Flat Iron MurdersPosted: September 8, 2015
There was something not quite right about Vernie Alfonso Lewis. At least that is what some thought. Maybe it was his eyes some said. Something about those eyes. Maybe it was the way he acted, sort of goofy or slow. But there was something. Anyway, he was known as that “little, deformed, abnormal looking fellow.”
Vernie was born in 1880 in Needmore, Indiana, just south of Clinton, to Franklin and Elizabeth Hull Lewis. Elizabeth was originally from Marshall, Illinois. His father was a miner, as was a brother. He was not that good in school. He left after the 3rd grade and went to work in the coal mines, including some in Sugar Creek. His father died when Vernie was only thirteen years old.
Life was a struggle for Vernie. He shuttled between jobs as a miner or laborer, lived sometimes in Needmore, and at other times in West Terre Haute or Terre Haute. He married 17 year-old Ida Shepherd in 1902. They had a sone named Vernie. Preferring the company of another man, she divorced him in 1905 taking their son with her. A year later he remarried, this time to Frances Chunn. Things did not go well for the couple. Like Ida, Frances found Vernie hard to deal with and left him for another man. By 1915 Vernie Lewis was living in Terre Haute.
Lizzie Blacketer lived in a shotgun house on North 17th Street in Terre Haute, just south of Lost Creek. The Murray and Balding families lived north of her. As usual, Lizzie woke early on Monday, March 15, 1915. The papers carried news of the war raging in Europe. As she went outside her modest home she was a bit surprised how quiet the Balding home was. Usually there was a whirlwind of activity there as the children got ready for school or play. Not wishing to pry, but worried that something was wrong, Lizzie went reluctantly to the too quiet house. Stepping on the porch she saw 8 year-old Merion Celeste Balding on the front room floor. She lay in a pillow of her own blood.
By now Lizzie was frantic. She ran next door to tell her friend Mamie Murray of what she saw. They rushed to a neighbor who called the Terre Haute police. Officer Smith hurried to the house on his bicycle, When Smith arrived he stepped into a horrific scene. The police had seen some bad things in their time, but this was just about the worst.
He was greeted by the sight of the dead young girl. Near her was the body of her brother Clifford. Smith could see into the bedroom of the shotgun house. There were more bodies there. There in the bed was the mother, Mary Balding, her baby Clifford was in her arms. Beside her was 3 year-old Irene. At their feet, sprawled across their feet was another son, Thomas, who was dead. Smith rang for an ambulance and detectives. Looking around he saw two flat irons covered in blood.
The ambulance attendants found Mary Balding, Clifford, Irene and Walter were still alive. Mary and Walter subsequently died at St. Anthony Hospital.
Fedderson was a well-known and accomplished detective. He and his colleagues did what all police should do. They began interviewing the neighbors. They learned that husband and father William Balding worked as a lineman for Bell Telephone. He had been in Centralia, Illinois for nearly a month, but was expected home soon. As usual they asked if there had been any problems between the Baldings and others. Did they have any reason to believe that the Baldings had enemies who might wish to harm them?
The neighbors immediately cast suspicion upon two men, Ira Tobey and Garley Stevens. They were well-known troublemakers and rowdies who often roamed drunkenly through the neighborhood. Tobey was immediately arrested. Stevens could not be found. When they heard he might be in Whitcomb Heights and headed across the Wabash to find him. Told he was not there, but was expected back, they left a message that they were looking for him. The next day Stevens dutifully called the police and was told to go to the jail. When he arrived the detectives had a series of fresh cuts on his hand. The police were hopeful that they had their murderers.
That same day the name Vernie Lewis who was known to visit the Baldings came out. Vernie, they learned was Lizzie Blacketer’s son. They returned to N. 17th Street to interview Lizzie. She told them that Vernie had gone to bed with the rest of the family around 7:00. As far as she knew he had not left the house. They tracked Vernie to the Cloelle mine and he claimed that his mother was telling them the truth. He had gone to bed early and slept all night. The detectives continued to investigate the crime. By Friday they concurred that Tobey and Steven’s alibis were genuine.
Police carried on. Later Friday they were told by someone that two men who lived a few blocks away might have important information for them. First thing Saturday morning Fedderson interviewed George Wheatstein and James Unsel told him that contrary to what Vernie Lewis had said, he had been in their homes after 7:00pm. Unsel noted that Lewis, who was normal a happy, cheerful person, was acting very strangely. He left Unsel’s house about 10:00 pm. It cast doubt on Vernie’s testimony and immediately made him the prime suspect for the atrocities.
Saturday morning the detectives returned to the mine. They asked the mine boss to get Vernie for them under some pretext that would not alarm him. The boss said that would be no problem as he had already “jacked up” Lewis because Vernie had been acting very oddly and shirking work. The boss descended into the mine, returning to the surface about fifteen minutes later with Vernie in tow.
They arrested Vernie. He said he stuck by his alibi, but would be glad to go to the jail and tell them everything he knew about the case. The suspect and the detectives exchanged uncomfortable small talk on the long drive to the Terre Haute jail.
Lewis continued to proclaim his innocence throughout the morning. He finally did admit that he had left his house without his mother knowing and had visited Wheatstein and Unsel, Returning Lewis to his cell, Fedderson and his colleague drove up to the Blacketer home. They found blood on the side door of the house. They searched the home. They found Vernie’s pants and suspenders. They too were bloodstained.
On Sunday Fedderson again interviewed Lewis. Again, Vernie swore he was not guilty. Fedderson was frustrated but had an idea. On Monday he had Lewis locked in a cell in the jail’s hospital ward. He had himself locked alone in the cell with Vernie, telling the jailer not to let anyone else near them. He found Vernie sobbing uncontrollably on the bed. Fedderson spoke with him softly, but persistently, quietly hammering questions at him about the crime, not allowing Vernie time to himself.
Around 1:30 pm Vernie just hung his head, saying nothing for minutes. Then he looked up and began crying again. Finally, without looking at the detective, Vernie said, “Oh god, it was awful. It was awful.” Fedderson tried to calm the prisoner, and asked him to make his confession. Vernie looked up, his face ashen and pallid, but said nothing.
Fedderson leaned back and asked Vernie to imagine it was his family, his wife and children, who had been brutally slain while he was out of town. How would he feel?
Lewis sobbed and cried out “Oh, don’t say anymore. My God, don’t let the mob get to me, for I know they will if they find it out. They will tear me to pieces and, oh, I don’t want to go to the electric chair but I can’t help it now.” And then he cried out his “motive” for the bloodshed. “…. I could not bear to see them move away from the neighborhood. It preyed on my mind as long as I could stand for it to.”
Again Fedderson asked him to make a formal confession. Lewis said he would, but only if the police got him out of Terre Haute so he would not be lynched. Fedderson that he would tell only his partner and the prosecutor and would immediately get Lewis away from town. Lewis then launched into his confession.
After visiting Wheatstein and Unsel, he returned to N. 17th around 9:30 or so. Going to the Baldings’s he pushed aside a piece of carpeting covering a broken window. He picked up two flat irons from the kitchen and went to the bedroom. Mary Balding was still awake, but before she could speak he began battering her with blows. How many, he could not remember. He then struck Thomas and Irene. Moving to the front room, Clifford spoke to him but Vernie could not recall what he said. He then killed Clifford and Celeste.
He then returned to the kitchen to wash his hands and climbed back out the window to his own home and snuck into his bed. It was over. Fedderson then left him alone to make arrangements.
Fedderson knew that Vernie’s concerns for his safety were real. They both remembered the story of Negro George Ward being taken from the jail by a mob and hung from the Wabash River bridge. (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/awful-crimes-part-one/). After telling Armstrong, the two went to Deputy Sheriff Katzenbach who gave them a car to transport Lewis to Indianapolis for his protection.
The detectives took off along US 40 to drive to Indianapolis with Lewis cowering in the back. They constantly looked over their shoulders to see if they were being tailed. Just as they passed Greencastle a tire blew out. It took over an hour to fix the puncture, an hour that seemed endless as they scanned the road for signs of a
lynching party. But they made it, depositing Lewis in jail and returning to Terre Haute without incident.
Lewis gave out further information. He loved Mary Balding. In his fevered mind she loved him too. He was “insanely jealous” of her. He wanted her all to himself. His love for her was driving him mad. He also told that he had been struck in the head in a mine accident. Since then, he said, thoughts of murder had preyed on his mind. That is why an innocent family was brutally bludgeoned by a pathetic, delusional man.
As Vernie confessed there was not a jury trial. The courts had psychiatrists interview him to determine he was insane. There were mixed reports. Eventually, Vernie Lewis accepted a verdict of 1st degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison on September 17, 1915.
The next day he was taken to the Michigan City State Penitentiary. His mother and accompanied on his trip to prison.His admission record showed he was 35 years old, of medium stature and in fair health. His mental condition was described as feeble minded and a sexual pervert. It noted he was a Methodist and had left home at age 16. His only previous arrest had been in Clinton on a charge of intoxication. Lewis began his life sentence.
After serving 25 years he applied for parole, but it was denied. From 1943 to 1945 he was admitted at least ten times to Robert Long Hospital in Indianapolis to be treated for various illnesses. In 1945 he was given parole by the Governor, with the stipulation that he must live in Missouri. Missouri was likely chosen because his brother lived in Poplar Bluff and Lewis was paroled in his care.
Vernie Lewis died in 1961. He lived 46 years longer than his four innocent victims.
And of those bereaved left behind after the murder? Father and husband William Balding eventually remarried twice. He died in 1967. Clifford died in the same year as his mother’s killer. Irene died in 1973, leaving behind a loving family.