(Thanks to author Dick Haws for graciously allowing us to reprint this chapter from Iowa and the Death Penalty: A Troubled Relationship, 1834-1965. Check out the book for more on the other 44 men (no women) hanged in the Hawkeye State. -ed.)
Phillip and William Heincy established several firsts when they were hanged on the same scaffold at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. They were the first — and only — father and son team to be executed by the State of Iowa. And Phillip, at 72, was the oldest. But it was the two men’s ignorance, their dim-wittedness, that also must have set some kind of record. Together, they had lived well over 100 years on the planet yet they had remained sublimely ignorant of the world around them. Phillip, or “Dad” to William, testified that he had gone to school off and on through the second grade, that he couldn’t write, couldn’t read, had never placed a long-distance telephone call, didn’t know the significance of Easter nor the number of months in a year, nor the number of days in a week, nor anything special about the Fourth of July, except that “I have to work every Fourth of July.” For his part, William, or “Bill” to “Dad,” testified he was born on Christmas Day 1900 but never knew the significance of that day nor Easter nor the Fourth of July. He said he had attended school for “parts of four years.” Their defense attorney, K. B. Welty, summed up his clients’ plight. “These men came into this world with very limited capacities, never attending Sunday School or church except for a few times, and school was limited, and society in which they traveled was limited and opportunities were limited because their intelligence did not permit them to get into proper society.”?
But that isolation didn’t prevent them from becoming ruthless criminals, and, in the end, murderers. Dad didn’t enter prison until he was 51, which suggests, as their Catholic priest on death row observed, that son Bill “apparently is the dominant personality and the father seems to follow his lead.” The two were Missourians and, in 1924, were arrested for the first time for stealing a Ford touring car and escaping from jail. Dad got seven years in a Missouri prison, Bill, four years. After their release, they headed north in to Iowa, and in 1931, near Iowa Falls, they held up a couple at gunpoint, kidnapped them and stole their car. About two weeks later, they shot it out with Mason City police and were apprehended. They were convicted under the false names they gave — P. H. Smith for Dad, W. H. Baker for Bill — and sentenced to a maximum of 25 years at the Iowa State Penitentiary. Dad was paroled after nine years, Bill got out after about 10 years.
In 1944, they were back together and ready to attack again. On the evening of Dec. 14, 1944, Bill and Dad boarded a train out of Quincy, Ill., bound for Spirit Lake in northern Iowa. During an earlier spring Dad had worked for a short time on a farm near Spirit Lake while Bill had helped out at a nearby resort on West Lake Okoboji, run by Robert and Esther Raebel, a prominent, deeply religious, childless couple who were known for the hours they spent with the children of the Spirit Lake Methodist Church. The Heincys would later claim they had headed to northern Iowa to retrieve a car they had stored there and to make some money hiring out to pick corn. Dickinson County Attorney W. B. Bedell never believed them; he maintained their only reason for coming to Spirit Lake was to steal and murder. Bedell cross-examined Dad, getting him to admit that he didn’t know where the car was, that he and his son carried no luggage with them, no extra clothes, no work gloves, but that they did bring along a gun and a billy club. “You didn’t expect to pick corn with a billy and a gun, did you?” Bedell asked. After arriving in Spirit Lake, Bill said in his confession, they loitered around the railroad depot for a few hours, undecided about what to do next. They went to a tavern and had a beer, then ate a sack of donuts. Then, almost by chance and with apparently little forethought, the two said in their confessions they decided to walk the four and one half miles to the Raebel resort, planning to rob the couple of the large amounts of money they believed they had on hand. Bill and Dad said they watched through a resort window as the Raebels ate supper, washed the dishes, and moved into the living room, where Esther addressed Christmas cards at a card table. When Robert got up to go down the basement to check the furnace, the Heincys struck, breaking into the resort. Bill, who was carrying both the .22-caliber revolver and the billy club, shot Robert just as he was coming back up the stairs. He staggered into the living room and fell on the floor, almost at his wife’s feet. The bullet entered his neck below the right ear and severed his aorta, causing him to bleed to death. From Esther, the Heincys demanded money and the car. She gave them all the money she had — about $28 — and the car keys. Before fleeing, Bill slugged the woman several times over the head with the billy club, knocking her unconscious to the floor. In their confessions, the Heincys said they believed they had killed both the Raebels, but, within about two hours, Mrs. Raebel had recovered enough to call the Okoboji telephone operator, who spread the alarm. Mrs. Raebel was also able to identify her assailants.
“Have you ever seen the men before?” she was asked at the coroner’s inquest.
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” she responded. “I just know it is those men, see, that worked at our place.”
“Both men worked at your place?”
“No, no, just the one. The old man stayed with Jens.”
“Yes. He worked on the farm there. That is right.”
“Would you know the man’s name?”
“Well, his name, Heinke, something like that.”?
“Was it Heincy?”
“Yes, that is right. Yes,” she repeated and identified photographs of the two.
The Raebels’ car was found the next day abandoned in downtown Storm Lake. Nineteen days later, the Heincys were arrested without incident in Quincy, Ill. They were returned to Iowa, quickly confessed, pleaded guilty and awaited sentencing from Judge Fred M. Hudson. The Heincys hoped to escape the death penalty by arguing that they intended only to rob the Raebels, not kill them, that Robert’s death was unintentional. But Judge Hudson was unpersuaded. “If robbery was all they intended,” he asked rhetorically at their sentencing hearing, “why did they not stop there? The facts of these cases warrant the finding that these defendants completed their robbery and then in order to make good their escape and avoid detection and identification, purposely inflicted what they thought were fatal injuries upon both the victims of their robbery, and killed one victim and thought they had killed the other. In so doing they thought they had eliminated the only two persons who knew them and who could identify them as the robbers.” The judge said he also tried to determine whether one of the Heincys was more guilty than the other. “The younger man apparently did the shooting and most if not all of the beating,” Judge Hudson said. “However, the older man planned the robbery with him, entered upon the perpetration of it armed and knowing the younger man was armed and in what manner, demanded and received the money of at least part of it, handed the billy to the young man to use. How can it be said under our law that both are not equally guilty and responsible?” Bill and Dad were sentenced to be hanged on March 29, 1946.
The effort to spare the lives of the Heincys focused on Gov. Robert Blue, not the Iowa Supreme Court, because the Heincys’ attorney, K. B. Welty, did not believe his clients had been treated unfairly in the court process. “They (Dickinson County authorities) did a grand job,” he told the governor. The appeal to Gov. Blue didn’t come to a head until March 4, 1946 — only 25 days before the scheduled executions — and it raised arguments about the mental acuity of the Heincys. “Actually,” Welty told the governor, “these men are poor, wretched, depraved souls and, although you may feel there is no value of them to society, I say to your honor, we should not hang them. As you well know, we have institutions all over this country where we keep our mentally defective and crippled people.” Welty suggested that if the Heincy defense had had the money to hire psychiatrists, “possibly and probably a different result could have been obtained.” Welty also blamed society for allowing the Heincys freedom in the first place. “Perhaps they should have been kept in the penitentiary long ago and I presume that society has laxed in not seeing to it.” But the governor bored in on the question of the Heincys’ insanity, asking Welty whether the Dickinson County judge had heard any testimony about it. “No, your honor,” Welty responded. “You didn’t call any local doctors that would have any knowledge of psychiatry?” the governor asked. “No, sir,” Welty responded. “Did you raise that question with the court?” the governor continued. “No, sir,” Welty answered. “Do you feel they know the difference between right and wrong?” the governor asked. “Yes, sir, at times, but I think there are times in their lives that they were so crazed that they lost control of themselves,” Welty responded. “Any feeling on your part that they are insane, or are they uneducated persons who lack self-control?” the governor asked. “In respect to the elder Heincy, I have sensed that he is rather unbalanced,” Welty responded. “I think the younger fellow is not that bad.” The governor didn’t delay in announcing his decision. “Their whole history has disclosed that they were at war with society,” Gov. Blue said. “I can find in statements made to me no reason for granting executive clemency.”
But Welty battled on. Only days before the scheduled execution, he asked for a sanity hearing. Arguing that Dad Heincy had “the mentality of an 8-year-old boy,” Welty said, “we certainly would not hang an 8-year-old boy in this state. I can’t believe that the great State of Iowa, on the eve of its one hundredth birthday, will bloody its hands by taking lives in this manner. The time will come when this state will follow other intelligent states and do away with executions.” Welty was partially successful. The Iowa Board of Control ordered an immediate sanity examination of the Heincys. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist questioned the two men for more than two hours on the Wednesday before they were scheduled to be hanged. Their conclusion? Neither of the Heincys was insane nor feebleminded.
The hangings went off as scheduled. Dad and Bill, on the night before their executions, got baths, shaves and haircuts, and the prison-made suits, hats, shoes and ties. The traps were sprung by Dickinson County Sheriff Joe McQuirk at 6:01 a.m. Bill dropped a split second before Dad. Dad was pronounced dead after 11 minutes, Bill after 12.
Sources include Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, Phillip Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; Governor’s Correspondence on Criminal Matters, William Heincy file, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; the Spirit Lake Beacon; the Des Moines Tribune; the Des Moines Register.