Thursday, December 8, 2016

Iceman Romeo!

It might come as a surprise that until fairly recently in the state of Iowa, an adulterer could be convicted in state court and sent to prison for three years. That's what happened to Alpha Bassett, a married man who in 1923 was working for Maplehurst Dairy and Ice in Grinnell. Although married and the father of three children at the time, Bassett found himself besotted with a Grinnell teenager, and she evidently reciprocated his affections. So, in August, 1923 they ran away together... But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's go back to the beginning, and start our story there.
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
(Digital Grinnell)
Ice pick with name of Maplehurst Dairy Company embossed on handle
In 1923, Alpha Bassett was thirty-three years of age, stood a little taller than five-feet, eight inches, and weighed about 160 pounds. He had dark blue eyes, his hair evidently had some grey mixed in, and his complexion was described as "fair." According to later newspaper reports, Bassett thought himself rather handsome, and, according to informants, reported a considerable likeness to William S. Hart, a 1920s cinema heartthrob.
William S. Hart (1864-1927)
(Library of Congress:
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
The Council Bluffs newspaper, Daily Nonpareil, in its August 20 issue wondered whether "white slavers" had captured Wilma, intending to use her for their own nefarious purposes. But a front-page headline in the next day's Des Moines Register offered a radically different take: "Charge 'Kidnaped' Girl Eloped with Ice Wagon Lothario at Grinnell." "Ice Wagon Lothario?" According to the story, Grinnell's "romantic iceman"—namely, Alpha Bassett—had eloped with Wilma Wentzel, but no particulars about how the couple had become acquainted appeared in the story. Perhaps Bassett had delivered ice to the Wentzel family home and there happened to meet young Wilma, the mutual attraction having been sparked immediately? We will never know. The newspaper only cited the Grinnell police chief, A. B. Manson, who offered a warrant for Bassett's arrest. The newspaper reported that pictures of Bassett had been distributed throughout the area, with the hope that they might help authorities locate the fugitive, who faced both "statutory charges" as well as prosecution for wife desertion. 

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
As if the plot line wasn't already strange enough, it emerged that the girl's parents had invited the Des Moines local of the Ku Klux Klan to search for the missing couple. When Klan members found Bassett and Wentzel, they returned them to Des Moines, handing the fugitives over to police. Inasmuch as officials in several counties had been searching for Bassett and Wentzel for at least a week, and in some cases for several weeks, the "special investigators" of the KKK enjoyed the bright light of favorable public attention. A. E. Brown, said to be the leader of the Des Moines KKK, announced to a Des Moines Register reporter that "the klan did not act in the case until it was appealed to by the girl's parents. We caught the man and turned him over to the authorities." This same thread also enjoyed attention in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil as well as in the Omaha World-Herald, the sort of glowing publicity that the Klan could not easily have purchased. But what connected Grinnell's Wentzells with the Ku Klux Klan remained unspoken.
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
Why did Bassett plead guilty to adultery when prosecutors seemed intent on convicting him of the more serious charge of seduction? No documents confirm the speculation, but prosecutors might well have determined that proving seduction would be difficult, given how long Wilma Wentzel had stayed with Bassett. Furthermore, if, as the newspapers contended, Wilma had run off at least one other time, could she be counted "chaste?" Besides, as prosecutors knew only too well, Wilma herself was awaiting trial for the beating she and her sister had allegedly given Bassett's wife weeks before the disappearance. And then there is the continuance in the trial of Wilma Wentzell; so far as I could establish, her case never came back to the court, even though the law specifically determined that, "when the crime is committed between parties only one of whom is married, both are guilty of adultery, and shall be punished accordingly." Was Wilma's fate part of Bassett's plea bargain? Did she agree to testify against him in exchange for escape from trial? Or did Bassett's wife withdraw her complaint against the teenager, being satisfied that punishing the philandering husband was enough?
Entry for Alpha Bassett in Iowa, Consecutive Register of Convicts, 1867-1970
We are unlikely ever to learn the answers to these questions, because at this point the story disappeared from the pages of the area's newspapers.
Ft. Madison Prison (ca. 1914)
Almost immediately after his trial, Alpha Bassett was transferred to Ft. Madison penitentiary, where he remained until he was freed November 22, 1925, which the prison register explained as "exp[iration of] sent[ence]" (although this date was eleven months short of three full years). I found no record of divorce, but one must assume that Mattie Stinson Bassett divorced Alpha after the 1923 escapade—perhaps while Alpha was in Ft. Madison. In any case, after emerging from prison, Alpha Bassett returned to Mirabile, Missouri, and in June, 1927 took Marjorie O'Dell (1908-1981) as his second wife. The Missouri marriage license declared O'Dell to be twenty-one years old, by then apparently a legal requirement in Missouri (the first Mrs. Bassett had been only 18 when she married). But when the 1930 census takers came to Missouri and found Bassett and his new family, Madge Bassett, as Marjorie called herself, reported her age as 21, which would have made her 18 in 1927, the same age as Wilma Wentzel had been at the time of the 1923 "elopement." No subsequent matrimonial collisions brought the couple to the attention of authorities, so they seem to have lived peaceably, raising five children. The 1930 census describes Alpha as a hired man, working on someone's farm, but as the Depression tightened, Bassett evidently lost that work, and by 1940 was enrolled as a laborer for the Works Progress Administration. After that the trail goes cold, Alpha's name emerging again only in 1959 when the one-time "Iceman Romeo" died in Missouri, presumably without ever having reestablished contact with his former Grinnell flame. 
Gravestone for Wilma (Wentzel) and Robert Foster, Rising Sun Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa
Wilma Wentzel also got on with life. So far as I could determine, she never faced prosecution for her part in the events of 1923. Her name next surfaced in September, 1926 when she married Robert Foster in Des Moines. The 1930 census found Robert and Wilma living in their own home at 1600 E. 29th Street, Des Moines, and described Robert as a coal-miner and Wilma as a machine operator in an overall factory. Ten years later they were living at the same address, although Robert had abandoned mining, having become floor manager for a city automobile garage; Wilma was no longer working outside the home, presumably tending the couple's two young daughters (ages seven and two) instead. The record whispers little else until 1976 when Robert died. Wilma, who was slightly older, carried on; she died in 1982, and was buried beside her husband in Rising Sun Cemetery near the Des Moines International Airport. Their gravestone features a wedding ring that joins their two names and reports the date of their 1926 wedding, an indication, perhaps, that the winds that had once blown Wilma into the arms of Alpha Bassett had long since calmed, replaced by another, less blustery but more durable affection.

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.

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