.

Over the next 10 days, the 12 jurors would be called upon to hear and consider a long litany of evidence and hours of testimony and arguments both for and against conviction.

After the jury had been sworn in Tuesday, the defense team won a critical victory. Black and Reardon moved that the testimony of Martin Virant at the Lew Nelan inquest be ruled to be inadmissible hearsay.

During his inquest testimony, Virant had shown and described his extensive injuries and had boldly accused Tazewell County deputies of nearly beating him to death. Virant had specifically named Skinner as one of the deputies who had tortured him.

Judge Williams granted the defense motion, instructing the prosecution, “You must NOT mention the testimony of Martin Virant at the Nelan inquest.”

The ruling made the state’s task more difficult, but Smoot and Elliff did not think it posed an insurmountable obstacle. Elliff immediately proceeded with his opening statements.

Next week: The state presents its case.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #j-m-powers, #j-w-smoot, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #nathan-t-elliff, #noble-y-dowell, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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 10: Six indictments in September 1932

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 Ten

Six indictments in September 1932

On Friday night, Sept. 16, 1932, the Tazewell County grand jury completed its inquiry into the shocking murder of Martin Virant at the Tazewell County Jail and the cover-up of his death, which deputies had tried to make look like a suicide.

The next day, newspaper front pages throughout central Illinois announced the grand jury’s decision.

3 PEKIN DEPUTIES INDICTED,” declared the Peoria Journal, with the subheadline, “Fleming, Lee and Skinner held for manslaughter in jail death of Virant who had been beaten.” (The Sept. 17 Peoria Journal devoted more than half of its front page to the story of the indictments.)

HOLD 3 FOR DEATH OF MARTIN VIRANT,” announced the Pekin Daily Times, with the subheadline, “Manslaughter indictments against Skinner, Lee and Fleming; all furnish bonds.”

The Daily Times reported, “The Tazewell county September grand jury, in a partial report to Judge John M. Niehaus in the circuit court this morning shortly after 11 o’clock, returned indictments against Deputy Sheriffs C. O. Skinner, E. L. Fleming, and Frank Lee, special agent of the Chicago & Northwestern railway, who also holds a deputy sheriff’s commission, charging them with manslaughter in connection with the death of Martin Virant, East Peoria miner who was found hanging in his cell in the Tazewell county jail on the afternoon of September 1. The report to the court was made by D. M. Shivlar (sic), of Delavan, foreman of the grand jury.”

These photographs of Tazewell County Sheriff's Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner were published in the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal following their indictment on murder charges in the beating death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

These photographs of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner were published in the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal following their indictment on murder charges in the beating death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

Soon after the indictments were handed down, the three accused deputies appeared in court with their attorneys, and each posted $10,000 bond and were released. Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby immediately returned them to active duty. “Sheriff Crosby says that he sees no reason why the deputies under indictment should be dispensed with and they are still on duty at the sheriff’s office,” the Sept. 19 Pekin Daily Times reported.

The sensational nature of these events was increased even further by the fact that one of the deputies was a former sheriff of Tazewell County. According to the Journal, “Ernest L. Fleming was a former resident of Delavan. He was elected sheriff of Tazewell county about six years ago. Two years ago, when J. J. Crosby, present sheriff, was elected to that office, Fleming was made first deputy under Sheriff Crosby.”

As for Skinner, he was a former East Peoria police officer and was appointed deputy by Crosby in 1930. Lee, however, had only been a deputy for about a year or so. “More than a week ago he left his activities in the vicinity of Pekin, and it is said that he has been stationed in the vicinity of Benld, Ill., the southern terminus of the Chicago & Northwestern railway.”

All three deputies pleaded not guilty when they appeared before Judge Niehaus on Monday, Sept. 26. Given the unusual publicity surrounding the discovery and investigation of Martin Virant’s death, “Counsel for the defendants, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon are expected to ask for a change of venue when the case comes to trial, to some other county,” the Sept. 23, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported.

Meanwhile, the grand jury reconvened on Monday, Sept. 19, and took up the related case of the murder of Lewis P. Nelan, who was beaten and then left on railroad tracks in East Peoria to be run over. Virant had been brought in for questioning as a possible witness to Nelan’s death.

As in the Virant case, the grand jury spent a few days on Nelan’s murder. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the September Tazewell County grand jury completed its work. That afternoon, the Pekin Daily Times announced: “Indict Three For Lew Nelan Murder . . .

The Daily Times went on to say, “A previous partial report had been made to the court and in the final report this afternoon the following indictments were returned:

“John Petji (sic), Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr., charged with the death of Lewis Nelan, indicted on charges of murder.” Petje posted 10 percent of a $15,000 bond on Monday, Sept. 26, and was released pending trial. Hufeld’s bond was set at the same amount, and he posted bail on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Following the initial avalanche of front page stories and banner headlines during most of the month of September, reports on the Nelan and Virant murders became infrequent as the cases proceeded steadily through the courts. The next noteworthy development came on Oct. 19, 1932, when attorneys for the three indicted deputies gave notice of their intention to move for a change of venue.

The attorneys filed their motion for a change of venue on Oct. 24, and the Pekin Daily Times reported on the change of venue hearing on the front page of the Oct. 31 edition, with a story headlined, “Too Many Read Times, Argues Lawyer, For Deputies to Get Fair Trial In Tazewell Co.”

Next week: The deputies prepare their defense.

#charles-skinner, #edward-hufeld, #ernest-fleming, #frank-keayes, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #john-petje, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #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

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 7: Virant’s death: a tale of two juries

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 Seven

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.”

This detail from the front page of the Sept. 9, 1932 Pekin Daily Times quotes Deputy Charles O. Skinner's attorney Jesse Black Jr., who confidently predicted that Skinner and his fellow defendants would be exonerated.

This detail from the front page of the Sept. 9, 1932 Pekin Daily Times quotes Deputy Charles O. Skinner’s attorney Jesse Black Jr., who confidently predicted that Skinner and his fellow defendants would be exonerated.

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.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #dr-william-d-mcnally, #jesse-black, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #the-third-degree