Tag Archives: Frank Harris

Where are they Now?–1896 Edition

25 Mar

In 1896, The Buffalo Times noted the “delightful trait of character in the true blue base ball fan,” to know everything about “the fortunes of a favorite player…and (who) long after the object of his solicitude has retired from the glare of publicity, will make inquiries concerning his favorite’s occupation and residence.”

In an effort to satisfy the curiosity of the “true blue” fan The Times went “to pains to collect,” information regarding the current place of residence and employment of major leaguers from the previous decade:

Nearly 50 players had already died, and about 20 were still connected with the game as managers, umpires or sportswriters.

The profession with the highest concentration of former players besides those who remained connected with baseball, was the saloon business; The Times found 14 players engaged in saloons, including James “Pud” Galvin, Joseph “Reddy” Mack, and Frank Hankinson.

There were five police officers, including, Charlie Jones and Jack Lynch, of the New York police force.

Two were incarcerated—Charlie Sweeney was in California’s San Quentin Prison for manslaughter, and Frank Harris was in jail in Freeport, Illinois awaiting execution for murder; his sentence was commuted in April of 1896.

Frank Harris

Frank Harris, convicted murderer

Five former players were firemen, three of them, John “Monk” Cline, Tom McLaughlin and William “Chicken” Wolf, were all members of the Louisville Fire Department:  Wolf was involved in an accident while responding to a fire in 1901 which left him with a severe head injury and contributed to his death two years later.

Other highlights:

Clarence “Kid” Baldwin—Tramp (Baldwin died the following year in a Cincinnati mental hospital)

Warren “Hick” Carpenter—Pullman car conductor

William Holbert—United States Secret Service

William “Blondie” Purcell—Racetrack bookie

William "Blondie" Purcell

William “Blondie” Purcell

Ed Andrews—Orange grower

George “Jumbo” McGinnis—Glassblower

Daniel “Cyclone” Ryan—Actor

Pitcher turned actor Daniel "Cyclone" Ryan, circa 1903

Pitcher turned actor Daniel “Cyclone” Ryan, circa 1903

John Frank Lane (1880s umpire)—Actor, he was most famous for appearing in plays written by Charles Hale Hoyt, a former sports writer for The Boston Post, and the man responsible for putting Mike “King” Kelly on the stage.

Frank Harris and “Pacer” Smith

5 Mar

Frank Harris was sentenced to die on November 29, 1895, in Freeport Illinois for shooting a man named Charles Bengel in May of that year.  Charles N. “Pacer” Smith was sentenced to die the same day in Decatur, Illinois for killing his 5-year-old daughter and 17-year-old sister-in-law and attempting to kill his estranged wife.

Smith and Harris were well acquainted, but accounts differed as to how well.  The Sporting Life said Smith “was at one time a resident of Freeport, and while here was known as Harris’ bosom friend and partner in a number of local ventures.”  The Decatur Review said the two played together on a team in Freeport in 1892. The Decatur Evening Bulletin said that the two had been teammates in Monmouth, Illinois in 1889.  (The Monmouth team was formed at the tail-end of the season to play out the Central Interstate League schedule of the Davenport Hawkeyes who  had folded–but neither Harris nor Smith are listed on any extant rosters for Monmouth).

Smith told The Decatur Daily Republican:

“I know Harris well.  He was with the Rockford club while I was with Ottawa and then we were together in the same club in the Southern League.  He was always a ratty, crazy fellow.  He married a rich girl in Freeport and will escape hanging if money is any good.”

(Surviving records show Harris with Rockford in 1890 and Smith with Ottawa in 1891. Harris played with the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern League in 1885; there is no record of Smith having played for the team).

Smith, who claimed he converted to Catholicism while awaiting the hangman, wrote a letter to Harris imploring him to do the same:

“Friend Frank—although in trouble myself, still I can find the time and inclination to sympathize with an old comrade in the same fix, and especially as the circumstance s connecting the two cases are so similar and out of the ordinary.  We are both to take our departure from this ‘vale of tears’ upon the same date to met [sic] him ‘who rules the universe,’ and before whom we both have to stand in judgment to hear perhaps the same verdict and sentence against us, once again in comradeship where the bickering and tribulations of this world have to part.

“I am happy to state to you I have received the consolations of religion to aid me in my extremity, and I wish you in answering this could assure me you, too, had claimed that only staff which it is possible for you to now lean upon with any surety and safety.  I have joined and been baptized in the faith of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, as I believe it to be the only and true church.  I have received its consolations and am resting easy in the confidence of its efficacy.

“I hope I will meet you in a ‘better world.’ Hoping to hear when you write that you have gone and done as well for yourself spiritually.  I will close by subscribing myself yours fraternally.

“Charles N. Smith ‘Pacer’”

Pacer Smith

Charles “Pacer” Smith

Smith also wrote a lengthy account of his life, baseball career and the murders he committed.  The Chicago Inter Ocean noted that he:

“Admits a petty double murder; but Mr. Smith avows he never threw a ballgame.”

While scaffolds were being erected in Decatur and Freeport, a group of Harris’ supporters, led by the town’s former mayor, Charles Nieman traveled to the state capital to seek a stay from Governor John Peter Altgeld.

Smith’s prediction that Harris would “escape hanging” proved to be correct.  On November 27 the governor postponed Harris’ execution until May 1, 1896.  The Sterling Gazette said the scaffolding in Freeport had been completed, the judge “strongly opposed” the governor’s decision and that the sheriff had already “sent out tickets of admission” for the hanging.

The Freeport Bulletin said:

“Harris has been very despondent for several days, and had made up his mind that he would be hanged Friday, and when informed that the governor had granted him a respite he broke down and wept like a child.  All day long he heard the carpenters at work on the scaffold, and could see the preparations made for his execution.”

As  “Pacer” Smith ascended the scaffold on November 29 a reporter from The Decatur Evening Bulletin asked him if he was aware that Harris had received a reprieve:

“He said he had, but seemed more interested in the fact that Harris had professed Christianity and been baptized.

“’It was my letter to him that is responsible for his conversion.  That was what influenced him. ‘

“When asked what he would say to a reprieve for himself, he snapped his fingers and said:

“’I don’t care that much.  I am all ready to go.’”

A few minutes later, at noon, “The drop occurred,” and “with a few convulsions the murderer died.”

Harris’ reprieve became permanent on April 23, 1896.  Governor Altgeld commuted his sentence to life in prison and he was sent to Illinois’ Joliet State Prison.   Despite the life sentence, The Joliet Republican said when Harris arrived at the prison:

“It is thought that the man will be pardoned out within a couple of years as he has the sympathy of the entire community where he lived.”

Frank Harris

Frank Harris

His release was not as quick as expected.  Harris applied unsuccessfully for parole on numerous occasions after his incarceration, and his wife divorced him in 1897.   But he did still have a large number of supporters in Freeport and other towns where he played.  In 1908, The Rockford Republic said friends from his time playing there had joined his friends from Freeport to work for his release, claiming he had been provoked by the man he shot.  Harris told the paper:

“It would be like one coming from the grave to again see the wonderful works of God and man, and oh, how I long to see it all.  Only a few days of liberty would be heaven on earth for me…there is a place in life for me and when I am released I will make a place.  I was never a bad man, but committed a crime through circumstances too strong for me to overcome.”

After more than a decade of efforts on Harris’ behalf,  Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen pardoned him in 1911.

Harris returned to Freeport where he opened a tailor shop.  The former player had one last brush with the law in 1922.  The Freeport Journal-Standard said he threatened the chief of police and “several other people.”  As a result “A gun was taken away from Harris and he was informed by Chief Root that he would have to cease toting a gun.  Harris promised to refrain from drinking.”

A 1929 advertisement for Frank Harris' tailor business

A 1929 advertisement for Frank Harris’ tailor business

He continued operating tailor shop until March of 1939 when he went to the state hospital in East Moline, Illinois where he died eight months later on November 26 at age 81–one day short of the 44th anniversary of his reprieve.

Frank Harris

3 Mar

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.

Frank Harris

Frank Harris

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 Bengel 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 [sic]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 Bengel 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.

Pacer Smith

Pacer Smith


The rest of the story on Wednesday

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