Bye Bye Miss Birdie
by Norman V. Kelly
Handsome Charles Otis Botts was only seventeen that May 1, 1900 when he guided his horse and buggy over to pick up his girlfriend, pretty Miss Birdie Hoffman. The couple rode around the small village of Peoria Heights before parking in a wooded area just off Prospect Road.
Romance was pretty much the way it is today between two young lovers and things quickly got out of hand. On the way home Miss Birdie began to cry, remorseful over what had taken place. According to Botts, Birdie grabbed his pistol, leaped from the carriage and ran off. Botts raced after her, but before he reached her a shot rang out in the silence of that starry May night.
Poor Birdie Hoffman died in young Botts’ arms.
Botts rode up to the Peoria Heights Police Department and summoned help. He was held, questioned and testified at the Coroner’s inquest. The jury ruled the death a suicide and Charles Botts was released. Many folks believed that Botts had not told the jury the entire story and that he was more than likely a killer.
Over the next few years Botts used his good looks going from woman to woman, taking employment only as a last resort. In 1904 he married Artie Slagel, much to her mother’s chagrin. The couple moved in with Artie’s mother, but that arrangement lasted all of three weeks. They ended up in a shabby apartment on Monson Street in Peoria, Illinois.
It was around ten in the morning that January 5, 1905 when the cleaning lady knocked on the Botts’ apartment door. Moments later, on that quiet, snowy January morning her screams were loud enough to wake the dead.
Peoria detectives, along with the coroner stared down at the body of Mrs. Charles Otis Botts. Blood seeped from her nose and soaked the handkerchief that had been jammed in her mouth. A bright blue ribbon had been tied tightly around her throat. The coroner found finger marks on her bruised throat indicating strangulation. He told the police that she had been dead just over one hour.
Otis Botts was missing, and police used every available officer to mount a citywide search for the suspected wife killer. After an all night drunk, Botts ended up in a bawdy house in the south end of Peoria. Around noon the police had gotten enough tips to take Botts into custody. His only comment to them was, “If I had killed my wife why would I still be in Peoria?”
The terrible murder was the talk of the town and almost daily the local newspapers ran follow-up stories. By the time the trial began here in Peoria, most folks had the wife killer guilty and on the way to the gallows. The Evening Star set the stage with editorials that certainly made its attitude clear for its readers.
“This uxorcidest is not only a degenerate, malignant fiend, he is a monster in human form.” For Botts it went downhill from there.
On March 24, 1905 folks jammed the courthouse for the big show. Once the trial got underway, dramatic testimony from the medical examiner brought the courtroom to a stunned silence. Throughout it all, Botts seemed disinterested, yawning, and fidgeting in his seat. The state’s attorney caught the defendant’s attention when he put Birdie’s clothing, ribbon and bloody handkerchief on the table in front of him. The young man turned his head away, refusing to look at the evidence as the attorney accused Botts of the horrible murder of his young wife. Many times the judge banged his gavel warning the spectators to remain quiet. His threats of clearing the courtroom finally subdued them and the drama continued. After the prosecution rested its case, the defense attorney rose and walked slowly toward the jury box. He stood quietly for a moment and then turned, dramatically he said, “Your honor, the defense calls Charles Otis Botts to the stand.”
Botts sauntered to the witness chair, knowing that all eyes were upon him. He stared up at the judge, then, grinned at the jury. Even though he was penniless, the court had supplied him with two fine lawyers. They put love letters to his wife in evidence and then concluded by asking Botts if he was a killer. “I did not kill that girl…I loved her.” Once the prosecutor cross- examined confident, cocky Botts, the young man was reduced to a stammering, broken witness. Everyone in the courtroom knew he had killed his wife. The jury wasted little time reaching a guilty verdict.
All roads led to downtown Peoria, Illinois that beautiful morning of June 16, 1905. A massive crowd jammed the courthouse square and the streets that led to the square. Police officers surrounded the courthouse stopping folks from storming the building. Only the designated witnesses were allowed inside to view the execution. Charles Otis Botts was led from his cell to the hangman’s noose. The witnesses surrounded the gallows built within the county jail, jostling for position. Little time was wasted before the trap door was sprung. Gagging sounds came from the hooded figure! The rope had not snapped the killer’s neck and for twenty-one minutes Bott’s heart kept beating. Finally, the three doctors declared the man dead. By then, most of the witnesses had fled the ghastly scene. Botts was buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery.
Editor’s Note: Norm Kelly is a lifelong resident of Peoria and a local historian. His seven books can be found in the Peoria Library. Norm welcomes your questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Next: Norm will tell us about the murders in Peoria, Illinois that changed Peoria’s reputation from a bawdy, wide-open town to a ‘Gangster Town.’ Don’t miss it.