The Problem with Richard Ivens (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

Richard Ivens' defense attorney, I.W. Foltz, had an impossible job, and he knew it.

Once the full confession signed by Richard Ivens was presented to the jury,with all its damnable details, the prosecution basically rested.  To prove his client innocent, Foltz needed to convince the members of the jury that the confession was false.  But who would confess to a murder he didn't really commit?

Since the court overruled his objection that the confession had been obtained by the "sweat box" process so popular with police back then, the lawyer used family members to establish Ivens' whereabouts at the time of the murder.   Richard Ivens' father and other members of the family all testified that he had been at home when Elizabeth Hollister was murdered, and their testimony held up to grueling cross-examination as well.   This  defense was eventually quashed due to "lapses of memory" on the part of Richard's brother who was forced to contradict himself several times.  It likely didn't help that another potential witness turned over a letter that she received from Ivens asking that she perjure herself on the witness stand. 

So desperate was the family that they even consulted spiritualists hoping that they could get more information about the dead woman's final hours (presumably from the ghost herself).  This was quashed when the Assistant State Attorney firmly announced that no spiritualist evidence could be used in court. 

Finally, Foltz had to restate his accusation that Assistant Chief of Police Scheuttler had "hypnotized" his client into confessing.  He based this on Schuettler being a "student of hypnotism" and the fact that Ivens had only confessed when Schuettler had been left alone with him.   As for why Ivens would describe his murder in such detail, Foltz had an even more bizarre theory:  that his client had dreamed about the crime due to all the attacks on women that had occurred and, after finding Elizabeth Hollister's body and being interrogated by police, Schuettler's hypnosis made him think the dream was real.   To nobody's surprise, this argument didn't work particularly well either.

After the case was turned over to the jury on March 24, it only took them thirty minutes to bring in a guilty verdict.  The only real sticking point was that two members of the jury objected to the death penalty but, after eight ballots, the entire jury unanimously recommended that he be hanged.   Ivens took the news with a certain degree of stoicism but later insisted that he be granted a new trial given his alibi.   He added, "If a new trial is not granted, I suppose my father will appeal the case.  But, let me tell you, if I must die, then I will go to the gallows like a man."

Newspapers unanimously cheered the verdict and even ran pictures of Ivens with his head in a noose (another story referred to him as a "Chicago degenerate").  Many of the editorials on the verdict argued that Ivens' execution would send a strong message to other criminals targeting women.   Meanwhile, his attorney's application for a new trial was turned down since  all the friends and family members who tried to establish an alibi for Ivens were flatly accused of perjury.

The execution date was set for June 22, 1906 and a last minute request for a stay of execution was rejected.   The Illinois Board of Parole refused to hear the appeal and Ivens' execution was set to go ahead as scheduled.  Six days before he was to be hanged, Ivens stated that the confession had been entirely false and that he had been prompted to say he was guilty when a revolver was pointed at him. 

"I saw the flash of the steel in front of me," he reportedly said in a final statement.  "Then two men got before me.  I can remember no more than that about it.  From the time I was arrested I do not believe that I was myself for a moment.  Everything about that time was a blur, a blank to me".  But there was no question of delaying the execution by this point.

His parents visited with him on the eve of his execution though they were hoping to the last that the execution would be delayed somehow.   In keeping with tradition, Ivens was obliged to stay in his cell listening to the carpenters building the scaffold on which he was to be hanged.   A number of women, many of whom had never met the condemned man, asked to see him but jail officials refused.   Despite this, they remained right up to the time of execution.   His jailers also tried to get him to make a full confession one last time but Ivens flatly refused to discuss the case further.

Richard Ivens' stoic demeanor only cracked once he stood on the scaffold and the noose was placed around his neck.  He attempted to say a last prayer but was unable to speak and seemed on the verge of collapse.   Recognizing this, the sheriff rushed through the final legal details and the hanging was completed.

Most newspapers expressed their general satisfaction with the hanging (one typical headline read "Youthful pervert dies on gallows" while another read "One fiend less").  Virtually all of them stressed that Ivens had confessed to the murder which they took as absolute proof of his guilt.   In the months following Ivens' execution however, several prominent academics voiced their own reservations over whether Ivens had actually been guilty or not.

In a pamphlet on the Ivens case published in late 1906, Dr. J. Sanderson Christian returned to the hypnosis argument that I.W. Foltz had raised during the trial.   As Christian pointed out, Ivens had no history of violence prior to the murder and he was described as a "peaceable, kindly, temperate man, twenty-four years of age and a son of respectable parents with whom he had always lived."    Ivens only confessed to the murder after the police had "sweated" it out of him and later he even denied recalling that he had made a confession.    Intending his pamphlet as an indictment of the interrogation methods used by police, Christian suggested that Ivens had been induced to confess due to his being frightened and suggestible and that false confessions were far more common that most people cared to admit.

Another, far more influential critic of how Ivens was convicted was Harvard psychologist, Hugo Munsterberg.   Already one of the most well-known psychologists in the United States (second only to William James), Munsterberg was a pioneer in the use of psychological research in criminal cases.   In his own analysis of the Ivens case which was published in New York Times magazine in early 1907, Munsterberg concluded that Ivens had confessed "under the hypnosis of a third degree sweating by police."  

His article went on to say that: "Now the police began to press him, and more and more impressively to suggest his guilt.  Suddenly he began to confess, and he was quite willing to repeat himself over and over again.   Every time, it became richer in detail.  Upon this basis, he was condemned to death.  So the case stood when my opinion was asked.  I could not help becoming convinced that all the external signs spoke against the interpretation of the jury."  

Munsterberg would describe the Ivens case as a fascination example of autosuggestion, or a form of self-hypnosis.   As he explained further in his classic 1908 book, On the Witness Stand, Richard Ivens entered a hypnotic state when police officers pointed a gun at him.  This state left him highly vulnerable to suggestion and led him to develop a false memory of the crime that was "suggested" to him by his interrogators. Though Munsterberg's reputation as a psychologist and researcher meant that his ideas about Ivens' guilt weren't dismissed out of hand, nothing more really came from his analysis of the case. 

While Ivens' name was invoked on occasion by critics of the police "sweatbox" method and its tendency to lead to false confession, the world as a whole quickly moved on to new concerns.   Aside from Ivens' family and friends, nobody else seemed to care much about whether he was innocent.  In the years since his death, Richard Ivens has been virtually forgotten and any questions about his guilt or how police were able to get a man with no criminal history to confess to a gruesome murder remain unanswered.   


Related Stories

  • The Problem with Richard Ivens (Part One of Two)
  • The Case of the Pimlico Poisoner (Part Two of Two)
  • British Man Sentenced for Drug-Related Murder of his Mother


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