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 6: Skinner sees the judge

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

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Six

Skinner sees the judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: A tale of two juries.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 5: Deputy Skinner issues denials

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 Five

Deputy Skinner issues denials

On Sept. 1, 1932, Martin Virant of East Peoria was found dead in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin. The Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office claimed Virant had committed suicide by hanging.

It was just the night before, testifying under oath as a witness at the inquest into the murder of Lewis P. Nelan, that Virant had boldly accused Deputy Charles O. Skinner and other deputies of savagely beating him.

Two autopsies and the findings of an expert Chicago criminologist were all in agreement that Virant did not die from hanging, but rather had succumbed to numerous severe injuries he had suffered in a beating. Armed with the results of the investigation of Virant’s death, on Sept. 5 Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg swore out a warrant for Skinner’s arrest.

This photograph of Martin Virant, who died of injuries suffered at the hands of Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies in the county jail, was printed on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

This photograph of Martin Virant, who died of injuries suffered at the hands of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies in the county jail, was printed on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, word spread that Skinner, who was in Aurora that day on official business, would be arrested for murder, and a crowd gathered in and around the courthouse in downtown Pekin.

Concerned that the crowd could become a lynch mob, Sheriff James J. Crosby “as a measure of precaution swore in a number of special deputies,” according to the Sept. 7, 1932 Pekin Daily Times. “These deputies remained on duty about the courthouse and mingled with the crowd during the evening in an effort to judge its temper, some of them remaining on duty all night.”

As another precaution, Pekin Police Chief Ralph Goar arranged to serve the arrest warrant as soon as Skinner returned from Aurora, before anyone in the crowd was aware of his return. Goar offered Skinner a choice between surrendering at the sheriff’s office and being held in Pekin, or surrendering in Peoria and being held in the Peoria County Jail.

According to the Sept. 17, 1932 Peoria Journal, when Goar told him of the warrant for his arrest, “Deputy Skinner was much affected, slumped down in the seat of his auto and cried. Chief Goar is quoted as saying that Deputy Skinner remarked to him: ‘Well, they’re not going to saddle it all onto me.’”

This photograph of Tazewell County Sheriff's Deputy Charles O. Skinner was published on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

This photograph of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles O. Skinner was published on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

Terrified of the gathered crowd, Skinner asked to be taken to Peoria. He also asked Goar not to drive through East Peoria, where anger against Skinner had been aroused by the allegations of what he had done to Virant.

According to the Sept. 7, 1932 Daily Times, after Skinner was brought to the Peoria County Jail, State’s Attorney Dunkelberg and Coroner A. E. Allen questioned him for almost an hour.

Of that interview, the Times reported, “Skinner is quoted as denying emphatically that he ever struck, beat or kicked Virant or stood on the man’s neck as Virant had declared at the Nelan inquest.

“’I did not hit the man at any time,’ he declared in reply to a direct question.

“Ask[ed] who did, Skinner declared, ‘I don’t know any one who did.’

“When asked why Virant had named him at the Nelan inquest, Skinner’s answer was that he supposed it was because he was the only officer Virant knew by name, he having known him for several months.”

In a story on the front page of the Sept. 8, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, Virant’s brother-in-law Frank Franko affirmed that Virant and Skinner knew each other, and said that Virant thought very little of Skinner’s character. “Martin often say to me, ‘Skinner is a bad man,’” Franko told the Daily Times.

Further on, the Sept. 7 Daily Times story said, “Asked to explain why Virant was handcuffed when brought to the Nelan inquest, while three other men charged with Nelan’s murder were not handcuffed, Skinner said that Virant had attempted to escape on the way from the jail to Kuecks Funeral home, where the inquest was held, and that he had put the handcuffs on him. He denied shoving the man or treating him roughly at any time while taking him to or from the jail.

“It was pointed out to Skinner that Virant probably was dead when he was hanging in his cell.

“’Well, if he was hung up there by somebody, it wasn’t me,’ the deputy replied. ‘Somebody else done it.’

“In answer to further questions, Skinner explained that Virant had given himself up in East Peoria to Skinner when the latter went there to question him about the Nelan case.

“’Was he beaten up then? Did he have black eyes or a swollen ear?’ the deputy was asked.

“’I didn’t notice.’

“’But you did notice signs of beating when Virant was at the Nelan inquest, didn’t you?’

“’No, I didn’t. When Coroner Allen cut his body down, I saw a mark on his forehead, but that’s all I noticed.’

“Coroner Allen said it was peculiar that Virant had no marks on him before he was arrested and showed many marks after he was in the custody of the sheriff’s force, yet the latter made no effort to find out how the man came to be injured. Skinner said he didn’t know about this.

“At the end of the questioning, Skinner voluntarily denied again that he had ever beaten Virant.”

Next week: Skinner sees the judge.

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