John Shearer: Remembering The Forgotten 1927 Local Kidnapping, Part 2 – The Rest Of The Story

Friday, May 13, 2022 - by John Shearer

Last week I found myself at the Chattanooga Public Library looking through some old 1927 Chattanooga Times newspaper articles on the local kidnapping of 2-year-old Virginia Josephine Frazier and her safe return to her family.

While seemingly unconnected to the Chattanooga of 2022, it had come to the forefront because the child, who went on to become Mrs. Virginia Jo Frazier Gilman, died just this past May 2 in her late 90s. And the family had mentioned the incident in her obituary along with the large amount of news attention it received at the time.

That led me to write my part 1 story.

In my research of this horrific crime of long ago, I saw where three people were being held in connection with it the day after her safe return in late March of that year. I also found references to two more arrests and one serious sentencing of one of the latter pair.

As a result, since I had already been at the library nearly two hours and my parking meter was about to expire, I decided to stop my research there. That afternoon, I wrote a story summarizing that news-making event while focusing primarily on the roughly four days she was missing.

The next morning after the story was posted, someone emailed me wondering what happened to the first three people who were held for questioning – Frank Baskett, Mrs. Anna Thomison and live-in house helper Ms. Johnnie Peale. By then, I had started wondering, too. Never leave questions for the readers is one of the basic rules of journalism I have learned, even though that is sometimes hard to avoid.

So, in the spirit of Paul Harvey, I went searching for the rest of the story, as he wanted people to know in his popular syndicated radio segments of yesteryear. While I did not find everything I wanted to know, I did find plenty of information on the arrests in the grainy pages of the old Times newspapers, an aspect of this story that to me was maybe even more interesting than the previous part.

About a day after Virginia Jo’s safe return after being left at the residence of the Rev. Joseph Venable after a ransom was paid by her father, City Commissioner and lawyer Fred B. Frazier, the three people mentioned were being held by authorities.

And then more than a week after that, 17-year-old (or possibly 19-year-old) Lewis Willis (who was also known as Louis in some stories) was arrested along with his 13-year-old brother, Arthur, and confessed.

In the days when the reporter or reporters apparently sat in on the police confessions or had access to the accused, Lewis Willis said he had come up with the idea of the kidnapping while in New York and watching movies at the theater. Perhaps he had seen some newsreels.

Authorities said he had done some yard work for the Fraziers at their home at 701 Greenwood Ave. in Highland Park the previous summer. Authorities said he had also done some janitorial work at the Main Street School and at Erlanger.

He said that when he kidnapped the child, he saw a window open on that late March night and climbed through it and hid in the home’s basement until everyone went to sleep. After he took the young Virginia Jo that night from the same room where her older brother, French, also slept, he took her to his now-razed home at 1018 E. Third St. across from Erlanger Hospital.

He and his younger brother kept the child in the home’s attic, and Mr. Willis told his mother he was working a night shift job when he would be up in the attic with the small child allegedly calming and amusing her by singing to her. He reportedly fed her milk and crackers during this time.

When he had sent a note requesting $3,333 in ransom money – a random figure he said he came up with for no reason – he met Mr. Frazier in a dark alley near the intersection of McCallie and Central avenues, an alley that is apparently still there.

Since Commissioner Frazier might recognize him because the young man had worked for him, Mr. Willis wore a mask of some sort when Commissioner Frazier gave him the money in $20 bills. But the serial numbers on the bills were recorded, and thus the search for the kidnapper began.

Not telling the family where he was going to put the baby, Mr. Willis had sat the child on the porch of the First Presbyterian Church’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph G. Venable, at 921 Vine St. while his younger brother served as his lookout.

The older Mr. Willis told authorities he simply sat the young child on that porch because he saw a light on and knew someone was home and would quickly answer the doorbell and see the baby and return it to the Fraziers. After all, the whole town knew about the incident, as did people in other cities.

Mrs. Venable was apparently the one who answered the doorbell.

As Mr. Willis began to spend the money at such places as a pharmacy near Erlanger, police began to learn where he had been trading.

Saying he read in the Times that he was being followed due to the marked bills, Mr. Willis said in his confession that he decided to go up to Cincinnati by “hoboing” his way up there. He stayed there a few days before coming back to Chattanooga.

In what was apparently some good police work, local police detective Charlie Taylor eventually tracked Mr. Willis down to his residence and arrested him and his brother.

Authorities later learned that he had not given as much money to his brother for helping as he had promised him.

After the young men were arrested, the other three were found to have had nothing to do with the crime and they were let free. Perhaps because a ransom note had been signed “Frank,” they pointed to Mr. Baskett, since he had gotten upset over Commissioner Frazier not helping him get back on the local police force, as chronicled in the first story.

Nowadays, being held and wrongly accused might result in more civil ligation than probably existed in 1927.

The older brother, Lewis Willis, was the ringleader and was apparently a bad influence on the younger brother. While those two were black and the three originally held were white, this crime apparently had nothing to do with race, and the city of Chattanooga seemed to focus strictly on the crime and not any skin color, other than to call them Negro as was common in newspapers at that time.

As bad as the crime was, Lewis Willis – who apparently had gone to Sunday school at First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street as a child -- did not allow himself an opportunity for positive redemption or renewal down the road. During the June 1927 hearing, he was sentenced to the maximum of 20 years plus an additional five years for two unrelated armed robberies by a Judge Lusk.

While in jail in 1933, he was involved in the killing of a jail guard during an escape attempt. He was sentenced to die, which apparently occurred in January 1936. Little information could be found on his brother.

In one hair-raising anecdote related to this case, the apparently troubled Lewis Willis had written threatening letters to the Fraziers during his incarceration and had them smuggled out of prison.

While it would be interesting to contact the family of Mrs. Gilman to really profile her entire life, and I did reach out to one person connected to the family and hope to follow up on that, the family at the time of the 1927 sentencing said Virginia Jo had already forgotten what had happened to her.

But Chattanooga would not forget for many years this troubling case that came at a time when several kidnappings of small children occurred around the country and culminated with the sad Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932.   

And it is a case that just came back to the forefront in recent days with the passing of Mrs. Gilman following an apparently rich overall life of touching others positively for nearly 100 years.

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To see the first story in this series, read here.

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