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 20: ‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

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

‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

On Thursday, March 2, 1932, the defense rested its case in the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Charles Skinner and Ernest Fleming, who were accused of the death of jail inmate Martin Virant.

As the defense lawyers concluded the efforts to exonerate Fleming and Skinner, they delivered a compelling attack on the credibility of the state’s star witness Elizabeth Spearman, whose testimony implicated Skinner and Fleming in the severe injuries Virant had suffered.

In the end, the defense attorneys moved to have the whole of Spearman’s testimony quashed and stricken from the record.

Though Spearman, as an accused criminal and jail inmate, probably had just as great a problem with her credibility and accuracy as most of the defense’s jail inmate witnesses, nevertheless, Menard County Judge Guy Williams granted the defense’s motion.

In closing arguments lasting the entire morning of March 3 – arguments the Pekin Daily Times described as a “powerful oration” – defense attorney Jesse Black, reveling once more in the courtroom drama at which he excelled, denounced and ridiculed the state’s case.

“At times the attorney could be heard a block away as he shouted his denunciation of an attempt to deprive men of their liberty and ‘put them behind grey walls’ without any proof whatsoever,” the Daily Times reported.

In contrast, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff delivered his closing arguments in a calm and quiet demeanor. “As to doubts about this case, I have just two doubts in my mind. One of these is whether this is a murder or a manslaughter. The other doubt in my mind is whether or not we’ve got all the defendants that are guilty,” Elliff said.

After closing arguments, Judge Williams gave instructions to the jury, reminding them to disregard Spearman’s testimony. The case went to the jury at 3:30 p.m. on March 3.

The jurors came back with a verdict at 2:20 p.m. Saturday, March 4, 1933.

JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY,’” ran the Pekin Daily Times headline that day.

Both deputies were found not guilty of all charges. It was a stunning victory for Black and his fellow attorney William J. Reardon (though Reardon was called away from the trial at the very end due to the death of his brother in St. Louis on the night of March 2). Their decades of courtroom experience obviously had served them well.

And it was an embarrassing defeat for Elliff, whose youth and inexperience were frequently evident during the course of the trial.

“In Attorneys Reardon and Black, the defense has a pair of crafty barristers of long experience in court cunning. They know when to object and when to be silent,” wrote Pekin Daily Times reporter Mildred Beardsley in the Monday, Feb. 27, 1933 edition of the newspaper.

“They know when to shout in feigned anger and when to ‘Pooh! Pooh!’ in apparent disdain,” Beardsley continued. “These things, I suppose, are learned thru years of experience. More than once Judge Williams has told the youthful prosecutors that he would have sustained them if they had objected.”

In the final analysis, however, perhaps neither the inexperience of the prosecutors, nor the talent of the defense attorneys, nor the valiant attempts of the defense to explain away the convincing forensic evidence that Virant had been beaten and had not died of hanging, were that important in the exoneration of Fleming and Skinner.

The greatest challenge the prosecutors faced wasn’t proving that Virant had been beaten while in custody at the jail, nor that he had already died prior to being hanged – it was proving that Fleming and Skinner were connected to the crime.

Without Virant’s own testimony at the inquest of Lew Nelan, and without Spearman’s testimony, the jury had no evidence that Fleming and Skinner, or any other deputy, had done violence to Virant or faked his suicide. Proving that Virant was the victim of a crime was one thing. Proving that the crime had been committed by Fleming and Skinner was something else altogether.

And so the trial was over. Fleming and Skinner were free men.

Nevertheless, the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

Next week: Petitions for impeachment.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, "JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY'." Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the "third degree" torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, “JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY’.” Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the “third degree” torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 18: The defense pleads its case

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

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Eighteen

The defense pleads its case

At the end of a long succession of witnesses and physical evidence, the prosecution rested its case on Feb. 26, 1933, in the trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant by severely beating him during a so-called “third degree” interrogation.

The following day, the defense attorneys Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon began to call their own lengthy list of witnesses and experts, who would help the defense build its case that the deputies never did any violence to Virant, nor did they hang his dead body – rather, the defense contended, Virant had committed suicide. Heading the witness list was J. Hardy Garber, a deputy who helped Skinner bring Virant to and from the Lew Nelan murder inquest.

Garber and the three other deputies involved in this case – Fleming and Skinner, who both took the stand in their own defense, and Frank Lee, originally indicted by the Tazewell County grand jury but whose charges were dropped just before the trial began in Menard County – offered very important testimony.

Presenting a united front, they resolutely denied that anyone had done more than raise his voice at Virant while he was in the custody of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. The four deputies agreed that there had been absolutely no beating or kicking or any kind of rough handling.

The four deputies did state, however, that they noticed Virant had some cuts and bruises about his head and neck when he was first brought to the jail. They denied knowing how Virant had gotten those injuries.

The deputies also agreed that Virant became very frightened and upset, and refused to let them take his fingerprints, after Lee brought in a package containing two metal pipes and unrolled it in Virant’s presence.

Skinner and Fleming also supplied a very important element of the defense’s alternate scenario of Virant’s injuries and death. Flatly contradicting former Coroner A. E. Allen’s testimony that he had eased Virant’s body to the cell floor when he cut his body down, Skinner and Fleming claimed Allen had irresponsibly and unprofessionally let Virant’s body crash to the floor. Virant’s body had even slammed against the toilet as it fell, the accused deputies insisted.

Relying on their medical experts, the defense argued that most of Virant’s bruises and injuries, including his broken rib, were caused when Allen cut his body down and let it crash to the floor. Also backing up this claim were three jail inmates, Charles Cameron, 62, formerly of Delavan, Joe Hensley, and Thomas Davis.

Cameron, a jail trustee, told the jurors, “I saw Allen cut the strap and saw Virant fall on the toilet bowl. He came down awful hard . . . He was dropped. Mr. Allen didn’t touch him. . . . It jarred the whole floor of the cell.” Cameron even claimed that Allen jumped out of the way so Virant’s body would hit the toilet as it fell.

Hensley, another jail trustee, corroborated some of Cameron’s testimony, claiming, “I heard the sound when he was cut down. It came down hard. . . . I heard a loud thump on the iron floor – loud enough to be heard outside of the jail.”

In cross-examination, however, Elliff showed that Cameron’s testimony differed significantly from what he had previously told the Tazewell County grand jury and disagreed with a statement he had made to former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg on Sept. 9, 1932.

Cameron responded to Elliff’s questions by disavowing most of his prior statement, and in particular he denied speaking to fellow inmate Elizabeth Spearman. Cameron’s original statements had corroborated key elements of Spearman’s testimony, which supported the state’s case that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant.

Some of Hensley’s testimony was especially helpful to the defense’s contention that Virant had committed suicide. Hensley claimed that during Virant’s first night in the jail, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1932, “I heard the bunk chains rattling and then like someone came off the bunk onto the floor. That was after 2 o’clock. Then I heard moaning and groaning. . . . I heard him saying, ‘Poor John, he did I did too.’”

The words Hensley claimed to have heard Virant say, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan. A sense of guilt over his role in Nelan’s death was the reason he committed suicide, the defense attorneys claimed.

Davis also testified that he heard noises from Virant’s cell three times that night as of someone jumping off the bunk, including at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. In addition, Davis claimed to have heard the same kind of noise sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and to have heard Virant making a noise.

The defense argued that the noises Hensley and Davis said they heard Tuesday night were not the groans of a man who had been severely beaten, but were the sounds of Virant attempting to hang himself using some strings and threads that investigators found in his cell after his death.

The defense attorneys suggested that some of Virant’s injuries may have been caused during this purported first suicide attempt, but they did not try to explain why Virant would have opted first for strings that were unlikely to support his own weight and only two days later decide to use his own belt.

The defense also claimed that Davis had heard the sounds of Virant killing himself on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Or were they the sounds of deputies faking Virant’s suicide?

Next week: The defense rests.

In the sensational case of the &quotthird degree" death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he'd suffered at the hands of Sheriff's deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant's severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

In the sensational case of the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he’d suffered at the hands of Sheriff’s deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant’s severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 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.

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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