Editor’s note: The following story by Old Cars reader Matt McLaughlin contains crime details not usually found in Old Cars. As such, reader discretion is advised.
In 1921, the Adams, Wis., area had only five dealerships for the automobile-buying public. There was a Ford dealer in the City of Adams, operated by The Adams Auto Co. One mile north, in the Village of Friendship, there was a Buick dealership operated by Earl Anderson and a combined dealership of Maxwell, Chalmers and Essex, with Charles Fichter as the proprietor. None of them met the luxurious requirements that local man Harvey Church desired for his motoring enjoyment.
Harvey W. Church was born Nov. 11, 1898, and was one of nine children born to Edwin and Eva Church. Seven of Harvey’s siblings had died in their youth from either illness or accident. As a young boy, Harvey himself had suffered a serious fall from a sleigh. Those close to the family said that fall changed Harvey in an odd way.
By 1921, when Harvey was 23 years old, he had grown to 5-foot-6 tall and he weighed 135 lbs. Described as clean cut and from a well-off family, Harvey worked as a brakeman for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. The railroad line running through Adams, Wis., was a direct line from Chicago to Minneapolis and Harvey worked on that line, often finding himself in Chicago. Eventually, his parents bought a home there to go along with their home in Adams.
A desire for a Packard
At the time, Harvey Church was driving a circa-1917 Harroun that was reportedly unreliable and difficult to repair. According to his lone surviving sister, Harvey dreamt of the day he could own a luxurious new car. He did not wait too long and came up with a plan. Since he found nothing of his liking in Adams, he strolled into the marble-floored Packard dealership at the corners of 37th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Sept. 8, 1921, and gazed upon a bronze 1921 Packard Twin Six automobile. Reportedly, Harvey was not properly dressed to be seen in such a facility, but husky 6-ft.-tall salesman Bernard J. Daugherty approached Harvey and began to discuss the highlights of the Packard Twin Six. The sales manager, W.W. Evans, kept an eye on the interaction and at one point witnessed Harvey putting out his cigarette on the marble showroom floor. The manager was able to pull Daugherty aside to suggest that he was wasting his time with this young and ill-dressed customer, but Daugherty assured his manager that Harvey had the funds; apparently, Harvey said that he had liberty bonds from his father to purchase the $5,400 Packard (about $77,300 today).
After another brief conversation with the sales manager, a deal was made to drive Harvey to the bank at Madison and Kedzie Streets to obtain his liberty bonds from his safety deposit box. The manager said that the bank was located in a part of town where, at the time, people didn’t typically own Packards, so he sent along another salesman: 6-ft., 200-lb. Army veteran Carl Ausmus. The trio drove off in the new Packard with Harvey behind the wheel, en route to the bank to seal the deal. It was the last time anyone would see Daugherty and Ausmus alive.
Dealership employee Edward “Ed” Skelba was instructed to drive to the bank and pick up the two salesman. He arrived and waited an hour before he finally went inside to inquire about their whereabouts. No one in the bank had seen any of the men or transacted a deal for a Packard with liberty bonds. Upon returning to the car out front, Skelba found Daugherty’s business card on the horn button. The back of the business card read, “Ed, Go back to the office, we’ll come in later.” Following the orders on Daugherty’s business card, Skelba returned to the dealership and informed the sales manager what had happened. Everything would have been alright had the two salesmen returned, but they never did.
When the salesmen didn’t return the next morning, the Packard dealership’s sales manager went to police to report the two missing salesman. He gave his information to Lt. John Norton. Shortly before the sales manager arrived, Norton received word that a body had been found in the Des Plaines River near Maywood. The I.D. in the wallet found on the body was that of one Bernard J. Daugherty. The coroner had determined the body was severely beaten, its throat was cut, the skull was crushed and the victim suffered a broken neck. The face was so badly beaten, it was unrecognizable. The feet were tied together with rope and the hands were handcuffed. The body of Daugherty was found to be carrying $32 in cash, and a gold watch and an expensive ring were still in place. Lt. Norton told the manager that they next needed to find Ausmus or Harvey Church. Norton confirmed with the bank that no transaction ever took place, and that Church only had $225 in his account.
The Packard trail
Lt. Norton made his way to the Chicago home of Harvey Church at 2922 Fulton Street, a stone-faced duplex that still stands. The curtains were pulled and there was no answer at the door. Police spoke with neighbors, who informed them that Harvey Church also lived in Adams, Wis., and had left early that morning with the Packard.
Lt. Norton called the City of Adams and reached City Marshal Joseph Paulsen and informed him of the situation. Paulsen knew the Church family and everybody else in the small town of 1200 residents. At about noon, Paulsen observed Harvey Church and his mother parked in front of the Corner Drug Store in a Packard bearing license plate number 449672. The fancy Packard had drawn a substantial crowd around it. Paulsen approached Church and informed him he was wanted in connection with the disappearance of two men in Chicago. The marshal detained Harvey, but released his mother and a young woman who Harvey had picked up because of her admiration of the new Packard. The marshal called Lt. Norton to inform him that he had Church in custody without incident. Lt. Norton and two other detectives then headed north to the small town of Adams, arriving after 6 p.m. that evening. The men began to ask Harvey a few questions and convinced him to accompany them back to Chicago to sort it all out. Harvey politely agreed and the men arrived back at the Chicago police station — with the Packard — at about 3 a.m.
Through nine hours of interrogation, Harvey Church remained steadfast that he was innocent and had nothing to do with the murders. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Harvey, detectives had made their way into the Church home on Fulton Street. In the basement, police discovered a horrific scene. A baseball bat, a hatchet and a hat with the initials “BJD” were found on the blood-soaked basement floor. Detectives also found a shallow grave in the backyard garage underneath the dormant Harroun automobile. In that grave was the badly beaten body of Carl Ausmus. He was found in the same condition as Daugherty, but had a cloth jammed down his windpipe. The coroner had determined that Ausmus was still alive when he was buried and had suffered a broken neck after he was put in the hole.
When Norton confronted Church with what they had found, Church said he was being framed. He began to tell detectives that during the brakeman’s strike on the railroad, he decided not to strike and went to work anyway. This angered a few of his fellow coworkers, who vowed to get even with him. Church had named Leon Parks and Clarence Wilder as the former coworkers who threatened him. Detectives hunted down the two men and brought them in for questioning. Leon Parks denied having anything to do with the murders. When Church was told this, he demanded to speak with Parks himself.
Church and Parks were placed face-to-face in front of detectives when Church started interrogating Parks to the point that Parks finally confessed that he and Wilder did the murder to pin it on Church. To the amazement of the detectives, he gave details about what had happened. Wilder was then brought in for questioning and was read the confession of Parks. Wilder became enraged and denied having ever met Parks and claimed he had not seen Church since they worked together on the railroad months prior. Wilder gave an alibi that detectives verified as being so solid, it would take a “miracle” to be false. Lt. Norton told another detective that “something here is fishy.”
The detectives went back to Parks and found a babbling incoherent man in a complete breakdown. One of the few phrases that police could understand through Parks muttering was “I didn’t do it, Church made me say it.” Detectives asked him why he would confess to such a horrible act if he didn’t do it and all he could say over and over was, “I don’t know.”
Harvey Church had been in the room when the detectives were interviewing Parks and said, “Let up on him, he had nothing to do with it.” Lt. Norton said, “but he confessed, he backed up everything you said.” Church responded, “He is a nitwit, he only told you what I wanted him to tell you, he wasn’t there, he had nothing to do with it.”
Detectives asked Church how Parks knew so many details without being there. Church replied, “I hypnotized him.” The detectives laughed, but Church sat down in front of Parks and spoke firmly and brought Parks back to a calm quiet manner. Church told Parks that he can now tell the truth. Parks repudiated his confession and gave an alibi that was just as perfect as Wilder’s alibi when detectives verified it.
Church then told Lt. Norton, “I had no helpers, I did this alone, let’s get this over with.”
A plan that went awry
It turns out that Harvey Church had no liberty bonds and no intention of ever buying the Packard. His plan was to steal it. The idea was to get Daugherty alone and convince him that he left his safety deposit key at home. When they got to Church’s home, he invited Daugherty inside for a drink. As Daugherty entered the basement of the duplex, Church pointed an American double-action bulldog .32-caliber revolver at him, handcuffed him and then struck him with a baseball bat. Carl Ausmus was a snarl in Church’s plan that he had not been able to take into account. Church was just going to leave Daugherty at the bank and run off with the car, but since Ausmus waited in the Packard while they were inside, it made it more difficult to steal the car. Carl Ausmus became suspicious after waiting so long in front of the Church home on Fulton Street that he entered the duplex basement. When he entered, Church immediately struck him with the bat.
Church said he then decided the two living men were dangerous and he was left with no options. He told detectives that he went on a violent rampage, beating the men with the baseball bat and hatchet as they lay tied and gagged. He said he loaded Daugherty into the Packard, stuffed him in a sack with rocks and drove him to the river in Maywood that night where he threw him in. He went back for Ausmus and realized he was still breathing, so he dug a hole in the garage’s dirt floor and buried Ausmus there, beneath the Harroun automobile. After Church carried the body to the hole, he jumped on the man’s neck to break it.
Lt. Norton was suspicious of this story and asked Church how he expected him to believe that at 5-ft.-6-in. man weighing just 135 lbs. was able to handle two 6-ft.-tall, 200-lb. men. Church told Lt. Norton to find him the biggest cop they had and bring him in the room. Lt. Norton found Sergeant William McCarthy, who was 6-ft.-3-in. and 240 lbs. and agreed to partake in the demonstration. Lt. Norton handed Church a pair of handcuffs and said “impossible.”
To Norton’s amazement, Harvey Church had Sgt. McCarthy cuffed on the floor in a blink of the eye and then dead-lifted him over his shoulder. Church carried the 240-lb. sergeant around the room with no great effort. Lt. Norton said Church “was one of those rare small men who possess strength all out of proportion to their size.” Church signed his confession and said to Lt. Norton, “I thought I had willpower enough to bluff it through when I was caught.” He then leaned back in the chair and said, “Well, it’s over now.” A detective in the room named Newmark grimly said to Church, “Except for your necktie party.” Church responded to Newmark saying, “I will not be present at my execution.”
Bernard Daugherty, originally of St. Paul, Minn., was a World War I veteran and a graduate of Harvard. He was survived by his father, Patrick, brothers Michael and John, and sisters Aurelia and Hannah.
Carl Ausmus was from Bloomington, Ill., and was also a World War I veteran. No other information is known about him.
Harvey Church was quickly indicted for murder in November 1921. Doctors examined him and found him to be sane. He was put on trial two months after the slaying with Benjamin Bartel as his defense attorney. During that trial, the “odd” part of Harvey Church began to show. He sat in his cell, quiet and in a stare. While in the courtroom, he was completely detached from the events around him. Records state he was lethargic, oblivious and disconnected from the world around him. He eventually had to be propped up in a chair and carried in and out of the courtroom. He did not eat and fell into a coma-like state. Specialty doctors were brought in to test Church to determine whether he was faking his condition. Doctors tried electricity, needles and fire, but nothing aroused him. They admitted his condition was real and figured that he had hypnotized himself into a deep trance.
Church was found guilty of the murders on Dec. 21, 1921, and was sentenced to death by hanging. Illinois State Attorney for Cook County Robert Crowe said after the trial, “The courtroom was filled with the spirit of Christmas during the trial, but yet 12 men saw from the evidence that Church had killed two men and he should pay with his life.”
Officials decided to force-feed Church by putting a tube in him to keep him alive long enough so that they could hang him. As the execution date grew closer, Church became weaker and weaker each day, never leaving his cell bed.
A crowd of 50 people came to watch on his execution day of March 3, 1922. Sheriff Peter Hoffman and Warden Westbrook came into the cell and placed the limp body of Harvey Church into a wooden chair and tied him to it. They carried him to the scaffold and placed a hood over his head while a guard kept him upright. Harvey Church, while seated in a wooden chair, unconscious, was then hung as the trap door was opened, but as he noted to Detective Newmark, Harvey Church was not among those present.
Harvey Church: an epilogue
Several doctors commented on the condition of Harvey Church. Dr. Herschfield said, “He has cheated the state of its real objective as he is a mental suicide.” Dr. Olson stated, “A child who is unable to reason or control his inclinations is apt to become a burden to society.” The coroner who performed an autopsy on Church found that he had been burned with cigars and had very deep knife wounds that were performed by the doctors who were sent to test him to see if he was faking his condition.
Harvey W. Church returned by train to Adams for his last time on March 4, 1922, to be buried in the family plot at the South Burr Oak Cemetery. Due to the size of the crowd gathering at the Adams Depot, Church’s coffin was unloaded 15 miles south at Grand Marsh Depot. Today, his headstone is affixed with a Packard emblem placed there in recent years by an unknown person.
Church was survived by his sister Isabelle, his lone surviving sibling of eight, and his parents. The principal of the Friendship Wisconsin High School that Harvey graduated from in 1916 remarked that, “He was a bright pupil who did well in his studies; very few students graduated from here with better standings than him.” He also noted that, “The boy was a peculiar chap who had an unsocial disposition and had given much of his time to meditation and introspection.” Church had also stolen a Ford car in his teen years, but his father bailed him out to avoid prosecution.
In 1934, Church’s heartbroken father died destitute after spending his life savings trying to save his last boy from hanging. His Mother, Eva, died in December 1927 after being struck by a car while crossing Main Street in Adams. The driver, George Chapel of Portage, Wis., was charged with reckless driving. It was never reported what kind of car struck her, but I always wondered if it was a Packard.
*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.