Tom Kacich: A 100-year-old tale of murder

There's always a danger in calling one local event the most spectacular or compelling or mysterious, but the murder of young Harold Shaw 100 years ago this month set off a chain of events that is hard to beat for sheer variety and longevity.

Shaw, the 20-year-old son of a prominent Urbana farmer, had last been seen alive on a Saturday night in August 1913, driving his bright yellow Mercer Raceabout around Philo in the company of Gust Penman, 21.

A few hours later, Penman was spotted driving the car, with no sign of Shaw. Penman told townspeople that he had bought the car and left Shaw at the Villa Grove train station. But later Penman was seen heading back toward Villa Grove and early the next morning stopped at a neighbor's home and asked to borrow a spade.

A few days later, Shaw's body was found buried in a wooded area on the Penman farm north of Villa Grove. He had been shot twice in the head and he had been beaten.

The search was on for Penman, and five days later he was found sleeping in a railroad boxcar in Ridge Farm, southwest of Danville.

Soon after Penman was brought to the Champaign County Jail in Urbana, just a few blocks from the Shaw home at 609 W. Green St., he reportedly met with an attorney who told him to keep quiet. But after the attorney left and newspaper reporters were allowed into the jail to speak to him, Penman talked about his days on the lam and the crime he had committed.

"Why, I just could not stand it any longer," he said. "I know the terrible thing which I had done and as the hours went on, the suffering grew until I was almost frantic."

The Penman case went to trial four months later and, despite the efforts of a team of attorneys including Champaign Mayor O.B. Dobbins, he was found guilty. His alibi was a weak one; that he had gone to a house of prostitution in Danville and there an unknown man had offered him "breath perfumer" tablets that later "deprived him of his mental power and reason," according to his plea.

It was common knowledge, his written plea said, that men who visit houses of prostitution often were given tablets "containing drugs, with a view to exciting the passion of the men" so that "while the person is affected by said drug they are insane and incapable of transacting any business or realizing or appreciating the gravity of any act which they may perform."

At the time of Shaw's murder, Penman's plea said, the defendant was "in a dazed condition without real knowledge or appreciation of what he was doing or where he was, or the things or matters in which he was engaged."

After 11 ballots, a jury found Penman guilty, and Judge Solon Philbrick gave him a life sentence at the state prison in Chester.

Six years later, Gust Penman was dead, but he didn't die in prison.

The Illinois Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Penman and, because of perceived prejudicial publicity in Champaign County, in April 1916 the Penman case went to trial in Kankakee County. While there, however, Penman and three other men escaped through a dug-out wall in the jail. The trio soon was captured in Detroit. But Penman went in another direction, hopping a freight train bound for Danville, where he cashed a forged check for $300 and got on a sleeper car headed to New York City.

For two years, Penman was on the lam again, working as an ambulance driver at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and on a ship carrying wheat to Norway.

At some point Gust Penman became Gus Barnes, and he enlisted in the Army during World War I. He even became engaged to a Baltimore woman, according to the story later told by Dobbins.

In September 1918, Penman was able to get away from Camp Humphreys, Va., (now Fort Belvoir) and secretly meet with his parents for four days in Memphis, Tenn. It apparently was the first time they had met since his escape in Kankakee.

Three weeks later, however, Penman was dead from pneumonia, buried in a grave at the Army base under the name Gus Barnes.

It wasn't disclosed until May 1919 that Penman had died months earlier. His father went to Virginia to claim the remains.

On May 29, 1919, the body of Augustus Charles Penman was believed to have been buried again, this time at Locust Grove Cemetery in Philo. A funeral service was held there, and family members invited local officials to view the body before burial.

The Urbana Courier reported that a once-skeptical State's Attorney Louis Busch "expressed himself as satisfied with the identification."

"The body of Penman is not in a good state of preservation but the features are sufficiently preserved to permit recognition by those who knew him well," the Courier said.

And the Champaign Daily News said that Sheriff George Davis, who had charge of Penman during his trial in 1913, expressed no doubts that the corpse was Penman's.

But given the previous six sensational years of the story, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that the real Gus Penman was alive and well somewhere else and could have lived another 50 years.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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