Cornfield shootout, 1914

The robbery of a general store near Chatham on Christmas Eve 1914 climaxed in a cornfield shootout that killed one of the bandits and wounded two of his pursuers.

Newspaper accounts of the incident read like a movie script, complete with bloodhounds, a horseback posse and a deathbed confession by the fatally wounded robber.

Knowing he was dying, the man claimed his name was James Warren and he was from Chicago. However, he was carrying different identification in his pockets. When interrogators asked about that, “Warren” said he wanted to save his mother from embarrassment. He died without revealing his real identity.

The cards in his pocket, however, gave him away. The robber was determined to be Walter Proctor, about 28 years old, a member of a respectable Granite City family. Proctor had been staying at a rooming house on East Washington Street in Springfield for two weeks before the shootout.

He was out of money, however, so he another resident of the rooming house – Proctor told police that man was named Charles Smith – decided to burglarize a store belonging to Lewis Garlo in Woodside Township between Springfield and Chatham. They took a sweater, canned goods, clothing and shoes, Garlo reported later, and the two men then split up. Smith – if that was his real name – was never apprehended.

Garlo discovered the burglary when he arrived to open the store Christmas Eve morning. For some reason, he didn’t immediately call the Sangamon County sheriff’s office. But he did call Hugh Strumpher, who raised bloodhounds he rented out for police chases. Garlo and dog handler William McLaughlin followed the robbers’ trail. They caught up with Proctor about 9 a.m. in a ravine northeast of Chatham, where he was cooking breakfast over a campfire, the Illinois State Register reported.

Garlo approached him. Warren (sic) pulled out a pistol and opened fire. Garlo had come prepared to fight. The two began to exchange shots. During the fight Garlo emptied his gun, but none of the shots took effect. Garlo fell from a bullet fired by Warren. His injury, though serious, did not prevent him from being able to walk back to Chatham to get medical attention. He was later brought to this city and taken to St. John’s Hospital.

McLaughlin continued the fight in a running gun battle that took him and Warren/Proctor another mile south. McLaughlin’s shots all missed, but he was shot in the hip. “Once during this stage of the fight, the robber attempted to mount a horse to escape, but bullets from McLaughlin’s pistol prevented him from carrying out this plan to avoid arrest,” the newspaper said.

Though only slightly wounded, McLaughlin finally realized he needed help and called the sheriff’s office from a nearby home. Sheriff J.A. Wheeler and four deputies responded in two automobiles, although,  when they reached the area where Proctor was hiding, two of the deputies commandeered horses for the rest of the chase. Farmers and other neighbors also joined the impromptu posse.

Snow was on the ground and Proctor was wearing a new pair of boots stolen from Garlo’s store, so his trail was easy to follow. Deputy Warren Canfield, one of those on horseback, was at the front of the posse when Proctor burst out of a shock of cornstalks. Proctor fired his pistol, but missed. “Canfield returned the fire with a rifle and Warren sank to the ground, shot through the neck and lung at the first shot,” the Journal said.

Posse members hauled Proctor out of the cornfield on a sled and took him to the Chatham Interurban railroad station and then to St. John’s. Proctor remained conscious until almost his death that night.

Authorities determined Proctor’s real name from a card in his pocket that identified him as belonging to a Granite City social club. However, what led him to the confrontation with deputies remained a mystery.

Proctor received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he had been in the coast artillery for six years, in 1912. He was a crack shot with a pistol, his brother John told reporters later. He had jilted his fiancee, Beatrice Jeans of Alton, in August, but the two made up and were scheduled again to be married in spring 1915, she told the Journal.

“I cannot believe it was Walter Proctor,” she said. “He had no bad habits. … Mr. Proctor was in Alton last Saturday and told me he was working on a farm near Springfield. He promised to return Christmas day.”

However, Proctor had a history of disappearing for weeks or months at a time. He would return with no explanation, “sometimes well dressed,” John Proctor said.

I never knew my brother to steal. He was a man who kept much to himself and did not tell of his affairs. He was hard to get acquainted with and never confided in anyone. He was always game and from a boy wasn’t afraid of anything. I believe his mind was affected.

Walter Proctor was buried in Carlinville, according to the last story in the Springfield newspapers. Lewis Garlo (1882-1962) recovered after several days in the hospital. He also is buried in Carlinville.

Corrected: This entry has been edited to correct the day when Garlo discovered the burglary. 

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2 Responses to Cornfield shootout, 1914

  1. Gary R Kreppert says:

    Great article! I enjoyed reading it very much.

  2. Don Culver says:

    Great story. Seems like the Wild West in Illinois. Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history.

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