On Christmas Eve, 1937, Gertrude and Willard Shaw were at their Wisconsin home, anticipating the holiday festivities the next day.
Near midnight, Gertrude noticed bright lights out in the yard, right in front of one of their windows. The couple thought that it must have been a car, so went outside to see who it was. But when they opened the door and stepped out into the chill winter night, there was only darkness.
No car, no lights. Nothing. Only their breath fogging the air.
Slowly, Gertrude turned to her husband, her eyes filled with fear. “This is a sign,” she said. “Something is going to happen to Luella.”
Willard sighted. He didn’t believe in signs, ghosts, or anything else supernatural. He knew their daughter, Luella, was having some trouble with that boy she had d married, but Williard didn’t think that the great beyond-beyond had anything to do with it.
Still, he was content to let Gertrude have her beliefs. And he had to admit that those lights were pretty odd.
Putting his arm around his wife, Willard led them back into the warmth of the house, having no idea how prophetic Gertrude’s words really were.
Luella Shaw was worried. It seemed to be the only way that she felt anymore.
She put her hand absently on her stomach. In a few short months, her life was going to change even more than it had already. Luella was only fourteen years old. What did she know about raising a baby?
Late last year, the son of a local farmer had assaulted her, resulting in Luella’s pregnancy. Regardless of how the child had been conceived, it was still her baby, and she was determined to keep it, no matter what.
When she had told her parents what had happened, they had been outraged, and immediately went to the police. The authorities had followed through, and Luella’s attacker had been arrested.
When the dust had settled, however, the young man avoided heavier sexual assault charges and was instead charged with bastardy. This charge essentially confirmed that a child – in this case Luella’s – had been born to unwed parents.
During the early 20th century, before formal welfare systems and child assistance programs had been implanted throughout the United States, bastardy laws in northern states allowed the county or state to force the child’s father to pay for the baby for at least the first few years of that child’s life.
It was a far from perfect system. Sometimes the father couldn’t be found, and in other cases, the father didn’t want to pay. In those situations, bastardy laws gave officials a legal footing from which they could secure funds from the father’s property or force them to financially support the child.
Luella’s attacker was currently out on bond pending further investigation into the case. Just being charged with something didn’t automatically mean that he would be convicted. And even if he was, how hard was law enforcement going to try and get him to pay for his baby when they had to deal with more important crimes?
No, it was probably best to not count on seeing a dime from that family. That did nothing to lessen Luella’s stress and worry. She felt her stomach lurch again as she thought through the events of the past few months.
Her parents, Willard and Gertrude Shaw, had been a constant, unwavering hand in her life. They loved their daughter, and certainly didn’t blame her for her situation. Besides, Luella was just one of eight of their children, so they didn’t bat an eye at having another baby around the farm.
They were determined to love their young grandchild just as much as they had loved all of their children.
Luella had been set to settle back into her life at her parent’s home until she caught her bearings in life. And then she had met Henry.
Henry Nead was 19 years old, just a few years older than Luella. When he had met her, it had been love at first sight. He didn’t waste any time approaching her and starting a relationship with her.
He soon made his intentions clear: marriage. He loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. When Luella told him that she was pregnant with another man’s baby, Henry told her that he didn’t care. He would adopt the baby as his own and they would raise it together.
Luella couldn’t believe her luck. She must have been ecstatic to find such a good man who was willing to take in her and her baby. But first they had to talk to her parents.
And now here she was, standing in the yard of her family’s home while Henry talked to her father about marrying her.
Inside the house, Luella’s father Willard listened patiently while Henry talked to him about his future and how he wanted Luella to be a part of it. He kept insisting that he would make an excellent father and husband. He was going to take care of Luella’s baby and raise it just like it was his own.
Everything the young man said sounded good, but Willard was still unsure. There was something about the whole thing that made Willard hesitate to give his blessing.
Henry Nead seemed like a fine young man, and he definitely gave every outward appearance of being madly in love with Luella. Everything he said sounded good and true. As near as Willard could tell, there wasn’t any logical reason for him to say no.
But he was concerned about the fact that the baby wasn’t Henry’s. Despite what he said, Willard knew that some men didn’t treat their stepchildren well because they felt the children weren’t really theirs. He was afraid that Henry would turn out like one of those men.
Finally, Williard relented. He gave Henry Nead his permission to marry Luella, hoping that everything was going to turn out okay for the young couple and the baby despite his misgivings on the matter.
Henry and Luella were overjoyed. They were going to get married, have a baby, and live out the rest of their lives with each other.
Their joy was almost cut short when the county clerk in Monroe County refused to give them a marriage license. Luella had to be at least fifteen years old before she could legally marry, and she was still fourteen.
Undaunted, the young couple went to nearby Wood County with Gertrude Shaw. There they lied to the county clerk about their ages in order to get the license. It was issued to them after Gertrude happily signed her permission for Luella to get married.
On June 22, 1937, Luella and Henry were married by a Justice of the Peace and became husband and wife.
The young couple settled in Vesper, Wisconsin, living in a run-down, three-room apartment above a local restaurant. Finances were extremely tight, and the Nead’s required assistance from the county to in order to make ends meet.
Soon after they had settled in, Henry’s attitude toward Luella’s baby began to change.
While just a few weeks before he had seemed positive and upbeat about the new baby, now Henry seemed to be just the opposite. He told several people that, somehow, someway, he was going to get rid of Luella’s baby.
On November 4, 1937, Luella turned fifteen. Nine days later, on November 13, Luella gave birth to her son, Earl Albert Nead.
Henry soon began to try and make good on his boasts about getting rid of Earl.
On two separate occasions, Gertrude Shaw saw Henry wrap his hands around the baby’s throat and choke him. The mother of eight was horrified. Running over to her son-in-law, she ripped Earl away and took him to safety.
Another time, someone watched as Henry filled a pan with water. He said that he was going to give Earl a bath. As the witness watched, Henry gently put the baby into the water, and then proceeded to push Earl’s head under the water.
Luella began to fear for Earl’s life. In mid-December, she wrote to her parents and begged them to take the baby. They readily agreed and made the trip over to Wood County to pick up their grandson.
A week later, on December 19, the Wood County sheriff and one of his deputies arrived on the Shaw farm. Henry and Luella had ridden along with them.
When Gertrude and Willard answered the door, the sheriff asked if they had Earl. They said that they did. Almost reluctantly, the sheriff began to explain that the Nead’s had called his office earlier that day, claiming that the Shaw’s had kidnapped Earl. Luella herself had told them that she was so lonely without the little one that she could hardly eat.
Looking at her daughter, Gertrude could tell that she was an emotional wreck. She couldn’t stand seeing Luella that way, despite Luella’s earlier pleas for them to take Earl. She went inside and collected Earl’s things, wrapped up the baby against the winter cold, and brought him out to Luella.
That would be the last time the Shaw’s would see their grandson Earl alive.
On Christmas morning, December 25, 1937, P.E. Wright, the county coroner of Wood County, received a strange phone call. It was Henry Nead, asking him how to make arrangements for his stepson Earl’s funeral.
The question surprised Wright. He asked if something had happened to Earl. Nead told him, very matter of factly, that Earl had died that morning.
Wright offered his sympathies, understanding from years of experience how hard it was for families to lose a child, especially an infant. Gently, he asked Henry how the baby had passed.
Henry thanked him, then said that when he had gotten up that morning, the first thing he had done was check on the baby. Taking Earl out of his crib, Henry took the baby to his play swing and put him in it.
He said that he had only turned his back for a moment, wanting to straighten up Earl’s bedding inside the crib. As he did, Henry said that he heard two loud thumps from behind him. Turning, he saw Earl on the floor, motionless.
Henry saw immediately what had happened.
Henry and Luella didn’t have a lot of money, so, just like Americans across the county in the 1930’s, they learned to improvise in order to get what they needed.
Earl had needed a jumper, so Henry had made him one. It was four feet off the ground, with a table placed underneath it. It was suspended from the ceiling by four separate strands of clothesline, each securely tied into place.
Unfortunately, one of the knots hadn’t been tied securely enough.
While Earl played innocently, the knot had come unraveled, causing the makeshift jumper to give way. The two thumps that Henry had heard was Earl first hitting the table, and then the floor.
As he knelt over the baby, Henry could tell right away that Earl was dead. Taking his coat, he left the apartment and went to a local tavern. There, Henry ran into a couple men that he knew.
He explained the situation to them, and the men took Henry back to the apartment. After seeing what had happened, they took Henry, Luella, and the body of little Earl to the home of Henry’s stepfather. From there, Henry had called Wright.
Wright was stunned. He told Henry that he would be on his way soon and hung up the phone. Wright took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. This was going to be a terrible way to spend any day, let alone Christmas. Taking a moment, Wright went back over what he had just been told.
While they certainly had his sympathies for losing their son, something about Henry’s story wasn’t sitting right with him. The more he thought about it, the more Wright was convinced that there was something more to this than what Henry had just told him. Picking up the phone again, he called Henry Becker, the Wood County Sheriff.
Wright told Becker what had happened and asked his opinion. Becker agreed that something seemed off and said that he would go to see the Neads with him.
When they arrived at Henry’s stepfather’s house, Wright took care of Earl’s body and saw that it was properly removed from the property. Then, he and Becker asked Henry to tell his story again. When he was finished, Henry took the two men back to his apartment.
When they arrived, Wright and Becker were appalled at what they saw.
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 had been left on the kitchen table, and the entire apartment was cluttered and dirty.
As he took all of this in. Becker asked to see the swing. To his surprise, it had been taken all the way down. Curious, Becker asked Henry how it had come down. Henry replied that he had simply reached up and taken it down.
This immediately raised Sheriff Becker’s suspicions.
Henry Nead was only a little over five-feet tall. The apartment ceilings were probably about eight-feet high. The swing had been tied by clothesline to bolts in the ceiling. There was no way that Henry could have stood flat on the floor, reached up, and untied the swing.
It was a small detail, but Becker had long-since learned that sometimes the truth of a case is borne out by the smallest, overlooked detail. Wright and Becker began to feel even more strongly that there was something missing from Henry’s account.
He was obviously lying about the swing, and if Henry was lying about that, then what else was he hiding?
Becker asked the Nead’s to come with him to the police station. He wanted to ask them some questions about what had happened that morning. They agreed, and while they went with the police, Wright left to go and perform an autopsy on Earl Nead’s body.
The examination of the body revealed that the cause of death was from a crushed skull. While this might have been consistent with Henry’s story of him falling from the swing, there were puzzling scratches on Earl’s body – a few on his nose and one on his torso. Wright thought that they may have been caused by fingernails.
At the police station, scrapings were taken from underneath Henry’s fingernails. What they took was bagged up and sent for testing, in particular looking for traces of human skin.
Henry and Luella then sat down with the sheriff to talk about Earl.
At first, Henry told Becker the exact same thing that he had before. Becker would find some detail that he didn’t think sounded quite right or he wanted to know more about, and he would lead the questioning back to that. Luella backed the story every time.
However, the more Becker questioned the couple, the more cracks began to form in their story. The way the story was starting to crumble, the sheriff knew that he was getting closer to the truth of what happened.
As the day wore on, Becker decided to keep the Nead’s in jail overnight. Something had happened to Earl, and police weren’t sure if it was one or both of the Nead’s that were involved with it. Keeping them overnight would prevent them from fleeing the county, and it might just be enough to get them to tell the truth.
The ploy worked. The next morning, Henry Nead asked to see the sheriff as soon as he woke up. He was ready to tell the truth.
Henry told Becker that he had killed Earl.
He said that he had gotten up that morning and took the baby from his crib. Henry said that he stood there, holding the infant in his left hand. Then, after a moment, he began striking Earl with his other hand over and over again, as hard as he could.
Suddenly he felt his hand grabbed from behind. Turning, he saw Luella, holding his arm back as hard as she could.
But it was already too late. Earl was dead.
Once it was over, Henry had decided to make up the story about the swing and call the authorities. He said that Luella had nothing to do with it and had forced the grieving mother to go along with his plan.
When asked about the scratches, Henry claimed that he might have caused them, but wasn’t sure. He said that he had completely blacked out from shortly after he got up to when he had struck the first blow.
The same day, the test results of Henry’s fingernail scrapings clearly showed evidence of human skin, showing that he had caused the scratches on Earl.
While the crime was shocking in and of itself, when the authorities asked Henry why he had killed Earl, the answer almost knocked them over. Henry claimed that the spirit of his dead father had compelled him to take Earl’s life.
Henry explained that he was haunted by the ghost of his father, Frank Albert Nead, Sr. He said that Frank had never liked him, telling Henry that he wasn’t really his son. Henry told authorities that on the day he died, “…my father said he hoped and prayed the Lord would let him come back and haunt me.”
Frank Albert Nead, Sr., had died several years before and was buried in Michigan. However, sometime around the time that Henry had gotten married, Frank had seemed to have decided to make good on his promise.
Sometimes Frank appeared as an apparition, other times in dreams. On other occasions, Henry claimed that a white ball made from something he couldn’t identify would follow him around.
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. He remembered that when Frank had died, the family dog had howled three times. Many times, when Frank’s ghost came, it was preceded by three knocks.
After hearing those knocks, Henry said that Frank had appeared soon after. As usual, he mocked and taunted his son. Frank said that he was going to haunt Henry for the rest of Henry’s life because he dared to raise another man’s son as his own.
Shortly after, Henry had blacked out. When he had come to his senses and found himself hitting Earl, Henry had wanted to stop, but he couldn’t. Frank’s spirit compelled him to strike the infant until he was dead.
When questioned after her husband’s confession, Luella confirmed all of his claims, stating that she had even been there for one of her father-in-law’s spectral visitations. When asked if she believed Henry’s claims, Luella said she did.
Luella claimed that she had visitations of her own, although not from Frank Nead.
On Christmas Eve, she said that she had felt something land in her lap and then roll onto the floor as her and Henry had dinner. Luella remembered that several years before, she had a similar experience just before one of her uncles died.
Because of this omen, Luella told the police that she had expected a death on Christmas Eve. At the time, she had another sick uncle and assumed that the sign had been for him. She never thought for a moment that it might be for her own baby.
Henry was immediately placed under arrest. Luella Shaw’s testimony was entered, and several people in close contact with the Nead’s and the case were questioned. They gave their testimony to what they had seen of Henry’s behavior and interactions with Luella and Earl. The Shaw’s made sure to tell the police about Henry’s abusive behavior toward the infant.
Initially, Luella was held at the county jail as a material witness. After some consideration, no one believed that the 15-year-old had anything to do with Earl’s death and was telling the truth. After several hours in police custody, she was released. Her parents came and took her back to the family home.
A few days later, Earl Albert Nead 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, for a psychiatric examination.
To help make the case for Henry’s insanity plea, his attorney had a statement entered into the official court record regarding head trauma sustained by Henry in childhood.
According to the statement, Henry had been run over by a wagon, and then later beaten senseless by his father Frank. Another time, he had fallen from a haystack and hit his head.
After this last incident, the statement claimed that Henry had begun to exhibit a violent temper. On other occasions, he would inexplicably fall into a coma.
While Henry awaited his impending trial, Luella had decided that she had enough of him.
She said that she was terrified of her husband. If killing her baby wasn’t bad enough, what would Henry do if his father’s ghost told him to murder her? Luella had little doubt what would happen, and she wasn’t about to take that chance.
Early in 1938, psychiatrists declared Henry Nead to be completely sane. Soon after, a date was set for him to stand trial for the murder of Earl Albert Nead.
On his way back from Waupun, Henry changed his story again. He told authorities that he had been lying to protect Luella.
Now he claimed that Luella had flown into an uncontrollable rage on that Christmas Morning, and that in the midst of her fury it had been she who had murdered Earl.
The police didn’t believe him. Not only had he lied to them several times already, but all of the evidence clearly indicated him as the guilty party, not Luella.
On March 14, the day that his trial was set to begin, Henry Nead’s attorney persuaded him to plead guilty to second-degree murder. The entire case was going to be an uphill battle, and very little of it was in Henry’s favor. By pleading guilty, he could at least avoid the death penalty.
Henry, his attorney, and the prosecutor were brought to the judge’s chambers. There, 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.
Curious, the judge asked Henry if he had any reason why he shouldn’t go to prison. Henry didn’t answer. Waiting a few moments, the judge asked him the question again. Henry snapped at him, saying cryptically that he had put this whole situation on himself, and now it was too late to go any other way.
The prosecution agreed to the new terms, and the outcome of the case was decided. They left the judge’s chambers and returned to the courtroom to make the official verdict.
In front of a packed courtroom, Henry Nead pled guilty to the second-degree murder of his stepson, Earl Albert Nead. He was sentenced to serve fourteen to twenty years at Waupun State Prison.
With the charge of second-degree murder, not only had Henry avoided the death penalty, but he was also eligible for parole.
Six years after being sent to prison, he was released. He moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and started working at a hotel. He eventually violated his parole and was sent back to Waupun.
Over the next several years, Henry spent time in and out of prison. Eventually, he re-married and had children of his own. He died in 1982.
Luella, despite the trauma of her early teenage years, finally found peace.
She also re-married, happily this time. Luella and her husband eventually settled in Oregon and had ten children together. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 90, a beloved mother and grandmother.
Boy of Nine Years is Fatally Injured. Stevens Point Journal, 3/8/1922
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
Wife’s Parents Charge Youth Previously Tried to Kill Baby. The Journal Times, 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
James Nead. The Oshkosh Northwestern, 9/17/1982
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
Frank Albert Nead, Sr. www.findagrave.com
Kaaryn Gustafson on the History and Impact of Bastardy Laws. www.law.uci.edu.
Year: 1940; Census Place: Waupun, Dodge, Wisconsin; Roll: m-t0627-04473; Page: 14A; Enumeration District: 14-60
Wisconsin Historical Society; Madison, Wisconsin; Wi Marriage Records 1907-1939