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.
“A sick thought can devour the body’s flesh more than fever or consumption.” ― Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla et autres contes fantastiques
“We are pained to be called upon to record a terrible and bloody tragedy which occurred yesterday at one and a half o’clock.” These words begin the newspaper article that described the death of a young man named Banks Dixon, he was 36 years old and he had moved from England to Rockford around 1854.
Life hadn’t turned out quite the way Banks had planned. He owned a blacksmith shop with his brother in Rockford. He was married to a beautiful girl named Eliza Jane Lake. They had a little three year old boy named George, after Bank’s brother. But then their life started to unravel.
According to the newspaper article, at first the only cloud on Banks’ horizon was his father-in-law. Mr. Lake did not approve of Banks. In fact, in August 1868, he came to the house and took Eliza Jane and the Banks’ son back to his home in Guilford. Banks soon tried to get his wife to reconcile, especially when he found out that she was pregnant with their second child. When that was not successful, he took drastic measures. Banks waited until Mr. Lake took his daughter to a doctor visit and then he went to the house and took his son back home with him.
Things got really ugly when Mr. Lake had papers drawn up for Banks to sign that would give Jane custody of George, turn over all their property, and the sum of one thousand dollars. Banks didn’t sign the papers and when he heard Mr. Lake was coming to take his son, George, he left Rockford to go down south for the winter.
Banks couldn’t stay away forever, though. He waited until Jane, gave birth to their second son and then he returned to Rockford.
Jane’s life had not been going well since the separation either. First, she developed some kind of infection in her eyes and then after Banks “stole” their son away, she was always frightened. She became convinced that he would return to steal their second child and then kill her.
As her sight grew worse and her due date approached, Jane’s father and mother moved her to Rockford. They settled her into the house of Mr. and Mrs. Worsley, and neighborhood women assisted Mrs. Worsley with Jane’s care. Extra care was definitely needed, as Jane became almost blind, was severely depressed, and extremely paranoid. She had terrible headaches and was given laudanum and quinine for the pain. Mrs. Worsley testified that she would make mustard and camphor compresses to apply to Jane’s head to ease the headaches. She did this so often, the heat blistered Jane’s forehead and temples. After the birth of her second child, Jane took over five weeks to recover.
On his returned to Rockford, Banks sent Jane a message that he would like to see her and their new son. He also asked her to reconsider a reconciliation. He wrote that if she came back, “he would do anything it took to make her happy if she would just return home. “ Jane agreed to see Banks but her attending doctor ordered them to wait.
In the days that followed, Jane didn’t seem as nervous as she had been, she was actually calmer according to the ladies that cared for her. She stated to the ladies that helped her every day that she was happy Banks wanted to see his new son, and she wanted the baby to look good for the first meeting with his father.
The meeting finally took place on May 26, 1869, and it had been around 8 months since the estranged family had all been in one room. The family was not alone together, and the atmosphere was tense. Banks brought the lady who helped him with little George and Jane had a couple of neighborhood ladies attending to her.
Eye witnesses would later say that Banks came in with Mrs. Luke who was carrying little George. Banks crossed to the bed where the little baby was while Mrs. Luke took George to see his mother. Mrs. Luke asked George if he would go to his mother and kiss her. The little boy first said no but Mrs. Luke noticed this seem to anger Jane. So Mrs. Luke told the little boy to go to his mother and give her a kiss. The little boy then cooperated and said hello and kissed Jane.
They all sat down and Banks attempted to get Jane to talk to him but she was unresponsive. He even tried to get her to shake hands but she ignored his outstretched hand. Banks continued to try to get Jane to speak to him, but after a few minutes with no luck, he turned to Mrs. Luke and said it was time to go. He picked George up and took him to the bed where the younger boy lay. Banks mentioned to George that he should meet his baby brother and leaned over to allow the boy to kiss the baby.
As Banks bent over, Jane raised her hand and the ladies in the room were horrified to see that she was clutching a pistol. She fired two shots into Banks’ back at point blank range. She was so close to him that the gun started his coat on fire.
Banks dropped George, turned around and wrestled with Jane for the gun. Banks then ran out of the room with Mrs. Luke following him, carrying George in one hand and trying to put out Banks’ coat with the other.
Banks made as far as the back yard before he collapsed. Neighbors helped carry Banks back into the house while the doctor sent for. The same doctor who helped deliver Banks’ second child
The doctor found that the first shot had entered Banks’ back by his shoulder blade and passed through his lung and settled in his chest. The second shot entered his arm in the shoulder area and lodged there. The doctor could do nothing for Banks and the poor man lingered for forty long minutes. For forty minutes, he struggled for every breath until he had no strength left.
In the meantime, Jane was hysterical, crying and wailing about her babies. Nothing could get through to her until she asked one of the neighbors what was to become of her children. The lady turned toward Jane and said she should of that before she shot Banks.
Jane was arrested and charged with the first degree murder of her husband. But no one really thought she would be convicted. There was a parade of doctors who treated her before and after the shooting who all testified she was suffering from depression and was so paranoid that Banks was going to steal her second son, as he had her first. This caused her mind to finally snap, causing her to believe she had no other way to protect herself and her child. The gun, it was reported, belonged to her father.
Jane told doctors that she was so convinced that Banks was going to break in, steal the child, and kill her that she felt that she had no choice but to kill him first. Jane was examined by a couple of “alienists” as psychiatrists were known at the time. The trial was delayed several times because of Jane’s physical and mental condition.
Banks Dixon was buried in Cedar Bluff Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
In February of 1870, Jane was acquitted on the charges of first degree murder due to her “unsound” mind. The courtroom was packed with spectators and they began to applaud and cheer when the verdict was read. As much as people in Rockford loved and respected Banks, they could not believe that such a broken woman would have killed had she been in her right mind.
Even Banks’s friend Mrs. Luke, when asked about the not guilty verdict of Eliza Jane, replied, “Banks always spoke on her (Jane’s) behalf and Mrs. Luke had never heard him speak one word against her, but always to the contrary.”
In 1876, Jane changed her last name and the name of the two boys, George and Frederick to Lake. In the 1880 census, Eliza and the boys are living with her parents; George is now called Phillip G. and Frederick is now John F.
Jane inherited the farm in Guilford when her father became too ill to live there on his own. She continued to live there until her death in 1910. She left everything to her sons when she passed away. It seems that the boys had grown up to be fine men.
“Notice to Banks Dixon.” 17 December 1868 Winnebago Chief (Rockford,IL) : 4
“Murder Case.” 27 January 1870 Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 6
“Extra Edition-Murder Trial Complete.” 1 February 1870 Rockford Weekly Register Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 3
“The Trial of Eliza Dixon.” 29 January 1870 Rockford Weekly Register Gazette, (Rockford, IL) : 6
“Mrs. Dixon Acquitted.” 3 February 1870 Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 1
“Probate Notice.” 10 March 1870 Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 3
“Probate Notice.” 12 July 1882 Daily Register (Rockford, IL) : 3
“Mrs. Lake is No More.” 14 March 1910 Rockford Republic (Rockford,IL)
There is something about stories of the old west that has fascinated people for years. These tales usually focus on one character who overcame unbelievable obstacles including fighting with Native Americans, the elements, animal attacks or marauding men. The hero always saved the day and finished the story by riding into the sunset.
These stories grew in popularity until the 1870’s when someone had the idea to turn them into a vaudeville show. The first acts were small affairs but by the middle 1870’s, they grew into huge, extravagant shows filled with hundreds of participants. An article in an 1889 Rockford newspaper stated that the Wild West show that was traveling through the area made an incredible $50,000 in 6 days! Tickets were $.50 a seat and the tent held 12,000 people. By this time the shows depicted great battles such as the Battle of Little Bighorn where General George Custer and his men were killed by the Native Americans.
Some of the performances were huge, such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that traveled all over the United States and even Europe. Smaller shows also teamed together with circuses or rodeos to provide entertainment for the whole family.
In September of 1892, Rockford was treated to one of these smaller shows. One of the headliners was Dr. H. B. Hicks, aka “Wild Harry”. Wild Harry was a real gunslinger who had supposedly killed almost as many men as the famous Wild Bill Hickock.
One couple that was looking forward to attending the special show at Rockford Fairground’s Park was James and Josephine Fisher. Their family lived in the small township of Harrison, Illinois where James was a farmer.
They had each started out just like many people that moved to this area during that time. Both were born in the East and moved west. Josephine Goakey moved to Illinois with her parents in 1853 when she was 11 years old. She grew up and married a man named Calvin Johnson in 1858. Josephine held a new born daughter in her arms as her young husband rode away to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He was killed on the battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee in April of 1862.
James had begun life as James Albert Farnsworth. He grew up in New York and joined the 1st New York Cavalry. He also married shortly after the war. The reason for his move and name change has been lost to time. James chose his mother’s maiden name to begin his new life in Illinois in 1866. He and Josephine were married on January 8, 1867.
They had a little farm not far from her family home outside of Harrison along Moate Road. The couple had three sons, Samuel Edward in 1868, George Albert in 1870 and Thomas in 1873. James and Josephine must have been devastated when the little boy who they nicknamed Tommy died in 1879. He was only 6 years old when they buried him in the small cemetery in Harrison.
By the time the Forepaugh’s Wild West show was rolling into Rockford on September 8, 1892, James and Josephine had been married 25 years. The newspapers of the day state that they were well known in the county and well respected by all who knew them.
The show that James and Josephine attended had advertised famous outlaws and authentic lawmen of the old west. The main show would take place in a large tent that was set up for the occasion. Painted murals of deserts were hung on the inside of the tent to help set the scene. Several of the participants in the show were performing outside prior to the beginning of the show. They are described as real cowboys with faces tanned by the sun. They had long flowing hair, fringed leather jackets, and spurs on the heels of their boots that would thrill the children with their jingle as they walked.
Wild Harry was outside warming up the crowd as James and Josephine approached. They must have been thrilled to see him. Wild Harry was billed as one of the main attractions of the show that year. He was entertaining the crowd with his lasso throwing before he began the shooting portion of the show. For his finale, Wild Harry was known to amaze the crowd with his signature move. He would spin his six shooters around and then throw them over his shoulder, spin completely around and catch them. Then Harry would shoot the target and according to the advertisement, he hit the mark every time. Wild Harry had performed this trick thousands of times in over a hundred cities before that September day. But for some unknown reason, things didn’t go as planned.
James had maneuvered Josephine to the front of the crowd to make sure she had a good spot to see. As Wild Harry twirled the guns and released them into the air, his finger must have pressed the trigger. A shot rang out.
Josephine gasped and cried out, “My God, I am shot.” As she fell into James arms, a bullet fell from the folds of her dress. Josephine was rushed to the City Hospital and two of Rockford’ best doctors, Dr. Richings and Dr. Clark treated her but there was nothing to be done. The .44 caliber ball had passed through her abdomen and exited from her hip causing great internal damage.
James was completely devastated by the shooting of his wife. But as a testament to his gracious nature, he didn’t hold the man who wielded the gun any blame. Dr. H. B. Hicks was the man’s real name. Dr. Hicks never called at the hospital but his wife came to pay her respects and to share her husband’s remorse over the affair. James assured her and the men gathered later for an inquest that it had all been a horrible accident.
Josephine asked the doctors if she would recover and they had tears in their eyes as they told her the truth. She asked James to hold her funeral in the little red school that had been used by her family in the past for such occasions. Josephine died surrounded by family at 4:00 a.m. on September 9, 1892. She was buried next to her beloved son Tommy in the Harrison Cemetery.
The papers spoke of Josephine as a dedicated mother who was the kindest woman you could ever hope to meet.
James Fisher would eventually move to Shirland where he married again. He also decided to become a specialist in internal medicine. Thomas might not have been able to save his wife but he spent the rest of his life healing others. He died in 1914 and is buried in Shirland Cemetery next to his third wife, Alice.
When the weatherman on January 9th of 1948 promised that the warm temperatures would continue, Albert Larson was glad. He was a trapper by trade and wanted to use these warm days to his advantage. His plan was to take his boat along the Kishwaukee River and set his traps. Albert got more than he bargained on that particular January day.
He was setting the traps on the south bank of the Kishwaukee River when he spotted the frozen body of a man floating face down in the water. When Albert flipped the body over, he was startled to see a bullet wound in the man’s forehead.
Albert had a pretty good idea who the dead man was. The newspapers had been filled with updates about the missing man for the past month. Albert ran to the nearby cabin in the Camp Rotary Park (the present day Rockford Rotary Forest Preserve) to seek help. He had no idea that his discovery would set in motion a mystery that has gone on for decades.
Andrew Sorenson was 57 years old in December of 1947. His family owned the Chemung Tavern in Chemung, Illinois. He was described as the perfect tavern owner, friendly and outgoing. On December 3, 1947, 21 year old Andrew Sorenson Jr. showed up at the tavern to help his father over the lunch hour. He noticed his father’s car parked in its usual spot and that the blinds in the bar had been raised. So Andrew Jr. was perplexed when he found the front door still locked. He made his way to the back door. Andrew Jr. later stated that an eerie feeling came over him as he entered the bar area. His father’s key chain hung from the key still in the lock on the front door. Andrew Jr. rushed to the cash register. His heart sank as he realized it was completely empty except for a few checks.
Andrew Jr. realized in that moment that his mother’s greatest fear had been realized. Ever since his father opened the Chemung Tavern five years before, Dagmar Sorenson had predicted that this would happen. Everyone who was close to Andrew told him that he kept too much money in the tavern. Andrew usually had $700.00 to $1,000.00 in the cash register at any time. Even the McHenry County Sheriff Fred C. Bau warned him about it.
Andrew Jr. notified the police and his family that the tavern had been robbed and his father kidnapped. The authorities told Dagmar and her children that they were sure that Andrew would be found unharmed. In those days, robbers sometimes held people hostage so they could get away. But the despair in Dagmar’s eyes told the police that she did not believe them.
Many of Sorenson’s friends filled the tavern over the next few days. They gathered there before heading out to search the roads and woods surrounding the little village. At first, it was a few people, then a few dozen. Day by day the numbers grew until over a thousand people were searching for Andrew Sorenson. The searches spread out from Chemung into several of the surrounding counties.
Two days after Andrew was reported missing in Chemung, another story was unfolding in Rockford. Police Chief Folke Bengston was walking behind the police station when he noticed a man driving past. He waved the man over and knelt down to talk to him. Bengston knew the man very well and greeted him by name. But this was not a social visit. “John, I have bad news,” Police Chief Bengston began. The man Bengston had waved over had actually been a Rockford Police officer for years. John Provancher was 32 years old in 1947 and had served under Bengston. He had worked his way up through the ranks until he gained recognition as a plain clothes detective. Provancher gained quite a reputation for being a tough investigator. Men who worked with him on the force claimed that Provancher had an uncanny ability of thinking like the criminals they were trying to catch.
These same men said that Provancher also had expensive tastes. Provancher liked nice cars, tailor made suits, and flashy jewelry. He was living beyond his means and had received several warnings about passing bad checks from his supervisors. When Provancher failed to heed these warnings, Bengston was forced to let him go from the department.
Now on this December day, Bengston was once again forced to reprimand the man. An arrest warrant had been issued by Provancher’s current employer. Provancher had been working as a liquor salesman for the past three years. A few weeks prior to December 6, 1947, the owners of the liquor company realized that Provancher had embezzled $1,000 (over $11,000 in today’s money). The company offered not to press charges if Provancher agreed to pay them back. He had given them $700.00 two days prior but had missed the deadline for the balance, so they pressed charges. Provancher accompanied Bengston inside the police headquarters.
While Provancher was being questioned about the embezzlement charge, Bengston ordered other officers to search his car. He hoped the remainder of the money would be found in the car. When they asked Provancher for his car keys, he turned over a large key ring with several keys on it. He also explained that the trunk key had been lost.
The officers searched the main part of the newer model Nash sedan that Provancher drove. They didn’t find anything in the inside of the car and decided to try the other keys on the ring to unlock the trunk. They all were surprised to find one of the keys actually fit. What they found in the trunk truly shocked them. Inside the trunk was blood and clumps of grey hair. The men hurried inside to inform the men questioning Provancher. Captain Roy W. Johnson, who knew Provancher for years, was in charge of the questioning.
The tone of the questioning changed when Johnson returned to the room after receiving the news about the results of the search. The news had reached Police Chief Bengston and he joined the men. When Johnson asked Provancher about the blood in the trunk, Provancher stated that he had killed a couple of pheasants and put them in the car to bring home. Bengston told Provancher that there were tests that could tell if the blood belonged to an animal or a human. Provancher seemed startled at first by this news. Then he changed his story about the pheasants.
Provancher claimed that he was in one of the Chicago suburbs making sales stops and had accidently hit a pedestrian. He was scared so he threw the man in the trunk of his car and left the area. When he reached a more deserted part of town, he stopped, took the man from the trunk and left him. When Johnson asked him if the man was badly hurt, Provancher stated, “I don’t know.” The men in the room had a difficult time believing the story. Provancher must have felt their disbelief because he refused to discuss the case any further.
The Andrew Sorenson case was foremost in everyone’s mind at the time so the questioning turned toward that case quickly. Johnson asked Provancher if he knew the missing man. Provancher admitted that Sorenson bought liquor for his tavern from him. In fact, Provacnher knew the entire Sorenson family.
Captain Johnson also knew something else about Provancher. The two men considered each other friends and Provancer had approached Johnson about borrowing a .38 caliber gun for target practice. He borrowed it December 1st and returned it late in the day on December 4th, the same day that Sorenson had gone missing.
It was at this time that Johnson decided to take himself off Provancher’s embezzlement case. He left the interrogation room saddened by the thoughts that kept running through his mind. Johnson contacted the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the information that had been gathered up to that point..
Sheriff Fred Bau told Johnson that he had statements from two men who had stopped by the Chemug Tavern shortly after 9:00 a.m. to cash a check. One man entered the building while the other waited in the car. The man that entered said that Andrew (or Andy as his customers called him) was in the bar with another man. He didn’t really get a good look at the other guy. When Andy opened the register the man noticed that there was a lot of money in the cash drawrer. Andy chuckled when he called his attention to it. Andy stated that the day before had been a good day. The man took his money and left. The man that stayed outside noticed that the car in the parking lot was a very nice, newer Nash sedan. The man noticed it because most folks in Chemung did not drive cars that nice. As Johnson hung up the phone, he was very concerned for the man that he considered his friend.
The rest of 1947 was spent looking for clues in the Sorenson disappearance. Huge groups of volunteers gathered every day before spreading out to search for the missing man. Hope faded quickly that Andy would be found alive. The family was so desperate for information that they even consulted local psychics. The psychics all said the same thing; that Andy was dead and he would be found in water somewhere southeast of Chemung. Later, some found the accuracy of the psychic’s visions to be quite chilling.
During this same time, Provancher was in and out of jail on the embezzlement charge. Detectives searched his house for more clues in the Sorenson disappearance. They reportedly found a brand new snow shovel and more importantly, .38 caliber bullets. The papers did not explain why the snow shovel was of interest but it played up the fact that the bullets had been found in a baby carriage that was stored in the garage. Provancher had a 16 month old daughter at the time. It seemed a strange place to keep the bullets.
When Andrew’s body was pulled from the Kishwaukee River, the police and family hoped that it would provide more clues for them to go on. In reality, it created more questions. The one good thing about the discovery was that the family no longer had to live with the uncertainty of whether Andrew was alive or dead.
Andrew’s autopsy was conducted by Dr. Matthews. His death was caused by three bullet wounds to the head. Though the kidnapping and robbery had taken place in Chemung which was located in McHenry County, the jurisdiction was transferred to Winnebago County. Authorities theorized that Andrew could have been put in the river anywhere, even a smaller stream that was a tributary of the Kishwaukee River. The only thing they knew for sure, was that Andrew Sorenson was dead by the time his body was brought from the river.
Albert Larson was given a reward for finding the body. At first, he declined the money, but Andrew Jr. told him that the family believed that Larson was chosen by God to relieve the family’s pain. Andrew Jr. was quoted in all the newspapers when he stated, “Justice will come to my dad’s murderer.” The family was grateful that they could lay Andrew to rest in the little Jerome Cemetery on the outskirts of Harvard, Illinois.
The case against Provancher was further substantiated when fibers that were found in the trunk were linked to the pants Sorenson was wearing when his body was pulled from the river. This case happened long before DNA testing of course, so the only evidence was that the blood in the trunk of Provancher’s car matched Andrew Sorenson’s blood type.
Though the evidence and Provancher’s statements should have led to a simple verdict in this case, that is not the way it happened. Provancher was found guilty by a jury of his peers. On April 24, 1948, the six women and 6 men jury declared the guilty verdict to a very stunned Provancher. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Circuit Judge William Dusher.
But Provancher maintained his innocence and fought the verdict from the Circuit Courts all the way to the Supreme Court. His wife, Elizabeth was his biggest advocate. She began to study ballistics in order to fully understand the evidence against her husband. She must have been an impressive woman because Provancher’s lawyer won a hearing for her to present what she had learned about ballistics to a judge. Elizabeth claimed that the gun Provancher had borrowed was a .38 caliber and the wounds in Sorenson were too small for that caliber of gun.
John Provancer was granted parole in December of 1956, having served 8 ½ years of his 25 year sentence. Though many saw this as a travesty of justice, there were also those who believed that Provancher was innocent. Provancher turned his life around and from all accounts contributed much to his community in Hinsdale, Illinois. He died at the age of 94.
In a tragic side note to this story, Andrew’s beloved son, Andrew Sorenson Jr. was killed in a freak accident while serving in the Navy on January 24, 1961. He and the other four men on board were killed when their P2V Neptune Patrol bomber crashed during a training exercise. Andrew was survived by a wife and three sons.
Unfortunately, this case left too many questions for anyone to know what really happened to Andrew Sorenson on that December day so long ago.
When the telegram arrived at the cottage on Brown Street, everyone in the family was surprised. The telegram announced the visit of one of Sarah Sherman’s daughters, Hattie. Hattie lived in La Crosse, Wisconsin since her husband’s death six years ago. Hattie’s husband left her in good financial state but she liked working so she found a job as a purchaser for a large department store in La Crosse. It wasn’t the fact that she was coming to Rockford to see her mother and sister that was so surprising. It was the fact that the telegram mentioned she would be accompanied by her new husband, William Coffey.
Sarah Sherman lived with her daughter, Anna and Anna’s husband, William Holdridge. Sarah was eighty-seven years old in 1926. Though she was in very good shape for a woman her age, she felt safer living with her daughter and her family. Anna and William ran a small grocery store in town. Anna’s son, Gerald helped with both the store and with his grandma.
No one knew anything about Hattie’s new husband when they arrived at Anna and William’s house in the middle of October 1926. They only knew that Hattie seemed happy about this new chapter in her life. William Coffey didn’t smoke, swear or drink. He went to church and read the Bible regularly. In fact, the couple met at church in La Crosse. They both sang in the church choir.
The family could see that Hattie was quite taken with William. William and Hattie were planning a honeymoon road trip. They were going to take in all the fall colors of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The trip would include some nights of camping in a tent and others at hotels. Hattie was almost giddy when she spoke of it.
Sarah didn’t show it on the outside but on the inside, she was very concerned. Her daughter was fifty-three years old but Sarah didn’t like the fact that Hattie had married this man she had only known for six months. Sarah felt concerned enough to discuss it with Anna. They decided to speak to Hattie one evening when the women had some privacy. Hattie just laughed off their concerns. “He is just the man for me, Mama.” Hattie told her elderly mother. Sarah and Anna watched Coffey closely looking for a clue of his true nature.
Coffey claimed to have a successful business. He had also had a big house in Madison that he invited them to visit. He was charming and quoted Shakespeare. He attended church with the family and had a very nice voice while he sang the hymns. Hattie thought he was the perfect partner for her.
Sarah and Anna tried to focus on the fact that Hattie was happy. But there was fear in Sarah’s heart as she watched the couple load their car for the trip. Sarah just couldn’t shake the feeling that she would never see Hattie again. Anna would say later that she felt the same way.
The family received a letter from Hattie a few days later. The couple stopped in Galena for a night and moved on to Dubuque. They were headed toward Maquoketa State Park to see the caves. They stayed in a hotel that night but would soon be camping right in their car.
The next letter came a few days later. Sarah and Anna were surprised when they realized that the letter was from William. He told them about their adventures at the caves and explained that Hattie was seated right beside him as he wrote the words. After several letters, all written by William, Anna asked why they didn’t hear from Hattie.
More letters arrived, this time from Hattie. At least they appeared to be from Hattie. They were typewritten and the signature didn’t seem quite right. The family grew concerned about the letters. That concern turned to fear when they received the final letter. This one was written by Coffey. He explained that he and Hattie were in Asheville, North Carolina. He had terrible news. Hattie had left him and ran off with another man. Coffey had no idea where she was. He finished the letter with ”my heart is broken.”
That set off red flags for the family. Sarah told her daughter and son in law, “something inside me warned that all was not well with Hattie.” Anna and William contacted Hattie’s other siblings and the family discussed their options. Anna came up with a plan to trap Coffey. Hattie owned stocks and bonds in different companies. The family knew that Hattie owned stocks in the Elroy Oil Company in Elroy, Wisconsin. The family lived there when Sarah’s husband Leander was alive. The Elroy Oil Company was having their annual Board of Director’s meeting. Anna wrote Hattie a letter reminding her about the meeting. She mentioned that if there were any changes to be made that Hattie would need to attend the meeting.
Coffey took the bait and attended the meeting. He carried a letter supposedly typed and signed by Hattie turning over the $500.00 worth of stock to her husband. The family alerted the authorities and they were there to take Coffey into custody. He was arrested for forgery. The family felt that they would finally get the answers to Hattie’s whereabouts. They had no idea the twists that the story would take.
Police soon found out that everything that Coffey had told Hattie and her family was a lie. Even their marriage was a lie. Coffey had a wife and three children that lived in Madison, Wisconsin. They had been married for twenty three years. The papers referred to her as Mrs. Coffey number one. When Mrs. Coffey heard of her husband’s arrest in Elroy, she contacted the police. Her husband traveled for his job and she wouldn’t see him for months at a time, so his absence didn’t arouse her suspicion.
When the police searched Asheville for Hattie, they could find no signs that she had ever been there. Coffey told police that Hattie had run off with a man named St. Clair. Police found no one by that name at any of the hotels during the time Coffey claimed they were there.
But police found all of Hattie’s suitcases in the trunk of Coffey’s car. They also found that Coffey’s first wife had some of Hattie’s clothes and jewelry in her possession. She claimed they were gifts from her husband. When Anna and Sarah were shown pictures of the jewelry, they identified them as Hattie’s. “I knew then that she was dead” Sarah stated. “Those rings were precious to her.”
Police started to pressure Coffey for the truth of what happened to Hattie. But still Coffey wouldn’t budge on his story that Hattie had deserted him in North Carolina. Hattie’s sister, Anna who was praised in the papers for her strategy to catch Coffey now stepped forward once again. She offered to attempt to get the truth from the man she believed killed her sister. The police agreed and Anna went in the interview room. She sobbed and begged Coffey to tell the truth. Anna told him that her aged mother was heart-broken and needed to bring her daughter home. Coffey was moved to tears himself when Anna reached out and grasped his hands. He was still crying as she slipped from the room. It took two more hours but finally Coffey weakened. He admitted that he had killed Hattie.
Coffey said that they were camping by the Mississippi River in Dubuque on October 11, 1926. He had spent part of the day visiting clients (mostly women). For some reason, this made Hattie jealous. When he returned to the camping spot they argued and she slapped his face. Then Hattie picked up a large bat that they kept in the tent and tried to hit Coffey with it. This angered him and he took it away from her and swung out with it striking Hattie in the head. She was dead before she hit the ground.
Coffey stated he panicked and put her body in the car. He drove unto the bridge, got out of the car and threw Hattie’s body off the bridge into the river below. When authorities pressed him for the exact location, they thought it strange that he kept insisting that they camped in Wisconsin. It all became clear when Coffey announced that he thought they were trying to trick him into saying that the camp was in Iowa. Iowa had the death penalty but Wisconsin did not.
Coffey stuck with his story for a couple of days. Authorities searched up and down the river. It had been a cold January and some of the river was actually frozen on the banks. By January 27, police had found no body. They had found a baseball bat in the Eagle View Park in Dubuque. They told Coffey that since there was no body to prove otherwise, they would have to believe that Hattie had been killed in that park. The park was in Iowa so things did not look good for Coffey at that point. Coffey once again changed his story.
This time Coffey claimed that on October 9, he and Hattie were in the car driving across the Mississippi River heading along the river in Wisconsin. They pulled over to make camp in some woods about six miles south west of Platteville. It was here that they fought and he struck Hattie, not with a bat but with a small axe. The police found the axe wrapped in a grass mat hidden in the basement of his home in Madison. Coffey confirmed he hid the axe there when he had returned to spend Christmas with his wife and children.
Coffey also changed another part of the story. He hadn’t thrown Hattie in the river as he first claimed. He now said that he had used a butcher knife and the axe to dismember her. He buried her in twelve different graves in the woods. Word about this leaked from the interrogation room. Folks around Platteville heard of the horrible killing that had taken place in Riter’s Woods as the location was called at that time.
People decided to drive to those woods. Soon two hundred cars lined the road leading to the wooded area. Though a couple dozen sheriff’s deputies had been sent to secure the scene they were unable to stop the sea of people that wandered through area. One man, a farmer named Frank Olsen spotted a mound of loose soil covered by snow. He kicked at it. A policeman noticed his actions and brought a shovel. He began to dig and about three feet down he found part of a women’s torso.
While the townsfolks had been wandering through the woods, Coffey was being transferred from the jail in Mauston. District Attorney R.M. Orchard and Sheriff Lyall Wright accompanied him the next morning. They also told him that his wife of twenty three years had filed for divorce.
When the small group of men arrived at the woods, they saw a shocking sight. More than seven hundred cars lined the road and over three thousand people were standing in a large circle. Coffey kept his head down and began to lead the men from place to place revealing body part after body part. District Attorney Orchard grew frustrated by the pushing and shoving of the crowd as they jockeyed for the best position to see each body part. Finally, he turned to the huge group and asked what they wanted. They answered they wanted to see Coffey. Orchard made Coffey get up on the running boards of a nearby car so that everyone could get a look at him.
Police found the butcher knife that Coffey had used along with some of Hattie’s internal organs under the snow. They now believed that Hattie had been killed there in the woods outside of Platteville.
It took quite a while to unearth all of the body parts. They had all been wrapped in paper or canvas material. Hattie’s head was the last piece to be found. The police knew that the head would reveal critical evidence of how Hattie had been killed and they were desperate for it to be recovered. There was a gasp that washed through the crowd as the last part was brought up. The head was wrapped in newspaper and appeared to be burnt. Later, Coffey would explain that he tried to burn it to keep Hattie from being identified.
In a gruesome twist, the police placed all of the body parts on tarps and the onlookers passed by to see them. Women with their own daughters and men with their sons walked by the paper wrapped body parts of Hattie.
Anna was called on once again. She bravely agreed to look at the head to see if she could identify the grisly remains as her sister. Her strength and dedication to her sister touched even the most veteran of policemen.
The autopsy proved that Hattie had been struck in the head. Instead of a baseball bat, the medical examiner thought that the weapon might have been a hammer. Coffey claimed that he struck Hattie as she slept and that she never knew what or who had hit her. One can only hope that at least this time, his words were true.
Later many asked why Coffey confessed. The authorities believed that Coffey was aware of how the law worked. He adapted the story to give himself the best odds. Coffey mentioned that his own father had become insane and was institutionalized laying down the grounds for a possible insanity plea. He also was smart enough to know that if they didn’t find a body it would be hard to prove that Hattie was dead. It was only when faced with the possibility of the case being handled in Iowa with a death penalty involved that Coffey decided to divulge where he had placed Hattie.
Hattie’s family laid her to rest in the Elroy Cemetery next to her father. As her funeral was taking place, the man who murdered her was standing in front of the judge. The judge asked Coffey if he was guilty or innocent. “Guilty” said Coffey. The whole trial took eleven minutes. Coffey was sentenced to life in prison. He was transferred to Waupun to serve his time. He died there in 1962.
The townsfolk of Elroy who knew the Sherman family so well paid tribute to Hattie. They wrote a beautiful letter to Sarah and the rest of the family. They spoke of Hattie’s big heart, friendly smile, and dedication to her family. They spoke of the loss of one so dearly loved by all who knew her. Sarah would state that the letter helped her remember the way that Hattie had lived and not dwell on the way she died.