Tag Archive for senseless

When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case


As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini.
His older brother, Charles, was profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.”
Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” (in keeping with the terminology then in vogue) or alcoholic.
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.


In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes.
One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
For his act he was convicted and executed.
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.

The Body in the Baggage

Francis Ballem

There is a curious subset of homicide called “trunk murder” that never fails to fascinate some of us who follow this sort of thing: The murderer commits the crime and for some reason thinks the best way to dispose of a body is to put it into a suitcase or traveler’s trunk and deposits the proof of the corpus delicti in the left luggage room.
Sometimes the body is left intact, but frequently investigators are presented only with portions of the body and are left to wonder where the rest of their victim may be stored. The method has fallen upon disfavor among killers these days as unattended luggage often attracts the unwanted interest of police quite quickly. Back when people traveled by train, however, trunk murders were relatively common.
In April 1954 Philadelphia joined Paris, Los Angeles, Brighton, England, and who knows how many other cities where bodies in the baggage have been discovered when the decomposing body parts of a man were found in boxes wrapped in several rain coats and stuffed into a green-and-black, brass-trimmed footlocker. The trunk was found at the Sharon Hill trolley station on Chester Pike and Brainerd Boulevard outside of Philadelphia.
The footlocker was first noticed at the stop around 7 a.m. on April 27, 1954, by trolley operator Benjamin Bowers. About 90 minutes later another operator called his dispatcher to report the unusual abandoned luggage and police were summoned.
Unfortunately, according to the Chester (PA) Times, “the message became garbled in transmission and the police looked for a truck instead of a trunk.”
At 3:45 p.m., a patrolman who was just wrapping up school traffic duty was dispatched to pick up the trunk, which was brought back to police HQ. At first the police were willing to let some civilians lead the investigation, the Times reports:

At police headquarters, Sharon Avenue and Spring Street, two youths helped carry the foot locker inside…The youths tried to open the trunk with hairpins, but this and other attempts failed. A locksmith, Lewis Santa, was called and he opened the foot locker after trying three skeleton keys.

Once it was opened, Sgt. William Malloy took charge of the trunk and and made the gruesome discovery.
“I felt a bundle and it seemed soft and fleshy,” he said, adding that once investigators detected the odor of decaying flesh, the trunk was moved to a cell where body parts of a 160- 165-pound white man who had been dead for some time were revealed.
The murderer had been prepared for the job. The two packages — the first contained the torso, and the other held the head, arms and hands — were wrapped in 5 plastic raincoats from which the killer had removed any tags. They were sealed shut with transparent tape and were held inside a cardboard box. The killer treated the inside of the raincoats with camphor flakes and powdered lime, investigators said, which would promote decomposition while reducing the stench somewhat.
The body, from slightly above the hips downward, was missing.
The autopsy revealed that the corpse, which at the time was believed to be that of a 60-year-old man, had been burned before it was dismembered; the right arm was particularly damaged, the report shows. The victim’s internal organs had been removed, “the lower jaw was destroyed and most hair had been eaten away by the lime,” the unusually graphic, above-the-flag article in the Times states.
“A few gray and black hairs were left on the head and several red hairs on the chest,” the anonymous reporter continues. “The dismemberment was described by (Delaware County Coroner Joseph) Tercha as “not that of an amateur.”
The article quotes Earle H. Allen, chief of detectives, as saying murder was “a definite possibility.” Allen was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but a quick survey of funeral parlors and the area hospitals to ensure that all other corpses could be accounted for was still necessary.
At first it looked like Allen would have his work cut out for him as the initial autopsy disclosed no bullet or stab wounds in the upper torso or skull and nothing indicating blunt force trauma.
“At this stage of our investigation we cannot determine how he met his death,” Allen told the press.
Not surprising, the autopsy was a particularly gruesome affair.
Medical examiner Dr. John Turner III said the victim was about 60 years old, 5-feet-7, between 160 and 170 pounds.
“All parts of the body had been burned,” he said. “The head and fingertips were so badly charred that they were almost unidentifiable.”
Turner eventually located a bullet wound caused by a .38-caliber pistol and assigned that as the cause of death. His autopsy made it clear that the victim was dead before the dismemberment began.
While some detectives were trying to identify the victim, others were tracking down the source of the brown carton which contained the body parts and the trunk, which appeared to be new. Other flatfoots canvassed the trolley line talking to anyone who rode that route, hoping for a break.
That break came the next day when an unidentified commuter told police he had seen a “studious-looking man with an alpine hat accompanied by a uniformed man” carrying a trunk at the trolley station. Cops posted the description in every taxi garage in the city and environs and soon veteran Yellow Cab driver Nanis Gaither came forward and said he picked up a fare in Philadelphia who matched the description. Gaither said the fare stopped at the man’s house in Sharon Hill where they loaded up the trunk. Gaither said he dropped the man at the trolley stop.
Gaither remembered the man quite clearly, not only because of the hat, but because his cab was third in line at the stand when the man walked up. The man passed over the first two cabs and asked Gaither to drive him to his home. When Gaither asked why the man did not pick one of the first cabs, he replied that he was “allergic to radios” and did not want to ride in a cab that was equipped with a two-way radio.
Meanwhile, evidence from the crime scene confirmed Gaither’s story: Police had discovered that a name and address matching the one where Gaither picked up the trunk were written on the cardboard box containing the victim’s head.
The house was identified as belonging to Francis X. Ballem, 28, a mechanic in an industrial plant. Ballem, while not known to police, was notorious in his neighborhood for his odd behavior. He had a fondness for alpine hats (the one you see on Germanic stereotype characters) and for quoting Shakespeare. He was not known to be violent, and was considered quite intelligent.
Police rushed to Ballem’s house and assuming they were dealing with a deranged killer, kicked in a window and entered that way. Although the house was described as cluttered and flithy, it was clear Ballem was trying to clean up signs of the crime. Trash was burning in the fireplace, and someone had tried to wash the blood from the living room floor. Ballem, however, was nowhere to be found.
When he heard the police bust in the window, Ballem had grabbed the suitcase containing the victim’s legs and abdomen and fled to the attic. When the searchers got to the attic, Ballem stood up with his hands raised, dressed only in his undershorts.
“Don’t shoot,” he said.
Sadly, no one today will be shocked in the same way the folks in the 1950s were when they found out about Ballem’s arsenal: “In the house were found five revolvers, a shotgun, a rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two black Halloween masks, a bullet-proof vest that comes in sections, and two modern-type gas masks. A safe deposit box yielded another two pistols and other articles,” wrote CTimes reporter Mitch Rosenfeld.
Now that they had their suspect in custody, the police were free to focus on learning the identity of the dead man. Ballem was little help in that regard except that he was able to describe him as “a man between 35 and 40 years old, with ruddy complexion, brown hair and employing good English.”
Again luck was on the side of the police when a missing persons report was filed by the restaurant where World War II veteran John Dopirak was working as a dishwasher.
Dopirak was a strange (his family said he was “addicted to dying his hair”) but harmless man who had flown bombing missions over Germany during the war and returned to Philadelphia where he was born and raised bearing a Purple Heart. His family said John, 35, was a “happy-go-lucky wanderer” who just never settled down. Following the war he worked occasionally as a merchant seaman, but it appeared from his police record that Dopirak had trouble with alcohol. He had a pair of convictions for disorderly conduct and public drunkeness.
Once police showed him a photograph of Dopirak, Ballem responded, “Oh, yes, that’s the man; I’ll never forget that smile.”
Dopirak’s brothers identified him from a scar on his forearm.
Ballem confessed to the crime almost immediately upon his arrest.
He had been living alone in the house for the past several years after his parents died and his wife left him, he said. According to his wife, who would later testify at Ballem’s trial, he became enraged when she informed him she was pregnant and told her he never wanted children. This, combined with his eccentric behavior, ended the marriage, but the divorce had not been finalized.
After Ballem’s wife left him he lived with his elderly parents until they died, leaving him the house, some other property in Philadelphia and $20,000 in liquid assets (in current dollars that’s almost $200k). The fact that Ballem’s parents died within months of each other piqued investigators’ interest at first, but their deaths were not suspicious.
Ballem told police he met John Dopirak at a bar and that they shared several drinks together.
After a long drinking bout where they bar-hopped around the city, the men decided to take a trip to New York City. Ballem said they went to his home so he could get clothes for the trip.
Ballem said he never intended to go to New York, but that going back to his home was a ruse for him to get Dopirak alone so he could rob him.
“I started going through his brown coat which was on the chair in the living room, for the purpose of finding his wallet which he had given me the impression was full of money,” Ballem told police. “I was very drunk but I knew what I was doing with reference to robbing this man of his money.”
Just at that time Dopirak walked into the room, and said: “I am going to kill you, you thieving…”
Ballem said he saw Dopirak going through his late mother’s jewelry and then pick up a gun from an open drawer, so he also picked up a gun and confronted Dopirak.
“Well, you asked for it,” Ballem said, pointing the pistol at Dopirak and pulling the trigger. He went over to check on the condition of his victim.
“I listened for a heartbeat and didn’t hear it,” Ballem said. “I didn’t want to hear it.”
Most likely there was a failed sexual overture by one of the men. Any number of scenarios that begin with misunderstanding and end in murder come to mind.
Regardless of his motivation, Ballem began the awful task of corpse disposal. He fixed himself another drink and then dragged Dopirak’s body to the basement where he removed all of the clothes, burning them in the incinerator.
Still drinking, Ballem, who was described by doctors as having a high IQ, did research in how to get rid of a murder victim.
He purchased lye and placed it on the hands and over the face, but it did not destroy the features. He then applied a blow torch, attempting to cut the body apart that way. After several hours he decided the torch was not working successfully and he went upstairs and got drunk all over again. After he sobered up, he cut up the body with a saw. He tried unsuccessfully to burn the cut up portions of the body, piece by piece, in the furnace. Then he flushed the ashes down the drain in his basement.
He then bought plastic raincoats and wrapped therein other portions of the body, some of which he placed in the trunk. Other parts he placed in a suitcase which he hid on the third floor of his home. He took other parts of the body, with the raincoats wrapped around them, and rolled them into a creek known as Naylor’s Run, Upper Darby, which was four or five blocks from his home.
Ballem then cleaned and re-loaded his gun so if it was found no one would know it had been recently fired.
Naturally, following his confession, Ballem was packed off to a psychiatric hospital for a plethora of tests. It took almost a year — during which Ballem had a tumor removed from his breast — for the shrinks to concur that Ballem was ready and able to assist in his defense.
Not surprisingly, Ballem’s defense was one of insanity, while the Commonwealth was going for the death penalty. Over the course of a one-month trial, witnesses testified to his mental state, and although there was obvious mental illness present, Ballem was not criminally insane. The jury convicted him of murder and he was sentenced to death.
The sentence was later commuted to imprisonment for life, which for Ballem ended in 1971.