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by Norman V. Kelly
Pretty Mildred Hallmark, age 19 boarded a streetcar in downtown Peoria, Illinois on the rainy night of June 16, 1935. She was heading for her home at 1100 E. Maywood. Once she stepped off the car she vanished. Her nude body was found grotesquely sprawled across a fallen tree in Springdale Cemetery. Her murder brought terror to the hearts of folks in Peoria, and sparked a massive manhunt for her killer.
Gerald Thompson, age 25, was a handsome, likeable young man, who worked at Caterpillar and lived in Peoria Heights. When he was arrested for the murder of Miss Hallmark, his friends, neighbors and family were positive that the police had the wrong man. As it turned out, they were wrong…dead wrong.
Detectives, as in most murder cases, received hundreds of ‘tips,’ but only three eventually led them to Thompson. The most important witness was a rape victim herself. Detectives grilled the young killer for 26 hours up on the third floor of city hall. Investigators questioned the suspect relentlessly, allowing short breaks, a bit of water and then more questions. One by one the victim’s garments were dropped into Thompson’s lap. Horrified, he rocked backwards forcing an officer to catch his tilted chair. First the battered and mud splattered hat then the rest of the victim’s clothing were floated onto his lap. Moments later he was sobbing and in a complete break down. Once he recovered his confession was recorded. At least a thousand people filled the streets below, waiting for a word from the police. Finally, a detective went over to the open window. A roar went up as he said, “He did it, he confessed!”
Lovable Gerald Thompson turned out to be Peoria’s first serial rapist. His little black book guided the police to his brutal conquests, naming at least sixteen women. Mildred Hallmark was raped and died from a broken neck from a powerful blow to her chin during the assault. Mildred managed to inflict a nasty bite on her killer’s thumb.
On July 22, 1935, spectators, mostly women, filled every inch of space as the most sensational trial of the thirties began in the Peoria courthouse. Once the doors were opened a mad rush ensued causing one of the doors to be damaged by the rampaging women bent on getting a seat. Outside many hundreds of people lined the walkway between the jail and the courthouse to get a glimpse of the now famous Gerald Thompson. Jurors clamored to be chosen and it took two days to complete the task.
Thompson was well represented and once the trial got underway, hundreds remained outside hoping somehow to get a seat. The highlight of every murder trial often comes when the defendant takes the stand in his or her own defense. The debate raged between the lawyers over the admittance of Thompson’s confession. Thompson took the stand, but the jury was dismissed. He tried to convince the judge that his confession was coerced. Still the spectators heard from the man of the hour, and it was dramatic indeed. When it was admitted as evidence, Thompson’s chances of an acquittal flew out the window. The battle raged between the lawyers in the sweltering heat of the July trial. The State put on quite a show, with witness after witness adding to the nails in the defendant’s coffin. On July 31, 1935 the jury found the defendant guilty, recommending that he be executed.
While a prisoner in the county jail, Thompson received many visitors. He was engaged to Lola Hughes, and every time she visited the local newspapers printed photos and many quotes from Gerald Thompson. Pornographic pictures were stolen from Thompson’s bedroom and were sold on the streets of Peoria for twenty-five cents. He also caught the eye of some local women that not only wrote him, they were allowed to visit him.
Thompson was taken to death row in the state prison in Joliet to await his execution and the finalization of the mandatory appeals. On October 15, 1935, Gerald Thompson was strapped into ‘Old Smokey’ as they called the electric chair. His last words were printed in the local newspapers. “Good-bye. I hope God will accept me.” Mr. Hallmark, also a Caterpillar man, witnessed the execution of the man that had destroyed his daughter. “Thank God that’s over,” he said as he stepped down from the chair he used to watch the killer die.
Gerald Thompson was buried in Macomb next to his grandfather, a war hero. June the sixteenth of 2009 will mark the seventy-fourth anniversary of Mildred Hallmark’s murder. Her disappearance, the discovery of her body, the manhunt for her killer and the murder trial here in Peoria were sensational, terrifying news in Peoria, Illinois in 1935.
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