Friday, October 11, 2019

"Grinnell Boy Killed by Cop"

Grinnell Register, June 22, 1920, p. 1
The headline from the front page of the June 22, 1920 issue of the Grinnell Register calls to mind today's news about police encounters with African Americans. But the 1920 happening had nothing to do with African Americans, nor did it involve a policeman, despite the headline. The newspaper reported that early Saturday morning J. T. Watt, a detective employed by the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, had accosted a nineteen-year-old white man by the name of Harry Sanders in the Marshalltown railroad yards. According to the detective, Sanders
started toward the viaduct by the Union station and was told by Detective Watt to stop. He did not heed the command and he was told a second time. He [Sanders—DK] at that time pulled a gun from his pocket...and opened fire. Watt shot the back. The boy was rushed to a hospital but died before reaching the hospital (Grinnell Register, June 22, 1920).
Investigation later proved that Sanders had never fired a shot, despite the fact that Watt had managed to put two bullets into Sanders's back. Nevertheless, the local coroner's jury quickly cleared Watt of wrongdoing. At first the dead man's family offered no objection to the results of the inquest, merely asking that his body be released quickly for burial in Grinnell's Hazelwood Cemetery. Before the summer was out, however, Sanders's mother came to see the situation differently, blaming Watt and the railroad for "wrongful death."

Gravestone of Harry R. Craig, Hazelwood Cemetery (2019 photo)
A second aspect of the story is less visible in reportage of the time. If today you walk Hazelwood Cemetery in search of the gravesite of Harry Sanders, you will be disappointed; the military headstone that stands over the dead man's grave identifies him not as Harry Sanders, but as Harry R. Craig. And in that exchange of names is buried another story that complicates—but also helps explain—the tragic events of 1920. Today's post will examine both parts of the story.
Details of the shooting emerged at the coroner's inquest, held in Marshalltown Sunday morning, hard on the heels of the shooting. Taking evidence from seven witnesses, the three-man jury issued its finding: 
Sanders came to his death by being shot by J. T. Watt, special agent for the M. & St. L. R. R., and that said shooting was in self defense and fully justified and this jury exonerates him (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 21, 1920).
The difficulty for the coroner came from the fact that, despite Watt's original claim, Sanders had not fired a single shot, but had been shot twice in the back. How could Sanders have threatened Watt's life while facing away from—or running away—from the detective?
Marshalltown Union Depot (ca. 1910)
The key testimony came from J. F. Casey, who worked for the railroad in the Marshalltown yards, but was nevertheless described as an "impartial witness." According to the newspaper report, Casey alleged "...that Sanders had threatened the life of the officer...." Casey testified that he had seen Sanders "fingering a revolver as he moved down the platform of the union station, that he saw Sanders turn his body and raise his hand. ...Watt fired when he was twelve or fourteen feet back of Sanders" (ibid.). Although Casey did not say that he saw Sanders fire or even raise a gun toward Watt, after the shooting, Casey said, he did see "Watt pick up something [!] which lay by the man's side, presumably a revolver" (ibid.).

Watt's own testimony confirmed most of his original account. What was surprising was the Marshall County Attorney's request that Watt act out the encounter before the coroner's jury, with Watt playing the part of Sanders, a proposal that allowed Watt to represent what he claimed were his victim's actions. A key deviation from his original testimony was Watt's concession that Sanders had not in fact fired a gun at him. However, he alleged that Sanders had "partly turned and pointed an automatic at Watt, the officer shooting and firing as Sanders slipped the safety catch on his gun." Furthermore, 
when the officer reached Sanders after he had been shot, Sanders held the .380 automatic in his right hand, which lay across Sanders's stomach, and a .32 caliber Savage automatic lay on the ground by Sanders' left hand (ibid.).
Another witness "displayed the guns taken from Sanders...All were loaded, the Smith & Wesson used by Watt having two empty cartridges" (ibid.). The witness did not point out what was obvious implicitly: although Watt's gun proved that two shots had been fired, Sanders's guns could not confirm that even a single shot had been fired. 
Grinnell Register, August 30, 1920
Initial reporting gave no evidence that the dead man's family contested the explanation of the shooting. In fact, Sanders's stepfather, James Craig, seemed to admit that Sanders, who lived with Craig since 1904, "had always been a good boy," but had lately turned wild. Craig noted that at seventeen young Sanders had enlisted in the coastal artillery, and had served briefly in France in late 1918, "On his return home," Craig continued, "he was a changed boy, having developed a wild spirit of adventure..." (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, June 21, 1920).

But if the Craigs originally accepted the officials' story of Sanders's death, they later changed their minds. Marshalltown newspapers reported that over the summer a private detective hired by the dead man's family had been in town to seek evidence with which to charge Watt and the railroad (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republic, August 26, 1920).

It was no surprise, then, when in late August Mrs. Craig petitioned to have Sanders's body exhumed from Hazelwood Cemetery and brought to Newton for "further examination." The petition alleged numerous errors by Marshall County officials, but the chief allegation was that "J. T. Watt...shot Sanders in the back without provocation" (Grinnell Herald, August 31, 1920).
Undated photograph of Jasper County Courthouse, erected 1909-1911
Accordingly, Sanders's body was exhumed Friday, August 27 from Hazelwood, taken to Newton for a second autopsy, and by Saturday, August 28, was returned to the Grinnell cemetery. A Jasper County inquest convened in Newton that Saturday afternoon. Among the witnesses heard was Frank Woods, who had been awaiting a train at the Marshalltown station the night that Sanders was shot. Woods testified that he had seen Watt run by the ticket office, and almost immediately thereafter he had heard a shot. He ran out to see Watt "standing at Sander's [sic] head, holding a revolver in his hand... He saw no weapon in Sander's hand or about his person..." (Grinnell Register, August 30, 1920). The next witness was John Casey, who had earlier testified at the Marshalltown inquest. As he had said then, Casey reported having seen Sanders being pursued by Watt. "He saw Sanders trying to turn, raising his arm at the same time. Officer Watt then shot two times. The witness could not see whether Sanders had anything in his arm when he raised it... He could not say...whether Sanders made any attempt to shoot" (ibid.). Other testimony offered no new information; Watt and Marshall County coroner, E. M. Singleton, failed to appear at the Newton inquest, despite having been subpoenaed.

The Jasper County coroner's jury then issued the following verdict:
Harry Sanders was shot to death June 19, 1920 while running away from John T. Watts [sic], a special agent for the M. and St. L. Railway company at Marshalltown, Marshall County, Iowa (Grinnell Herald, August 31, 1920).
The Newton finding confirmed the fact of the shooting, but omitted the exoneration of Watt that was included in the original Marshalltown verdict. Less helpful to the Craigs' case was the fact that the Newton inquest failed to identify a crime or to fix blame, a result that allowed one newspaper to describe the verdict as being "without teeth." For a time it seemed as though the Sanders case would wither. In early September the only newspaper articles to mention the inquest dealt with whether or not Marshall County would reimburse Jasper County for the $131 expended for the Newton inquest (it did not).
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 30, 1920
But then, as commentators had expected, in mid-September Sanders's mother filed suit, charging the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway Company with wrongful death and seeking $25,000 in damages. However badly authorities had treated Sanders and his family, the sum Mrs. Craig sought—something more than $300,000 in today's dollars—was eyebrow-raising, and contrasted sharply with her immediate reaction to her son's death.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, September 13, 1920
The case did not come to trial in the Jasper County courthouse until February 1921. When finally convened, the hearing was brief, with the plaintiff—Gertrude Craig—contending that Sanders "...was not a 'bad man,' and that it was not necessary for Watt to shoot him." To make this case the plaintiff depended upon the testimony of R. A. Hill, who was also employed by the railroad but had not testified at either of the inquests. Hill claimed to have witnessed the entire event, and said he saw Watt searching Sanders when the victim started to run, after which Watt shot him twice in the back. This fresh testimony seemed to establish the plaintiff's case powerfully.

The defense, however, depended upon the testimony of Sanders's partner, Harold Fay (1905-1975), aka Walter LaBelle, who had been apprehended by Watt at the Marshalltown train station the same night that had Sanders died. Fay confessed to a series of robberies carried out with Sanders in the weeks before the shooting. Brought from Anamosa State Penitentiary, Fay testified to the details of their June 1920 crime spree in Poweshiek and Marshall counties, admitting that the pair had acquired four guns. Sanders had two of them, Fay told the court, but whether Sanders, when apprehended, had the guns on his person Fay did not know; he "presumed" so (Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 16, 1921).

Bystanders might have thought that testimony was sufficient to oblige the judge to take some time to evaluate the evidence, but Sixth District Judge D. W. Hamilton promptly issued a directed verdict against the plaintiffs. The judge was clearly unimpressed with the plaintiff's case. Perhaps because he suspected that Mrs. Craig was using the courts only to chase money, he took the opportunity to chastise the dead man's mother for having initiated the suit in the first place, and for having disturbed Sanders from his grave (Sioux City Journal, February 19, 1921).
Was Gertrude Craig motivated by the chance to win a jackpot from her son's death? Quite possibly.

Records from the 1920 shooting make no mention of the dead man's biological father; only the death certificate specifies that Harry's father was "Chas Sanders," but who was he?
Death Certificate for Harry Sanders, June 20. 1920
Newspaper notices from the Marshalltown shooting reported two different locations for the funeral of young Harry Sanders. The Grinnell Herald located the funeral at the residence of Charles M. Pugh, who lived at 1411 Third Avenue, Grinnell. The Marshalltown newspaper, however, reported that "Funeral services were held at 2 o'clock Sunday afternoon from the home of [Harry's—DK] grandfather Charles Sanders" (Evening Times-Republican, June 21, 1920). The only Charles Sanders found in the 1920 Grinnell directory was Charles Jacob Sanders, who lived at 1419 Third Avenue, the next house east of Charles Pugh's home where the Herald had mistakenly assigned the funeral.

Charles Jacob Sanders (1850-1922) and Susan (Campbell) Sanders (d. 1903) were the parents of Charles H. Sanders (1877-1919). Although they lived in town in 1920, the Sanders family had earlier farmed in Pleasant Township, and census inventories report that young Charles H. Sanders helped on the family farm. In 1897 he enlisted to serve in the Spanish-American War, and returned safely to central Iowa in 1899. The 1900 US census found him back on his father's farm, a single, 22-year-old farm laborer. It is certain, therefore, that Charles H. Sanders was in the vicinity of Grinnell in 1900, the same year that Gertrude Hulbert conceived a child with "Chas Sanders." Holding Harry's 1920 funeral at the home of "his grandfather," Gertrude Craig made sure to associate Charles H. Sanders with her dead son.

But why did she put the burden on Harry's grandfather instead of his father? For one thing, Charles H. Sanders himself was dead, having died in a December 1919 accident in Kansas City. Two weeks before his death Charles H. Sanders had written to his parents, assuring them that he was "well and trying to live a better life," a hint that he had experienced some difficulties. Records prove that, although he had married and generated a child, the marriage was not successful; his death certificate confirms that he was divorced. Charles had pursued several occupations, apparently none with much success. Probate records show that when he died, the total value of Charles H. Sanders's property was $100, barely enough to get him buried. The company for which he worked at the time of the accident settled with the estate over a claim of negligence, paying $700, about half of which went to pay lawyers and others involved in settling the estate.

But if Charles was a pauper in 1919, he seems to have been ever poorer in 1901, the year that Harry Sanders was born.

Gertrude Craig, who in 1920 claimed her son's body and later filed suit for her son's wrongful death, had been born Gertrude May Hulbert (b. 1883), the third (and last) child of Samuel J. (1850-?) and Phoebe (Pugh) (1857-1908) Hulbert. The couple had married in Mahaska County in 1872, but had divorced sometime prior to 1887 when Phoebe Hulbert remarried, this time taking as her husband Martin McKibben (1869-1933). The 1900 US Census found 17-year-old Gertrude Hulbert living with the McKibbens in Grinnell at 734 Elm Street. Evidently Gertie, as she was often known, had joined her stepfather's household after the Hulberts divorced. No longer in school, Gertrude in 1900 was said to be working as a "laundry girl" in town. This was the time when she encountered Charles H. Sanders; exactly how or where they met we do not know.

But before the next census visited Grinnell in 1905, 21-year-old Gertrude had married James Craig, six years her senior and an 1890 immigrant from England. The marriage record from March 23, 1904 reports that it was the first marriage for both bride and groom. 
Return of Marriages in the County of Poweshiek, for the Year Ending December 31, 1904
The 1910 US Census found Mr. and Mrs. Craig living in Hickory Grove Township, just west of Newburg. Telling officials that they had been married for seven years, the Craigs reported three children: Blanche, 3 years old; Wilma, 9 months old; and Harry, who was 9 years old. As court records prove, 18-year-old Gertrude Hulbert had given birth to Harry in April 1901, three years before she married James Craig.
As early as 1843 the Iowa legislature included in its Revised Statutes "An Act to Provide for the Support of Illegitimate Children." The original statute envisioned jailing men who, having been declared responsible for a child's support, failed to provide that support. This last measure was later removed from the law, but otherwise the statute remained within the Iowa code.
1924 Code of Iowa, eds. U. G. Whitney and O. K. Patton [Des Moines?], 1924, p. 1507
(Title XXXIII, Chapter 544, "Bastardy Proceedings")
In turn-of-the-century Iowa, men sometimes learned about this statute the hard way—facing in court the women with whom they had had sex. Nevertheless, in an era that did not know DNA, proving parentage was not easy. A 1900 case heard in Des Moines, for instance, reproved plaintiffs for bringing into court a three-month-old baby who was said to bear the defendant's resemblance.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, December 22, 1900
But when a woman's claim proved persuasive, courts could impose a heavy penalty, as happened in a 1901 case from Mt. Pleasant in which the jury awarded a woman $4500 at the conclusion of a bastardy proceeding she had initiated (Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier, March 7, 1901). Similarly, in May 1902 a LeMars man was ruled the father of a baby born two months earlier to his unmarried, young neighbor (Sioux City Journal, May 23, 1902).

Gertrude Hulbert followed this same course, filing charges against "Charles Sanders" in Iowa District Court in September 1900 when she was two or three months pregnant. Following the law's prescription, the Poweshiek County attorney immediately "commenced proceedings for bastardy" against Sanders.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, September 22, 1900
Court records indicate that trial was postponed at least four times before finally being heard in November 1901 when Gertie's baby was already six months old. What evidence the state produced and how the defendant replied the record does not say. However, the court clearly fixed responsibility upon Sanders, requiring him to pay Hulbert a total of $1800 ($100 each January 1st through the child's eighteenth birthday), plus interest for any delays in payment.
Iowa District Court Journal, Poweshiek County, 1899-1903, Book L, p. 431
The court journal clearly fixed responsibility upon "Charles Sanders," without identifying the defendant as "Charles H. Sanders." But a brief notice that appeared in the Des Moines Leader just three weeks after the bastardy hearing provides a clue: a Grinnell man by the name of Charles H. Sanders declared bankruptcy.
Des Moines Leader, December 20, 1901
Nothing in the obituaries of Charles H. Sanders or Charles Jacob Sanders admits the birth of the illegitimate boy in 1901. But bankrupt Charles H. Sanders, the man who died penniless and who admitted that his life had been filled with ruts, is nevertheless the best candidate for the paternity established by the courts in 1901.

And if his 1901 bankruptcy deprived Gertrude Hulbert Craig of the financial support decreed by the court, we may better understand her desire to file wrongful death charges against the railroad, even if she harbored no special affection for her son. Money awarded for a successful wrongful death suit might have helped compensate for the failure of Charles H. Sanders to support his illegitimate son. 
For Harry Sanders, the story ended with his death in 1920. Except for the exhumation carried out in August 1920, Harry has slept peacefully in his Hazelwood grave ever since. For many years his grave went unmarked, but in 1932 Gertrude Craig petitioned for a free military headstone upon which was remembered not Harry Sanders, but Harry Craig, the name under which he had enlisted in the coastal artillery in 1918. For the other stars in this play life went on, ripples from the events of 1920 spreading ever more widely.

Already in December 1920 J. T. Watt learned that his wife of nine years, the former Ellen Surtess, had filed for divorce (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, December 18, 1920). In the meantime, Watt had changed employers, leaving the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad to become a detective for the Northwestern Railroad. Early summer 1921 his new employers transferred Watt from Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids where he had jurisdiction over most of the railroad's Iowa lines (Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 24, 1921). Watt remained in Cedar Rapids until at least 1925 when the Iowa census found him living at 307 E. Boone with a new spouse, the former Irene Piper (1894-1939), two years his junior and also previously married. But in the following five years things changed dramatically for the Watts: the 1930 US Census found them in Tucson, Arizona where Watt was selling hats and Irene was working as a nurse. Renting a home at 1214 N. Second Avenue, the Watts hosted six female boarders. Watt may have moved to Arizona for reasons of health, because we know that at some point after 1935 he entered the Veterans Hospital in Whipple, Arizona where US census officials found him in 1940. He died at the V.A. facility March 2, 1944, a victim of "chronic, advanced, active tuberculosis." Having served briefly in the US Army in the last months of World War I (ironically, just as Harry Sanders had), Watt was buried in Prescott National Cemetery, Prescott, Arizona.

Gertrude May Hulbert Craig also ended her life far from the scene of Harry's 1920 death. If in 1920 she was living in Kellogg, Jasper County, the 1925 Iowa census found her and her family in Marshalltown; in 1930 they were still residing in Marshall County, but had settled in Liscomb, a small town north of Marshalltown where James Craig was selling automobiles. No later than 1935 they were back in Marshalltown, living on East Linn Street. But soon Gertrude and her husband moved to California, following their daughter, Blanche Hopper (1906-1994), who with her second husband had settled in San Pedro. James died there in 1955, killed by an automobile, and Gertrude followed two years later, breathing her last in Long Beach Community Hospital May 8, 1957. Both were buried in Green Hills Memorial Park, Los Angeles.

1 comment:

  1. Dan, you really amaze me in your ability to dig up interesting stories from the past. I always enjoy reading them. Vera