Friday, October 31, 2008

Connected or copied?

It was Halloween morning, 1911 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, just sixty miles from Monmouth. Bert Jordan was in his upstairs bedroom when he heard his mother shout from her bedroom below. It was about 5:20 in the morning. When Bert found his mother she was lying across her bed with the bed clothes thrown over her. Mrs. Jordan had been struck twice; once behind her right ear resulting in a fractured skull; once over her right eye causing a deep gash and later loss of sight in that eye. Bert told his siblings (a brother and two sisters between the ages of 15 & 10) to wait while he ran to get his father who had left for work a few minutes earlier.  

The Jordan’s house was immediately adjacent to railroad tracks and there had been a number of break-ins reported along the tracks in the weeks before. The family had lived in the house for two months. A wrench was found outside the kitchen door but it was unclear whether there was blood or rust on it.

Belle Jordan was the wife of J. B. “Zill” Jordan and was about 40 years old when the attack occurred. She was tall, had dark hair and was described being “a fine appearing woman.” Since she was found lying crossways on the bed it seems she was probably standing when she was attacked. The description of the injuries suggest her back was too her attacker when she was initially struck. The first blow did not knock her out but she was dazed and fell onto the bed. The attacker turned her over and as he brought the weapon down for the next blow she yelled for her husband. Bert told investigators he yelled down through the register if she was alright and heard no response. The sound of Bert’s voice likely saved his mother’s life. The attacker threw the bedclothes over Mrs. Jordan, either to cover her eyes or because he thought she was dead. Nothing was disturbed inside the house and nothing was missing.

So did Bert Jordan deny the Midwest Axe Man another victim or was this just a robbery gone badly? The timeline suggests the intruder was watching the house. Zill left the house around 5:10 a.m. to walk to work, which was only a block away from the house, so it would not have taken long (no more than five minutes I imagine) for Zill to have gotten to work. He did not lock the kitchen door. At 5:30 a. m. Bert showed up at his father’s workplace and told him what had happened. Bert likely ran and so it would have taken less time to reach his father. Assuming Bert left within five minutes of discovering his mother and it taking no more than two minutes for Bert to run a block that means the attack ended around 5:23 a. m., leaving the intruder a mere ten minutes to enter the house, assault Mrs. Jordan and flee to parts unknown. What, if any similarities are there here? Aside from the blitz-style, blunt force attack used, the covering of the victim with bedclothes is all I have. The proximity to the railroad tracks is not as important as the railroad that used those tracks but that’s another post for another time. For now have a happy and safe Halloween and make sure your axes are locked away in a safe place.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Justice for all...

Kelly Rundle over at the Villisca Axe Murder Blog posts today about the recent AP article relating to the reinstitution of after dark Trick-or-Treating in Oil City, PA. He makes a good point about how towns deal when tragedy strikes.

It is possible that cancelling Halloween for many years contributed to a focus
on the murder.

However, there are no handbooks or instructions available to cities wounded by violence, and communities are left to define themselves via action or inaction in the immediate and enduring wake of a they have done in Villisca, Iowa.

Some towns embrace it, like Fall River, Massachusetts, while others run from it without much success, like Amityville, NY (I know, not really a town but leave me alone). The Oct. 26, 1911 edition of the Ellsworth Reporter warned

that the children of this city [not] follow their usual custom of inflicting
petty annoyances upon the people of Ellsworth on the nights of Sunday, Monday
and Tuesday, which are known as Tick-tack, Corn, and Halloween nights. Our
people are still considerably wrought up over the murder and it is said that a
great many have purchased firearms with which to defend themselves in case of an

Everyone in Ellsworth today knows there was an axe murder on the outskirts of town. It’s part of the local lore and the place where the Showman house once stood is referred to as “The Hatchet” but very few resident’s know the family’s name. In Monmouth, Colorado Springs and Paola (KS) the crimes are completely unknown except by a few locals. I look at the strife Villisca went through after the crime and I see the way the town struggles with the crime today and I wonder if it’s worth the effort to drudge up murders that haven’t been thought of in a generation or more. Shauna’s killers have been brought to justice and while it may not be enough for some, it is more justice than many victims ever get and certainly more than any of the victims of the Midwest Axe Man have received, and at this moment, knowing the victim's names is all we can do.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My flashlight inquiry…

Back in March I was prepping some articles for my Monmouth/Dawson/Mitchell postings when I came across an interesting fellow from Australia. Dan has a very interesting blog about which I am apprehensive about telling for fear the five or six of you reading will abandon me for him. Anyway, Dan likes flashlights…well…like may be understating it a bit but he knows his stuff even if he claims he’s not an expert. I had a hypothesis rattling around my skull about the flashlight found in Monmouth but I needed to somehow verify its viability so I fired off an email to Dan to get his opinion. The long and short of it is my hypothesis is valid while my thinking had to change.  Initially I felt the flashlight was some kind of souvenir you might buy on the counter at a roadside diner. You know the kind I’m talking about; the cheap tin flashlight with “Yellowstone” stamped into the body. I thought what was written on the flashlight was “Lovely Colorado Springs” and that you could pick one up on the way out the door of your local TB hospital (or at the neighborhood grocery store across the street from your house). With this in mind I thought it highly likely the flashlight was absconded from either the Burnham or Wayne cottage as the killer’s souvenir. He then used it to guide himself through the Dawson house and as a replacement for an oil lamp with its chimney removed. After killing the Dawsons the killer dropped the flashlight as he crawled through the fence at the back of the property and either didn’t notice or didn’t take the time to pick it back up. I still believe the crime scene scenario is valid but the probability the Wayne or Burnham families owned a flashlight at all are a bit slim. As Dan put it “[Novelty flashlights were common], yes - though they weren't cheap.” Indeed they were not. The photo above is of an Ohio Electric Flashlight from about 1900. Note the price on the box of a hefty $2.50. By 1911 the technology in flashlights had gotten better but the price remained about the same. The average salary for a worker was around $2.20 so a flashlight of any kind would cost more than a day’s earnings for the time period. Adjusted for inflation it would be the equivalent of $54.99! The best flashlight I own is waterproof, floats in water and has a beam bright enough to drive off vampires and it cost me half that price. Henry Wayne had $55 in savings so it’s possible the flashlight was his but clearly a flashlight would be considered a frivolous purchase by either family. While I can’t discount my hypothesis entirely, I am moving it to the “highly unlikely” category. Check out Dan’s blog. 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Confirmed...details to come...

Lovey Mitchell was not indicted by the grand jury in Monmouth.  He was brought up on three counts of murder but the charges were thrown out and the indictment was "stricken."  I'm guessing the stricken part explains the lack of information on the actual trial.  I'm not giving up yet but I'm guessing there aren't any records from the trial either.  Numerous affidavits were reportedly signed but my guess is they all ended up in the furnace.  I have some information coming but I'm not sure how valuable it might be.

Coming up I will start a series of posts about other axe murders that occurred around the same time frame.  The period between 1909 and 1914 was a bad one for people who owned axes.  I will kick this off on Halloween and I will be discussing cases that may or may not be related to the Midwest Axe Murders.  People often hear about linkage blindness when discussing serial crimes but with historical crimes such as these you often run into linkage puzzling or trying to fit as many crimes as you can into an entire picture.  An axe pretty much does the same kind of damage no matter how you use it.  In the age before silencers it was the only way to kill a person quickly and quietly and with little chance of the victim fighting back so it isn't surprising that a large number of murders during that time frame were committed with axes.  Drawing out signature elements in these murders becomes more important lest you lay the murders of 100 people at the foot of one perp.  Some "Ripperologists" have speculated the "Servant Girl Annihilator" of Texas could have been Saucy Jack.  A series of prostitute murders in Denver were also attributed to the Whitechapel ripper.  The only way to really differentiate similar crimes is by teasing out those elements that make them different and you can only do that by finding detailed descriptions of the crime scenes themselves.  I don't have this for some of the crimes I will be posting about so it'll all be speculative fun.  Feel free to comment and share information you might have.

Friday, October 17, 2008

From Murders to Mayors

George G. Birdsall - 1935
Courtesy of Pikes Peak Library
On August 29th, 1956, George Grippin Birdsall, former El Paso County Sheriff, died after a long illness. He was seventy-nine years of age and had been a public servant and business owner for almost fifty years in the Pikes Peak area. His obituary which ran on August 30 mentioned his years of service in Colorado Springs government, starting in 1921 on the city council then in 1929 as mayor. Three years before his death, the city of Colorado Springs began construction on the Birdsall Municipal Power Plant, a steam plant designed to burn sludge oil and later retrofitted to burn used motor oil. The plant is still in use today and provides the city with 1/3 of its power using natural gas. Of his years as the El Paso County Sheriff (1909-1917), his obituary notes only “Colorado City (sic) went from a "wide open" town to a "closed" one. There had been turbulent years there.” Certainly the Burnham / Wayne murders had something to do with this but forty-five years later, no one wanted to mention it specifically. Sheriff Birdsall never arrested a suspect and officially investigated the crime for only ten days before handing it off to the Pinkerton agency. Birdsall was a special agent for the FBI in 1918 and would later be named a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1940 but his greatest political success was his time as mayor.
Warren County Public Library - became the first free public library in Illinois in 1920
Political success was not only afforded to George Birdsall. John Hamilton Hanley had graduated from Monmouth College in 1883 and later received his Masters Degree from the same school. He began working for the law firm of Grier and Stewart in Monmouth and would become a successful lawyer in spite of his lack of a degree in the field. The local authorities in Monmouth and Warren County had given up on investigation into the Dawson family’s murder but the crime stayed in the back of Hanley’s mind long after the rest of the community had forgotten. Hanley was known by his friends as a fighter for those who could not fight for themselves and the lack of justice for William Dawson and his family would have been unacceptable to him. By 1915 Hanley had what he believed to be enough “dope” on the case to at least make an accusation which led to the arrest of Lovey Mitchell.  Hanley's involvement in this case is not mentioned in any biography I have read.  In 1917 John Hanley was elected to his first of two, two-year terms as mayor of Monmouth and upon his death of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 15th, 1936, was serving as the city’s Master in Chancery (a kind of judge’s assistant). One of the first ordinances enacted by Mayor Hanley’s city council was a regulation on weapons within city limits:
That no person shall within the City, wear or carry, concealed on or about his person, any pistol, revolver, slingshot, metallic knuckles, bowie knife, dirk, razor or other dangerous or deadly weapon, nor shall any person display or flourish any such weapon in a boisterous or threatening manner.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Axe Falls in Kansas..

On Monday the 16th of October, 1911 Will Showman’s bird dog showed up at the house of W. O. Snook. Mrs. Snook shooed it away only to have it return several more times. Mrs. Snook placed a call to Showman house and no one answered. After calling several more times and failing to get a response, Mrs. Snook called Will’s employer and asked if he’d been to work; he had not. Mrs. Snook then decided to go and check on the family herself. Around 5:00 p.m., Mrs. Snook walked to the Showman’s house with her own child in tow.

An hour later, the former cattle town of Ellsworth, Kansas would be known as the latest stop for a killer the Chicago Tribune had dubbed “The Sabbath Slayer.” Today we remember five more victims of the Midwest Axeman; William, Pauline, Lester, Fern and Fenton Showman.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lovey Mitchell

The M&StL Depot Today
On March 19, 1915, Monmouth police chief G. W. Morrison and the mayor of Monmouth left for St. Louis to gather information on Lovey Mitchell, a black man who worked at the M&StL roundhouse in Monmouth at the time of the Dawson murders. They believed Mitchell was living in Kansas City at the time and were surprised to find him in St. Louis instead. He surrendered without incident and was escorted back to Galesburg which had a stronger jail. The arrest of Mitchell was the result of continued “investigation,” primarily by a Monmouth lawyer named John H. Hanley. Hanley had not been satisfied with the police giving up on the case. Interest in the Dawson case had been renewed when in July of 1914 the Mislich family was found bludgeoned to death in their beds in Blue Island, Illinois.

Warren County Courthouse
There isn’t much information about Lovey Mitchell’s life before or after his arrest. The case against him was tenuous to say the least. A former co-worker, John O. Knight, also black, who was already serving a prison sentence for burglary and larceny, was reportedly “confessing” that Mitchell was the murderer. His wife was brought into the fray as a witness and was put in jail in Peoria in order to “protect” her. Reports out of Peoria had Chief Morrison telling reporters Mitchell had confessed while the Monmouth paper was denying any such interviews even took place. By the end of the month it was clear either the newspapers were just making things up or someone “inside” was feeding the reporters phony information. Mitchell was denied a lawyer and not allowed to speak to reporters. While Morrison would not state whether he felt Mitchell was guilty of the Dawson’s murders, he did state he “did not believe [Mitchell] was guilty” of the other axe murders that had occurred. The editor of the Monmouth Review-Atlas in 1915, L. A. Ryan, didn’t believe Mitchell was guilty of anything. Newspapers reported that Mitchell would face a Grand Jury in April of 1915 but there isn’t any record of this trial officially or in newspapers. Mitchell’s arrest made national headlines but his trial or lack thereof didn’t even register in Chicago. The records of the Monmouth Review-Atlas appear to be incomplete as well. A 1984 revisiting of the incident gets some of the facts right but misses on others. It states John Knight was tried, convicted and sentenced for the crime, but Knight, an early suspect due to the proximity of the M&StL roundhouse to the crime scene, was given an alibi by his foreman. The article also states the murder weapon was an axe when it was actually a gas pipe. It appears any charges against Mitchell were dropped and he may have died in January of 1979 near East St. Louis, Illinois.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Flashlights and Futility…

Here’s the post I promised you about the flashlight found at the Monmouth crime scene. The photo above is a 1907 Eveready Pocket Flashlight with factory engraving. The photo is from and I’m using it as an example of what the flashlight might have looked like. As I said in the earlier post, the flashlight was found while removing a wire fence at the back of the Dawson’s property a few months after the murders. I have never found a description of the flashlight in any accounting of the crime so the picture above is purely a speculative representation. The flashlight is important because it either ties Monmouth to Colorado Springs or Monmouth to a suspect or both. The one detail that is consistent in all accounts is the flashlight had something “scratched” onto the metal body. Just what the scratching said is not clear at all. By the time a suspect was arrested in March of 1915 the flashlight itself had disappeared. The suspect’s name was Lovey Mitchell, a black man who had worked at the M&StL (Minneapolis and St. Louis) railroad roundhouse in Monmouth around the time of the murders. I’ll discuss the Mitchell arrest in a later post.  

I have four different phrases reported on the flashlight. The New York Times reported in 1915 the words “Colorado Springs” and “Lovey.” Pretty damning if true, however newspapers in Colorado reported the writing to say “Lovely, Colorado Springs.” The comma is paramount here as it’s the difference between a possible name (Lovely and Loving have both been reported as Mitchell’s first name) or a phrase you might find on a souvenir from a resort town like Colorado Springs. Another Colorado paper reported “Loving Colorado Springs.” The Monmouth Review-Atlas reported simply “Colorado Springs” in 1915, and in a 1984 article rehashing the incident the same paper reported “Colo. Sprig. Sept. 4.” The one running theme out of all of them is some mention of Colorado Springs. The Colorado papers and the New York Times would have received the news via the same wire service so that explains the variations of the name Lovey but was inclusion of the name just an embellishment to make the case stronger to the public? I have no idea. Whatever the answer, a trio of Monmouth lawyers had started a ball rolling that seemed very hard to stop now…