The Last Execution

Man convicted of Dubuque doctor's death was Iowa's last federal execution

July 11, 1960, was a warm summer day in Dubuque, with a threat of rain and more rain predicted for the next day. Dr. Edward Bartels was outside mowing his lawn after supper, when his wife, Ruth, called him in for a phone call.

The man on the other end of the line sounded nervous as he explained that his wife was ill. She had severe abdominal pains following an appendectomy and she needed a doctor’s help. The man, who identified himself as Ed Stevens, had asked for Bartels by name but explained that he and his wife had just moved to Dubuque.

Bartels, 34, was mildly concerned by a couple of things when he finished the call. He told Ruth that the man had said his wife had been using a barbiturate for the abdominal pains, something he thought was unusual, and the caller said there was no phone where the Stevenses were staying. Bartels was to meet Stevens at another address. Nevertheless, Bartels changed his clothes and grabbed his medical bag on his way out the door.

Two hours later, Ruth received a call from Stevens telling her that her husband had been detained overnight. In the morning, when he still was not home, she began calling hospitals and his colleagues. By noon, she called the police.

Victor Harry Feguer, 25, alias Ed Stevens, was born in St. Johns, Mich. His mother died when he was 6, and his father had disappeared from his life. The police chief in St. Johns described the boy as a “timid and shy boy, who never played with other children. … I wouldn’t say that he acted as a normal boy.”

After a series of convictions for breaking and entering and stealing cars, he was released from prison in April 1960. He moved to Milwaukee and got a job at the rooming house where he lived.

He couldn’t resist taking $55 in rental money and fled after being charged with theft. He bought a pistol July 5 in Waukesha, Wis.

Feguer arrived in Dubuque by bus and checked into a rooming house July 7 under the name Sam Newman. He needed a car and maybe a drug fix. His plan was to look in the Yellow Pages for a doctor. The first number he called went unanswered. He tried Bartels next.

When the doctor arrived at the address, Feguer forced him at gunpoint to drive about 10 miles into Illinois. He demanded Bartels hike into a wooded area. As the doctor bent over to avoid some weeds, Feguer shot him in the back of the head.

On July 20, Ruth got a call from a man whose voice she thought she recognized, saying her husband was dead.

Feguer was caught July 21 by the FBI in Birmingham, Ala. A suspicious car dealer had called authorities when Feguer had tried to sell him a 1959 Rambler for far less than it was worth. The car had Bartels’ medical bag and the pistol on the seat.

Bartels’ body was found a few hours after Feguer was arrested.

A jury of 10 men and two women was empaneled on March 1, 1961, in U.S. District Court in Waterloo. U.S. District Attorney F.E. Van Alstine said that the federal statute against kidnapping, also called the Lindbergh Law, carried a possible death penalty when a kidnap victim was harmed or killed. He planned to seek that penalty.

On March 6, 1961, the prosecution rested following the testimony of 77 witnesses, the last of them an FBI agent who related Feguer’s insistence that an accomplice fired the shots that killed Bartels. The FBI, however, could not find any evidence that an accomplice ever existed.

The trial ended March 10.

The judge gave the jury three choices: Find Feguer innocent, guilty with a death sentence or guilty with life imprisonment.

After seven hours and 18 minutes of deliberation, the jury convicted Feguer on March 13 and recommended the death penalty. Judge Graven then sentenced him to death, the date of execution to be determined following an automatic appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Feguer was taken to Leavenworth, Kan., while the appeal process began. The automatic appeal was filed by Feguer’s attorneys Aug. 2. The conviction was upheld April 16, 1962. An appeal then was filed to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 19. That also was denied on Oct. 15.

Because the federal government had no facilities for executions, by law, condemned prisoners had to be executed in the state in which they were convicted. Feguer was sentenced to hanging Jan. 15, 1963, at the Iowa Penitentiary in Fort Madison. An appeal for executive clemency was then sent to President John F. Kennedy. A one-month stay of execution ensued.

The Iowa Senate still was debating a House-passed bill to abolish the death penalty at the time. As a federal case, Iowa’s governor had no jurisdiction, and the federal policy was to follow the customs of the state. If the Senate had passed the bill, Kennedy could have commuted Feguer’s sentence to life in prison. The bill never made it out of committee.

On Feb. 22, Kennedy refused to commute the sentence, and Feguer was scheduled to be hanged March 15.

He was transferred March 5 to Fort Madison. In his last days on death row, Feguer spent his time talking with his priest and writing letters.

This was the last execution held in Iowa and the last federal execution until 2001.

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