Monday, January 7, 2008

The Vermillion Murder Trial

(At left, the bridge over Walnut Creek, scene of the murder of Joseph Nemecek, in September 1900.)

In September 1900, 18-year-old Ira “Pete” Vermillion was bound over without bail for the murder of Joseph Nemecek. I’ve found no indication that he was released any time before the trial began in March 1901, so he presumably spent six months in jail waiting for his day in court.

Because the crime took place in Indian Territory, the federal court sitting at Purcell had jurisdiction. Indian Territory had something of a reputation for lawlessness, and the judge’s instructions to the grand jury addressed this in a way that a modern defense lawyer might see as prejudicial. According to the Purcell Register, the judge remarked that “there seems to be in the territory a lawless element, the chief education of which consists in knowing how to carry pistols and to discharge them. The greater number of such people are hanged, said he, the greater would be the number of lives saved.”

Jury selection in the case began on March 19 and was complete by the next day. The trial itself took just two and a half days. Ira had entered a plea of not guilty, his lawyer arguing that all the evidence against him was circumstantial.

Indeed it was, but there was plenty of it. He had been seen in town—drunk and trying to rope people with his lariat—just before the crime took place. And he was last seen heading south toward the scene of the crime. When he was found in a drunken stupor not long after the crime and not far away, he was missing a shoe, which was found in his stirrup nearby. That shoe had a piece missing from its heel, and a piece found at the crime scene was a perfect match.

The case attracted more than local attention: the Dallas Morning News ran three short articles on the trial, noting that "the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case make it especially interesting."

The jury didn’t take long: they returned a guilty verdict, but decided that the crime did not merit capital punishment. Ira was sentenced to life in prison. “The prisoner and his relatives received the verdict very calmly,” wrote the Register, “though it was a severe blow to them, especially to the parents, who stood by their boy during his time of trial.”

And surely standing by their boy had a cost for the family in the community. By the time Ira entered the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth in May, his father Wash, his stepmother Susan, and his brothers and sister were living in the state of Washington. They may have been planning the move anyway, but the timing makes me wonder if they left out of shame.

Next post: Ira’s years in Leavenworth.


CountryGirl said...

I am just catching up with your blogs and the Vermillion series was amazing. That must have been pretty exciting to get all the documentation on his life. It's cool to have the photos as well.

heinz57 said...

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. Yes, getting the prison file was like Christmas for me. I have a few family photos from my grandmother, and it's nice to learn more about the people in them. And there is so much available on the web now--pics of Leavenworth, for example--that it helps fill in the context.

Anonymous said...

I just bought a journal from one of the Jurors in this case. I have never heard of this case until I started reading this journal.

Heinz 57 said...

Christopher--that's very interesting! Would you be willing to share the journal entries about the trial with me? I could pay for photocopying and postage. You can e-mail me at