Note: This was the article in the Mt. Vernon Hawk-Eye that caught the attention of Prof. Harlan, Vice President of Cornell College, who then visited Wesley Elkins and worked for his release.

Mt Vernon Hawk-Eye February 5, 1897

A Pathetic Letter

Many of our citizens who have visited the Anamosa Penitentiary will remember Wesley Elkins, the boy prisoner who is serving a life sentence for killing his father and step-mother. The Anamosa Eureka last week published the following letter from him, addressed to Carl Snyder, together with the following explanatory comments:

The following letter to Mr. Carl Snyder, formerly of the Council Bluffs Nonpareil and now an editor in New York City, is one of the most pathetic we have ever perused. And it discloses a thoughtfulness and grace of expression, as well as beauty of penmanship and correctness of punctuation, very unusual in one of his age, for it must be remembered that he has been in prison over seven years and could have had only a very little schooling previous to his commitment to the Anamosa Penitentiary. The following is the letter, the recipient being a son of Mr. Snyder, of the Cedar Falls Gazette and well known in Iowa:

Anamosa Iowa, Dec. 28, 1896

To Mr. Carl Snyder, 16 West 65th street, New York. Dear Friend: I feel a hesitancy in addressing you again, but it is so long since I heard from you that I am beginning to fear that you are not well. I know that your time is valuable and that I am unreasonable to expect your continued interest, but I cannot help but feel that you have been and are my friend. Christmas has just passed, and for several days preceding and following it I have experienced some strange feelings. I am a boy in years, but a man in development, with all a man's strength, purpose, and ambition. In reviewing the past seven years which I have passed in this prison I can recall but few happy moments, and I ask myself, tremblingly, must it ever be thus? And how much strain will my mind stand before I shall have become a physical and mental degenerate? I speak to you as I would to a father. I am not much given to heart outpourings, but when, as is sometimes the case, I see myself as I was, a boy, who had not yet reached an age of reason, I feel that my crime, terrible as it was, has been punished as far as it is necessary for the benefit of good morals. My position here is a strange one. I am practically alone in my sympathies and hopes. I have cultivated self reliance and some may deem me cold, but my distant demeanor is the result of necessity. You have credited me with possessing an uncomplaining spirit. I do try to be firm, but my fate is hard. I have tried to fit myself for the future by hard study, and I feel within me the working of forces which I am sure would enable me to wring victory out of defeat. What my future will be I know not, but what my fate would have been were it not for the favorable conditions existing here I know full well - insanity. Your attentions to me may have cost you hardly an effort, but to me your every advice has been of value and been followed. I am not afraid to look back to the tragic period in my life, but when I try to define and shape the unhappy event it assumes the form of a horrible, maddening dream, and I feel that I must have been insane. When I picture the faces of those who are gone and seek an answer to my mental questionings, I find I experienced no condemnation at the time - two faces, with eyes gazing upon me, strangely pitiful, that is all. I have been moving among the shadows this morning. The past seems very near and yet so far away. While this letter may have in it the echo of bitterness, I know you will not misunderstand it. Eighteen years old and seven and a half years in prison!

Hoping you are well, and wishing you a Happy New Year, I remain,

Yours, gratefully,


A statement recently appeared in print, we are told, to the effect that Elkins had come to be a desperate character and was giving the prison authorities much trouble. There is not a word of truth in it. Some years ago he "planted" himself, as the expression is - that is, concealed himself in the yard - with the hope that he might be missed at night when the count was made, but aside from that futile attempt to escape he has always conducted himself properly. The crime for which he received a life sentence was the killing of his father and step-mother. It was said at the time, we remember, that he seemed to have little realization of the character of the act. When he came here, he was less than 12 years old, a boy of slight frame, almost girlish in features and manner, and we have no doubt that the reality and awfulness of his offense did not take hold of his mind until long after his incarceration and when he had attained something of the maturity necessary to a proper comprehension of the terrible deed.

Several letters have passed between young Elkins and Mr. Snyder, as the above indicates. The prison officials were so struck with the character of the letter that Warden Madden had an interview with him and questioned him closely as to whether any other person had indited the epistle for him, or assisted him. The Warden is entirely satisfied that Elkins is the author.

The inference easily drawn is that he desires a pardon. It is certainly a peculiar case and probably should receive more than ordinary investigation if presented to the governor for his action. Elkins, we judge, has made good use of his opportunities for reading and study. His manuscript, as already stated, is a model, and his expression far above the average even in mature minds. If he could be taken into a line of business suited to his strength and capabilities, we believe he would become a good citizen and thus honor the state whose law he violated when so immature in mental development that he could not have realized fully the grave significance of the act. Certainly it seems a terrible and a pitiful thing for a mere lad of 11 or 12 to fall under the doom of a life sentence within prison walls, with not a gleam of hope for all the slowly passing years that may be his.