Grave Story: Theodore Turner (1892-1958)

Here lies Ted Turner, who pitched one game for the Chicago Cubs in 1920. After that, his life was a wild series of robberies, housebreaking, prison escapes and the occasional murder. As far as I can tell, the story of his baseball and criminal careers has never been properly told. So let’s dig into the life and crimes of Theodore Turner.

Theodore Holtop Turner was born in Lawrenceburg, Ky., on May 4, 1892, son of Robert and Mary (Parnell) Turner. There were ten children in the family. The 1900 Federal Census called Robert Turner a “farm laborer.” Kentucky newspapers called him “one of the most hardened criminals in the state.”

Robert Lee Turner was also known as “Turkey Bob” Turner, so named for his penchant of stealing poultry, as well as other livestock. His fowl play (I couldn’t resist) led him to several prison terms. He was convicted in 1912 for stealing chickens and sentenced from one to eight years. That wasn’t his first brush with the law, as he admitted he’d been jailed once before for using intoxicants. He was also arrested in 1913 for stealing chickens and tried to cut his throat and injure himself with a piece of tin before the arresting officer restrained him. He was pardoned halfway through a six-month prison sentence and arrested again for stealing chickens in 1916 in Lexington.

In that 1916 arrest, Turkey Bob pleaded ignorance to the crime when asked about it by a reporter. He had a small crater behind his right ear where he said he had been operated on for cancer. He said his doctor had only given him two months to live, so he had no reason to deny the crime.

Robert Lee Turner died in 1943 at the age of 86, incidentally.

Theodore Turner’s grave in Lexington Cemetery, Kentucky.

Theodore Turner, meanwhile, had taken to baseball as a career choice. He made his professional debut playing for the Lexington Colts of the Blue Grass League in 1912. Statistics for the year are unavailable, but he lost a 5-4 game to Paris on August 3 despite playing well. “The locals could not hit Turner very successfully, but their hits came at the time when they were most needed,” reported The Bourbon News of Paris.

Turner spent three years playing in Ohio and won 13 games for the Springfield Reapers of the Central League in 1914. There were also incidents where a Theodore Turner got involved into legal disputes – a charge for larceny here, shooting someone in the leg there. There is nothing to indicate that it was the same Theodore Turner, and if it was, it didn’t slow his baseball career. Until 1916.

Turner won a career-high 21 games for the Evansville Evas in 1916, with a 2.32 record in 240 innings pitched. One of those wins was a one-hitter that was widely covered in the Kentucky newspapers, and one of the people who read about his triumph was Deputy Sheriff Ben Freckman of Lexington. As it so happened, there was an outstanding warrant for Turner in Lexington related to a theft earlier in the year. Turner had been charged along with Charles White in March in the robbery of Charles Gilbert, after Gilbert was relieved of a gold watch, diamond pin and some money. Freckman wired the Evansville authorities to hold Turner until the Lexington policeman could fetch him.

Given that Turner pitched in 43 games for Evansville in 1916 and another 35 in 1917, it doesn’t seem likely that Turner was convicted on that particular charge. He ran out of luck soon enough, though. His record dropped to 9-14 for the Evas in 1917, and he was one of eight people arrested for a series of break-ins in Lexington in the spring of the year. A tobacco store, a grocery store and several wholesale houses were hit in the spree. Police searched the Turner family house and found quantities of tobacco, cigars, candy, cigarettes, chewing gum, butter, eggs and three hams. Turner’s brother Wesley also was arrested but later released. However, Wesley was later arrested on charges of knowingly receiving stolen property.

Actually, 1917 was a bad one for the whole Turner family. Robert Turner was convicted of chicken stealing (again), along with his wife Mary (knowingly receiving stolen property) and son John (housebreaking). I can’t speak about Mary, John and Wesley, but Robert and Theodore both confessed to grand larceny and were sentenced to a year in prison. Father and son at least had a chance to bond in the Scott County prison, as they were baptized by Rev. Ira M. Bosswell, using a prison bathtub as a baptismal font.

As Turner spent most of 1918 in prison, it’s questionable if he was around for the birth of his second child. Elmer “Buddy” Turner was born on January 25 to Ted and Mamie (Oatson) Turner. Their eldest son, Walter “Tootsie” Turner, was born on August 9, 1912.

Turner returned to baseball in 1919 after his release from prison. He appeared briefly with the Toledo Mud Hens but did the bulk of his pitching with the Bloomington Bloomers of the Three-I League. Baseball Reference doesn’t list a won-loss record, but he did post a 1.92 ERA in 39 games. The Chicago Cubs, who either didn’t know or didn’t care about his past, acquired him from Bloomington for $2,500. Immediately, Roger Bresnahan, president of the Toledo Mud Hens, claimed that they, not the Bloomers, were owed the money for Turner’s services.

As it turned out, Toledo had “loaned” Turner to Bloomington to avoid the rule that prevented teams from farming out players. Go figure that a transaction involving Turner would involve some rule-breaking. But the Cubs got their man and started the 1920 season with him on their roster.

Twenty-seven year-old Turner made his one and only MLB appearance on April 20, 1920, in a 10-3 shellacking by the St. Louis Cardinals. Cubs starter Chippy Gaw made the only start of his career, gave up 2 runs in the first inning and allowed the first two batters of the second inning to reach base on singles. Gaw was removed, and manager Fred Mitchell brought in Turner with 2 on and nobody out. He walked Burt Shotton to load the bases. Cliff Heathcoate hit a fly ball to left field, and left fielder Bernie Friberg gunned the ball to home plate and nail Verne Clemons, who was trying to score. Turner retired Milt Stock on another fly to left field to get out of the inning.

In his second inning of work, he retired Rogers Hornsby on a fly to center field before allowing back-to-back triples by Jack Fournier and Austin McHenry. Mitchell yanked Turner and brought in Speed Martin, who promptly allowed McHenry to score on a fielder’s choice. That run was charged to Turner, leaving him with a 13.50 ERA in 1-1/3 innings of work. He walked a batter and gave up 2 hits.

The Cubs returned Turner to Toledo on May 15. “Turner has much stuff but has to learn to tame it,” reported the Chicago Tribune. It’s not clear that Turner ever reported to Toledo. Baseball Reference puts him on the roster of Indianapolis, another team in the American Association, but there are no statistics available. His professional career ended after that season.

Being out of baseball left Turner without a steady source of income. He possibly returned to Bourbon County in Kentucky to help support his family, after Turkey Bob’s latest arrest for stealing chickens left him with a two-year prison sentence. But before long, Turner went back to his old bad habits. So much for the bathtub baptism changing his ways.

The Weiskopf Distillery in Midway, Ky., was robbed on April 28, 1923. Ten men, including Turner, were charged with violating national prohibition laws in June. He and six others were found guilty and sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

Turner was released from prison in 1925 and was arrested almost immediately, along with his brother Wesley. The two were nabbed on August 15 at Wesley Turner’s house at 415 West Pine Street, where a “quantity of rare wines and cordials” were found by prohibition officers. The liquor had been stolen from the cellar of Desha Breckinridge, editor of The Lexington Herald. The brothers denied stealing the liquor, but Theodore Turner admitted to transporting it to Wesley’s house. He refused to admit how he got the goods, not wanting to incriminate the “higher-ups” who engineered the robbery.

Wesley Turner, by the way, narrowly avoided a long prison sentence earlier in the year when he was thrown in jail for alleged public intoxication, wrested a pistol away from a jailer and shot to death Wayne Grigsby, a moonshiner and fellow inmate. He was acquitted after explaining he had been to the dentist earlier that day, was given a shot of opiates that left him so disoriented that he didn’t know what he had done.

I couldn’t find a picture of Turner from his playing days, but I did find a mug shot. Source: The Courier-Journal, April 2, 1931.

Theodore, meanwhile, was given a three-year sentence for housebreaking (either for the Breckinridge robbery or some other unspecified incident), though he must have been granted clemency at some point. We know this because he was in Cincinnati in 1928 when his criminal career took a dark turn.

The Greater Cincinnati Police Museum does a wonderful job of telling about the life of Merchant Policeman Albert Doyle, who was working his beat at 2:20 am on November 4, 1928 when he saw a suspicious vehicle parked in front of the Herman Jacobs & Co. clothing store:

“He approached the car and found two men trying to pry open a rear door near Dayton Street. Policeman Doyle drew his revolver, but a lookout he had not seen, standing in the shadows near the Citizens Bank and Trust Company, shot him in the back. Though wounded and falling, Policeman Doyle turned and shot five times at the lookout. The lookout continued shooting and the burglars shot at the officer. Doyle believed that he struck the lookout once. Otherwise, none of the shots took effect in any direction.

“The shooters jumped into the auto and sped away. Newport Police hastened to the scene and called an ambulance that took Policeman Doyle to St. Elizabeth Hospital with a bullet lodged in his abdomen.”

Doyle died from his injuries on November 7. He was 44 years old and left behind a wife and three children under four years old. Police followed the leads and eventually indicted Foreman Price, Herman “Gerky” Finan and Theodore Turner for the murder. By the time the police had identified the killers, all three had already been arrested for other crimes. Turner and Price were in the Jefferson County Jail in Louisville. Turner had been convicted for housebreaking in Paris, Ky., and as a “habitual offender,” he was sentenced to life in prison.

None of the three were ever prosecuted for the murder of Policeman Doyle.

Turner swore that he would never serve time in a penitentiary, and he didn’t stay in prison long. On June 1, he, along with his cohort Price and prisoners Tom Crawford and Brown Olivan broke out of their Louisville jail by sawing through the bars of a window and climbing down a rope made of bedsheets that they tied together. Turner managed to avoid capture for almost five months before police found him hiding out at his father’s house at 131 North Shelby Street in Louisville.

Turner had dyed his light brown hair black and had grown a mustache. He went peacefully, all the while protesting his innocence, Eventually, he confessed and admitted he had spent most of his time in Madison, Ind., where he “worked and rambled.” At the time of his arrest, he had been working as a truck driver for a packing company in the area.

Turner was sent to the reformatory in Lexington to serve out his life sentence – his appeal had been denied. While he was incarcerated, tragedy struck his family. His oldest son, Walter, had been injured in a car accident on April 21 when a car in which he was riding left the road and crashed into a ditch. Walter and his Uncle Robert escaped that accident with nothing but cuts and bruises. A week later on April 28, Walter Turner was driving home from the hospital with his family in the car when he collided with another vehicle driven by H.R. Douglas. Elmer Turner, 12, suffered a fractured skull and was killed almost instantly. Walter Turner, 18, died a day later from internal injuries. Mamie Turner, the boys’ mother, suffered serious injuries, and the doctors didn’t tell her of her sons’ deaths for fear the news would kill her. Mamie Turner’s brother and sister-in-law were in the car and injured as well. Douglas was charged with manslaughter.

A little more than a year later, Theodore Turner was in the news once more. The headlines on January 1, 1931 read, “FORMER BALL STAR FLEES REFORMATORY.” He was on the loose again.

“Theodore Turner, 38, former major league baseball pitcher, and John Daugherty, Alias Callahan and Donovan, Kentucky convicts, escaped from the reformatory here, police learned today,” read the news. “The two men scaled a wall to gain their freedom, officials of the reformatory said. Although they escaped Monday (December 29), the break was not revealed by officials until today.”

Daugherty had been serving a life sentence for the murder of a policeman and previously had served time in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The two men were caught in a Louisville rooming house on April 1, 1931, having been fugitives for a little over three months. Police Capt. Edwin Parr had received a tip that the two had taken up residence at the rooming house. He stationed guards around the house and entered with two other officers.

Daughterty was coming down the stairs when the police were coming up them. They didn’t recognize him, but any chance Daugherty had of escape was ruined when the police ordered him to return to the second floor. Another boarder told the police where Turner was, and they shoved Daugherty ahead of them as they burst inside. Daughterty freed his pistol and Turner reached for his, but they were outnumbered and surrendered.

Turner, at the time of his arrest, was carrying a pistol, a fuse, dynamite caps and a bottle of fluid. “Is this soup?” the police asked him, using a slang term for nitroglycerin. “Better handle it carefully,” Turner replied.

Daugherty was understandably surly upon his re-arrest. Turner, on the other hand, took it well and even kidded his partner for his bad attitude. “I don’t mind going back because any time I want to I can walk out,” Turner said. That was how he described his latest breakout, incidentally. “I just walked out.”

Either breaking out of prison a third time proved to be too difficult, or Kentucky prison guards kept a closer eye on Turner. Either way, he remained a guest of the Bluegrass State until Acting Kentucky Governor Edwin C. Dawson granted Yuletide paroles to 54 prisoners of the La Grange Prison Farm and the Eddyville Penitentiary on December 14, 1938. Turner, who had been in jail since March of 1929 (give or take a few months with his various escapes), was one of the lucky ones to walk away a free man. Lesson learned, he stayed on the straight and narrow.

Just kidding. Four men were arrested on vagrancy charges in Lexington on March 24, 1941 and were suspected of being a part of a nationwide safe-cracking operation. They were W.S. Sewell, Theodore Turner, James Turner and Thomas Turner. The latter two were presumably either brothers or cousins of Theodore. Sewell was also charged with possessing burglary tools. W.H. Sewell later was identified by police as Eddie Ralston, who was wanted in Orlando, Fla., for stealing cash and gems. The three Turners were held under $5,000 bond for vagrancy, but it does not appear that they were connected to any nationwide crime spree.

After that incident, Turner either got better at avoiding police, or he kept his nose clean. His World War II draft card lists his residence in Lexington and his employer as a W.M. Parrish on Glenn Ave. His occupation on his death certificate was “laborer.”

Ted Turner died on February 4, 1958 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Ky., from pneumonia. He was 65 years old. He is buried in Lexington Cemetery. The two brief obituaries I found of Turner mentioned that he played ball in the old Blue Grass League, and one mis-identified him as pitching for the Cincinnati Redlegs. Neither one made any mention of the 38 years between his ballplaying days and his death.

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4 thoughts on “Grave Story: Theodore Turner (1892-1958)

  1. This all fits in with the whitewashed family legends. Stories handed down linked Ted Turner with the Purple Gang, but it seems doubtful that Detroit’s Purple Gang and Ted had much in common except being neer do wells.
    Towards the end of his ‘reformed’ life, he was a guard at the Castlewood Park pool (Lexington KY). He routinely unlocked a gate so that his young great nephew could avoid paying the $0.35 entry fee.
    The employer listed on his death certificate is a nephew, William Nebuchadnezzar (WN) Parrish.


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