To most of a nation, the story of Victor Feguer’s brief, troubled life would have been lost to the passage of time. The details — of how he asked for a single olive, pit intact, for his last meal, of how he donned a crisp blue suit and dark tie for his walk to the gallows, of how his thin neck snapped at the end of a rope on a cool Iowa morning — would never have been recounted except for this novelty:

For a remarkable 38 years, Victor Feguer has been the last man executed by the federal government.

Until now. Until Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who is scheduled to die Monday by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

“I sure hope I’m the last one to go,” Feguer reportedly told the prison chaplain on March 15, 1963, a half-hour before he was hanged. “Will you make sure the press gets that?”

Unlike McVeigh, who traced the killing of 168 people at the federal building to his hatred of the government, Feguer remains inscrutable, a figure of mystery.

The 28-year-old Michigan native decided against giving a final statement himself. In fact, says his court-appointed attorney, Fred White of Waterloo, Iowa, Feguer never explained much of anything — not the murder he committed, not his motives, not his past.

“We had no cooperation from him other than the fact that he didn’t resist us,” says White, now 73 but still practicing law part time.

Government prosecutors, on the other hand, pieced together a string of witnesses and compelling physical evidence. On July 7, 1960, Feguer had taken a bus from Milwaukee to Dubuque carrying a .38-caliber handgun he’d bought with a bad check. Claiming to be a vacationing accountant and artist, he rented a room in an apartment house.

Four days later, he thumbed through a phone book, stopping at Edward Bartels, the first general practitioner among the alphabetical listing of doctors. Feguer called and told the 34-year-old Bartels he was visiting Dubuque with his wife and that she was in pain from a recent surgery. In reality, Feguer had no wife, no children, no siblings, and his parents had long ago divorced.

By one theory, it was simply a ploy to get morphine or Demerol.

Bartels left a note for his own wife, pregnant at the time with their fourth child, and made his house call. When he arrived, Feguer pulled the gun on him and forced the doctor back to his car. They drove east into Illinois, where Feguer took Bartels into the woods and shot him in the head.

He left his victim lying there, face up. Afterward, he wore Bartels’ stethoscope.

“He was a very mentally ill man,” White says. “He had a history of it — it wasn’t something he concocted for his murder trial.”

In fact, a prison psychiatrist several years earlier had diagnosed Feguer as paranoid schizophrenic, White says. Since age 13, when he was convicted of breaking and entering, Feguer had spent most of his young life behind bars. By 15, he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to 15 years. He was released only a couple of months before he killed Bartels.

His arrest on federal kidnapping charges came when he tried to sell the doctor’s year-old Rambler in Birmingham, Ala. A suspicious used-car dealer thought Feguer’s face looked like one he’d seen on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list — although, in fact, Feguer had not earned that dishonorable distinction.

Under questioning, Feguer told the FBI where the body was, but he blamed the crime on an “Alex Dupree” — “a totally fictional person,” White says.

Feguer was deemed competent to stand trial, and White argued unsuccessfully that the court should allow jurors to consider the defendant’s mental illness when they determined his sentence. It took the Waterloo jury seven hours and 18 minutes to reach a guilty verdict.

Feguer lost his two subsequent appeals. Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes, a death-penalty opponent, then called President John F. Kennedy to commute the sentence, but the president turned him down. The evidence had been too overwhelming, the crime too brutally random.

Two years later, under pressure from Hughes, Iowa repealed its capital-punishment law.


Claiming capital punishment was being carried out in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner, the U.S. Supreme Court halted all federal and state executions in 1972. Death sentences were imposed with “freakish” irregularity, the court said in its ruling.

Within five months, Florida became the first state to revise its death penalty law to sidestep the court’s concerns, and 34 other states were not far behind.

The 10-year moratorium on executions ended with the death of Gary Gilmore, who killed a gas station attendant and hotel desk clerk to get the attention of his girlfriend. A firing squad shot Gilmore on Jan. 17, 1977, at a Utah state prison.

But Congress was slower to act: Not until 1988 was a federal death penalty law enacted. The so-called drug kingpin statute targeted those who commit the drug-related murder of a law-enforcement officer. Lawmakers expanded the penalty six years later to cover another 60 crimes — including murder of certain government officials, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shootings, sexual abuse and kidnappings that result in death, the attempted murder of jurors and witnesses, and running a large-scale drug operation.

The federal death-penalty law “is now much broader than it has been at any point in the nation’s history — at a time when the rest of the democratic world has abolished capital punishment,” says attorney David Bruck of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. He assists lawyers who are appointed in federal capital cases.

Even so, the number of federal executions has always been a mere fraction of those carried out by the states.


Since the first federal death sentence in 1790, when Thomas Bird was hanged for murder in Maine, 336 men and four women have been executed for federal crimes.

Perhaps the most notorious were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, put to death on June 19, 1953, for passing atomic bomb secrets to Soviet agents.

And 10 years later, at a specially constructed gallows in an Iowa prison auto-mechanic workshop, Victor Harry Feguer became the last.

Prison guards had bought a new noose for the occasion, stretching the rope for two weeks to ensure its tautness. The prison billed the federal government $28.75 for materials.

Feguer chewed gum nervously as a black silk hood was pulled over his face and the noose slipped over his head. Twenty-seven witnesses watched as a trapdoor was pulled open and the condemned fell through, left dangling at the end of the rope.

Fred White was not among the spectators that morning. He had done everything he could by that point. He didn’t need that final image of his client lodged in his memory in perpetuity.

In the nearly half-century White has now practiced law, Feguer is his only client put to death.

And even though White grieves still for the victim’s family, he grieves, too, for Feguer. “He was just so mentally out of it,” the attorney says.

Not long after, White read in the Dubuque paper that Feguer had asked only for an olive at his last meal. He wanted the pit still in it — hoping, he told guards, that an olive tree would one day sprout from his grave as a sign of peace.

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