Allamakee co. IAGenWeb

Chapter 17

Past & Present of Allamakee County, 1913
A Dark Chapter


A Dark Chapter.
Aside from the Indian tragedies at Paint Rock, Giard, and Monana, as narrated elsewhere, Allamakee county history must needs chronicle a half-dozen or more murders enacted after the country became "civilized". It is with reluctance that this dark chapter is given place, but it is the duty of a faithful historian to record the evil with the good; and as said before, history teaches by warning as well as by inspiration---by evil as well as by good example. The details of these criminal episodes, however, will not be unduly enlarged upon.

The county may be congratulated that it has never been called upon to perform a legal execution; and more heartily congratulated that no mob execution has occurred within its borders.

A few of the more noted instances of other heinous offenses brought to the attention of our courts may well be included here; and some portions of this chapter are re-written (and corrected) from a former work.

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.

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, and was never captured.

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 than 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 Doctor 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 ran the animal off into Minnesota and entered it in a race. The owner followed in search 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 his to his hotel. The man did so, accompanying Presho to his room, where the latter went to his trunk and taking a revolver therefrom coolly confronted the rightful owner of the horse declaring "there is my bill of sale, d-n you". He then cleared out, but being hotly pursued swam the Minnesota river and made good his escape, although several shots were fired at him from the shore. He was never apprehended, but was heard of afterward in various places in the west, and is said to have later owned a stock farm in a western state.

One of the earliest murders, of which there is record, occurred in what was called "Dutch Hollow", in Linton township, in 1863 or 64. 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 careful preparations for the deed, having a saddled horse near, and immediately left the country. He was not heard of for over ten years, when a letter came to Sheriff Hewitt from one John O'Toole at Lexington, Kentucky, to the effect that if the sheriff would come to Lexington, the writer 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 Governor 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 the promise of all the assistance in the power of that official the case still rests.

Another most foul murder was that of Barney Leavy by Charles O'Neil, on Lansing ridge in 1866, 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'Neil 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'Neil declared he could whip Hughes; whereupon O'Neil, 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'Neil, who then went home and armed himself with a knife and gun, and apparently concluding that the knife would do the best, secreted the gun 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 almost meeting overhead from either side, and lay in wait until his victim had passed, when he sprang upon him from behind and accomplished his revenge. This spot was a short distance east of the stone schoolhouse which was built a couple of years later. It is said that Hughes, Sr., father of the young man alluded to, had some years previously killed a man, but died before he was brought to trial. O'Neil was indicted for murder in the first degree, and confined to the Waukon jail, form which he escaped on the evening of February 28, 1867, but was recaptured twenty-four hours later near Prosser Whaley's. In June, 1867, a jury found him guilty of murder in the second degree, and he was sentenced to the Fort Madison penitentiary for life. At this time Hon. Milo McGlathery was presiding judge, L. O. Hatch, district attorney, J. A. Townsend, sheriff, and G. P. Eells, clerk of the District court. O'Neil remained in the penitentiary between fifteen and sixteen years, and becoming utterly broken down in health he was pardoned in November, 1882.

There seems to have been an epidemic of savagery along here in the later sixties. Only about three months after the conviction of O'Neil, occurred the killing of John Minert by Jas. H. Stafford, on Yellow river, in September, 1867. Both were prominent and respected citizens. Minert owned a mill, and Stafford felt injured by his raising the dam, as it would overflow some of his land; and coming upon him with an ax one day he made a sudden and savage assault, doubtless incited by drink, with immediately fatal effect. Realizing what he had done, he at once left the vicinity, but after some time had elapsed, and sufficient rewards were offered to warrant the undertaking, certain parties discovered his whereabouts down in Arkansas. He was there arrested and brought as far as Memphis, where he escaped from his guard, and although handcuffed, eluded pursuit.

In the sixties there were also several indictments rendered for the passing of counterfeit money; and in '62 a press for printing same was found in Whaley's mill pond, on Village creek, which was deposited in the courthouse and remained a public curiosity until sold for old iron a few years later. In 1868 Jas. K Rinehart was lodged in jail for passing counterfeit money, but escaped by digging through a number of planks and a brick wall. He was recaptured a few weeks later, and again escaped, but finally landed in the Wisconsin penitentiary, where he is said to have died.

That he possessed a sense of humor is evidenced by the note which he left for his jailor upon his first escape, as follows, verbatim:

Jail, May 27.

Mr. Huffman.-My cincere thanks are to you and your family for the kind treatment to wards me while in confinement. Here I cannot stay longer. You can tell the friends of the town to morrow morning will have me Nomber of miles a head. My friends awates me with Horse. It is now 10 o'clock and I must go. You will find the hole which I escaped from.

Yours truly,
J. K. Rinehart.

With a five-eighth bit he had bored through two solid two-inch planks, and two 4x4 oak crosspieces, and with some instrument had dug through an eighteen inch brick wall, just above the blind window sill, middle cell on the south side.

In January, 1869, Frank N. 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 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 with 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 gave 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, included 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.

In November, 1870, Anderson Amos was convicted 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.

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.

December 21, 1876, one Andway Torfin, who lived on the Upper Iowa in Hanover township, while returning from Decorah with others, got into an altercation with a party of other Scandinavians near Locust lane, one of whom gave Torfin a blow upon the head with a sled stake, from the effects of which he died a few days later. One of the party, Helge Nelson by name, was held for murder, and in June following, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to six months in the penitentiary. The affray really occurred on the Winneshiek side of the line, and the trial took place in Winneshiek county.

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 had figured prominently in numerous fights and one serious stabbing affray. In company with several congenial spirits, Sunday morning, Savage went down to Johnsonport 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 Neudeck in the excitement slipped away. Neudeck was of 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 next November term of the District court he was acquitted, on the grounds of self-defense.

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. Then they joined their companion who was awaiting them with a skiff and escaped. 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 that he was a hardened criminal and skilled 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 one night they made an unsuccessful attempt to overpower the sheriff and escape. Shortly after they endeavored to gopher out of the jail, but were discovered and their plans again frustrated. "The Kid" had his trial at the November term of court, and was sentenced to sixteen years. The cases of the others were continued, and they remanded to the Decorah jail, from which they finally succeeded in escaping late in January following, by sawing off a bar to a window. Lucas was recaptured on the following evening, in the Yellow river timber, near Myron; but White made good his escape, and afterwards kept clear of this vicinity. Lucas came to trial in May, 1880, when he was also convicted and given twelve years. On an appeal to the Supreme court a new trial was granted him, at which trial, in May of the next year, he was again convicted and sentence confirmed.

One of the coolest and most revolting cases of murder that must be chronicled here was that of one A. C. Johnson, by poison, at the home of Mrs. Hanora Curtin, better known by her former name of Mrs. Garvey, in the evening of December 6, 1881. It seems that Johnson had recently returned from western Iowa to dispose of some property in this vicinity and to make collection of some debts, and was stopping temporarily at Mrs. Curtin's , northwest of Waukon, she being one of his debtors. Mrs. Curtin prepared him a chicken soup, after partaking of which he become violently ill and dispatched a messenger for some neighbors, to whom he declared that Mrs. Curtin had poisoned him and he was going to die, and requesting them to take charge of his clothing, in which he had some three or four hundred dollars, and to write to his boys. His death followed in a few hours, and Sheriff Hewitt was summoned, together with the coroner, at that time Dr. D. H. Bowen. An inquest was held, resulting in a verdict of death by strychnine, and Mrs. Curtin was arrested and kept under guard at the old Central House in Waukon, for want of a suitable jail. The preliminary examination was set for the 9th, but during the night of the 8th Mrs. Curtin made her escape. Later she was apprehended and placed in the Decorah jail for better security, but nearly succeeded in getting away again. She was transferred to the new county jail at Waukon when completed that fall. Not until the May term, 1883, did the case come on for trial, when the testimony showed that she had on the day of Johnson's death purchased a half-drachm of strychnine at a drug store in Waukon, and other evidence was so positively incriminating (including an analysis of the stomach) that the jury promptly returned a verdict of murder in the first degree, and placed the punishment at imprisonment for life at hard labor in the Anamose penitentiary. The testimony indicated that John Barleycorn had a hand in this murder, as in all the other cases, the murderess having nerved up with whisky and was intoxicated that night. She was eventually pardoned, and went to Dakota, where she died.

One more unfortunate instance of the taking of human life, that of Mrs. Geddes by Ballzell, occurring as recently as five years ago, and this unpleasant chapter is closed-for the present.

William Ballzell was said to be an industrious and previously inoffensive farmer in Post township, near its northwest corner, where he had lived for a number of years and had become the owner of a ninety-acre farm. His wife had died a few years previously, leaving a family of seven children, the eldest about nineteen. His victim was his deceased wife's sister, Mrs. Geddes, who had separated from her husband and was then employed at the home of Mrs. Henry Bollman, not far off. She left a little girl of about nine years. Ballzell had urged his sister-in-law to marry him, and was greatly incensed at her refusal. On the day of the murder, January 20, 1908, he drove to Postville, and indulged freely in liquor. Upon returning home he stopped at Mrs. Bollman's for an interview with Mrs. Geddes, which, being unsatisfactory, his talk became abusive and threatening, so that after he left Mrs. Bollman telephoned her nephew John Bollman, who repaired to her home.

Meanwhile Ballzell had driven to his home, put up his team, and taking a gun and a revolver went back to the Bollman place, where he was met by John in the yard. He had left his gun in the woods and kept his revolver out of sight. This was about 5 o'clock. He obtained an interview with Mrs. Geddes, in the doorway, renewing his plea, and receiving an evasive reply suddenly whipped out his revolver and shot her through the heart. He then hurried to the home of Marshall Bollman, whose people he accused of influencing Mrs. Geddes against him. Unable to gain admission to the house, which they securely closed, the frenzied man set fire to the large barn on the place. The neighborhood was aroused, and as men hastened to the fire he took to the woods.

Sheriff Hall was notified and with Deputy Svebakken drove hurriedly to the scene, about twelve miles southwest of Waukon. The locality is on the headwaters of the Yellow river, and heavily wooded. Realizing the advantage the murderer would thus have in evading capture, and the liability of his committing further bloodshed, in his frenzied condition, and considering the terrorized state of the neighborhood, the sheriff telephoned to Waukon for a number of the militia company. Captain Colsch rounded up four or five of the marksmen of Company I, and started out about 11 P. M., but before arriving on the scene Sheriff Hall had effected the capture. After threatening one home and getting a cup of coffee there, Ballzell had returned to his own place, where his brother had taken his gun from him but was unable to detain him. The sheriff reached the Ballzell home soon after, and learning the direction taken by the fugitive started after him on a pony, overtaking him about a mile or two, when he submitted with but little resistance. The party reached Waukon with the prisoner about six in the morning.

When in jail afterwards Ballzell claimed that he could not recall anything of the time intervening between his leaving Postville and being overtaken by the sheriff in the night. His attorney it is said was preparing a defense on the ground of insanity, when in the night of March 27th following the prisoner became his own executioner, knotting a handkerchief about his neck and inserting a broomstick which he twisted with such resolute purpose that strangulation ensued, and in the morning he was found dead in his cell.

There is much more that might be recorded here, in the way of near tragedies, and minor crimes; but let the foregoing suffice. Why needlessly reopen old wounds nearly healed, and renew old sufferings once forgot? Those who paid the penalty of misdeeds, and have made good in their efforts to live down the past, should be spared such unkindness.

~transcribed by Kay Brumbaugh

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