Wednesday, May 22, 2019


In this conclusion about the strange death of Robert Morris that occurred in La Farge on February 24, 1928, the focus will shift to the legal proceedings to punish a possible murderer in the case.  In the last installment, we learned that several people had come forward to implicate Frank Traister regarding the death of Morris.  Robert Morris had been in the upstairs apartment of Traister, who lived with his family in the Travers Building on La Farge’s Main Street, on the evening prior to his death.  
            Following investigations by the Vernon County Sheriff and a Pinkerton Agency detective brought in for the case, Frank Traister was arrested on an alcohol charge (Traister was known to have run a speakeasy from his apartment).  After questioning in Viroqua by the Vernon County District Attorney, Traister eventually admitted guilt to a 4thdegree murder (manslaughter) charge and was sentenced for up to two years in the state penitentiary.  So that is where we ended last time, but that is certainly not the end of the story.
            In the March 22, 1928 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper, a front-page headline boldly screams out, “TRAISTER CASE STILL UNSETTLED”.  Under the headline, Enterprise editor B.W. Koob, who had been hesitant to print very many first-hand accounts on the case since its earliest phases writes:
            Reliable and authentic reports regarding the proceedings in the Traister case, have failed to reach this office, as it appears there has been several unforeseen obstacles presented.  The following data is taken from last week’s Vernon County Censor:
            It is interesting to see how often the editor of the Enterprise uses other newspapers’ accounts when covering this story. In his original account of Robert Morris’ death, Editor Koob had a lengthy article about the deadly incident. But in the weeks following the strange death, Koob seems to rely solely on other newspapers for presenting information. This practice will continue as Traister’s legal case plays out over several months.  Let us return to the March 15tharticle in the Vernon County Censor that Koob had introduced:
            The case of State of Wisconsin vs. Frank Traister, of La Farge, seems to be arousing considerable interest among our citizens.  Proceedings were had before Judge Mahoney on Monday in which the defendant was sentenced to the Penitentiary for from one to two years on a plea of manslaughter in the fourth degree.
            Prior to that time attorneys had been employed to look after his interest, but no notice was served upon his attorneys of any proceedings and upon learning what had taken place his attorneys immediately appeared in court and demanded that he be brought before the court to ascertain whether or not he had entered a plea of guilt understandingly.  The court refused to order the prisoner brought before the court, but affidavits were obtained stating the true facts in the matter, and Attorney Bennett went to Madison and appeared before the Supreme Court, Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., and that court issued an order directing the County Judge to proceed no further in the matter and to grant the defendant the proper hearing that he might be tried on the merits or in the alternative to show cause before the Supreme Court why he should not do that.
            Besides being one amazingly long run-on sentence, that last part of the V.C. Censor article provides some new information in the Traister case.  First, after initially appearing to have had no counsel in the case, Frank Traister subsequently was being represented by one of the top lawyers in Vernon County, J. Henry Bennett.  It is amazing to think that Traister was originally sentenced in the county court without any counsel, but that appears to be what happened. When attorney Bennett heard what had happened to his client, he immediately tried to get Vernon County Judge Daniel Mahoney to change or vacate the charge, but was denied access to the court.  That prompted Bennett to hop in his Model T Roadster (or whatever prominent attorneys drove back then) and head to Madison to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to issue a legal stop to the proceedings against his client.  The Supreme Court issued an order for the Vernon County Judge “to proceed no farther”.
            I wonder how Frank Traister, who does not seem to have a job since it is never mentioned in any of the articles, could afford to hire a top law firm to represent him.  Perhaps Traister’s father-in-law, Chancy Parr provided the money.  Parr, a distinguished Civil War veteran and President of the G.A.R. Post in La Farge, was married five times.  Frank Traister’s mother was Chancy Parr’s fifth and last wife. I’m presuming that Parr would have had the financial means to hire the Bennett law firm in Viroqua to represent his wife’s son.
            The La Farge Enterprise printed another Vernon County Censor article in the March 29th issue.  The front-page headline read, STAY ORDERED IN TRAISTER PROCEEDINGS.  The reprinted article followed:
            Viroqua County Censor: All proceedings in the case of Frank Traister, La Farge, execution of whose sentence of from one to two years on a plea of guilty to manslaughter in the fourth degree in connection with the death of Robert Morris on February 24th, has been held up, have been suspended pending a return to the supreme court writ by Judge D. O. Mahoney ordered for April 7th.
            Traister, who is still held in the Vernon County jail, was not arraigned in court yesterday to which time the case had been adjourned.  Judge Mahoney has ordered a stay of all proceedings until a return on the alternative writ issued by the supreme court, demanding that the sentence be set aside and Traister given a trial is made.
            From this article in the V.C. Censor, we can deduce that attorney J. Henry Bennett was able to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to halt the proceedings of the Vernon County Court against his client.  Although still in the Vernon County jail, Frank Traister at least did not have to go to the state penitentiary in Waupun.  Getting a new trial and getting out of jail was another thing all together.
            In the April 19, 1928 issue of the Enterprise, there was this article listed under the headline, “TRAISTER CASE TAKEN UNDER ADVISEMENT”:
            Norwalk Star:Whether or not that Frank Traister, La Farge man being held in Vernon County jail in connection with the death of Robert Morris, also of La Farge, will be admitted to trial over his plea of guilty for manslaughter, will be determined by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
            The Supreme Court on Saturday took the appeal of attorneys under advisement, whether it will issue a peremptory writ of mandamus ordering the Vernon County court to withdraw his plea of guilty, and be tried.
            Attorneys C. J. Smith and J. Henry Bennett, for the defendant, took the case to the Supreme Court on the allegation that Traister was “railroaded” into court to plead guilty unbeknown to his counsel.
            Following the legal proceedings for this case proved to be tricky.  Back in 2013, when I first started research on this murder case, I went to the Clerk of Court’s office in Viroqua to see if they had the records.  The records for that far back (1928) were no longer there, but had been transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) to be archived.
            The WHS had deposited the old Vernon County court records at the WHS Area Research Center (ARC) at the Murphy Library on the UW-LaCrosse campus.  I had done some previous research at that site, so I made contact with the folks at the ARC to see what they could find.  Ed Hill, retired librarian and local history aficionado, did some digging for me and sent along a copy of the registration of official documents by Vernon County in the case.  From this document, I was able to get a better picture of the time line regarding the legal proceedings.  (Ed Hill later called me about what he had sent regarding the Traister Case.  He said that all of the hearing and court proceedings were on file at the UW-LaCrosse ARC and could be viewed there.)
            The La Farge Enterprise provided the next information on the Traister Case in the May 10, 1928 issue.  Under a front-page headline that read Traister Gets New Trial, the article read:
            The county court of Vernon County must receive the application of Frank Traister to permit him to withdraw his plea of guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of Robert Morris, also of La Farge, the supreme court held on Tuesday of this week.  Traister is now serving a sentence of one to two years for alleged offense. 
            Traister was arrested on a charge of violating the prohibition laws and while being held in the county jail he was persuaded to plead guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of Morris. Morris was found nearly dead at the foot of the stairway leading to the living quarters of the Traister family, and is believed to have died as the result of a skull fracture. 
            Traister had an attorney who was told that the only charge against him was the one involving an alleged violation of the liquor laws and this case was set before a justice of the peace.  The attorney waited at the justice’s office but found that while he had been waiting Traister had been induced to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge.
            After Traister’s attorney, J. Henry Bennett, had obtained the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that his client should have a new trail on the manslaughter charges, the Vernon County Court had to act.  On May 16th papers were filed in the county court as a “Petition of Frank Traister to withdraw plea of guilty and Judgment vacated filed”.  At the same time, an “Order setting aside plea and sentence filed” also appeared on the listing of legal filings in the case.
            Three days later an order was filed in court for the Vernon County Sheriff to continue to hold Frank Traister in jail.  On that same day, May 19, 1928, another order was filed requiring “bail and commitment after arrest and before trial”.  On June 27th, a notation on the filings in the Traister case notes read, “Bail Bond, certificate of deposit for $500.00 filed”.  By that time it appears that Frank Traister was out of the county jail for the first time since he had been arrested back in early March.
            Traister, this time with his attorneys present, was back in the Vernon County Court in early October.  On the 5th of that month, an “Affidavit of Order for witnesses of indigent defendant” was filed and a trail was held three days later. The court record shows that Traister was “Tried by Jury who return a verdict of “not guilty”.  The next week’s issue of the Enterprise had a short notice that Judge Mahoney had dismissed the Traister case due to a lack of evidence.  I am assuming that the editor of the La Farge newspaper had it wrong on the outcome of the Frank Traister case, but regardless, Traister was a free man.           
            Although arrested on a “liquor charge” originally, then subsequently sentenced to time in the state penitentiary on a manslaughter charge, Frank Traister eventually was not found guilty of anything.  
            Later in 1928, in an October issue of the La Farge Enterprise, there was a notice in the school news section that May Traister, 2ndgrade and brother Harold in 4thgrade had perfect attendance for the first quarter at the La Farge School.  They were the two youngest children of Frank and Cora Traister.
            Life went on, except of course, for Robert Morris.   

Thursday, May 9, 2019


The first time that I ever heard about the murder of Robert Morris was when I was talking to my aunt, Alice Lawrence, twenty years ago when I was just starting this little local history project.  We were talking about some events from La Farge’s “Dark Side” from the past and she brought up the death of Morris.  She did not remember Morris’ name, but did remember the Traister name and where the family lived at that time.
            She said that Frank Traister ran a speakeasy in the upstairs apartment that he rented at the old Travers Building then located on Main Street.  According to my Aunt Alice’s version of the story, Morris, Traister and some other men were drinking and playing cards late at night in that apartment.  She said that they caught Morris cheating at cards and the other card players threw him down the stairs.  From the fall down the stairs, Morris broke his neck and he was found dead the next morning, lying on the sidewalk in front of the building. My aunt’s version of the story leads us into a continuation of looking at the aftermath of the death of Robert Morris.
            Let us return to the year of 1928 and take a look at the lead story in the March 8th issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  It began under a headline of “New angle In Morris Death”:
            While it is hardly possible for the Enterprise to issue statements with a degree of authenticity relating to the disaster which befell Robert Morris, on Thursday two weeks ago, we have been able to secure certain facts connected with the case which we believe we are free to publish without fear of contradiction.
            Shortly after the funeral of Robert Morris, Frank Traister was taken into custody by county officials, and after a hearing at the county seat, was placed under $1,000 bonds, which, being unable to furnish, caused the officers to place him in the county jail.  His trial was set for Monday, March 12th, according to plans in force at the time this is being put into type.
            Herman Henthorne, a farmer living a few miles from Viroqua, who with Harley Harris, of the village, were inmates of the Traister apartment at the time of the accident, were taken to Viroqua, where, in the county attorney’s office, certain details of the case which were not brought out at the inquest held on the day following the death of Robert Morris, were made to present a somewhat different angle regarding the death of Robert Morris.
            With these opening paragraphs in the Enterprise article, the story that was told to me by my Aunt Alice starts to come together.  Vernon County Sheriff Martin Larson arrested Frank Traister and took him to the county jail in Viroqua.  While there, Vernon County District Attorney Martin Gulbrandson questioned Traister about the night of Morris’ death.  Let’s return to the Enterprise article:
            Frank Traister has made a signed confession that he was standing at the top of the stairway and witnessed R. Morris roll down the stairs, from which catastrophe he is supposed to have received the blow which soon afterward caused his death.
            At the time this is being put in type, Wednesday afternoon, the county sheriff, in company with a special representative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, of Minneapolis, are in the village, going over the scene of the accident, and putting certain parties who are more or less involved in the case, through the third degree.
            The editor of the Enterprise, perhaps to protect the reputations of Frank Traister and the other men in the apartment that night, is loathe to declare the death of Robert Morris a murder.  The story published in the March 14, 1928 issue of the LaCrosse Tribune does not show the same constraint.  Under a headline of “Hold Evidence In Morris Death Case Points to Foul Play”, the article in the Tribune read:
            That Vernon County authorities have in their possession sufficient evidence on which to arraign Frank Traister, La Farge, on a murder count, seemed a certainty as the probing of the mysterious death of Robert Morris went forward today.
            Most important of this evidence divulged today by Martin Gulbrandson, district attorney for Vernon County, was that blood stains were discovered on the upper landing of the stairway, leading directly into the Traister residence, and below which the frozen form of Morris was discovered by a laborer at 5:30 on the morning of February 24th.
            Authorities point to this evidence as the most conclusive of any yet uncovered in connection with the case, since it has been maintained by Traister and his associates that Morris sustained the severe skull fracture, contributing to his death, in his tumble down the stair case.  It indicated to authorities that an assault had been made and aided in bearing out their contention that foul play had been committed.  Other evidence authorities are believed to have in their possession has not been divulged.
            C. A. Hedin, St. Paul, special investigator brought in on the case, went over the ground with Sheriff Martin Larson yesterday, making a trip to La Farge and discussing various phases of the case with Vernon County officials. The findings of the special detective were not disclosed, but he was to remain with the authorities until the case was cleared up.
            District Attorney Gulbrandson over long distance today said that meanwhile Traister, who was placed under arrest last Friday, and from whose stairway Morris was said by him to have fallen, was being held on a liquor charge.  He (Gulbrandson)said the preliminary hearing was set for Monday, but said the arraignment on this charge would be postponed in the event other clues pointing to Traister’s implication in a murder count were uncovered.
            It appears from this account in the LaCrosse Tribune that Frank Traister was originally arrested on the “liquor charge”, or that Traister was running a speakeasy of sorts out of his Main Street apartment.  Remember that this event occurred during the days of Prohibition in the United States, so there are federal and state laws in effect regarding illegal bars or taverns, “speakeasies” being in operation.  The Tribune article then goes on to capture the mood in La Farge as found by conversations that the reporter had with residents of the village.  The article continued:
            Through its own investigation, carried on in the city with parties who have recently been at La Farge and who know personally the persons involved, The Tribune learned today that considerable feeling is in evidence in that village, the majority of residents contending the action should be brought on a charge of murder.
            Complete disregard on the part of the Traisters of Morris’ well-being after his injury was explained here as a means they adopted in endeavoring to cover up on any possible connection with his injury, it is alleged.
            Morris was known to have sought liquor at the Traister home on the night previous to his death, spending close to an hour before 11:30 that night in Traister’s quarters.  He was believed to have departed around midnight, and lay at the bottom of the stairway until 5:30 in the morning, when he was found in a dying state, with his hands and feet frozen.
            Detective Hedin was scheduled to question Traister at the Vernon County jail today.  Authorities previously have questioned him and on all occasions he has maintained that his original story – that Morris was injured in the fall – was the truth.
            It is interesting that although the editor of the Enterprise did not want to speculate on the alleged murder as the Tribune article had done, the local La Farge newspaper did reprint the entire Tribune article in the March 15thissue of the Enterprise.  The following week (March 22nd) the La Farge newspaper reprinted an article about the Morris murder case that had been originally printed in a Viroqua newspaper, the Vernon County Censor. Although the Enterprise account led with the following disclaimer, “Reliable and authentic reports regarding the proceedings in the Traister case, have failed to reach this office, as it appears there has been several unforeseen obstacles presented”, the VC Censor, again like the Tribune article the week before, was reprinted in its entirety.  The lead paragraph in the VC Censor article read”
            The case of the State of Wisconsin vs. Frank Traister, of La Farge, seems to be arousing considerable interest among our citizens.  Proceedings were had before Judge Mahoney on Monday in which the defendant was sentenced to the Penitentiary for from one to two years on a plea of manslaughter in the fourth degree.
            Piecing the information from the several articles together, it appears that Frank Traister, who was originally arrested on alcohol – related charges, eventually admitted to having a part in Morris’ death, probably after questioning by the detective and county sheriff.  Perhaps to avoid being tried for a more severe offense, Traister agreed to plead guilty on the manslaughter charge.  It appears that Traister was headed for a year or two in the state penitentiary at Waupun.  Or was he?
More next time on the murder of Robert Morris.