- Category: News
The following story was submitted local historian Jim Keasler.
Joe Peck Smith Hanging, WWII and Charles Keasler
On a February night in 1945, I was in the small town of Brunssum, Holland just across the border from Germany. Like most of the soldiers in Europe that winter, the two things at times I missed the most were a warm place to sleep and a dry place to sleep. That night I would be sleeping in the softest bed in the warmest room that a brave Netherlands family had to offer.
I was settling into the room when I noticed a magazine someone had left. As I was thumbing through it, something caught my eye. There in large letters were three words, "Gallatin County, Illinois." After my initial surprise subsided, I dove into the article. Having my thoughts return to home was a welcome break from the destruction of war-torn Europe. I grew up near Omaha, IL and had heard a little bit about the Joe Peck Smith hanging and here, 4000 miles from the scene of the crime, was the whole story. The war would shape my life and I never forgot that February night.
Four decades later I was talking to Joy McGrew about Ridgway history and told her the story of finding the Joe Peck Smith article. I related to her that I had forgotten the name of the magazine and most of the story. Joy told me she not only knew the name of the magazine, she had the magazine, and I was welcome to it. Reading the story for the second time brought back many memories of the war, a period for me filled with experiences that effortlessly surpassed the most inventive fiction. According to the narrative in the magazine by Deputy Hallie Crunk, Joe Peck Smith was executed for the murder of his wife, Orpha. I found out from Joy that Cynthia Harvey is the name used in the following story for Arvilla Smith. There was suspicion that Arvilla committed the murder and framed Joe Peck. Arvilla was a sister to Joe Peck's wife, Orpha, and was the second wife of Joe Peck's father, Virginus Smith. Essentially, Arvilla (Cynthia Harvey) was both Joe Pecks sister-in-law and stepmother.
The following is the complete story from the magazine with the pictures at the end.
At daybreak on the morning of November 2, 1926, William Collard, on his way across his barn lot to begin his morning chores, paused to stare at a shambling, scarecrow figure of a man who was reeling toward him. The fellow was slapping his feet loosely down in the dust and flopping his arms up and down as though they were rags. He wore no hat.
As the man drew nearer, Collard, recognizing him, dropped his milk-pail and ran to the front gate. It was his neighbor, Joseph Peck Smith, who lived 600 yards south. His face was caked with dirt and dried blood; his clothing was torn.
“Joe!” exclaimed Collard, “What happened?”
Joe Smith did not reply instantly. He tottered on toward the picket fence like a swimmer making for a raft. Once he had hold of it he gusted air from his lungs and would have collapsed had not Collard leaped forward to brace him.
“Something terrible has happened, Will.” Smith wagged his head slowly. “Last night—two men stopped by the—house. Asked me if I wanted to buy some liquor—“Smith’s jaw gaped as he gasped for breath. “Seemed to know me—didn’t know them. They asked me to take a drink. I did. That’s all I remember.”
Collard stiffened. “You mean they slugged you, Joe?”
Smith turned slowly and studied Collard’s face as though he were a stranger. “Well—I don’t know. I don’t—know. I woke up a few minutes ago lying on the ground in the barn lot, my body so stiff I could hardly move. This—” he pointed to his bruised features—“must have been done while I was unconscious.”
Collard gripped his friend’s arm tightly. “Joe,” he asked suddenly, “where’s your wife, Orpha?” Smith’s answer was so choked with agony he could scarcely hear it: “They—killed her!”
Smith and Collard lived three miles north of Ridgway, Illinois, which in turn was eleven miles northwest of Shawneetown, county seat of Gallatin County.
Will Collard had known the Smiths for 30 years. He worked part time for Joe Peck Smith, he and his wife seldom missing a day either visiting or working at the Smith farm. The day before, Collard had delivered two loads of coal to his friend’s home and he and his wife had remained there until 6 p.m.
Collard’s features lightened as he recalled an episode of the previous night that up to now had puzzled him: “What time did the men stop at your place?” he asked.
“Just a few minutes after you and your wife left,” replied Smith.
Collard slapped his thigh. “Joe—I saw them! I tell you I saw them!”
Smith looked up, “You what?”
“Well, I saw the car they drove, at least. My wife and I had just reached the front yard here when I heard an automobile motor. I looked down the road and saw a small sedan pull into your driveway. I thought at the time it was odd. People usually park in front. Too hard to get back and forth over that narrow bridge.”
Smith clung to his friend’s arm. “Thank Heavens, Will!” I was afraid. Now I’m not. My wife’s been murdered. My story about strange visitors would have been doubted.” Tears coursed down the farmer’s cheeks as his nervous tension relaxed.
Collard nodded. “Don’t worry about that, Joe. I know what I saw.” He paused thoughtfully. “About fifteen minutes after the car drove into the driveway, Joe, I heard a shot. Do you think--?”
“That it came from my place? I don’t know. I didn’t know anything, I guess.”
“Well, it sounded like a shot. I looked out the window and saw the car backing out across the bridge. The driver didn’t turn on the headlights until he went about a hundred yards.”
Smith straightened himself with an effort, gripped Collard by the shoulder with one trembling hand.
“You—heard a shot? And didn’t come to see what was wrong?” His swollen, battered eyes burned into those of his neighbor. “Why?”
Collard covered his face with his hands. “I never dreamed there was any trouble, Joe. A backfire from a car, maybe. Kids out coon-hunting. How was I to know?”
Smith regarded his old friend for a long moment, and then he nodded his head. “Of course. You couldn’t have known. But you did see them—we can be grateful for that. Maybe it will help catch the—.”
Smith passed a rough hand shakily over his eyes.
“They laughed and joked. They were big men—young—well dressed. They seemed to be enjoying some secret joke. ‘Do you still like to go quail-hunting, Joe?’ they asked. ‘Would you like a drink of good whisky, Joe?’ Like that, they talked. Then that awful blackness, and coming this morning… seeing Orpha’s body inside the house, lying with her head blown off.”
Smith slumped in Collard’s arms, and Collard carried him into the house as though he were a child.
“Will,” Smith babbled half hysterically, “we’ve got to do something. I tell you we’ve got to do something.”
It was Election Day. Sheriff Green was out of the city at the time. I, being in charge of the office during his absence, was delegated to investigate Orpha Smith’s death. Deputies Henry James, Elmer Durham, and William Woods accompanied me to Ridgway. Coroner, Benton Smith; State’s Attorney, Joseph Bartley; and two advisory physicians, Doctors C. Murphy and J. Riley followed.
At the old farm home, constructed of hand-hewn timber, we immediately began our investigation. I sent to Harrisburg for a photographer and finger-printing expert and Coroner Smith announced the inquest would be held on the spot as soon as he picked a jury.
The interior of the cabin was filled with shadows when we pushed the front door open. Shades were drawn tightly on all windows and, though the sun was shining brightly outside, it was necessary for me to strike a match before I could make out the macabre figure on the floor near the fireplace. The dead woman’s skull had been shattered completely; her head and shoulders were partly screened by a rocking chair which straddled the upper part of her body.
The room was upset. Furniture had been tossed about and broken. The kerosene lamp had been smashed to the floor and the reek of spilled oil filled the house. I pulled the blinds from the windows in order that we might see.
Doctor Riley examined Smith and said that he was suffering from severe lacerations of the left ear, deep scratches on both cheeks, and a bruised head. He pronounced him in a dazed condition and suffering from exposure.
I questioned Smith, taking note of his disheveled appearance: Everything, except his hat, it seemed, had been soiled by mud.
I am examined his hands closely. They were dirty, but were not stained by blood. The knuckles were not bruised. “Have you been inside the house this morning?” I asked.
“No, sir—that is, no more than to push the door open and see my wife lying there like that…”
“Have you got any idea who would want to do such a thing?”
“No.” Smith shook his head slowly. “I thought at first it might be some of the Birger gang. The men were young, well dressed and talked like city toughs. Strangers to me. But why would Birger want to single me out?”
Charlie Birger at that time was holding nearly a third of that part of the State in a reign of terror. He and his collection of big-town hoodlums, hired as strikebreakers, had betrayed their employers and had set up a virtual crime-kingdom that was destined to take scores of lives in gang warfare before martial law crushed it. There was a chance that the men who had visited Smith the preceding night were hired killers—possibly even Birger mobsters—since it was common knowledge that beatings and deaths were offered at set prices by the powerful crime organization.
“Do you know of anyone who would want you and your wife put out of the way—someone who might go to the extent of paying hoodlums to do the job?” I asked Smith. He dropped his gaze. “Maybe I do—maybe I don’t. But I might be wrong. I wouldn’t want to mention any particular name.” “I don’t have to tell you that things look pretty black for you unless we find somebody else as a suspect,” I pointed out. “I know that,” answered Smith doggedly. “But I still won’t accuse somebody unless I have a good cause to.”
I sighed. “Tell me what happened last night,” I ordered. Smith complied; giving me practically the same statement he had given Collard earlier. “John Rister and his wife came by the house about five o’clock.” He concluded, “and stayed about half and hour. Then Will Collard and his wife Ethel, joined us. We talked and listened to the election returns coming over the radio. I’d been working for several of he county nominees and was interested in the outcome. The folks all left by six. I was putting my team in the barn when the car with the strangers drove in. It seemed to me there might have been a third party with them—a person who stayed in the back seat of the car while they talked to me. But whether the other one was a man or a woman I couldn’t say for sure. Everything happened so quick I didn’t have time to take what you’d call a good look at any of them.” “And you don’t remember anything after taking a drink of whisky they offered you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Think it might have been doped?” I asked.
Smith shrugged his shoulders wearily. “Maybe. Or one of them could have hit me with a blackjack or something. I was drinking, then everything blanked out. I don’t even know when they beat me up.”
Fred Bruce, a neighbor, repeated almost identically Will Collard’s story about the mysterious automobile: “Last night about dark I saw a small sedan drive past my house. I live south of Joe’s place, here, about a quarter-mile. I watched the car until I saw its headlights turn into Joe’s drive and cross the bridge across the ditch.”
“A few minutes later I heard a kind of hollow boom, then a thumping and pounding sound as though somebody was driving nails in the house here. Then I saw the car back out of the drive and head back down toward my house. He didn’t turn on his headlights until he passed my front gate.”
I scraped my thumb along my jaw. Smith turned and walked to the front of the house. As he moved away I noticed he had a profound limp. “What’s the matter with your leg, Joe?” I asked. “The men hurt it, too, during the fracas?”
Smith smiled a bit wryly, “No, Mr. Crunk. They didn’t do this. It’s a long story. I was run over by a car practically in my own front yard a year ago. I’ll tell you about it sometime.”
“No time like the present.”
“Perhaps you’re right—but I guess I’d better wait, at that.”
Smith’s answer puzzled me. Everything unfortunate, it seemed, happened in Joe Peck Smith’s front yard. Was Smith trying to hint at something he wouldn’t put in words?
The photographer came and took flash pictures of the room and finger-printing expert busied himself. The room was thick with tobacco smoke and theories. “Find anything important yet?” I asked the print man.
“Not much,” he admitted, folding up his kit. “Lots of prints made by the dead woman and Mr. Smith. Some others that are too smeared to make anything of.”
“Not a very encouraging picture,” I muttered gloomily.
Coroner Smith completed his examination with the two physicians, their findings being that Mrs. Orpha Smith had died from the blast of a shotgun fired directly at the base of her skull. The head as far down as the ears was destroyed. The woman’s neck, arms, and chin were bruised.
The inquest was ready to commence and all but the men chosen for the jury were ushered out of the house. The examination was brief: The cause of death was given as “fatal wounding with a shotgun by a person or persons unknown.” With the deck figuratively cleared for action, I asked Smith: “Do you notice anything unusual about the room that might help us?”
Joe Peck Smith twisted his head slightly to one side, rolling his eyes toward two empty pegs above the kitchen door. “My shotgun’s gone. It always hangs up there.”
“What kind of gun was it?” enquired Coroner Benton Smith. “Twelve-gauge, hammerless.” “Was it loaded with number six shot?”
The Coroner glanced at me. “That’s the size shot we found in the skull,” he commented.
I looked around the room. The bed was made. The lamp, turned over and broken, obviously had not been lit at the time the struggle took place; else the house would have gone up in flames. A clever killer might have wanted a roaring fire to consume the evidence of his crime. But was the killer more clever than that? Did he want the clues we saw to remain?
The death struggle apparently had taken place in the dark, why? Was the killer afraid he might bungle the job and his victim might recognize him?
Every corner and cranny of the house and outer buildings was searched for Smith’s shotgun, but the weapon was not found. Could the murderer have used it? How had he known it was available?
Deputy Elmer Durham suggested: “Why not try the duck pond in the pasture? One good toss and it would be hidden as perfectly as anyone could want. But it’ll really be a messy job wading through that mud looking for it—I’m always letting myself in for something.”
The rest of us chuckled and made our way through the barn gate toward the pond in the pasture. The stock end of a gun could be easily discerned now, protruding from the muddy water on the opposite side, about six feet from the bank. Before we went in to get it, though, I pointed downward at the path. “Take a look—do you fellows see the same thing that I do?” Before us, at regular intervals, were tiny pointed indentations in the soft pasture mud. They led directly to the pond. Stepping gingerly in their wake we found they completely circled the pool of water.
“A woman’s footprints,” said Deputy Durham. “That’s easy to see.” But could I entertain the theory that the woman had pulled the trigger of the shotgun? That a woman was the killer? What of the car that had stopped at the Smith home?
Another detail was plain: The tracks all led in one direction—away from the house. This mystery, however, soon was explained. The tracks, after circling the pond once, headed southeast across the field to the road which ran north and south in front of the Smith farm and were lost. By this time many neighbors had gathered at the farm and we took advantage of this to interview as many as possible. All insisted that Smith and his wife never quarreled.
I happened to glimpse Smith limping through the kitchen, and I decided this was a good a time as any to find out the manner in which he had been injured the year before. Why had he been so evasive about it?
Edward Rister, a friend of long standing, supplied the answer, and I felt a peculiar tension grip the people in the room as he spoke.
“A relative of Orpha’s, Cynthia Harvey ran over Joe last summer. She said it was an accident, but Joe claims she done it on purpose because she wanted to get him and his wife off this farm. He jumped off the road and fell in the ditch, but her car came in right after him. Broke his left leg in three places.”
I stared unbelievingly at Rister. “She did that—and he doesn’t want to talk about it? What’d he do? Didn’t take it to court?”
“Seems there was something about a suit, but later on he dropped it and refused to prosecute Cynthia, on account of her being such a good friend of his wife’s, the way I heard it.”
“But if she was such a good friend of his wife’s, why did she want to run them off the land?”
Rister shrugged. “Joe says she wanted to sell it. You see, her husband is also kin to Joe and owns all this land around here. Cynthia’s a good businesswoman and her husband gave her authority to handle the rentals on the property.
“Well, pretty soon Cynthia’s dunning the Smiths here to pay rent like the other tenants of hers. But Joe says the property was deeded to him by his father and doesn’t belong to Cynthia at all. He was born in this house and won’t give it up. So they was at logger-heads, as you might say. He wouldn’t pay the rent she says he should, and he and his wife wouldn’t move off.”
Others in the crowded front room nodded in agreement as Rister concluded. I scratched my head reflectively. Cynthia Harvey, I knew the woman well, as most everyone in Gallatin County did. This was the first time, though, I ever had heard her to be such a determined businesswoman. Was there a mistake here some place? I turned to Smith.
“You’ve heard what your neighbors said about Cynthia Harvey. Got anything to add?”
Smith’s cheeks colored faintly. “No, I haven’t. I think it’s silly to even bring up family differences at a time like this. Cynthia’s all right.”
I doubted whether I could proceed much further with the investigation until I had had a talk with the much discussed Cynthia Harvey. This fact I remedied without further delay. Mrs. Harvey I found to be a slim, quiet-voiced woman in her early forties of gentle manner and crisp, businesslike air.
In answer to my question about trouble she supposedly had with Joe Smith, she replied: “I can’t deny there has been bad blood. But that’s all a closed chapter in our lives. Joe will tell you that. We’ve straightened our difficulties out.”
“Did you run over him with a car last summer?” I asked.
For a long moment Cynthia regarded me, while somewhere in the house a clock ticked loudly. Her slim fingers twisted slowly in her lap. At last, without looking directly at me, she cleared her throat and answered: “Yes. I did. But it was an accident, regardless of what people around here might say or think. Joe had been drinking that day. I drove down to see Orpha and he ran out of the house brandishing a pistol and ordering me away. He said he was going to shoot me if I came around the farm again. I tried to reason with him, but, without warning, he began shooting at me. I didn’t know what to do at first. I was terrified. He was coming closer every second, firing the gun.” Cynthia bowed her head. “I turned the car about, to put the motor between us, to keep the bullets from reaching me. The machine must have got out of control. In my excitement I shoved down the accelerator. The car bolted toward the ditch. It was horrible. Joe must have stumbled and fallen. I heard him scream. One of the front wheels rolled over his leg. I almost fainted, but Orpha came running out of the house and I regained enough strength to help her carry him inside, then I drove as fast as I could into Ridgway for a doctor—”
Cynthia’s voice broke and she began to sob.
“I didn’t want to hurt him,” she said. “I never wanted to hurt anybody. But he had no right to keep me away from Orpha. She was the one person in the world I truly loved.”
“Did you try to get them off from their farm?” I asked.
Cynthia Harvey stifled her sobs with an effort, looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. “I—oh, I can’t deny that I made such a threat once when Joe was acting unusually mean about my visiting Orpha. I said if he didn’t let me see her I would take over the farm and make them move. But I never did.”
I drummed my fingers on my knee. “I don’t doubt you were pretty friendly with Orpha,” I remarked gently. “I guess you walked down through the pasture many times to visit with her, eh?”
“Yes. We used to play there when we were girls.”
“When’s the last time you visited Orpha?” I asked. “Just for the record.”
“Several months ago,” replied Cynthia Harvey. Her expression was calm once more, as untroubled as my own. Back in town I sent out a State-wide broadcast over the telegraph and telephone for the men who either had slugged or doped Smith the night before, on the chance officials in some near-by county might aid in their apprehension.
Plaster impressions had been made of the footprints around the duck pond on Smith’s farm, and it was decided they had been made by size six and a half shoes with pointed toes and Cuban heels. I asked Smith if his wife owned such a pair of shoes and he replied that she customarily wore flat-heeled, round-toed shoes.
“Usually around the farm she wore an old pair of mine,” he added. “She wouldn’t go near the barn with her good ones on.”
“Joe,” I stated, “the time has arrived for you to forget your pride and tell me the truth about everything. If you don’t, I’m afraid I can’t answer for the consequences.”
“Meaning--?” he countered.
“Use your imagination about what I mean,” I retorted. “Now are you going to talk?”
Smith smiled crookedly, nodded. “Mr. Crunk,” he said finally, “you’ve been pretty decent. I guess I’d better tell you what you want to know after all. Well, anyway, about my er—accident.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s have it.”
“Well, the day she ran over me I didn’t have any pistol like she claims to some. I was walking along the road minding my own business when all of a sudden I heard a car motor and the next thing I knew I was hit, lying in the ditch with the machine pinning me down. I fainted from the pain and shock. I didn’t even know, at first, that it was Cynthia’s car that hit me.”
Smith wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he spoke, and his voice was trembling with emotion. “Thanks for the new information, Joe,” I replied. “I’ve an idea it will come in mighty handy.” Before I left I learned definitely that Orpha Smith wore a size seven and a half shoe, one size larger that the ones that had made the tracks around the duck pond.
Back in Ridgway, after a painstaking check-up with all the local stores, I found the place where Cynthia Harvey habitually purchased wearing apparel. I learned immediately that Cynthia customarily bought size six and one-half shoes with Cuban heels.
“Mr. Crunk,” the merchant said as I started to leave, “the next time you see Joe Smith ask him what in tarnation he’s going to do about this check he gave me the other day.”
The storekeeper handed me a check drawn on the Gallatin County Bank in the amount of $1.98. On the back was stamped the words: “Insufficient Funds.” It was dated November 1, 1926.
I stuck it in my pocket, wondering how Smith or anyone else could be so careless in figuring accounts. Our search for the men who had attacked Smith was still unsuccessful, but I finally struck a valuable lead when I met Max Duvall of Ridgway. Duvall, an employee of the telephone company, stated he had been called on an emergency trip along the north road before daybreak on the morning of November 2.
“It was about 4 a.m. when I passed the Smith farm,” said Duvall“ Still dark. My headlights picked out a figure of a man crossing the bridge in front of the house.” I controlled the elation I felt with difficulty. “You know Joe Peck Smith well enough to recognize him, I suppose?”
“Yes. I know him, all right.”
“Would you say the man you saw that morning was Joe?”
“No doubt about it. That limp, the way he holds his body. That hat he always wears. He’d been walking north along the road before he crossed over the ditch bridge to his house.”
I thanked Duvall and continued my task of interviewing everyone I met. My plan again brought results: A filling-station proprietor informed me that a youth named Anderson, living in Cottonwood, acted peculiar every time the Orpha Smith murder was mentioned around him. It had become a joke, the filling-station proprietor added, for the boys to talk about nothing else when young Anderson was around. The usually would send him away in a huff.
“Maybe nothing to it,” smiled the gasoline dealer, “but that boy might have something on his mind. He might know something he’s afraid will be found out—you never can tell.”
I called on Mr.W.L. Anderson very promptly. The youth was reluctant to speak at first. Finally, I broke his reserve by asking, “Have you got an alibi for the night of November 1?
Anderson’s eyes widened; he swallowed hard, and then muttered: “No, sir, I haven’t.”
I placed my hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Better tell me all about it, Son.”
Anderson jerked his head up; his eyes rolled fearfully. “All right, I will tell you!” he blurted. “I’m the fellow everybody is looking for. I’m the driver of the mystery car!”
“You?” It seemed incredible. “But the description doesn’t fit at all. You’re just a boy—your clothes, your speech, your weight—everything’s different.” Anderson hung his head, “I know, I know. That’s what makes it all so hard to understand, Mr.Crunk. But I’m the one.”
I shook my head sadly. “Well, if you are, then I guess we’d better be on our way to the county seat.”
Anderson gripped my shoulder tight. “Wait—maybe you won’t arrest me after you hear my story. At least I hope not.”
“Need I say that it better be good?”
Anderson muttered a weak grin. “That’s my car parked out in front.” He pointed to an old Ford sedan. “I was on my way to Ridgway from Cottonwood that night. It got dark pretty early because it was clouding up. I got mixed up in my directions somehow—the battery was low and the headlights were pretty dim. Well—you know where the gravel road runs east and west right into Ridgway?”
“I was on that road about two miles east of Ridgway when I turned right instead of coming straight ahead. That’s the road Smith lives on, that right road. Well, I drove as far as Smith’s place when I realized my mistake. So I turned into his driveway, crossing the little bridge over the ditch. There wasn’t anybody around—the place was dark.”
“Then when I started to back out, old Betsy took a notion to die—the motor stopped. Like I said, the battery was weak—too weak to use the starter, I turned the lights off to save juice, got out and began cranking.”
Anderson’s features broke into a grimace at this point in his story. “Well, Sir, Mr.Crunk, right then is when the fun started.”
“I can guess: While you were cranking the car you heard a gun go off near you,” I supplied.
Anderson’s eyes protruded. “Why—yes! That’s exactly what happened.”
“Gooseflesh popped out all over me. I cranked and cranked. It seemed like a week, but I guess it was about fifteen minutes before the old motor came to life. I jumped inside and made tracks down the highway. I didn’t remember to turn on my headlights until I was about a quarter of a mile along. After I got on the main road again I began to laugh at myself.”
“The next day, though, when I read in the papers what had happened at the Smith house and I knew the whole State was looking for me, thinking maybe I was one of those gangsters—well, I really got scared. The boys around town learned I was nervous about the case and got a big kick out of rubbing it in.”
I chuckled, slapped Anderson on the shoulder. “I believe you, Lad. Just be handy in case I need you again, I don’t think I’ll take you to jail today.”
My conversation with Anderson had made me anxious to return to Ridgway momentarily.
Shortly afterward I strode into the store I had visited earlier that day, I asked one question of the proprietor:
“What did Smith buy the day he gave you the bad check?”
The storekeeper rubbed the back of his neck slowly, squinted up at the ceiling, “I don’t recollect exactly. My girl clerk waited on Joe. I’ll call her.” The girl had little trouble remembering the purchase. Smiling, she said, “It was a funny thing for a man to be buying. He bought a pair of women’s shoes.”
“And what kind?” I asked.
The girl, after a little thought, drew down a box from a shelf. “Just like these,” she explained, and exhibited a pair of patent-leather pumps with Cuban heels and pointed toes!
That was it! The whole surprising picture had clicked into focus at last!
Joe Peck Smith was arrested and brought into Shawneetown. The pair of shoes the Ridgway storekeeper had shown me was borrowed long enough to compare them with the plaster casts we had made of the footprints around Smith’s pasture pond. They fit perfectly. The shoes, therefore, which had made the impressions, must have been brand-new.
State’s Attorney Bartley, on being informed of the evidence we now possessed, swore out a warrant against Smith for first-degree murder.
Smith was reluctant to talk, stubbornly insisting he had no knowledge whatever of the crime. Therefore, I decided to reconstruct the crime for him as we believed it had been executed.
“Your first big mistake, Joe, was the care you took of your hat,” I began.
“My hat?” echoed Smith. “I don’t understand you.”
“Well, Collard said when he first saw you had no hat, but your clothes were muddy. Yet, though you said you hadn’t been in the house, you had your hat on when I came to the house. That proves that you slept in the house most of the night after murdering your wife, then got up, made the bed and walked out to the barn lot where you rolled around in the mud. But you left your hat in the house. It was almost new and you didn’t want to ruin it. That’s why it was the only clean thing you had on when I first saw you.”
“I left my hat in the barn. I said I wasn’t in the house and I was telling you the truth,” insisted Smith doggedly.
“I’m afraid you weren’t, Joe. You said you came to about six o’clock—just about daybreak—crawled to the house, pushed the door open and saw your wife inside, murdered.”
“Well, explain how you could see her at daybreak when we couldn’t see anything in the room after the sun was shining. I had to strike matches in the room to find my way around when I got there. The pulled-down shades at the windows made it almost pitch dark.”
Smith opened his mouth as though to speak, then decided to glower at me instead.
“You didn’t have to look in and see your wife. You knew she was murdered because you had murdered her. What was more, you didn’t even know it had frosted until Will Collard told you.”
I sat down in a chair opposite the suspect and began speaking in conversational tone:
“I’ll go back a little further, Joe. I’ll tell you just how you planned and committed the murder.”
“I wish you would,” Smith snorted derisively.
“I suspected something was wrong the morning you decided to ‘break down’ and tell me about Cynthia Harvey. I don’t doubt that you might have had trouble with Cynthia—but neither do I think she is capable of committing such a diabolical crime as you, by subtle and clever interference, wanted us to believe she did.
“You wanted us to think that Cynthia’s hatred for you and your wife was so bitter that she would hire thugs to kill your wife and make it appear that you had committed the deed yourself—that she had been the ‘third party’ in the mystery car containing the two gangsters, having come along to see that the job was done right. Therefore, with you accused and convicted of your wife’s murder, you thought we would reason. Cynthia Harvey would at last have no interference in getting the land. In other words, you tried to plant a motive in our minds.”
“You bought the women’s shoes the day of the crime, but you had the ill fortune to miscalculate your bank balance—a balance that would have been increased by no less than a thousand dollars from your wife’s insurance if you were freed of suspicion in her death, incidentally.
“You planned to murder your wife that night, after having taken every little detail into consideration first. You knew that suspicion would point first to you and instead of guarding against this, you made it seem ridiculously obvious at first. It was your gun, you were the only one home when she was shot. Your ace in the hole, of course, would be the woman’s footprints around the pond where your gun would be found.”
“You hated your wife because of her friendship for Cynthia Harvey; you and she couldn’t get along and you were tired of working on a worn-out farm with nothing but near-starvation as your reward. Murder, you believed, would solve your matrimonial and financial problems. If you could, in addition, cast suspicion ultimately on Cynthia as the murderess, then your plan, to you, would be perfection. You were sly, but not sly enough.”
“The incredible coincidence of Anderson driving his car into your driveway was, to you, the crowning touch to what you were sure would be a perfect crime. Instead, Anderson proved to be your Waterloo.”
“At first you had wanted it only to look as though a woman had drugged you, killed your wife, and then walked around the duck pond on her way to dispose of the shotgun. Anderson’s appearance, you felt, made a better story. You thereupon decided to change your first version and say that gangsters had driven to your home, knocked you or drugged you unconscious, then killed Orpha.”
“You realized that your house is close enough to your different neighbors that one of them was bound to see the car pull into your driveway. While Anderson tried to start his car you decided the time to murder your wife had come. You placed the shotgun against her head, shoved her out of the rocking-chair where she was sitting and pulled both triggers.”
“Then you waited until 4 a.m. when you slipped the women’s shoes you had bought the day before from their hiding place, squeezed your toes into them and hobbled out of the house carrying the shotgun.”
“You walked through the pasture, then around the duck pond once to make sure someone would see the tracks. Then you threw the shotgun into the water in a shallow spot where it certainly would be found and continued on across the pasture in the general direction of Cynthia Harvey’s house. At the road you removed the shoes and, carrying them in your hands, walked back up the road to your home. The gravel hurt your bare feet. That’s why you were limping so badly when Max Duvall passed you a couple of moments later.”
Joe Peck Smith’s eyes were wide and alarmed as I finished my recital. Then he burst into tears. Later, as he was entering his cell, he said to the guard: “If they wanted to find the one who killed Orpha they’ve got the right man at last.”
That was the extent of Joe Smith’s admission of guilt. He never made a formal confession, and pleaded not guilty at his trial.
Smith’s trial began at Shawneetown January 10, 1927, and lasted five days. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
The execution took place February 16, 1927, on the east side of the jail and, ironically enough, Joe Peck Smith’s cherished hat figured up to the last moment of his life.
Being led up the thirteen steps to the gallows, Smith requested that a guard bring him his hat, which he left in his cell. He put it on as the chaplain read the last rites. Then, as he stepped on the trap and his feet and wrists were strapped, the hangman informed him he would have to remove his hat. The black-silk death-hood took its place.