Liewellyn and Edith Banks Trial: 1933

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Liewellyn and Edith Banks Trial: 1933

Defendants: Llewellyn and Edith Banks
Crime Charge: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas J.
Enright, William Phipps, Frank J. Lonergan, Charles A. Hardy, Joseph L. Hammersly
Chief Prosecutors: William S. Levens, Ralph P. Moody, George Codding, George W. Neilson
Judge: George F. Skipworth
Place: Eugene, Oregon
Date of Trial: May 1-21, 1933
Verdict: Llewellyn Banks: Guilty of second-degree murder; Edith Banks: not guilty
Sentence: Life Imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The Great Depression sprouted many fringe and radical political leaders. Llewellyn Banks was one such person. Banks felt so strongly about his beliefs that it eventually led to murder.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the number of unemployed in the United States increased from 1.5 million in 1929 to 15 million in 1933. Millions more were underemployed, thousands of banks and businesses closed, prices and wages plummeted, savings were lost, and many were forced from their homes into breadlines. Malnutrition was common and, in some parts of the country, starvation began to appear.

During these frightful times, dozens of extremist groups emerged and many people feared that a revolution would occur. Several charismatic demagogues appeared who drew thousands of followers by appealing to various fears and prejudices. U.S. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was the most famous of these, but there were many others. However, only one ended his days in prison: Llewellyn A. Banks of Medford, Jackson County, Oregon.

A Millionaire Before the Depression

Born in Ohio in 1870, Banks became wealthy growing apples and pears in Oregon's Rogue River Valley. He acquired Medford's Daily News newspaper in 1929 and, the next year, ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate. A reputed millionaire before the Depression, he aligned himself with the smaller growers in southern Oregon by supporting their fight against the large packing houses. A distinguished-looking gentleman, Banks was able to galvanize large audiences with a voice described as hypnotic.

When he faced financial ruin during the Depression, Banks went on the offensive against his perceived enemies by publishing editorials that accused local, state, and national leaders of conspiracy and corruption. Banks attacked Wall Street and the Bank of England. Frequently equating patriotism with his version of Protestant Christianity, he called the Jews a "menace to our free American institutions." Banks also praised the formation of the "Khaki Shirts," a violent, anti-Semitic, paramilitary group formed in 1932, and he called upon retired general John J. Pershing to become a dictator to straighten America out.

A friend of Banks was Earl Fehl, a building contractor, real estate speculator, and perennial candidate for public office. Fehl was also the publisher of the Pacific Record Herald, a weekly newspaper that consistently assailed Medford's business leaders, lawyers, and politicians. Together, Banks and Fehl had a strong following in Medford's lower income neighborhoods and in the rural areas surrounding the city.

In 1932, Fehl was a candidate for Jackson County judge while Banks/Fehl supporters ran for other offices. The election was a particularly ugly one, with the editor of one opposition newspaper threatened with violence and the offices of another threatened with sabotage. Fehl won the election. Also elected was Gordon Schermerhorn, the Banks/Fehl candidate for sheriff, who narrowly defeated the incumbent, Ralph Jennings.

Banks Supporters Bully County Officials

Things got worse after Fehl and Schermerhorn were sworn in. Government operations came to a halt when Banks/Fehl supporters flooded the courthouse (where the county government offices were located) and harassed those who opposed their leaders. The courthouse steps and the local armory became the sites of pro-Banks/FehI rallies. Banks started talking about "the hangman's noose" and of using vigilance committees to remove the local district attorney and circuit court judge (both Banks opponents) from office. A county commissioner who opposed Banks and Fehl found a large group of people outside his home one night demanding his resignation. Another commissioner and the former county judge were arrested on bogus charges of mutilating county records. A paramilitary group, consisting mostly of unemployed young men, served as Banks's personal bodyguard and protected the offices of his newspaper. An organization called the Good Government Congress (GGC), which consisted of Banks/FehI supporters, was formed, and it soon claimed 6000 members throughout the county. Tensions were high, and fears that Banks's and Fehl's followers would turn violent led members of the local American Legion posts to guard the homes of anti-Banks/Fehl officials.

When former sheriff Jennings lost his reelection bid, he immediately demanded a recount. As it proceeded, demonstrations were held denouncing the "plot" to unseat Sheriff Schermerhorn. Then, on February 20, 1933, as a GGC rally was being held in the courthouse auditorium, about 15 men acting under Banks's and Fehl's orders broke into the courthouse vault and stole three dozen pouches containing ballots from the contested sheriff's election. The next morning, after the break-in was discovered, the Oregon State Police were called in by Governor Julius Meier to investigate. Over the next few days, some ballot pouches were found burned in the courthouse furnace and ballots were found floating in the Rogue River.

Fehl expressed outrage at the break-in and blamed Jennings and his supporters for the crime. However, after extensive questioning of two GGC members who worked at the courthouse, the police had enough evidence to arrest Fehl, Schermerhorn, and several others. On February 27, they were all taken into custody. That evening, GGC members threatened to march on the jail, but the sight of state police armed with submachine guns at the jailhouse prevented anything from happening. However, one anti-Banks/Fehl newspaper editor was cornered on a public street and horsewhipped across the face by a GGC official.

Initially, Banks was not implicated in the break-in, but the investigation continued. Sheriff Schermerhorn's authority to make arrests was revoked by the local circuit court judge and placed into the hands of Medford constable George Prescott. Later, after more evidence was collected, the circuit court ordered Banks arrested for his role in the ballot theft.

Banks Flees to Avoid Arrest

At about 10:15 a.m. on March 16, 1933, Prescott and Sergeant James O'Brien of the Oregon State Police arrived at the Banks residence. By coincidence, Banks lost his newspaper, orchards, and packing house to creditors just the day before. Banks had been warned by supporters of possible assassination attempts, and he had heard that new arrests were going to be made regarding the theft of the ballots. Therefore, Banks decided to flee on March 16 to a remote log cabin and had set out a revolver and hunting rifle in his foyer to take along when he left.

After Prescott and O'Brien knocked on the door, they told Banks's wife, Edith, that they had a warrant for her husband's arrest. Edith Banks opened the door and threw some papers at Prescott and O'Brien which, written by Llewellyn Banks, denied their authority to arrest him. Then, as Edith Banks started to shut the door, Prescott placed his foot inside just enough to prevent her from closing it. Edith stepped aside and Banks appeared with the rifle pointed at Prescott's chest. Banks fired and Prescott fell back, dying almost immediately. Banks then slammed the door as O'Brien retreated to safety. O'Brien called for reinforcements and, within minutes, more officers arrived on the scene. Banks and his wife then surrendered without further resistance.

To forestall any rescue attempt by Banks's supporters, the couple were driven 35 miles to the Grants Pass jail in neighboring Josephine County. By the end of the day, police armed with tear gas and sawed-off shotguns were patrolling the streets of Medford to prevent a feared uprising by the GGC and 23 more arrests were made regarding the courthouse break-in.

The Trial Begins

Banks and his wife were both charged with first-degree (premeditated) murder and faced the death penalty if convicted. Initially, Banks intended to say that a bodyguard, whose name he did not recall, had shot Prescott and escaped during the ensuing confusion. His lawyers eventually convinced him to drop this idea. Instead, their strategy was to focus on Banks's feelings of persecution and the threats from his enemies as part of a temporary insanity defense.

Arguing that the residents of Jackson County were so biased that an impartial jury could not be selected, the defense moved for a change of venue. The motion was granted and the trial was moved 150 miles to the circuit court in Eugene, Oregon. After a jury was chosen, a three-week trial began on May 3, 1933.

According to the prosecution, Llewellyn and Edith Banks killed Prescott with premeditation. "Banks laid in wait for Prescott and took dead aim at him through the partly open door," argued one of the prosecution's attorneys. It was also revealed that, the previous February, Banks and Fehl had urged Sheriff Schermerhorn to arrest Jackson County district attorney George Codding and to hold Codding for ransom or, if necessary, to kill him. When Schermerhorn rejected this plot, Banks met with some GGC members to organize a secret army and to arrange for the storage of weapons in abandoned mines.

In his own defense, Banks took the witness stand and testified about the injustices he suffered at the hands of his opponents. He also spoke of conspiracies, dizzy spells, visions, and of his fears for his own life. According to Banks, when Prescott and O'Brien were at his front door, "I saw what I believed to be a pistol." Convinced that Prescott was trying to break in, Banks shot in selfdefense. Other defense witnesses claimed to have heard Prescott threaten Banks's life or to have seen Prescott climb up Banks' front porch with a gun aimed to fire. However, testimony from the prosecution's rebuttal witnesses cast serious doubt on this version of events.

The jury deliberated for 10 hours. On Sunday, May 21, Edith Banks was acquitted, but her husband was found guilty of second-degree (unpremeditated) murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Aftermath of Trial

Banks spent the rest of his years at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. While in prison, Banks appealed his conviction and his supporters petitioned the governor for a pardon, but both were denied. Later on, a state official was arrested for taking a $50,000 bribe to help Banks win an early parole. In 1935, Banks alleged that someone tried to poison him. Prison officials confirmed that a lethal dose of bichloride of mercury was in Banks's hot chocolate, but an investigation concluded that Banks himself had dropped the tablets into his cup. Llewellyn A. Banks died in prison in 1945.

FehI, Schermerhorn, and others also were imprisoned for their roles in the courthouse break-in and, in 1937, Fehi was declared insane by a court. Many people, shocked by Prescott's murder, quit the GGC, but others managed to keep it alive until the mid-1930s. In 1934, the Medford Mail Tribune, an anti-Banks/Fehl newspaper, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service "for stemming a rising tide of public insurrection which was the growth of a bitter political fight."

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

LaLande, Jeffrey M. "'Jackson County in Rebellion': The Turbulent 1930s." In Land in Common: An Illustrated History of Jackson County, Oregon. Edited by Joy B. Dunn. Medford, Ore: Mail Tribune, Rogue Federal Credit Union, and the Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1993.

O'Brien, James R. "The Man Who Tried to Be Hitler." True Detective Mysteries (February 1940): 41-48, 97-112.

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Liewellyn and Edith Banks Trial: 1933