In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.Honeck, a telegraph operator and the son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 21 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges.
Certainly there are cases of prisoners who were eventually judged sane by those charged with caring for them who nonetheless remained behind bars, whether for political reasons or simply to guarantee public safety.Combine mental illness with a major crime committed in a felon’s youth, then, and you have the recipe for an exceptionally long spell inside.Being sent to a secure hospital, rather than a prison, means that a convict is likely to enjoy more comfortable conditions, or at least a considerably laxer regime, than he would do if he was in prison.But it also places him beyond the reach of the parole system, and there’s often a presumption that somebody deranged enough to have committed violent crimes might do the same again if they are ever released – irrespective of their doctors’ judgement.During the car trip from Chester to St Louis, Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.’” Honeck was met at San Francisco airport by his niece, Mrs Clara Orth, who had been alerted to his extraordinary story by Poos’s original news report.
She had quit her job to care for her uncle, selling her one-bedroom trailer home and buying another in Oregon which had two bedrooms for them (St Petersburg Orth – who was Honeck’s sister’s daughter – had some family memories to recount as well.
“There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” ( Poos got the chance to find out whether he was right when he accompanied the “sprightly” 84-year-old Honeck after his release as he was escorted to St Louis airport to catch a flight to San Francisco.
“The old man,” he wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars.
Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the papers, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from down to 25 cents.
Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife.
Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt.