Frank Walter Harris spent just one season in the big leagues–1884 with the Altoona Mountain Citys in the Union Association. The 25-year-old had played with teams in the Pittsburgh area for nearly a decade before his 24 games in Altoona—playing outfield and first base he hit.263 in 95 at bats. The team folded after just 25 games with a 6-19 record, which included losing their first 11.
After the club folded Harris became a baseball nomad; over seven seasons he played for at least ten different clubs, mostly in the Midwest; he was primarily a third baseman during his minor league career.
After his final professional season with the Rockford Hustlers and Davenport Pilgrims in the Illinois-Iowa League in 1891, he settled in Freeport, Illinois and opened a bar called “The Fashion” on Stephenson Street. He also continued to play baseball with a local team.
In July of 1892 he married a woman named Mary Jesse Allison from the nearby town of Rock Falls. The Sterling Gazette said the bride came from “one of the best known and highly respected families” in the area. Harris, who appears to have been married one time before, was divorced in less than a year, and married again within 16 months. The Freeport Bulletin said:
“Frank W. Harris is one of the best known men about time. He is generally doing something or other to attract public attention. If it isn’t a divorce it’s a marriage, and if he isn’t bossing a game of baseball, he is likely to be incurring the enmity of the committee of one hundred (the Freeport citizen’s committee). He has the cutest curl to his mustache of any man in the city, and his hair is always combed down over his forehead in a pretty little bang. His raiment is so dazzling that when he appears in public with a bull dog at his heels on a dismal autumn day the street is brightened up as if the summer sun had suddenly burst forth from behind a cloud. It would not be safe to hazard how many pairs of trousers he has, but they would supply a good-sized clothing store and are of the most varied color and pattern imaginable.”
His new wife’s father, John Billerbeck was described by the paper as “one of the wealthiest men in Freeport.”
Harris was a well-liked figure in Freeport. The Decatur Daily Review said he was awarded “a gold-headed cane at a fair as the most popular man” in town in 1894.
All that changed on May 19, 1895. He was in a horse-drawn carriage with his friend William Stoops—Stoops also worked as a bartender in Harris’ tavern—when they passed a local man named Charles Bengel (sometimes spelled Bengle or Bengal) standing at the corner of Van Buren and Galena Streets. Harris gave the reins over to Stoops and walked over to Bengle with a pistol in his hand. The Bulletin said:
“Frank W. Harris, a saloon-keeper, shot Charles Bengel, inflicting fatal wounds. The two men had trouble over a woman…Harris approached Bengle and pulled the trigger, but the load failed to discharge, and it was only then that Bengel realized his life was in peril. Again Harris snapped the trigger with telling effect, the bullet plowing its way through Bengel’s heart.”
Most news accounts said Harris fired a total of three shots. After the shooting he got back on the carriage and drove directly to the Stephenson County jail where he surrendered to the sheriff.
Bengel died that evening. Harris was indicted for his murder.
Within weeks local newspapers reported that Harris was in poor shape. The Freeport Democrat said:
“(Harris) may never be called to stand trial…He has failed rapidly…His mind has undoubtedly given way under the strain upon it…it is not improbable that the unfortunate Frank Harris may close his days in an asylum.”
When he was brought to trial on September 30, 1895 Harris entered a plea of insanity. His three-attorney defense team was paid for by his father in law.
The trial lasted nearly two weeks.
The prosecution’s star witness was Harris’ friend and employee William Stoops. Stoops claimed Harris was completely sane at the time of the murder, and sent him a letter while awaiting trial promising retaliation if Stoops testified against him.
The defense painted a picture of a disturbed man. The Freeport Journal said they introduced “testimony to show that Harris has never been quite right, talked foolishly and could not carry on a conversation on any one topic for a minute.” The defense also claimed that Harris’ family “for several generations back have been insane.”
It appeared to be going well for the defense.
The editor of The Stockton Herald visited Harris in jail and said:
“Harris appears in the best of spirits. He was neatly dressed and smooth shaven and sported a daintily curved black mustache and appeared to relish a cigar which he was smoking at the time. Though he must realize that his liberty is gone and his life is in the balance, he shows no sign of the terrible suspense and looked bright and happy…He would not talk for publication.”
Then the tide turned
The Freeport Journal said it happened when the defense decided to put Harris on the stand in order to introduce a threatening letter Bengle had written to him before the shooting. The Sterling Standard said Harris “remembered everything very distinctly except the killing,” and was coherent throughout his testimony:
“The impression at Freeport is that the defense has made a mistake.”
The jury, made up of twelve local farmers, took only a few hours to find Harris guilty and sentenced him to be hanged. When the verdict was read Harris fainted. The Sterling Standard said “A cot was brought in, he was placed upon it, and several strong deputies carried him to the jail, a startling contrast to the gay and jaunty Frank Harris of six months before.”
On October 30 a motion for a new trial was rejected and the execution was set for November 29. The Standard said “(Harris) sobbed like a child and declared that he was innocent.” He also said “he was led up to the crime” by Stoops.
The date for Harris’ execution was the same as that for another former professional baseball player sentenced to die in Illinois. Charles N. “Pacer” Smith killed his daughter and sister-in-law, and attempted to kill his estranged wife on September 28. Smith entered a guilty plea on October 7 and was also sentenced to hang.
The rest of the story on Wednesday