The Headless Banker
Waupaca is the seat of government for a county of the same name. Even today, the county is largely composed of farms, forests and lakes, with a noticeable absence of big city crime. Despite this, the City of Waupaca once hosted one of the regions more notorious murders, the murder of Henry Mead – one that probably has yet to be surpassed, 140 years later.
Henry Mead’s skull, with its face smashed in, was on display at the Waupaca County courthouse for 97 years – from 1893 to June 1990, when Judge Philip Kirk declared the skull of H. C. Mead served no further evidentiary purpose and should be reburied with the body – an order long overdue. The Waupaca County Post photographed Mead’s skull before the reburial and the photos were turned over to Clerk of Courts George Jorgensen for inclusion in the Mead file.
Related Murder & Mayhem Podcast Episode
See also: Podcast Website
Henry Mead – Henry C. Mead Bank
The Henry C. Mead Bank (also known as the Waupaca Exchange and Savings Bank) was Waupaca’s first bank and was privately operated by H. C. Mead. Early banks in most communities were often privately operated by a single individual or a group of individuals without a charter from the national or state government. Mead established his bank in 1862 after ten years elsewhere and conducted a general banking business, including a savings department. It is (as of 2021) one of downtown Waupaca’s few surviving wooden structures and is built in the Greek Revival Style. This building originally stood on the southwest corner of Union and Jefferson Streets but was moved (in 1899) across Jefferson Street to its current location.
On October 7, 1882, banker Henry Mead was 60 years old, never married, and lived in a small room in the back of the bank. With no kitchen in his dorm, he ate meals at Vosburg House, the nearby hotel. He was considered “eccentric” by the townsfolk. That evening was dark and stormy, and he counted the daily receipts by candlelight. This would be his final day of deposits.
Henry Mead Murdered
The next day, it was the hotel who determined there was a problem. When Mead did not show up for lunch, a messenger (or two waitresses in other accounts) was called to look for him. The bank was locked, so the messenger went around back to the bedroom window.
A screen was cut, and inside was Mead’s body, “weltering in gore” according to newspaper accounts. “The scene which presented itself on looking into the window was of the most sickening character.” Mead’s body was on the floor next to his desk, “the room was spattered with blood, the floor smeared with gore, and pools of blood had collected against the baseboard.” Other accounts described “great chunks of oozing flesh” driven into the wall by a shotgun blast of birdshot. “Both of his eyes, most of his nose, and that part of his face from the cheek bone to the left eye had been shot away, and flesh and blood were lying on the floor several feet from the corpse.” Bloody handprints stained the walls.
Frank Vosburg, the hotel owner, was the first person to actually enter the bank and examine the scene. Newspapers called it “one of the most daring murders and bank robberies ever perpetrated in the history of Wisconsin.” With the state less than forty years old, this wasn’t a hard claim to support.
On the night of Mead’s murder, saloonkeeper Samuel Stout (whose business was nearby) said he had locked up the saloon about 10 o’clock, walked downtown when he was approached by a number of customers asking him to open again for beers. He complied and others dropped by. “I always kept a light burning,” Stout remarked. “After we had been in a few minutes I told the boys it was time to go home.” Stout said when he got home his children were in bed but his wife was sitting up with a sick child. He heard nothing out of the ordinary.
In January 1883, three months after Mead’s death, two drifters were implicated following a tip from a “girl of choice habits” in Stevens Point. In the days following with the murder, the two suspects had whiled away their time in Point’s “low saloons and houses of ill-fame” according to the woman, Rose Vandecar. They disappeared the day of the murder and returned the next day with rolls of cash, most definitely not their usual financial state of affairs.
One of the “drifters” was none other than Rose’s estranged husband. Alfred Vandecar was arrested in Oconomowoc in early January 1883. His unnamed accomplice was said to be a notorious drunkard and gambler, with the two men conspiring at a Stevens Point tavern, and being overheard planning the deed. Sheriff Briggs was eager to get the men in custody, in the safety of the jail, as rumors of lynching were beginning to circle. Newspapers said Vandecar’s “people” were a tough crowd from Red Wing, Minnesota.
One year later, January 2, 1884, Rose Vandecar was arrested in Milwaukee, charged with assault with intent to kill a saloon keeper. Her estranged husband was still in the Waupaca jail awaiting trial. She was expected to be brought to Waupaca to testify that her husband confessed to her. Another woman in Oconomowoc was said to have been told by Vandecar, as well, about the shooting and was asked to hide the money. Rose was sentenced to six months in jail at Milwaukee, and the newspapers began to say she was more likely to kill than her husband. She had run a house of prostitution near the railroad in Marshfield, and had once shot at a “river man” named Ryan. She was said to have drawn her revolver on numerous occasions.
When Vandecar finally went to trial in February 1884, the jury did not find the state convincing and let him go. The trial relied too heavily on the world of his estranged, unreliable wife.
John and Henry Curran
The next investigative path led to John and Henry Curran, brothers who had killed a man named Willie Haseltine. A rumor circulated that “Buckskin Jack” Riley had killed Mead, and Henry Curran was somehow involved. John Curran had the stolen bonds, which he spent in Waverly, Iowa. It was alleged that Riley was then shot and killed in the Stevens Point jail to cover up for the Curran brothers. [None of this was substantiated. While it is an interesting peek at the “underworld” of central Wisconsin in the 1880s, it probably had little basis in reality.]
Attention shifted back to locals being responsible when some of the contents of Mead’s record box later were found in a Waupaca alley. Perhaps the killers had been there all along?
A $2,000 reward was offered in November 1890. This generous sum led to the first arrest days later of Tab Prior, the former city night watchman and now a blacksmith. Sheriff William Herman made the arrest in Antigo. Prior had been a person of interest from day one, simply because the murder occurred on his watch. Prior was questioned in New London, but was dismissed without formal charges.
Another year would pass before Prior was picked up again, and several accomplices were named. The city was abuzz and citizens were eager to hear the evidence.
On November 28, 1892, Judge Webb arrived in Waupaca to try the case against Sam Stout (the nearby tavern owner), Tab Prior and Edward Bronson (principals) and Alfred Lea, Alfred Poll, Rodney Chesney and David Holmes as accessories. The state (represented by DA Guernsey and attorney Joseph Very Quarles) asked for a delay, saying the time between the murder and the trial meant they had an uncommon challenge to face. The defense, led by Irving P. Lord, objected. Bronson and Lea wanted a speedy trial to clear their names and dispel the rumors.
The newspaper noted that the bank still stood, across the street from the courthouse, and was presently (1892) being used as a bakery. [While it strikes me as unusual to purchase fresh-baked bread in a building that was not long ago drenched in blood, apparently this did not affect business.]
Rumors of the motive were leaked in May 1893. It was revealed that the prosecution’s theory was that the men met at Stout’s tavern, got good and drunk, and hatched a plan to scare Mead as a practical joke. They did this, but then realized they were recognized and decided to cover their guilt by shooting him in the face and stealing his money, making it appear to be a robbery.
On June 21, 1893, attorney Joseph Very Quarles made his opening remarks, which substantially matched the version of the story directly mentioned above, though the crime was no longer a joke gone bad. He further added that Bronson and Prior had conspired with a “Negro barber” named Barnes, and Bronson had even borrowed the murder weapon, a Flobert rifle, from Barnes earlier in the day.
Quarles believed the first shot came from the rifle, which was loaded with “a chemical” rather than powder, and this was followed by birdshot from a shotgun. The storm concealed the noise.
The next day, according to the defense, someone had seen a “ni**** in the woodpile” near the alley where papers were later found. [The implication being that if it was Barnes whose gun killed Mead, and he was seen near where the papers were, he must be the real killer.] Prosecutor Quarles said, “That may be so, but there were some white ni***** with him” and mysteriously none of the papers found mentioned Bronson, a major depositor at Mead’s bank. A counter-implication, that Bronson not only killed and robbed Mead, but destroyed evidence of his debts. (I’m including the racist quote here to show the type of language that was apparently acceptable in open court in the 1890s.)
On July 7, William Carroll, the former Waupaca sheriff, took the stand. He spoke of a time when he had Kenney Sherman in custody. Sherman told Carroll and a man named Ralph Rowe that he ran into Prior and Stout near the E. M. Fulton livery barn on the night of the murder, and Prior threatened to blow his head off if he reported what he had seen.
William Moon testified that on the night of the murder he was in Auroraville, in Waushara County, and therefore could not have been with Sherman as the latter claimed for his alibi. The defense alleged that Moon had been telling people he would “get even” with Sherman, and was inconsistent on when he knew about the murder – he told one story of knowing the day after, and a second one of finding out weeks later at a “cranberry dance” in Wood County.
The defense called multiple witnesses who said Sherman was not “a reliable purveyor of the facts” and any story he told of meeting the alleged killers should not be taken seriously, even under oath. Fulton testified that Sherman was not employed by him at the time of the murder and there is no reason he would be in or near the barn on that night. James Sparks, a Fulton employee and Prior’s father-in-law, also said Sherman would not have been in the barn.
Neither Fulton or Sparks believed any of the horses had been driven that night, as alleged. [Prior having a family connection to the barn DOES make it more likely he would go there after the murder, in my opinion, but readers can judge for themselves.]
The trial dragged on in summer heat for six weeks. In the end the prosecution had only circumstantial evidence and dubious witnesses. It took the jury of local merchants and farmers only 24 minutes on July 21, 1893 to find Sam Stout, Tab Prior and Edward Bronson not guilty in the death of Mead. The case against the “accessories” was dismissed, the prosecution believing it could not convict them without the principals being found guilty.
Tab Prior’s Death
One year later, on December 17, 1894, Tab Prior died after being delirious for about a week, following a week of smallpox. The newspaper said if he had committed the murder, surely he would have something in his delirium, but he didn’t. [Pretty sure that’s nonsense.] He was living in Rhinelander, with a wife and two children.
For decades afterward speculation about who had killed Mead was rampant in Waupaca and elsewhere in Wisconsin. In 1929, a story in the Milwaukee Journal sought to bring an end to speculation. It was reported that a former sheriff, now deceased, in 1907 had obtained a deathbed confession from one of the three men, a confession later confirmed by the daughter of another one of the accused. Since the only one to die in that timeframe was Sam Stout, the finger of guilt pointed squarely at him.
For more Information on the Henry Mead Murder
In his “Myths and Mysteries of Wisconsin” (2012), (affiliate link) Michael Bie devotes a chapter to Mead’s death. The definitive source is “The Headless Banker: The Murder of HC Mead – As Waupaca Saw It,” (affiliate link) by June Johnson (2001). This is a 561-page masterwork that contains all the local stories, official papers, and other documents related to this case.