April 22, 2001
Section: Metro Iowa; Page 1
The last execution: Quick, quiet, grim
To gallows at dawn, to graveyard by noon
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Fort Madison, Ia. – Victor Feguer moved from Cell Block 97 to cemetery block F on a March morning in 1963.
Hardly anyone noticed.
Most of Fort Madison slept when he was executed at dawn inside an automotive shop at the state penitentiary near the Mississippi River. Only a few official witnesses and prison employees watched his body plunge through a trap door and dangle from the end of a rope. There were apparently no protests.
Only the cemetery crew, morticians and a Catholic priest attended his burial.
“For the rest of us, it was just a normal day. It was just something that happened, a normal thing with a prison in our town,” said Farrell Turner, 68, a retired Fort Madison man.
Feguer was the last person executed by the federal government when he was hanged at the gallows in Iowa. His final wish was that he would be the last.
His wish will die May 16 with the execution of Timothy McVeigh in Terre Haute, Ind. The execution will mark the federal government’s return to capital punishment, 38 years later.
Thousands of reporters and TV cameras will chronicle the hours leading up toMcVeigh’s lethal injection. Masses of demonstrators are expected to attend the death watch of the Oklahoma City bomber. Local hotels have been booked for months.
When McVeigh dies, most of the world will know.
Feguer made history quietly. His execution may be getting more attention in 2001 than it did in 1963.
Reporters from across the nation have come to Fort Madison to retell the story of the last federal execution, a story that many locals can barely remember.
It is, however, a real-life drama that was vivid for the prison captain who followed Feguer to the gallows, the mortician who brought the black hearse and the Iowa governor who quietly tried to save a condemned man’s life.
Victor Harry Feguer came to the state prison in the same manner he left it: quietly and well-dressed.
Feguer -a stocky, 27-year-old with thick glasses -was booked into the prison 10 days before his hanging.
“He was well-mannered and cooperative,” said Chuck Wilkens, a former prison records supervisor now retired and living in Fort Madison. “He was being admitted to be executed, but he acted just like anybody else.”
Feguer, of Michigan, was sentenced to death for kidnapping a Dubuque doctor, driving him to Illinois and killing him. Dr. Edward Bartels, 34, disappeared July 11, 1960, after someone called his home asking for medical help. The call turned out to be a false report.
Investigators believed Bartels was chosen because his name was among the first in the telephone book’s listing of doctors. They said the kidnapper may have been a drug addict who, needing a fix, lured the doctor from his home.
Bartels, a husband and father, was fatally shot.
Feguer was tracked down in Alabama a few days later while trying to sell the doctor’s car.
If Feguer had traveled to a field west of Dubuque instead of taking Bartels across the Mississippi River, he might still be alive today. By crossing the state line, he had committed a federal offense.
Feguer’s execution was set in Iowa, the scene of the kidnapping, because the federal government didn’t have an execution chamber. Capital punishment was legal in Iowa at the time.
On March 5, the day Feguer arrived in Fort Madison, he underwent a physical. He received a typhoid shot, a blood test, a smallpox shot and a chest X-ray.
A man with a clean bill of health stood closer than ever to death. He was assigned to Cell Block 97, Iowa’s death row.
In the state’s capital, Gov. Harold Hughes had placed a hold on all state executions -another reason Feguer’s life might have been spared had he headed west that night. Hughes, a Democrat, knew he’d have to make his plea for Feguer to a federal authority: President John F. Kennedy.
A Kennedy aide arranged for a telephone call between the president and governor, a conversation that was taped and later transcribed.
“The only basis I could appeal for at all would be that I am personally opposed to capital punishment, and I really feel that the majority of people in Iowa are,” Hughes told Kennedy.
Kennedy responded: “Well, I went through it, Governor. Read the story and then I got a letter from the man. . . . The crime was so brutal . . . and was so deliberate.”
Kennedy asked for assurances that their call was confidential.
“I haven’t told anybody I was calling you,” Hughes said.
“Right. OK, good, Governor,” Kennedy said. “I’ll talk to you on Monday or Tuesday.”
Kennedy’s final decision, though, would not satisfy Hughes. The president denied requests to spare Feguer’s life.
Prison officials moved forward with the execution plans. They purchased a rope for $28.75. They bought two suits, two neckties and two sets of underwear -one for the hanging, the other for burial.
Feguer, however, remained consistently calm during his 10 days on death row.
“He was well-behaved, never talked a whole lot,” said Jim Menke, a former captain at the prison who also is a Fort Madison retiree.
Several times each day, officers noted Feguer’s demeanor on a log sheet: Quiet. Calm. Cooperative. Resigned.
A Catholic priest, the Rev. B.E. Brugman, joined him on his final night. Menke and another captain kept watch.
For his final meal, Feguer requested a single olive, which symbolized peace.
He and the priest kept an all-night vigil in a room with no bed, only a table and chairs, Menke said.
Feguer reportedly told the priest he hoped to be the last person executed in Iowa -a wish that has remained fulfilled.
“It would be too much to expect that I will be the last one anywhere, but I sure hope I’m the last one in Iowa,” he was reported to have said.
Between 4 and 5 a.m. on March 15, Menke brought Feguer the first of two suits he would wear that day.
“I told him it was time to change clothes, and he just did it. No emotion,” Menke said.
As the sun rose over Fort Madison, Chuck Wilkens, the records supervisor, let witnesses through the door.
“My feelings were for the victim and family,” Wilkens said.
Menke, the captain, followed Feguer on his final walk. “Was just part of the job,” Menke said.
James Barr and his father, Fort Madison morticians, stood near the gallows. Barr decided to watch the execution, rather than wait with the hearse outside.
“I didn’t want to walk in and just see a guy hanging there by a rope,” said Barr, now 64 and recently retired from the family’s funeral business. “When he came in . . . I thought, ‘He’s about my age, and in 10 minutes, he’s going to be dead.’ “
Feguer, rapidly chewing gum, walked quickly up the 16 steps to the gallows and stood rigidly while a black hood and noose were placed over his head.
U.S. Marshal C.H. Meek of Dubuque sprung the trap. Feguer was pronounced dead 9 minutes and 45 seconds later.
“They hanged him at dawn,” Hughes wrote in a book published in 1979. “While the gray light filtered through the trees outside, I was on my knees in our library praying for him.”
His duties complete, Menke went home. Wilkens sent a telegram to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and went downtown for breakfast.
The final duties were left to young James Barr and his father. The two lowered Feguer’s body from the gallows.
“They wanted things handled very expeditiously, professionally and quietly,” Barr recalled. “We embalmed his body within just a couple of hours after his death. We dressed him in a new suit and new underwear.”
They placed him in an inexpensive, cloth-covered wooden casket and took him immediately to the cemetery. He was buried by noon in Fort Madison’s Oakland Cemetery.
Today, there are few visible reminders of Feguer’s short stay in Fort Madison, or of his execution. He is buried in an unmarked grave. Many residents don’t even recall his name.
The gallows were dismantled long ago, after the death penalty was outlawed in Iowa. Menke said he believed the oak pieces from the gallows were discarded. However, prison spokesman Ron Welder said the pieces were used as building materials on the prison grounds.
Only in the past six months did Welder rediscover a file containing key information and documents about the days and minutes leading up to Feguer’s execution. It provides details long since forgotten. Many witnesses are now dead.
Until his death, Feguer maintained he did not kill Bartels. Evidence at the crime scene, however, indicated he was the murderer.
Two days before his execution, he wrote an essay that later appeared in the prison newspaper. He knew he had lost.
“It would seem to me that if I had always done the right thing my execution would not be scheduled this coming Friday,” he wrote. “You and I, gentlemen, we know the score.”
Copyright 2001 The Des Moines Register