Fire And Ice

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

February 15, 1911 was a day that many people in Rockford would remember for a long time. It was an unusual day for a couple of reasons. One, the ice had started to go out on the river about a month early. The winter had been a hard one and there were large pieces of ice that had broken away and started to grind their way downstream. These large ice rafts would get snared on bridges and other things until an ice jam was created. This caused the water behind the ice jam to back up and flood over the banks. The ice jams were so bad in 1911 that the Rockford Republic labeled it the worst year for ice since 1881. Many bridges, small buildings, and docks were destroyed by the flow while the flooding damaged many of the buildings that lined the banks.

City officials decided that the situation had become desperate enough to authorize the ice jams to be blown apart by dynamite. Blasting continued throughout the night of February 14 and 15th. This situation may have contributed to the second reason February 15th would remain in the memories of the all those who lived here during that time.

When an explosion happened at 12:45 a.m. on February 15th, most people mistakenly thought it was the work being done on the river. Of course, the people who lived around the 700 block of Corbin Street knew differently. All of the windows of the house that faced the two storied home at 711 were blown out by the explosion.

Joseph Vitoli, and his wife Rena and their two children had been in bed for hours at the time of the explosion. Rena was on the side of the bed closest to the window. She preferred that side because it made it easier for her to get up in the middle of the night without disturbing Joseph. Rena was eight months pregnant and made frequent trips to the bathroom. Their one year old son Phillipi slept in his parents’ bed cradled in his mother’s arms. Their young daughter had a cot next to the bed.

The bomb was placed on the window sill just two feet from Rena’s head. The next door neighbors, the Giacolone family, heard footsteps in the area between the houses a couple of minutes before the explosion took place. The police later determined that a long fuse had been used to give the bomber ample time to escape before the explosion occurred.

The blast blew inward and the iron head board of the bed was twisted nearly in half. The debris was blown right into Rena’s head and arm, causing extensive damage. One piece of debris ripped through her arm and struck the sleeping child she held. It caused a compound break in the one year old child’s arm. Rena was scalped and her head crushed so badly that everyone who saw her found it unbelievable that she was still alive. The entire family was rushed to the hospital.

Doctors hurried to do what they could for the injured mother but the damage was just too extensive. Joseph stayed by his wife’s side until she took her last breath at 7:15 that night. The reporters of the day stated that Joseph was crushed by the death of his wife. They had been married ten years that February. They left two of their older children behind when they moved from Italy around 1905. The couple spent three years in New York before settling in Rockford.

Authorities struggled right from the beginning with this case. They began with the theory that the dynamite might have been stolen from the efforts to unblock the ice jam but that lead went nowhere.

Unfortunately, during that time, the Italians in Rockford mistrusted the police and refused to talk. This was partly due to the fear of the organization called the Black Hand. From January through March of 1911, there were at least eighteen murders, scores of stabbings, over one hundred bomb explosions, and thousands of dollars reported paid out to black mail rings. All of these crimes were attributed to the men who ran the Black Hand organization in Chicago’s Little Italy. The men would send families warnings that included a black handprint. These warnings included an offer for a type of insurance that would protect these families from becoming victims of the Black Hand. It was an “offer they couldn’t refuse” that would become famous in the later mob organizations that were created. When families wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, bad things would happen to one or all of the members. The Black Hand Crew committed these murders in the most brutal and highly public ways to deter others from refusing payments.

The authorities worked that angle hard as well as looking into the past of both Joseph and Rena, searching for some clue why someone would want this entire family dead. Joseph had been out of work for a time and the family took in some men as boarders. Two of these men had been asked to leave because of their habits of carrying guns and their late hours. Police followed several of these leads but without the assistance of any witnesses and no real physical proof there was little they could do.

Tensions ran high in the days that followed the bombing. Everyone was frightened about further violence and men armed themselves in order to protect their families from danger. It was so bad that during Rena’s funeral at St. Anthony’s Church, Father Marchesano pleaded with everyone to let the authorities do their job and stop any vigilante action. He spoke of the escalating violence in Chicago as the grip of the Black Hand crew tightened there.

Rena’s family laid her to rest in St. Mary and St. James’ Cemetery. Police Chief A.E. Bargen and State’s Attorney Harry B. North were so desperate in this case that they offered a reward for any clue leading to an arrest. This and the fact that Rena was pregnant captured the attention of the nation and the news spread from coast to coast. Unfortunately, no one stepped up to offer any help and the reward was never claimed. The last local article about the case was carried in the May 6, 1945 edition of the Morning Star. What reporter Bill Garson wrote in the article remains true to this day. “The identity of the dark figure who scuttled into the shadows after placing the dynamite bomb on the Vitoli’s window sill is still as shrouded in mystery as it was on the cold February night in 1911.”

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Liberty Of Others – Spanish-American War Heroes

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

The Spanish American War has been referred to as the “forgotten war” but for the families of the men who died during that time, it can never be forgotten.

The war took a heavy toll on Winnebago County. It took some of our best and brightest boys. Most of them didn’t die on the battle field. In fact, only one man from here died of injuries received during battle. The others were taken down by diseases that were running rampant in the camps.

The first man from our county to die in the war didn’t even make it to Puerto Rico. He fell ill during training. Charles Almond was only twenty five when he enlisted to join the fight. He still lived at home with his parents, mostly to help take care of his beloved mother. Charles worked at the Ulriel Box Company for over twelve years by the time the call came for men to fight. It was early spring in 1898.

Everyone who knew Charles spoke of his kindness and care he showed for anyone who needed help. He graduated from high school and joined the Rockford Greys, a local military group. Charles was in the Greys for over five years by 1898 and had worked his way up the ranks to First Lieutenant.

Charles marched away to training camp in Chattanooga full of promise. But within weeks, he grew ill like so many of the men. The hospital ward was so full that there were not enough beds to go around. When Charles saw a younger man who was very ill carried in and put on the floor, he told the orderlies to place the boy in his bed. Charles slept on the floor with only a thin blanket.

When Charles fever spiked dangerously high, he became confused and delirious. He kept telling the nurses and doctors that he just wanted to go back to his regiment to be with his men. They decided to place a guard by his bed to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. Private William Severson was assigned to watch over the very ill Charles. But Severson was exhausted and ill himself and he fell asleep. Charles wandered out into the chilly night air and in his weakened state, it proved too much for the young man.

Forty two men under the command of Lieutenant W.H. Sarver from Illinois Company H traveled from Rockford to Chattanooga to accompany Charles Almond’s body home.  They attended a funeral held in the livery barn of the camp before loading Charles’ body on a train.

When the train arrived in Rockford, it was met by 20,000 people at the Illinois Central Depot. The people lined up in a procession that went from the train depot to the Church.

Charles was only 25 years old.  Though Charles was denied a death during battle, Rockford still honored this fallen soldier and the others that followed.

Six other men from our county died during that short war. One, Herman Huffman was the only Rockford man to die of injuries that he received during a battle. He was shot on August 6, 1898 while on duty at Arroyo, Puerto Rico. It was an ambush that occurred while he was on a picket line during heavy fighting at Guayama. Herman would linger for a few days while all of Rockford prayed for his recovery. But the sad news came by telegram. Herman was buried in a national cemetery in Arroyo.

Another young man who was killed in the war had a name more familiar to those in Rockford. William A. Talcott Junior was considered one of our golden boys. His family settled this area early in Rockford’s history. William grew up here, graduated Amherst College and then turned his sights toward law. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1897 and moved to New York City when offered a position in a law office there. William made it all the way through the war and proved himself to be a leader in every way. He was First Lieutenant during the famous charge up San Juan Hill serving under Colonel Dow. When the call came to charge the hill, Dow froze and refused to give the order to his men to fight. Some of the men, including William, knew that they could be seen as defying orders but they charged ahead anyway and helped take the hill.

William was returning from that campaign to Camp Wykoff, Long Island when he fell ill with malaria and dysentery. His parents were at a resort a short distance away when they received the news. His father rushed to William’s side to bring him back for treatment. But because of the quarantine, he was held for eleven days. His father never left his side during that time and would speak later of the feeling of utter helplessness he experienced as he watched his son weaken. William lived long enough to hear that he had gotten the promotion to Second Lieutenant and to see his mother again. He died at Watch Hill in Rhode Island.

His devastated parents brought him home to be buried in the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery where the newspapers stated that his death “cast a gloom over the whole city.”

The other men that were mentioned in the Morning Star article from November 12, 1898 edition were Private Burt Lindell, Private Rinus Nelson, Corporal Luman B. Lillie, and Sergeant Harry Potter. The paper called them the Forest City Boys. All of these men are honored on a plaque at the Veterans Memorial Hall in downtown Rockford.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

No Regard

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

William Sayles was looking forward to the end of his shift on that rainy Saturday. It was August 29, 1931 and William was just about finished with his shift as a conductor for the Interurban railway on School Street. It was 11:30p.m. when William spotted a young man running alongside the car. He brought the car to a stop so that the teenager could climb aboard. William had no way to know that he only had a few minutes to live.

The young man fumbled around in his pockets as though searching for change when suddenly he pulled out a long barreled pistol. He pushed the gun right into William’s face and demanded all of his money. William only had about $13.00 on him but he handed it over willingly. The man ordered the eight passengers to turn over their valuables as well. They gave the man what they had but that only brought his take to $14.00.

The man then commanded the passengers to walk to the rear of the car while he told William to open the doors of the car. The passengers looked on in horror as the young man struck William and then opened fire with his pistol and shot him five times at close range.

The interurban car was parked close to the intersection at School Street and Forest Avenue. The young man left the car and ran to his vehicle parked a block away. He jumped into the car and raced away. He hadn’t gone very far when he wrecked his car on Jefferson Street by Fairgrounds Park. The desperate man, his face now smeared with blood from an injury he received in the accident went door to door to try to gain entrance into a house or an apartment. He was planning to steal a car and kidnap the owner to use as a driver. He finally knocked on Miss Juanita Columbus’s apartment. Juanita and her boyfriend had just returned from a night out and had no idea about the murder that had just taken place a few blocks away.

The man forced them into their car and the three of them drove off into the night. The man directed them to drive into Freeport. Once there, he waited until they were stopped and then he slipped away. The couple immediately drove to the police station. The young bandit was next spotted at a service station. He approached the attendant to ask if they could take the tow truck to the location where the stranger’s car had stalled. The attendant doubted the young man’s story but agreed to tow the car. The attendant had other plans in mind and drove to the nearest police station where the police, alerted by the young couple, arrested the stranger.

The young man was quickly identified as Russell McWilliams. McWilliams was a 17 year old boy who lived in Rockford with his parents. He worked a steady job and as far as anyone knew, had never been in trouble with the law before. Once Russell started talking, police soon realized that this had not been the boy’s first robbery. In fact, McWilliams had been on a six-week crime spree in Rockford. He robbed other interurban cars, stores, and gas stations. When the police discovered that McWilliams held down a steady job with good pay, they asked him why he was committing these crimes. McWilliams shrugged his shoulders and said that he like to buy booze and guns. He also needed money to entertain the women in his life though he wouldn’t share any of their names with police.

The police were stunned that someone so young could be so callous about murdering a man. Sheriff Bell mentioned that McWilliams showed little emotion when notified that he was being arrested for the murder of William Sayles.

In October of 1931, McWilliams was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Everyone was surprised that Judge Arthur E. Fisher would sentence a mere boy to death. Almost immediately protests against the death penalty sprang up. Eventually Chicago juvenile agencies and concerned Rockford citizens joined together and contacted the famous Clarence Darrow, a defender against the death penalty. By 1932, Darrow was staying at the Nelson Hotel in Rockford and gathering facts to defend his client.

The trial was held in Springfield and William Sayles’ widow, Alice attended every day of the trial. Darrow argued that McWilliams could not be held responsible for his actions because he was so young and had come from a rough upbringing. “Given the proper treatment and encouragement, he can be reclaimed into society.” Darrow argued. All that witnessed Darrow’s speech called it “conversational eloquence.”

Illinois Governor Henry Horton agreed with Darrow. He commuted McWilliams sentence to 99 years to be served at Joliet Penitentiary. In a sense, Russell McWilliams proved Clarence Darrow right. He learned to grow flowers and vegetables while in prison. McWilliams was released in 1950 after serving 19 years of his 99 year sentence. He was issued an out of state release. McWilliams moved to Massachusetts where he married and grew orchids.

The newspapers from the day covered the story and spoke of all the young men that Clarence Darrow had saved from death row. Some of the newspapers shared the stories of those left behind by those young men who killed. The Rockford Register Republic wrote an article in December of 1932 that spoke of Alice Sayles’ grief. While others considered Darrow’s win of the McWilliams case a victory for human rights, Alice had received a life sentence of her own.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Vincent Yankavich

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Vincent Yankavich’s name had been mentioned in the Rockford newspapers many times over the years. He was a star baseball and basketball player in high school. Vincent was so popular with the other basketball players that he was chosen Captain of the team in 1925.

Vincent had such potential as an athlete that he was chosen to play for Cedar Rapids semi pro baseball team in the Mississippi league. The whole city of Rockford was proud of Vincent and many would attend any game he was involved in just for the chance to see him play.

But Vincent faded from the headlines and other athletes took his place. He settled down to a quiet life, working for National Lock and living in the home with his mother, Magdaline. By the beginning of 1937, Vincent had faded from most people’s memories.

This made the headlines of February 6, 1937 even more unbelievable. People were shocked when Vincent was once again mentioned in the Rockford’s papers. On this particular morning, Vincent’s name was splashed across the paper for committing a murder.

He had been acting strangely for a couple of months and that intensified in the week leading up to the murder. In fact, Vincent’s sister and brother had become quite alarmed by his actions. They spoke to their mother, Magdaline about it but she assured them that Vincent would be fine. She promised to speak to Vincent about his bizarre behavior. Magdaline was certain that his behavior was due to his excessive drinking.

There were no witnesses to the crime that early morning in February but police were able to piece together a theory of the altercation that took place. Apparently, Magdaline did confront Vincent and told him that he needed to stop his drinking. Vincent flew into a rage and tried to choke Magdaline. She broke away from him and ran out of the house screaming for help. Seeking safety, she ran to the rental house in the back of the property. She was admitted inside by two young girls. Magdaline sent them to a nearby house to alert the authorities.

Vincent quickly followed his mother into the house. A neighbor, Oscar Turnquist heard Magdaline’s cries for help and burst through the back door. As he entered into the living room of the house, he found Vincent sitting on the couch with blood on his face and hands. Magdaline was lying face down on the floor. Her head was badly damaged. It appeared that Vincent had used the wand from the canister vacuum cleaner to kill her. Vincent stood up, handed Turnquist the wand, and walked out the door.

Police arrived to find Vincent in the family home at 1224 23rd Avenue. He was calmly washing his hands. The police asked him if he had anything to do with his mother’s death. He calmly replied, “Sure I did. “ When he was asked why he would do such a horrible thing, Vincent claimed that Magdaline missed her husband, Charlie who had died about ten years prior. “I sent her to heaven.” Vincent stated.

Vincent continued to demonstrate bizarre behavior even after he was incarcerated in the City jail. He continuously struck the bars of his cell and the guards grew so concerned that they were forced to tie him to the bed.

The judge presiding over the case decided that Vincent should be examined by an alienist (the name for psychiatrists of that time). No one was surprised when Dr. E. W Fell pronounced Vincent to be criminally insane. The judge sentenced Vincent to be committed to Menard’s Prison for the Criminally Insane in Chester, Illinois.

In August of 1937, Vincent made headlines once more. On August 16, Vincent hung himself in his cell at the Chester Penitentiary. His family had his body sent to Rockford to be buried next to his mother in St. Mary’s Cemetery. It was a sad ending for a boy who once showed so much potential.

 

Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events