Harley Goes to the Big House

In the late 1970s Pat and I took a trip to Oklahoma to visit Renschler relatives in hopes of learning more about the Renschler family history.  We visited Bud’s (Pat’s Dad) first cousin Lester Renschler who owned a typewriter and business supply store in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  He told us some interesting stories about his aunt Pearl Renschler Boon but little about his Uncle Harley.  Perhaps he was reluctant to talk about Harley because as we would later learn he was the black sheep of the family.

After visiting with Lester we drove on to Oklahoma City to visit Ida Mansfield Aument a niece of Harley’s.  She allowed me to copy some old photos she had and told us that Harley was buried in the cemetery at Wheatland, Oklahoma beside his sister Pearl.  Their sister Maggie and her husband James Mansfield are also buried there. She didn’t say much about Harley except that he had a pleasant personality, was an alcoholic and that he had been in prison. She didn’t know why, when or where.  Well, the statement about prison certainly piqued my interest.  But many years would pass before I learned “the rest of the story.”

Pat’s grandparents, Harley Joe Renschler and Clarice Sivilla Clark were married in March 1912 at the courthouse in Nelson, Nebraska.  Clarice was 17 years old and five months pregnant.  Harley was 25 years old. Their first child, a boy named William Frederick, died at birth.  Merion Eugene “Bud” was born March 1, 1915.  Clarice filed for divorce in April 1917 at Republic County, Kansas.  In her petition for divorce, she stated that “the defendant is guilty of habitual drunkenness, that he would come home drunk and curse and abuse her and would spend all the money he earned for liquor and compelled the plaintiff to take in washing and keep boarders to support herself and child.  That on December 13, 1916 defendant abandoned the plaintiff and their child, and since date has lived separate from them, and has contributed nothing for their clothes, support, or maintenance.  The plaintiff has been compelled to work for other people to obtain money to support herself and child.”  The divorce was granted in November 1917.  Harley, whose whereabouts were unknown, never appeared in court.   The court ordered $10 a month child support, but Clarice told me she was “never paid one cent.”

In October 1918 Clarice married a second time to William “Bill” Bugg at Hastings, Nebraska.   Bud Renschler was three years and eight months old. Bill Bugg was the only father figure in Bud’s life, consequently, Bud knew very little about his biological father.  In fact he didn’t even know his own name was Renschler until he was about 10 years old.  Thank goodness he learned and used his real name.  I would have hated to spend my life named “Katie Bugg.”

As the years passed and I continued to research family history, the tidbit about Harley serving time in prison remained in the back of my mind. I wrote to the Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota state prisons without success.  Then recently Ancestry.com posted an index to prisoners in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.  And there I found Harley J. Renschler, case No. 49912.  It had to be him.  I’ve never run across anyone else with that name.  I emailed the Kansas City Branch of the National Archives and received instructions on how to order the file using my credit card.  First I received via email scans of the inmate file which was three pages and included mug shots.  After determining it was our Harley, I ordered three scans of the Criminal Docket and then 14 scans of the actual case, US vs Harley Renschler.

Harley's mug shot taken November 13, 1936.
Harley’s mug shot taken November 13, 1936.

This is what I learned: On January 4, 1936 at Chamberlain, South Dakota, Harley Renschler unlawfully and feloniously sold one-half pint of whiskey to Reuben Skunk, a Sioux Indian.  On March 23, 1936 Harley pleaded guilty in the US District Court of South Dakota at Sioux Falls to the crime of “selling intoxicating liquor to an Indian.”  He was placed on probation for one year and six months.  But Harley, an unemployed stationary engineer, hadn’t learned his lesson.  On October 23, 1936 he gave away intoxicating liquor to an Indian, Albert Crazy Bear, in violation of his probation.  On October 29th a warrant was issued for his arrest.  He was arrested on the 31st, thrown in jail and appeared in US District Court on November 12, 1936, where he was sentenced to the US Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas for a term of one year and one day at hard labor.

Wow! That seems like an excessive sentence for something that isn’t even against the law now.  However, today we have drug laws that are even more draconian.  The 21st Amendment to the Constitution had ended the Prohibition on the sale or consumption of intoxicating liquor on December 31, 1933.  So why was Harley in trouble? After the US Government succeeded in forcing the Native Americans onto reservations, it exercised “guardianship” over them. In 1897 an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act had banned the sale of alcohol to Indians.  The 21st Amendment did not apply to Native Americans.  In fact, they could not legally consume alcohol until 1953.

Consequently, Harley, age 49, was sent to Leavenworth for selling alcohol to an Indian.  He arrived at Leavenworth on November 13, 1936.  His file includes this description: occupation: steam engineer; height: 5’ 7”; Hair: dark mixed with grey, balding; eyes: dark hazel; complexion: ruddy. On April 5, 1937 he was transferred to Federal Prison Camp #11 at Kooskia, Idaho.  Prior to the Kooskia camp’s establishment, the location housed a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp from mid-June to mid-October 1933. Beginning in late August 1935, the site became a 200-man federal prison camp for inmates convicted of crimes against U.S. laws, such as mail robbery and selling liquor to Indians. The prisoners, all trusties, helped construct the Lewis-Clark Highway, now U.S. Highway 12, between Lewiston, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana.

Harley’s alcoholism plagued him for the remainder of his life. He was often unemployed.  After his release from the Idaho prison camp, which should have occurred in November 1937, he moved to Oklahoma City to be near his older sister Pearl who was divorced. Sometime in the mid-1950s he lived briefly with his son Bud in Juniata, Nebraska.  However, his alcoholism was an embarrassment to the family, and Harley returned to Oklahoma City where he died on March 3, 1959 two weeks short of his 72nd birthday.