Marcvh 24, 2011
Book looks at Iowa’s 46 executions

When the new Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison opens in July 2013, it will replace the massive mortar and stone structure that by then will have loomed over the river city for 174 years. Surrounded by walls and fence topped with barbed wire, the maximum security prison has held countless inmates in its years and has been the last stop for many.

Life sentences have been served to the last day, and back when the practice was lawful in Iowa, 31 men were hanged within those prison walls. Dick Haws, a retired Iowa State University professor of journalism, documented those executions as well as the 15 others in Iowa with “Iowa and the Death Penalty.” The book also takes a look at the 1965 decision to stop executions in Iowa, and the continuing ambivalence about that decision whenever a particularly cold-blooded killing occurs in the state. Haws, 67, grew up in Nebraska “at a time when the death penalty was quite prominent,” he said. “It was the time of the Starkweather killings.”

Then about 13 or 14 years old, Haws was “very impressionable” and intrigued by the infamous 1958 murder spree in Nebraska as Charles Starkweather, 18, and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate killed her family and a string of people they encountered along the way. Starkweather was caught, tried and executed by electric chair in 1959. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 1976. Later in his teaching career, Haws began doing research about Iowa’s death penalty and compiled the material with the thought of publishing a book.

By 2002 he had finished the project but couldn’t find a publisher. Several years later, at the urging of a friend and personal investment of $3,000, Haws rescued his manuscript from the attic and published the book himself. Nearly hot off the press, “Iowa and the Death Penalty” is designed to be on the shelves of historical societies, university libraries and public libraries, and in the hands of politicians and citizens who have an interest in the ongoing death penalty debate. “That’s who I’m encouraging to buy this – and people in and around Lee County who are interested in the role the prison played,” he said. “

Up until World War I, if someone killed someone, there always was the threat of lynching. Iowa was a wild and woolly place before World War I. There was a lot of distrust in the judicial system.” Haws researched the July 29, 1910, hanging of John Junkins, a 27-year-old black man from Ottumwa. Junkins was hanged at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison after being convicted of murdering a young, married white woman from Ottumwa.

Considered to be a bad apple from his childhood, Junkins had been to the Eldora Training Center for Boys by the time he was 9 and soon after leaving the reform school ended up in prison for stealing a purse from a woman. When Junkins was released from prison he returned to Ottumwa, lived with his mother and reportedly smoked opium and cocaine. Late in the evening on Feb. 5, 1909, Clara Rosen was killed, and her jewelry and purse were stolen. Ten days after the murder, Junkins pawned a diamond thought to be identical to one taken from Rosen’s body.

After being questioned, “sweated” and tricked into talking about the crime to a fellow prisoner, Junkins confessed to the murder. “One of the biggest and earliest hurdles that Iowa authorities had to overcome was simple: How to keep Junkins alive long enough to convict him,” Haws wrote. “The most secure jail ... (was) but 200 miles southeast at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.” Junkins was taken secretly from the jail in Des Moines where he was being held and was moved in a circuitous fashion to keep him from being lynched along the way.

A mob of 150 decided he was headed for the Ottumwa jail, “stormed the Ottumwa jail and demanded Junkins,” Haws wrote. The sheriff allowed the mob, which included Rosen’s father, to search the jail. Junkins’ race figured in the mob’s fury as well as affecting the groups of people along the route taken by Junkins and his law enforcement escort. After an arduous nighttime journey by buggy, railroad handcar and train, Junkins’ small group finally made it to Fort Madison and the prison.

The trial had been moved to Centerville. During the trial, “Strangers, ropes in hand, had been seen outside the courthouse while the trial was under way,” Haws wrote. When Junkins was convicted and sentenced to death, the strangers left town. “... on the day Junkins was hanged, throngs of people gathered high on the bluff overlooking the prison yard, giving them a clear view of the gallows,” according to Haws.

“They saw Junkins mount the platform shortly after noon; he was wearing a blue suit and white shirt ... Sheriff (John) Clark adjusted the black cap over Junkins’ head; the noose was placed around his neck. With two chops of his hatchet, the sheriff severed the rope,” sending Junkins plummeting downward. It was 12:17. But death was not instantaneous.”

Haws prints an excerpt from the Ottumwa Herald’s account of Junkins’ last minutes – it was a tough and lengthy death. Finally at 12:41 p.m., Junkins was pronounced dead by strangulation. “That night, as the train carrying Junkins’ body in a pine box stopped in Burlington, a crowd set upon the coffin and whittled off wood chips for souvenirs,” Haws wrote. Some of the cases Haws studied involved people who were guilty and found justice. But some didn’t get a fair trail, and at least one was guilty but mentally incompetent. However, he was tried, convicted and executed despite the syphilis that had affected his brain. And at least one warden – by law, wardens carried out the executions – suffered terribly from the experience.

“The problem with the death penalty is that you have to be absolutely certain,” Haws said. “It’s irrevocable. With a life sentence, you get a chance to review and maybe the person gets out.” When executions were still being carried out in Iowa, news coverage followed the doomed man throughout the process. As the moment of execution neared, “news interest skyrocketed.”

Recently, Haws has been following online public comments surrounding the convenience store murders in northern Iowa. “There’s a lot of interest in a return to the death penalty,” he said. “And others don’t want to resurrect it. If you think gay marriage is divisive in Iowa – the death penalty is the same.”