Wednesday, November 8, 2023

On the Run: Walter Turnbow’s Sprint from the Law

Walter Turnbow

In the early 1900s, Walter Turnbow (1877—1947), one of the colorful characters perched on my family tree, drew acclaim as one of the swiftest runners in the Lone Star State.

With $1,000 at stake, he won a race against James Goldforth in Dublin, Texas, on October 16, 1905. That prompted G. H. Burrell of Cleburne to stake $500 that he could defeat Walter in a race. Yet, the plan was thwarted by the arrival of Officer Kirk from Hamilton County who came to arrest Walter for escaping from the county farm where he had been sent to pay off a gambling fine. The officer, refusing to accept Walter’s offer to pay the fine, boarded him on a Hico-bound train from Dublin. En route, the prisoner jumped through a window near Alexander and used his racing prowess to escape.

Officer Kirk could find no trace of Walter Turnbow. On October 19, Kirk traveled to Brownwood where he learned that some foot racers were in town to run in a competition the next afternoon. On the morning of the race, the officer scouted around town until he found and arrested Walter.

Eight years earlier, Walter—with a brother and a cousin—donned disguises in a failed train-robbing attempt. The trio were caught, leading to Walter’s two-year prison stint. More about the daredevil’s exploits are told in the pages of my book, Sins of the Pioneers: Crimes & Scandals in a Small Texas Town.


Friday, January 14, 2022

The Murders at Starved Rock: Prosecutor’s Son Reexamines 1960 Crime

David Raccuglia is best known as the founder of American Crew, the leading professional men’s grooming brand in the world. He’s also known for capturing famous faces through the camera lens, with outstanding portraits of Jack Nicholson, Ray Charles, and Yoko Ono—among many others. And he’s now appearing in The Murders at Starved Rock, an HBO miniseries that incarnates the boogeyman of his childhood nightmares. 

On March 16, 1960, three women were found savagely murdered at Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle, Illinois, David Raccuglia’s hometown. “Things like this just didn’t happen,” he says of the Illinois Valley town that then sported less than 12,000 residents. The wives of prominent businessmen, Lillian Oetting and Mildred Lundquist, both 50, and Frances Murphy, 47, made near-100 mile trip from Chicago to the popular state park for sight-seeing. The trio were last seen two days earlier outfitted in skirts, jackets, and rubber footwear pulled over walking shoes as they made their way along the wooded trails. Their battered bodies, with wrists bound by twine and clothing in disarray, were discovered in the cave of a secluded canyon. 

“I was only seven months old, but the Starved Rock murders was with me from the first day I could form a memory,” Raccuglia tells in HBO’s three-part documentary. An investigation led to the arrest of Chester Weger, a 23-year-old dishwasher at the lodge where the three victims were staying. Weger was given a life sentence in 1961. “I would lay in bed terrified that Chester Weger was gonna climb through the window and kill me,” says Raccuglia. That’s because his father, noted attorney Anthony Raccuglia, acted as lead prosecutor in Weger’s conviction. 

The crime is chronicled in historian Steve Stout’s 1982 book, The Starved Rock Murders

In 2003, an appellate court defender reopened the case, arguing that Weger was wrongly convicted more than 40 years earlier. “She was accusing my father of making inaccurate claims,” says the American Crew founder, who—for the first time—began to wonder if it’s true. 

The Murders at Starved Rock is a look at David Raccuglia’s wrestling with the question of Chester Weger’s guilt, his reexamining the triple crime with interviews with his attorney father, victims’ relatives, and Weger himself. Raccuglia follows every lead, objectively viewing every angle of the case that results in a compelling documentary about the boogeyman of his childhood.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Oh, by the way, my wife was hacked to death last night

In 1910, an 81-year-old named Benjamin Franklin Matthews—called Frank—and his 71-year-old wife, Millie, lived on their farm in Cedar, a township in Boone County, Missouri. The federal census that year indicates that a servant made her home with them; yet, by 1914 they lived alone. The couple’s only two children, both sons, were seven years apart in age. Albert, the oldest, was born with a debilitating disability requiring constant care. He lived 45 years, dying in 1902, by which time the younger son, Eddie, had already died.
Mr. and Mrs. Matthews were respected in the community, though Frank had a reputation for being miserly and eccentric.  Although he apparently had money to live comfortably, he continued to toil on their farm into his 80s.
For two weeks during the end of September and the first of October in 1914, Frank, then 85, spent nights outside near the pigsty to shew away any prowling dogs from attacking his hogs. On the night of Tuesday, October 7, Frank returned to the bedroom he shared with his wife but slept in a different bed.
At 6:30 the next morning, he went to the home of a neighbor and asked for some matches. The two men chatted and discussed “trivial matters” before Frank prepared to leave.
“Millie is dead, so I must go home and get breakfast,” he said.
Dead? The startled neighbor asked what happened.
Oh, that. Frank took the neighbor to the Matthews farmhouse and showed him Millie’s body in bed, explaining that’s how he had found her that morning—bloodied from gashes in her neck and head.
Law officers and a coroner were summoned, but Frank had more important things to do than be bothered by a murder investigation. Needing to tend to farm chores, he wanted to bury the body of his wife that morning and didn’t expect his day to be interrupted by providing statements at the coroner’s inquest. The burial of his wife would be postponed until the next day.
The coroner’s examination revealed the four or five jagged wounds in 75-year-old Millie’s head and neck resulted from being struck by an axe or hatchet. Her death certificate simply states “Murdered” as cause of death, but a supplementary certificate specifies “skull crushed with some blunt instrument.” When the farmer’s wife was found in bed, she was still in the clothes that she had worn during the day. Frank could explain that; Millie’s nighttime habit was to shed her shoes, crawl into bed and sleep in her clothes.
Two hammers and a hatchet were found in the bedroom. In searching the house, several boxes of matches were discovered. Why, then, did Frank need to borrow matches from the neighbor? Investigators also searched an attic room and found an old lard can containing a blood-stained pair of trousers.
Oh, that. At the coroner’s inquest, Frank said that he had worn the trousers the previous morning when he was repairing a wagon. The blood had dripped from his hand after he accidentally crushed it attempting to set the wagon bed on the running gear. But why were the slightly bloodied trousers stuffed into an old lard can in the attic?
Frank theorized that the murder happened at night while he was milking his cows on a lot near the house. When he returned home, he found his wife lying in bed. He spoke to her, but she didn’t answer. Frank assumed Millie was already asleep. He slept soundly that fall night; nothing roused the farmer from his slumber, though he awakened twice during the night. Both times he spoke to her, but she never responded. The next morning when he awoke, he called out Millie’s name. Again, she didn’t answer. It was then, he said, that he realized that she was dead.
Rumors said the Matthewses were wealthy people who kept a large amount of money in their home, though some believed Frank buried pockets of cash in various spots on his farm. Some months earlier, Frank supposedly couldn’t get Millie to return money that he had left in her care, and townsfolk speculated that it caused discord in the Matthews marriage.
“No arrests have been made although suspicion strongly attaches to one person,” announced the Moberly Weekly Monitor (Oct. 13, 1914), alluding to Frank Matthews. Yet, investigators admitted they lacked evidence to make an arrest. Other Missouri newspapers, such as the Centralia Fireside Guard (Oct. 9, 1914), referred to the crime as “Another Ax Murder.”
Another?  Two years earlier, in Villisca, Iowa, five members of the Joseph Moore family and their two guests were hacked to death while they slept. Coroner E. G. Davis remarked that the Matthews murder “resembled” the Moore murders “in many respects.” In March 1915, a man named Loving Mitchell was arrested in St. Louis for a committing a triple hatchet murder in Illinois four years earlier. Mitchell was suspected of the hacking deaths of many others in the Midwest—including Millie Matthews, but detectives doubted there was a connection between the crimes. 
What became of Frank Matthews? He relocated some 40 miles north to New Franklin, in Howard County, where he survived his wife by five years, dying in 1919 at age 90. He suffered with chronic inflammation of the heart muscle, but it’s not known when he was diagnosed with that ailment. His death certificate states senility as a contributing factor to his demise, though that’s commonly found on early 20th-century death certificates for older adults. The death certificate gives full details about his exact date and place of birth and the full names of his parents and their places of birth, suggesting these facts were supplied by a close family member. Curiously, though, the spaced provided for identifying the informant is left blank. 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Finding Black Sheep in Your Family

In the 1950s Leon Nutes was at his mother-in-law’s New York City apartment when a stranger came knocking. Nutes recalled that the man’s handshake was a firm as steel. “Who is he?” he asked. In a hushed tone, his mother-in-law explained, “He’s a cousin of mine and he just got out of jail.”
     Nutes told of this encounter years later in a phone call to Carl R. Migden, a distant cousin who was researching the family tree. Bronx-born Migden learned that the “jail” was the infamous maximum-security prison Sing Sing. And the cousin released from there was Jacob “Kuppy” Migden, a member of the criminal organization known as Crime, Inc.
Kuppy’s criminal activities—an embarrassment to the family—were a long-held family secret. “It was the most fascinating genealogical research I ever undertook,” says Carl R. Migden, who wrote of the quest to uncover his criminal kinsman’s hidden story for a book entitled A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Black Sheep in Your Family.
In the 165-page paperback, published in 2016, author Migden gives advice about the sources available for research while detailing his own success with the clues and leads from newspapers, hospitals, cemeteries, courthouses, state archives, the Social Security Administration, municipal archives, census, prisons, U.S. Treasury Department, and the FBI.
    In newspapers, for instance, the author found more than 20 articles about Kuppy Migden’s involvement in a first-degree murder case in 1939. An order to assassinate a would-be court witness from testifying in a racketeering case led to mistaken identity and the shooting death of the wrong man. Kuppy unsuccessfully attempted to thwart arrest by having his face surgically altered. When he was apprehended, federal agents found Kuppy had planned to conceal his identity with a falsified birth certificate and other documents.
“I discovered the very interesting and rich details that criminal records can reveal… It put faces and images onto the pages of genealogical notes: precise dates, times, locations, buildings, allegations, and more,” says Kuppy’s cousin-turned-sleuth, Carl R. Migden.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Black Sheep in Your Family may be ordered online for $15.95 plus shipping from eBay:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Mysterious Woman Upstairs

In November 1915 Mary Connor purchased a large two-story home in the small town of Newmarket, New Hampshire. Mary and her sister, Annie, moved there from their farmhouse two miles away. The middle-aged, unmarried sisters were soon joined by a reclusive older woman, a stranger to townsfolk. George Bennett, the sisters’ former neighbor, would often drop by their new house for a visit. As Bennett recalled, “that lady living with them would instantly slip away and disappear upstairs.”
The mysterious lady was sometimes seen—dressed in black—stepping outside the house briefly but only at night. From a second-floor bedroom closet, the mysterious lady had a hidden staircase built that descended to the back of the house. She made a strange, cryptic remark to one of the Connor sisters of her inevitable fear that “one night they will come for me.”
Mail carrier Robert Bennett (brother to the sisters’ former neighbor, George Bennett) knew the name of the mysterious lady living with the Connor sisters, because he delivered letters addressed to her. She was Emma Borden, the estranged sister of Lizzie Borden who was acquitted of the 1892 axe murders of her wealthy father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. Emma’s New Hampshire residence was nearly 130 miles away from Fall River.
This story, from Frank Spiering’s Lizzie: The Story of Lizzie Borden (New York: Dorsett Press, 1984), pp. 219-222, says Emma moved into the Connors’ home in 1916. However, in Lizzie Borden: Past & Present (Fall River: Al-Zach Press, 1999), pp. 312-313, author Leonard Rebello notes the appearance of Emma’s name in Fall River directories during 1914 to 1918. She then moved to an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1919. Annie Connor later told a newspaper reporter that Emma moved into her home in 1923.
What caused Emma to relocate to the small New Hampshire town? Why did she live in fear?
While Spiering speculates Emma chose Newmarket because of its remoteness, Rebello’s book (p. 314) points to a 1981 newspaper article in which Louis Fillon recalled that while delivering grain to the Connor house, he learned that Emma Borden was living there. “He was requested by Emma’s lawyer to keep his discovery a secret to prevent Lizzie from finding Emma’s whereabouts and taking her money.” Annie Connor was surprised that Fillon discovered the mysterious lady’s identity.
In Lizzie: The Story of Lizzie Borden (p. 224), Spiering tells of Emma’s being awakened at night after hearing a noise on the first floor. She came down the concealed staircase to investigate but missed her footing and fell, breaking her hip. She died on June 10, 1927, nine days following the death of her sister, Lizzie.