“On September 15 1900 I became intoxicated and while in that condition I threw my lasso in a spirit of mischif dragging Joseph Nenecles [sic] from the buggy in which he was riding and he was dragged 250 yards receiving injuries from which he died Can give no reason for the crime except drunkeness”
So wrote Ira Monroe Vermillion (above, as seen in his prison mugshot; click on photo to enlarge) around 1910 when he was applying for “trusty prisoner” status at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He had spent all his adult life in prison as a result of his reckless action, which killed a Czech farmer named Joseph Nemecek. (The spelling error must have been that of the clerk who typed up Ira’s application—surely Ira knew his victim’s name well enough.) In fact, he had been sentenced to life in prison for the crime, but President William Howard Taft commuted his sentence to 20 years in 1909.
I’m going to spend this and perhaps one or two more posts telling you what I’ve learned about Ira, his crime, and his punishment, largely from two useful sources: newspaper accounts reprinted in a volume of family history by a member of the Nemecek family, and Ira’s inmate file from Leavenworth, which I ordered this fall.
First off, though, who was Ira to us? He was Blanche Vermillion Branch’s uncle, a brother to her father Walter. He was the middle of five children born to John Washington (Wash) Vermillion and Martha Burrow. He was born in Lawrence County, Missouri, where both his parents had grown up. When he was still a boy—some time around 1885—his mother died, and around 1889 his father moved the family to the vicinity of Wayne, Indian Territory, and raised his children on a farm there.
(At left is a picture of Wash and his five children; they're not labeled individually, but my guess is that Walter, the oldest, is at far left, Will, the second oldest, is at far right, Ira, the third child, is seated on his father's left, and John, the fourth, is standing behind Ira. Cora, the youngest, is easy enough to spot. Click on photo to enlarge.)
The victim, too, was connected to our family. Joseph Nemecek, who also lived in the Wayne area, was the father of, among others, Andrew and James Nemecek, who each married sisters of Mollie Jicha, Blanche Vermillion’s mother. Before Nemecek’s murder, all these families were apparently on good terms, and Andrew Nemecek was even boarding with the Vermillion family when the crime took place. The family connection would later be a source of pain for Blanche, who grew up with the knowledge that her uncle had killed the grandfather of many of her closest cousins. She rarely if ever spoke about this until late in her life, and even then it was difficult for her—even though it all happened before she was born. I learned from Ira’s prison file that Blanche’s mother Mollie—whose brothers-in-law were sons of the victim—was one of Ira’s frequent correspondents in prison after her husband and Ira’s brother died in 1907.
I can't tell you too much more in terms of setting the stage for what happened. Just imagine Ira, who was nearing his 19th birthday and working as a "farm laborer" according to the census taken a few months earlier. And imagine Joseph Nemecek, a 64-year-old immigrant from Czechoslavakia and the father of eight sons, working a farm in Indian Territory.
(At left, the Vermillion boys a few years later. From left to right: John, Will, and Ira. Click on photo to enlarge.)
On the Saturday afternoon when the murder took place, Ira (who was actually known as Pete, apparently) was seen by several people in downtown Purcell, eight miles north of Wayne. As the Purcell Register put it, "he gave evidence of being strongly under the influence of liquor," and he was "seen swinging his lariat rope quite freely and had struck one man on the head in throwing the rope at him." Meanwhile, Joseph Nemecek was returning home from a visit to his oldest son, Anthon, and his wife and children, who lived on a farm across the river from Purcell near Lexington.
There were no eyewitnesses to exactly what happened next, but around six o'clock, word reached Purcell that a body had been found in Walnut Creek, below the bridge on the road that ran between Purcell and Wayne. Someone recognized the body as being Joseph Nemecek's, and his wagon and mules were found nearby. A coroner's jury determined from looking at the scene and the injuries to the body that Nemecek had been caught by a rope around his right wrist, pulled from his wagon, and dragged for some distance near and on the bridge. The body appeared to have been thrown from the bridge into the creek.
When the body was discovered, a pair of deputies went looking for the perpetrator; they soon found Ira Vermillion asleep by the side of the road, in a "drunken stupor" and missing a shoe. He claimed not to remember what had happened. He was taken to jail in Purcell.
Andrew Nemecek, Joseph's 24-year-old son, got the news about his father by telegram when he was sitting at the supper table of Ira's father and stepmother, where he was a boarder. He and Ira's father Wash jumped into a wagon together and reached the scene at about the time the deputies found Ira.
In reporting on the crime the next week, the Purcell Register said that Wash Vermillion was "well known as an honorable, upright gentleman" and that "the best of feeling existed between the two families." Indeed, no motive besides drunken mischief seems to have been raised during the trial.
In my next post, I'll talk about Ira's trial the following spring.