Criminal Episodes; The Gorman Robbery; "Borrowing" Horses; Assassination of Cunningham; Murder of Barney Leavy; The Minert Murder; "Shoving the Queer"; An Uncle Murders His Nephew; a Postville Burglary; Fatal Stabbing Affray; A Defaulting Postmaster; Shooting of Matt. Beuscher; Other Fatal Affrays, Burglaries, Assaults, etc.

History of Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties Iowa,1882
by W. E. Alexander
Sioux City, Iowa: Western Publishing Co., 1882
Reprinted by Winneshiek County Historical Society


We have already stated that the first term of District Court held in this county was at Columbus in July, 1852, Judge Wilson presiding, though we have reason to believer that Judge Grant appeared and tried cases in vacation prior to that date, in 1850, or '51. Previous to 1849 we were attached to Clayton County for judicial purposes. At the November term, 1853, at Waukon, numerous bills were found by the grand jury against parties for assault and battery, gambling and betting, keeping gambling house, selling liquor, etc. In nearly every case the defendant was ordered to be arrested and held in $200 bonds; and at a later term they were nearly, or quite all of them discharged.

Nov. 9, 1853, Elias Topliff was indicted for official misdemeanor in the exercise of his official duties, as County Judge, arising, it is presumed, from the county seat controversy. He took a change of venue to Winneshiek County, and the case was dismissed.

The first criminal action brought to trial was on the 9th of November, 1853, "The State of Iowa vs. Grove A. Warner and James A. Davis", upon an indictment for robbery. The defendants lived at or near Merrian's Ford (now Myron), and Warner had served as clerk of the old "Commissioners' Court", was a Justice of the Peace, and we believe a shoemaker by trade. It seems that Thos. and Jerry Gorman came into possession of some $600 or $700, and in considering where to place it for safety against the time they should have occasion to use it, one of them consulted Justice Warner. That night-or some night shortly after-the Gormans were robbed of all they had about them, which happened to be only about $60, they having found a depository for the main portion of their funds. Warner skipped out, and two years later his bondsmen were mulcted in default of his appearance. Davis stood trial, was convicted of "robbery in the first degree", and sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years. S. Goodridge was prosecuting attorney, and John Laughlin, of Post, Sheriff.

Since that day our county has been cursed with her share of criminals, though it has never been her lot to witness an execution. It is impossible to give anything like a full list of the crimes that have been brought to public notice within our borders; but a brief reference to the worst and most prominent of them seems called for in a work of this character.

There was at one time a great demand in this western country for "borrowed" horses; and so great was the apparent demand that it was found necessary in this county, as well as in many others, to sometimes send out armed patrols to search the country for those who did the borrowing, that is in cases, of course, where it was done without leave. We cannot say that actual lynching was ever practiced, but certain it is that some parties were badly scared; and it is also certain that more than one desperate character was arrested and brought to justice by them, and others informed that another part of the country would doubtless prove more conducive to their health. We regret that we have not the data from which to cite instances, but there are doubtless those still living who might write an interesting chapter on this subject.

The first case of horse stealing we have run across in our researches is that of David Clark, examined in Lansing in December, 1858, and committed to the Decorah jail. His plan was said to be, after stealing an animal, to run him off and sell him, and then lie about until he got a chance to poison the horse to destroy the evidence. The grand jury found a bill against him May 25, 1859, but before he could be brought to trial he escaped from jail by nearly killing the jailer, an was never recaptured.

A remarkable case was that of Wm. Presho, a most desperate character, who was arrested for stealing horses from the livery in Waukon, we believe, in the spring of 1865. His trial came off at Lansing in June following, and on the 17th of that month he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in the Fort Madison penitentiary. Sheriff Palmer started down river with him aboard a stern wheel steamer, taking along one Dr. Hall, a man well known and highly respected, as an assistant. Late one evening Hall accompanied Presho to the stern of the boat, and both disappeared. As soon as they were missed a search was made, but neither was found, and the theory received credence for several years that both were drowned, as it was supposed that Presho had attempted to drown his guard and had gone down with him, being handcuffed at the time. Presho afterward turned up alive and sound, and his version of the affair is said to be, that after knocking Hall insensible and throwing him into the river (Hall was rather slight, while the prisoner was powerful and an excellent swimmer) he jumped over and supported himself upon a board close by the wheel, where he was concealed by a projection above and escaped discovery in the darkness when the search was made, and when the boat made her next landing he dropped into the water and got safely to the shore. Be that as it may, he escaped, and was again at his old tricks. Stealing a valuable horse somewhere in the central part of the State, he run the animal off into Minnesota and entered it in a race. The owner followed in search, passing through Waukon, and it is said discovered his horse just as it was coming victorious from the race course, having won the purse. Seeking the pretended owner, he demanded how he came by the animal, and Presho answered that he had a bill of sale which he would produce if he would accompany him to his hotel. The man did so, accompanying Presho to his room, where the latter went coolly to his trunk and taking a revolver in each hand confronted the rightful owner of the horse, declaring "there is my bill of sale, d---- you"! He then cleared out, but was pursued, and swam the Minnesota river, while several shots were fired at him from the shore he had just left. He was never apprehended, we believe, but has been seen several times since then; and it is said he ran a stock farm for several years in Nebraska or Kansas.

One of the earliest murders in the county, of which we have any account, occurred in Linton township in 1863 or 1864, the particulars being substantially as follows. It appears that a difficulty of long standing existed between one Girard Riley and a neighbor named Cunningham, and finally Riley assassinated him, lying in wait in a wood, as he passed by. The murderer had made due preparations for the awful deed, loading his gun and firing on the unsuspecting man from the rear, at a time when he least of all expected to meet his deadly enemy. He had carefully saddled a horse, and as soon as the deed was committed made good his escape from the county, as was never heard of afterward until in the winter of 1874 and 1875, when Sheriff Hewitt received a letter from one John O'Toole, at Lexington, Ky., to the effect that if he would come to Lexington he (O'Toole) would point out to him a man named Girard Riley, who committed a murder in Linton township some eleven years previous. Acting upon the request of O'Toole, the Sheriff procured from Gov. Carpenter, of this State, a requisition on the Governor of Kentucky, armed with which he started for Lexington, and was soon in communication with the writer of the letter. Judge of the indignation and astonishment of the official, when O'Toole doggedly refused to point out the whereabouts of the man, or to give any information whatever about him, unless Mr. Hewitt would pay him in cash $300. His claims were based upon a statement to the effect that he had been Riley's neighbor and friend; that he was perfectly familiar with all the circumstances and facts of the tragedy; that he was shortly afterward in communication with the murderer, and finally both settled in Kentucky. There O'Toole loaned Riley $300 to start in business. This sum he demanded back from Riley, but the fellow coolly informed his benefactor and friend that all his property was in his wife's name; that O'Toole could not make him pay it, and he refused point blank to return the money. Determined to seek revenge, he told Riley that he would yet be even with him; and in due time the letter to Sheriff Hewitt was written, and that official summoned. He stated that Riley was living under an assumed name, and was in good circumstances; that all he (O'Toole) wanted was the borrowed money, and if that was forthcoming he would at once deliver him up. The Sheriff refused to comply with this demand, but consulted with the Sheriff of Lexington County, and put him in possession of all the facts; and with the promise of all the assistance in the power of that official the case still rests.

Perhaps the most foul murder ever perpetrated in the county was that of Barney Leavy by Charles O'Neill, on Lansing Ridge, in 1860, the circumstances being as follows:

Leavy was a teamster between Lansing and Decorah, and much of the time put up at Marsden's on the Ridge. O'Neill lived not far from there on the same road. One Sunday a young man by the name of Hughes, somewhat intoxicated, was driving back and forth along the road, and stopped with a companion at Mauch's brewery for a glass of beer, where he met Leavy and got into an altercation with him, both being in a mood to indulge in pugilism. One or two Sundays after this occurrence it was being talked over at Mauch's, when Leavy, in the presence of O'Neill, declared he could whip Hughes; whereupon O'Neill, who was an old friend of young Hughes' father, with whom he had chummed in California, resented his language and hot words passed between them. At a later hour, after they had left the brewery, Leavy whipped O'Neill, who then went home and armed himself with a knife and gun, but apparently concluding that the knife would do the work the best, secreted the latter under the fence. He then proceeded to a point on the road where he knew Leavy would pass, and which was darker than elsewhere, the trees at that time meeting overhead from either side, and lay in wait behind a large stump until his victim had passed, when he sprang upon him from behind and accomplished his work. We may add that Hughes, Sr., father of the young man above alluded to, had also killed a man, in Lansing we believe, some years earlier; but he died of cholera before he was brought to trial.

At the December term of the District Court, O'Neill was indicted for murder in the first degree. In June following his trial took place; he was found guilty of murder in the second degree, and on the 23d of that month was sentenced to the penitentiary at Ft. Madison for life. He was still living at last accounts, but was completely broken down and failing, having become quite aged and decrepid.

Another horrible murder occurred on Yellow River in September, 1867, but the murdered escaped the gallows, which would in all probability have been his end had he come to trial. The circumstances were these: John Minert and Wm. H. Stafford were neighbors; the former, a well-to-do and respected citizen, owning a mill dam which he was raising and improving. Stafford, a good enough neighbor when sober, was brutal and savage when in liquor, and had threatened Minert should he raise the dam, as it would overflow some of his land. He came upon Minert with an ax, and without a word from either cut his head open, killing him almost instantly. He then fled the country. Sheriff Townsend immediately offered a reward of $1,000 for his apprehension, and Gov. Merrill afterwards $500. The Board of Supervisors refused to endorse Townsend's reward and it was withdrawn. At a subsequent session the offer of $1,000 was made by the Board. A man named Wesley Smith, living near Postville, had been posting himself as to Stafford's whereabouts, and as soon as an amount was offered sufficient to pay him for the risk set to work to bring him to justice. Letters were being received quite freely by Stafford's family, who were still on Yellow River, from Minnesota. It was discovered that these letters were remailed by friends of the family in Minnesota, and by intercepting them his whereabouts was ascertained to be in Arkansas. Smith, with an assistant, went to Arkansas and arrested him, and brought him as far as Memphis, where the prisoner discovered his guard dozing and escaped from the boat. His hands were shackled at the time, but no trace of him was found.

In March, 1862, a press for printing counterfeit money was found in Whaley's mill pond, on Village Creek. It was deposited in the court house at Waukon, where it remained until February, 1868, when it was sold for old iron.

Jas. K. Rinehart and Geo. Rose were arrested for passing counterfeit money in the spring of 1868 and lodged in jail at Waukon. On the morning of May 28th Rinehart was found to have escaped by digging through a number of thick plank and the brick wall his companion having been bailed out a day or two previous. He was recaptured in August and returned to his quarters. The case against Rose was finally dismissed for want of evidence. If we are not mistaken Rinehart again escaped, but got into the Wisconsin penitentiary where he is said to have died.

In November, 1870, Anderson Amos was convicted, at Dubuque, of passing counterfeit money, and sentenced to fifteen years. At the same time Douglas was sentenced for eight years, and others had narrow escapes from implication.

In January, 1869, Frank May shot his nephew, Charles May, dead, at their place on the Iowa near New Galena, they having had some dispute as to the division of the crops. The murderer declared it was done in self-defense, but nevertheless took himself out of the country, it was supposed. About the first of October following some unknown person attempted to take the life of James May, brother of the one killed the previous winter, firing at him a charge of buckshot, which, however, did not take effect in a vital part. The assassin was supposed to be the missing uncle who we believe was never apprehended.

On the night of July 30, 1869, a man who have his name as Fredrick Shaffer, broke into the Kelley House at Postville, but being discovered fired at Mr. Kelley, who returned the fire, breaking Shaffer's thigh, near the body. He was lodged in the county jail; but in November he escaped by digging down and under the foundation wall---"gophered" out---and upon a horse he stole, or which was stolen for him, he rode to near Monona and took the train for Chicago. There he was arrested in December for a burglary committed at Beloit, Wisconsin, the summer before, and recognized as an old offender by name of Frank Leonard with many aliases. His career, as narrated in a Chicago paper, including a robbery in Michigan, burglary in Juneau, Wisconsin, a bank robbery at Nashville, Tennessee, and burglary and shooting at Dubuque. In each of these cases he had been arrested, sometimes escaping from custody, and again being released upon revealing the whereabouts of his "swag", or serving his term. He had also engaged in bounty jumping during the war. In his Beloit affair he was arrested but escaped by shooting and wounding two officers. The last heard from he was sent to the Wisconsin penitentiary for five years in March, 1871, for crime in that State.

January 20, 1872, John Martinson fatally stabbed Christian Hanson at a dance in Lansing. Martinson fled the country, but in July of the following year, 1873, he was arrested in Chicago, brought to Lansing for examination, and lodged in the Waukon jail. At the next December term of the District Court he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary, but received a pardon about September, 1876.

In December, 1872, F. H. Bartlett plead guilty to the larceny of a horse, and received two years in the penitentiary.

In October, 1873, Chas. Van Hooser, in a misunderstanding at Postville, knocked J. N. Topliff down with a club. In June, 1874, he was convicted of assault with intent to commit great bodily injury, and fined $200 and costs.

June, 1874, James Gillman plead guilty to larceny and received six months in the penitentiary.

In 1874, were developed the facts of the defalcation of J. G. Orr, of Lansing, who left the country and his whereabouts are not known to this day. It seems that in his official capacity of post master of that place, he had defrauded the Government to the tune of $3,000---or not far from that sum---and as collector of Lansing City and township had appropriated as much more belonging to the county, and Lansing incorporation, making a grand sum of $6,000. The affair created quite a stir at the time, of course, and his bondsmen have good reason to ever bear it in mind, as they were called upon to settle Orr's delinquencies, though we believe the settlement was made as easy for them as possible, the full amount of the deficiencies not being exacted.

On the night of May 17, 1875, at a Turn-fest ball in Postville, a quarrel occurred, during which Matt. Beuscher was shot in the side and not expected to live. D. B. Tapper, a young man, whose parents were in good circumstances and lived near Monona, was arrested, with one Joseph Ingalls, and bail fixed at $15,000 and $500 respectively, pending the result of the shooting. Beuscher recovered; Ingalls we believe was discharged from custody; Tapper was brought to trial in December, 1875, convicted of assault with intent to commit great bodily injury and paid a fine of $200.

In April, 1876, T. C. Smith's store at Dorchester was burglarized, for which one Charles Thompson was arrested at Calmar in Winneshiek County. In June following he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to one year at hard labor in the penitentiary.

Dec 21, 1876, Andway Torfin, who lived on the Iowa River in Hanover township, while returning home from Decorah with others, got into an altercation near Locust Lane with a party of Winneshiek Norwegians, one of whom gave Torfin a blow upon the head with a sled stake, from the effects of which he died three days later. Three of the party were arrested, only one of whom was held, Helge Nelson by name, and in June following he was convicted of manslaughter.

April 20, 1877, at Lansing, Andrew Soderlin, a Swede, and Mathew Carey, Irish, had a quarrel, during which the latter struck the former, who retaliated with a stake from a wagon, striking such a blow over Carey's head that he died after but a few hours. Soderlin was arrested, and at the June term indicted for manslaughter, but was acquitted on the grounds that the blow was in self-defense.

A case of assault occurred in Center township May 7, 1877, which attracted a great deal of attention, the victim being a respectable young lady of that township, who had been engaged to one Olaf T. Engebretson, a young fellow about twenty, but her parents knowing him to be a shiftless, worthless fellow, had induced her to cast him off and refuse his attentions. Morning Monday Miss ---- ---- ---- was to commence teaching in the neighborhood, and as she went to her school Engebretson was seen with a shot gun, apparently going to intercept her, but she arrived at the school house before him. Following her up he rapped at the door, there being but a few small children present, and as she appeared in the door-way he grabber hold of her, declaring that as they were about to part forever he wanted a "farewell kiss", and attempted to bite off her nose, in which he was nearly successful, lacerating that member so as to horribly disfigure her face. He then disappeared, and all efforts of the Sheriff to find him were fruitless, until the following Friday when he put in an appearance at Harper's Ferry, where he was arrested and taken to Waukon. Waiving examination he was released upon $300 bail to appear at the next term of District Court. Early in July he again invaded Miss ---- ---- ----'s schoolroom flourished a revolver and badly frightened both teacher and pupils, but the opportune arrival of a director prevented any mischief. Failing to appear at the November Court, he was re-arrested in April following, and convicted of assault with intent to commit great bodily injury, receiving a sentence of one year in the county jail.

A shooting affray occurred in a Lansing saloon July 5th, 1878, the saloon keeper, Philip Bieber, killing a man named Seiple. Bieber was arrested and gave bail in $2,000. When his trial came on, he plead guilty of assault with intent to commit great bodily injury, and escaped with a judgment of $50 and costs.

A fatal affray occurred in Waterville October 20, 1878. James G. Savage was an experienced railroad hand and section boss on the narrow gauge. He was an intelligent, well disposed man, and peaceable when sober; but the demon of intemperance had gained the mastery of him, and he was given to indulgence in "regular sprees", at which times he was an ugly customer, as liquor made him wild and quarrelsome. In the few months preceding he was figured prominently in numerous fights and one serious stabbing affray. In company with several congenial spirits, Sunday morning, Savage went down to Johnsonsport by handcar and procured liquor, returning to Waterville in the afternoon considerably intoxicated. In this condition his party went to the Adams House, a tavern kept by Ed. Neudeck, and called for liquor. They were refused, whereupon Savage proceeded to demolish things generally, throwing bottles, glasses, etc., out of doors, and treating the "boys" all around. They afterwards went out, and returning about dusk, found the doors locked, and Neudeck warned them to keep away, and that he would shoot them if they forced an entrance. Regardless of this in his drunken bravado, Savage kicked in the door, and as he did so Neudeck fired one barrel of his shot-gun, the charge not taking effect, and immediately fired again as Savage pressed forward to seize the gun, whereupon the unfortunate man fell to the floor, and Neukeck in the excitement slipped away. Neudeck was a man of more than ordinary intelligence and ability, a miller by trade, who came from Clayton county the preceding fall. The next day he presented himself to the Sheriff at Waukon, and was lodged in jail. At the November term of the District Court he was acquitted, on the grounds of self-defense.

In March, 1880, Daniel McLoud, of Linton township, was arrested upon a charge of rape, the victim being his own daughter, only fourteen years of age. At the May term of court he was convicted, and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

Early on the morning of August 24, 1879, two burglars went through the office and safe of the mill company---Hemenway, Barclay & Co., at Lansing; first overpowering the night watchman, R. G. Edwards, whom they beat nearly to death and left bound and gagged, and in an insensible condition. They blew the safe open with powder, but for all their trouble obtained scarcely fifty dollars. They then joined their companion who was awaiting them with a skiff, and escaped. At first it was supposed there were four men in the transaction, and a party of that number were arrested below McGregor in a skiff the next day, but proved to be not the ones wanted. Two of the burglars, Charles Wood, alias "Pittsburg Kid", and Frank Lucas, were captured at LaCrosse two or three days later, with tools in their possession and checks of the firm. Wood owned up the crime, and tried to exonerate Lucas from any participation in the affair, further than rowing the burglars to the scene and away again, claiming that his companion was one James White, alias "Sandy", or "Red"; and this one was arrested at Lansing shortly after. They were all placed in the Decorah jail to await the next term of the district court, our county jail not being sufficiently secure. It was ascertained from Wood, or the "Kid" as he was generally called, that he was one of the parties who burglarized two or three stores in Waukon the previous spring; and it was evident he was a hardened criminal and skillful cracksman, besides being much older in years than his looks would imply. The three had been in the Decorah jail but a short time, when they one night made an unsuccessful attempt to overpower the Sheriff and escape. November 12th following, indictments were filed against them and the "Kid" at first plead guilty with the view of being sent to the reform school, but the law fixing the age of admission to that institution as under sixteen years, the plea was withdrawn. That night they endeavered to gopher out of the county jail, but were discovered and their plans frustrated. The "Kid" had his trial at this term, and received sixteen years in the penitentiary. The cases of the others were continued, and they remanded to the Decorah jail, from which they escaped on the evening of January 22nd following, by sawing off a bar to a window. Lucas, and another prisoner by name of Bernard, were re-captured in the Yellow River timber, not far from Myron on the following evening, but White got clear off and has not since been heard of to our knowledge. Lucas, trial came on in May, 1880, when he was convicted and sentences to twelve years. On an appeal to the Supreme Court, a new trial was granted, which took place in May, 1881, with the same result---a sentence of twelve years, less the time already served.


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