Dance of Death

In years shortly before the First World War, Europeans and Americans discovered a new and exciting dance that had its origins in Argentina. The Tango, first brought to Europe by Argentine sailors, quickly took the world by storm and contributed to the shedding of long-standing Victorian sensibilities, wrote Christine Denniston, author of The Meaning of Tango – The Story of the Argentine Dance.

1913 was the Year of the Tango all over the world. Tango was the couple dance everyone wanted to learn. All of Europe was dancing the Tango. There were many disapproving voices, but the mania had bitten. Fashions in clothing, already changing away from the restrictions of the Victorian corset and hooped skirts, changed more quickly under the influence of the Tango. It is said that women in Paris abandoned the corset in order to dance it.

At the height of the craze, a misogynist killer named Henry Spencer used the dance as a pretense to murder.
 
The press of that time knew a great story when they saw it, and played it up.
 
“The snaky, sinuous, sensual Argentine Tango, dance of the lawless Spanish-American underworld of Buenos Aires, trailed into the United States by way of Paris has become in Chicago a veritable dance of death in relation to the tragic murder of Mrs. Mildred Allison Rexroat,” an early Associated Press story about the murder began (obviously the reporter was paid by the word).
 
Mildred Allison, a Tango instructor at San Souci Dance Academy in Chicago, left her husband and three children in rural Illinois, lured by the “gayer life of Tango dancing” in early 1913.
 
There, she met Everett Rexroat, a teenager who was also drawn by the excitement of the city and the dance. Her relationship with Rexroat strained Mildred’s marriage with William Allison, and they were divorced. Within a month, Mildred married Rexroat, who returned to his family farm in Macomb, Illinois, while his wife taught the dance in Chicago.
 
She “didn’t love Rexroat,” the papers quoted Mildred as telling Allison, but was “simply danced into marrying him.”
 
The marriage to Rexroat would last just a few months, ending when Mildred met the psychopathic Spencer.
 
Spencer was born Jindred Shortna in 1877, and never knowing his mother, was placed into a “Home for the Friendless.” Eventually, he was adopted, but said he felt unloved by the woman who took him out of the orphanage. Part of his confession reveals why he developed his deep-seated hatred for women.
 
“A woman adopted me, and turned me into the street,” he told police. “Made me sell papers for a living. Call that teaching you how to get a soul?”
 
His belief that he was abandoned, combined with his acknowledgment that he lacked a moral center. along with a head injury received as a child very likely turned him into a killer, according to some theories of criminal behavior.
 
“Women! Damn them,” he told Chicago police. “I hate ‘em. They never did anything but try to play me for a sucker. I killed ‘em just like I’d swat a fly.”
 
When he was arrested for killing Mildred, Spencer immediately confessed more than a dozen murders, almost all of whom were women. However, when police began to check his stories, they quickly fell apart. Sometimes his claims of a murder did not coincide with finding any bodies or even missing women, and other times he was in prison at the time a killing occurred.
 
“The more I see of this man, the more I doubt his statement that he participated in a score or more of murders,” said the chief of detectives who interviewed Spencer. “Some of his other stories may be ‘hop yarns.’”
 
Detective Halpin was referring to Spencer’s reliance on opium.
 
Just how Spencer met Mildred is unclear, but Everett’s father told the jury that Spencer visited his farm where Mildred was staying, introduced himself as a “picture agent” and accompanied Mildred back to Chicago.
 
Spencer told police he lured her to Wayne, Illinois, with the promise of teaching a Tango class he had organized. He also said he knew Mildred from the San Souci.
 
On September 26, 1913, Mildred left her rooming house carrying a large satchel that contained a pink dance costume. She was wearing several hundred dollars worth of jewelry.
 
Mildred told her landlady and the owner of the San Souci, Frank Olson, that she was going to meet a mysterious “Mr. Spencer,” who was described as “a small town man” with a passion for the Tango. He called her on the phone, and in his “drawl” invited her to meet him in Wheaton.
 
Spencer later told police that he met Mildred at the Wheaton train station and lured her to Wayne, a deserted stop on the old interurban. There, he choked her and shot her once in the head.
 
“In the afternoon I went out to Wayne and looked over the ground,” he confessed. “I took alone a hammer and I placed it beside a telephone pole where it was subsequently found.”
 
After the pair met in Wheaton, Spencer asked Mildred to accompany him to Wayne.
 
“When we got off the car at Wayne we waited until the others passed by and then walked down the track. Then I turned around and pulled the gun out and when I was along side her I shot her in the mouth,” he continued. “It was through her mouth and out through the back of her ear.
 
“We had quarreled. She was only trying to work me,” Spencer claimed.
 
Spencer dumped Mildred’s body on the tracks after stealing her diamond ring. He took her suitcase and hopped a freight back to Chicago. It wasn’t until morning, when a passenger train struck her body that Mildred was discovered.
 
The train nearly destroyed her body, but police were subsequently able to identify her through her gloves and clothes.
 
In a Chicago train yard, authorities found the dress and several hair “rats” that were confirmed to belong to Mildred.
 
At first, suspicion centered on Everett Rexroat, because of his alleged jealousy over Mildred staying in Chicago after he returned to rural Illinois. At the coroner’s inquest, Rexroat and Allison met for the very first time and were brought in to view the corpse together. Allison at first moved to shake Rexroat’s hand, but then thought better of it.
 
“My God,” Rexroat exclaimed. “He doesn’t think that I did it, does he?”
 
Rexroat quickly proved his alibi, and police began looking for the mysterious Mr. Spencer. They didn’t have much to go on beside his “drawl.”
 
He was described as being about five-and-a-half feet tall, with a short, thick neck and massive shoulders.
 
It wasn’t until the first week of October that police had any solid leads. Spencer tried to sell Mildred’s ring and the jeweler contacted police. Spencer was arrested and in his boarding house room, authorities found a bloodstained valise belonging to Mildred Rexroat and a revolver that matched the bullet found near the scene. Spencer immediately confessed and began taking credit for dozens of killings, both real and imagined. The only victim he could name was Fannie C. Thompson, whose murder in 1907 had also resulted in a sensational trial. The man accused of her murder was acquitted. Eventually, police checking out his story realized that Spencer had been in Joliet prison when Thompson was slain.
 
Spencer also claimed to have killed his ex-wife in New York, but couldn’t remember her name. In addition, he took credit for the unsolved murder of two Chicago beat cops who stumbled across a burglary, but again it turned out that he was behind bars at the time.
 
His arrest may have saved another life.
 
“If you hadn’t pinched me last night, I’d have killed the old landlady I was rooming with,” he told authorities.
 
Spencer immediately began playing the insanity card and demanded the death penalty.
 
At his trial in Novemer 1913, he spent 15 minutes on the stand berating the court, prosecutors, and his own attorneys. He screamed and howled and generally attempted to convince the jury that he was mad.
 
Refusing to swear to God because he announced he was an atheist, Spencer gave his name as Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.
 
When jurors adjourned to deliberate his fate, he dared them to give him the death penalty.
 
“Goodbye, boneheads,” he called after them. “Don’t be afraid to hang me.”
 
The jury wasn’t afraid. There was never any question of his guilt and the jury quickly moved on to decide his punishment. The first vote was 11-1 in favor of the death penalty. The next vote, after a total of two hours of deliberation, was unanimous.
 
Spencer was convinced during deliberations that he would not be executed.
 
“Bet you a new suit of clothes I don’t get the death penalty,” he remarked to a deputy.
 
When the jurors filed back into the courtroom, they were asked if a verdict had been reached. Again, Spencer was outspoken.
 
“Of course they would have or they wouldn’t be back here,” he barked at the judge. “Get a move on, you old stiff.”
 
Spencer lost his bravado momentarily when the verdict and punishment were announced. The press reported that he turned “yellow-green” and slumped into his chair.
 
Then he began cursing everyone in sight and told the jurors that he wished he could have the pleasure of killing them all.
 
Of course there were appeals, but on August 1, 1914, Spencer was hanged in the Dupage County jail. His neck was not broken during the fall and it took him 12 minutes to suffocate.