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Death penalty debate? Ask Opal Collins

Death penalty debate? Ask Opal Collins

CALUMET ROOTS with Archibald McKinlay

  • Updated

On Oct. 26, 1956, 25-year-old Opal Agnes Collins of Hessville became the first woman in Indiana history sentenced to die in the electric chair. Judge William J. Murray set the execution date for Feb. 15. This was historically significant because no woman had ever been electrocuted in Indiana, or even hung, since the state was organized in 1816. While Indiana was still part of the Northwest Territory, however, a female Hoosier was put to death. Her crime? Witchcraft. Of course, witchcraft in Lake County today is just a misdemeanor, and is actually recommended for women who run for public office.

Opal's trial attracted the biggest crowd to the Lake County criminal court since the 1934 trial of James "Fur" Sammons, a gangster who was sentenced to life imprisonment as a habitual criminal. (See "Calumet Roots" in The Times, May 22, 1994.) But when Judge William J. Murray pronounced sentence, the overflow crowd in Crown Point fell silent. There were no outbursts, although for five months the public had followed the case closer than they followed the aroma of Holland's popcorn wagon on the Square.

When Judge Murray asked Opal if she had anything to say, the comely young woman broke down in tears and fainted. Two matrons tried to hold her up. She was then moved to the Hammond jail, where she was examined by Dr. B.W. Childlaw, a deputy coroner, who told police he believed her to be sane, although all his previous patients had been past caring. Meanwhile, Lake County Prosecutor, Metro Holovachka, famed for his bobbing adam's apple and bow tie, proclaimed the verdict "a great victory for the state of Indiana and for American justice." He was somewhat less enthusiastic about the system six years later (Feb. 21, 1962), when a judge gave him three years in a federal pen. (He served 25 months.) "Hola-bob-cha," as local wags referred to him, was assisted in the prosecution of Opal by Floyd C. Vance, chief deputy prosecutor. Vance later became Lake County prosecuting attorney, once again proving that a multiple-murder case does more for a career than a straight-A report card.

As Judge Murray waited for the matrons to haul Opal out of the courtroom, spectators were treated to a special Shirley Temple moment. Six-year-old Bobby Collins, son of one of the victims and brother of three of the others, ran to the front of the court room, threw his arms around Judge Murray's neck, and kissed him on the cheek. It is not known if he acted on impulse or on cue, but his schmaltzy action had people looking around for Rin-Tin-Tin.

"I think the state of Indiana did justice the whole way through," said Ben Collins Sr., husband of one of the victims and father of three victims and Bobby. He added that Opal had tried to kill his son a year earlier in Kentucky by setting fire to a special automobile in which Ben Jr. was seated. (A paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division, Ben Jr. had been crippled in an automobile accident on July 26, 1947, and was a paraplegic, paralyzed below the shoulders.) Not only that, the father said Opal had tried to strangle his son in his (the son's) new Hessville home at 3714 176th Street, where feudin' and fussin' were as common as in Opal's native Kentucky.

Ben Jr., 28, and Opal, 25, lived inharmoniously with Julia, 48, Ben Sr., 50, Martha Ann 14, and Mary Sue, 11, and Bobby, 6. Bickering went on endlessly. Opal insisted her in-laws (husband's parents and siblings) move out of the couple's new five-room brick ranch home so she could live in it alone with her husband of two-weeks. (They had been married in Crown Point.) Ben Jr. was slow to embrace the idea, and mother-in-law Julia adamantly opposed it. On the fateful (March 26, 1956), a new quarrel flared up and, according to Opal, her mother-in-law shouted at her: "If you don't get out of the house we'll carry you out." That's when Opal, a crack shot, grabbed a .22 rifle and began to fire, first the mother-in-law, then the rest of the family except Ben Sr., who was at work at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and young Bobby, who decamped when the shooting began.

After the shooting, Opal placed the rifle in the garage and went to the home of a Mrs. Taylor at 3709 Black Oak Road, and asked her to call the cops. Meanwhile, police already had received a call from Mrs. Margaret Miller, 3709 176th Street, where Bobby Collins had fled when the shooting started. Opal was arrested in front of the Taylor home. According to news accounts, Opal showed no remorse when Hammond police questioned her about the killings. She simply signed a confession and told Russell Oltz, chief of Hammond's detectives, and Sgt. Dennis Becky, she just wanted her husband's relatives out of the house, an outcome few would dispute she had accomplished. "His parents were trying to break up our marriage," Opal said. "They told my husband I was trying to get all his money." That evening, Detective Chief Oltz was admitted to St. Margaret's Hospital with a heart attack.

Naturally, all this made picking a jury difficult, because who among the 12 men could say that he had not wanted to do in his mother-in-law at one time or another. And the jurors remained less than unanimous. Opal's attorney, T. Cleve Stenhouse, Lake County pauper's attorney, argued insanity, and apparently reached some of the jury. At first, the jury was split 10 to 2 in favor of the death penalty, and then 11 to one. Finally, after deliberating 23 hours, the jury decided that Opal should be put to death for the killing of the 11-year-old. On Dec. 10, 1956, however, Gov. George S. Craig commuted the death penalty to life, while arguments raged on whether Opal should be tried for the other murders.

Gallery: Recent arrests booked into Lake County Jail


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