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June 27, 2022

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Clark County History: Anna Nosko murder of 1923

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Anna Nosko collected the family mail on her way home from school. March 8, 1923, the 11-year-old girl was late returning to her family’s farm. Her worried father went into Battle Ground to anxiously plead for a search party. About 30 neighbors, including Frederick Vandermast, volunteered.

Vandermast discovered the girl’s umbrella and postal letters scattered on the ground, troubling indications of a crime. Later, a searcher came across Anna’s body away from a road in the brush over the border of the Tuke farm. Someone had ripped the clothes from her body, cut her throat and bashed in her face.

The Tuke family, The Oregonian said, “had an unsavory reputation.” The afternoon of Anna’s disappearance, a cousin of the Tuke family, 20-year-old George Edward Whitfield, and others had a drunken, noisy ruckus. Responding, Sheriff William Thompson arrested the inebriated Whitfield at the farm. The youth protested his innocence, even with traces of blood on his underwear, claiming he’d butchered a chicken. Thompson charged Whitfield with first-degree murder.

Assuming a rape, Thompson collected bits of foreign matter from Whitfield’s groin, placing each in a cigarette paper. He followed an evidence technique he’d learned at a lecture by Luke May, a Seattle forensic pioneer.

The brutality of the girl’s murder shocked and angered the entire county. Just a few days after Whitfield’s arrest, the Tuke farmhouse burned. As flames shot skyward, a large group watched, making no attempt to extinguish the blaze. Reportedly, two men were seen skulking around the place with torches, although there were no arrests.

Hearing rumors of a plan to break his prisoner out of jail to lynch him, Sheriff Thompson moved Whitfield to Pierce County, then returned him six days later. Whitfield’s brother, John, a material witness in the case, refused to return to Battle Ground, fearing his own “necktie party.”

During the trial before Judge George Simpson, the defense attorneys, Charles Lane and W. E. Yates, first used an insanity plea, then dropped it. They petitioned to change the venue but failed. Next, they tried to create doubt with the jurors by implicating Vandermast in the murder. Lane said Vandermast could not look at the body, while Whitfield walked up to view the body and was not shaken, implying Vandermast’s anxiety showed guilt while the defendant’s nonchalance showed innocence.

Working behind the scenes, May was scientifically solving the case. He told the press he uncovered “highly damaging evidence” but would not reveal it except in court. At trial, May presented his forensic evidence. He confirmed the blood on Whitfield’s clothing was human. May found half a fir needle near Anna’s pelvis when he examined the girl. Sheriff Thompson’s collection also included half a fir needle. May microscopically matched the needle’s two broken ends, proving the prosecution’s case.

The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, and Judge Simpson sentenced him to hang. Yates and Lane filed an appeal and lost. Finally, on June 13, 1924, a calm and collected Whitfield mounted the Walla Walla Prison gallows stairs. After the trapdoor dropped, two prison doctors declared him dead at 4:44 a.m.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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