Murder of the Marshall Girl: George T. Palmer’s Trial and Pardon

Wisconsin State Census: showing George T. Palmer enumerated in the Marshall household

1895 Wisconsin State Census: showing George T. Palmer enumerated in the Marshall household.  The family at this time was Oscar and Catherine Marshall with their daughter Hazel.

In 1920, Jessie Green (nee Palmer) passed away.  Besides her own family, her survivors included: “…Mrs. Frank Doucette [her mother] of this city and two sisters, Mrs. William Riebe of Wausau and Mrs. B.L. Weddle of South Bend, Indiana.” (Daily Record Herald, 20 May 1920).  The small obituary fails to mention George T. Palmer, and by so doing erases an understandably shameful chapter in the Palmer’s family history.  The brother to Jessie still lived: serving a life sentence for first degree murder. This post hopes to remember a crime that was committed over a hundred years ago using mostly the pardon documents of George T. Palmer.  It covers the events leading up to the murder, the trial, and the appeal process.  I hope to document, in part, this murder, but also speculate on the particular tone and avenues an appeal for clemency must have taken in the early 20th century.

 A NEAR LYNCHING

The Saturday, October 31, 1896 edition of The Weekly Wisconsin reports a shocking crime in the farming community of North Bend:

” Filled with a desire to revenge himself on his employer for some slight grievance, George T. Palmer, a farmhand, enticed the 3-year-old, daughter of Oscar Marshall, a farmer at North Bend, into the barn last night and killed her with an ax. Palmer is 18 years old and had been adopted by Marshall from the state school for dependent children. North Bend is a hamlet with about seventy- five population, is thirteen miles east of here and is in Jackson county. Excitement runs high and it is feared that the youth will be lynched before the officers can get him in jail at the county seat in Black River Falls. Marshall is a well-known and highly respected resident of the southern part of Jackson county. He and his wife are both young and Hazel, the victim of last night’s tragedy, was their only child. It is two years since Marshall adopted young Palmer. The boy was bright and on the whole well-behaved, though he was always rather headstrong. Mr. Marshall was away last evening and Mrs. Marshall and the child were alone in the house, while Palmer was doing the chores around the barn. During the day Mr. Marshall had occasion to reprimand the boy, and at the time the latter showed some resentment, but it was thought the matter would end there But it seems that Palmer was consumed with a desire for revenge, and as the afternoon hours wore away he began making plans for a murderous attack on the family. It is believed that it was his intention to kill Mrs. Marshall and the child and then waylay and kill Mr. Marshall when he returned in the evening. Hazel was playing in the yard and it was an easy matter for Palmer to coax her into the barn. Then he seized an ax and dealt her several blows on the head, any one of which would have been enough to cause death. From the barn Palmer went toward the house, carrying the ax. He intended to kill Mrs. Marshall, but as he neared the house his courage failed him and he turned back, dropping. the bloody ax on the steps. Thoughts of the consequences of his crime then frightened him and he concluded to try to secure compassion by pretending to commit suicide. He smeared his lips with carbolic acid and went out to the icehouse to await the discovery of his crime. It was quite late when Mrs. Marshall missed the child and made a search which ended in finding the body lying in a pool of blood on the barn floor. The child was still breathing, but died a few moments later. An alarm was given and the farmyard was soon filled with neighbors, who began to search for Palmer, on whom suspicion fell at once. His suicide ruse and feigned-unconsciousness failed and he was roughly dragged from his hiding place in the ice-house. Then he was bound and held to await the arrival of the sheriff or some of his deputies. Palmer finally made a complete confession, relating the details as given above. He said that he had been reading stories of murders and admitted that he got his idea of securing revenge from one of these tales. Numerous threats of lynching were made, but better counsel prevailed and the officers were permitted to start with him from the county jail at Black River Falls. Galesville, Wis., Oct. 29.—[Special.]— George Palmer, the murderer of little Hazel Marshall at North Bend, escaped lynching only by the quick action of Constable John Haag in removing him to the county jail at Black River Falls. The constable quickly got the prisoner away at 3 o’clock in the morning and he is now behind the bars at the county seat. [….] Palmer’s mother lives at Wausau and his father is an inmate of the state hospital for the insane at Oshkosh, and has been for over five years. The boy is about 17 years of age, but does not look over 14. The funeral of his victim was held today. Black River Falls. Wis., Oct. 29.— Young Palmer is suffering from the effects of the carbolic acid mixture which he took with suicidal intent after the murder, and has been very weak. It is feared that inflammation of the bowels will set in. The common belief is that the boy is insane” (1).

The prospect of a lynching was very real as a later report during the trial shows:

“At the time of the murder, the whole country around North Bend became so aroused and excited over the affair, that if Palmer had not been taken to the county seat at once he would probably have been lynched. It was reported at the time that a movement had been formed by a large company to go to Black River Falls in the night for the purpose of taking him out of jail and lynching him, but on account of a heavy storm coming on at the time, it was abandoned.” (Alton Telegraph, 4 March 1897)

THE INQUEST

Lyle Pynn filed the complaint against Palmer on the 27th and 28th of October 1896  and swore: “George Thomas Palmer did wilfully and with malice aforethought kill and murder one Hazel Marshal, against the peace & dignity of the State of Wisconsin” It was Pynn and constable J. L. Haag who brought Palmer before Justice of the Peace Robert Crowley on the 28th of October to be charged with the crime.  When the court asked whether Palmer was guilty or not guilty, “He, the accused, did not seem to understand the question and the Court read the complaint to him again and asked him if he killed the little girl.  His answer was YES.” (Justice Court 28 October 1896; PP) An inquest was then held in which a jury examined the body, which laid at home, they examined the crime scene and listened to the testimony of Dr. J. W. Rockwell, William McAdam, John B. Patterson, and Mrs. O. B. Marshall.  The jury members were C.W. Chafey, M.K. Pynn, Fred Haag, Arthur Douglas, Peter E. Johnson, and John Emerson.  Many of these men would renew their efforts for the Marshall family when Palmer applied for a pardon.

Mrs. Marshall’s testimony was as follows:

“I saw the child first after it had been hurt lying ion[sic] the clover chaff on the barn floor.  She was lying on her back with its arms stretched out and her head was covered with blood. The child lived about an hour [Paterson testifies it was two hours] after I discovered it had been hurt.  The barn door was shut.  The child could not have shut the barn door.  It is all that I can do to shut it.” (PP)

Part of John B. Paterson’s testimony was as follows:

“The reason the accused gave for his deed was that he had been reading murder stories.  He made his confession voluntarily in the presence of Mr. S. P. Davis and Mrs. Davis and Bert Hubbard, Hugh Smith, Joseph Johnson and Dr. Rhodes, Will Solomon, John Haag and Lyle Pynn” (PP)

Part of William McAdam’s testimony was as follows:

“Dr. Rhodes examined the accused and said there was nothing the matter with him. I was present when Dr. Rhodes examined the child. Palmer told me where he left the ax after killing the child, and I found it where he said it was. There was light colored hair on the ax like that on the child. Dr. Rhodes asked the accused what was the matter with him and he said he was sick and accused said that he had took poison.” (PP)

THE TRIAL

The Court appointed J. Castle as defense attorney.  After the court read the charges and asked for a plea, Palmer, “…stands mute and refuses to plead and refuses to make any answer to said information to be entered…” (Circuit Court 1 March 1897, PP). An effort to claim insanity was immediately brought forward.  The trial began on March 2nd.  The jury members were William Sheffer, John Dittinger, George Shaw, J. W. Phillips, N. H. Nelson, J. R. Kutcher, Tollef Nelson, C. H. Mortiboy, A. N. Anderson, W. E. Abbot, Peter I. Peterson, and James Crosby.  J. P. Crosby served as foreman for the jury. The defense called the following witnesses: E. J. Austin, J. G. Forbes, James Livingston, David Barclay, A. Premo, Edna Austin.  E. J. Austin was the Deputy Sheriff and in charge of the jury.  My guess is the defense hoped to characterize the behavior of Palmer since the crime as strange and symptomatic of insanity. The prosecution called 12 witnesses including Mr. and Mrs. Marshall.  Besides Dr. Rhodes, three other doctors were called, presumably to establish the sanity of Palmer.  Of note, one was Dr. Walter Kempster, who testified in the 1881 trial of Charles Guiteau for the assassination of President James Garfield (Princeton Union, 4 March 1897).

The court recessed until the following day. In the afternoon of March 3rd, the jury found Palmer sane.  The prosecution then called four more witnesses, including John Haag and Lyle Pynn.  The state closed their remarks and the jury deliberated.  Court documents state the “Jury after being out a short time returned….” (PP), and found Palmer was guilty of murder in the first degree.  In addition to the life sentence, Palmer was to spend the first five days in solitary confinement.

FAMILY LIFE

Several events contributed towards George Palmer’s violent act.  George’s father, John T. Palmer, was a drunk and prone to epileptic fits after falling from a lumber car.  In late December 1890 the Wisconsin River Hospital reported: “We consider him insane and liable at any moment to violent maniacle [sic] excitement, which might result seriously”  (PP).  After a request from Janette Palmer, John’s wife, John was committed on 29 December 1890 by Judge Louis Marchetti.  About 10 months after John was committed, some of the children became “dependents of the state.”  Janette worked as a washer-woman in her efforts to support her children.  The evidence obviously shows the Palmers were already destitute and suffering from malnutrition: George appears very young for his age in the news reports, and John looked “emaciated” in his psychiatric examination. At least George Palmer was sent to the State School for Dependent Children in Sparta, Wisconsin on 9 October 1891. A report by the state school for the trial sheds further light on the Palmer family’s struggles:

“Children were not abandoned by said parents but lived with them under their care and control. Parents are unable to properly care for them, the father being disabled by sickness to earn the means for their support and that said father and said mother of said children were supported by the city of Wausau for the last two years to the extent of about ten dollars per month. Mothers character is good and works as much as her health will allow. Father drinks, is a painter by trade.” Judge Lyon of State Board of Control S.S. Landt, Sparta, Wisconsin  (PP)

Photo taken in Sparta

Either George Palmer or brother Charles.  Photo taken in Sparta

This may be a photo of George at the State School.  The photo was taken in Sparta and has similar facial features of the Palmer family.  The other possibility is this is George’s brother Charles, who may also have been at the school.  Charles was born in 1884 and would have been six when the father was committed and thirteen when George committed the crime.  This becomes difficult to determine when George is reported looking young for his age.  Charles also ran into trouble, being convicted of burglary in Wausau in the early 1900’s he spent a year with his brother in prison.  The three daughters, in stark contrast, seemed to have married well and led stable family lives.  The state census of 1895 showing Mrs. John Palmer with 3 girls is evidence that both boys were farmed out or state supported.

GEORGE PALMER’S PETITION

George Palmer first petitioned for clemency in the fall of 1926.  Palmer gives four reasons to Governor John J. Blaine for clemency.  Palmer says:

“…my trial was conducted in a manner which upon the face of the record indicates the strong influence of public sentiment, and the absence of any consideration for my tender years or my adverse rearing: secondly, the term I have served is sufficient by way of punishment and also sufficient to deter others from committing a similar crime; thirdly, my stage in life is now such that I can still work out my own livelihood and provide for myself in old age; lastly, my aged mother who has stood by me throughout is now in need and deserving of my best efforts for  her support and comfort, and I have a desire to live outside of prison, as my prison record shows I have lived inside, a good Christian life, and to become a useful and respectible [sic] citizen.” (PP)

Of these, it appears from subsequent documents that it was his age at the time of the crime and his desire to help his mother that gave his petition some strength.  Palmer then describes his version of the event.

“I was born in Canada and came to Wausau, Wisconsin as a mere child with my parents. Here the economic circumstances of my family resulted in my being sent to the state school at Sparta. A word of my parents: My mother worked as a scrub-woman and at other various jobs to help provide for our family. My father during our stay in Wausau was of little aid in providing for us because he used liquors excessively and since a fall from a lumber pile some years after my birth he had been an epileptic and the year before my entry to the state school at Sparta he had, upon my mother’s petition, been sent to the Northern Hospital for Insane. There is no other evidence of insanity in our family and it is my firm opinion, the opinion of medical examiners and the general belief of all who knew my father that h[i]s insanity was due to the accident which occurred after my birth. After one month at Sparta, I went to work on the farm of Thomas Rohem of Mauston, Wisconsin, where I remained eight months being sent back July 4, 1892. The reason I was returned to Sparta is that I had trouble with this family. While there I was bothered with involuntary bed wetting. This brought punishment upon me by way of whippings about the legs with switches but no medical treatment. When the situation became unbearable on their part as well as mine, I was returned. In the following January, I was next placed with John Jones of Sparta. I stayed there until July 29th following, when I ran away from the farm walking to Camp Douglas where I got a train to Sparta and returned to the school. I left Mr. Jones because the work he heaped upon me was that normally for a man of twice my age. I was forced to work from sunrise to nine and ten o’clock at night and scolded if all the work wasn’t done then. Over a year later, September 29, 1894, I was let out to Oscar Marshall of North Bend, Wisconsin, where I stayed until arrested October 27, 1896. My stay there was much better than at the other two places. The first two years I was treated fairly good and I preferred it to being at the state school. I had to work all the time when not actually in school, which was more than my school-mates and neighbor’s boys did, but it wasn’t so bad. During the last summer I was there, Mr. Marshall made me do most of the work. He had thirty acres of corn, which I had to cultivate alone and then do chores. Almost daily when I would get home from school at night, I would find the milk pan and pails dirty as left by the milk-man in the morning and would have to wash them before doing the evening chores. Then I had to do the chores and a scolding followed if I was late with chores. I also had to do other work about the place such as splitting wood. The last winter I was there Mr. Marshall used to send me out into the woods to haul in wood, which was covered with snow and frozen down. I had all I could do to get the wood loose from the frozen ground and if he thought it took me to [sic] long he would scold when I got home and say that I was lazy. In the summer when I couldn’t cultivate corn I had to split knotty and twisted oak and elm cobs. Mr. Marshall’s scoldings as time went on, became more frequent also more cuttingly sarcastic. On October 27, 1896, the day of the crime, I had been told to do the chores and then to split wood. At noon when Mr. Marshall came home he scolded because he said I had not given the hogs any water, when in fact I had, but they drank it all. When I came in the house he made fun of me saying my shirt must be wet seeing I had split so much wood. I know that it wasn’t much wood, but the cobs were all such hard, dry and twisted ones that I could hardly do anything with them. After I had finished eating, I went to doing noon chores and thought over the way Mr. Marshall was abusine [sic] me. Whenever I felt sick and complained, he said I was merely lazy and trying to get out of work. He hadn’t given me any underwear since I got there, but let me use, both winter and summer, two overalls which were dirty from doing chores. There and many other abuses and the lack of the pleasures and comforts of other boys filled my thoughts and made me nervous and besides myself as to what to do and what the future held for me. About mid-afternoon the pigs were getting out of the pen so I took the axe and went up near the barn and drove some stakes down to hold the fence. Hazel Marshall followed me and watched me. While doing this work, I heard a hen cackling in the barn. When I was through driving in stakes, I went to see if she had a hidden nest in the barn, Hazel following me into the barn. All afternoon I had been unnerved and upset by my lot in life and the abuse I was getting. I was only seventeen years old then. I worked and walked as in a dream and when I was in the barn before I realized what I was doing, I had hit Hazel with the axe. Seeing that she was dying, I hit her three times more and then went to the horse-stable where I took the blue-vitrol bottle and carbolic acid bottle, which we used for the horses and both of which were marked poison. These I mixed and drank a swallow or so of the mixture to kill myself. I went to the ice-house, away from everyone, and laid down to die. The next I knew someone was holding a lantern in my face. They got me up and asked me questions. I said, ‘I killed the girl’ and wanted to be left alone to die. All that evening and night at Marshall’s, at Mr. Haag’s and on the way to town they asked me questions, when I wanted to be left alone to die. I answered them the way they wanted them answered for that was the only way I could get any peace. Much the testimony, which convicted me at the trial was based on these statements made by me to these men.” (PP)

Palmer then goes into detail of each reason for his application.  This statement seems to contradict any notion that “murder stories” contributed to Palmer’s motive.

FEAR AND FURY IN JACKSON COUNTY

The pardon of 1926 met with strong community condemnation in Jackson County organized in part by Oscar Marshall.  Petitioners included the Jackson County Board of Supervisors, the North Bend Town Board of Supervisors, the County Officials of Jackson County, and “older residents” in the vicinity of the Marshall home.  The trial judge died before 1926.  Emery W. Crosby was the present judge of Jackson County and he gives this report to the governor:

“…I have spent sometime on the record in this matter and it would appear that this was one of the most atrocious crimes ever committed in that county. [..] The feeling in the community, as far as I have been able to determine, is that to pardon this man would be a travesty on justice. Under these conditions I cannot recommend a pardon and will leave the matter to your own good judgment after you have gone over the record in the case.” (PP)

A common sentiment in the petitions against Palmer is the esteem the community held for the Marshall family.  Vivian Elmer Tibbitts wrote:

“If Palmer were a man who had repented of his deed, the people hereabouts would not feel so strongly that he should serve his term, but indications of many sorts point to the fact that without a doubt upon his release he will eventually return to this part of the country for revenge, especially upon the Marshalls.” (PP)

The petitions, dated 2 November 1926, include similar language:

“At the time of the trial, he threatened the witnesses for the State [Pynn and Douglas], and since the trial as we are informed and do verily believe, has kept posted on their whereabouts and also kept posted as to the Marshall family…it is our belief that were he pardoned or paroled, he would seek vengeance upon the witnesses for the State and also upon the members of the Marshall family….” (PP)

Other petitions are muted regarding the fear of revenge.

THE CONVERSION OF THE PROSECUTOR

In a letter dated 14 October 1926, George M. Popham, the prosecutor in Palmer’s trial, writes to Governor Blaine in favor of a pardon:

“His father at the time of trial was an inmate of the Hospital of Marathon County for the incurable insane, and as I recollect his record there showed that he was extremely alcoholic, which feature however was not brought out at the trial, and I think it appeared in the evidence in rebuttal, that the injury by fall from the load of hay occurred after the boy was born and therefore could not have been the cause of any insanity in the boy. However, it is very important for you to know that Dr. Walter Kempster of Milwaukee, who was the expert called for and paid by the state to testify impartially as to the boy’s mental condition, positively stated to Judge Bailey of Eau Claire (who presided at the trial) and to me, that if Wisconsin then had a hospital for the Criminal Insane, the boy should be committed to it and that if he while on the Witness stand had been asked the question as to the heriditary [sic] effect upon a child of excessive alcoholism or alcoholic insanity on the part of the parent, he would have testified that there are more cases of hereditary insanity due to excessive alcoholism on the part of the parent than to ANY OTHER CAUSE. Judge Bailey took a very humane view of the situation, but was compelled, in the interest of the public and to guard it against the danger of any future mental outburst on the part of this boy, (after a verdict of first degree murder had been returned by the jury) to, and he did sentence the boy to life imprisonment at Waupun, and at this time, it is my very best recollection he stated openly in the presence of myself and Mr. Castle and others, that if there was then in Wisconsin a hospital for the criminal insane, he would endeavor to so arrange that the boy be committed to it, there being no such institution, he felt compelled for the welfare of the public to commit the boy for life to the prison at Waupun. Some time, I think prior to the year 1910, I had some letters from young Palmer, written to me from Waupun, which were written with good penmanship and in good English.  They also seemed to indicate such good mental condition, that I began to feel, that the time had possibly come when some executive clemency might safely be exercised by the Governor in Palmer’s behalf.  I also felt that, while at the time of the trial Palmer had been dealt with justly for his own welfare and that of the state, nevertheless, it was my duty to determine whether the original sentence was at that later date operating with undue harshness upon Palmer, and if so, it was my duty to do what I could to relieve him of possible future injustice. Accordingly I went to the prison at Waupun to interview Palmer and on a Sunday was given an opportunity for a very full and satisfactory interview from which I came to the sincere and careful conclusion that Palmer was sane and of sound mind and that he could safely be trusted with his liberty without danger to the public from such an outbreak as that which had resulted in the death of Mr. Marshall’s little girl and Palmer’s imprisonment.  I came to this honest conclusion after having applied to Palmer every test I could think of for the purpose of testing his mental condition.  I am not an expert in mental diseases, nor as well qualified to determine his mental condition, as those who have been with him daily or as those physicians who may have examined him from time to time.  But I have successfully handled several very important criminal cases where the issue of sanity was involved, and I felt fully competent to make such tests as would satisfy my own careful inquiring mind, that I might make no mistake against the welfare of the people in any recommendation that I might subsequently make.  Upon my return to Chicago, I prepared and sent to Wisconsin Board of Pardons a carefully written letter in which I stated my opinion to the effect that I believed Palmer was sane, and I recommended some form of clemency such as parole, if the board upon its own examination should find that he could be safely entrusted with his liberty.  I could do nothing more than that. In my interview with Palmer at that time, he state that he had read the Bible through at least three times.  He talked very intelligently about the Bible and about religious and other subjects, and that led me to conversation and questions to ascertain whether there might exist any lurking religious frenzy.  I found no such indications.  Among many other tests applied, I discussed with him questions relating to his rights if in possession of liberty.  I told him a story of a case where a young fellow working for a farmer had been refused his wages and that he beat the farmer up.  His comment was that the man was wrong in assaulting the farmer.  I asked what he should have done.  He replied that he should have resorted only to the law, hired a lawyer and sued the farmer for his wages.  I said suppose the farmer had first struck the employee, should the latter strike back.  He said ‘no’.  I asked why,- he has the right to defend himself.  He said ‘Yes, by man’s law, but Christ said, – love your neighbor as yourselves and resist not evil with evil.’  It was really getting quite interesting, so I asked if that doctrine was not quite unnatural in the present day.  He said it might seem to be unnatural, bit if so, that was because we did not understand our real nature. I asked him to explain his views.  He said that Christ meant to prevent murder from the happening of the first blow; that if a person struck, struck back, the first assailant might strike back with a club which might be replied to with a knife or deadly weapon from which murder might follow.  He also said the man who turned the other cheek and refused to strike back, if not coward[ly] and if as strong and able to fight as the assailant, possessed greater bravery, manhood and courage than the assailant, and that if he did not strike back, the assailant would probably feel so ashamed of himself that the trouble would end to the glory of the man who obeyed Christ’s law. I asked if he could surely practice that doctrine if he were at liberty.  He said it might be hard, but he knew that he could, and he said that law, ‘Love they [n]eighbor as thyself,’ – was the greatest law ever written, – that ‘I love myself from birth and can intentionally do myself no wrong.  If I love my neighbor as myself I can do him no wrong, I can then commit no crime against him, so crime would disappear.’  He said millions of men had been worshipping [sic] Christ as the Son of God for nearly nineteen hundred years but that few had actually followed his teachings and it was time for the world to begin that practice.  These views were expressed of course in answer to questions and suggestions on my part, but his answers and conversation indicated a good intelligence.  It is my belief that if he is as sane today as he was at the time of that interview, he can be safely entrusted with his liberty. Other matters were developed at that interview which were not brought out at the trial.  I had no knowledge of them and I believe that his attorney, because of the short time allowed for preparation was without knowledge of the following facts.  The boy was an inmate of the dependent school at Sparta, that is for dependent children.  I think he had been apprenticed out several times, and claimed to have been mistreated.  Finally he was apprenticed to Mr. Marshall of North Bend, Jackson County, Wisconsin.  I do not wish to cast the slightest reflection upon Mr. Marshall was was regarded as an honest reputable citizen, and I’d not vouch for the truth of Palmer’s claim to the effect, that he had been compelled to get up winter mornings at 4:30, dressed only in overalls, without underwear, go out milk the cows, feed pigs while hes wet slimy overalls froze to this skin; that during the plowing season he worked so late at night that he could not see to plow a straight furrow; that he was given no money for holiday expenses and was deprived of the priveleges [sic] of other boys in the neighborhood.  I merely state these facts to show that had they been brought out at the trial, they would have had an important bearing upon the testimony of Dr. Kempster, and might have had some effect upon the result. To my mind the great question is, – what is Palmer’s mental condition at this time?  If he is sane and can be trusted with his liberty and if at liberty will not be a menace to the public, then I think he had been sufficiently punished, and should be allowed his liberty for the remainder of his days, if modern hum[a]n[i]tarian methods are to be applied. In such humanitarian matters, I often think of the story as told by some transcendent old poet, that when God Almighty design[ed] to create man, the various angles of his attributes passed in their order before him and spoke of his purpose, – they were truth, justice and charity.  Truth in passing the throne said, ‘Create him not Father, he will deny the sacred and inviolate truth, create him not!’  Stern justice in passing thundered, ‘Create him not, Father, he will desecrate Thy holy temple, he will fill the world with injustice and wrong; Aye, in the very first generation he will wantonly slay his own brother, therefore create him not!’  But gently Charity knelt before the throne and whispered, ‘Create him father, I will follow him in all his wanderings and by the lessons he shall learn from his own mistakes, I will bring him back to Thee, O God.’  I believe, Your Excellency, can now deal charitabley [sic] by the man, Palmer, who as a boy never had a chance, and that if now safe and sane he should be given the pardon requested.  I feel sure that his representatives are engaged in a noble enterprise in thus befriending this man, and that when their efforts are fully understood they will be highly commended by all good, justice-loving men. Yours very truly, [signed] George M. Popham  (PP)

What seems significant to me in this letter is the degree to which religion played a significant role in the judicial process.  One may question the sincerity of Palmer’s faith, but what is not in doubt is the value in professing a Christian value system.  If Palmer had confessed any doubts towards a Christian faith, his petition may have been structurally weak.

Regardless, the petition was unsuccessful.  On the 18th of November 1926, the governor denied the petition stating:

“His offense was no doubt due to mental morbidity, as well as moral depravity.  He had a very unfortunate heredity, and he belongs to that class of cases where there is little hope for the person, and it is really a custodial case, in order to segregate him from society.”

J. J. B.  (PP)

ON PAROLE

In 8 November 1927, Blaine’s successor Fred Zimmermann received a letter from George J.  Leicht asking for a new review of Palmer’s petition.  Palmer at the time was working at Camp Linger Longer in Tomahawk Lake, WI.  In Leicht’s letter he states,

“You visited the Tomahawk Lake Camp a short time ago and talked to this man.  Perhaps you remember it.  You intimated to a companion then that you thought he had served long enough.  He has no means wherewith to make another application. […]May I suggest that you look into the record of the former application with the view toward reopening it and acting favorably on it at this time”

[signed] George J Leicht  (PP)

Bruce T. Fleming was Officer in Charge at Camp Linger Longer.  He wrote to Zimmermann stating:

“[Palmer] has always been a very trusty prisoner, always doing the work assigned to him, and doing it as well as though he were working for himself.

I sincerely believe that should you feel like giving him his freedom you will never have came to regret it. He tells me that if released he would go back to his mother and try to make her happy in her last few days on this earth.” (PP)

These efforts too appear unsuccessful.  Palmer would spend another four years in prison before a process of parole was begun on March 4, 1931.  On 9 March 1937, Palmer was granted a conditional pardon by Governor La Follette.  An absolute pardon was granted on 16 February 1939 by Governor Julius P. Heil. The case still brought headlines in 1939. The Madison Wisconsin State Journal reports:

“In 1931 already 51 Palmer was paroled from Waupun. He returned to prison voluntarily.  He was paroled again in 1932 and of his own will returned once more to the penitentiary—his home the greater part of his life. Paroled a third time on June 19 1934, he went to work on a farm.  This time he did not return, worked steadily, and used several hundred dollars of his earnings to care for his 88 year old mother” (1).

Palmer’s parole according the the State Board of Control, “…has gotten along on parole unusually well….” (7 February 1939 PP).  At the time of his pardon Palmer lived in Janesville. In 1942, George Palmer lived and worked at the Deer Trail Lodge in Oneida for a J. W. Johnson.  He is in contact with his sister Jennie Ann.  George Thomas Palmer died on the 19 August 1962 in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  Palmer’s mother died on 28 September 1938. Mrs. Catherine Marshall, mother to Hazel, died in September 1939.  Mr. Oscar B. Marshall died in 1953.

THE SOCIETY MEN

Louis Marchetti from History of Marathon County

Louis Marchetti from History of Marathon County

Louis Marchetti, besides his role as a judge and mayor of Wausau, wrote the History of Marathon County.  The book mentions the Green Brothers who ran the baggage and passenger transport line.

“Mr.[George] Green was married in 1897, to Miss Jessie Palmer, then of Wausau, but a native of St. John’s, New Brunswick. She was two and one half years old when her parents, John and Janette Palmer, brought her to Wausau, where the latter yet resides, the former dying in 1898. He was a contract painter” (Marchetti 764-765).

Besides these broad biographical details, Marchetti possessed intimate knowledge of the Palmer family because he served as judge in the first case committing John T Palmer in 1890.  Interestingly, in 1893 Judge Marchetti urged the construction of the “Asylum for the Chronic Insane” in Marathon (Marathon County Asylum and Poor Farm).

George J. Leicht, the attorney for Palmer in the pardon process, is also mentioned in the History of Marathon County.  Leicht was very active in fraternal organizations (see biography by Hart).  Marchetti states that Leicht, “…politically is a Republican and fraternally a Mason.” (935),  Leicht at the time of the pardon process was a judge, appointed by Governor Blaine and “serving with acclaim in juvenile cases” (Marathon Historical Society, Bill Hart).

George M. Popham, was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a Mason, among other memberships (Proceeding 109; Chicagoans 546).  Marchetti, while it is not known if he was a Mason, was an Odd Fellow (Proceedings 134). 

George T. Palmer, then, was brother-in-law to George G. Green, who was a Mason and very active in the fraternal organizations.  What I am attempting to piece together is not a conspiracy theory but a possible network through which George Palmer, a destitute felon, may have begun an appeal.  Leicht lived and worked in Wausau and it seems very likely that he knew George Green through the fraternal organizations as did Marchetti.  And just as Marchetti knew the hard story of the Palmer family (and, of course, chose not to print it in his history), Leicht also knew.  George Palmer through his brother-in-law had access to the powerful men in Wausau, so, one would think, appeals, like water, seek the path of least resistance.  Leicht may have been interested in the case too, because of his special concern for juvenile cases, and Palmer was a juvenile when he committed the crime. It is less certain whether Popham knew the Marchetti or the other interested parties.  As part of the pardon process, a letter from the prosecutor must be sought, and this is likely why Popham wrote to the Governor in the petition.  However, George Palmer had begun his appeal prior to 1910 by writing to Popham.  And Popham seems to have given a considerable amount of time and thought to Palmer’s case.  How much this was due to Popham’s own sense of duty or to the appeals from certain corners will not be answered but is fascinating speculation.  After all, George T. Palmer’s case was remarkable in many ways.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank David Harper and L.M. Stockman for their help in this post.  Particularly, they provided transcripts of news articles that I was not familiar with.  These were the Princeton Union, and Alton Telegraph.  They’ve created a genealogical site that details Hazel Marshall’s family which can be found here <http://www.obliquity.com/family/records/marcon01.html>

Works Cited

The Book of Chicagoans: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men and Women of the City of Chicago. ed. Albert Nelson Marquis. A. N. Marquis: Chicago, 1917. Web. Mocavo. 23 May 2015.

Daily Record Herald 20 May 1920: 2 Web. Newspapers. 22 May 2015

Hart, Bill. “George J. Leicht.” Marathon County Historical Society.

“Innocent Child the Victim.” The Weekly Wisconsin October 31, 1896: 1. Web. Newspapers. 22 May 2015

“Insisting Upon Insanity.” The Princeton Union 4 March 1897.

Jailed in ’97, Killer gets Full Pardon.” Madison Wisconsin State Journal 18 February  1939: 1. Web. Newspapers. 22 May 2015

“Marathon County Asylum and Poor Farm.” < http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wimarath/insane.htm >

Marchetti, Louis. History of Marathon County Wisconsin and Representative Citizens 1913.

“Palmer is on Trial.” Alton Telegraph 4 March 1897: 12. Web. Newspapers. 22 May 2015

Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of the State of Wisconsin. Eau Claire: Grand Lodge of Wisconsin, 1903. Web. GoogleBooks. 22 May 2015

(PP) Wisconsin. Governor: Pardon Papers. George T. Palmer 7026. T369. Wisconsin Historical Society. Madison, WI. 1937.

Wisconsin State Census. 1895. Web. Familysearch.

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2 thoughts on “Murder of the Marshall Girl: George T. Palmer’s Trial and Pardon

  1. I grew up hearing hearing about this story. As I was born 73 years after the murder, it obviously made a deep impact upon the family psyche. Katie Conrad, Hazel’s mother, would have been my 3rd great aunt (sister to my great-great grandfather, Franz Conrad). Thank you for your work in researching and retelling the story.

    • Thank you for your comment. George T. Palmer’s sister is my great-great grandma. The story didn’t make it down to me, although some older generations had vaguely heard about it. I found it out through researching my family.

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