Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Miscarriage of justice
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: September 1881
Date of birth: 1833
Victim profile: Dora Heilwagner (his daughter-in-law)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Davenport, Iowa, USA
Status: Executed by hanging at Rock Island, Illinois, on March 24, 1882

"I just go weed my onions"

In September of 1881, the typical peace and quiet of Davenport, Iowa, were shattered by news of murder. On a farm eleven miles north of the city, on the Happy Hollow Road, a young woman named Dora Heilwagner was shot and killed. Suspicion soon centered on the only other person known to have been at her farmhouse at the time: her elderly father-in-law, William Heilwagner, a Bavarian immigrant who hated her for her wild behavior.

A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man, who made no real effort to explain or defend himself. Justice was swift. His trial a few months later lasted for a few days. The prosecution established that he had visited the home of his daughter-in-law on the evening of the murder, and that he had been in a rage over a dispute that had arisen between them concerning the loss of some milk.

The evidence included the testimony of the defendant's 17-year-old daughter, who said that her father was drunk on the day of the murder and was railing against Dora, calling her "the low livedest thing around."

Early the next morning after the murder, it was demonstrated that Heilwagner shared news of his daughter-in-law's death before anyone else knew she was dead. The exhibits included the defleshed skull of the victim, a not uncommon evidentiary practice at the time.

The defense attorney repeatedly pointed to the lack of direct evidence, the lack of witnesses to prove the state's theory, to no avail. The trial resulted in a conviction and death sentence. A higher court examined the proceedings for flaws, found none, and rendered its approval.

Enter Charles Edward Russell.

At the time, he was a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and was well on his way to becoming one of the most famous reporters of his day. (Later in his life, Russell would put the "ism" in journalism, focusing his prodigious talents on muckraking and exposing the shameful class divisions in American society; among his many accomplishments, he earned a Pulitzer Prize and co-founded the NAACP.)

Russell, a native of Davenport, decided to dig into the case. He went to the jail where Heilwagner was being housed and tried to interview the old man, looking for an exclusive, some break in the case, something to explain some nagging doubts about the evidence. But all the reporter could elicit from the condemned was, "I just go weed my onions."

Heilwagner refused to cooperate with any effort to save him. He refused to be visited by a minister. He was unrepentant, uncommunicative. Russell and all others associated with the case became convinced that the correct result was reached, and that Heilwagner was guilty.

The old man was hanged at Rock Island, Illinois, in March, 1882, before a group consisting largely of reporters. His last words: "Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime." Nobody believed him.

Ten years passed.

Then, in a lodging house in Quincy, Illinois, another man, a wretched, tortured soul, sat down and wrote a long and detailed confession to the crime for which William Heilwagner had been hanged, a confession to the murder of Dora Heilwagner, an explanation that she was murdered because she was an adulteress. He left the note in his room, then took himself to a nearby bridge, threw himself into the water, and drowned.

The suicide was Otto Heilwagner--the old man's son--husband of the victim. The man that old William Heilwagner sacrificed himself to save.

Needless to say, Russell and many other people were horrified by this twist in the tale. Russell heaped blame upon himself for the execution of an innocent: "If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man." He came to firmly oppose the death penalty because of the risk of executing people who were not guilty. "The chance is too terrible," he wrote many years later. "We take it in one case in ten when we condemn men to death. Shall we keep taking it?"

Many good-hearted people came to agree with Russell's anti-death-penalty stance. And some very wicked people as well.


"Rock Island. The Murder Trial. Wm. Heilwagner Tried for the Murder of Dora Heilweigner on the Night of the 6th of September Last--The Testimony of the Prisoner's Daughter," Davenport Weekly Gazette, Jan. 25, 1882.

"Once When the Wrong Man Was Hanged," The Davenport Democrat and Leader, Dec. 10, 1928.

The Pen is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell, by Robert Miraldi (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) - an excellent biography of a fascinating man.



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