Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 1943 Murder of Anna Milroy

The 1943 murder of Anna Milroy was called "Clay County's Worse Murder."

Most of the topics we’ve used in this series of Sutton History articles have been good things, positive things. But any population runs certain risk of experiencing bad things. A brutal crime in 1943 shocked our town and was called at the time, “Clay County’s worst murder.” Spoiler alert: it’s an ugly story but a part of our history.

Sutton and Clay County, like every new community, hired their town marshal and county sheriff very early to protect the citizens from bad actors and every once in a while one shows up.

The Andreas history of early Sutton identified the first shooting in Sutton and in this part of the county as an incident between two partners in one of the town saloons probably in late 1871. Mr. Flynn shot Mr. Mullen in the face in some disagreement associated with the charms of an Omaha belle, as Andreas describes it. Mullen was not seriously injured and we learn no more about the two.

The Flynn/Mullen saloon may have been the fourth saloon in the fledgling town. We know that the first business in town was a whiskey and grocery business of Mr. McTyge and that fellows named Kearney and Kelly opened their saloon in a tent quickly followed by P. H. Curran and Mart Higgens with yet another saloon.

These businesses started along Main Avenue north of the railroad tracks, a street that acquired the name “Whiskey Row” that first year of Sutton’s existence. We directly don’t hear of any more serious trouble in town, but that may not mean there wasn’t any.

In the far southwest corner of the county near the community of Spring Ranche there was the famous case of Elizabeth Taylor and her brother Tom Jones. This Welsh pair established a high standard for violence in the county and have been immortalized, again, in a recent book by Richard I. Redfield, a 530 page volume that sells on Amazon for about $25 ($6.99 in the Kindle Edition) with the unheard of distinction of having earned zero 1 Star (worst) ratings.

The Sutton community was stunned by a fatal shooting in March, 1984 when Robert (Bobby) Wach shot two men at BG’s Corner on Highway 6. Mr. Ephraim Griess survived the shooting but City Councilman Leo Leininger died 12 hours later. This tragedy is within the memories of many Sutton residents today. We’ll leave the details of this story for a later time.

This was the freshman class at Sutton High in the 1942 annual. Anna Milroy is in the back row, seventh in from the right side.
An earlier fatal crime is within the memories of a smaller subset of Sutton residents and is the story we tell this month.

Sixteen-year old Anne Milroy was murdered August 7, 1943 in the midst of World War II. Nebraska hosted a number of training bases for aircrews including the bases at Harvard and Fairmont. Those bases introduced a large population of young soldiers to the quiet communities in this area. The relationships between military installations and nearby communities was a mixed bag. Soldiers built friendships with civilians, sometimes took part-time jobs and generally blended in well. Generally, but not always.

Let’s think about the youth of Sutton in 1943. The war was in its second year and many of the men were gone, serving in Europe, in the Pacific and throughout the country. Young girls were still in town but without the normal social life they had expected. Meanwhile, just a few miles to the west was Harvard Airfield and to the east was the Fairmont Airfield each with literally thousands of young men. There were boys from all parts of the country, Southerners, ranch hands, small town fellows and a lot of big-city guys out in the countryside for the first time in their lives and all in a situation that did not provide the social life they had expected to be enjoying at this point in their lives. What could possibly go wrong?

Consider the perspective of the parents of those girls. How receptive could they be to the prospect of some sophisticated (or not) 20-something from a back-east big city calling on their teenage daughter?

When I attended a technical school at Shepherd Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas in 1967, my father-in-law told of his assignment there 25 years earlier when signs on local yards read, “Dogs and airmen, keep off the grass,” not an uncommon sentiment.

Anna Milroy was born on Valentine’s Day in 1927 to Helen and Lester Milroy. A little analysis and speculation suggests that Anna was named for her father’s younger sister Anna who died in 1911 at the age of 5 and when Lester was 12. Three other daughters in that family died young, at ages 2, 20 and 23.

Anna Milroy was working on the farm of Dan Cronin, Jr. in the summer of 1943 anticipating her junior year at Sutton High. She came to town that Saturday evening and was with her sister Wilma and friend Barbara Carl. The girls stopped at the Yost Service Station for gasoline when Anna excused herself to go to the restroom. When she did not return, Wilma and Barbara searched the station but did not find her. They guessed that Anna had found another way home but when they discovered she was not at home on Sunday, they sounded the alarm.

It was not until noon on Monday that Ray Carlson discovered Anna’s nude, battered body in a ditch south of Sutton. A chisel had been driven into her skull. Contemporary accounts placed the location of the body as eighteen miles south of Sutton, but reliable memories put the site as much closer, just a couple of miles south of town.

Joseph MacAvoy was convicted of the murder.
Late that afternoon a blood-spattered car was seen parked in Sutton. State Sheriff Lloyd Mengel arrested Private Joseph MacAvoy, a soldier at Harvard Army Airfield who was out on bond after attacking a woman in Hastings. MacAvoy had recently been demoted from Sergeant to Private in Army disciplinary action.

MacAvoy signed a detailed confession by 5:30 Tuesday morning in which he admitted meeting Anna at the gas station claiming she had accompanied him willingly and they had gone for a ride in the country. At some point things went wrong between the two. He denied raping Anna but evidence supported that charge. He admitted striking the girl with a crank and dumping her body before returning to Harvard.

Officials charged that he had returned to the body on Sunday and may have found her still alive and then drove the chisel into her head. He never confessed to that part of the charge. County Attorney S. W. Moger filed charges of first degree murder and murder in the perpetration of a rape. MacAvoy’s attorneys and his mother attempted to prove that injuries he had suffered as a youth in Brooklyn had contributed to his behavior.

Joseph MacAvoy was convicted of first degree murder on December 11th after only 75 minutes of deliberation by the jury. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair on December 30.

There was little hesitation by the jury in reaching their decision.
Here the story takes an odd twist. The Nebraska electric chair had not been used since 1929 and had fallen into disrepair. Details are blurred but apparently the source of parts to fix the chair was the U.S. Army and someone in that bureaucracy determined that the army was busy with other business in 1943 and that conducting a world war took priority over a Nebraska execution. (Seems reasonable.)

All obstacles were overcome by early 1945 and Wardon Neil Olson conducted the execution of Joseph Thomas MacAvoy on the morning of March 23, 1945.

The murder of Anna Milroy is the huge blot on the relationship between Sutton and the nearby military installations during World War II. There were probably a number of other occasions when local citizens found valid cause to regret the presence of the nearby army and navy installations but World War II brought the military world into the heart of U.S. live as most other conflicts have not.

Many soldiers and sailors stayed or returned to communities where Uncle Sam had sent them. They found jobs and spouses, founded businesses and made important contributions to their adopted communities. Sutton enjoyed the benefit of several of these young men from afar, the vast majority of them.

Minimal information on a gravestone does not inform well. 

1 comment:

john knigge said...

Anna Was was Aunt, as her younger sister Mary was my Mom. Although my Mom was only 11 when this brutal crime took place, her older brother Lester Jr was with the girls that night. He provided my Mom with the following information before he died. The 4 of them were walking home and by the gas station, Anna needed to use the restroom. The rest told her they would wait, but she told them to go on and she would catch up. Joseph was waiting in the women's restroom with a rag soaked in chloroform and planned to assault the first female who came in. From the documents I have read, he took her to the country and was raping her when she came to and started fighting him. That was when he beat her and left her for dead. The next day he returned, found her alive, and killed her. Based on the crime scene, they were able to tell that Anna had tried to crawl a few feet after he beating. When the searchers found her body, there was a delivery truck which was coming down the road and they stopped the truck. The driver got out and said, "You have found my daughter Anna, haven't you?" The driver was my grandfather Lester. I have more information and would also enjoy hearing from anyone who has any information/memories of this brutal crime as I am assembling the information for our family history. I can be contacted at Thanks for allowing to share this information. John Knigge