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.”

Advertisements

#arthur-puterbaugh, #charles-dancey, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #earl-h-whitmore, #edward-hufeld, #elmer-eiler, #ernest-fleming, #frank-keayes, #hardy-garber, #jesse-black, #john-petje, #lawrence-lancaster, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #r-l-russell, #ralph-goar, #robert-dubois, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

The Third Degree: Chapter 22: County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

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

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-two

County board to Sheriff Crosby: ‘Clean house’

Terribly disappointed by the acquittal of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, a large group of citizens presented a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board on Monday, March 20, 1933, calling for the impeachment of Sheriff James J. Crosby and the removal of his entire force.

The Pekin Daily Times reported that about 2,310 people had signed the petition, and reported the following approximate breakdown of signatures by township:

Mackinaw, 160
South Pekin, 200
Washington, 175
Fondulac, 300
Deer Creek, 20
Tremont, 40
Delavan, 100
Groveland, 80
Morton, 25
Green Valley, 70
Hittle, 140
Dillon, 250
Little Mackinaw, 80
Hopedale, 60
Spring Lake, 170
Pekin, 190
Miscellaneous, 110.

The county board referred the matter to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff for his legal opinion. Elliff quickly prepared a report which he presented to the board that very afternoon.

“It is my opinion that there is no power of impeachment in the board of supervisors. It is my further opinion that the board of supervisors has no power to remove from office members of the sheriff’s force. The only action which the board can take upon the petition is, in my opinion, to make such recommendations as the members may deem fit and proper under the circumstances.”

Elliff also offered to contact the Illinois Attorney General for his opinion. The county board requested that he do so, and the Attorney General confirmed his opinion.

Having considered Elliff’s advice and the opinion of the Attorney General, the board reconvened in special session the following day and issued a unanimous and urgent statement.

“Whereas,” the county board declared, “it is the opinion of the said board of supervisors that the said Ernest L. Fleming, C. O. Skinner and Frank Lee are, because of the public opinion existing in said Tazewell county, not qualified to continue in their capacities as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell county, inasmuch as they lack the confidence and support of the people in general in said county.

“Therefore, we the members of the Board of Supervisors of Tazewell County, Illinois, do hereby recommend to the honorable James J. Crosby, sheriff of Tazewell County, Illinois, that the said deputy sheriffs . . . be dismissed from their offices as deputy sheriffs of said Tazewell County.”

This 1928 photograph shows Tazewell County Sheriff Ernest L. Fleming, who later served as chief deputy for Sheriff James J. Crosby. Fleming was one of the deputies implicated in the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant in 1932, but was acquitted in 1933. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria Journal-Transcript

Sheriff Crosby did not immediately respond to the county board’s public recommendation, but rumors began to fly that some or all of the deputies implicated in Virant’s death had tendered their resignations.

However, on Thursday, March 23, the Pekin Daily Times published a short front page notice with the headline, “No Statement to Make at This Time, Says Sheriff.”

“Sheriff Crosby said this morning that he had no statement to make at this time, relative to the recommendation of the board of supervisors that he dismiss Deputies Fleming, Skinner and Lee, and would probably have none until he had conferred with his attorney, Jesse Black. There has been no change in his office force and no resignations as had erroneously been rumored.”

In fact, Sheriff Crosby would have nothing further to say publicly about the county board’s recommendation. He decided simply to ignore the board’s statement, choosing to weather the storm of controversy until it had blown over. He could not be impeached and was not subject to voter recall, and he was endowed by law with wide discretion in the use of his deputizing power, so the petition drive to remove him and his deputies was to no avail.

And there the matter would rest for the remainder of the spring and the whole of the summer of 1933. For a while it appeared that the storm had blown over.

In September, however, the controversy made its way back onto the pages of the Pekin Daily Times (although not the front page this time). At that time, a small group of citizens filed a complaint of criminal malfeasance against the sheriff.

In the edition of Sept. 13, 1933, the Daily Times announced, “Sheriff Case Is Revived; To Refer It to Grand Jury,” saying, “Among the several matters which will be presented or referred to the grand jury is a complaint against Sheriff James J. Crosby, charging that official with omission of duty and malfeasance of office. The complaint, signed by four persons, was filed by Neal D. Reardon in the office of the circuit clerk and by that official turned over to State’s Attorney Elliff.”

The Daily Times noted that there was doubt whether the complaint had been filed under the proper section of the law. That morning, Elliff affirmed that the case would be “referred” to the grand jury for their consideration, but it might not be “presented” to the grand jury, meaning there wouldn’t necessarily be a presentation of evidence and summoning of witnesses.

Just like the petition drive, however, this attempt to remove the sheriff also failed. On Sept. 20, the Daily Times reported that the grand jury had decided not to take up the criminal complaint against Crosby.

So ended the attempts to oust the sheriff and remove his tarnished deputies. Thwarted in the courts and at the level of county government, the outraged citizens’ only remaining recourse was to wait until Election Day in 1934.

But in the mean time, the case of the murder of Lew Nelan was still pending in Tazewell County criminal court.

Completely overshadowed and shoved off the stage during the attempts to prosecute the deputies and remove the sheriff, in the autumn of 1933 the case that had initially sparked these fires of public uproar finally returned to the public’s view.

Next week: The Nelan case goes to trial.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #neal-d-reardon, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 21: An armful of petitions for impeachment

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

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Twenty-one

An armful of petitions for impeachment

The manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner ended on March 4, 1933, with their acquittal on all charges that they had caused the death of jail inmate Martin Virant. But the controversy surrounding Virant’s shocking death was far from over.

There was, naturally, a lull in news coverage after the jury’s verdict, as the Virant story was immediately pushed off the front page by the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Struck by an assassin’s bullet thought to have been aimed at FDR on Feb. 15, Mayor Cermak finally succumbed on March 6.

But before the month was over, the Virant story was back on the front page.

Despite the jury’s verdict, probably the majority of Tazewell County’s residents understandably remained convinced that Virant had died as a result of being tortured by sheriff’s deputies. Their desire for justice remained unsatisfied.

In prior decades, the death of a man as a result of harsh or violent interrogation methods may not have elicited much disapprobation, but by the 1930s attitudes about police brutality were changing.

Pekin Daily Times publisher and editor F.F. McNaughton probably spoke for many in his editorial on the front page of the Sept. 6, 1932 edition, entitled, “THE THIRD DEGREE.” McNaughton took what perhaps most people would have seen as a moderate position on police torture, opining, “Too little third degree is weakness; but too much is outrageous.”

He began by noting that, “Use of the ‘third degree is not confined to Pekin. In the days when my job was to cover police headquarters in New York city I used to cringe as I heard the screams of men being tortured as police sought to wring confessions from them. And I may as well confess to you right now that often I didn’t care how much they were tortured.”

McNaughton defended the use of torture by police as a necessary means of dealing with known, hardened criminals. “Criminals have no qualms in the methods they use,” he wrote. “So you can’t get anywhere by using the methods of a primary teacher on them.

“But,” he continued, “dealing with a known desperate criminal is one thing. Dealing with just you or me is another. . . .

“To slap a man may be all right; or to frighten him; or to keep him awake for hours and days till he becomes too tired to tell anything but the truth is good third degree work, particularly if mixed with clever trapping questioning.

“But if there has been ‘stepping on my neck, kicking me from one side to the other, breaking my ribs,’ and the like as the now mute lips of this dead man testified under oath, the thing has been overdone and the people of Tazewell county who hire and pay the officials demand that a stop be put to it.

“Because a man is foreign born is no reason to treat him as ‘just a damn foreigner.’ . . . They are all human beings and life is dear to them.”

But many people regarded any use of “the third degree” as a grievous violation of an individual’s God-given human rights. To cite one example, in the same week that the Tazewell County grand jury considered the case of Martin Virant’s death, the 109th annual Illinois conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church was under way in Springfield.

During the conference, a resolutions committee report was adopted condemning the employment of “third degree” methods to force confessions from accused prisoners. In his denunciation of police torture, the Rev. J. Williams of Bartonville specifically cited and discussed Virant’s death.

Soon after, at the annual convention of the Tazewell County Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, held at Deer Creek on Sept. 28, 1932, a resolution was passed saying the name of Tazewell County had been put to shame, and condemning “any cruel, brutal, or inhuman treatment in methods being used by its county officers, or its law enforcing body, in third degree methods, to obtain confession or information from suspected offenders, or criminals.” The women sent a copy of their resolution to Sheriff Crosby.

Evidently the sentiment aroused among central Illinois residents by Virant’s death was very strong. Consequently, when Fleming and Skinner were acquitted, some of the outraged citizens in Tazewell County began to look for alternative civil means to obtain the justice that had been denied.

So it was that on March 20, 1933 – just 15 days after the end of the trial of Fleming and Skinner – a group of Tazewell County citizens delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and of his entire force.

“To the honorable board of supervisors of Tazewell County,” the petition said, “We the voters of Tazewell county being desirous of clean, just government and safety for inmates of our county jail, do hereby declare the present sheriff’s force, namely Crosby, Fleming, Skinner, Garber and Lee a menace to good government and unfit to serve our county.

“We therefore petition the supervisors of our county to meet in special session and impeach said force and appoint a successor until such time as the office is filled by election.”

Next week: The county board responds.

After the March 5, 1933 acquittal of the sheriff's deputies accused in the jail beating death of Martin Virant, the Virant case disappeared from the news for a while. But on March 20, 1933, the case was back on the Pekin Daily Times front page, with the news that a group of Tazewell County citizens had delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and his entire force.

After the March 5, 1933 acquittal of the sheriff’s deputies accused in the jail beating death of Martin Virant, the Virant case disappeared from the news for a while. But on March 20, 1933, the case was back on the Pekin Daily Times front page, with the news that a group of Tazewell County citizens had delivered petitions and a heavy stack of signatures to the Tazewell County Board, calling for the impeachment and removal of Sheriff James J. Crosby and his entire force.

#anton-cermak, #charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #f-f-mcnaughton, #frank-lee, #franklin-delano-roosevelt, #hardy-garber, #martin-virant, #rev-j-williams, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #tazewell-county-womans-christian-temperance-union, #the-third-degree

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 . . .’

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #joe-hensley, #john-petje, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nelson-a-wright, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 15: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

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

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Fifteen

The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

On Feb. 21, 1933, the first day of the Martin Virant manslaughter trial in Petersburg, Ill., prosecutors began to build their case that Virant, an inmate at the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin, had been brutally beaten by Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner.

Virant, a potential witness in the Lew Nelan murder case, was found hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932, but investigators and a coroner’s inquest jury found that he was already dead when he was hanged, and that the hanging had been staged to try to cover up the true cause of death.

Many of the same people who testified at the Virant inquest on Sept. 14, 1932, also testified during the manslaughter trial. For example, the first witness for the prosecution was Frank Franko of Peoria, Virant’s brother-in-law, who repeated for the jury what he had previously testified at the inquest.

Next, the jurors heard testimony from Tazewell County Jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who provided crucial testimony on behalf of the prosecution regarding Virant’s treatment and statements he made, as well as the injuries he suffered while in the custody of the county’s deputies.

Spearman’s testimony was vital to the state’s case, because, on account of Virant being dead, Judge Guy Williams had excluded as inadmissible hearsay the entirety of Virant’s testimony at the Lew Nelan inquest, when a noticeably injured Virant boldly accused Skinner and other deputies of nearly beating him to death.

After Spearman’s testimony, the state called Peoria attorney Vic Michael, legal counsel for the Virant family who was representing them in a wrongful death lawsuit against Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. On Sept. 1, Michael had accompanied Virant’s sister and Frank Franko to Pekin to get Virant released from jail.

According to the Pekin Daily Times, “Michael related that he had gone to the sheriff’s office in the courthouse and talked to Deputies Skinner and Fleming. Finally Skinner said, ‘Oh, go get the —– out.’ Skinner started to walk across the yard with Attorney Michael and his party following. Then, related Michael: ‘All of a sudden I saw a newspaper man named Watson of the Pekin paper go by on the right. He ran up the jail steps into the jail. I decided something must be up and I followed. The door was shut, but a lady let me in. Dr. Allen was just pronouncing Virant dead after trying to revive him with artificial respiration.’ Michael related that Virant’s right ear was swollen and he had bruises on the back of his head and a hole in the head was bleeding.”

Like Michael, several other witnesses provided testimony establishing that Virant had no visible injuries when he was first brought to the jail on Aug. 30, 1932, and describing Virant’s injuries that they saw at the Nelan inquest or on his dead body. Among those witnesses was Pekin attorney James St. Cerny, who was called to the stand after Michael and who testified that Virant had no visible injuries when he was booked into the jail.

Similarly, in testimony on the second day of the trial, Feb. 22, 1933, Edward Tucker, East Peoria city clerk, George Reichelderfer, superintendent of East Peoria water works, and Charles Schmidt, East Peoria justice of the peace, all said that Virant had no visible injuries when they saw him with Deputy Skinner in East Peoria on Aug. 30. Frank Virant, however, saw his brother’s body at the undertakers on the day of his death, and noticed “a black spot on his left ear that extended down to his jaw,” which obviously could not have resulted from a hanging.

The next to testify was George Genseal, who, like Virant, had been brought to the jail as a suspect in the Nelan murder case, but subsequently was released. He reiterated what he had said at Virant’s inquest, substantiating key points of Spearman’s testimony. After Genseal, Edward Hufeld, one of the defendants in the Nelan case, was called to the stand.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

In relating the events of how Virant was found hanging in his cell, Hufeld told much the same story as Genseal. However, Hufeld provided an important additional detail. As the Pekin Daily Times reported on Feb. 22, 1933, Hufeld testified, “When Skinner came into the jail I could hear him when he called up to Martin. He said ‘Martin’ a couple of times. Q. Was he outside the cell then? A. Well, before he went clear up he said, ‘That damn monkey must have hung himself.’”

If Hufeld was remembering truthfully and accurately, this comment would suggest that even before he had ascended the stairs to the upper tier of cells, Skinner already knew he would find Virant dead and hanging.

On the third day of the trial, Feb. 23, the state called H. A. McCance, jury foreman at the Nelan inquest, and asked him to describe Virant’s appearance and demeanor during the inquest. Though Virant’s testimony at the inquest was inadmissible, McCane still was able to tell the jury that Virant appeared to be in pain or distress, and that his face appeared to be in misery.

Also called to describe Virant during the Nelan inquest was Janese Shipley, stenographer at the Nelan inquest. She testified that Virant had two black eyes, a swollen ear and blood on his shirt shoulder, and that Virant spoke in a voice that was “louder than an ordinary person.”

As the trial continued, the state made its way down its lengthy list of witnesses, methodically and painstakingly – and at times tediously – laying out its case for the deputies’ guilt.

But thanks to defense attorney Jesse Black Jr. of Pekin, the trial proceedings never stayed boring for very long.

Next week: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black.

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

The Third Degree: Chapter 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 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