The Case of the Dead Farmhand
Was the shooting of Norman Cook justifiable homicide or a brutal murder?
A small farm, glowing like bronzed topaz in the fading light of an August evening. Anna Bankert — mother of two boys, wife of Sylvester — was canning tomatoes in the wash shed with her hired girl, Sadie Smay. As the hands of the clock ticked toward 7:00 PM, the shed lost its sunlight and the interior darkened.
“There’s a lamp on the dresser in my bedroom,” said Sadie. “I could bring it down so that we could see better.”
Anna patted her arm. “You keep working. I’ll fetch it.”
The farm wife strode across the yard. She could hear her husband cutting wood. A typical Saturday night, Aug. 12, 1905. A decade earlier, she would have been dancing instead of stuffing tomatoes into jars for the coming winter.
Anna entered the house and climbed the stairs. Something moved as she turned into the second floor hallway. A shadow shifted. She froze.
Straining her eyes against the gloom, she made out a man’s silhouette. The she recognized Norman Cook, a farmhand who had been briefly employed on the Bankert farm.
Cook took a step toward her. “Anna,” he said, “I have been wanting to ask you a question for some time, but failed. Now I am going to ask you that question and I want you to answer in my favor.”
“What do you want?”
The interloper’s voice pitched up. “If you don’t do just as I want you to, I’m going to kill you.”
“Leave this house at once,” cried Anna.
“I’ll leave when I have killed you, the family, and have set fire to the house.”
Cook sprang forward and grabbed her arm. He dragged Anna toward the south bedroom, but she snatched her arm free. According to her later testimony, she stumbled down the stairs and screamed for her husband. Sylvester dropped his ax and ran inside.
Anna took a revolver from a drawer, and then she and Sylvester climbed the steps to the upper floor. Anna led the way; her husband was close behind.
“When I reached the top of the stairs,” she later told the police, “Cook seized my left hand, and I saw the glimmer of something bright in the other. I was very surprised at the unexpected attack, as I thought Cook had left the house.”
“I pointed the revolver at him and fired. I must have hit him in the stomach because he was very close to me.”
Cook fell backwards, but then crawled toward Anna. She fired a second time.
A third, fourth, and fifth time. The revolver clicked on an empty chamber.
The relentless Cook clung to life and his secret ambition, clawing at the desperate woman.
She battered his skull with the pistol butt.
“By this time, my husband was by my side,” remembered Anna. “I asked him where the other gun was, and he said it was downstairs. I ran and got it and fired one more shot.”
Sylvester then, according to Anna’s testimony, took the second pistol away from her.
“All this time Cook was uttering terrible oaths and trying his best to use the razor he had obtained while I was getting the first revolver.” Anna panicked; the farmhand’s unexpected presence in her house, the disorienting darkness, and the threat to her family, threw her off. “I was almost mad with fright at the time,” she said, “and I scarcely knew what I was doing.”
Norman Cook, blood spurting from six bullet wounds and a mysterious gash in the back of his neck, lay dying in the waning light of a perfect August evening.
Why would a transient farmhand like Norman Cook attack Anna Bankert? She could not explain the man’s actions.
“Mr. Cook had always been a gentleman in my presence before, although he said queer things at time,” she said. “He has often told about killing a man in Connersville, and he said that he had killed three others beside the one in Fayette county.”
“He also said the other day when he was at our house to dinner, that he had two more men to kill, and that he would not care if he did die then,” she continued. “He gave the names of these men, and one of them lives in Glenwood and Cook worked for him a while.”
“Of course,” concluded Anna, “he may not have meant this, but I am only saying what he said, and I am telling the truth too.”
Anna’s portrait of the victim suggested that she had been lucky to have shot this practiced killer; she had done the police a favor by eliminating Cook before he could lengthen his string of murders. But how accurate was her caricature?
The upstairs hallway resembled a slaughterhouse when local doctors William Coleman and Frank Green arrived on the scene. Summoned by a phone call from a nearby farm, the doctors found Cook soaked in blood, but, miraculously, he was still alive.
He slipped in and out of unconsciousness. Occasionally he gasped “murder,” in a weakened voice. The flow of blood from his wounds had slowed.
Coleman and Green realized that Cook would not survive transport to a hospital. Working in the light of an oil lamp, they performed emergency surgery on the hallway floor.
Green’s scalpel drew a line across the victim’s abdomen, splitting the skin to reveal blood leaking from the liver. Ten stitches staunched the worst of the internal bleeding.
Although several bullets had struck Cook, most of the wounds were not life-threatening. The oddest, and potentially most dangerous, wound was a long gash that began behind his left ear and wrapped around the back of his neck to end in a spot near his right ear.
This slice was two inches deep in places, and blood had poured from it. Coleman and Green sutured the slash to keep the victim alive.
Unfortunately, their help arrived too late. Cook rallied when given heart stimulants, but he had lost too much blood.
He slid into a coma, and then, at 12:15 AM, Sunday morning, died. Although he had two witnesses in the doctors, Cook departed life without offering his side of the events.
Did Norman Cook enter the Bankert house with criminal intent, possibly to seduce or rape Anna Bankert, or was there another explanation for the tragic event?
Was this a case of justifiable homicide or premeditated murder?
The case was not even twenty-four hours old before troubling details began to emerge. Perhaps the most problematic, was the location of the husband during the incident.
Anna told police that after escaping Cook, she had run outside and summoned her husband. Together, they had ascended the stairs, but, rather unchivalrously, Sylvester had hung back while Anna led.
She, rather than Sylvester, carried the only weapon. Why hadn’t an armed Sylvester Bankert confronted Cook alone? It seemed odd, timid behavior for a man in such a gallant age.
Unfortunately for Anna, her husband’s statement did not match her own. Sylvester Bankert told the police that he had been working in the woods that Saturday evening. “
The first I knew of the trouble was when I heard four or five shots fired on the second floor of my house,” He said. “I do not know how the shooting occurred, but I think it happened between half past six and seven o’clock.”
Contrary to his wife’s testimony, Sylvester was not in the house when she confronted Cook with the pistol. She did not call her husband before shooting Cook. Sylvester’s first clue that something was amiss came when he heard gunfire explode in his house.
Had Cook made trouble for the family in the past? No, said Bankert. “Cook had worked before for me, before he came to work in this neighborhood this fall. He helped me put up my corn on my farm near Glenwood last year, and he had never been in any trouble with any member of the family until last night.”
“I do not know much about Cook before he came to work for me last fall,” continued Bankert, “but I have heard him say that he was raised at Laurel, Indiana, and that he was an engineer by trade. He has been working all around this neighborhood this year, helping during the threshing season.”
So why was Cook in the Bankert home? Why would he attack Anna? Sylvester Bankert had no answers for these questions. “He always had a good disposition, but he generally got drunk when he went to town. He had been drinking last Saturday night, and there was no member of my family who saw him slip into the house Saturday night, In fact, we have no idea when he came.”
“The only reason that I know for the deed,” concluded Sylvester, “was that Cook insulted my wife and as a result she shot him. Of course I will assist my wife in this case, as I believe she deserves my aid, and that she is innocent of any crime.”
Troubling Inconsistencies Accumulate
Deputy Prosecutor John Kiplinger took charge of the investigation. As he and the Rushville Police interviewed witnesses and studied the crime scene, additional puzzles appeared.
Anna claimed that she had not entered the south bedroom when confronting Cook; he grabbed her as she came into the hallway at the top of the stairs. Investigators discovered a bullet hole in the wall of the southern bedroom.
The spent .38 caliber slug that had carved the hole was found under the carpet in the room. Measurements proved that the bullet had been fired by someone standing in the bedroom doorway.
At least one shot had not been fired in the hallway.
In the excitement after the shooting, the police had also failed to appreciate the significance of bloodstained bedding and a comforter piled on the bed. It appeared that Cook had made a small bed out of these items on the floor near the bullet hole.
Had he been laying on the comforter when Anna shot him? Had she missed with her first shot, and then hit him several times as he lay before her? Someone had moved the comforter, after the incident.
Sadie Smay, the hired girl, also failed to support Anna Bankert’s story. Her testimony at the coroner’s inquest introduced additional anomalies. For example, Cook had not been the stranger to the household that Anna suggested.
Five days before the shooting, Cook arrived, intoxicated, at the Bankert farm at nine AM. Sylvester Bankert was away. Anna did not tell Cook to leave; she allowed him to sleep it off in the house. He stayed for lunch and most of the afternoon.
Two months earlier, Sadie had caught Cook going through the letters Anna Bankert kept in the wardrobe in her bedroom. When Anna returned home, Sadie reported the incident. Cook denied the charge, claiming that Sadie was “a liar.” Nothing more was made of the invasion of privacy.
Sadie claimed that she did not hear the first five shots on Saturday evening. She didn’t know anything had happened, until she met Howard Bankert, Anna’s eight year son, who was crying. When she asked him what was wrong, Howard told her that there had been a shooting.
Sadie raced upstairs and found Cook laying in the north bedroom, blood pouring from his wounds. She arrived in time to see Sylvester Bankert wrestling with his wife, trying to gain possession of a smoking revolver.
Cook was screaming for water; the room was filled with the choking fumes of burnt gunpowder. Sylvester ordered Sadie to run downstairs and bring a glass of water for Cook. She hurried to obey, but then thought she should fill a bucket of water to bathe his wounds and clean the mess.
While she was downstairs, procuring water, Sadie heard two more gun shots. Anna Bankert came downstairs; Sylvester remained with the victim until the doctors arrived.
Sadie’s story meshed with Sylvester’s tale. It also suggested that Anna had fired two more gunshots into an incapacitated man after Sadie left the bedroom.
Did Anna shoot him a second time to finish the job?
And what, precisely, was the relationship between Cook and Anna Bankert? Sadie’s testimony hinted that they were closer than farmhand and employer. Cook had been at the farm when Sylvester was away.
Other witnesses testified that they had often seen Anna riding in a buggy with Cook, and the pair had been spotted alone in other places around the county. The police recovered four letters from Cook’s pocket.
Although the officers refused to disclose the contents of the letters, they did confirm that Anna had written the letters to Cook. Cook also carried a picture of Anna in his pocket.
It was becoming more difficult to believe that Anna’s relationship with Cook was completely innocent.
As the investigation continued, Anna remained nonplussed in her jail cell. She spent her days reading and sewing, and, according to the local paper, “does not worry, but on the contrary, seems very cheerful.”
The preliminary investigation had discredited the idea that Cook’s shooting was a simple case of an innocent woman attacked in her own home.
There was nothing straightforward about this violent affray. The prosecutors believed that Anna Bankert and Norman Cook had enjoyed an adulterous relationship.
When the pair fell out, for unknown reasons, Anna silenced Cook in the most effective way imaginable. She was a cold-blooded, crafty murderess. They charged Anna with first degree murder and held her, without bail, for trial.
The defense team took a different view of the matter. Norman Cook had conceived an unhealthy obsession with Anna Bankert. When she did not reciprocate his interest, he broke into her home and lay in wait, hoping to rape her. A woman of commendable character, she was justified in defending her honor.
To support their narrative, Anna’s lawyers canvassed the surrounding counties, searching for evidence that would blacken Cook’s character. The August 18 edition of the Rushville Republican reported that witnesses from Franklin, Henry, and Fayette counties would testify that Cook had frequently bragged about his relationships with respectable women across Indiana.
The newspaper also claimed that Cook had served two years in the Franklin County Penitentiary. Moreover, his ex-wife, who lived in New Castle, would be called for the trial to attest to Cook’s bad character.
The Trial Begins
Judge William Sparks gaveled Anna Bankert’s trial to order on September 28, 1905.
Prosecutor Elmer Bassett declared in his opening statement that the state would prove that Anna Bankert had shot Norman Cook, bludgeoned him with a pistol, and attempted to cut his throat with a razor. She had carefully set the drama’s scene, casting Cook in the role of unhinged stalker. Anna was no victim: she had engineered and executed a cold-blooded murder.
Bassett called Sylvester Bankert as the state’s first witness. While Anna, dressed in a white silk blouse and brown skirt, fanned herself, her husband took the stand.
Repeating the story he had told the police, Bankert said that he had not known Cook was in his house. Bankert was in the dining room when he heard gunshots erupt. He raced up the stairs, his son Ralph right behind him.
Cook knelt before Anna in the south bedroom. She was beating him with the butt of a 38-caliber pistol. Bankert took the pistol away and ordered his son to run to a neighbor’s house to phone for the doctor.
Anna fled downstairs. Cook looked at Bankert and moaned, “I am bleeding to death.”
Sylvester took the spent pistol and carried it downstairs. He placed the revolver on the mantel in the living room. When he went back upstairs, Cook levered himself up on an elbow and gasped, “Help me.”
Sylvester, half-dragging, half-carrying the victim, assisted Cook into the north bedroom. He then left the dying man alone. A few minutes later, he heard two gunshots.
Anna had crept back upstairs and fired two more bullets into Cook with a 32-caliber pistol. Sylvester took the second gun away from his wife. She went back downstairs.
Asked about the gash on Cook’s neck, Sylvester Bankert testified that he had not noticed a wound when he helped Cook into the north bedroom. Someone — and Sylvester had no idea who — cut Cook’s throat after he was placed in the second room.
After corroborating testimony from Ralph Bankert, the state placed Coroner William Coleman on the stand. He had accompanied Frank Green on the emergency call. They had found the victim shot, in a weakened condition, gasping for water. Cook had not told the doctors anything about the incident.
Coroner Coleman detailed the results of the autopsy. Six bullets had penetrated the body. The entry wounds were clustered on the left side of Cook’s body, which suggested that he had been laying face down when he was shot. The inquest suggested that the victim had been in a prone position, laying down, when he was shot.
A Nasty Surprise
During the coroner’s testimony, Prosecutor Bassett introduced the victim’s clothing, the pistols, and the bloody razor into evidence. The defense team expected this gruesome display, but Anna’s four attorneys were completely unprepared for what came next.
Bassett asked the coroner if anything else had been found on the victim’s body. “The coroner then produced four rubber instruments of a lewd nature,” wrote the reporter for the Rushville Republican, “which he had found in Cook’s pocket. One of these, the witness testified, was wet when he found it and he stated that it was not wet from blood.”
Although the newspaper was unwilling to be more specific about the precise nature of the “lewd” rubber instruments — and indeed, some of the other Indiana newspapers, mindful of their family readership, skipped this part of the coroner’s testimony entirely — it is to be presumed that Cook carried four condoms. One of them was still wet from use.
This was a bombshell. The state had hidden this terrible evidence from the defense team. Was it possible that before the shooting Anna and Cook engaged in sex on the makeshift bed found in the corner of the south bedroom?
The salacious surprise unmanned Defense Attorney Watson; he was unable to return for the session after the lunch break. He took to his bed, ill. The remaining three lawyers spent the rest of the afternoon arguing for a continuance, as they could not proceed with the case in Watson’s absence.
The next morning, Senator Watson was still too ill to return to the court room, so William Green, a well-known defense attorney from Greenfield took his place.
The prosecution continued to build its damning wall of testimony. Hired girl Sadie Smay testified that in the weeks before the incident, Mrs. Bankert had started practicing shooting the pistols. When asked about her new interest in target practice, Mrs. Bankert asserted that some chickens had been stolen.
A neighbor, Bertha Walker, recounted a day in early August when she watched Anna Bankert and her sons shoot in the barn. Anna shot at a small plug in the bottom of a keg and hit it with little trouble.
After recovering the bullet from the target, testified Mrs. Walker, Anna took her aside and said, “It don’t look like a little piece of lead like that would kill a man, does it? Can you kill a man with a gun against his body?
“How far does a man have to be away to kill him? Do you think I could shoot straight enough to kill a man? Where is the best place to shoot a man to kill him? In the heart?”
Was there a problem with chicken thieves in the neighborhood? asked the prosecutor.
Bertha didn’t know of anyone who had lost chickens.
At 3:00 PM, Judge Sparks ordered a one hour recess. During the interval, he instructed the bailiffs to remove the women from the courtroom audience. The next witness would offer testimony that was unfit for female ears.
After the break, the prosecution called a medical expert, Dr Frank Wynn of Indianapolis. Dr Wynn had conducted a microscopic examination of the wet substance found in the condom recovered from Cook’s pocket, and had identified it.
Local newspapers again walked the prim path and refused to specify the nature of the substance. As the Rushville Republican wrote, Wynn “gave some damaging testimony which is wholly unfit for publication.” Presumably the condom contained fresh semen.
Anna, who had not been debarred from this scandalous testimony, “showed signs of nervousness and anger. Her face turned a fiery red and her eyes were kept riveted upon the ceiling the greater part of the time.”
The jurors were excused after Wynn finished. They went home pondering the import of a freshly used condom.
A Virtuous Woman
Prosecutor Bassett offered one final witness before concluding the state’s case.
Elva Mains, nephew of Bertha Walker, had also been present when Anna had allegedly mused about killing a man with her pistol. The young man corroborated Walker’s version of what Anna had said.
With that, the state rested.
Senator Watson had sufficiently recovered from his condom shock to return to his role as lead defense attorney. After offering a biographical sketch of his client, Watson declared that the defense case would stand on her excellent reputation in the community.
She was “an industrious woman and a model housewife who remained at her home the greater part of the time.” She was also a Christian and an active member of the local church.
Against this stood the terrible reputation of the victim: a thief, a drunk, quarrelsome, vicious, and a dangerous man. This “degenerate” had become obsessed with Anna Bankert. He had sneaked into her house and attacked her when she went upstairs to get a lamp. Consequently, she was forced to defend herself.
This was not a complicated case: a bad man tried — and failed — to suborn a virtuous woman. Justice had been served from the barrel of Anna’s pistol.
Anna Bankert was the first witness for the defense. She stuck to the version of the story she had told the police in the initial phase of the investigation: Cook had surprised her upstairs; she had escaped and gone to find her husband; she thought she heard the front door slam, and so did not expect to find Cook still upstairs when she went back up; he grabbed her again, threatened her with a razor, and she shot him.
The defense then devolved to a string of character witnesses. A long line of neighbors and townspeople from Rushville took the stand to attest to Mrs. Bankert’s “reputation for peace and quietude.”
Others attested to the poor standing of Cook, and his habit of carrying a straight razor with him. Somewhat surprisingly, the defense offered no explanation for why Anna had returned with a second revolver to shoot Cook twice more after he had been moved to the north bedroom.
Nor was there an explanation for the razor slash that had opened the victim’s throat. And, quite naturally, the defense ignored the “lewd” condoms discovered in Cook’s pocket.
Senator Watson’s defense strategy consisted of portraying Anna as a virtuous victim, and Cook as a vicious criminal. “It is hard to tell,” wrote the Rushville Republican, “just what the outcome will be.”
After four days and a long line of character witnesses, the defense rested its case. The state countered with a chain of rebuttal witnesses who attested that Anna had a bad reputation in the county, while, to the contrary, Cook had been a good man who drank a little. T
he parade of character witnesses became so onerous that the courtroom, which had not been able to seat all the people who wanted to attend the trial in its opening days, was only one-third full by Friday morning. After another long day of character witnesses, both sides announced they were ready to finish.
The court room was full on Friday evening when the prosecutors and defense team faced off in their final appeals to the jury.
Prosecutor Kiplinger emphasized that the evidence showed that Anna had been involved with Cook, that she had invited him to her home on the fatal evening, and, that the number and variety of wounds found on the corpse suggested a malicious attack.
Moreover, argued Kiplinger, with the victim incapacitated by the bullets from the first pistol, there was no reason for Anna to have returned and fired two more shots into his body. Kiplinger spoke for two hours, registering several strong points.
The following morning, the defense took the baton. Cook was “a moral leper,” who had attacked an innocent woman; she, like everyone, had a right to defend herself. She had exercised that right. Moreover, asserted Attorney Watson, Anna Bankert had a right to return to the bedroom to shoot Cook a second time.
She had the right “to pursue him until she had freed herself from all danger.” The state, claimed Watson, had failed to offer a motive for the crime, and thus, had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
As for the razor slash found on Cook’s throat — well, Watson didn’t have an explanation. It was a mystery and it was likely that someone else had cut Cook’s neck.
Prosecutor Bassett had the final oration. Anna Bankert had confessed to shooting Cook, and consequently, the state had no obligation to provide motive. After walking the jurors through the evidence that proved her guilt, he poured fire upon the defendant in his conclusion:
This villainous woman, this tigress, came back upstairs, after Cook had been assisted to the north room — came back upstairs, if you please, and poured more lead into Cook’s body. This woman used more force than was necessary to protect herself. The theory of self-defense goes glimmering. Was Anna Bankert in danger? Was Anna Bankert’s virtue in danger?
Yes, she is guilty of murder in the first degree.
The jury, concluded Bassett, would be justified, not only in sentencing her to life in prison, but to execution.
After reading a fifty-one point list of instructions, Judge Sparks sent the jury away to consider their verdict. Sunday afternoon, at 5:00 PM, the jury returned, having been out for twenty-four hours. Judge Sparks asked R. H. Philips, the foreman, whether the jury had reached a decision.
We have not, responded Philips. After several rounds of balloting and a day of passionate debate, the jury had failed to reach a conclusion. Judge Sparks polled the jurors individually, asking if there was a chance of reaching an agreement.
The only thing that the jurors could agree about was that a verdict was impossible. It had been close: at one point during the Sunday afternoon balloting, ten men had voted guilty and two innocent. The last round of balloting, however, had broken six-six.
Anna Bankert wept into her handkerchief; she had expected exoneration. That was not to be. After days of testimony and what in retrospect seems to have been a strong case for the prosecution, the trial resulted in a hung jury. Judge Sparks thanked the jurors for their time and dismissed them.
“Public opinion has been and is still divided,” wrote the Rushville Republican, “as to whether or not Mrs. Bankert was justified in killing Cook. The fact that the jury disagreed has occasioned no surprise. The Cook murder is still as much a mystery as ever.”
In February 1906, Anna Bankert was placed on trial for a second time.
After days of testimony, and much expense, the jury again failed to agree to a verdict, splitting seven for guilty, five innocent. Anna was released on parole and returned to the farm where she had shot Norman Cook.
Although the prosecutors vowed to try her a third time — possibly in another county where opinions had not been formed — ultimately they did not pursue this. On December 20, 1906, Judge Sparks dismissed the case.
Anna, believing that she was in court to receive a new trial date, was caught off guard. “How I thank you, judge,” she exclaimed, when Sparks threw out the case. She then returned home to convey the good news to her husband and ten year-old son.
She and her husband, Sylvester, remained married until his death in 1947.
Sources: The Indianapolis News, October 2, 1905; Indianapolis Star, October 1, 1905; Rushville Republican (IN), August 14, 1905-Dec. 20, 1906.
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