A 67-Year Old Murder Case Revisited – 1. Introduction

Sixty-seven years ago this month, I had just turned 14 years old. I was a naive kid who had almost never traveled more than 50 miles from home and had lived his entire life in a truly tiny southwest-central Illinois village (population somewhat less than a thousand people), most of whose inhabitants depended on either farming or coal mining to make their living. Our father worked as a fireman (he shoveled coal into a furnace) at the local zinc smelter, which had originally been sited there because of the local coal mine. Beckemeyer, Illinois (named for my paternal great-grandfather, who immigrated to the US as a six-year-old from Minden, Prussia, in 1857) is located in Clinton County, Illinois, fifty-some miles east of St. Louis, Missouri. In late 1955, our locality was home to a brutal murder that rocked our world and led to folks who ordinarily left their houses unlocked to take precautions they never dreamed they would have to resort to.

In brief, on November 29, 1955, a young couple, Harold Smith, who would have turned 30 on December 11th, and his wife Arline, 35, were discovered missing from their home, a house just off Highway 50 a few miles east of Lebanon, Illinois, in St. Clair County, by a neighboring farmer. There were disturbing signs of foul play: bullet holes in the house and windows, blood stains, and signs their bodies had been dragged away. On December 10th, tips from farmers who had helped to get a car unstuck near their farms on the night of the murders led police to two wells nearly 15 miles apart north and south of Carlyle, Illinois, where the bodies had been dumped, and led them to arrest and charge Fillmore Young, a resident of Carlyle, with the murders.

Above: Map showing crime scene location and body dump sites of the Smith murders. Chicago Tribune, December 10th, 1955.

I was delivering the two St. Louis papers as my before and after school job back then, and between reading them and hearing regular updates on the news on radio and tv, the murders were on my mind, just as on the minds of most residents of our mostly rural county.

I had just begun my first year of high school at St. Joseph’s in Breese, Illinois, five miles west of my hometown, that September. Christmas was still a couple of weeks away, and it was on one of those mild December days, a Saturday, as I was walking to a friend’s house thinking about nothing in particular, when a car came behind me, screeching to a halt just a few yards away. It was full of older guys, probably high school juniors or seniors, none of whom I recognized. My mouth fell open, and I suppose I looked surprised and a bit scared.

“Hey, kid!” yelled the one hanging out the front passenger window. “You ought to be more careful where you go walking around alone. Don’t you know Fillmore Young is looking to fill more wells?” They all laughed, howled, and the car left a streak of rubber as it peeled off. I noticed it had Missouri plates.

That short encounter was my only real memory of much of what was then and may still be the most horrendous murder case to touch our lives in small-town Illinois. Evidently, it had also grabbed the attention of these big-city teenagers as well, and they had taken a joy ride out to see the sites and sights where it had taken place. Highway 50, a two-lane macadam road, our local lifeline, the road we took to St. Louis on our occasional trips to visit my mother’s sister or brother or to Cardinal’s games, was the road the murderer had traveled as he perpetrated his crime.

Above: Illinois Highway Map for 1955 showing portions of St. Clair and Clinton counties, Illinois pertinent to this story.

That brief encounter stuck with me over the years, long after I had forgotten many of the particulars of the murder. I recently did some digging using newspapers.com, and looked up the news coverage from back then. In the episodes that follow, I will recount the story of the murders of Harold and Arline Smith, and the story of how justice was eventually meted out to their killer.

(To be continued)

Roy Beckemeyer, 12-11-2022