Akron attorney Mark H. Shank didn’t have to travel far to become one of the most hated men in America.
He got up from his desk, descended a flight of stairs and walked into a drugstore next to his law practice on Kenmore Boulevard. There he bought a vial of strychnine, telling a clerk he needed the poison to get rid of some rats.
With that purchase, he sold his soul.
A fast-moving automobile swerved erratically Aug. 15, 1933, on U.S. 67 in Arkansas. Detective Chief Herbert Akers of Hot Springs was cruising behind the car when it missed a curve and rolled into a ditch near Malvern, Ark.
To the officer’s surprise, a passenger leaped out of the moving car. Akers pulled over, drew his gun and started to chase the man, but went back to the crash scene, where he made a horrifying discovery.
A man, woman and three young boys were sprawled inside, convulsing and gasping for breath. Ambulances rushed the family to a hospital, but doctors could only revive one child after pumping his stomach. Everyone else died.
A search party used bloodhounds to track the mysterious man who fled the vehicle. About an hour later, the dogs found him in a thicket about 5 miles from the crash scene.
He was Mark Shank, 41, a lawyer from Ohio.
“Although I heard dogs baying, I had no idea they were bloodhounds hunting me,” Shank later said. “I just hid — and there, in a thickly wooded section, they found me.”
Authorities identified the family as Akron residents Alvin Colley, 49; his wife, Ethel, 35; and their sons Clarence, 8; and Clement, 6. The sole survivor was son Clyde, 4.
Shank told officers he was at a picnic with the Colleys when the children became ill. Perhaps the meat they ate was spoiled. Colley was trying to drive them for help when he lost consciousness and crashed.
Authorities doubted Shank’s story. When officers asked the little boy about Shank, Clyde replied: “He put something in the grape juice.”
Saline County officers interrogated Shank for more than five hours. Shortly before 3 a.m., he signed a confession: “I am guilty of the murder of the four persons at Malvern by poison and I only ask that you officers recommend to the courts that they grant me all the leniency possible.”
Shank later claimed that deputies coerced the confession by whipping him with a 4-foot hose, firing gunshots and threatening to kill him.
“Two of them pinned my arms to the wall while others smashed my body with the hose,” he told the Beacon Journal. “I screamed for mercy, but to no avail.”
Newspapers across the country carried stories about “the poison picnic.” Fearing a lynch mob, deputies moved Shank to Pulaski County Jail in Little Rock for safekeeping.
Shank’s wife, Geraldine, couldn’t believe it when she got a phone call from Arkansas. Her husband had left a note saying he was going to St. Louis.
“I will be back in a few days,” he wrote Aug. 11.
She took a train to Little Rock and barely recognized the bruised, haggard, unshaven inmate in torn clothes.
“Go back to Akron and forget me,” he told her. “This is all so useless. I haven’t a chance. I’ll never see Akron again.”
Geraldine Shank sold her diamond wedding ring to help pay for her husband’s defense.
“There is no foundation to think that Mark did this terrible thing,” she told newspaper reporters. “He loathed picnics.”
In Summit County, Shank was prominent. He and his wife lived in a large home in Coventry Township and owned 10 acres at Lockwood Corners.
When Kenmore was a separate village, Shank was elected justice of the peace. He later ran for Kenmore mayor and solicitor, but lost the elections.
As president of the Kenmore Kiwanis Club, Shank led a committee that started a $1,500 fund to buy milk for needy children.
A shadow fell, though, when he lost most of his $70,000 fortune in a bank collapse in the Depression. Colleagues said Shank developed a temper and often erupted in violent, profanity-laced tirades.
Shank had represented Colley, a former Akron truck driver, in a personal injury lawsuit. Investigators believed the lawyer enlisted Colley in a $500 scheme to steal evidence from the Wooster prosecutor’s office to clear another client.
After the theft, Shank persuaded Colley to drive his family to Arkansas to hide out. Authorities theorized Shank traveled south to kill Colley because he “knew too much.”
Kenmore Drug Co. clerk Milton E. Bryant helped crack the case when he showed police a July 29 receipt proving Shank bought 120 grains of strychnine July 29.
“He said he wanted it to kill some rats,” Bryant said.
Shank came unhinged in his Arkansas jail cell. He said he didn’t remember buying poison. Then he admitted pouring it in paper cups before serving grape juice at the picnic.
“Out of my mind — that’s what I was when I killed Colley and his wife and his two sons,” he said.
Indicted on four counts of murder and one of assault with intent to kill, Shank pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
A carnival atmosphere prevailed outside Saline County Courthouse in Benton, Ark., when the trial began Nov. 27. A brass band supplied music, and vendors sold refreshments.
More than 700 people packed the courtroom, causing the floor to buckle.
Shank sat at the trial table, leaning on his wife’s shoulder, mumbling constantly and looking down. The defense claimed Shank was “a blithering idiot” who had delusions of persecution and a long family history of mental illness.
Prosecutor Millar Halbert countered: “We know Shank is sane, and we are going to go through with his trial and prove him to be sane.”
Clyde in courtroom
The courtroom took notice when little Clyde Colley sat down at a table across from Shank. The boy kept busy by drawing. Shank refused to look.
For five days, the 12-man jury listened to testimony in the hot courtroom. The evidence was damning. Shank mumbled and moaned.
“Don’t you know he was and now is as crazy as can be?” defense attorney Nathan McDaniel pleaded with jurors.
Prosecutor Houston Emery urged the panel to convict Shank of first-degree murder.
“Come forth like men with nerve,” he told them.
The jury deliberated for more than nine hours, gathering twice for a group prayer, before reaching its verdict.
Geraldine Shank fainted at the word “guilty.” Her husband wept but did not speak.
Shank was sentenced to die Feb. 2, 1934, but won four reprieves. He slipped deeper into a catatonic state, barely acknowledging his wife when she visited. Her health became so frail that she could no longer make the trip from Ohio.
After appeals were exhausted, the execution was scheduled for March 8, 1935, at Tucker Prison Farm in Arkansas. On the eve of his death, Shank snapped out of his delirium, walked around, chatted with guards and wrote a few letters. He requested cake as his final meal.
The Rev. Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest, arrived at Shank’s cell 90 minutes before execution and accompanied him to the death house. Shank was dressed in a white shirt and white trousers.
Shank received a telegram from his wife in the last hour. The message was kept private.
More than 50 witnesses watched as Shank was strapped into the electric chair. Asked if he had any final words, Shank mumbled a prayer.
Then five jolts came in rapid succession. Doctors pronounced him dead at 7:12 a.m.
“He was entirely calm and reconciled,” Keller said. “His only regret and concern was the humiliation of his family.”
Funeral in Kent
Three days later, Geraldine Shank wore a black dress and heavy veil as 25 relatives and friends gathered in Kent for a graveside service at St. Patrick Cemetery, which is now part of Standing Rock Cemetery.
Meanwhile, Clyde Colley, 5, played at his new home in Creston. His aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Crow, had adopted the orphan.
“There’s no use asking us anything about Clyde,” Crow told a visiting reporter. “We don’t want any more publicity about him and, anyway, he gets nervous when anything is said about it. We want him to forget the past.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.