Richard Honeck (1877-1976), an American murderer, served what is believed to be the longest gaol sentence ever to terminate in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.
My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky’s incomparable The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune - the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour’s work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of FT – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.
Honeck, a telegraph operator and son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 22 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899).
Koeller, who was later found by the police sitting in a chair stabbed in the back, had testified for the prosecution some years earlier when Honeck and Hundhausen were charged with setting a number of fires in their home town, Hermann, Missouri (New York Times, 5 September 1899). According to a confession made by Hundhausen, the two men had sworn revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in considerable detail. Honeck, Hundhausen said, had stabbed the dead man with the eight inch bowie knife (Ibid and Chicago Tribune, 5 September, 22+25 October, 5 November 1899).
It was left to a latter-day Associated Press reporter, the memorably-named Bob Poos, to shine a spotlight on Honeck’s case in 1963 after seeing a reference to it in the Menard prison newspaper. Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the paper, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from $5 down to 25 cents. Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August and 27 October 1963)
Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife. He served 28 days in solitary confinement for that infraction, but had a clean record after moving to Menard, where he worked for 35 years in the prison bakery. “I guess I’d have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the old lag concluded when interviewed by Poos. “There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1963).
The New York Times and Chicago Tribune are two of nearly a dozen major American newspapers whose full or partial archives are now available online – others include the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Washington Post, Daily Oklahoman, Dallas Morning News, and Boston Globe. All these archives are made available via pay sites, understandably enough given the considerable cost of digitisation, and typically give a brief preview of their articles, in the form of a headline, wordcount and the first 50 or so words of the piece in question. Pricing for individual articles can be relatively steep – usually $3.95 a pop – but be aware that much better deals are available. Most papers offer packages of 10, 25 or 50 articles, and these lower the unit cost considerably. It’s also well worth knowing that, while the majority of the titles mentioned above are sold only via a sometimes fiddly paysite operated by a company called ProQuest, the New York Times archive, which is the most valuable of all, is available at a far lower cost to subscribers to the online edition of the newspaper. Purchasing a monthly sub from the NYT’s own website entitles subscribers to download up to 100 articles a month from the archive at no extra cost, which – since the subscription cost is $7.95 – means the cost per clipping drops to a mere 8 cents, a vast saving on the Pro Quest price.
[Updates (June 2009 and April 2010)]: My thanks to a reader who points out that Honeck’s death was reported by the St Petersburg Times for 30 December 1976. He had gone to live in Oregon with a niece, Mrs Clara Orth, after his release, and spent the last five years of his long life in a nursing home in that fair state.
Further articles concerning the Honeck case have been appearing online since I first wrote; the pair of mugshots above, showing Honeck at the start and the end of his incredible sentence, come from a clipping published in the Park City Daily News, 20 December 1963. In this clipping, Bob Poos follows up his original reports on the case and describes the 84-year-old, just-released murderer as “sprightly” and – in passages that perhaps smell slightly of reporters’ prose – delighting in the marvels of the modern world. “The old man,” Poos wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars. During the car trip from Chester to St Louis [where he caught a plane to San Francisco to meet his niece], Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.’”
Clara Orth – the daughter of Honeck’s sister, seen above left showing her uncle a scrapbook filled with clippings about him – was profiled, too, in a wire report published in somewhat different versions by the St Petersburg Evening Independent of 27 December 1963 and the Tuscaloosa News of 1 January 1964. She had quit her job to care for Honeck, it was reported, and sold her one-bedroom trailer home and bought another trailer with two bedrooms for them. Orth had some family memories to recount as well. Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt. In six years in Missouri, Orth recalled, “Uncle Richard’s father and sister never once mentioned him.”
Interviewed again at the time of Honeck’s death, Orth said that her uncle had slowly become senile and had to be placed in care. “He wasn’t bitter,” she added. “He decided long ago that if he had to be in prison that he would make the best of it. Since he got out he’s had a glorious time.”
[Afterword (29 August 2010): Further research suggests that the time served by Richard Honeck has since been exceeded in at least two known cases in the US alone.
Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911, served 68 years and 245 days in various New York state prisons. He was released on May 7, 1980, at the age of 86. Geidel's case differed from Honeck's in several key respects. Firstly, he was initially sentenced not to life imprisonment but to twenty years to life, but later declared insane, being incarcerated not in a prison but in a hospital for the criminally insane. Secondly, Geidel was offered parole at an earlier date than was Honeck – in 1974, when he had served only 62 years. Geidel had become institutionalized and declined release, voluntarily choosing to remain confined for an additional six years.
William Heirens, the "Lipstick Killer," confessed to three murders in the aftermath of World War II, and was convicted, sentenced to three life terms, and sent to prison on 5 September 1946. He exceeded Honeck's record of time served in August 2010, and remains incarcerated. If he survives, Heirens – who was born in 1928 – will become America's longest serving prisoner, beating the record set by Geidel, on 9 May 2015.]