On Friday, May 11, 1877, Winnebago County would experience one of the worst disasters it had suffered up to that time. While constructing a new courthouse, the time came to lower the new dome onto the limestone walls. The men were all in place as they lowered the elaborate piece onto the walls. Folks in town had been fascinated with the whole process and they lined the streets. Suddenly, there was a loud cracking sound. No one could believe it when the walls began to crumble under the weight of the dome.
Men and limestone blocks tumbled everywhere. Towns folk worked together for days to dig out men both alive and dead. Newspapers from those days were filled with the graphic descriptions of the wounds suffered by the men.
They laid the bodies of the dead on the lawn and rushed the injured to the City Hotel where they were treated by the doctors gathered there. One of the injured men was Charles Schultz. He had serious injuries including a bad head wound. His friends and family all said that he must be the luckiest man they knew.
Though Charles’ wounds healed quickly, his wife Elizabeth grew worried about him. There was something different about Charles after the accident. The news articles through the years gave clues to these changes. Charles was arrested numerous times for drinking, for fighting, and for disturbing the peace.
The drinking and violence increased until finally in 1884, the decision came that something must be done with Charles. There must have been an incident with the family because it was given as the reason for his “confinement”. Authorities were concerned about Charles’ hurting someone, especially his family members. The correlation between personality changes and brain injuries was years away. But it was easy to see that Charles had changed after his accident. The people who knew Charles before the accident no longer referred to him as lucky.
Charles was escorted to the Winnebago County Poor Farm and Hospital on North Main Street. He was confined to a wooden cage in the basement area. It was an area used only for the most “demented” patients.
John Atkinson was the Superintendent of the Poor Farm in 1884. He had held the position since 1876. It was a prosperous time for the Poor Farm. Atkinson had earned the reputation of a kind, patient keeper. But the treatment of the insane was archaic during this time and consisted more of confinement than treatment. In the daytime during warm weather the inmates were confined in large wooden cages outside. They were brought inside and locked in large wooden cages during inclement weather and during the night.
Superintendent Atkinson’s day began early and by 5:00a.m. on May 12, 1884 he began his rounds of waking the inmates. He worked his way from the top floor where most of the residents were just there because of their financial situations. He saved the basement patients for last. Atkinson unlocked the main door and began to make his way to the first cage which housed Charles Schultz. Atkinson was surprised to see Charles standing by the cell door. The fact that Charles did not move when Atkinson greeted him alarmed the superintendent. He rushed back to his office for the keys to the cells.
When he opened the door to Charles’ cell it was obvious why he hadn’t answered. Charles had a noose made from cloth wrapped around his neck. His beard had hidden this fact from Atkinson at first. Lifting his beard, Atkinson saw the black bands that proved his fear to be true.
Atkinson backed out of the cell and called the coroner. Coroner McCaughey arrived in short order. Schultz’s body had been cut down by Atkinson and his assistant. They laid him on a small bed inside his cage.
McCaughey would later testify that Schultz must have planned his suicide from the day he arrived. He ripped strips from the bedding. Then Charles took the time to weave these strips together to form a rope. When confronted with the fact that it was too thick to fit through the small opening above the door, Charles had removed a piece of wire from his mattress. He used this to attach the woven rope to the doorway. Charles then placed the noose around his neck, climbed on his bed and hurled himself from the bed. One of his feet was still on the bed when Atkinson cut him down.
The headlines from the day carried the story under the head line “Schultz Shuffles off this Earthly Coil with a Coil of Rope.” Charles was laid to rest in the Poor House Cemetery. His wife Elizabeth married again and stayed in the area with her new husband. One can only hope that she and Charles’ children remembered their father the way he was before the horrible accident that changed his life and theirs forever.
Warner Samuel Anderson was born in Geneva, Illinois June 18, 1866 to parents Swan and Frederika. Later records would state that his parents had both been born in Sweden. According to records in Ancestry, Swan and Frederika Anderson came over from Sweden on the ship Lucia in May of 1852.
Varney was the fourth of seven children born to the Anderson family. Swan worked as merchant tailor and Frederika took care of the children. By 1880, the family had moved to Elgin where Swan worked at the watch factory. Frederika passed away in November of 1879 and the oldest daughter Emily was still living at home helping to care for her younger brothers and sisters.
Varney would follow his father’s footsteps and work in the Watch factory. But Varney had bigger plans. He knew that Rockford also had a Watch Factory that had gained quite a reputation for their quality watches since their opening in 1875. Some might argue that this is what lured the young man to move here. But they would only be half right. There was another reason why Varney chose to make Rockford his home.
Besides having a Watch Factory, Rockford also had a Minor League Baseball League. Varney came because Rockford had been making a name for itself on the baseball field. He loved the game and hoped that Rockford would help him make his dream of playing in the Major Leagues a reality. The newspapers from the day are filled with headlines and articles about Varney’s success here in Rockford and eventually beyond.
In 1887, when he was only 21 years old, Varney was playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the Minor Leagues. He played for two different teams during the 1888 season; the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Apostles.
In 1889, Varney’s dream finally came true when he was chosen to be a player for the Major Leagues. Rockford hailed Varney as a hometown hero when it was announced that he had secured the position of pitcher and outfielder for the Indiana Hoosiers. He only played in 2 games that year. In 1890, he became a player and the manager of the Burlington Hawkeyes in Iowa.
Varney wasn’t only noticed by the men who attended his games. The women in the area would gather on Ladies Day to watch the handsome young man pitch against team after team. Varney would eventually fall for one of his fans and he married Florence Doughty in 1891.
Florence would always claim to be his biggest fan. The happy couple would have three daughters over the years. Varney would travel during the season and Florence and the rest of Rockford always made a big deal of welcoming him home again when the season ended.
Varney was hailed as a great team manager and continued to climb the ladder of success.
In 1895, Varney was invited to join the Washington Senators. He must have felt like all of his hard work paid off during his time with the Washington team.
The local newspapers were not the only ones talking about Varney’s skills on the baseball field. He was mentioned in the 1894 issue of Sporting Life. “Varney Anderson, surprised by his wonderful work in the box against them. His main strength appeared to be in his deceptive drop, which he has completely under his control.”
Varney continued to play for the Washington Senators and 1895 was his best year. Varney had achieved his lifelong goal of playing in the Major Leagues but he also knew that he was getting older. He returned to Rockford to help manage the team and to play for the town that helped him achieve his dream.
Headlines in 1897 told of Varney’s successes. One from August 23, 1897 claimed, “(Varney Anderson) Contributed to the Most Sensational Finish Ever Seen in Rockford!”
Varney and his wife Florence raised their three girls in their little house on South Main Street here in Rockford. Varney wanted to give back to the community that had given him so much. He became a Freemason and joined the E.F. Ellis Masonic Lodge. Varney was as successful as a Freemason as he was on the field. He became Master of the Lodge in 1902.
Varney and Florence purchased a house on South Main Street where they would finish their days. Varney lost Florence to illness on January 24, 1931. He laid her to rest in Willwood Burial Park. He would join her there after his death on November 5, 1941.
Looking back later there was nothing to indicate the day would be any different from others. It started out as just another typical day. It was June 9, 1966 and the weather that day was overcast with an occasional drizzle.
Edwin Lyons and his wife, Lauretta had breakfast together before he left for work that day. They had been married in Dubuque, Iowa on October 20, 1939. Lauretta was only 20 when they married. She had been born and raised in Rockford and it was here that they decided to make their home.
Both Lauretta and Edwin were considered successful. She had been a secretary but quit her job at the Block and Kuhl Department store to open her own pet accessory store. Edwin and Lauretta were partners in this venture. They had a little shop on Mulberry Street in downtown Rockford called the Lyon’s Den. They also traveled to fairs to display and sell the fancy dog collars from their shop.
Lauretta was a member of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Rockford Women’s Club, Rockford chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. She was also a member of the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Club. She had been a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Association. Lauretta also volunteered in her spare time. She was a pink lady at Rockford Memorial Hospital.
Edwin worked as a chemist at the Rockford Drop Forge Company. Edwin’s father was well known in Rockford. He owned the Brown’s Business College. Edwin and Lauretta had operated the school for a while before it was sold in 1942. The school would eventually become the Rockford School of Business.
Edwin left shortly after breakfast, right around 7:30a.m. The Lyon’s house was a little off the beaten path out on Latham Road where it intersects with Owen Center. It sat back a little ways from the road and was surrounded by trees and cornfields. It was not visible to any of the other houses.
Later that day when they were interviewed, the Lyon’s neighbors claimed that they did not know them very well. Richard T Hare stated that he very rarely saw them.
Before Edwin left, he and Lauretta made plans for lunch. He was going to meet her at the shop. When Edwin left for work he had no way of knowing that this seemingly ordinary day would turn out to be anything but that.
Lauretta was next seen by Julian Cwyman, a 38 year old telephone repairman. He told deputies that he saw Lauretta with her three dogs walking around her yard. They had spoken briefly and Lauretta even showed Cwyman some of the tricks she had taught the dogs. He left the area around 9:20a.m.
Edwin went to the shop for his lunch date with his wife. He was surprised when she wasn’t there. He tried to phone but received no answer to his attempts. So he decided he better check on her to make sure everything was well.
He arrived home around 12:30p.m. Edwin noticed that the doors were locked and the dogs were all inside. He stated he walked into the living room and saw his wife lying on her stomach on the floor in a pool of blood. There were several of his neckties around her, one was even clenched in her hand.
He immediately called the sheriff’s department and an ambulance. In the long moments it took help to arrive, he desperately searched for a pulse. Lauretta’s favorite dogs was curled up next to her and Edwin had to pick him up to get close to her. He noticed that its fur was still damp from an earlier walk.
Help finally arrived but even though Edwin pleaded with the ambulance crew to “Save her, save her” there was nothing to be done. They loaded Lauretta in the ambulance and drove her to Rockford Memorial where she was pronounced dead.
Police arrived in full force with the lead investigator, Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Iasparro,(father to Dominic Iasparro) over seeing the investigation.
Police noticed that the doors were all locked and that nothing was taken even though there was a large amount of money in the home and a valuable stamp collection.
There were signs of a struggle. Furniture had been disturbed, a curtain was ripped down and there was blood on the floor by the front door. This told investigators that Lauretta had fought her attacker. When Coroner Carl Sundberg conducted the autopsy on Lauretta he reported that her jaw was swollen and that her lips and tongue were cut. She had not been raped. But she had been brutally strangled with one of her husband neckties. The tie had gouged into her neck. Lauretta had another tie in her right hand and police discovered it had been cut off cleanly apparently with scissors. They searched the entire house looking for the missing tip. It was never located.
Police theorized that someone might have come into the house while Lauretta was out walking her dogs and was there waiting when she returned. They fought in the living room and Lauretta broke free and made it to the door. She was then strangled from behind and left there for hours until her husband found her.
Neighbors were questioned. Edwin was interrogated but his alibi of being at work held up. He told investigators that he had pulled his wife’s car out of the garage for her before he left for work at 7:30 a.m. Sheriff Kirk King was surprised when five people came forward to state that while they were driving by the home the morning of the murder, they had seen another car in the Lyon’s driveway. It was described as a 1957 maroon ford.
This case was never solved. The closest the police came was a few weeks after the murder when there was another attack on a woman.
Charlene O’Brien had finished her shopping at the Colonial Village Mall and walked back to her car. It was there that 43 year old Sanford Harris forced her into the car and kidnapped her. She was found 40 hours later, brutally beaten and abandoned along a farmer’s lane near Perryville Road. Charlene was able to describe her attacker as a middle aged negro man and police quickly picked up Harris.
He was living with his common law wife, Mary Ann Walker. Walker told police she was 21 but they found out later she was only 15 years old. Harris was on parole from the state of Michigan. Harris had killed a 41 year old woman and received a life sentence but was later paroled.
When people were asked to look at Harris and his car, they identified him as being the one they saw around Lauretta’s house the day she was killed.
This story has made the paper several times, always listed as one of the unsolved crimes of this city. According to the latest article written in the Rockford Register Star in 2007, Rockford had formed a new cold case squad and Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro has a special tie to this case. Sheriff Lt. Michael Iasparro was his father. Dominic Iasparro is quoted in the 2007 article. He states that “There was significant focus on one suspect but there was never enough evidence to charge that one individual.”
It has been 47 years since Lauretta Lyons was killed in her own home. Almost as much time has passed since her death as she was on this earth. The chances are very slim now that her killer will ever be brought to justice. Her family must feel a little comfort that she has not been forgotten. It must bring them a little peace that the torch has been passed from the original officer to his son who has now made it his mission.
Most people in Northern Illinois wouldn’t have recognized the names Catherine Rekate, Carl A. Reimann, or Betty F. Piche. But that would change on December 29, 1972. It was a Friday night and the Christmas lights were still up in the Pine Village Steakhouse and Tavern in Yorkville, Illinois. The dinner rush had ended and 16 year old Catherine Rekate was finishing her shift as a dishwasher. Her father, Donald, was already out in the parking lot to give her a ride home. Catherine had begged her parents to let her get the job only a few weeks before. She wanted extra money to buy Christmas presents.
There were only a few other people inside the restaurant when Carl A. Reimann walked in with his girlfriend, Betty F. Piche. The staff knew the couple but one waitress, Harriet thought it odd that Betty was wearing a blonde wig that night. Harriet was working in the back a few moments later when the terrifying sounds of gunfire rang out. She ran out the back door and across the yard to the owner’s house. Wendell Flint couldn’t quite understand the hysterical girl that pounded on his door that night. He only understood the words “gunshots fired”.
Catherine’s father, Donald Rekate was an amateur radio buff and he quickly called the police on his scanner when he heard the gunshots. He was able to give a description of the couple that came running out of the steakhouse. Donald also managed to notice the direction the car headed as it sped away from the parking lot.
Police Officer Richard Randall and owner Wendell Flint arrived at about the same time. They were horrified by the scene. “There were bodies all over the place.” Flint would state later. Officer Randall would describe it as the most heinous crime scene of his career. There were three bodies behind the bar and one victim was on the floor in front of the bar. Another man who tried to flee made it to the dining room before he was shot.
Kendall County Coroner, William Dunn would later describe the scene as a “bloody massacre.” Everyone was astonished to find one of the victims clinging to life. John Wilson was a bartender at the restaurant. He had been shot twice in the head. Though all efforts were made to save him, Wilson succumbed to his injuries a few days later.
The officers’ horror at the brutal scene quickly grew when they realized that there was a couple with two small children hiding under one of the tables near the bar. They rushed the hysterical family to safety. The family told officers they had entered the restaurant just as Reimann and Piche were gathering the money from the cash register. Reimann told them to sit down and not to look at them. Later police would find out that Reimann had planned to shoot the family but he ran out of ammunition.
Coroner Dunn made his way through the restaurant examining the dead. The victims were: 35 year old Dave Gardner, who stopped by the restaurant to get his family dinner, Robert Loftus a 48 year old retired Navy Veteran, 73 year old George T. Pashade, a chef at the Pineville for 11 years and 16 year old Catherine Rekate. One doesn’t even want to think about what was going through Donald’s mind as he waited outside the scene for news about his daughter.
Forty minutes later near the small town of Morris, Illinois a police cruiser spotted the 1959 Chevrolet and pulled it over. Carl A. Reimann still carried the .32 caliber chrome automatic revolver that he had used in the shooting spree. The police were also able to recover the money that was taken. The $500.00 amount seemed too small for the death of five people.
Authorities learned that Reimann had served two years in a Nebraska prison for armed robbery. He came to live with his mother in Sandwich, Illinois upon his release. They theorized that maybe this time Reimann decided not to leave any witnesses.
This crime changed life for everyone in Northern Illinois. People found it hard to believe that the slight, young man could shoot five people in cold blood. The defense team argued that there was no way that Reimann and Piche would receive a fair trial in Kendall County. The lawyers won their argument and the case was shifted to Winnebago County.
The week-long trial began in May of 1973. Seven men and five women listened to all the horrendous details of the crime. It was the first time that the details were released to the public. Some of the victims had been shot more than once but they had all been killed with shots to the head.
Carl A. Reimann was sentenced to a 50 to 150 year for each of the 5 counts of murder and a 20 to 60 year sentence for the robbery charge. Betty F. Piche was sentenced to serve a 20-60 year term for each of the 5 murders and a 10 to 30 year term for the robbery charge.
This case has continued to gain headlines even though 49 years have passed. Piche served her sentence and was released in 1983. She died in 2004. Carl A. Reimann was paroled under a lot of protest in 2018. In fact, people in the towns where he tried to settle protested three times before the state could find someplace for him to live.
Officer Randall kept in touch with Catherine Rekate’s family through the years. The Rekate family’s greatest fear was that Reimann would be released from prison. Donald passed away on December 30, 1995, long before Reimann walked free. Randall remembered that people in Yorkville were grateful for that. “There is only so much heartache one family can take.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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
When bones washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan near Manitowoc in 1947, folks speculated that the bones might be a clue to a mystery that had been unfolding since the beginning of May of that year. They were wrong as it turned out. The bones weren’t even human. But it showed how prominent the following story was and how far it had spread.
The story began months earlier and over 140 miles away from where the bones washed up. It started on a rainy day near Lake Ripley, Wisconsin. The fact that it was raining on that May 1, 1947 played a big part in what happened later that day.
The Weckler family was well known in the Oakland Center area. In fact, George and his wife, Eleanor were known throughout all of Jefferson County. George’s family lived on the same land for over 100 years and he was very involved in the community. George and Eleanor had served their little community in many capacities throughout the years. And each of those positions had increased folks respect of the Weckler family.
May was always a busy month in a farming community and May 1947 was no different. That May 1st dawned rainy and chilly. The fact that it was raining changed the regular routine in the Weckler household. The three younger children attended the Oakland Center Rural school. The school was about a mile down the road from the Weckler home. Usually, 12 year-old Laverne, 10 year old Joanne and 8 year old Georgia Jean rode their bikes to the school. But since the rain was coming down in sheets, Eleanor drove the children that morning.
Georgia Jean was in the third grade and for some reason her class was dismissed much earlier than the older classes that day. The mother of one of Georgia Jean’s classmates offered her a ride home. It was about 3:30 when Georgia Jean was left at the end of her driveway. The little girl had chatted all the way home about picking flowers for a May basket for the family’s front door. Mrs. Carol Floerke smiled to herself as she watched Georgia Jean stop at the mailbox and then begin to skip down the driveway.
The Weckler’s large house set back about a half mile from Highway 12 and Mrs. Floerke stated that she always left the little girl off at that particular spot when she gave her a ride. Back in 1947, most folks wouldn’t have thought about what might happen to a young child in a half a mile stretch of road.
Inside the Weckler home, Eleanor had no reason to feel alarmed. The children always came home together and Laverne was very protective of his little sisters. Even after Laverne and Joan arrived at the house without Georgia Jean, Eleanor wasn’t worried. She thought that maybe her husband had seen Georgia Jean on his way into town and decided to take the little girl along.
When George came home alone at 6:00 that evening, Eleanor began to panic. She called some of the neighbors to see if anyone had spotted Georgia Jean after school. Mrs. Floerke told Eleanor that she had dropped Georgia Jean off at the end of the driveway. She mentioned that Georgia Jean had picked up the mail and was excited to pick flowers for the May basket she intended to create.
The sun was starting to set as the family began to search the woods around the home. Eleanor called some of their closest neighbors to assist. Georgia Jean spent many hours playing in the woods with her siblings so no one thought she had gotten lost. Their initial fear was that she had fallen or hurt herself somehow. By the time full darkness had settled over the farm, the woods were full of searchers. After a couple of hours without any success, George decided they needed to get the police involved. He had served as a Deputy Sheriff for years and still had many friends on the force.
By the next morning, the word about the missing girl had spread throughout the county. Hundreds of people came from miles around to lend a hand. Policemen from neighboring towns joined in and soon people were walking shoulder to shoulder through the woods looking for some clue of the little girl.
By the end of that first full day, most of the men involved in the search knew that this was not a case of a missing child. Later the next day a truck driver confirmed their worst fears. The driver told the police that he had been driving on Highway 12 about the same time that Georgia Jean had been dropped off. He spotted a dark car pulled off the side of the rode not far from the driveway to the Weckler home. Just as the truck driver was about to pass the car, it suddenly pulled out in front of him and turned into the driveway. The driver had to swerve to avoid hitting the car. He turned back to yell out the window and saw a young girl skipping down the road. It was the last confirmed sighting of Georgia Jean.
When the authorities shared their theory that Georgia Jean had been taken they promised that they would do everything they could to bring her back to them. George went on a Chicago radio station to plead for his daughter’s safe return. The police and the radio station donated money for a reward. The reward quickly grew to over $10,000.00.
The police spread to talk to everyone about the car that the truck driver had spotted. Several people thought they had seen the car driven by the same young man. Fear spread throughout the community.
Schools around the immediate area closed down while everyone waited for Georgia Jean’s safe return. The newspapers interviewed her teacher, Mrs. Miller. She described Georgia Jean as a caring, smart little girl. She also spoke of Georgia Jean being quite the artist. Several newspapers printed the hand-drawn pieces of artwork. The little girl loved to draw pictures of her mother and father and the large farm.
Years later when folks remembered this story, they spoke of the connection they felt with Georgia Jean’s family. They spoke of the amazing strength George showed as he traveled the county speaking to people to help find his daughter.
The family was so touched that many people reached out to help them. Even as hundreds of people walked the wooded areas in the county, other showed up at the Weckler home. The men brought their tractors and the women brought home baked food. They cleared and planted the fields so that George and Eleanor could spend their energy on searching for their lost little girl. Others sheared the sheep and repaired fences for the family.
The little girl’s disappearance eventually faded from the front page even as George and Eleanor worked to keep people looking for their daughter. Days turned into weeks and then months without any sign of the little girl.
Finally, in December word came that there had been a confession. District Attorney Francis Garity of Jefferson County told reporters that a Richland Center man had confessed to taking Georgia Jean. Buford Sennett was only 22 in 1947 when the story broke but his name was well known to authorities. In November, Sennett and his accomplice, Robert Winslow had kidnapped Carl Carlson and a female relative in Madison. They murdered Carlson and dumped his body into the Wisconsin River where he was later recovered. It took only 90 hours from the time that they kidnapped Carl for them to be standing in front of a judge. They were both given life sentences and sent to Waupun.
Sennett confessed that he and another man had taken Georgia Jean because they knew her father was well off. The plan was to return the little girl when the ransom was paid. They held the little girl in the woods outside of Richland Center. Sennett testified that he gave the little girl two sleeping pills before he left for town. He had a date that night back in Richland Center. When he returned in the morning the little girl was dead. The accomplice (who went unidentified) had given her more of the pills.
Sennett stated that they weighed Georgia Jean’s body down with cinder blocks and tossed her from the Blue River Bridge near where they had left Carlson’s body. Though many hours were spent searching the area no body was ever found. Sennett quickly recanted the confession. While some folks believed that Buford Sennett had taken little Georgia Jean, others didn’t believe the story at all.
The months passed and there was no concrete evidence to tie Sennett to Georgia Jean’s kidnapping. Every time a new lead would be revealed the Weckler’s hoped that they would finally learn the truth of what happened that rainy May day in 1947. Every time bones were discovered anywhere in Wisconsin, the family would wait to see if they could finally bring the little girl home. Unfortunately, no trace of Georgia Jean was ever found.
In a further twist to this strange story, Edward Gein was questioned about Georgia Jean’s disappearance when he was arrested in November of 1957. No connection between Gein and Georgia Jean was ever found.
This story was reported in papers all over the country. Many man hours were spent running down every clue but to this day, no solid evidence has ever been found. George a quiet farmer was forced into the spotlight time and again in order to keep Georgia Jean’s story alive. He believed to his dying day that Georgia Jean was alive somewhere. Eleanor carried the agonizing loss of her daughter with her until her death in 1996. Georgia Jean’s name was listed on George and Eleanor’s tombstone in the quiet cemetery where all of the Weckler family was laid to rest close to their family home.
It has been 72 years since the day that Georgia Jean was last seen skipping down her driveway. But folks haven’t forgotten the tragedy of the Weckler family. On the 70th anniversary the news broke that a new cold case task force was looking into the story. Detective Leah Meyers took the case over and was hopeful that she could finally prove that Buford Sennett did in fact kidnap and kill Georgia Jean. Meyers also hopes that she can find the little girl and lay her to rest in the same cemetery where generations of her family are buried.