Christmas morning is something that’s looked forward to by families all over the country.
It’s a time to gather with family in a warm, loving space protected from the colder weather that can dominate so many regions during that time of year. The brightly-lit rooms are filled with the delightful smells of homecooked meals and baked goods, made especially for the gathering.
Family, both young and old, come together to share their victories, mourn their losses, and to celebrate past traditions. Presents are supposed to be given to one another as an expression of love, wrapped in vibrant-colored paper and placed carefully under a beautifully decorated tree.
Of course, for just as many families, there’s always that one relative that you don’t want to see. Maybe they’re rude. Maybe they’re just obnoxious, or snooty, always looking down on everyone else.
Or maybe they’re unwelcome because they’re already dead.
In 1937, Luella Shaw was a trusting fourteen-year-old girl when she became pregnant in rural Wisconsin. Her child was conceived after she was raped by the son of a prominent Wisconsin farmer. Charges were filed, but the son was released on bond pending the investigation.
Luella’s parents, Willard and Gertrude Shaw, loved their daughter. Regardless of how she got pregnant, they felt the same way about her unborn baby. The couple had eight children of their own, so what was one more in the house?
Along the way, Luella met nineteen-year-old Henry Nead. Henry fell in love with Luella, and asked to marry her. He didn’t care that she was pregnant with another man’s child; Henry was going to love that baby like it was his own.
When he asked Willard permission to marry his daughter, Luella’s father was somewhat hesitant. In spite of Henry’s insistences that he would be a good husband and father, and take care of Luella’s baby, Willard was still unsure of the young man. Eventually, however, he relented and gave his permission. The couple seemed to love each other, and maybe things would turn out okay in the end.
Henry and Luella lied about their ages to obtain a marriage license. Luella, in spite of having permission from her parents to marry, still had to be 15-years-old in order to legally marry in the state of Wisconsin. The two became husband and wife on June 22, 1937.
The young couple settled in Vesper, Wisconsin, living in a run-down apartment above a local restaurant. Luella turned fifteen on November 4, and on November 13, gave birth to her son, Earl Albert Nead.
Luella loved her baby, as did her parents. Henry felt differently.
Shortly after his marriage, Henry began to tell several people that he was going to get rid of the baby, either before or after it was born. His actions proving his words, Gertrude Shaw witnessed Henry choke the newborn on at least two different occasions. Horrified, she ripped her grandson away from his stepfather. Other times, Henry would fill a pan full of water, and then hold Earl into it head first.
The Wood County, Wisconsin, Welfare Department intervened, and asked Willard and Gertrude if they could take the baby. Even Luella knew that it was not a good place for Earl to be.
In mid-December, she wrote her parents and asked if they could take the baby. The Shaw’s agreed, and took Earl back to their home in Norway Ridge, Wisconsin.
A week later, police received a phone call from Henry Nead claiming that Earl had been kidnapped. The sheriff, along with a deputy, took the Neads to the Shaw home. Luella said that she was so lonely without Earl that she couldn’t even eat. Gertrude, seeing the distress that her daughter was in, agreed to let Earl return with Henry and Luella.
A few days later, on Christmas Eve, 1937, Gertrude and Willard were at their home. Close to midnight, Gertrude saw lights in front of one of their windows. Thinking that it was a car, the couple went outside to look. There was no car, only the inky darkness of the chill Wisconsin night.
Looking at her husband, Gertrude told him that the lights meant that something was going to happen to their daughter. Willard was not a man who much believed in the supernatural. He knew that his wife was, and was content to let her have her beliefs.
Still, he had to admit that the lights were odd. The following day, Willard would find out just how prophetic Gertrude’s words really were.
On December 26, 1937, Wood County Coroner P.E. Wright received a strange phone call.
It was Henry Nead, calling from the home of a local family. He asked Wright about making arrangements for his baby’s burial. Surprised, the coroner asked Henry what had happened.
Nead told him that Earl had died that morning.
When he had woken up, Henry said that he took Earl from his crib and placed him in a handmade baby swing. The device was attached to the ceiling by four separate strands of clothesline, tied into place. The swing was suspended four feet in the air, with a table placed underneath it.
Henry turned his back for a moment, reaching to straighten out the bedding that lined Earl’s crib. As he did, he suddenly heard two large thumps from behind him. Almost instantly, he knew what had happened. Turning, he saw Earl on the floor, motionless.
A knot holding one of the swing’s support strings had unraveled, causing the poor baby to spill out. Earl landed on the table first, and then the floor.
Henry could see that Earl was dead. He left and went to his parent’s house in a nearby town. He tried calling a local doctor, but was told that the man was currently out of town. Failing at that, Henry went to a local tavern, where he started to discuss the incident with two men that he knew there.
The men went back to the apartment with Henry. Seeing what had happened, they took the Neads and their poor, dead infant to a local home. From there, Henry had called the coroner, explaining to Wright what had happened.
Wright listened, and told Henry that he was on his way. While he was sympathetic, Wright couldn’t help but feel that there was something suspicious about the young man’s story. Trusting to his instincts, Wright contacted the Wood County Sheriff, Henry Becker, before he left. Together, the two men went to meet Henry.
When they arrived, Henry told them his story again, then took them back to his apartment.
The Nead home was filthy. Garbage was piled up in one corner, and spent matches were in little piles all through the apartment. Half-eaten food left on the kitchen table, and the entire place was covered in clutter.
As the sheriff looked around, he noticed that the swing had been taken down. Curious, Becker asked Henry how it had come down. Henry said that he had simply reached up and taken it down. The sheriff was immediately suspicious.
Henry Nead was just over five feet tall, and the ceilings in the apartment were about eight feet tall. There was simply no way that Henry could have just reached up and untied the swing from where it was secured.
While it was, in the broad scheme of things, a small detail, it still caused the Sheriff Becker and Coroner Wright to question everything that Henry told them. As they began to delve deeper into their investigation, they began to question more and more, and police began to suspect that something else had happened to Earl on Christmas morning.
Coroner Wright’s examination of the body revealed that the infant’s skull was crushed, and there were scratches on his face and body. Scrapings were taken from underneath Henry’s fingernails and sent to be tested for traces of human skin.
Henry and Luella were brought to the sheriff’s office for questioning. At first, told them the same things that he had from the beginning, with Luella backing him up every time. The more the authorities talked to Henry, however, the more cracks started to show in his story.
With the young man’s story crumbling around him, Becker decided to keep him at the jail overnight. When Henry woke up the next morning, he asked to see the sheriff. He was ready to tell the truth.
Henry confessed that he had killed Earl. Taking the baby in his left hand, he beat him to death with the other. When asked about the scratches, Henry claimed that he might have caused them, but wasn’t sure. The forensic tests on the fingernail scrapings would later show the presence of infant epithelial cells.
Given Henry’s past behavior with Earl and the suspicious story that he gave about the events causing his death, the murder confession probably came as no surprise to Sheriff Becker. However, no one expected his motivation.
Henry Nead claimed that the ghost of his dead father had driven him to commit murder.
Nead explained that he was haunted by the ghost of his father, Frank. The spirit would visit his son, constantly berating him. On other occasions, Henry claimed that a white ball made from something he couldn’t identify would follow him around. When the authorities asked Luella about it, she claimed that it was all true. Once, she had even been present when the spirit had appeared to her husband.
On Christmas morning, the Nead’s had been woken up by three distinct knocks that came from the bottom of their door. Henry knew immediately what it was. Whenever his father’s ghost came, it was always preceded by three knocks.
As expected, Frank Nead appeared soon after. He said that because Earl wasn’t Henry’s biological son, he was going to haunt Henry for the rest of his life. At that point, Henry claimed he blacked out, and didn’t come to until he had struck Earl for the first time.
Compelled by his father’s ghost, Earl kept hitting the infant in the head. A horrified Luella tried her best to stop him, but by the time that she was able to, it was already too late. Henry told Becker that he then realized the awful thing that he had done, and tried his best to revive the baby by splashing water in his face.
Thinking quickly, Henry came up with a story of how Earl had accidentally fallen out of his swing. He explained his plan to Luella and made her go along with it.
Luella collaborated the entire statement, adding that she had expected a death on Christmas Eve.
She told Becker that she had felt something hit her legs before rolling off and landing on the floor. When she was younger, she had felt the exact same thing when one of her uncles had passed away. Luella knew that someone was going to die soon, but she had no idea that it would be her Earl.
While she was a mother and a wife, Luella was still only fifteen-years-old. Even in the late 1930’s, she was thought of more as a girl than a full-grown woman. Henry Nead was adamant that he was the killer, and that Luella had nothing to do with it. After their investigation, authorities drew the same conclusion.
Luella was released. Her parents came and picked up their devasted daughter. A few days later, the baby was buried in a local cemetery after a quiet service.
Henry plead innocent by reason of insanity to the murder of Earl Albert Nead. The judge ordered that Henry be remanded to the custody of the state central hospital for the criminally insane in Waupun, Wisconsin. There, he would be observed and interviewed by professional psychologists to determine his mental state.
After the judge had left, Henry’s defense attorney had a statement entered into the official court record. It detailed how, when Henry was a child, he had sustained considerable head trauma at different times when he was a child.
The first had been after he had been run over by a wagon, and the second was when he was beaten senseless at the hands of his own father. The last was when he hit his head after falling off a hay stack. After the last incident, Henry would occasionally exhibit a violent temper. Other times, he would inexplicably fall into a coma.
Luella, for her part, was done with Henry. She confessed that she was terrified of her husband. She was afraid that the next time his father visited he might compel Henry to murder her.
On his way out of the courtroom, Henry tearfully embraced his mother, sobbing into her shoulder. After they parted, he fainted halfway down the courthouse stairs, and had to be carried by police officers the rest of the way.
In March 1938, psychiatrists declared Henry Nead to be of a sane and rational mind. He was set to stand trial for the first-degree murder of Earl Nead. On his way back to stand trial, he changed his story yet again. This time, Henry claimed that it was Luella who had committed the murder, not him.
He said that she had flown into a raging fit that morning, and had killed Earl in the midst of it. His story, however, fell on uncaring ears. After already having lied so many times before, no one seemed to believe him now.
On March 14, the day that his trial was to begin, Henry Nead’s attorney persuaded Henry to plead guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid a more serious punishment. Maybe a jury would believe the suggestion that childhood head trauma had caused him to see the ghost of his dead father. But after psychologists had given him a clean bill of mental health, there was a good chance that they might not.
In his chambers, the judge asked Henry and his attorney if he wished to plead guilty. Henry replied that he would, even though he was innocent of killing Earl.
The judge then asked if he had any reason why he shouldn’t go to prison. When Henry didn’t answer, the judge asked again. Angrily, Henry told him that he had put this whole situation on himself, and now it was too late to go any other way.
Returning to a packed courtroom, Henry Nead officially pled guilty to the second-degree murder of his infant stepson and was sentenced to serve fourteen to twenty years at the Waupun State Prison.
Despite being released six years later, Henry Nead violated the terms of his parole soon after and was taken back to prison. This pattern would set the standard for the rest of his life – go to jail, be released, then go back again. The cycle was finally broken with his death in 1982.
Luella, despite the trauma of her early teenage years, finally found peace.
She happily re-married and had ten children. Luella and her husband eventually settled in Oregon, where the rest of her life was filled with love and joy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 90, a beloved mother and grandmother.
Christmas is a time for family. For some, it can be a sad and trying time spent with relatives that they don’t necessarily like. For others, Christmas is a time of celebration with some of the people that they love the most in the world.
In her long life, Luella Shaw experienced both. From the tragedy of a squalid second-story apartment in Wisconsin to several more holidays spent with her loving family, she truly saw great highs and devastating lows.
Was Henry Nead really visited by the ghost of his dead father? Or was he only haunted by his own vicious and selfish desire to murder his stepson? Did Luella and her parents really experience supernatural premonitions of Earl Albert Nead’s death?
In the end, we’ll all have to answer those questions for ourselves. The only thing that we can say for certain is that that an innocent life was cruelly snuffed out on a day that it should have been celebrated the most.
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Vesper Youth Confesses ‘Spiritual Slaying’ of Son. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/27/1937
Release Wife of Confessed Baby Slayer. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 12/28/1937
Infant Killed Christmas Day. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/27/1937
Youth Confesses Killing Foster Son of Girl Wife. The Capitol Times, 12/27/1937
Vesper Youth Confesses ‘Spiritual Slaying’ of Son. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/27/1937
Officials Call in Pathologist. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/28/1937
Fine Hair, Skin Found Under Nead’s Nails. Stevens Point Journal, 12/28,1937
Vesper Youth Enters Plea Of Insanity. Stevens Point Journal, 12/29/1937
Nead Pleads Innocent; Claims Insanity. The Daily Tribune, 12/29/1937
Slayer Makes Insanity Plea. The Journal Times, 12/29/1937
Slayer of His Foster Son to State Asylum. The Capital times, 12/29/1937
Nead Calm on Trip to State Hospital. Stevens Point Journal, 12/30/1937
Spiritualists Defend Nead. The Daily Tribune, 1/7/1938
Nead Sane, Claim of Psychiatrists Who Examined Him. Stevens Point Journal, 2/23/1938
Doctors Claim Youth Is Sane. Marshfield News-Herald, 2/23/1938
Nead Pleads Guilty; Gets 14 to 20 Years. The Daily Tribune, 3/14/1938
Nead Sentenced To 14 To 20 Years On His Plea of Guilty. 3/14/1938
Nead Accuses Wife of Christmas Day Murder. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/15/1938
Henry Nead to Ask Executive Clemency. Stevens Point Journal, 11/29/1940
Henry Nead Faces Return to Prison. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/9/1943
Nead Under Arrest for Violating His Parole. Green Bay Press-Gazette, 12/10/1943
Henry J. Nead To File Application About May 10. Marshfield News-Herald, 4/2/1946
Vesper ‘Ghost’ Killer Plans to Seek Clemency. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/31/1948
Whetstone, Rhonda. Man blames dead father’s ghost for killing infant. The Daily Tribune, 12/9/2014
Whetstone, Rhonda. Teenage dad plead insanity in death. The Daily Tribune, 12/23/2014
U.S. Census Records
Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1952