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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Laura Weaver – her story
by Pat Koerner

We all love stories that tell about how someone overcomes incredible obstacles to find success and a happy fulfilled life. This is not one of those stories.

Sometimes the circumstances just don’t line up to bring about a happy ending, or maybe it is only my perception of what would make for a fulfilled life. I’m not sure. I only know I was touched by Laura Weaver’s story and I want to tell it.

My introduction to Laura was very much by accident. I was attending a seminar of the American Quilt Study group in Vancouver, Washington and was looking through a very diverse selection of donated sewing ephemera displayed for a silent auction. You know about silent auctions – they put a piece of paper with each item and a tiny pencil and you walk around the tables and put a bid on each item you want and then try to get back to that item before the end of the auction to see if anyone has overbid you and then up your bid. Silent Auctions are great fund-raisers for organizations, great fun for the participants, and a lot of work for those organizing the event. I wasn’t finding very much I was really interested in, but I like to find something that no one has bid on before and make a bid. There was a small notebook with no bids, it contained patterns cut out from newspapers for various quilt blocks and decals and was very old. I wrote down a bid for it, only a few dollars and then kinda forgot about it. When the bidding ended I won the little notebook.

Looking through it later I discovered a pattern that was loose in the book, on one side was a nondescript decal but as I turned it over the headline on the other side caught my attention.

"Woman Details Torch Murder, Laura Weaver, Six Feet Tall,
Weighing 230 Pounds, Held in Illinois – Amazing Confession –
Big Man Strangled, Body Wrapped in Quilt, Taken to Country
and Burned."

The date on the article was 1929. Only part of the article was intact on the clipping.

"Toulon, Ill., July 8 (AP)

"Laura Weaver, a 21-year-old woman of great size and strength, was held
Monday for the torch murder or her common law husband, Wilmer T.
Kitselman, 52. Six feet tall and weighing 230 pounds, the young woman
told of strangling Kitselman, wrapping his body in a quilt, and rolling it
downstairs, placing it into an automobile and driving into the country,
where she dumped it by the roadside, poured Naptha over it and then
touched a match."

So at a quilt seminar full of women interested in quilt history this story proved very interesting and amusing. We all had a great laugh, wondering what he did to get her so mad and what kind of quilt it was and all sorts of questions about the quilt. I don’t think the reaction to a story like this would be the same among a different group of women. I am afraid our sympathies were directed at the quilt rather than Mr. Kitselman or Laura Weaver.

Several months later, inspired by a quilt history group I had joined at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, I decided to do a little more research into Laura Weavers story. My first stop was at the local genealogical library of the Church of Later Day Saints. The volunteers there were helpful but we couldn’t find much information except for the county in Illinois, Stark County, where the crime took place. My local public library was helpful in finding the paper in Stark County, Illinois that broke the story that later went all over the country with the International News Service. The reference desk ordered micro-film of the 1929 Stark County News. Weeks later I was looking at the pages from July, 1929 and there she was.

Headlines, pictures, the investigation, and Laura’s confession: pictures of what looked to me like a sweet, sad-faced girl, looking very tired and worn from her ordeal.
Well you can’t believe everything you read in the papers. To set the record straight, Laura was not 6’ 3” but 5’ 3” and Kitselman was 5’ 8” and 150 lbs. But the rest of the story was accurate. Laura met Kitselman when she was just 15 working in a house of prostitution in Peoria, Illinois. Her mother had died when she was 8 years old, and life was hard for her on her fathers’ farm where she was required to do a mans work. At 13 she left home to find a better life. It didn’t prove to be any better however. Kitselman took her away from that house but later put her in another house of prostitution when he was out of work. She also worked in a beer joints, and a garment factory where she made $15 to $17 a week. Kitselman took her money and usually spent what she made as well as what he made on booze. They moved from place to place and town to town and finally ended up living in Wyoming, Illinois in a ramshackle second-floor apartment over a garage used by a transfer company. At the time of the crime both Laura and Kitselman were employed at a restaurant in Kewanee, Illinois. All-in all it was a very unsettled life of menial jobs and poor living conditions. Kitselman was a heavy drinker and abusive to Laura. On the night of the murder he had fought with her, thrown a chair at her and then passed out drunk. She waited until he was out and then took his belt and strangled him. She even punched more holes in the belt in order to be able to tighten it enough to strangle him. When he was no longer breathing she wrapped him in the quilt and got him down the stairs and into the car. The quilt was reported to be an old red and blue quilt that they used in their room. She drove around not knowing what to do, found a remote deserted road, got the body out of the car and into the ditch, poured Naptha on it and set it afire. She then returned to their room and told people that he had gone off on his own and didn’t tell her where. After a few days she packed up and went to her sisters home in Naperville, Illinois.

It was several days later that two young boys found the smoldering remains on the country road. Authorities could not identify the body but there was a small scrap of the blue and red quilt left that hadn’t burned. The owner of the rooms where Laura and Kitselman lived recognized the quilt as having been on the their bed, and this led to identification of the body as Kitselman and the arrest of Laura Weaver.
Laura confessed to the crime and her confession tells of the drinking and abuse from Kitselman. “I’m not sorry, he made me so mad I had to do it. He fought with me and was drunk all the time”, she had said when apprehended in 1929 a week after the murder. While in jail awaiting her trial she made several dresses and was an accomplished needlewoman. At her trial she was sentenced to 25 years in Joliet Prison. Instead of life or the death penalty she was given this lighter sentence because of the abuse she had endured. A court appointed Doctor deemed her mentally deficient.
Laura was said to be a model prisoner and was scheduled for parole when she died from complications after gall bladder surgery. She had spent 12 years in prison and was only 33 years old when she died.

I hope her years in prison were better than her life with Kitselman and that she found some peace there. In researching this story I had hoped to find that she was paroled after a proper amount of time and maybe found a good life for herself, she would have still been a young woman and it felt like losing a close friend when I found out how the story ended. I’ll never know what those years in prison were like for her or if she had hopes for a better life when she was released. But not all stories end--- they lived happily ever after.

Thank you, Pat, for sharing your story with us. Pat lives in Colorado. Formerly, she managed the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum' s shop. You can reach her at PatKoerner@aol.com

 

* Women (and Men( at Work


© 2002 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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