Getting Away with Murder: The Life of Charles W. Austin Jr.

By Alicia M. Bertrand, M.A.

The following is a case study into the life of Charles William Austin Jr.[1] A boy who would be arrested, convicted, and acquitted along with his co-worker for the murder of their boss. Using newspaper accounts and government documentation, census, and death certificates, the murder case is explored. The life Austin led after his release from prison is detailed. Whether his poor treatment of his wives was due to the mental effects of solitary confinement or not, we will never know. However, his life is an interesting look into one man’s brush with life imprisonment and how one carries on with life afterwards. Judge for yourself whether you believe he was guilty or innocent of murder, what you really think was going on at the DeLisle house, and leave your comments below.

On April 3, 1904, Charles Jr. was born to Charles William Austin and Anna May (née Tildsley) in Clinton County, Michigan, USA. He and his 8 siblings, Hazel (my great-grandmother), her twin Dazel, Florence, Helen, Asa, Marland, Robert, and Theodore moved around with their parents from Clinton County to Pontiac, then to Wayne County. The relocations were likely due to Charles Sr.’s employment in auto factories and shipyards over the years.

In 1921, 18-year-old Austin worked at Paul DeLisle’s slaughterhouse in Flint, Michigan. 47-year-old DeLisle was a “wealthy” meat wholesaler.[2] On Thanksgiving, Austin stole $180, along with his co-worker, 17-year-old Clifford Thorpe who stole $43 from DeLisle’s home office at 330 W 12th St. DeLisle soon learned of the theft and told the two boys that he would have them arrested.[3]

On December 10th, the boys went into DeLisle’s cattle barn and grabbed a bottle of carbolic acid.[4] After they watched 23-year-old Hazel Rosenberger, Austin’s sister and DeLisle’s housekeeper, leave the house they kept watch for DeLisle and allegedly mixed the carbolic acid into a beer bottle. Thorpe then went into DeLisle’s office and asked him if he wanted something to drink and mentioned that there was a beer in the cupboard (during Prohibition, DeLisle had a “secret cupboard” to hide alcohol). After DeLisle drank from the bottle, he sat in his office at his desk. DeLisle soon succumbed to carbolic acid poisoning in his office chair. When police arrived at the DeLisle residence, Austin and Thorpe were amongst the crowd that had gathered outside. There are two different accounts of the boys’ actions. The “confession” the boys gave to police stated that they had hung around the premises and waited for DeLisle to die, then went to the neighbour to call the police. Thorpe’s testimony in court was that he watched an already drunk DeLisle consume the illegal moonshine from the beer bottle, and when he learned that DeLisle had died, he ran to Fannie DeLisle (Paul’s mother) to alert her. When the police asked the boys why they did not call the police themselves, they answered that they did not know how to operate the telephone.

When they first arrived on the scene, the police assumed that DeLisle died from the whiskey moonshine being tampered with by bootleggers. Police held 16-year-old Helen Austin, Austin’s sister, 25-year-old Robert Tabbe, and 40-year-old Frank Ackerman, who frequent the DeLisle residence and area, for questioning. Lloyd Lash was arrested for breaking Prohibition Law for the whiskey he provided to DeLisle.[5] However, once they had taken Austin and Thorpe into custody and given them “a grilling”, confessions were made.[6] In a “regular” modern case, the underage suspects would not have been interrogated without a parent or lawyer present. Nor would confessions made under duress or coercion be admissible in court.[7] In court, the pair claimed that the police forced the confessions.[8]

Austin’s sister, Hazel, was questioned by police. Although she would later provide a positive character statement to the court to attempt to aid her brother, she incriminated him. She told police that her brother had threatened harm to her on numerous occasions when she was going to tell their mother he had bought a hunting knife.[9] She likely had no idea that he would be arrested for their boss’ murder and that any violent characterization could be damning in court.

Two days after DeLisle’s death, 17-year-old Maurice Wickham filed a report with police in which he alleged Austin and Thorpe tried to get him to drink from the carbolic acid-laced beer bottle. He told police he had “heard that there was drinking going on at DeLisle’s, and I went over and kidded Clifford and Austin about it. I asked if I could have some.”[10] He stated that both Austin and Thorpe only placed the bottle to their lips, not consuming the drink. When he held it to his lips, he could smell the carbolic acid. Did Wickham know exactly what carbolic acid smelled like? Why did he specify that he knew there was carbolic acid in it? He could have told police that it smelled “off”. He told police he felt insulted and surprised that Thorpe, who he said was his best friend, would offer him a poisoned drink. The offer of the drink to a friend may lead some to believe that Austin and Thorpe did not know that the carbolic acid mixed with whiskey would kill DeLisle. Perhaps if they did mix carbolic acid in the whiskey, they thought it would harm him, and their friend, not be lethal. The introduction of Wickham and the pressure to drink from the bottle disrupts the argument that it was pre-meditated murder. However, his testimony discredits Austin and Thorpe’s testimonies that DeLisle died of alcohol poisoning, not from carbolic acid.

The jury had a difficult decision to make. They would deliberate for hours on end only to be forced back into the deliberation room when they could not come to an agreement.[11] On March 17, 1922, the jury in Judge Fred W. Brennan’s court found Austin and Thorpe guilty of first-degree murder.[12] Under Michigan law at the time, premeditated murder in the first degree meant that both boys were sentenced to life “in solitary confinement and at hard labour.”[13] Austin’s mother, Anna, was reported to stand up, run through the mob of people out the courthouse doors and screamed, then collapsed. His sister Hazel also fainted. [14] Thorpe was sent to Jackson prison, while Austin was sent to Marquette prison. Thorpe’s incarceration at 17 years old made him the youngest prisoner at Jackson prison at this time.

[Photo of Charles Austin in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Sunday, May 20, 1923, pg. 9; and.]
[Marquette prison, c. 1912. Source: William H Israel, Souvenir of Negaunee, Michigan.]
[Clifford Thorpe in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Tuesday, December 13, 1921, pg. 13]
[Jackson Prison, photo from The Jackson District Library]

Upon appeal, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial for both Austin and Thorpe. During Austin’s second trial, Ivan Turner and Lester Adams both testified that DeLisle’s residence was frequented by the teenage boys employed at the slaughterhouse to drink illegal alcohol. Turner claimed that DeLisle would offer the teenagers moonshine for free. DeLisle would get the boys so drunk that Adams said that the Thanksgiving when Austin and Thorpe stole money from DeLisle, he “crawled in behind the cook stove, where the DeLisle dog generally slept, and lay down” and as he was falling asleep, he saw “Austin unconscious on the floor from drinking the stuff [moonshine].”[15] Thorpe testified at Austin’s second trial that he and Austin did not kill DeLisle, but that DeLisle had drunk too much illegal moonshine. Austin then testified that he and Thorpe had been beaten by police officers and forced to sign confessions.[16]

The Supreme Court determined that Judge Brennan had told the jury to find the two boys either guilty of first-degree murder or acquit them. The absence of the option of manslaughter or a lesser crime meant that the “charge was incorrect”.[17] On March 19, 1923, after two years in prison, Austin was acquitted. The jury in his re-trial took 21 hours to deliberate.[18] The courtroom celebrated so loudly that the Detroit Free Press reported John Chapple nearly broke his gavel trying to call for order in the court. The audience members congratulated Austin and his lawyer Charles Withey.[19] On May 21st, Thorpe was also acquitted.[20]

[Battle Creek Enquirer (Battle Creek, Michigan), Sunday, May 20, 1923, pg. 1.]

Austin’s life would not be so easy once he was set free from prison. We can never be sure what mental or physical effects solitary confinement had on Austin. We can also never be sure whether he did in fact plan and murder his boss, regardless of his acquittal in court. He went on to marry, have children, run his own business, and move states to possibly escape his old life in Michigan.

Austin’s first marriage was to Elizabeth DeBoer on July 2, 1923, in Flint, Michigan. They had a son, Charles William Austin III on October 11, 1924. He was only four months old when Elizabeth filed for divorce on March 3, 1925. She cited the reason for divorce as “extreme cruelty and non-support”. The divorce was granted on June 1925.[21]

He wasted no time marrying again. On October 19, 1925, he married divorcée Jessie May Thornton in Mt. Morris, Michigan. In the 1930 US Census, the family dynamic shows either one of economic necessity or a co-parenting blended family. In 1930, 27-year-old Austin, his 31-year-old wife Jessie, her 15-year-old daughter Garnet, her 14-year-old daughter Verma, and her ex-husband, the girls’ father, 44-year-old William Judd, lived at 3414 Cassins St. in Flint, Michigan.[22] It does not seem like a common living situation for the time. Perhaps the situation was difficult to live with, because on July 11, 1932, Jessie filed for divorce. She cited cruelty and non-support as the reason.[23]

Although I reviewed city directories in Michigan and North Dakota, I was unable to find what year Austin moved from Michigan to North Dakota. He married Cora Ruland on September 18, 1937, in Stanley, North Dakota.[24] He was 33 and she was 21. In the 1940 U.S. Census, Austin, Cora, their two-year-old daughter Carolyn, and one-month-old daughter Cathleen live in Sanish, North Dakota. He worked as a plasterer in construction. His World War II draft card was registered on October 16, 1940.[25] There was no documentation that proves Austin saw active duty.[26] It was around this time that the family moved to Tacoma, Washington for seven years before they returned to Sanish.

Austin and Cora had another daughter, Rosemary, in 1946, and a son named Charles in 1949. Perhaps because he had not had any contact with his firstborn Charles since he and Elizabeth divorced 24 years prior, he could name another son Charles.[27] They had another son, Jeffery, in 1956.

The family would have been part of the evacuees to New Town when the Garrison Dam was built and flooded what was once Sanish.[28] Austin continued to run his own business as a plasterer throughout the decades in New Town. He died on May 19, 1981, in Stanley Hospital, New Town, North Dakota.[29] He was buried in Riverside Cemetery with a simple grave marker.

[Charles William Austin plot stone. Photo from]

Regardless of whether he was guilty or innocent of his employer’s murder, Charles W. Austin Jr. lived for 77 years across three U.S. states and had five children and three wives. His descendants can read about his stint in prison and judge for themselves whether they believe he was guilty or innocent, as every reader here will likely do. The court acquitted him and his friend Clifford Thorpe of murder. He was able to live a full life when Paul DeLisle could not. Paul DeLisle did not seem like an angel either, but whether he died by alcohol poisoning or carbolic acid, only the autopsy results could tell. Although his stomach contents were sent to the University of Michigan, there was no mention of the chemicals in his system in newspaper accounts from the trial. For two young men to be in solitary confinement during their incarceration, it would be no surprise if their mental health was affected.


[1] Charles William Austin Jr. is my great-granduncle. His sister, Hazel, is my great-grandmother.

[2] The DeLisle family began the meat grocery business with Paul’s father, Gregory. In 1921, Paul and his brothers Frank, Gregory Jr, and Louis all worked in the meat industry. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database online]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011; Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) Monday, December 12, 1921, pg. 1; Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics; Lansing, Michigan; Death Records, File Number: 000807.

[3] Albuquerque Morning Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Monday, December 12, 1921, pg. 1; Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Monday, December 12, 1921, pg. 1.

[4] Carbolic acid was used as a disinfectant. In 1917, the Pennsylvania State College of Agriculture Bulletin #123 stated that carbolic acid was an ingredient to be used to disinfect a barn’s walls and other surfaces. Laverton Mercury, Jul 28, 1917, (Laverton, Western Australia, Australia), pg. 4.

[5] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Tuesday, December 13, 1921, pg. 1.

[6] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Monday, December 12, 1921, pg. 3.

[7] James R. Snell, Jr., “What if I Confessed to a Crime While Under Duress?”, Law Office of James R. Snell Jr. LLC, October 5, 2016.

[8] Battle Creek Enquirer (Battle Creek, Michigan), Wednesday, March 08, 1922, pg. 3.

[9] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Tuesday, December 13, 1921, pg. 1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For example, on March 7th, the jury deliberated for 21 hours and could not come to an agreement. Lansing State Journal (Lansing, Michigan) Tuesday, March 07, 1922, pg. 1.

[12] Clare Courier, (Clare, Clare County, Michigan), 17 March 1922, pg. 6.

[13] The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), Wednesday, March 15, 1922, pg. 1.

[14] Battle Creek Enquirer (Battle Creek, Michigan), Wednesday, March 08, 1922, pg. 3.

[15] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Thursday, May 17, 1923, pg. 1.

[16] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Friday, May 18, 1923, pg. 17.

[17] The Times Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) Friday, March 23, 1923, pg. 11.

[18] Lansing State Journal (Lansing, Michigan), Saturday, May 19, 1923, pg. 1.

[19] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Sunday, May 20, 1923, pg. 9.

[20] Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), Tuesday, May 22, 1923, pg. 4.

[21] Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics; Lansing, Michigan; Michigan. Divorce records, State File Number: 25 709, Docket Number: 13269.

[22] 1930 U.S. Census, Year: 1930; Census Place: Flint, Genesee, Michigan; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0066; FHL microfilm: 2340721

[23] Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics; Lansing, Michigan; Michigan. Divorce records, State File Number: 25 5162, Docket Number: 21800

[24] Publication Date: 1/Jul/2012; Publication Place: Minot, North Dakota, USA; URL:

[25] National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; WWII Draft Registration Cards For North Dakota, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 173

[26] His death certificate says he was not part of the armed forces. North Dakota Department of Health; Bismark, North Dakota; North Dakota Death Records, Certificate Number: 81-002241.

[27] United States of America, Bureau of the Census; Washington, D.C.; Seventeenth Census of the United States, 1950; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790-2007; Record Group Number: 29; Residence Date: 1950; Home in 1950: Sanish, Mountrail, North Dakota; Roll: 3781; Sheet Number: 6; Enumeration District: 31-44

[28] Troy Larson, “Sanish Rises from Beneath the Waves”, Ghosts of North Dakota, January 5, 2017,

[29] North Dakota Department of Health; Bismark, North Dakota; North Dakota Death Records, Certificate Number: 81-002241.


Published by AncestryByAlicia

After obtaining my Master of Arts degree in History, and working on my genealogy for over 13 years, I decided to write about interesting historical matters from not only my family, but other interesting tidbits as well. I also research and present free walking tours in my city, including "Haunted Oshawa" and "Murder and Mayhem in Oshawa." I am currently writing two books. One is a historical account of small-town murders in Ontario. The other is a historical novel about the Royal African Company's James Fort on the Gambia River, 1715-1740.

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