The letter comes to us courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS) and Amber Beierle, Interpretive Specialist at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. Thank you Amber for bringing it to my attention and providing a copy.
Amber found the letter while going through the prison file of one Douglas Van Vlack, a prisoner at the Idaho pen who was facing execution for the murder of his wife, Mildred Hook, and two Idaho police officers, Fontaine Cooper and Henry Givens. The letter was apparently written at the request of Van Vlack's parents, Carl and Edna Van Vlack, as part of a final appeal to the Idaho Prison Board to save their son from the gallows. The appeal failed but Van Vlack got the last word when he committed suicide by jumping from the rafters of the cell house the day before his scheduled execution. He crashed to the concrete floor below and died a short time later.
The story of Douglas Van Vlack is quite an interesting one in and of itself and and a well written historical essay with some photographs can be viewed by clicking on: Douglas Van Vlack Kidnaps Mildred Hook in Tacoma on November 23, 1935.
The following is a quote from the above essay:
"In a last-ditch effort, Van Vlack's chief counsel, Robert Ailshie Jr., appealed his death sentence to the Idaho board of pardons. A commutation hearing was held on Monday, December 6 to consider documents submitted by Allshie alleging prejudice and misconduct, and affidavits from a psychiatrist stating Van Vlack was hopelessly and incurably insane. The pardon board turned down Van Vlack's commutation appeal by a vote of two to one and Idaho Governor Barzillia W. Clark chose not to interfere with the execution."
No mention of the letter from Belle Steunenberg in the above or in the few other documents and articles I have located during a brief search. I find the letter interesting in that we have so few documents with Belle's signature so this is a welcomed addition to the collection. Then there is the question of how did she cross paths with the Van Vlack's? Were they neighbors, members of the Adventist Church, maybe they had been familiar with Belle's previous pleas on behalf of Harry Orchard? How did they find each other? Perhaps Douglas Van Vlack or the parents had spoken with Harry Orchard while at the prison? At this point I do not have anything but this brief letter to connect the Steunenberg and Van Vlack names. Please let me know if anyone has more information.
Belle certainly did not take a strong position one way or another regarding the execution of Douglas Van Vlack. From the sounds of the letter, she had not previously known the Van Vlack family. I was a bit surprised that she did not use the opportunity to voice opposition to capital punishment in general and seemed content to let "divine guidance" help the Prison Board make the right decision.
Below are some newspaper articles that come from my footnote.com site. You should be able to access the specific articles free of charge and to click on the picture to use the viewing tool. However, you will not be able to access or navigate other documents. I will post more as I run across other information.
PRESS SEARCH FOR WOMAN KIDNAPPED BY COP KILLER
CORONERS JURY NAMES VAN VLACK AS SLAYER OF HIS YOUNG WIFE
HOPE OF SLAYER FALLS AS COURT UPHOLDS DECISION
Inmates of the Idaho Penitentiary 1867 - 1947 is a large PDF file with a record of all the prisoners between the years indicated. Included is an article on pages 12-13 by Rachelle Littau of the ISHS. Rachelle reviews the evidence surrounding Van Vleck's suicide. You may recall that Rachelle gave us a special tour of the Idaho Pen back in November 2007 during our visit to Boise for the premiere of Idaho Public Television's "Assassination: Idaho's Trial of the Century.
Here we see the #5264 entry for Van Vlack.
5264 Van Vlack, Douglas
File: AR42 / 20072476 / 1052.2-2 / 5264
Year: 19 6 Approx. age: 2 Born: circa 1904
Jurisdiction: Twin Falls County
Crime: Murder in the 1st degree
Notes: Includes photographic material. Related
material in no. 5264 (nos. 5467, 5 48,
5152, 4706, and 4854, also 5 94);
As an added point of interest. Harry Orchard appears twice in the above record of Idaho Pen inmates as #1191 and #1406. Perhaps Amber or Rachelle can shed some light as to why the two different entries. I am guessing that 1191 was while he was held in prison pending trial and for some reason he had to be assigned a new number once convicted.
1191 Hogan, Thomas aka Orchard, Harry;
Thomas; Horsley, Albert E; Green, Thomas;
File: AR42 / 20063158 / 1007.1-5 / 1191
Year: 1906 Approx. age: – Born: circa –
Crime:Held for trial under charge of assassinating
ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg
Notes: Includes photographic material. Statement
of Harry Orchard January 1906
1406 Orchard, Harry aka Hogan, Thomas; Logan,
Thomas; Horsley, Albert E; Green, Thomas;
File: AR42 / 20063160 / 1009.1-4 / 1406
Year: 1908 Approx. age: 42 Born: circa 1866
Crime:Murder in the 1st degree
Notes: Includes photographic material.
Statement of Harry Orchard January
1906 (AR2.7/20072472) in file 1191;