Thursday, January 31, 2008

At Last The Coroner's Inquest!

Criminal investigation in 1911 was certainly not what it is today. The use of fingerprints for identification of criminals had only been introduced five years before and the practice was very slowly making its way West. For most police forces, the Bertillon method (anthropometry) was still in use. Criminal apprehension at the time was clumsy and often involved “deputized” vigilante committees who tore off into the area searching for hobos, vagabonds, lunatics, and quite often, “coloreds.” IMHO the fact that crimes were ever solved is amazing. Typically a suspect would be captured, jailed and interrogated until he finally confessed and if he didn’t confess there usually wasn’t anything else the police could do unless the case had, sometimes literally, a smoking gun.

The Coroner’s Inquest, although not as important, is still used today in many counties and municipalities around the country. It is basically a forum used to assist the county coroner in the determination of a person’s death. It usually consists of six jurors who are sworn in to hear under-oath testimony from witnesses, be presented with evidence and given a tour of the crime scene. Inquests are usually held within twenty-four hours of the victim’s discovery in order to get the freshest recollections possible. A jury was sworn in “over the bodies” of the Waynes on the night of September 21st but it was almost 240 hours later by the time El Paso County Coroner Jackson convened the Burnham-Wayne inquest. By ten ‘o clock in the morning, Saturday September 30, 1911, the Burnhams had been buried eight days and the Waynes had been shipped to Indiana. The crime scenes had been so scoured over by souvenir hunters that they were worthless and numerous “theories” had been printed for public reading in the newspapers. To say the Springs inquest was unproductive would be an understatement. Witness’ recollections began to evolve until, a full ten days after the actual murders(!), they began to “remember” hearing screams on the night of the crime. It also didn’t help that a second axe was found under the front porch of a vacant house.

After the release of Arthur Burnham and Tony Donatel, the police began to question anyone even remotely associated with the Burnhams. Hardly anybody knew the Waynes but it was believed Henry was Blanch’s second husband (not true) so they were busy looking for him. Anna Merritt’s brother, John, became a suspect after
[the police] asked him four questions and found that he was inclined to be evasive in his replies, and [they] thought [they] would put him back in jail until he would be willing to talk.
Joseph R. Evans, the one whom Blanch Wayne had borrowed the axe from, was placed under arrest after it was determined he talked too much. With the arrest of those two men it could easily be reasoned that both Mrs. Evans and Anna Merritt would be much more guarded with their testimony to the jury.  Further cause for consternation was Denver Police Chief Hamilton Armstrong's belief the crime scene indicated a female killer(!?).

To date, I have been unable to locate either the coroner’s summery or a listing of evidence presented to the jury. It is likely these documents are crumbling away in an unsorted storage box somewhere but if anybody has any idea where they might be found, it could be a warm breath on a very cold case.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Tale of Tony Donatel

When Arthur Burnham left Michigan for Colorado Springs his health was poor and his prospects for marriage were slim. Shortly after his arrival in 1895, he became stronger and his breathing became easier. He worked various jobs as a cook and clerk in a candy store but still love evaded him. Then he met Alice May Hill and the possibility of passing on his family name, a name which went back to the Revolution, seemed closer to reality. He only needed to win her heart with a little competition from an Italian named Tony Donatel, a childhood friend of May’s and the Hill family.

Donatel was around forty years old when the murders occurred and worked as a laborer. His wife had left him eighteen years before and he had secured a divorce from her. He was said to have an eighteen year old son. He lived alone in a little, one-room cottage and frequently visited with a couple who lived nearby. Neighbors found him a bit peculiar and he reportedly owned a number of properties he rented out. He was frequently seen scrubbing the outside of his home in order to wash away “marks left by witches.” May had told Arthur that Donatel had been a suitor of hers before Arthur’s arrival in Colorado. She insisted he no longer held any affection for her outside of friendship. May’s sister, Nettie, told investigators Donatel still had feelings for her sister and overheard him saying “May had no business to marry Burnham.” By his own admission he was friendly with May, even after her marriage, although he said he hadn’t seen her “in a long time” and didn’t know where the Burnham’s lived. The week before the murders, Donatel was working digging a sewer line within a half a block of the Burnham and Wayne homes but claimed he only knew Burnham’s house was in the vicinity. Further throwing suspicion on Donatel was an unnamed incident that happened the year before which gave cause for a judgment of sanity to be called. He was ruled sane and released.

Arthur Burnham expressed surprise that Donatel had been arrested even though it was him who had given Sheriff Birdsall the name. During his own interrogation Burnham must have been asked about any men May might have “entertained” during his frequent absences. In light of the defense of Donatel that Arthur would give in the newspaper later, it seems particularly odd he would even have mentioned this incident. Apparently one day when Burnham returned home early and unannounced, he found his wife and Tony “in a questionable attitude.” May had hurt her chest while climbing through a wire fence near the house and Tony was helping to relieve the pain. Later Burnham would say he thought nothing of the incident and accepted that Tony was trying to help since was “a sort of a doctor.”

Donatel could not sufficiently account for his whereabouts on the night of the murders. He ate dinner with his neighbors and stayed until around 9:30 p.m. He then went home and went to bed where he stayed until morning. He visited his neighbors on Monday and Tuesday and was said to be acting normally and he never mentioned the Burnhams once.

Donatel was released after a Bertillon expert cleared him.

There was a lot of circumstantial evidence here to point the police at Donatel and there may even be some people who rightfully do not trust the Bertillon method that may think he is a good suspect. I admit his relationship with Mrs. Burnham seems a bit seedier than the explanations given but there isn't much more to go on than that. The whole scrubbing the witch symbols thing indicates some paranoia and the judgment of sanity is tantalizing but there's nothing to indicate he was a psychotic axe murderer. His post offense behavior doesn't mesh up with a man who just murdered three adults and three children in a particularly grizzly manner. My guess is he would have practically set fire to his house in order to remove the perceived symbols of witchcraft if he had been the perp. Eccentric and a bit wishful of the family he couldn't have is a possibility but he certainly wasn't capable of this. I continue to dig for more on Tony Donatel and appreciate any comments. 

Make Your Vote Count!

If you haven't seen Villisca: Living with a Mystery yet, you need to rent it or buy it and see it.  It is a superb documentry by Kelly and Tammy Rundle.  I was able to rent it through Netflicks but if you live in Iowa and some of it's surrounding states, you may be able to rent it at the local video store.

Once you've seen it you should consider voting for it as The Best True Crime Documentary for the Capote Awards.  Vote for it here.

Kelly Rundle has no shame in promoting it and I don't blame him.  It is an excellent film.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

We've Killed 'Em

Arthur J. Burnham

In cases such as the Burnham-Wayne murders there are always people who imagine they heard something or saw someone. At almost the very hour of discovery the crime became a sensation and the investigators were forced to run down each and every “clue” in order to satisfy the press and by default, the public. That there wasn’t a logical connection between the victims and the alleged suspects made no difference at all. Likewise the police felt pressure to get the “madman” responsible off the streets ASAP so they began rounding up any poor schmuck who had a wild look in his eye and grilled them for hours before they were released.

The best suspect authorities could come up with in the beginning was Arthur Burnham, the only surviving member of either household. He had an iron-clad alibi and would have been released immediately in today’s criminal justice system but the police weren’t taking any chances with him. Burnham’s alibi was his health. He was confirmed by his doctor and by his roommate to have been twelve miles away from the crime scene with a severe case of tubercular cough. Despite this fact, and the fact that he wasn’t healthy enough to swing an axe with enough force and as many times as needed to kill three adults, Burnham was held for two days. He attended the funeral of his family on September 22nd and was returned to his cell. Later that evening he was released and allowed to stay with his in-laws.

After Burnham’s release the prevailing theory was the murders were an act of revenge on Henry Wayne. Remember the argument he was seen having the week before his death? The theory went something like this: Henry Wayne was a gambler and the fifty-five dollars he had deposited in the bank were from playing cards and not from the sale of furniture back in Indiana. Argument-guy was a fellow card player who felt slighted by Henry’s good “luck” and so he confronted him. When Wayne refused to acknowledge Argument-guy’s (AG) hurt feelings, AG had no choice but to kill Henry and his family. So why were the Burnham’s killed you might ask? That’s easy. May Burnham was awakened by the noises next door and caught AG in the act so he had to kill her too. This of course completely ignores the fact May Burnham was killed while sleeping which meant she would have had to take the rather unorthodox action of going back to bed after discovering her neighbors being beaten to death by an axe wielding lunatic.

While this “theory” was discussed only briefly it is a great example of the imaginative nature of wannabe witnesses when it comes to high profile crimes (see also “The Idiot Who Confessed to Killing JonBenet”). I am reasonably certain this story came about due to the imagination of two teenage girls who lived on the north side of town. A seventeen year old girl told police she heard a man, known only as “John,” tell another man “We’ve killed ‘em.” This “evidence” was backed up by a friend of the girl’s, another teenaged girl. At any rate, the man the police believed to be Argument-guy turned himself in and it was quickly established he had never met nor heard of Henry Wayne before the crime was discovered.

Tomorrows post will go into the second suspect, Anthony “Tony” Donatel, a former suitor of Alice May Hill who may have kept in closer contact with May than Arthur Burnham realized.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Blogging Villisca!

Douglas Burns, reporter and blogger for the Iowa Independent, has a new entry up that talks about the Rev. Lyn Kelly, the crazy old preacher who stands as the only man to be put on trial for the Villisca crime.  It's an interesting read if you have some time.

For the record and in the interest of full disclosure -- IMHO Rev. Kelly so did NOT do it.  Crazy little perve? Hell yes!  Homicidal maniace? Nope.  As excitable as he became over little things, he could never have pulled that off.

The 1912 Villisca Axe Murder Blog

The folks over at the 1912 Villisca Axe Murder Blog have a feature called "Ask Ed."  Essentially you send them a question you have about the Villisca crime and then Dr. Ed Epperly, the foremost expert on the case, will answer it!  I've had some confusion about the Villisca crime scene pertaining to the method of entry.  Did the UNSUB walk in the open back door or did he "break in" more traditionally (like in Colorado Springs fer example).  I sent my question to the fine folks at 1912VAMB and although they forgot my name, Dr. Epperly answered the question!  See it here.

Surveying the Burnham Crime Scene

Arthur, Nellie, John & May Burnham

Having gone through, in a general way, the Wayne family’s crimes scene, I’ll now do the same with the Burnham cottage and give some background on the Burnhams themselves.

Arthur J. Burnham, suffering from a sever case of tuberculosis, came to Colorado Springs from Michigan about 1895 and was the only living member of his father’s family. Like Henry Wayne, Burnham was a member of the Modern Woodmen of America and had been told about the “healing” properties of the Colorado Springs air and sunshine. His health did improve after his arrival and he met and married Alice May Hill in 1904. When the sanatorium was opened in 1909, Burnham became an inmate and was given the job of “laborer.” He was given one day off per week and his day was Thursday and he would take a car from the sanatorium to his little cottage and spend the day and evening with his family. By 1911 Burnham’s tuberculosis had become severe again and he had trouble just walking the grounds of the sanatorium without assistance.

Sunday morning, September 17, 1911, May took the children, John and Nellie, to church then were seen in different locations throughout the neighborhood over the course of the day. The trio was also seen at Grant Collins store that afternoon. May’s sister, Nettie Ruth, often visited May and the children and on Sunday evening had dinner with the family. I believe both May and Nettie took in sewing projects in order to make extra money and May brought up the fact she had some sewing that needed to be completed. She and her sister decided to complete their sewing on Wednesday, the 20th and Nettie left for her parent’s house around nine o’clock Sunday night.

About one-thirty in the afternoon on the 20th, Nettie knocked on the front door of the little cottage and received no response. Both the front and back door were locked and Nettie didn’t have a key. She went down the street to one of May’s friends thinking maybe she was there. May’s friend, Anna Merritt, had not seen May or the children since Sunday afternoon and believed them to have been staying with Nettie. Grabbing a key in hopes of jarring the lock open, both women went to the back door of the house. Once inside, the women were confronted with a horrible smell coming from the front room. The door separating the two rooms was slightly ajar and the women looked inside.

The two women ran from the house and yelled in the street. Two men passing by went into the house, saw the scene and ran for the police. As a crowd gathered and the empty look of the Wayne house was noted and you know that story.

The Colorado Springs Gazette gave a better description of the Burnham crime scene than they did of the Wayne crime scene, but not much better. May, John and Nellie were found in the bed in the front room. John and May lay side by side and little Nellie was found laying across the legs of her mother at the foot of the bed. From Nellie’s position it was speculated that she had woke up and made an attempt to escape but was cut down as she tried. I’m uncertain if her body was covered or not. From the statements of Nettie Ruth and Anna Merritt it seems Nellie’s body may have been uncovered. Nettie stated “they first saw the red blotches on the wall and then – then we saw a form on the bed. It must have been little [Nellie].” The bodies of John and May were covered, however.

In the back room/kitchen were found the Sunday dishes still sitting on the table and a bed that had not been slept in. On the floor in front of the stove was a small pile of ashes. A wash bowl containing bloody water was also in the kitchen and on this bowl was found at least two black fingerprints. The east window of the room had been the point of entry with the screen cut from the outside in order to facilitate the lifting of the sash. A bottle of black ink or shoe polish had been knocked off the window sill as the UNSUB broke into the little room. An attempt had been made to wipe up the mess which accounted for the fingerprints on the wash bowl.

In the front room on the floor was found a crumpled Sunday newspaper that was partially burned. Investigators at first believed an attempt had been made to burn down the cottage due to a curtain near the makeshift torch being scorched. It was later found that a photographer had over estimated the powder needed to photograph the scene and a spark had caught the curtain on fire.

Here again I have to bring up the question of the status of Mrs. Burnham’s body. The same Pinkerton detective who called the UNSUB a “moral pervert” speculated that May had been the target of the attack and that the Waynes had been the unfortunate victims of mistaken murder. Why? I don’t know. It’s possible that May’s body had been mistreated in some way after her death and it’s also possible the detective, Elmer Prettyman, superintendent of detectives in Pinkerton’s Denver office, was trying to fit facts to the initial theory of the murders being motivated by revenge. Without a Report of Evidence Submitted for the Coroner’s Jury or any existing notes or documents related to the crime, we may never know and it would all be speculation on my part.

My next post will get into the suspects and blowing up the hypotheses developed by the investigators. I am intentionally staying away from a lot of details here in order not to bore anyone. If you have questions or believe you have corrections, just leave a message and I’ll look into it.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Wayne Family

Blanch V. Wayne

Today I’ll give some background about the Wayne family and a description of the crime scene in their cottage. My next post will be about the Burnham family and then I will go into as much as I can about the two only suspects in the crime. But on to the Waynes!

As I mentioned before, the Waynes were originally from Medaryville, Indiana. The Colorado Springs Gazette lists the names of the family as Henry F. Wayne, Blanche Wayne and the one year old daughter, also Blanche. However the Pulaski County Democrat identifies them respectively as Francis H., Blanche and Lulumay Wayne. For the sake of compromise, I’ll use the names Henry, Blanche and Lulumay. On the whole, not much is really known about the Waynes. They had only lived in Colorado Springs for a few weeks before their murders and very few in the quiet little neighborhood knew them. Henry was said to have been a photographer in Indiana and suffered from tuberculosis, as many people did at that time. He was a member of the Modern Woodmen of America, which had just opened a sanatorium for “Lungers” in Colorado Springs. Henry made the trip and his health began to improve. He met Arthur J. Burnham while staying at the sanatorium and Burnham told him of some empty houses for rent in his neighborhood. Henry sent for his wife and little daughter and they sold all their belongings for fifty-five dollars and moved to Colorado. Henry was the son of George and Tissia Wayne (nee Schultz) and was born Dec. 21, 1886 in Indiana and had an older brother, Logue or Logan.

Blanche Vera McGinnis was the daughter of Joseph and Lucretia McGinnis and was born Aug. 21, 1888 in Pulaski County, Indiana. The Springs Gazette reported that Blanche had been married previously and that investigators were looking for her ex-husband but intensive research has turned up nothing on this. The McGinnis’ had two other children, Jessie and Jennie. When the children were still young, Lucretia McGinnis died from an illness. A few years later, Joseph drowned while swimming in the Kankakee River. The children went into the custody of their grandfather, James McGinnis. Blanche married Henry in 1908 and on March 17, 1909, Lulumay was born.

The week before the murders, Henry was seen in an argument with a man in his front yard. It was brief and no punches were thrown, according to witnesses. That same week, Blanche went to a neighbor’s house and asked to borrow their axe in order to cut some wood. The axe was seen leaning against the back porch wall during the week. The Sunday morning before the murders, the Waynes went to church and were later seen walking in a nearby park. A few hours later, the family stopped in at Grant Collins’s grocery store which was just across the street from the Burnham cottage. According to Collins, business was fairly slow all day and he and Henry started talking. He invited them to his back room and they visited until about five in the afternoon and that was the last time Collins would see them. Around Midnight that night, a man was heading to work at the local gold mill and passed by the Burnham and Wayne cottages. He saw a man loitering nearby.

On Monday, September 18, 1911, Mrs. Evans, the neighbor who owned the axe borrowed by Blanche, knocked on the Wayne’s front door and received no response. She went around back and knocked on the back door with the same result. She was over to retrieve her axe and saw it leaning against the wall of the house. It was covered from blade to handle with what appeared to be blood. Mrs. Evans thought perhaps they had been using it to slaughter chickens and since it was her axe anyway, she picked it up and carried it home.

When the crimes were discovered, the Burnham’s were found first. As a crowd began to gather around the Burnham house it was noted that the Waynes were not around. Inspectors broke into the front room and were immediately confronted by the crime scene. Describing the crime scene is where things get tricky since (so far as I know) there aren’t any original records in existence. In fact, it was rare that people even took notes about crime scenes in those days. CW tells us that the Wayne family was covered by clothing and bed clothes but the Springs Gazette reported the bodies were lying out in the open “nearly nude” and "everything in plain sight."  Some other details are unclear. For those of you who are familiar with the Villisca crime, you know about the presence of an oil lamp with it’s chimney removed sitting on the floor of two of the bedrooms. No such detail is reported in the Wayne cottage but it was later reported that a Bertillion expert was looking for prints on the “chimneys of two lamps” so it seems the investigators had reason to believe the UNSUB had handled these. Various pieces of jewelry and a gold watch belonging to Henry were left behind by the intruder.  All the doors of the house were locked as was the door separating the two rooms and the windows all had been covered with the curtains and blinds.

The most enticing questions for me about this crime scene are first, the lamps. Was an oil lamp sans glass chimney found on the floor of the Wayne bedroom as would later be found at other crime scenes? If so, it is indicative of the UNSUB’s signature. Why? Because it’s highly unlikely the killer would be swinging away with an axe while holding an open flame in his hand. I also do not think, no matter how quiet the intruder, he would take the time to light the lamp, creep into the bedroom and set it on the floor before killing his victims. The UNSUB was obviously psychotic but he would have to have nerves of absolute titanium in order to pull that off without causing some kind of noise being made. I’ll explore the oil lamp thing in a separate post farther down the road. To me it’s more likely the killer got control of the scene first (one powerful blow with an axe would certainly be enough to render the victims at least unconscious) then used the lamp to admire his work, which is what I believe the lamp was used for. That makes it a signature element since it was not necessary for the completion of the crime.

The second element I am curious about is the state of the bodies. Not just covered or uncovered, but was anything done to them after they had been killed? I find it curious the Springs Gazette made specific mention of the half nakedness of the Waynes but mentioned nothing about Mrs. Burnham (which I also have questions about but that is for another time). It is entirely possible that Blanch and Henry were just dressed in their night gowns and that was that. But based on what we know about later crimes, I’m thinking there was something more sinister here and I’ll tell you why. You Villisca folks know that one of the victims of that crime was posed after death in what is commonly believed to be a sexually suggestive manner. In Monmouth, IL, the newspapers reported the daughter had been moved after the attack and in Ellsworth, Kansas the wife had been sexually posed (not hearsay, this is a FACT) so if Colorado Springs was the work of the same UNSUB it can be reasonably inferred there was some kind of staging here. Add to this the opinion of the Pinkerton detective who stated this crime was the “act of a moral pervert,” and you’ve got yourself a very intriguing question. There is more about this crime I want to write but I’ll have to wait till next time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

September 20, 1911, Colorado Springs, CO

The two families were the Waynes and the Burnhams. Francis H. Wayne (or Henry F. Wayne) had recently moved to Colorado Springs from Medaryville, Indiana at the behest of his local Modern Woodmen of America camp, of which he was a member. In 1909 the national organization had opened up a 1000 acre sanatorium for members who suffered from tuberculosis (consumption). Today, W. Woodmen Road runs by Woodman Valley Park and there stands the foundation of a barn, burned down in 1994. This crumbling foundation is all that remains of the old sanatorium. When he arrived, Henry met an inmate who worked in the kitchen peeling potatoes. His name was Arthur Burnham and he told Henry about several empty houses for rent in the same neighborhood where the Burnhams lived. Henry paid two months rent in advance and was soon joined by his wife, Blanche, and their baby daughter, Lulumay. In later posts I’ll get into more detail about the victims and their histories.
A few weeks later on Sunday night, the 17th of September, an unknown subject (UNSUB for you crime fanatics out there) broke into the back room of the Waynes’ two room cottage. He (not sexist just easier to say) carried with him and axe taken from the back porch of the cottage and made his way into the front bedroom and killed Henry, Blanche and Lulumay where they lay in bed. Either not satisfied or having killed the wrong people, the UNSUB went next and broke into the back room of the Burnhams’ cottage. Arthur Burnham spent most of his time at the sanatorium, which was twelve miles away, and on this night was not at home. The intruder killed Arthur’s wife, Alice May, and his son and daughter, John and Nellie. It appeared Nellie had woke up and made a break for it but was struck down before she could get away.
The two cottages sat quiet until September 20th when Alice Burnham’s sister, Nettie, and a friend discovered the bodies of Alice and the children lying in one bed with their heads beaten in and covered with bedclothes and other clothing. About an hour later the Wayne family was discovered and pandemonium broke out in the little community. I will discuss both crime scenes more in depth in a later post because I want to get into some speculating.
Things I will cover more in depth later are the two suspects and as I mentioned before, the victims. Bye for now.


Welcome to “Getting the Axe,” my blog about the murders of the Midwest Axeman. My hope is for this blog to become a place to discuss theories and ideas about the unknown serial killer who roamed the Midwestern United States between 1911 and 1912. Now some of you may be thinking to yourself “What the heck is he talking about?” For your benefit is a brief summery.

In the fall of 1911, the battered and bludgeoned bodies of six people were discovered in two adjacent houses in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Before the year was over two more families totaling eight people would be wiped out in their own homes. For those keeping count that is a total of fourteen victims, seven of those victims were children under the age of fourteen. Two more crimes would follow in the summer of 1912 culminating in the best known of the series, the murders of the Moore family and Stillinger girls in Villisca, Iowa. Only two suspects were ever put on trial for any of the crimes and controversy surrounds both. Those who study this series of crimes, and there are only a few I am aware of, have varying ideas about who, how and why these crimes occurred. I hope to look into all of these at some point.

I will be dealing only with published and verifiable facts which means some of my research will not be revealed as I'm not yet willing to reveal some of it. This should be fun so let’s keep it civil and respectful. I will post whenever I can so please be patient and as new research comes to light, I will post it here.