Miss Martha Jane Jewell, 25, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R.A. Jewell, widely-known residents of Clinton, KY, was in the Owensboro City Hospital today. She had a badly shattered ankle, and both of her legs, from her heels to her hips, were lacerated from the effects of a dynamite blast believed to have been intended for her fiancé, Louis Adams Birk, in front of the home of his mother, Mrs. George Birk, at Island early the previous morning, Monday, March 25, 1935.
Miss Jewell had been spending the weekend with Mrs. Birk, and got into Louis’ car to drive a short distance to see a young woman before returning to Clinton. Louis had assisted Miss Jewell into the car and was standing within five feet of the car when Miss Jewell turned the ignition switch on the car and stepped on the starter. What followed was a terrific explosion, heard three miles away. Louis said he was stunned, not knowing what had happened, and thought that lightning had struck. Looking at the car, and finding it partly demolished, he sprang toward it and opened the door. “Miss Jewell fell out into my arms,” he said. Louis carried her into the house.
As Island native Euleen Rector Rickard relayed to me, she and her family lived near the Birk home, which was across East Main Street from Island Baptist Church. Euleen was 12 years old, and recalls hearing the blast, and she and her parents running to the churchyard, where they saw people running and crying. They went no further than the churchyard, as many had gathered around, and her parents said they did not need any more people getting involved, so they returned to their home. Later when they went by the church, they saw that some car parts had been blown into the wall of the church, damaging the weather boarding, and some parts had flown into and broken up the picket fence that surrounded the Birk’s yard.
When the blast occurred, Mrs. Ethel Ferguson was driving by, and she stopped to help. As there was no physician available in Island, and because the backwater was up due to the Green River overflowing—making ambulance transport from Livermore impossible—Miss Jewell was placed into Mrs. Ferguson’s car, and she was taken to the railroad, where she was transferred to a handcar and taken by rail to Livermore. There an ambulance met them and took her on to the Owensboro Hospital, where she was admitted.
Sheriff “Mont” Johnson of Calhoun was notified of the explosion and went to Island to investigate. He found that old telephone wires had been placed around the motor and attached to a spark plug, so that when an attempt was made to start the motor, a cap was set off that would discharge the sticks of dynamite that had been placed beneath the floorboard. Part of the hood was found behind the Birk house, and another part at the church. Windows in the church were broken by the blast, and a large section of the fence was torn away near where Louis Birk had been standing. Mrs. Birk reported that several windows in homes nearby were broken, as well.
Louis and Miss Jewell had driven to Owensboro on Sunday afternoon, the day before the explosion, returning to Island late in the evening. At that time Louis parked his car in front of his mother’s house. Sheriff Johnson felt certain that a deliberate attempt was made to kill Mr. Louis Birk and possibly both him and his fiancée, as it was generally known they were leaving for Clinton on Monday. Mr. Birk had been a sales representative for Bradas and Gheens, of Louisville, for nine years.
In addition to a movement in Island to raise a $250 reward, McLean County officials were preparing to request that both the Fiscal Court and Gov. Ruby Laffoon offer rewards for the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the blast. “Sensational developments” were expected in the case. The day following the blast, Island Mayor C.C. Stroud stated that so far as he knew, there had been no developments in the “dynamite outrage.” Mayor Stroud was a brother-in-law of Louis Birk and had lived at the home of Mr. Birk’s mother until about 10 days before the blast. It was later reported that Mrs. Stroud had recently been residing in Owensboro; she soon, thereafter, filed for divorce.
As part of the investigation, an effort was being made to check recent dynamite purchases by residents of the Island community, and a part of the hood of the damaged car was taken to Owensboro, in order that it might be examined for fingerprints. Owensboro P.D. fingerprint expert, William Vogel, uncovered two prints: one on the edge of the hood cover; the other on the “lifter” of the hood. Photographic copies were made.
In raising their $250 reward, the town of Island offered $25, and Mayor C.C. Stroud offered another $25. Mr. H. Kirtley stated he would add $50, and other citizens were expected to “subscribe similar amounts.” The Fiscal Court did, indeed, request Gov. Laffoon offer a reward, and the county planned to match any reward the governor might post.
It was suggested by Sheriff Johnson, William Vollman, Asst. Chief of Police, and Patrolman Vogel, the fingerprint expert, that Mayor Stroud have his fingerprints taken, to which he agreed. Mr. Birk’s fingerprints had previously been taken. Photographs of the fingerprints secured from the car’s hood were forwarded to Washington for comparison. Less than a week later the fingerprint expert was notified by Director John Edgar Hoover of the FBI at Washington, D.C. that the photographs of the fingerprints taken off the hood of Louis Birk’s car were too indistinct and fragmentary to be of value for comparison with other fingerprints submitted.
Martha Jane Jewell remained a patient at Owensboro City Hospital until April 20, 1935--nearly four weeks after the explosion--before being released to return to her home in Clinton, KY. She and Louis Birk were married a month later in Clinton.
So who was responsible for the crime, and who was the intended victim? Louis Birk and Miss Jewell remained married until his passing in 1970. Did he have enemies? The company that Louis was a sales representative for--Bradas and Gheens--was a candy company. Perhaps the Hershey Company was attempting to get rid of some competitors?--as my husband, Tim Sheppard, suggested. Or was it, perhaps, Mayor Stroud, getting back at his wife who was divorcing him, by injuring her brother and his fiancée? It’s also possible the crime was committed by someone else. Although the bombing was talked about for a long time, and was reported about in newspapers from Nebraska to Delaware to Miami, Florida (and everywhere in-between), the crime was never solved.
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