38 Years Later, Stark Contrasts in Tales of 2 Federal Executions (2024)


Victor Harry Feguer was already five years in the grave when Timothy J. McVeigh was born. They laid him in a potter’s field near the old prison here, a forgotten man buried without a tombstone. For almost four decades he has rested far away from the echo of history.

If McVeigh dies Monday as scheduled in Indiana, the world will attend his execution. The media will converge on the prison. A special closed-circuit feed will allow his victims in Oklahoma to watch him breathe his last. The national debate concerning the death penalty will intensify.

McVeigh--who bombed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995--killed 168 people, and now he will become the first person put to death by the U.S. government since Feguer 38 years ago. As executions go, no other prisoner in the country would seem more deserving.


In contrast, Feguer was hanged without fanfare. He was a bungler and a borderline psychotic. His crime was a federal offense only because he kidnapped an Iowa doctor and took him across the state line into Illinois. He shot him next to a cornfield. His motive was robbery; he got away with maybe $25.

For that, he was marched up the gallows and, as he rapidly chewed gum to calm his nerves, was dropped into oblivion just before dawn March 15, 1963. He was a 27-year-old bachelor and perhaps would be of little interest today, except for his last words.

“I sure hope I’m the last one to go in Iowa,” he said. “It would be too much to expect that I will be the last one anywhere. But I sure hope I’m the last one in Iowa.”

Today, 38 states carry out capital punishment. About 3,500 inmates sit on death rows in state prisons around the country. And while Iowa no longer dispenses the ultimate penalty, the U.S. government is about to.

The lesson of Feguer is that there are no “lasts” in America.

Feguer looked more like the Fuller Brush man than a coldhearted killer. He dressed nattily in starched suits and crisp ties. He was thin and wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He came from Michigan, and by the time he landed at the bus station in Dubuque, Iowa, in July 1960, he had already spent eight years in and out of jails in the upper Midwest.

“The only kicks I could get was being out breaking the law; stealing, starting fires and living the life of a daredevil,” Feguer once told a prison psychiatrist.


His mother died when he was young; his father was an alcoholic. He took a $6-a-week room at a boardinghouse on Bluff Street in Dubuque and told the landlady he was an artist, in town to paint. He gave his name as Sam Newman.

He chose his victim at random, running his finger down the Yellow Pages and stopping at Dr. Edward Roy Bartels, the first general practitioner on the list.

On the evening of July 11, he called the Bartels residence. He told the doctor his wife was deathly ill. Come quick, he said. He gave his name as Ed Stevens.

The doctor, the father of three small children and with a fourth on the way, dashed out the door. His body was found nine days later, spotted by two farm brothers 20 miles into Illinois. He was lying face up; a single bullet to the back of the head had blown out his eye.

That same day, in Birmingham, Ala., the doctor’s 1959 Nash Rambler was spotted, and Feguer, now calling himself Smith Gerald Hudson, was detained while trying to sell the car. In the back seat was the doctor’s medical bag and his stethoscope, next to the murder weapon, a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Feguer quickly confessed--sort of. He blamed the killing on a co-conspirator named Alex Dupree, but neither the FBI nor his defense attorneys ever found any proof that such a man existed.


Feguer was handcuffed and led away, wearing a new bow tie.

He stood trial in Waterloo, Iowa. Within three weeks he was convicted. Just before U.S. District Judge Henry N. Graven pronounced the death sentence in the crowded, second-floor courtroom, he asked Feguer if he wished to say anything.

Feguer stood up. “No, I do not,” he said. Then he sat down.

On death row he staged a hunger strike. He refused to shave. He spoke of ghosts in the jailhouse and visits from his dead mother. He said she was so close he could touch her dress.

When his lawyers came to visit, he would stand behind the bars of his cell door, even when the door was open. He felt safe that way, he said, telling them, “There are ghosts here, so if you come, don’t come alone.”

Once, jailers found a 6-inch hacksaw blade in his shoe. One of his cell bars had been cut through. “Now you’ve got me cold,” he blurted out.

Slowly, he expressed remorse for killing Bartels. “Murder can be justified by certain situations,” he told prison psychiatrists. “This is a relative matter. However, I don’t think this crime was justified. It was a tragedy.”

Slowly also, he began to ask for the rope. “I’m requesting that you notify the populace of Dubuque of the date of execution,” he wrote Graven. “There will be great rejoicing and exultation.”


He wrote the judge a second time. “I have enough funds to purchase the hemp, and I will tie the knot. If the Justice Department will be kind enough to provide the lumber, I will even build the scaffold. As you can see, I am willing to give this business my full cooperation.”

Frederick G. White of Waterloo, Feguer’s attorney, now 73, still remembers his client. White thought him insane and pushed that defense on appeal.

Feguer later changed his mind about wanting to die, hoping to beat the hangman. His appeals lost out.

Looking back on those days, and reflecting on McVeigh’s scheduled execution, White acknowledged that Feguer’s “life was pointless.”

“This case did not have the number of victims you have with McVeigh,” he said. “But it’s the hurt and the harm all the same.”

In the 10 days before the hanging, Feguer was transferred from the U.S. penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., to the Iowa state prison at Fort Madison. Federal executions often were held in the state where the crime occurred.


The U.S. paid Iowa:

* $4.50 a day to house the prisoner.

* $1.50 a day in additional guard time.

* $28.75 for the hangman’s rope.

Prison records note that Feguer grew consistently “quiet” as the days ticked down. Only twice did he ask for aspirin. On the day before he died, he was “cooperative and resigned.” On his final morning he was “very calm,” it was reported.

The new Populist governor in Iowa, Harold E. Hughes, a religious man staunchly opposed to capital punishment, tried to intervene on Feguer’s behalf with President Kennedy.

The president heard from other Iowans too. Give him his “just deserts,” wrote one man. But a woman asked, “Would it not be a helpful step for Iowa and for the federal government if this sentence were commuted?”

Kennedy sent Feguer a memo saying he had reviewed his request for clemency but that, “taking all factors into account, it is my decision that the petition should be and is hereby denied.”

On his last night, Feguer sent a Dictabelt recording to his lawyer. He promised to divulge new evidence, but his account made little sense, abruptly stopping before he even arrived in Iowa.

For his last meal he ate a single olive. He said that maybe the “fruit of the tree of peace” would spring from his grave.


Shortly afterward, he climbed the 16 steps to the platform, where he heard the warden signal to the federal marshal to push the wire that sprung the trapdoor.

Prison Capt. Charles Wilkens heard the loud thud as Feguer dropped through. As one of the official witnesses, he had gotten to know the prisoner and thought him solemn and dignified to the end.

Asked recently what he thought of the next to go, McVeigh, the old, long-ago-retired prison guard said: “I don’t have any mercy for him.”


Past Federal Executions

The planned execution of Timothy J. McVeigh would be the first at the federal level since 1963. Thirty-four federal prisoners have been executed since 1927; two were women.

Sources: Federal Bureau of Prisons and Associated Press

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38 Years Later, Stark Contrasts in Tales of 2 Federal Executions (2024)
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