Answer Man: Reader asks about great-uncle's murder in 1938

News-DemocratMay 24, 2014 

I am trying to find information concerning the murder of my great-uncle Cornell Lengfelder. I know he was born in 1906, died in 1938 and was buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery. I was born in 1951, so I never met him, but I was told he was a lifeguard and was killed in the taxi he drove. -- Thomas Biebel, of Freeburg

Albert Ogle made the gruesome discovery about 7:30 a.m. Feb. 3, 1938.

Ogle was a farmer who lived north of Belleville, but since this was winter and still the Depression, he was en route to his job at a Works Progress Administration project at Bellevue Park.

Just a half-mile from home on that Thursday morning, he spotted a body lying face down in a pool of blood on the north side of Pig Alley, a quarter mile east of Illinois 159. Today, it would be just west of the intersection of Frank Scott Parkway and Old Collinsville Road.

The victim was your great-uncle Cornell "Doc" Lengfelder, a 31-year-old taxi driver who still lived with your great-great-grandparents Fred and Katie Lengfelder at 1120 N. Church St. Cuts and bruising on his head showed he had been beaten before he was shot once above his right eye at close range with a .38. Evidence, however, indicated he was still alive when the killer dumped him and drove off with his cab, which was found later that morning in East St. Louis.

The story commanded front-page banner headlines for reasons beyond the murder itself. Just three weeks before, another driver had been forced out of his cab and robbed of $28 at gunpoint in Imbs Station. The assailants then siphoned gas to set the cab ablaze and hopped in a getaway car that had been following. Were cabbies being targeted?

Then, of course, there was the loss of a valued member of the community. Lengfelder was a member of the St. Clair County Rescue Patrol, which aided boaters and swimmers in distress and recovered the bodies of drowning victims. An expert swimmer and diver, he spent summers as a lifeguard at the Turner Natatorium.

Investigators had little to go on. The killer apparently had worn gloves, so he left no prints in the cab. There were no witnesses on what was then a dark, isolated rural road.

Police did have a couple of theories. The first was obvious: robbery. Lengfelder's wallet was empty and his pants pockets had been turned inside out, although three had been hurriedly shoved back in.

But at first officials focused on what they thought was a more likely theory: For 18 months, Lengfelder had been a guard at the state penitentiary at Menard. Was this an ex-con gaining revenge? Lengfelder's parents pooh-poohed the idea, saying their son felt sorry for the prisoners and made many friends with them. Besides, Lengfelder had quit over trouble with another guard and even then the two had shaken hands on his final day two years before.

Still, police were not convinced, and almost immediately the theory looked as if it were going to bear fruit. The next day, Ethel Houston, a waitress at a bar at 601 Market St. in St. Louis, was shown Lengfelder's body. She identified him as the cabbie who had entered her bar at about 8 p.m. the previous night, looking for a caller who had requested a ride.

She also identified a photo of Sam Giordano as possibly the man who had asked her for change to call a cab about an hour before. Giordano was a twice-convicted felon who had served time at Menard for taking $8,000 during an armored car heist.

But the lead fell flat when police learned Giordano was serving a new sentence at Leavenworth, Kan., for a tax violation. So even when the U.S. Department of Justice joined in what now was a case that involved a kidnapping across state lines, the police were stymied. They said they had a person of interest, but couldn't locate him. The story faded from the paper. On Feb. 17, the final coroner's report simply said Lengfelder had been killed by "parties unknown."

The break came five months later. On July 7, Harold "Jimmy" Nail, a divorced Belleville tavern employee, was arrested on two unrelated larceny warrants while working in a Belton, Mo., wheat field under the alias of James Woodland. A week later, his confession to the killing led to the recovery of the murder weapon. It was a .38 revolver Nail had pawned for $4 with an East St. Louis tavern owner shortly after the slaying.

Just three months later, Nail was on trial and facing the death penalty. Defended by a team that featured John R. Sprague, Nail admitted the shooting, but said it was self-defense. He testified that he had spent the previous three days drinking while staying in a St. Louis hotel. Finally on the night of Feb. 2, he decided to call a cab so he could visit his parents, who lived along Pig Alley.

When he realized he didn't have enough money to cover the fare, he offered to pay Lengfelder the next day, he said. When Lengfelder protested, Nail remembered his gun and reached for it to offer it as an IOU. But when Lengfelder saw it, he grabbed for it and it went off, the bullet striking him in the forehead.

"I didn't intend to kill him," Nail testified. "I was dazed for a while. Then I got out of the cab and walked around to the driver's side, pulled out the body and laid it at the side of the road. I got in the cab and drove off because I was scared."

Hogwash, the prosecution argued. If Nail were offering the gun in lieu of payment, why was his finger on the trigger? Why did the angle of the shot look like murder rather than accidental? Why was he working under an alias in far west Missouri? Besides, when Nail paid for his drink, Houston saw he had a number of other large bills in his wallet that night so a $2.50 fare would have been no problem.

After a day of testimony, the jury hopefully let your great-uncle rest a little easier. After just three ballots and 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Nail guilty and sentenced him to 99 years in the state pen. I'm still trying to determine whether he died in prison, but in the meantime, you can read about the crime in detail and print copies for your family scrapbook by checking out newspaper microfilm on Feb. 3, July 11 and Oct. 18, 1938, and the days following at the Belleville Public Library.

Today's trivia

What inspired Paul Simon to title his song "Mother and Child Reunion"?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: When famed conductor Leonard Bernstein and his friends hosted a party in 1970 to pay legal bills for the Black Panthers, author Tom Wolfe coined the term "radical chic" to describe the affair.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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