Monday, March 15, 2010



Norman V. Kelly

He said his name was Jose’ Ortiz, a descendent of the Aztecs, but everyone knew he was just a young man from Mexico. He could speak English when it suited him, but mainly preferred being a loner. He managed to get a job here in Peoria, Illinois at Commercial Solvents Company as a day laborer. In January of 1925 he incurred severe damage to his finger at work. They took Joe to the hospital and the next day they fired him. With $86.00 severance pay in his pocket, Joe bought some whisky and a small pearl- handed pistol. He didn’t need another job after that.

Ortiz lived in a tiny shack at the back of a friend’s lot within the Mexican Colony, which we now call Morton Square. When the weather was extremely cold, he made his way to the missions in town, drank his wine, and robbed people whenever he needed money. He lived more like an animal than a human, but he managed to survive.

On a warm March 12, 1925, he was cooking some fish over an open fire when he heard the voice of a young woman he had been spying on all winter. She lived just across the alley and the moment Joe saw her he claimed her as his own. Of course the young lady never even met Joe, let alone have any interest in him. Joe saw a young white man talking to her, and his alcoholic haze that was all he needed. He reached over and grabbed his gun and headed for the man that was trying to steal his one great love.

The man’s name was Virgil Hill and all he did was ask the beautiful Mexican girl, Eniliana Martinez, age seventeen, for directions. Virgil left the house not knowing that just behind him raced a crazed, jealous man intent on killing him. By the time young Hill heard footsteps it was too late. Joe Ortiz fired point blank into the young man’s face. Hill fell and rolled over on the ground presumably dead.

Smiling Joe Ortiz returned triumphantly to his ladylove expecting a hero’s welcome. What he got was a scathing condemnation. Ortiz looked at Miss Martinez in total disbelief. “Oh, You like the white man, huh?”

Ortiz then fired the .22 pistol striking Eniliana in the left arm, his second shot hit her in the right shoulder. Eniliana fell to the ground screaming as he fired a third and fourth shot into her neck and stomach. Ortiz raced to his shack where he hid his gun and was last seen running toward the river. Numerous people rushed up to the two victims, but they found that only Virgil Hill had survived.

Ed Van Sickle and Herman Truck took out after the killer and found him walking nonchalantly along the edge of the river. Together they attacked the man and took him into custody, holding him for the police. The local newspaper headlines told the horrid details as Ortiz was not only under arrest but held in protective custody. Detectives were able to take the statement of at least a dozen witnesses, and the local community was talking about hanging Joe Ortiz.

Mr. Pratt, our State’s Attorney met with Joe just once. In front of a court reporter and witnesses, Mr. Pratt got to the point. “Mr. Ortiz did you shoot and kill one Eniliana Martinez?” Joe sipped on his coffee. “Yes.” Mr. Pratt waited a moment then asked, “How many times did you shoot her?”
“Until the gun was empty.”


That was the headline in the local newspapers revealing as well that the judge had set the trial for March 23, 1925. There was a massive crowd that chilly morning the trial of Joe Ortiz got underway. Mr. Ortiz had cleaned up well, and the scruffy bum looking man the witnesses had seen kill Miss Martinez had seemingly disappeared. The only chance Joe had, according to his two lawyers was to get the judge to disallow the confession.
However, that was not to be, and by the time Virgil Hill testified, Ortiz was on his way to the executioner’s rope.

On March 26, 1925 the evening headline told the story. PEORIA SLAYER GETS MUST HANG VERDICT.

On June 26, 1925, the folks in Peoria were ready to watch killer Joe Ortiz die by hanging in the Peoria County jail. To their utter disbelieve a reprieve was handed down. As the summer went on there were more hearings, more appeals but finally they all failed. Joe’s new date for his execution was set for April 15, 1926.


By 9:00 A.M. The courthouse doors were locked and all the invited witnesses were surrounding the gallows on the third floor of the Peoria County Jail. At 9:45 A.M. Ortiz was led from the holding cell just a few yards from the gallows. Where was the sheriff? As witnesses crowded around, some of them now on the second floor, the sheriff had still not made his appearance. Finally at 10:11 A.M. the sheriff appeared and walked up to the gallows platform where the hangman, two deputies and Ortiz were waiting.

At 10:18 A.M. the trap door was sprung and a sickening snap was heard among the hushed crowd.

It was not until 10:23 A.M. that both physicians agreed that Jose’ Ortiz was officially dead.

Editor’ Note: Norm’s books are available in the Peoria Library.

Next Month: Norm will take us back in Peoria’s history for another tale of murder in our hometown.

1 comment:

  1. Ortez was one of 8 ment that were hanged for murder in Peoria, Illinois. Two more men died in the electric chair after being convicted of Murder in Peoria, Illinois. Ortez was the last man to be hanged in Peoria, Illinois. That date was 1926. Peoria had Thompson electrocuted in 1935, and Weber in 1948. These stories are all availalbe to you...dear reader.