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THE PLEA--to be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013

An Overview of THE PLEA

by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf

Around 5 a.m. on the morning of July 17, 1889, a young boy named Wesley Elkins was seen driving a one-horse buggy along a narrow dirt road near his home in a rural Iowa farming community. When a neighbor stopped him, the boy volunteered the news that his father and stepmother had been killed by an intruder in the night: his father shot, and his stepmother “pounded to death.” The neighbor noticed that Wesley’s face and clothes were spattered with blood. A baby girl—Wesley’s half-sister—lay unharmed in the wagon.

The sheriff found the bodies of John and Hattie Elkins in the bedroom of the small isolated farmhouse where they lived with Wesley and their daughter. The victims had died just as Wesley reported. Elkins was slain in his sleep, killed by a single bullet fired at close range, and his wife was severely beaten, suffering numerous blows to her face, skull, and legs. Authorities were mystified by the crimes; the victims were quiet people, with no known enemies. A detective from Chicago was hired to investigate, and the governor offered a $500 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Some neighbors suspected that young Wesley was not telling all he knew. He had repeated the same story several times, but inconsistencies were noticed. And he had developed a peculiar twitching of his eyes, and a strange manner of speech. When Wesley showed up in town with his uncle a few days after the murders, people whispered among themselves. The boy, who weighed about seventy pounds, looked small and harmless, and yet many wondered whether Wesley was lying to protect a relative or a friend.

Curiosity turned to shock a few days later, when Wesley confessed that he had committed the murders by himself. As a motive, the boy offered only that he wanted to live on his own. His dispassionate words, reported in the local newspaper, triggered widespread outrage, and he was condemned as a young fiend, whose childish appearance masked an evil and criminal nature. A lawyer advised Wesley to plead guilty to first degree murder. Echoing public sentiment, the judge proclaimed that Wesley deserved the most severe consequences, and sentenced him to life at hard labor at Anamosa State Penitentiary, a maximum-security institution.

Twelve years later, the bloody details of his crime were back on the front pages of Iowa newspapers. The boy murderer, an intelligent and articulate young man, had applied for parole, and he was arguing his case to the public, writing eloquent appeals on his own behalf that were published in newspapers throughout the state. He wrote dozens of letters to editors, to supporters, and to members of the state legislature.

In 1902, his case went to the floor of the Iowa legislature, where congressman debated whether the young man deserved a second chance at freedom. Representatives from Clayton County, speaking for their constituents, were vehemently opposed to his release and expressed the fear that Wesley would return home to exact revenge, but many influential men had taken up Wesley’s cause. The debate provoked controversial questions about the causes of juvenile crime and the possibilities of reform. Wesley’s fate hung in the balance.

Was Wesley Elkins a born degenerate, beyond the hope of redemption and destined to reproduce his own kind? Or were his acts as a child explained by the sad circumstances of his upbringing, with his transformation justifying the promise of education and reform? What would happen if he were released from prison?

The passionate debate went on for several days, ending in dramatic fashion. The Senate narrowly approved parole, but the measure was then defeated in the House by the closest of margins; a single vote decided the result. The announcement was followed immediately by a call for a revote; an opponent had unexpectedly changed his mind. Several other men followed his lead, and, this time, a majority voted in favor of granting Wesley his liberty. Within a few days, the Governor of Iowa signed the necessary papers.

On a Saturday morning in April 1902, after almost fourteen years in prison, Wesley Elkins—twenty-four years old and dressed in a dark blue serge suit, a blue bat-wing tie, and a fawn fedora hat—left the penitentiary with one of his strongest supporters, a professor from a nearby college, who had offered Wesley a home. In a final letter to the Iowa legislature, Wesley expressed his heartfelt gratitude, vowing to justify its confidence by leading “a life upright in character, strong and thoughtful, gentlemanly always.”

But the story of Wesley Elkins did not end when he walked out of the Anamosa State Penitentiary. For the next ten years, Elkins lived quietly, taking college preparatory classes in Iowa and then moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he took a job with the Northern Pacific Railroad. Although he associated with people who knew about his past, he made a conscious effort to stay out of the news and feared that others would learn about his crime. He reunited with family members, first with his half-brother and half-sister, and then later with his step-father’s relatives. He purchased a house and supported various relatives who came to live with him. In 1912, at the end of the parole term, the governor of Iowa—without fanfare or press release—issued a complete and unconditional pardon to Wesley Elkins.

As required by the terms of his parole, Elkins communicated each month with the governor of Iowa, describing his work experiences and telling of his activities, thoughts, and feelings. The 120 letters that John Wesley Elkins wrote to the governors of Iowa—first to Governor Albert Cummins, then to Governor Beryl Carroll—are remarkable for their eloquence, intelligence, and sensitivity. The letters illuminate the beginning of the second half of Elkins’ life. He discusses his circumstances and work, his fears and anxieties, and his triumphs. He comments on current affairs. He asks the governor for permission to travel and for personal advice. Over the span of a decade, this correspondence reveals the maturation of a young man, an individual learning how to make his way in the world after spending his formative years in a maximum security prison.

Census records show that Elkins moved west around 1920, eventually settling near San Bernardino, California. He now used his father’s name—John. In 1922, he married Madeline Lazarus, a twenty-eight year old woman from Hawaii. Elkins bought a house in Fontana Towship with a view of the San Bernardino Mountains and earned a living as a poultry farmer. Madeline Elkins worked as a stenographer at a nearby military base. The marriage lasted thirty-seven years, until Madeline’s death in 1959. Elkins died two years later, at the age of eighty-one. When a short obituary was published, it noted only that Elkins had lived in the area for thirty-three years. Nothing was said about his early years: the crimes he committed as a child, his twelve years in prison, or the sensational public debate that ended with his freedom.

Based entirely on primary sources and meticulous research, THE PLEA is a story of murder and redemption.