|Undated photo of Alpha Bassett and his first wife (Des Moines Register, August 23, 1923, p. 9)|
Alpha Bassett was born in Mirabile, Missouri, June, 1889. Despite his name, he was not the first child born to Fort and Eliza Bassett; an older brother and an older sister preceded him, and three more Bassett children followed. Fort Bassett (1853-1940) described himself to census takers as a carpenter who, like his wife, was born in Ohio. In the years before Alpha's birth, however, the Bassetts had apparently moved around: their first child had been born in Wisconsin, and the second in Colorado. By the time Alpha appeared, however, the family had put down roots in Caldwell County, Missouri, where Alpha and his three younger siblings were born and raised.
When officials of the 1910 US Census visited Mirabile, Alpha would have been twenty years old, but the census form reports him as being eighteen. Like his younger brother, in 1910 Alpha worked as a "laborer" doing "odd jobs." In April, 1915 he married a local girl, Mattie Stinson, who was just eighteen, about seven years younger than her new husband. When Alpha registered for the draft in June, 1917 in Mirabile, he told officials that he was married, and had one child.
For reasons the records do not make clear, Alpha and family moved to Iowa no later than November, 1919, when their daughter Vera was born in Grinnell. The 1920 city directory reports that Alpha, Mattie and children were living at 725 West Street (now demolished), not far from the Maplehurst Dairy where Alpha Bassett worked alongside some fifteen other employees. The directory described him as an "engineer," but, as subsequent stories make clear, Alpha evidently hauled ice, one of several products the dairy company sold.
|Grinnell Creamery (ca. 1915), 633 West Street; Maplehurst Dairy bought the business out in 1919 & occupied its premises|
|Ice pick with name of Maplehurst Dairy Company embossed on handle|
|William S. Hart (1864-1927)|
(Library of Congress: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c03842/)
Wilma Wentzel was the third of five children born to William and Chatta Wentzel. William had been born in Princeton, Illinois, but had married Iowan Chatta Boyle in 1899; children soon followed, all born in Iowa. Censuses and directories consistently report that the Wentzel family was living at 1016 Center Street, just south of Sixth Avenue. Like Bassett, William appears in the 1910 US Census as a "laborer" at "odd jobs," but evidently without much interruption—he told census-takers that he had not been out of work at all during 1914. The 1915 Iowa census describes him as a teamster, the same occupation given him by the 1920 Grinnell directory, which identified him as being employed by Robert Coutts, an important contractor in Grinnell. According to what he reported to the 1915 census, Wentzel earned $1200 in 1914, a respectable sum, especially since Chatta remained at home with the children.
Wilma was born in 1906, and in 1915 was attending school in Grinnell. Nothing so far discovered provides a picture of Wilma; had she passed through school with her coevals, she would have graduated from Grinnell High School in 1923 or 1924, but no high school yearbook from the mid-1920s includes her photograph, indicating perhaps that she dropped out of school. From what we learn about Wilma later, it is possible that she found school too constraining, or that school officials found her behavior wanting. But no evidence confirms either possibility. Most of what we know about Wilma emerges from the story of her 1923 encounter with "Iceman Romeo," Alpha Bassett.
Nothing appeared in public about the encounter until August, 1923, when Mr. and Mrs. Wentzel reported to the authorities that their daughter was missing. According to the first newspaper stories, Wilma had seen and replied to a help-wanted ad in the Des Moines Register, and had gone to Des Moines in early August to see about the job. After a few days, the Wentzels received a letter from Wilma, reporting that she had accepted the job, and would be staying in Des Moines. She gave her parents a Des Moines general delivery address and wrote no more; when her parents' letters to Des Moines were returned, the Wentzels went looking, only to discover that the address of the job for which Wilma had applied was also false. Where had the eighteen-year-old girl gone?
|Headline of the Des Moines Register, August 21, 1923, p. 1|
Wilma, too, was at risk of prosecution. The sheriff said that Wilma and an unnamed sister (Lucille was three years younger, and Lois five years older) had been arrested for "an alleged beating given Mrs. Bassett, the deserted wife, several months ago." In other words, as Wilma's parents and Mrs. Bassett knew very well, Wilma and Alpha Bassett already had "some history," so Wilma's disappearance could not have been a total surprise to the Wentzels. Furthermore, the Register continued, friends of the fugitive told journalists that Bassett "claimed resemblance to Bill Hart, the movie star, and boasted he had been a leading figure in several romantic adventures." In other words, the "cold storage Romeo," as the newspaper called him, was a veteran seducer, and had been engaged in a relationship with Wilma Wentzel long before their "elopement" hit the newspapers.
According to the parents' report, Wilma left Grinnell August 3rd, but only on the 22nd did news of their discovery and capture hit news stands. The Des Moines Register, clearly relishing the narrative, reported that the couple had been found in Boone, and that the "Cold Storage Sheik" had been jailed in Des Moines. Wilma, the newspaper continued, had gone home to Grinnell with her parents.
|Headline from the Des Moines Register, August 22, 1923, p. 1|
Back in Grinnell, where Bassett soon landed since the Des Moines judge declined to authorize proceedings there, the wheels of justice moved rather quickly, if not altogether transparently. Surprisingly, the Grinnell newspapers made no mention of the flight of Bassett and Wentzel, and only once the couple had returned to Grinnell did it report on developments. The Grinnell Register took the high road, withholding Bassett's and Wentzel's names and announcing that, because "most of the wild stories have been greatly exaggerated,...the Register prefers to pass lightly over the whole matter until definite action is taken in the courts." The August 24th issue of the Grinnell Herald was less circumspect; in reporting Bassett's arrest, the Herald added that "His wife has preferred charges of wife desertion." Bassett also faced charges of seduction.
|J. C. Davis, Iowa Criminal Code and Digest and Criminal Pleading and Practice (Des Moines, 1879), p. 344|
The Iowa Criminal Code provided for imprisonment in the state penitentiary for up to five years for those convicted of seduction. A key feature of the law was the requirement that prosecutors demonstrate the "previously chaste character" of the unmarried woman whom the offender had seduced. In addition to the testimony of the woman concerned, therefore, corroborating evidence was required, so as to avoid a "he said/she said" situation.
Was Wilma Wentzel a "previously chaste" victim? Perhaps not, because, as newspaper reporting contended, Wilma had gotten into some kind of fight with Bassett's wife long before she hit the road with Alpha; trial on that charge was still pending when the couple disappeared together. Moreover, as one newspaper explained, Wilma had evidently run away from home on at least one previous occasion (although whether with a man the report did not explain). Finally, it appeared that Wilma had cooperated with "Iceman Romeo," misleading her parents about her whereabouts and her intentions and spending nearly three weeks in Bassett's company, during which time she and Bassett had presumably had intercourse.
These circumstances may explain the terse report from Montezuma (where the district court convened) in the October 2, 1923 issue of the Grinnell Herald: "In court this morning Alpha Bassett plead[ed] guilty to the charge of adultery and was sentenced by Judge D. W. Hamilton (1861-1936) to three years hard work at Ft. Madison." The Grinnell Register published a similar report in its October 4 issue, but added that in "the case against Wilma Wentzell, a similar charge [i.e., adultery], was continued."
|J. C. Davis, Iowa Criminal Code and Digest and Criminal Pleading and Practice, p. 10|
|Entry for Alpha Bassett in Iowa, Consecutive Register of Convicts, 1867-1970|
|Ft. Madison Prison (ca. 1914)|
|Gravestone for Wilma (Wentzel) and Robert Foster, Rising Sun Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa|
What part the events of 1923 played in the new relationships that Alpha and Wilma struck up with their news spouses later we are unlikely ever to learn. But, so far as public records reveal, they both managed to build new families, living amiably with their spouses and children, and leaving far behind the few weeks in August, 1923 when they became the principal actors in a front-page story of romance, license, and disappointment.