From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):
A Youthful Bank Robber’s Fate
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.
It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.
The Supremacy of Nerve
On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.
A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance
Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.
In the Palace of Death
Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.
Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]
This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.
The Deepening Shadows
Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.
August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”
When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.
While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.
At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.