October 17, 1919
Chicago, Illinois
Thomas Fitzgerald (39) is executed for the murder and sexual abuse of 6-year-old Janet Wilkinson

WARNING: this article contains details which may be considered graphic. Discretion is advised.

Wilkinson went missing from her Chicago home on July 22, 1919. Suspicions almost immediately fell upon Fitzgerald who lived in the same apartment building as the Wilkinson family, and Wilkinson had recently told her parents “a story of mistreatment by [Fitzgerald],” (mistreatment in this case meaning sexual abuse).

Fitzgerald was questioned by police for 5 days until he confessed to killing Wilkinson and concealing her body. According to Fitzgerald, he saw Wilkinson passing by his window at which point he called to her and asked if she would like some candy. After Wilkinson was lured to the window, Fitzgerald pulled her inside. Wilkinson started to scream in response. “Before I knew what I was doing,” Fitzgerald confessed, “I had my hands about her neck, and had strangled her. I must be what they say I am, a degenerate.” After killing Wilkinson, Fitzgerald buried her body in the apartment building’s coal pile. He later directed police to its location.

Wilkinson’s autopsy revealed her death was more violent than Fitzgerald’s story suggested; several of her teeth had been broken or pulled from her mouth, and it was likely she was still alive when Fitzgerald buried her beneath the coal.

A physician examined Fitzgerald and “declared he was a degenerate, a syphilitic subject, and on the verge of paresis or softening of the brain.” Another doctor stated Fitzgerald was a “moron,” the medically accepted term at the time for a person with an intellectual disability, specifically with an IQ of between 51 and 70, giving Fitzgerald the approximate mental age of an 8- to 11-year-old. The testimonies of the experts were to be used at Fitzgerald’s trial when he originally pleaded not guilty to Wilkinson’s murder, though the later changed his plea to guilty.

The judge advised Fitzgerald he would not be immune from the death penalty should he plead guilty. “If you have any idea the court would not inflict the death penalty get rid of that notion,” Judge Crowe warned. “Or if you think the court is chicken hearted, put that aside, too. If the evidence shows that hanging is proper there will be no turning aside.” Fitzgerald said he understood.

During the sentencing phase of his trial, Fitzgerald was sentenced to hang. He was asked if he had anything to say, to which he responded by asking forgiveness from the Wilkinson family and stated he hoped God would forgive him, as well.

Fitzgerald’s execution was carried out on October 17, 1919, just under 3 months after Wilkinson’s murder. He declined to make a final statement.

Thomas Fitzgerald and Janet Wilkinson
The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 30, 1919
via newspapers.com

Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016
“Fitzgerald Hanged.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. October 18, 1919
“Man Hangs for Murder of a Child.” The Lawton News. October 18, 1919
“Fitzgerald in Daze as Murder Story is Told.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. September 23, 1919
“Figures in the Fiendish Murder of Little Chicago Girl.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 30, 1919
“Little Girl Bearers For Slain Schoolmate.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. July 30, 1919
“To Speed Fitzgerald Trial; All Morons To Be Rounded Up.” The Pittsburgh Post. July 29, 1919
“Uncovering the Body of Slain Janet Wilkinson in Coal Cellar of Her Home.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. July 28, 1919
“‘Sure Janet’s In Heaven,’ Mother Told News, Sobs.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. July 28, 1919

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