Winnebago County Deputy Sheriff George Bubser thought he had seen it all. He was the deputy sheriff of the county in 1921, during prohibition. He had seen murders, suicides, and men who had been blinded by the illegal hooch that was sold on the streets. But he was completely baffled by the boy that sat before him.
Sheriff Bubser knew the boy, of course. Most people in Rockford knew the small, crippled boy named Herbie Steward. The Winnebago Chapter of the American Red Cross had collected money to have the boy’s legs straightened so that he could use crutches instead crawling around on his hands. After Herbie returned from the surgery in Chicago, people were pleased to see him taking classes at the business school in Rockford. The eighteen year old had rigged up a car so that he could use hand levers for the pedals.
Though Herbie lived in New Milford with his foster parents, Frank and Ida Armstrong, even folks in Rockford knew the boy. When a police officer brought Herbie into the Sheriff’s office neither of the men believed the story the boy told. The sheriff sent some men out to the Armstrong farm in New Milford and was waiting until they reported in. It wasn’t very long until he got the phone call.
The men described the unbelievable scene they found. They arrived after dark and had to use their flashlights as they opened the door to the darkened house. The small beams of light illuminated the gruesome scene. They first spotted the body of Frank Armstrong lying in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. Most of Frank’s head had been blown off by the blast of a shotgun.
In the dining room, they found the body of fifty five year old Ida Armstrong. Her head was resting on her hands with her face down on her plate of food. The officers were shaken by the scene and backed out of the house to wait for the coroner. Back at the office, Bubser was having trouble matching the brutal crime scene to the young boy in front of him.
Bubser asked Herbie to tell his story again. Herbie stated that he knew that Frank was angry with him for coming home late that night. Frank flew into a rage when he announced that he knew Herbie had skipped school that day to go ride around with the girls. Herbie decided he wasn’t hungry anymore and crawled from the dining room into the kitchen where he kept his crutches. He grew frightened as he heard Frank push back his own chair to follow Herbie. Frank was a large man and he had, according to Herbie “beaten him severely” in the past. Herbie grabbed one of the shot guns that Frank left loaded all throughout the house. Later, Herbie would say he meant to just scare Frank to get him to stop. But Herbie fired immediately, hitting Frank in the head.
Herbie heard Ida scream once so he reloaded the shotgun. He had to scoot himself across the floor to get a clear shot and then he fired at the back of her head.
Then Herbie crawled to his crutches, grabbed the shot gun and a pistol that was in the house and placed them in the car. He also grabbed his dog before he left. Herbie stated that he originally was going to drive somewhere and shoot himself but then he lost his nerve. He drove into Rockford to find a police officer to turn himself in.
Herbie Steward’s trial was a sensation in Rockford. Over 600 people crammed into the courtroom every day. Defense witnesses stated that Frank and Ida both beat Herbie while witnesses for the prosecution denied those claims. The men on the jury convicted Herbie for the manslaughter of Ida Armstrong. They sentenced him to the state penitentiary for five years. The judge thought the jury got the conviction right but disagreed with the sentence. He changed it to five years in the State Reformatory School where Herbie could continue his treatment for his legs and his schooling. Afterward, both sides felt that they had lost. Neither side felt that justice had been served either for the Armstrong’s or for Herbie. That sentiment was shared by Deputy Sheriff Bubser, who later stated that he never forgot this horrendous crime or the young boy who committed it.