Tuesday, November 6, 2018

John Looney W. W. Wilmerton Street Duel Rock Island, Illinois 1909

1922 reward poster for John Looney.
(Public Domain image sourced from Wikimedia Commons,)
Two local newspapermen exchanged bullets and bad words on the streets of Rock Island, Illinois on the afternoon of February 22, 1909.

The trouble had been brewing for nearly a year and stemmed from when W. W. Wilmerton purchased a controlling interest in the Rock Island News from John Looney. Just hours after the deal closed a dynamite bomb tore through the Looney building, destroying the paper’s press. That same year, three mysterious fires ravaged the same building. 

Wilmerton didn’t let any of that stop him. He renamed the paper the Tri-City Morning Journal and moved its operations to a different location.

Three weeks before the current troubles began, Looney reestablished The Rock Island News and began printing crazy tirades about Wilmerton and his family. Wilmerton took most of the allegations in stride. What he couldn’t overlook was an article Looney published saying he had breaking news that would land Wilmerton in prison. 

Both men were arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill, but it is unclear how the incident got started. 

Looney said he was minding his own business and had no idea Wilmerton was nearby until he was shot from behind. “Then he merely defended himself.”[1] Wilmerton said he saw Looney walking down the opposite side of the street. The next thing he knew, Looney pulled out a pistol and began firing at him. 

Wilmerton ran back to his office, grabbed his pistol, and fired two shots at Looney. He could have got him, but Looney hid behind a telephone pole and continued to fire at him. When he realized he didn’t have a chance of getting Looney, Wilmerton ran back to his office.

Looney wasn’t as smart. He reloaded his gun and chased after Wilmerton.

Detective Tom Cox and Officer Kell arrested Looney near the Hartz and Bahnsen building on the north side of Third Avenue. Officer Kirsch arrested Wilmerton.[2]

When they arrived at the police station, Looney went off on a rant “attacking city officers, talking about graft,” and how unjust it was that police barely watched Wilmerton, while they assigned several officers to keep an eye him.[3]

If that wasn’t enough to rankle officers, Looney “declared that if he had done what he should have, he would have ‘plugged them all,’ and would not have allowed them to take him.” It wasn’t over, continued Looney. The cemetery was the only place it would end.[4]

There were questions about Looney’s wound. Chief L. V. Eckhart called Dr. B. J. Lachner but Looney wouldn’t let Dr. Lachner examine him. Looney called in Dr. G. G. Craig, Sr., then refused to let Chief Eckhart be present during his examination. When the chief wanted to examine his clothes for bullet holes, Looney declined.

Dr. Craig’s statement was ambiguous. “I cannot tell from the nature of the wounds whether Looney was shot in the back or not.” He saw two penetrations in his back but was unsure what to think. “The bullet, I believe, did not penetrate any vital organ. It passed out about three inches from the point it entered,” said the doctor. “I do not regard the wound as serious.”[5]

There is some evidence Wilmerton may have fired first, but he may have been provoked. Witnesses saw Looney “rushing up the alley between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets from Second Avenue towards Third Avenue, directly towards Wilmerton’s office. Wilmerton was in the vestibule of his office.” When he saw Looney, he ran back to his office, “raised the roll top of his desk, then lowered it again.”[6]

Was that when he grabbed his gun? No one heard a shot before Wilmerton opened his desk.

The men were on opposite sides of the street, twenty to twenty-five feet away from each other when they opened fire. Both men hid behind telephone poles and continued firing. Wilmerton was the first to leave and headed for the safety of his office. 

Looney crossed the street and walked towards the Safety building, where he reloaded his gun then started back towards Wilmerton’s office. That’s when officers arrested him.

What’s surprising is that officers didn’t shoot Looney.

When asked to hand over his revolver, Looney pulled it from his pocket, “held it in a position near his side and pointing toward the detective. He said, ‘Why yes. There is the gun.” Officers left it at that and let Looney walk to the police station, gun in hand.[7]

When it was over The Rock Island Argus wrote, “both (men) proved poor shots.” Seven shots were fired. The only one to hit its target tagged Looney with a minor wound.[8]

The Trial

The trial dragged on for weeks. 

The prosecution made it appear as if Looney fired the first shot and the last shot after Wilmerton turned his back and walked toward his office. 

Mrs. C. E. Lutes heard the first shot and ran to her window. She saw Looney on the north side of the street surrounded by a cloud of smoke. She did not see any smoke on the south side of the street by Wilmerton, so she assumed Looney fired the first shot.[9] She was positive Looney fired the last shot at Wilmerton as he walked back to his office. 

When re-examined, Mrs. Lutes was not as convincing. She said she did not see Looney’s weapon and could not tell if it was smoking.[10]

Mr. Briggs was standing on the north side of Eighteenth Street and Third Avenue when the shots rang out. He saw a cloud of smoke near the alley and when it cleared away, he saw Looney. A few moments later he saw Wilmerton coming from the direction of his office. He was pretty sure Looney fired the last shot as Wilmerton walked away.[11]

Oscar Wahlund’s testimony was similar to Lute’s and Briggs. He saw a cloud of smoke near Looney and he was sure Looney fired the last shot. Unlike Briggs who thought twelve shots were fired, Wahlund heard ten.

Next on the stand was Dr. G. G. Craig. He testified Looney was wounded in the hip, not the back. “In his opinion, the bullet entered the flesh from behind.”[12]

When State’s Attorney Magill cross-examined Craig, the doctor said it was possible the wounds were made with a hot poker, not a bullet. He also admitted the bullet holes in Looney’s clothes could have been made at some other time.[13]

On March 12, Looney’s attorney introduced witnesses to show Wilmerton fired first. He said Looney did not shoot until after Wilmerton fired his gun three times. 

Alice Keys and her grandfather W. W. Duffin were standing on the corner of Third Avenue when the shooting broke out. They testified Wilmerton fired two or three times before Looney returned fire. Charles Ginnane said the same thing. He was walking on the north side of Third Avenue just east of Eighteenth Street when he heard the shots. 

George W. Redding watched the confrontation from his office window. After the first shots were fired, he saw Looney fumbling through his pockets searching for his gun. Kit Aakinson, George Lowe, and J. M. Richardson gave similar testimony. 

Strangely, Assistant States Attorney H. M. Schriver said that “even should the evidence show conclusively that Wilmerton and not Looney fired the first shot, Looney still would not have been justified in self-defense to fire the last shot.”[14] He said Looney was “justified in returning the fire only so long as there was real or apparent danger.”[15]

S. R. Kenworthy, Looney’s defense attorney protested that “the last shot could not be considered on its own.” It was one small part of what happened.[16]

The trial seemed to go on forever but was finally resolved on May 16. The Grand Jury ignored the charge against John Looney and did not indict him for assault with intent to murder W. W. Wilmerton.[17]

Alleged shooting of Looney 

The street duel wasn’t the end of it.

A month later, John Looney was riding along Twentieth Street near Twelfth Avenue when someone fired a shot at him. Looney later testified before Magistrate Smith that “he recognized Wilmerton as the man who fired the shot and whom he saw in the weeds immediately after the flash from the gun.”[18]

Looney was the first witness to take the stand at the preliminary hearing. He said he was at his office and headed home about 9:30. On the way, he stopped to talk with George Reddit on First Avenue. From there, “he drove south on Twelfth Street.” When he “was about 125 feet south of Twelfth Avenue he saw the flash of a gun.”[19] It was 30 or 40 feet ahead of him and came from a patch of weeds along the road. “He saw a man rise in the weeds, and he thought he was going to shoot again.”[20]

When he saw the man, Looney wasn’t sure whether he jumped or fell out of the buggy. It was dark, but there was enough light for him to identify Wilmerton. 

After that, he ran to the home of Dr. Paul and called the police. Captain Giles took him to Wilmerton’s house. When there was no answer, they went to the newspaper office. Wilmerton wasn’t there either, so they walked to the police station where Looney swore out a warrant against Wilmerton. While he was doing that, Officer McMahon telephoned to say he found Wilmerton at his home.[21]

Looney said when he examined his clothes the next morning, he discovered a hole in his hat, and another in his coat sleeve near the wrist which explained the cut on his arm. He found a hole in his shirt and another in the left shoulder of his coat, then he speculated a hard spot in the shoulder of his coat was a hidden bullet.[22]

Wilmerton’s lawyer, F. H. Kelly, didn’t believe a word Looney said. He said the light wasn’t good enough that night for Looney to identify anyone. As for the holes in his coat... Looney didn’t say anything about the holes the night of the supposed shooting, “although he said that he had looked at his coat carefully.”[23]

Dr. F. D. Paul said that Looney ran up to his house and said he had been shot. He thought the “scratch on Looney’s wrist was sustained when he fell or rolled out of the buggy.” He remembered Looney said he heard the report of a gun and thought he saw the flash, but “he could not be sure about the flash.” One other thing in his testimony stuck out like a sore thumb. He did not “remember that Looney charged anyone with shooting him.”[24]

Night Captain W. A. Giles said he met Looney on Twelfth Avenue and Twentieth Street and walked with him to Wilmerton’s house. “He knocked three times in quick succession, and seeing no light, he left the place.”[25]

Captain Giles sent Officer McMahon to keep watch on Wilmerton’s house. He found Wilmerton’s son and a lady friend outside and sent them to fetch Mr. Wilmerton. It took Wilmerton ten minutes to come to the door and when Officer McMahon asked him to come to the station, he refused because the policeman did not have a warrant.[26]

The next morning a shotgun was found on Seventeenth Street, about 500 feet from the scene of the shooting. From there, they walked to the home of Albert Meyer. Meyer said he saw a man running down Seventeenth Street just after the shooting. He said the man was “wearing a black stiff hat, a salt and pepper coat, and dark trousers.”[27]

Looney asked if it was Wilmerton. Meyer said it was not. After that Looney asked if the shooter was Robert Cox. Meyer said he was certain it was not Cox, either.[28]

After hearing the testimony, the defense attorney made a motion that the charges be dismissed. He called it a “well-rigged up plot” an “ingenious frame-up.”[29] He said Looney was crazy if he thought he could identify Wilmerton in the weeds in the dim light that night. It wasn’t possible.

Magistrate Smith denied the motion. 

Mr. Meyer was called for the defense. He said he was in bed when the shot was fired. As soon as he heard the shot, he jumped up and looked out the window.

When he looked out the front window, he saw a man walking from the street to the west sidewalk near where the gun was found the next day. He had a clear view of the man and was certain it wasn’t Mr. Wilmerton. The man he saw weighed about 160 pounds. He wore a light spotted suit and a derby hat.[30]

The trial was held the next week.

Wilmerton said Looney was full of shit. He was out of town from the night of June 10 until early morning on June 12. On the day Looney was shot at, he was at home from 5:30 in the afternoon until 2:00 in the morning.[31]

He ate supper with his family that night, went to bed about 8:30, and did not see anyone else until his son Roy, woke him up to say the police wanted to speak with him. After that, he spoke with Mrs. Ward, a neighbor lady then walked to the reservoir station. Shortly after that he returned home and stayed there until Captain Giles arrested him at 2:00 o’clock in the morning.[32]

Wilmerton proved to be a difficult witness. He refused to give out any information. He said it was a “frame-up.”[33]

Looney’s attorney asked what he meant. “I thought you said it was a preliminary hearing?” 

“I suppose that’s what it might be called,” responded Wilmerton.[34]

[1] Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier. February 25, 1909.
[2] The Rock Island Argus. February 22, 1909.
[3] The Rock Island Argus. February 23, 1909.
[4] The Rock Island Argus. February 23, 1909.
[5] The Rock Island Argus. February 23, 1909.
[6] The Rock Island Argus. February 23, 1909.
[7] The Rock Island Argus. February 23, 1909.
[8] The Rock Island Argus. February 22, 1909.
[9] The Rock Island Argus. March 6, 1909.
[10] The Rock Island Argus. March 6, 1909.
[11] The Rock Island Argus. March 6, 1909.
[12] The Rock Island Argus. March 6, 1909.
[13] The Rock Island Argus. March 6, 1909.
[14] The Rock Island Argus. March 12, 1909.
[15] The Rock Island Argus. March 12, 1909.
[17] The Rock Island Argus. March 17, 1909.
[18] Rock Island Argus. June 24, 1909.
[20] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[21] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[22] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[23] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[24] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[25] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[26] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[27] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[28] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[29] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[30] Rock Island Argus. June 15, 1909
[31] Rock Island Argus. June 24, 1909
[32] Rock Island Argus. June 24, 1909
[33] Rock Island Argus. June 24, 1909
[34] Rock Island Argus. June 24, 1909

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