My Brain Hurts

The tragic deaths of actor Natasha Richardson and TV pitchman Billy Mays from a delayed-onset brain injury add an interesting twist to a 70-year-old mystery involving a Prohibition-era whoopee party, a football hero/high-school drop-out, and a not-so-pure (as the papers would have you believe) young lady.
 
In November 1930, Gary, Indiana, was rocked by the death of “pretty 18-year-old” Arlene Draves, who died mysteriously at a party where bootleg gin and wine was being served.
 
Arlene, who had the misfortune of being publicly outed as sexually active in a time when chastity was the norm, was the fiancee of Virgil Kirkland, a “football hero before he was expelled from high school,” who was charged with her murder after Arlene’s bruised body was found in his car at the party. The prosecution argued that Arlene was beaten to death and died from a brain injury.
 
Natasha Richardson and Billy Mays figure into this tale only because Arlene suffered a similar minor fall and blow to her head earlier in the day that might have led to her death. This presents an alternative theory to the one presented by the state: That Arlene died as the result of an assault by Virgil Kirkland. It also provides answers to why a healthy young woman would suddenly die while suffering just minor injuries. Like Richardson and Mays, perhaps Arlene was the victim of a similar slow-building wound.
 
Despite the lack of evidence of assault, a Porter County, Indiana, jury convicted Kirkland of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. His conviction, based almost entirely on testimony of alleged accomplices who were offered immunity, was set aside by the judge who said the evidence did not support a verdict of murder. That decision brought down the ire of the Attorney General of Indiana and eventually cost Judge Grant Crumpacker his job.
 
A second Porter County jury convicted Kirkland of assault and attempted rape and sentenced him to a maximum 10-year term. The compromise verdict was greeted with angry editorials and finger-pointing of leniency and incompetence. Kirkland served six years before being released much to the disgust of the community.
 
However, it is just possible that Kirkland was convicted of a crime he did not commit. The image of a young woman being plied with illegal hooch and ravaged by a group of drunken men resonated throughout the community, which demanded action.
 
Just how ravaged Arlene had been is questionable because the reports of the investigation and trial are filled with euphemism and innuendo. In an era when seducing a woman was a crime, what we consider today to be sexual imposition might have then been rape. Kirkland, the man who had seduced Arlene, was an easy target, despite his profession of love for the girl he intended to marry.
 
The story of Virgil Kirkland and Arlene Draves begins three years before her death when the two young lovers met at a dance party.
 
“I danced with her, talked, and kidded, and asked for a date,” Kirkland testified at his murder trial. “She said her folks would not permit her as she was only 15.”
 
They hooked up several years later and the relationship became intimate. When Arlene turned 18, she and Virgil became engaged to be married.
 
Two weeks later, in late November 1930, the couple was at a party when someone suggested breaking out some bootleg liquor. The hosts located a bottle of potent grain alcohol which they diluted with water.
 
“I mixed a highball — alcohol and water, and both of us drank it,” Kirkland testified at his murder trial. “She drank as much as I did, I guess. We drank out of mayonnaise bottles.”
 
That the group would have to cut the alcohol themselves demonstrates the risk that imbibers faced during prohibition. Not everyone could afford the name-brand alcohol smuggled across the border, and many people resorted to bathtub gin distilled by local bootleggers. The quality of such hooch was questionable and inconsistent, much like the problem faced by illegal drug users today — you really never know what you are getting. The stuff you bought today might need a 10-percent cut, but the same dealer tomorrow might be selling stuff that is still way too strong at 10 percent.
 
Regardless, Virgil and Arlene were just a few of the dozen or so people who were partaking that night, mixing the grain alcohol with wine which someone else brought later on.
 
Sometime during the evening, after a bit of dancing to the radio, Virgil and Arlene retired to the front porch for a bit of necking.
 
“We laid down on the davenport with our arms around each other,” Kirkland told the court. “We weren’t out there very long.”
 
The journalists covering the trial glossed over what was testified to next:
 
“At this point Kirkland told of an intimacy with Arlene,” wrote the reporter for the Sheboygan Press of Wisconsin. The line of questioning clearly disturbed the straight-laced Judge Crumpacker, who, despite having a defendant on trial for rape, did not want to hear details of any sexual contact.
 
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Is this necessary? I think it will be enough for him to make a general statement.”
 
The couple went back inside and danced some more, according to Kirkland, but it was clear to him that Arlene needed fresh air.
 
“I don’t know whether it was the heat or the mixing of drinks or what, but Arlene started staggering,” he testified. “I took her to the front porch and kind of slapped her face on both sides to bring her to. You know what I mean.”
 
Kirkland demonstrated the slaps by lightly patting his attorney on both cheeks.
 
“She was sitting in an arm chair and she started to get up and fell forward on her head. I didn’t realize what happened.
 
“I was dazed and stunned and before I could pick her up Dick Sturtridge reached over and placed her in my arms.”
 
The prosecutor, in his summation to the jury, interpreted the incident differently.
 
“What happened? There’s a crash on the porch,” said prosecutor John Underwood. “Sturtridge rushes across the porch and picks up the limp form. And where was Kirkland? Another man picks up the bleeding form of his sweetheart and he stands like a stone. And why does he stand like this?
 
“My guess jurymen, and I think it’s justified, is that this defendant slugged her on the jaw. He had pleaded his passion, she spurned him with a plea to be taken home. He slugged her…and she fell.”
 
Another attendee at the party said she saw Arlene shortly after the fall “dancing gaily with others and perfectly sober.”
 
After Arlene struck her head and recovered, asserting that she was “fine,” Kirkland, Arlene and two other men piled into Kirkland’s car and headed off to a diner to get some hamburgers for the party. Arlene remained in the car at that point, and it was there that Kirkland’s friends alleged that he tried to rape his fiancee, beating her instead when he failed. According to one of the men, Kirkland offered the nearly unconscious Arlene to them.
 
“Well, Virgil pulled Arlene and remarked, ‘Boy, get some of this, now is your chance,’” said 21-year-old Paul Barton, who said he passed on the chance to rape the girl.
 
Henry A. Shirk corroborated Barton’s testimony.
 
“Kirkland asked if I wanted relations with Arlene Draves,” he testified. “I saw Arlene lying almost nude in the back seat, her clothes pulled over her head.”
 
Shirk denied having sex with Arlene, claiming the alcohol had rendered him impotent — although he admitted on the stand that he tried to have intercourse.
 
In his testimony, both on direct and cross, Kirkland denied urging Shirk and Barton to assault Arlene.
 
After getting the sandwiches the group returned to the party.
 
“I asked Arlene if she was coming inside and she said she was going to sleep — that the fresh air would do her good,” Kirkland testified.
 
Arlene stayed in the car as the party broke up. By the time Kirkland, Barton and Sturtridge returned to the car she was either unconscious or dead, but the men simply assumed she had passed out from intoxication.
 
They drove for a bit and Kirkland tried unsuccessfully to rouse Arlene.
 
“I got nervous when she did not answer me and I told Barton to call a doctor,” Kirkland testified. Instead the men took Arlene to the home of physician R.O. Wharton, who declared the young woman dead.
 
Shortly after Arlene’s death Kirkland was charged with murder and attempted rape, based on the statements of witnesses. His defense claimed that the charges were a setup by “reformers.”
 
“The state was overzealous in this trial,” said attorney Richard Oldham. “It had a big newspaper case, but when prosecutors got down here, they found they didn’t have the evidence.”
 
The case presented to the jury featured 22 possible verdicts, ranging from assault and battery to murder by attack. The murder charge carried a possible death sentence.
 
After a two-week trial the jurors considered the evidence for three hours before rendering a verdict of murder and recommended a life sentence. The Draves family said little after the verdict, but indicated that the penalty was too light.
 
Judge Crumpacker stunned the county when he set aside the judgment, ruling that there was not sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. He ordered a second trial.
 
“It is difficult to believe that he deliberately struck her in the presence of this other man and woman (Sturtridge and his wife), since there was no evidence that he had ever done so before, though he had been waiting on her for some months, perhaps a year previously,” Crumpacker wrote. “There was no evidence that he had previously ravished or attempted to ravish her.”
 
“I do not purport to give all the evidence but to state only those circumstances that might tend to create doubt as to how the injury was brought about.”
 
Crumpacker presided over the second trial, which resulted in a verdict of assault and battery with intent to commit rape. Kirkland was sentenced to a maximum term of 10 years in prison.
 
Angry newspaper editors published the names of the jurors on the front pages, and prosecutor Robert G. Estill of Lake County (where the offense took place) fumed.
 
“If Kirkland only deserves what the jury gave him, the other defendants deserve medals of honor,” he said.
 
Referring also to another case tried in Porter County that left Lake County residents dissatified, a Lake County judge echoed Estill’s ire.
 
“I am convinced as a result of these verdicts that Porter County juries cannot be depended on to render justice,” said Judge E. Miles Norton.
 
Kirkland was released after serving six years of his sentence; Judge Crumpacker was soundly routed at the polls at the next election. Several years later, when bank robber John Dillinger escaped from the Crown Point jail in Lake County and a photograph of Estill cozying up to Dillinger surfaced, the prosecutor was also turned out of office.