Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hanged by the neck until dead

Ivan L. Sullivan was hanged for muder of a prison guard at the penitentiary in Fort Madison on 12 November 1941. His grave is in Waynick/Holmes Cemetery southwest of Chariton
Small towns have long memories, and so do I. It must have been junior high in Russell, playing "Did-you-know?" also known as "Gotcha," when someone dropped the bomb: "Did you know (insert name of fellow student here; I'm not a gonna do it)'s uncle was a killer? Hung at Fort Madison. Yup, it's true."

Soon after, I filed that away. Until two weeks ago Monday.

Envision a mildly ominous late summer evening --- yellow sky, windy, dust-dry, storm in the forecast --- at Waynick/Holmes Cemetery, an out-of-the-way place a couple of miles southwest of Chariton on a road now dead-end because some damn-fool drunk decided to lead the deputy on a chase over the graveled hill onto dirt, roar across the Chariton river bottom and slam into the rickety old river bridge, ruining it entirely.

We'd gathered there, the Lucas County Genealogical Society, for supper atop cemetery hill against the south fence, then a tombstone tour led by Mary Ruth Pierschbacher, descendant of the Holmes family who purchased the old Waynick farm surrounding the cemetery more than a century ago and whose graves are as numerous there as are those of the Waynicks, now vanished entirely from Lucas County. Mary Ruth grew up there, lived her married life there, her son lives there now and her late husband, Lloyd, is buried there.

Mary Ruth had conspired on supper with her cousin by marriage (and my cousin by blood) Mary Lou Pierschbacher, reminding us again why middle names are useful.

As we sat circled around an isolated grave, Mary Ruth arose: "This is Ivan L. Sullivan, hung at Fort Madison," she said. Yup, it's true.

I've been to Waynick/Holmes many time. My great-great-grandmother, Eliza Jane (Brown) Dent/Chynoweth, is buried there with her second husband, Joseph Turner Chynoweth; their daughter, Mollie; and a good many other kin and almost-kin. But I'd not thought about that isolated and sunken grave in the southwest corner before.

Mary Ruth went on to explain that Ivan's dad came out to see her dad not long before Ivan was executed, explaining that his Lucas County family planned to claim the body, but had no money and didn't know where to bury him. "How much would it cost to bury him here?" he asked of Mary Ruth's dad. And her dad replied, "nothing more than the cost of opening and closing the grave." And so this is where Ivan rests, quite alone but with a decent tombstone installed by the family that loved him despite crimes that spiraled from cattle theft through robbery and kidnapping to murder.

"I was about 6," Mary Ruth said, "and wanted so badly to stay at home and watch them bury him." But her parents would have none of that and off to school she went.

Visiting a week later with Betty Cross, whose knowledge of Russell is all-encompassing, we connected Ivan and my junior high "gotcha." Ivan had married a Russell girl, then destroyed her dreams and his life for who knows what reasons --- the inexplicable nature of evil. That Russell girl's sister was my fellow student's aunt, and in that manner had acquired Ivan as an uncle several years after his 1941 death.

The following report, published on the front page of The Chariton Herald-Patriot of 13 November 1941, tells Ivan's story:

"Executed Wednesday at Fort Madison; Sullivan Service Here Today

"Private services were held at the Beardsley funeral home in Chariton this afternoon for Ivan Sullivan, who died yesterday morning on the gallows at the Fort Madison penitentiary.

"Simple burial services were conducted by the Rev. Father Charles O'Connor of the Sacred Heart church of Chariton. Interment followed in the Waynick cemetery, southwest of Chariton.

"Sullivan was hanged at 7:06 Wednesday for the murder of a Fort Madison penitentiary guard, Robert Hart, in an unsuccessful prison delivery attempt July 8, 1940.

"Numerous appeals by friends, relatives and social workers to Governor George A. Wilson to commute the sentence to life imprisonment failed. Another last minute appeal by George Stuart, Chariton attorney, to Gov. Wilson was also denied.

"Sullivan last week wrote to Gov. Wilson in a plea for a postonement of the execution until after Thanksgiving to make it easier for his family.

"Tuesday, Sullivan dictated a statement to reporters in which he continually expressed his innocence and blamed Warden Glenn Haynes of the Fort Madison prison and Gov. Wilson for his plight.

"He claimed that the warden had refused him an interview with the press until it was too late to do any good. Ivan also claimed that had he been able to have an investigation in time, the bullet which killed Hart would have probably proved his innocence.

"The prisoner maintained throughout his long statement that the failure of the state crime laboratory to produce the murder bullet made him more certain than ever that Hart was killed by another guard's gun.

"Throughout the long statement, Sullivan rebuked the governor for not having answered pleas of his family to see the bullet.

"He said, 'A governor who tolerates such an injustice must indeed be a fine Christian.'

"Sullivan joined the Catholic church about six weeks ago, converted by Father H. V. Bongers, Fort Madison priest.

"One Chariton man was among the 165 official witnesses who attended the execution which was held in the prison yard near the point where Sullivan shot Hart.

"His life of crime started in 1933 at the age if 21 when he was sentenced to five years in Aamosa reformatory for cattle stealing. He was in Fort Madison under a 30-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping when he and two others made their prison break.

"Later, Sullivan and Lowell Haenze, who escaped with him, returned to attempt the release of William Cunningham, who killed himself when the attempt failed.

"It was during this encounter outside the prison walls that Hart was shot. Haenze and Sullivan escaped and spent the ensuing weeks in a series of crimes including numerous automobile thefts, filling station and other holdups and burglaries and the robbing of banks at Wilber and Diller, Nebr.

"It was after the bank robberies that Haenze was shot and captured at Marysville, Kan., July 19, and Sullivan was taken without resistance near St. Joseph, Mo., the following day.

"Sullivan pleaded guilty to the murder of Hart and was originally scheduled to be executed in September. His lawyers attempted to get the supreme court to grant a retrial of the case, and the execution was postponed at that time.

"The supreme court, however, denied the retrial and Gov. Wilson set the new date of execution."


Anonymous said...

Bob Hart was my step Grandfather. I never knew him but I have all the newspaper clippings of this event in Fort Madison. My dad viewed the hanging. I also have the letter from the govenor of Iowa inviting him to view the hanging.

Frank D. Myers said...

I appreciate your comment. I had wondered about Bob Hart's family at the time this was posted. Sullivan still has relatives in Lucas County, as does his late ex-wife. The Hart family to the greater extent, but the Sullivans, too, suffered (and perhaps still do in ways muted by time) because of this guy's life --- that seems to have had no point other than to bring sorrow to others. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Renee said...

Bob Hart was my great-grandmas brother. He had a daughter that died at a young age; He was originally born in Illinois, many of his nieces and nephews have passed away but several still reside in the southern Illinois/ Southern Indiana area, my grandma is one of them