Thursday, April 30, 2015
MURDER IN A DOWNTOWN BANK
NORMAN V. KELLY
On a cold and peaceful Sunday Morning, December 23, 1917 folks in downtown Peoria, Illinois were in a joyful spirit as they left the churches and window shopped as they strolled by the decorated stores. There was talk of a white Christmas and although most of the stores were closed, the restaurants and hotels were quite busy. Over at the Jefferson Hotel, Edward Strause stood with two other men talking before he turned and walked out of the hotel. He was headed for the State Trust and Savings Bank on Jefferson Street next to the hotel. He seemed to be in a happy mood as he spoke to folks on his way to the bank. Just slightly ahead of Mr. Strause was Berne Mead who said goodbye to his friends over at the Creve Coeur Club, heading for the bank just minutes ahead of Ed Strause. No one saw them enter the bank but what went on in that bank between those two prominent business men brought them to the attention of the entire population of Peoria, Illinois which was about 71,000 in 1917. In fact they would be the center of attention for the next three years and beyond, drawing folks from all over the area to Peoria, Illinois and the Peoria County Courthouse and the one in Bloomington as well. Two friends stood in front of the bank there at Jeffersonand Liberty Streets talking, later they would remember it was just going on noon when they heard a shot coming from within the bank. Alarmed they hurried over to the glass door of the bank and peered in; it was at that time that they distinctly heard the moan of man obviously in pain. Both of the men banged on the door but heard nothing further. Other people stopped to see what was going which attracted other passersby. Over at City Hall where the police were headquartered a lady driving an electric car pulled up in front of the police station and told an officer she thought the bank was being robbed. Moments later Detective Couch pulled up in front of the bank got out and with gun in hand demanded the crowd move out of his way. Detective Couch banged on the door and peered inside the bank. At the moment two shots rang out and immediately the folks around the door moved back to the curb, some of the ladies screaming as they took cover. Couch used the butt of his revolver to knock on the door, preparing to break the window with his gun to enter the bank. He saw a man walking toward him inside the bank as the crowd began to gather again behind the brave detective. The door opened!
Detective Couch moved quickly forward blocking the open door and slipped inside closing the door behind him. Couch looked at the man, “What’s the trouble here?” The man, whom Couch recognized as the president of the bank, was Edgar A. Strause! “I had trouble with one of my men, He shot at me first.” Together the two men walked to the interior of the bank. As they got near one of the teller’s cage the officer saw the body of a man lying in a pool of blood, his head resting up against the cage. “What’s this?” Couch said, pointing his gun at the body. “Oh, I had trouble with one of my men. He shot at me first.” It was then that the officer realized that the man was in some kind of nervous shock and would later describe in detail how Strause looked and what he said. Those words spoken to the first officer on the scene would be the last words that Strause was ever quoted as saying, and the ordeal ahead for him was just beginning. Within three days President Edward A. Strause would be forced to resign his lofty position and find himself in a situation that no person that had ever known him could possibly have imagined.
Outside a huge crowd had gathered and as more police arrived, an officer was placed to guard the door, allowing only physicians and officials to enter the bank. The word had spread like wild fire and once the local newspaper photographers and reporters arrived the place was up for grabs. More police were called when some of the folks in the crowd began to fear that somehow the bank was in financial trouble and they wanted their money now. All hell was breaking loose, and more officers and firemen were called to handle what looked like to police was about to become a riot. A special edition from The Evening Star hit the streets later and it was sold by screaming men and boys yelling ‘EXTRA! EXTRA! The headline: “PEORIA ASTOUNDED AT TRAGEDY WHICH COST THE LIFE OF BERNE M. MEAD.
The folks in Peoria, Illinois were still buzzing about the murder of the bank cashier, Berne Mead, by the bank’s President Edgar Strause of the State Bank and Savings. Now, on December 26, 1917 it appeared that most of the townsfolk were either in the courthouse or milling around outside. All of them hoped to get into the coroner’s inquest but space was very limited. Even some of the reporters and photographers were waiting out on the courthouse steps. Inside, there were at least twenty-four witnesses that the coroner wanted to talk to, and the excitement was still running high over this shocking murder. Edgar Strause was sitting in the chief’s office over at the city hall, while the victim Berne M. Mead’s body was being held in a vault out at Springdale Cemetery. He would be buried the next day in Chillicothe, Illinois.
Coroner Elliott stood behind his desk watching the crowd: with a wave of his hand, the bailiff closed the door and the coroner banged his gavel. Coroner Elliott called his first witness and for three days they came and went one after the other. The question in everyone’s mind that heard about this killing was simply ‘Why?’ Murders in Peoria were typically domestic or in connection with a robbery certainly not between to prominent businessmen. Theories were rampant, but the newspapers were always ready and willing to tell the reader far more than what they actually knew. Mr. Strause was the president and Mead was the cashier. Meade held more of the stock shares than anyone and he felt he should be the president…not Strause. On that Sunday morning the two met and Strause asked for Mead’s resignation. Mead went a bit berserk and the two men fought, Meade fired the first shot at Strause and the president fired his own weapon striking Mr. Mead in the mouth and through the eye, killing him. Clearly a case of self defense. It was that simple…or so the newspaper editors said.
Strause hired two local lawyers and they tried to intervene in the hearing whenever they could, but the coroner kept a strong grip on them. As the witnesses told their stories the real story of what went on inside that bank was never clearly presented. After all, there was only one person who knew what really happened and he was not at the inquest. After three days the coroner’s jury handed its verdict to Coroner Elliot. The reporters almost knocked down the folks standing out side the coroner’s room when the verdict was read. They had a story to write and the whole town wanted to read it.
December 28, 1917 Peoria Evening Star
Young men in a dozen areas of the city were racing around selling the newspapers the moment they had a bundle of them in their arms. Most folks would get the paper at their homes, but they bought a copy anyway. EDGAR A. STRAUSE HELD WITHOUT BAIL FOR MURDER OF CASHIER BERNE M. MEAD!
Murder? Most Peorians had followed every word of the coroner’s Inquest daily for three days. To them and most folks at the courthouse the evidence sounded like self defense to them, so the word ‘murder’ pretty much surprised them all. Less than a half-hour after the verdict Strause was in hand cuffs and on his way to the Peoria County Jail. He went through the booking procedures, was required to take a shower and outfitted with the clothes of a county jail prisoner. Another shocker was that the jury recommended that he be held without bail until his trial. That gave the folks in Peoria something to talk about and as it turned out the Mead and Strause shocking story would be in their minds for over two years.
On a beautiful day in May in 1918 Edgar Strause sat in the Peoria Courthouse with his two attorneys waiting for the trial of the decade to began. The place was packed and hundreds stood outside, unable to get inside. It had been a terrific struggle to pick the jury and everyone was anxious to get things started. When the trial ended the defendant was found guilty of murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in the State Prison. The Supreme Court over turned that verdict and remanded it to Peoria for another trial. The second trial was held in Bloomington, Illinois and the jury was dead locked. A third trial was held there and again the jury was deadlocked.
So, three trials, at the cost of $40,000, and countless hours of wasted time and what was the result? Zero! I hope before this summer is over that I can put on my blog the entire story, since we are limited here by space restraints. Mr. Strause stayed here in Peoria and remained the owner of five cigar stores. He died here on November 2, 1935 and was never tried again for the murder of Berne Mead. I know you, dear reader, have a hundred questions which I could answer, but it will have to be another time and in another place. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian, author and monthly contributor to NEWS and VIEWS. firstname.lastname@example.org