Friday, December 07, 2007

Murder and an Old Water Well

by David Parmer

Clover Fork
Clover Fork was generally a tranquil place during the decade of the 1920’s. There was heavy trafficking in moonshine whiskey on Clover Fork, but no serious crime to speak of. About the most exciting thing to take place in this Orlando suburb was the steady rumble of train traffic along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the occasional deaths that occurred to freight hoppers along that rail right of way.

Of course, love and violence sometimes intervene and turn tranquility into turbulence, as it did in the late spring of 1928, near Chapman, on upper Clover Fork.

Click on the map to the left to enlarge it.
Below right is some of the moonshine apparatus confiscated from the hills of West Virginia.

Alvia Teter and Owen Vankirk
Alvia Teter was the son of Dan Teter and Arminta (Weaver) Teter who lived in the Lake Lane area of Braxton County, near the town of Heaters. Alvia was a chum of Owen Vankirk, the son of Robert M. Vankirk and Margaret Virginia (Wine) Vankirk, formerly of Dumpling Run, but later of the Walkersville area. Alvia and Owen had been making a living from the manufacture and sale of moonshine whiskey.

Moonshine Country
The area of upper Clover Fork and Knawls Creek was a moonshiner’s paradise with many hiding places and an area where lawmen and revenuers seldom ventured. Teter and Vankirk were also friends of the McCoy brothers, Basil and Raymond, who were also active in the art of moonshinery and bootlegging. Moonshiners often would sample their product as a matter of quality-control, and, as a result many of them were most often drunk, or near drunk. Teter and Vankirk were known to be regular users of their illicit product.

Irma Cosner
In the spring of 1928, Alvia and Owen were hanging out in an abandoned house belonging to Hanse Bennett, near Chapman, on upper Clover Fork. Hanse's niece Irma (Bennett) Cosner lived close by. Irma was separated from her husband, Virgil Cosner. She was the daughter of Mary Alice Bennett and granddaughter of George W. and Anne (Barbe) Bennett of Clover Fork who had raised her after her mother’s early death. She had inherited a 119 acre farm near Chapman from her grandfather upon his death in 1914. Irma had attracted the eye of both Alvia and Owen.

Left: Irma Cosner, at her grandfather George W. Bennett's funeral.

Where’s Alvia?
Alvia Teter had been missing nigh on ten days. His parents, Dan and Arminta Teter who lived at Lake Lane had not heard from him, nor had his sister and brother-in-law, Maude and Willis Townsend, who lived at Chapman on upper Clover Fork and with whom Alvia had been living. Alvia was very faithful about staying in touch with his family and his absence was worrisome to them.

Alvia often visited Will Pritt’s store at Knawl which was just over the ridge and a short distance further from the abandoned house Alvia had been frequenting with Owen Vankirk. Willis Townsend visited the Pritt Store and asked Will Pritt if he had seen Alvia. Pritt told Townsend that he had not seen him. Pritt did relate that Owen Vankirk had been in the store and had told Pritt that he had sent Alvia “up into the mountains to get a load of moonshine a few days ago and that he had not returned.” Vankirk expressed to Pritt that he was worried that something must have happened to his pal, Alvia Teter. Pritt told Townsend that Vankirk was acting very strangely and appeared to be “nervous and fidgety, pacing back and forth” and that he suspected that Vankirk knew more about Alvia Teter’s absence than he was revealing. Agreeing that Alvia’s disappearance was suspicious, the Teter family contacted A. M. Berry, the Sheriff of Braxton County.
The Search
In the meanwhile, Alvia’s brother in law, Willis Townsend; another brother, Guy Teter; Walter Taylor, the Knawl blacksmith; Tony Mick, and Harry Fleming began combing the countryside for traces of Alvia Teter. The searchers insisted that Owen Vankirk accompany them on the search and Vankirk did so.
Left: Walter Taylor, the blacksmith

It was reported that Owen encouraged the searchers to scour the hillsides for Alvia since, according to Vankirk, “that was where Alvia most likely would be.” The searchers did scout the hillsides looking for the missing person but found nothing.

During the search for Alvia Teter, Willis Townsend kept in the back of his mind that Owen Vankirk, on a previous occasion, while he was half-drunk on moonshine whiskey, had bragged that if he ever killed anyone and wanted to dispose of the body, he would dump the corpse down a well and toss debris on top of the victim. Willis Townsend began gravitating the search toward the old abandoned Hanson "Hanse" Bennett house where Owen Vankirk and Alvia Teter had been known to visit. Sensing that the search was headed toward the old house Vankirk resisted and said the search would be more fruitful if they stayed on the hills with the search and that he was familiar with the old house and that “there was nothing there.” Nevertheless the search party continued toward the old Hance Bennett house.

The Discovery
Arriving at the house, one of the first things the searchers noticed was wood ashes which had been scattered on the ground in an effort, it appeared, to cover dark stains on the ground. The stains led into the abandoned house. Inside the house, the searchers found part of the wood flooring had been torn off and dropped under the floor joists. There were dark stains on the floor boards which had been removed. Returning to the outside of the house, the half-covered stains on the ground were followed to the old water well, where more stains were found on the curbing of the well. Surveying the inside of the well, the searchers noticed that a clutter of debris concealed the water. With jerry-rigged grapples, the searchers removed enough debris to reveal a corpse, head down in the well. The searchers securing the scene sent for help from the Braxton County Sheriff A. M. Berry. Deputy Sheriff Spurgeon White, Prosecuting Attorney J. E. Cutlip, and County Coroner Doctor H. S. Brown came later in the day from Sutton to investigate the scene of the crime and to remove the body.

The Accusal
All eyes were on Owen Vankirk whose actions and mannerisms prior to and during the search and discovery of the body had pointed the finger of blame at him. Deputy Sheriff White, evidently having been apprised of the probable culpability of Vankirk, armed Walter Taylor and Tony Mick with pistols and told them to “keep an eye on Vankirk.” Vankirk responded as if he were a cornered animal and became quite agitated and distraught. Asking if he could go up on the hill to get a drink from a spring, the Deputy told Taylor and Mick to go with him and “If he tries to make a run for it, shoot him.” Later, Shorty Ocheltree who had come onto the scene was lowered into the well and secured ropes around the lifeless corpse. As the body of Alvia Teter was being lifted from the old water well, it is reported by Nellie Cayton that her father Walter Taylor recalled that Deputy Sheriff White turned to Vankirk and said “We ought to hang you right here and shoot you full of holes.”

The Interrogation
State police from Sutton came by train to Orlando and traveled up Clover Fork to the crime scene. After the recovery of the dead body of Alvia Teter was secured, the State police and Prosecuting Attorney Cutlip took Owen Vankirk to the present home of Charles Bennett on Clover Fork which had belonged to his great-grandfather, George W. Bennett, during his lifetime. Charles Bennett recalls his late father, Pete Bennett, told him the State Police and the prosecuting attorney brought Owen Vankirk to the Bennett home and questioned Vankirk all night long in the parlor of the house. The next day the State police took Vankirk to Sutton and lodged him in the Braxton County jail.
The Trial
Vankirk was held in the Braxton County jail without bond and was indicted during the July 1928 term of court in Braxton County on the charge of first degree murder

One of the state’s witnesses for the trial was Guy Teter, brother of the murder victim. Guy Teter was well known to the law as a moonshiner and during the pendency of the trial of Vankirk, he was serving a sentence for moonshining. However, as the trial of Vankirk approached, Guy Teter who had been working on a road gang, escaped from custody and was not available for the trial. The prosecuting attorney asked the court for a continuance in the trial because of the absence of the material witness and the trial was delayed. Eventually, Guy Teter was retaken into custody and testified along with Erma Cosner, Willis Townsend, and several other law enforcement witnesses.
The evidence presented to the court theorized that Vankirk was jealous of the attention being given to Alvia Teter by Irma Cosner. The state also gave evidence that Vankirk and Teter were roasting potatoes in the fireplace of the abandoned Hance Bennett house. During the course of the potato roast, Vankirk suggested that Teter go to the Irma Cosner house and borrow some salt and butter to season the potatoes. The state further theorized that when Teter returned with the salt and butter and was bent over at the hearth of the fireplace in the process of seasoning the potatoes, Vankirk struck Teter over the head with a fatal blow from a fireplace andiron. The state then alleged that Vankirk disposed of the body by dumping it down the well.
The Verdict
After the evidence was given and the case turned over to the jury for deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of second degree murder against Owen Vankirk. The court sentenced Vankirk to the West Virginia State Penitentiary for an indeterminate term of from five to eighteen years.

With the conviction of Owen Vankirk, the murder of Alvia Teter was solved. Alvia Teter was buried at the Prince Cemetery near Lake Lane in Braxton County.

Owen Vankirk served his sentence for the murder of Alvia Teter. By 1941 he had been released from prison and was working on a construction job near Sutton. During the construction work, Vankirk was struck by the falling beam and dipper of a steam shovel. His injuries were serious and fatal. He died August 1, 1941 and was buried in a family cemetery near Walkersville.

Note From the Author
Where’s Alvia?
Sometimes dialing a wrong number pays dividends. For many years I had in the back of my mind the tale of the young man who was murdered on Clover Fork and his lifeless body was then dumped down a well. The years had eroded my recollection of the facts of the case and I couldn’t even put names to the tragic event. Years ago, when I first heard of the dastardly deed, while my first thought was for the victim of the crime, my second thought was, “What a terrible thing to do to a water well where people get their water.” A few months ago, while I was mulling over this story in my mind, I thought that I would call my best source for old Orlando happenings, my cousin, Dale Barnett. Dale, true as ever, spotted me the last names of some of the people involved in the murder, and gave me a kick start on the story. This story had laid dormant in my file for sometime while I wrote other stories but eventually I got back around to it. One of the witnesses who testified at the murder trial in Braxton County was Willis Townsend. Through a little research I determined that Willis Townsend, who was probably long dead, had a daughter Nellie, who had married Dee Cayton. Checking the telephone directory for the central West Virginia area, lo and behold, I found a listing for “Nellie Cayton.” An elderly sounding woman answered my telephone call and I asked if I were speaking with Nellie Cayton. She replied in the affirmative. I told Nellie the purpose of my call and the memories of the murder of young Teter came flowing back to her. Nellie told me that she was eighty seven years of age and was a young child at the time of the murder of Alvia Teter. Obviously she had listened carefully as adults around her had talked of the grisly events of 1928. In detail Nellie told me with remarkable minutia of the events surrounding the murder of Alvia Teter. I couldn’t believe my good fortune as a researcher to find such an animated recollection of an event which took place nearly eighty years ago. Nearing the end of the fascinating conversation with Nellie I asked her if she had a photograph of her father, Willis Townsend, who had been a witness during the murder trial. Nellie then advised me that she was the daughter of Walter Taylor, not Willis Townsend, and that I should speak with her sister in law, whose name was also Nellie Cayton. Nellie came to my assistance and told me that the Nellie Cayton I had intended to call was her late husband’s brother’s widow, who was just a little younger than she, and that she was the daughter of Willis Townsend. I thought to myself what a stroke of good luck I had when I dialed the wrong telephone number.

After the conclusion of the murder trial of Owen Vankirk, Irma Cosner relocated to the Cincinnati area where she met Herb Hill, a carpenter. Irma and Herb married and lived the rest of their lives in the Cincinnati and later in Indianapolis. Irma had twin daughters, Sadie and Nelle, who were born while she was still married to Virgil Cosner.
Comment by Nellie Cayton
My father, Walter Taylor, was a blacksmith at Knawl. When I was young I used to help my father at the blacksmith forge by pumping the bellows to keep air flowing across the coals. He often talked to me about the Alvia Teter murder and the events surrounding it. I remember that I was shocked to hear the tale and could scarcely believe anyone would do such a thing.

Owen Vankirk did not take kindly to Willis Townsend and Tony Mick participating in the search for the murdered Alvia Teter. Vankirk reportedly threatened to kill both Townsend and Mick which caused them to be afraid for their own lives. Townsend refused to go outside after dark for years after the murder of Alvia Teter.
Comment by Donna Gloff
National Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933, but West Virginia became a dry state in mid 1914. For more on moonshine, see the Jun '07 entries The Moon Shines Along Oil Creek and Uncle Zeke’s War on Booze


  1. This is my family!!!!(: guy Teter is my pawpaws dad its good to see somebody knows the history

  2. Alvia was my grandfathers brother

  3. Guy teter alvias brother is my oapaw