1941: Ivan Sullivan

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..

1963: Victor Feguer, by the feds

This date marks half a century since the hanging of Victor Feguer — the last man executed by the federal government in the 20th century. (And the last executed in the state of Iowa, period.)

A drifter holing up at a Dubuque, Iowa, boarding house, Feguer phoned up a random doctor claiming a woman needed medical attention.

Think about that the next time someone gets nostalgic for house calls.

Dr. Edward Bartels showed up only to be kidnapped by Feguer, and eventually murdered in Illinois. Feguer was picked up in Alabama, trying to sell the doctor’s stolen car; his motive for the whole affair was just to get whatever drugs the luckless physician had with him.

The cross-state crime spree put Feguer’s case in the hands of the feds. (It was not, however, a “Lindbergh Law” case, since Feguer was on the hook for capital murder independent of the kidnapping.)

Although Feguer spent his prison time at the federal lockup in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was transported back to Iowa for execution — because that state’s penitentiary had a gallows available.

Iowa still had a death penalty on the books at this time, but it had a death penalty abolitionist for a chief executive; just two years hence, that Gov. Harold Hughes set his pen to the Hawkeye State’s death penalty abolition bill. Iowa hasn’t hanged, shot, electrocuted, poisoned, or otherwise judicially executed anyone since.

It was U.S. President John F. Kennedy, however, who had Victor Feguer’s life in his hands. Despite Gov. Hughes’s support for clemency, Kennedy turned the kidnapper down flat.

Feguer’s last meal, oddly, was a single olive. He tucked the olive’s pit into the new suit he wore to his dawn hanging.

As the death penalty waned into a formal abeyance in the 1970s in the U.S., the federal government stopped executing people for a long, long time. (And stopped hanging people altogether.) The next time a human being was put to death under federal auspices was 38 years later: Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

On this day..

1922: Eugene Weeks, by Sheriff Robb

“Minister-Sheriff Hangs Iowa Murderer, Resigning Des Moines Pastorate to Do So” read the New York Times headline for the execution this date of Eugene Weeks.

Our interest here is not drawn by Weeks, who hanged for the forgettable murder of a grocer, but by his executioner, a truly American character running a truly American grift.

Winfred E. Robb parlayed decorated service as a World War I chaplain into a postwar book paying sentimental martial tribute to “young men … [and] their glorious death” the better to inspire “a greater patriotism and the dedication of himself to the common good of his fellows.”

Robb had returned from the European theater to his prewar gig as pastor of Des Moines independent evangelical congregation, the First Federated Church. (It still exists, nearing its centennial in the guise of a megachurch preaching “triumphalist, Americanized Christianity”.)

Our pastor proved amenable to exchanging this ministry of God for that of a more temporal power, and was elected Sheriff of Polk County in 1920 on an anti-corruption platform. The New York Times reported that his “campaign pledges of ‘cleaning up’ Des Moines have been followed by vigorous efforts against bootleggers and disorderly places.”

Among these edifying duties was another that some of his congregation found less tasteful: while Iowa had centralized its hangings at the penitentiary in Fort Madison, each execution remained the responsibility of the local sheriff in the county which sent the man to death row. That meant Pastor Robb.

Evidently some members of Robb’s congregation objected to this office, but where theology (potentially) clashed with politics, our man was prepared to render unto Caesar.

After all, in America, who knows how high a hangman might rise?

A co-conspirator of Weeks was executed on the same scaffold a few weeks later, and by the same Sheriff Robb. Robb’s self-satisfied justification for conducting these hangings could come straight from Rick Perry campaign literature.

Brainless people who have no ability to think … will condemn and rave and shout as usual. Unthinking religious fanatics will plead and pray and forget that God is a God of justice and mercy, and that judgment is as much a duty of love as mercy is the delight of love.

America is cursed today with a lot of spineless reformers. They think of a minister as a sissy, sexless, spineless creature with lily white hands who spends his time attending ladies’ societies and pink teas.

Tough love, baby. This was an apostle of muscular Christianity.

So Weeks resigned his ministerial commission, and on this date he skipped the ladies’ societies and put Eugene Weeks to death for murder.

By the end of the year, our hammer of the Lord had found himself on the anvil side of the law, and maybe rethinking those duties of love. Prohibition was Sheriff Robb’s milieu and the cause of his fall, as told by this Associated Press wire story printed in the New Year’s Eve Miami Herald:


Jailer, Whose Sons He Arrested, Accuses Preacher Who Presided at Hanging.

DES MOINES, Ia., Dec. 30. — Sheriff Robb, Polk county’s preacher-sheriff, who gained nation-wide prominence last fall through officiating at the hanging of two murderers at Fort Madison penitentiary, was arrested here today charged with unlawfully disposing of liquors as the sensational backfire action on the part of his jailer, William McMurray, whose own sons had been arrested by the sheriff for alleged complicity in the theft of $30,000 worth of bonded whiskey from the county jail Wednesday night. The sheriff’s bond was fixed at $1,000 which he furnished and the hearing set for January 3.

John Robb, brother of the sheriff, and himself a minister, who has been acting as a deputy for his brother, also was arrested charged with larceny, on information sworn out by Jailer McMurray and released on $500 bond. Neither charge was made in connection with the theft of the 47 cases from the jail Wednesday night.

Later additional charges were filed against Sheriff Robb by McMurray which alleged the sheriff had illegally sold cider presses and other paraphernalia used in making liquors, which had been seized in raids.

Charges that Sheriff Robb personally sold 35 quarts and 75 pints of whiskey to L.S. Hill, president of the American Lithographing company, a month ago, and has given away and sold seized liquors to other persons, furnished the basis for the charges which McMurray filed. Mr. Hill denied he bought liquor from the sheriff.

Greater patriotism hath no man than this, than to peddle seized drug contraband to local oligarchs under guise of law enforcement. At least you could never accuse the guy of keeping those hands lily-white.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..

1946: Phillip and William Heincy, father and son

(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.”

“Jens Anderson?”

“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.

On this day..

1882: William Heilwagner, onion weeder

On this date in 1882, German immigrant William Heilwagner hanged for murdering his daughter-in-law outside Davenport, Iowa.

“A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man,” writes Laura James. He “made no real effort to explain or defend himself.”

There was little doubt William resented his son’s wife Annie — “the low livedest thing around” he said on the day of her death. This sportive lass yearned for recreation not to be found on Midwestern onion farms, and the neighbors heard the triangular family dust-ups that resulted. There was not a whit of direct evidence against the defendant, but since Otto was out playing pinochle that night, it really only left one suspect.

After the inevitable conviction, a greenhorn aspiring journalist from Davenport, one Charles Edward Russell, took an interest in the queer case. William Heilwagner’s behavior unsettled him; Russell pressed him for a jailhouse interview.

As described in Russell’s 1914 memoir, These Shifting Scenes (available free here), the taciturn Bavarian gave Russell nothing but aggravation.

“Where were you on the night when your daughter-in-law was killed?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Where were you?”

“Oh, I was in the house”

“Well, did you see her get killed?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t see her get killed.”

“Did you hear her cry out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Did you hear her cry out?”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Did she go to bed as usual that night?”

“Who? Annie? Oh, yes, I guess. She go to bed all right.”

“Did you hear her get up in the night? Did you hear anybody come to the house? Did you hear any talking or fighting?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Well, you knew that she went to bed that night and she wasn’t there the next morning and she never came back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Didn’t I think what was strange?”

“That she had gone away in the night and never come back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t think nothing about it. I just go weed my onions.”

It’s enough to drive a body to distraction. Between the prisoner’s feeble story and apparent disinterest in his fate, Russell figured the old weirdo did it — discounting Heilwagner’s scaffold declaration of innocence.

“Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime.” Not one of us that heard believed him. What guilty man is ever punished? What murderer, however hardened, or however certain his crime, fails to protest on the gallows in the like terms and with the same hardihood? All the experienced reporters there told me they had heard such assertions often on the like occasion and were moved not a whit.

Ten years later, Heilwagner’s son Otto leapt to his death from a bridge in Quincy, Illinois.

Otto left behind a suicide note confessing to the murder of his wife: he had secretly rowed back to the house in the dead of night, enticed Annie out of the house, and murdered her for infidelity. Heilwagners, father and son, kept their peace about the secret while William hanged.

“Who? Me?” the old man had said, in answer to my questions. He knew it all, he knew who killed Annie, and he went calmly to his death to save his guilty son. Dull old man, chill and repulsive, he had in him so much of the hero and so much of love. “For greater love hath no man than this.”

It was a rugged introduction for a novice to the business of crime detecting and legalized life-taking. If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man. Post facto illumination — how foolish it is! I can see now the indications and signs and hints that meant nothing to me then. But even though I knew at the time nothing of the full horror of that day the experience sickened me of hangings. I have never since acquiesced in any capital punishment. It is as illogical as it is profitless. I have had in my time more than my share of these spectacles and I take it as a fact worthy of serious reflection that I have seen the state put to death eleven persons and five of these I know to have been absolutely innocent, while of the guilt of a sixth and the mental responsibility of a seventh there were the gravest doubts. Murder upon murder, and if I should be asked what good or advantage society reaped from the death of any or all of these, I should be unable to say, nor has there yet appeared in my range of experience any person more expert than I to make that answer.

Among the innocent Russell reckoned were the Haymarket martyrs, whose hanging he covered a few years later for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

His keen sense of injustice — and a somewhat better-developed nose for a story — led Russell on to a career as the “prince of muckrakers,” credited with some of the signature coups of turn-of-the-century journalism, and a place on the masthead as a co-founder of the NAACP.

On this day..

1935: Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer

On this date in 1935, the first double hanging* in the state of Iowa took place at Fort Madison.

Waterloo, Iowa, police heading out to query Elmer Brewer “in connection with alleged misconduct of Brewer with juvenile girls” alarmed Brewer and his friend Patrick Griffin, who assumed they were coming to arrest them for a robbery.

The two killed Deputy Sheriff William Fay Dilworth in a shootout.

Long forgotten, Griffin’s rodeo avocation, his friendship with the classmate who was to be his Catholic confessor, his offer to give all his earnings to the victim’s family were his sentence commuted to hard labor.

Just a lost file from the police blotter, moldering in a musty corner of a local archives. Although the glacial progress of the legal proceedings will look more familiar to modern eyes.

Thus closes a case which has been more or less in the courts since December 16, 1932. Attorney James Fay of Emmetsburg and Attorney John McCartney of Waterloo made valiant efforts to save the lives of the two men, but to no avail. Following their conviction of the murder in the district court in Waterloo on January 5, 1933, they were sentenced to be hanged on January 26, 1934. In May, 1933, an appeal was filed with the state supreme court, thus automatically staying the execution. The supreme court denied the appeal. On June 24, 1934, Attorneys Fay and McCartney petitioned the supreme court for a rehearing. This was denied January 10, 1935. A plea for commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment was denied by Governor Clyde Herring on February 1 and the chief executive set April 5, 1935, as the execution date. Continuing farther with their efforts the attorneys sought a writ of habeas corpus from District Judge John Craig of Fort Madison, but their request was denied. The refusal opened another loophole for the attorneys to ask a review of Judge Craig’s action. Again refused, the lawyers announced that they would go to the United States supreme court where they would ask the court for a writ of habeas corpus. In order to allow time for this step Governor Herring granted the convicted slayers a 60-day stay of execution but at the same time he announced that it was the last reprieve that could be expected from him. Illness of defense attorneys, it was said, prevented them from prosecuting their appeal to the supreme court. Monday Mr. Fay appealed to Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Dewey for a stay order and a writ of habeas corpus, but Judge Dewey refused to interfere. In Des Moines Tuesday a last minute effort to save the men was made in an appeal to Governor Herring, but the appeal for a commutation of sentence was denied.

A family member has compiled old clippings about this case — from which, both the excerpt above and the illustration — here.

* According to Iowans Against the Death Penalty. There had been a previous double execution when Iowa was a territory, and a triple execution in 1918.

On this day..