1941: Ivan Sullivan

Add comment November 12th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Ivan Sullivan was hanged at Fort Madison, Iowa — in a prison yard near where he’d committed his crime.

Sullivan was lumbered with a 30-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping when he and a buddy, Lowell Haenze, cut their way through an electrified fence while they were working on a prison baseball park ahead of a Fourth of July game in 1940. “In a news report about the escape and the following crime spree, they were likened to John Dillinger and his gang in the Midwest.” And like the Dillinger gang they were loyal enough to orchestrate prison breaks for their chums still in the stir.

Returning to the jail, they attempted to spring another pal, William Cunningham. The attempt failed: Cunningham was wounded in the fray and apparently committed suicide as it all went awry. Meanwhile, a prison guard named Bob Hart was shot dead.

The fugitives weren’t recaptured in this moment but their celebrity lam was short-lived. In late July, after the botched robbery of a Diller, Nebraska bank, both men were hunted to ground and captured — Haenze after playing the hare in a dramatic chase/shootout in tiny Marysville, Kansas, wherein “some 150 or more persons assisted officers in chasing down Haenze … [and] about a dozen shots were exchanged in the main intersections of the city.” (Marshall County News (Marysville, Kansas), July 25, 1940) Sullivan surrendered shortly thereafter to officers in Atchison, Missouri.

Although he pleaded guilty to the hanging crime, Sullivan wheedled for consideration — seeking legal remedies up to the Supreme Court, suggesting continually that Hart had actually been killed by friendly fire rather than Sullivan’s own never-recovered gun,* and at the end asking that his execution be postponed through the 1941 holiday season in consideration of his aged parents. “My Dad and Mother are getting old and won’t have many more Thanksgivings and Christmas[es],” he wrote to Iowa governor George A. Wilson. (Des Moines Register, Nov. 11, 1941) He got no traction at all.

“I do not for one minute mean to insinuate that I am any other than a bank robber who kept his word to a friend. I know I’m not fit for honest people to associate with,” he told newsmen when all hope was gone. (Des Moines Register, Nov. 12, 1941) “I know I have no more chance now to escape the rope than a snowball in hell but I will pray not only for myself but also for the ones who are afraid to be a man for the fear of losing a vote.”

This interesting blog post shares the personal recollections of the hanging’s impact by one of Sullivan’s family members, who was a small child at the time of the execution.

* His charge that “the state crime laboratory [is] for the state only and against the defendants” — because this laboratory wouldn’t or couldn’t produce the bullet that killed Bob Hart for forensic examination — has a prescient feel about it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iowa,Murder,USA

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