On January 12, 1906, the body of an attractive woman was found lying face downward in a large yard located near Belden Avenue on the outskirts of Chicago. Half covered by trash, it had been dumped onto a refuse heap. The body was discovered by twenty-four-year-old Richard Ivens who had been caring for his father's horse in the barn nearby. Police were called after Ivens immediately rushed home and told his father about the body and it didn't take long for the dead woman to be identified.
Elizabeth Martha Hollister was the thirty-year-old wife of a local printer who had lived just four blocks from where the body was discovered. She had left to sing at a friend's funeral on the previous day and her family, alarmed when she failed to come home, organized a search for her before hearing that the body had been found. Police investigating her death found no evidence of a scuffle at the crime scene though copper wire was wrapped around her neck. While there were signs of bruising, the cause of death was strangulation. Whoever had killed Elizabeth Hollister dumped the body and tried to conceal it with trash. Though her hat was there at her feet. several rings were missing from her fingers. Her purse, shopping bag, and her muff were also missing leading police to suspect that robbery was the motive for her murder. Based on their reconstruction of the crime scene, the dead woman was had been killed at some point during the daytime before her body was dumped in the lot during the evening.
Facing intense pressure to solve the case, a large force of police detectives were assigned to find whoever was responsible and they managed to find a suspect almost immediately. It's hard to say exactly what led the police to suspect Richard Ivens in the first place. While he had been the one to discover the body, the fact that it been dumped so close to his father's business likely made police suspicious. He had absolutely no criminal history or any history of violence whatsoever but Ivens had a reputation in the neighbourhood of being gullible and absent-minded. His apparent nervousness and indications that he hadn't had a good night's sleep was likely all that the police had to go on in naming him a suspect. Or perhaps they simply needed somebody to interrogate to make it seem as if they were doing their jobs.
After arresting and charging Richard Ivens with murder (to the astonishment of everybody who knew him), police then subjected him to the "third degree" that was common police procedure in those days. This basically meant mercilessly interrogating Ivens for hours at a time, all the while telling him that he was guilty. Whether due to nervousness or simply because he had been manipulated by the police interrogators, Ivens eventually broke down and confessed to the crime. He also signed a somewhat lengthy confession stating that he had assaulted Elizabeth Hollister as she passed his father's shop on Belden Avenue. When she resisted, he dragged her into the shop and killed her by typing wire around her neck. After dumping the body, he went home to supper and stayed there all night before pretending to find the body on the following day.
Within hours, newspapers across the country were reporting that Ivens was guilty of murder (even though he had not even been tried yet). Despite being widely seen as an open-and-shut case however, there were troubling details about the confession. While the confession stated that Ivens had been drunk at the time of the murder, his mother insisted that he had been sober when he came to supper(and he certainly had no history of alcoholism). There were also people willing to swear that he had an alibi at the time of the killing. But these objections were largely ignored as the newspapers and police declared the case solved.
At the coroner's inquest, which was held just days after the body was found, Richard Ivens described how he killed Elizabeth Hollister. Newspaper reporters were quick to describe how unconcerned Ivens seemed as he gave his testimony. This so enraged the victim's brother-in-law that he attempted to shoot Ivens right in the courtroom (a police officer spotted the weapon and restrained the gunman). During the cross-examination, Ivens basically repeated everything that had already gone into the signed confession. This was essential for court cases of the time since, knowing the kind of interrogation tactics police used, having the defendant repeat the confession in open court eliminated any accusations of police intimidation.
Newspapers had no problem denouncing Ivens and his crime. One reporter wrote that the defendant was a "ruffian" whose confession "for moral depravity, has no parallel in police records." He also added that Ivens was "big and brutal looking", something that apparently proved his guilt. It hardly seemed to matter that Ivens had no previous criminal history or that there had been other recent attacks on women in Chicago, including several murders very similar to Elizabeth Hollister's. Although there was no attempt to link Richard Ivens to the other crimes (he had a solid alibi), women were warned to be careful when walking in the streets and to avoid displaying money or jewelry.
Given that Ivens made a full confession, his family had little hope of saving his life except by trying for an insanity defense and his father told reporters that his son had been acting "queerly" before the killing. In the meantime, public outrage over Elizabeth Hollister's death meant the political pressure to get a conviction was intense. Despite repeated grilling to get Ivens to name accomplices, including rumours that he was part of a larger gang targeting women in Chicago, police eventually concluded that he had acted alone.
In the trial that began on March 5, Richard Ivens was defended by attorney I. W. Foltz, who also happened to be a friend of his family. Considering the public outrage, and the presence of the victim's husband who police feared would try to kill Ivens, police protection was especially tight. While Foltz provided testimony from one witness who swore that the defendant was at her home when the murder occurred, the prosecutor managed to discredit her testimony and the case shifted to the actual value of Ivens' confession.
After failing to keep Iven's confession from being entered as evidence, Foltz then tried another, more unusual tactic. He argued that Assistant Chief of Police Herman F. Schuetttler, who had gotten Ivens to confess in the first place, had used "hypnotic" techniques to make him believe that he was guilty. Despite being all the rage in vaudeville acts, hypnosis was still a mysterious and often-misunderstood phenomenon with frequent news stories describing how hypnotists robbed victims of their free will. Given Richard Ivens' low intelligence (his own attorney called him a "half-witted boy"), he was considered to be especially vulnerable to this kind of persuasion.
To nobody's surprise, Richard Ivens then recanted his entire confession and the trial then turned to a new question: why would someone confess to a murder that he didn't commit?
To be continued