By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
Gertrude Hanna was a 25-year-old choir girl. She was found dead in the cellar of the United Presbyterian Church, situated two blocks from her home. She was pregnant, and it was clear she had not died on the narrow, cement ledge her body had been left on. Was it suicide or something more sinister?
April 28, 1922, Hoopeston, Illinois
Gertrude was last seen on March 24, after leaving her parent's home. Her father owned a local mill, and none of her family could believe that on the rainy day she walked out the front door, would be the last time they would see her.
Carpenters had been working four days to prepare the parsonage for a new minister when her body was discovered on a narrow, cement ledge just inside the basement window. She still wore a rain coast and rubber shoes she had left her home with.
The parsonage had been empty since December. All windows and doors of the building were locked on the inside with the exception of one basement window. The door to the cellar stairway was locked from the inside by a broom handle thrust through the handle. Police could not find any footprints around the body.
The authorities who examined Gertrude Hanna estimated she had been dead four weeks, however the remains had been left in the basement only a week before.
A caretaker for the church and parsonage had gone through the building only a week before, and he later told the authorities she was not there. This led police to believe she was kept someplace full of ice, or that maintained a very cool temperature. Strangely the torso was well preserved, but the head was in a high state of putrefaction.
Another doctor who examined the body. believed she had been dead less than two weeks. If this was the case, had she been held prisoner somewhere for two weeks before she was killed, and her body secreted in the parsonage?
An autopsy found there were no marks of violence on her body, however she was far advanced in her pregnancy. Her wrists gave evidence of having been bound tightly for an extended period of time. No rope or wire was found in the basement. Despite having been dead for a month, the medical examiner found that her organs were in almost perfect condition as if she had been deceased only 24 hours.
Within days of the discovery, her father W. T. Hanna said that "owing to his daughter's mental condition, about which the family were very sensitive, they had not asked for assistance in hunting for her." He specified she had never been suicidal. He went to search for her, however they had not notified police Gertrude was missing.
She had worked in Chicago for three years as a student nurse and for Sears Roebuck, but returned home after suffering a nervous breakdown. She had spent time at the Kankakee Institution but was discharged as cured.
Due to the absence of violent marks on the body, police believe she might have been smothered or chloroformed to death.
The police theorized that perhaps the man who impregnated her, used chloroform on her to carry out an abortion since there was evidence on her body that one was attempted, but administered too much and it killed her.
Within a day John Cleveland Wyman, 35, a wealthy farmer and church elder confessed that he had an intimate relationship with Gertrude Hanna. He denied killing her, and said they had met when they attended church together. Then Gertrude left for Chicago, and he married another woman, who died within the first two years of their marriage.
When Gertrude returned to Hoopeston, he confessed that he still loved her, but she told him no. She said, "I am no longer worthy of you." She went on to describe her misdeeds in Chicago, that she had been tempted, and had fallen.
Shortly after this, he became a boarder at her parent's home, and in October they had started an intimate relationship. He wanted to marry her, but she refused, and they severed relations. He said that when she disappeared he was visiting his mother in Palestine, Illinois.
Eventually this story would prove to be a solid alibi, because despite being brought in for questioning several times, Wyman was never indicted for the crime.
A day later, The Chicago Tribune reported that Gertrude was institutionalized at the Cook County Psychopathic Hospital in 1919. The official remark attached to her file, read: "She has ordered a revolver and ammunition to protect her from a man who she believes is following her."
She said at the hospital, "I am so unhappy. The folks at home seem to have no confidence in me. I get careless. I steal little things and think nothing of it. I just don't care."
When asked why she came to the hospital, she said, "My father don't like my friend, and he don't like my father. I hear so many voices, but I cannot understand."
The authorities weren't sure if the friend she referred to was Wyman.
On May 1, authorities questioned Gertrude's parents and her two sisters. The undertaker said that he found particles of flour such as might be found at a grist mill clinging to Gertrude's overshoes. Then the police visited the ice house, and from there they went to a vacant house near the Hanna home.
The investigators were pursuing a theory that Gertrude was taken to the mill for an abortion in order to avoid gossip, but that something had gone wrong. They had stored her body in the ice house, and then transported her body to the parsonage basement. After being questioned by police her father said, "I'd just as soon have the whole thing dropped. There has been too much gossip and scandal already."
By the beginning of May, leads had thinned out and then police got a new clue. It was in the form of a letter addressed to Hanna's father from a woman named Nora Cloud. It read: "Mr. W.T. Hanna: Your daughter probably met some correspondent and has been slain. She wanted a job and I told her I would try and get her one playing ____ Music company. I promised to meet the proprietor there and arrange for a settlement for her playing. They needed girls and I told him of your daughter. I think if you would call a Philadelphia man and see him that he might confess."
Problem with this new lead is that Mrs. Cloud had been released from the Kankakee Insane Asylum two months before. The state attorney decided to discount the letter.
The police were still surveilling Wyman as well as two other men. Wyman told authorities Hanna and him had set the date of January 12 for a wedding, but at the same time he disclosed that Gertrude had threatened him. He took it so seriously that he considered going to the police with the complaint.
Then Wyman said that after he split with Gertrude he took up with her sister Grace, however he never had intentions of getting rid of Gertrude so that he could marry Grace. He said that Mr. Hanna wanted him to marry Gertrude, but he told the old man that he had doubts if the child she was carrying was his.
Finally the results of the examination of Gertrude's organs came back and traces of poison were found.
But the name of the murderer still remained elusive.
A man from Memphis who claimed he was a "psychic detective" wanted Vermillion county to employ him. He said he was sure he could tell who murdered Gertrude. They also received letters from other parts of the country demanding the culprit be apprehended, or expressing fear for the lives of relatives who lived in Hooperston.
Sheriff Knox said, "I am not paying any attention to these letters, but they afford me a great deal of amusement and entertainment, where they are not too long and tiresome. Of course, the only information they have is what they have seen in the newspapers, but the latter have been pretty accurate in their descriptions of conditions and the investigation following the finding of the body."
So far there had been no grand jury investigation in to the mystery of Gertrude's death, but that changed in June. The state attorney presented evidence that strychnine and arsenic were found in the girl's stomach. The amounts were sufficient to kill six persons. Four druggists from the city testified before the grand jury, and they were asked to bring their poison sale records.
There was debate as to whether the preservation of the body could have been caused by the arsenic.
The verdict they rendered was: "We, the jury, find that Gertrude Hanna came to her death by causes unknown., her body being found twenty-seven days after she disappeared from her sister's home. Mrs. Nat Harding, R.R. 1, Hoopeston, Illinois. Her body was found in the basement of the United Presbyterian parsonage in Hoopeston April 27, 1922." They returned an open verdict.
The case remained open and unsolved. Gertrude's name faded from the newspapers and didn't surface until 1925, when her mother was fatally burned when gasoline she used in cleaning clothes, exploded. The Hanna home was destroyed by the fire.
Hanna's father died in 1952, and her sister Grace remained unmarried and died in 1946.
John Cleveland Wyman had married Mary Jane Nesbit on March 28, 1916. She was 22 years older than him, and she died in 1921, however it seems that when Wyman was originally romancing Gertrude, before she left for Chicago, he was a married man. He never remarried and died in 1956.
Where did the truth lie? Was Gertrude murdered, or was she the victim of a botched abortion? Did Wyman kill her when she turned him down, or did he want to pursue a relationship with her sister, which would have been difficult if Gertrude was pregnant with his child?
This cold case is doomed to remain cold.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer