Originally published in “Rockford Writes” (2015), edited by Heath Alberts.
“If she had looked into his eyes at that very moment she would have seen the inferno that she had thrown him into.” ― Llàrjme, Craving U
Anyone who knew the little family before that July day would say that one thing was certain, Vernon Plager loved his wife and daughter more than anything. His marriage was good, they had a rough patch the year before but now he and his wife Ivy were getting along really well. Vernon, who was 28, blamed most of their problems on the fact that Ivy, 22 in 1928, was so young when they fell in love. She was only 16 when they were married and then the baby, Lois, came. Ivy had gotten restless and she struggled with all the responsibility of being a young mother and wife.
Paul Reed, 22, entered the picture in 1927, and that’s when everything turned bad in Vernon’s and Ivy’s marriage. Paul lived across the street from Ivy and Vernon and saw her in the neighborhood and found her attractive. Ivy was small and fair skinned and she had “vivid blue eyes”. They met on July 4 when Paul and Ivy were outside on the sidewalk shooting off firecrackers. Reed got Ivy’s phone number and called her repeatedly through July and August. Paul was finally able to convince Ivy to go riding with him while her husband was at work. Ivy went for a drive with Reed and became smitten with the young man. Paul had never had a girl before and Ivy was bored with her life and Paul made her laugh. The rides led to more and then they spent a night in a local hotel, The Chick House, before they left on a train for Peoria and then for Davenport for two weeks in October of 1927. The papers would later call it an “elopement.”
Vernon’s brother Floyd had married Ivy’s sister, and one awful night when Ivy returned to Rockford, Floyd came to Vernon’s house and ask Vernon to come with him. Floyd and Vernon went to the police and asked them to come to Floyd’s house. Ivy was there with Reed, in what would be considered a “compromising position”. Later, when asked what the couple was wearing, the police officer replied, “sheets.” Ivy and Reed were arrested and taken to jail. Vernon let her spend the night in jail but went to talk to Ivy the next morning. He offered to let her come home, he said he would forgive her everything as long as she came home to him and their little daughter.
Ivy did return home and the couple worked on their marriage. Vernon even agreed to give up smoking the pipe he knew she hated. They were working together to repair their marriage and build a good life together. He bought her new furniture and surprised her with little bouquets of roses, her favorite flower. Vernon also bought her a very pretty ring for her birthday. Ivy told people that Vernon was good to her, he made sure they had a comfortable home, and that she and Lois were very happy. They had moved into a new upper apartment on Howard Avenue in the beginning of July. Paul Reed did not just go away, though. They would see him pass by the new house and sometimes when they were out with their daughter, they would notice Paul there in the background, watching them.
On Wednesday, July 18, 1928, the family went for a drive to Byron. There was an outdoor concert that Vernon knew Ivy would love. He came home from work and they drove there and listened to the music before heading back home. Vernon thought he saw Paul Reed going south on Route 2 when they were headed north. It worried him because he knew that Paul Reed had stopped by the house that morning to see Ivy. Reed still loved Ivy and wanted to know if she would run away with him again. Vernon trusted Ivy when she said she told Reed that she was staying with her husband and her little girl.
They followed their usual bedtime ritual that night and he knelt down by Lois’ bedside to say his prayers along with hers. Later, Ivy stated that they heard noises out in the alley but they didn’t think too much about it, Vernon didn’t even go check on it.
The next morning was a work day for Vernon and he kissed Lois and Ivy goodbye and walked around to the back where he parked his car, an old two door car that was owned by the Crosley Radio Company where he worked for his brother, C.A. Plager.
The quiet, summer morning was ripped apart by a loud explosion right before 9:00a.m.. Ivy looked out and saw Vernon’s car all blown apart. Witnesses would later say that they saw Vernon crank his car and it wouldn’t start. He went back into the house for a moment and came back outside. He crawled into the car and stepped on the starter button. Vernon’s body was lifted twenty feet in the air from the blast, “higher than the wires” according to one man, and then he fell back into the wreckage of his car. His hip area was obviously crushed and his left leg was twisted around his neck. His intestines were on the pavement next to him. He was unconscious but regained consciousness quickly.
Vernon was lying in the street and Ivy rushed to his side and grabbed his hand. Suddenly she stood up and said, “Oh, I can’t even look at you!” and ran back into the house, grabbing their little daughter on the way in. Lois, the daughter wanted to go see her daddy and was hysterically screaming for Ivy to let her go. Two policemen showed up and lifted Vernon’s horribly mangled body into the police ambulance and transported him to the hospital. He was in a great amount of pain and Vernon begged the policeman to shoot him. He also told the police that they should find Paul Reed to question him about the explosion.
They rushed Vernon to the hospital but there was nothing the doctors could do for him. They just attempted to alleviate his pain. Vernon died shortly after arrival to the operating room.
Vernon’s funeral was held at the Fred Olson Undertaking Parlor. There were at least 500 “morbid” people wandering around outside attempting to see the pretty “girl-widow” as Ivy was called in the paper. Ivy was accompanied to the funeral home by Police Matron, Ida Patterson, since she was in police custody at the time. She cried during the ceremony, especially when the pastor said, “Death was on the track of Mr. Plager.” Ivy stepped up to the coffin to look at her husband’s face once last time, everyone mentioned how handsome he looked, even in death. The coffin hid the damage caused by the blast. A relative held little Lois up so she too could see her father. The family watched as the lid closed on Vernon for the last time.
When Ivy left the building, photographers actually jumped on taxis and other cars to get a good angle for a picture. Vernon’s body was sent to Pearl City for burial where most of his family lived. Ivy was allowed to go with police matron, Ida Patterson to the funeral in Pearl City. Lois, the Plager’s five year old daughter, rode with her mother and the police woman to Pearl City. There were over 500 attendees to Vernon’s funeral.
Paul Reed had been very busy all week prior to the bombing. He went to a store in Rockford to inquire about purchasing dynamite to blow up a spring on his camping spot in Wisconsin but they refused to sell it to him.
Reed picked up his 22 year old nephew, Kenneth Reed and they drove down to Dixon, where Kenneth’s father, Arthur lived. Arthur was Paul’s 45 year old brother. Paul told Arthur that he needed to buy some dynamite for the spring. Arthur had to ride over to the neighboring farm of Shelby Riddle to give a bid for a job that Riddle needed done on the farm and Arthur was meeting him. While he was there, Arthur asked Riddle about where to purchase dynamite and mentioned to Riddle that his nephew, Paul needed to blow up a spring.
Riddle told him that the only person that had any dynamite would be Ben Good, the Highway Commissioner. He kept the dynamite in a shed at a quarry near Polo. The men all headed back to Arthur’s place for a late supper. After supper, Paul asked Arthur for a crowbar and he and Kenneth left in Reed’s car.
They drove over to the quarry, according to Kenneth’s statement later. They parked up on the road and walked down to the shed. There was a lock on the door so Paul, used a ledge to gain access to the roof and lifted some rook planks off with the crowbar. He dropped down inside the shed, leaving Kenneth outside as a lookout.
Paul was inside about ten minutes. He crawled back out on the roof and then used the crowbar to hammer the planks back in place. It was dark and he didn’t notice that he actually left an open spot. This would be evidence used against him later. When Paul dropped back down to the ground, Kenneth could see a coil of wire and three sticks of dynamite in Paul’s pants.
Police arrested Paul Reed within hours of the murder when he surrendered to the Ogle County Police. They arrested Ivy Plager as well on the suspicion that she was an accessory to the murder of her husband, but she was released after several days. She went to stay with her sister, Mrs, Plager and her husband’s brother Floyd, Vernon’s brother on Greenwood Avenue while awaiting Reed’s trial.
After the bombing on the morning of July 19, 1928, Paul Reed’s car was found in Mount Morris, Illinois by Detectives Strote and Williams. They found a small coil of wire when they searched the car. They recognized it as being the same kind as the wire that was found twisted on the starter wire of Vernon’s car.
Paul was arraigned and hired a local law firm of Dixon, Bracken, Devine, and Dixon. They sent Attorney Charles H. Linscott to represent Reed.
At the Coroner’s Inquest in the undertaking rooms, Fred Olson asked Ivy Plager if she cared for Paul Reed. She said that she had loved Paul Reed once but not any longer. Paul Reed was described as a gaunt, hollow eyed, young man. He was also questioned at the inquest but on the advice of his attorney, he refused to testify.
Ivy’s father came to visit her in jail. He was a stern, hard old man who didn’t offer any comfort to Ivy. “What are you going to do when this is all over?” her father asked without so much as a greeting. Ivy wasn’t sure and stated that she was thinking of coming home. This statement was met by silence from her father. When Police Matron Ida Patterson mentioned to Ivy’s father that Ivy needed a little money to help her buy a new pair of shoes, he stood up and walked away without saying another word.
Police searched the rooming house where Paul Reed was staying but it was two newsmen that made the most dramatic discovery. They found sticks of dynamite and nitroglycerin fuses wrapped in old newspaper in a hole under the basement stairs. Chicago Tribune reporter, Robert W. Wood and Chicago Journal reporter, Michael Fielding found the incriminating evidence on July 23. They approached the Landlady of the rooming house, Mrs. Lena Hawkins and explained they were “special investigators” and she gave them access to the house and Reed’s rooms. They started in the attic and made their way down to the basement where there was storage for items belonging to the roomers.
Police had already searched the house, including the basement, twice, but missed the hole discovered under the stairway near the last step. Wood and Fielding called the State’s Attorney, William Knight and he came to the house. They extracted the packages holding the dynamite and fuses from under the stairway with Knight as a witness.
The men took the packages to the living room and Mrs. Hawkinson joined them. They were unsettled to see that s “small glycerine fuse, contained in a bright copper shell, was waxed onto the shell”, setting it in place. The three men felt that this must have been prepared in the basement since it made the dynamite very dangerous to move afterward. Oddly, Landlady Hawkinson was much more concerned about whether she would have to testify in court, than the fact there were dangerous explosives located in her house.
Paul Reed was charged with First Degree murder with the option of the Death Penalty. Reed’s trial was the first trial held in Winnebago County where the sentence could be execution by the electric chair. Winnebago County had previously held four cases that resulted in the death penalty but the guilty men were all hanged.
His trial started on December 3, 1928. His defense counsel was C.H. Linscott who was assisted by Jerome Dixon. The prosecutor was William D. Knight. The judge presiding over the case was Circuit Judge Arthur A. Fisher. The defense won a major point when it was ruled that Vernon’s dying words that Paul Reed had set the dynamite could not be admitted as evidence.
At the trial, every seat was taken. The courtroom normally seated around 350 people, but each day of the Reed trial, the spectators smashed together until the crowd reached around 500 people. Some of the more forward-thinking women brought sack lunches and ate right in their seats so they didn’t lose the seats when court resumed after lunch.
Both Arthur Reed, the defendant’s brother, and Kenneth Reed, the defendant’s nephew testified for the state. Arthur explained that Paul told him he was going on his annual camping trip and needed the dynamite for a spring that ran through his camp site. Kenneth told of the stealing of the dynamite from the shed.
Another witness who caused quite a stir on the stand was Edward Rydberg. Rydberg carried a little tin box that he bumped against several items of furniture on his way to the stand. Then he announced that he worked on the road construction crew and was the expert on handling explosives. He opened the little black box, and nonchalantly removed two sticks of dynamite from the box and plunked them down on the judge’s desk. This action caused some nervous laughter from the courtroom and understandably, the judge. Rydberg’s seemed to enjoy his effect on the crowd and a grin crossed his face as he testified.
The defense counsel’s questions of Rydberg and also of Motorcycle Policeman Stewart Mulford led spectators and news reporters to suspect that they were attempting to prove that the explosion was caused by a faulty gas tank rather than dynamite.
Everyone wanted to see the “star” of the case Mrs. Iva, or Ivy as she was best known, Plager. They wanted to see the young lady for whom one man was willing to kill another. She was described in the papers as “mysterious and elusive”.
The testimony of Police Detective Tony Shakotzus was by far the most dramatic point in the trial up to that point. He told the story of finding Ivy and Paul Reed together in the Floyd Plager home on Greenwood Avenue. Floyd was Vernon’s brother and his wife was Ivy’s flesh and blood sister. The couple were found together on the morning of November 5, 1927, when they returned from Iowa. The room was silent as Shakotzus gave his testimony. The several hundred people in the room seemed to lean forward to hear the story. These were the first details of the intimate relationship between Ivy and the man on trial for the murder of her husband. The crowd exploded with comments after the testimony and the judge actually banged the gavel and threatened to clear the room to get them to quiet back down.
Ivy finally testified on December 6 to a packed courtroom. Ivy answered as State’s Attorney William Knight hurled question after question at her. She hesitated on describing her husband’s death scene and a sob escaped her. Though she tried to avoid answering, Ivy was given no choice. She sobbed as she described the way she found her husband, “He was lying in the alley, his legs were off, as near as I can remember, his body was out, his stomach was out and lying beside him. Oh, Dear, it was terrible.”
Ivy endured a grueling 110 minutes of badgering by the State’s Attorney and the Defense Attorney. She told of meeting Paul Reed on July 4, 1927. The Defense Counsel Linscott tried to show that it was Ivy that pursued Reed for the illicit meetings.
Ivy also told of the day before the bombing. Paul Reed stopped at her house. She testified that he was angry, so angry in fact, that he was shaking. He kissed her and asked her if he had any chance at all with her. Ivy told him that he shouldn’t come back ever again. Reed told her , “You are going to wait too long, something bad is going to happen.”
Paul Reed testified in his defense on December 6. His testimony started with his personal history. He was born in Rockford but moved to Palisades, Colorado. While he was there he worked in a coal mine, on a cattle ranch and in an oil field. It was while he worked in the oil field that he learned to work with dynamite. He came back to Rockford and got a job at the National Lock Company and most recently, he worked as a draftsman at the Ingersoll Milling Machine Company.
After the jury deliberated, Paul Reed was convicted of the murder of Vernon Plager and sentenced to life in prison in Joliet. He left Rockford as a 23 year old young man, but when he arrived in Joliet, he became Prisoner number 2503. He was transferred to Pontiac Reformatory in 1940 with tuberculosis. He died there of the disease in 1947. He denied the killing of Vernon Plager until the day he died.
Vernon’s family was very hurt by some of the things reported in the paper. Some articles reported that Vernon had “stepped out” with other girls, that Vernon’s family were keeping Ivy’s daughter, Lois from her, and that Vernon had left the family penniless. These reports supposedly came from the Defense Council because they were trying to discredit Vernon, as if there would be any justification for blowing a man apart in front of his family.
C.A. Plager spoke for the Plager family. They had taken Lois, the 5 year old daughter of Vernon and Ivy, to Pearl City to stay with Vernon’s mother only while Ivy was incarcerated. C.A. also explained that his brother never would go out with another woman. Vernon worked as a brakeman at Central Amusement Park and it was his job to ride with young ladies (or young men!) that were by themselves. It was his job to accompany single riders. C.A. spoke of his brother as a hard worker that was willing to forgive his wife in order to keep his little family together. Vernon had once told his brother that he loved Ivy so much he couldn’t live without her.
Unfortunately, this is one of those stories where no one has a happy ending. Vernon was dead, Paul Reed never left prison, his life basically over at 22, little Lois had to grow up without her loving father. Ivy moved to Chicago for a while and then apparently came back to Rockford. In 1930, she was working as a live-in maid for a family on Harlem Boulevard. There was no mention of Lois. It was all so tragic and completely pointless. Newspapers stated that the couple’s relationship “was a progressively explosive one beginning with fireworks and climaxing in dynamite.”
“Ivy Plager Sees Husband Buried; Returns to Jail.” 21 July 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford, IL) : 1
“Ivy Echoes Dead Husband’s Words: Reed Did it.” 21 July 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford, IL) : 1
“I’ll Get Him”, Wife Told Mate.” 21 July 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford, IL) : 1
“He Was Always Good to Me.” 22 July 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford, IL) : 1
“Nephew Says Suspect Stole High Explosives.” 21 July 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford, IL) : 1
“Two Sticks, Fuses, and Nitroglycerin Found Under Stairs.” 24 July 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford,IL):1
“Ivy can Claim her Child.” 26 July 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford,IL): 18
“Contend Plager was Not Killed by Bomb Made of Dynamite.” 5 December 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford,IL): 1
“Narrative of Arrest is Told by Detectives.” 6 December 1928 Daily Register Gazette (Rockford,IL): 1
“Court Fans Bring Lunch to Reed Trial.” 6 December 1928 Daily Register Gazette (Rockford,IL): 1
“Court Fans Perk Up as Iva Testifies.” 7 December 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford,IL) : 1
“Sobs while Telling of Finding Husband While Dying After Blast.” 7 December 1928 Rockford Morning Star (Rockford,IL): 1
“Firecrackers Blossomed in Love Affair.” 8 December 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford,IL) : 2
“Prison Grim Climax to Love Crime.” 19 December 1928 Rockford Daily Republic (Rockford,IL) : 1
“City’s Last Bombing Hit Its Target.” 24 June 1957 Rockford Register- Republic (Rockford,IL) : 1
This article first appeared in the anthology “Rockford Writes”, edited by Heath Alberts, (2015); available from the Haunted Rockford online store; https://www.hauntedrockford.com/product/book-rockford-writes/
Copyright © 2015, 2020 Kathi Kresol.