The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



One of the most melancholy disasters which ever occurred in the county was the explosion of a boiler at Alexander Demorris' saw-mill, in Steady Run township. It occurred March 2, 1875, and resulted in the instant death of four persons, the fatal injury of a fifth, and serious injury of several others.

The mill was very thronged with work and was being run at a high pressure of steam. At the time of the explosion the mill was not in operation, it having been stopped for a short time to file the saw, and a head of steam was allowed to accumulate beyond the capacity of the boiler. Mr. Demorris was filing the saw; Hezekiah Utterback, his son, Hezekiah Utterback, and nephew, Pony Utterback, had just arrived with a log. Mr. Utterback, Sr., was talking with Mr. Demorris and the boys had gone to the furnace to warm themselves; the engineer had just stepped out with a Mr. Merrifield to mark some logs when the explosion took place. The two Utterback boys, R. D. Snakenberg and Andrew Binehart were killed instantly. Mr. Utterback, Sr., was struck by the debris, fracturing his skull and lower jaw, from the effects of which injuries he shortly died. Mr. Demorris had a leg and three ribs broken and his face blown full of particles from the furnace. Mr. Merrifield had a leg badly bruised and the engineer sustained a number of serious injuries. Mr. Binehart and Mr. Snakenburg were turning a log on the carriage at the time of the explosion and were mangled in a horrible manner. The mill was a total wreck, the boiler being torn apart at every joint and scattered over several acres of ground.




On Tuesday, June 28, 1865, the wife of William J. Allen, living about a mile and a half west of Sigourney, was found lying on the floor, near the bed, in an insensible condition. The bed was bespattered with blood, and upon investigation it was found that the lady had received a frightful wound on the right side of the head. A large black-walnut club about five feet long, bespattered with blood was found on the floor near by. The husband, William J. Allen, was a man of very unprepossessing appearance, and from his conduct when the neighbors first appeared, as well as the fact that a very questionable intimacy had for some time existed between him and a young girl in the neighborhood, led the people to suspect him of having committed the assault. Upon being questioned, he said that while at work he saw two men leave the house and go into the woods near by, and that he believed they had committed the act. He was arrested the same evening and brought to Sigourney. The next morning when brought before a magistrate he waived an examination and was held to bail in the sum of $10,000. The sheriff, W. B. Merriman, started the same day to convey him to the jail at Oskaloosa for safe keeping, but was followed by an exasperated crowd who overtook him a few miles from town, demanded the prisoner and threatened to hang him on the spot. The sheriff was determined to defend his prisoner as long as possible, but finally agreed to return to town, and take the prisoner to the jail at Muscatine, the crowd consenting not to molest him if Allen was taken to a stronger jail than the one at Oskaloosa, which they believed unsafe, as nearly all prisoners confined there from Keokuk county had heretofore escaped.

The sheriff then turned back to Sigourney, but had not gone more than half way when the crowd again determined to hang the prisoner, and fresh attempts were made to seize him. However, the coolness and good judgment exercised by the sheriff, and Allen promising to make a full confession, again quieted the angry crowd.

Allen then confessed that he had struck his wife while she was lying upon the bed, with a single-tree; that he did so because he was engaged to marry a young girl in the neighborhood and wanted to get his wife out of the way. The truth of his confession in several particulars was doubtful. After this confession the sheriff was permitted to proceed with his prisoner unmolested. Upon arriving at town he took the precaution to procure the services of several of the militia to guard the prisoner until he should reach Washington. Allen appeared to manifest no concern about the recovery of his wife, and having been removed under heavy guard, was lodged in the Muscatine jail until the following term of the District Court, when he was brought back to Sigourney and arraigned for attempted murder, his wife in the mean time having recovered. He was found guilty, and on the 13th of October was sentenced to a term of seven years in the state penitentiary.



On Thursday, January 19, 1874, an altercation took place in Prairie township, between J. B. Strausser and August Shell, which resulted in the  death of the former.

There seems to have been no witnesses to the affray, and the testimony of the survivor went through so many hands and received so many embellishments that it is almost impossible to give an accurate statement of the case. The facts of the matter, as nearly as can be arrived at, were as follows:

Shell was a tenant of Strausser, and had his cattle in the fields of the latter, in which there was some corn which Strausser did not think worth gathering. Shell's cattle would occasionally get into this corn, when Strausser would drive them off with his dogs. On the morning of the fatal day Shell got on a horse with the intention of looking for his cattle, but seeing them coming up, worried by the dogs, put up his horse and got his gun, intending to shoot the dogs. On getting out into the field he met Strausser, and a scuffle took place, the latter attempting to get the gun away from Mr. Shell. In the struggle the gun was discharged, the contents lodging in the right lung of Mr. Strausser. When the gun was discharged, Shell gave it up, and Strausser, though mortally wounded, had strength enough left to strike Shell on the head with the gun, bending the trigger guard, and fracturing his skull. After being struck Shell clinched Strausser and both fell, whereupon, seeing that his antagonist was dying, Shell arose and ran to the house for assistance. A young man who was staying with Shell thereupon went out, and they found Strausser dead. They then went over to Strausser's house and told his wife of the occurrence. After the excitement occasioned by the affray had abated, Shell became very sick from the effects of the blow he had received, and was some weeks recovering. At the next session of the District Court the grand jury took the killing of Strausser under advisement, but failed to indict Shell. So the matter ended. Both parties, prior to the altercation, had borne good characters as peaceable and law abiding citizens. Strausser was one of the old settlers of the county, and among the first citizens of Prairie township.



William M. Holland, of English River township, was shot, and instantly killed, by Miss Caroline White, about noon, on Monday, July 23, 1877.

The circumstances connected with the perpetration of this deed are as follows: Miss White was a young woman about eighteen years of age, the daughter of Godfrey White, of English River township. She had always borne a good name, and aside from assertations derogatory to her character, said to have been started by Holland, her virtue had never been questioned. Holland was a married man, and the father of seven children. He was possessed of no property, and was dependent for the support of his family upon work furnished by the neighbors. He had from time to time been in the employ of the girl's father, and by him, frequently furnished with sustenance for his family, in advance of his labor. In return for these favors he was said to have circulated the statement that Miss White was not a virtuous girl, and that he had, on several occasions, had criminal intercourse with her. Several attempts were made by the girl and her friends to clear up the scandal, but Holland, although denying that he had ever made such charges, could never be induced to sign any statement branding them as false. An engagement between the girl and a young man of that neighborhood, was, on account of these reports, broken off. On the day of the homicide, Miss White went to the house of Thomas Yokum, where Holland was harvesting. After dinner, and before the rest had left the table, Holland got up and went out of the room. Miss White followed him, and presented him a paper, which she asked him to read and sign. He gave her an evasive answer, and started to leave her. As he started to leave she drew a revolver and fired, the shot passing through his heart, causing instantaneous death. She then stepped up to where he was lying and emptied the remaining chambers of the revolver into his head. Miss. White was arrested and waived examination, and her bond was fixed at $9000.

At the next session of the District Court the grand jury found an indictment against Miss White, and in the following spring she was arraigned for trial. The trial was protracted and quite exciting. The law firm of Donnell & Brooks, assisted by Col. Mackey, conducted the defense, while the State was represented by district attorney Lafferty, assisted by George D. Woodin, Esq. The defense sat up the plea of insanity, and Dr. Ranney, of the state lunatic asylum, was subpoenaed as an expert to testify in the case. The jury brought in a verdict of "not guilty," and Miss White was released.

There was a bitter feeling aroused over the result of the trial, and Dr. Ranney, especially, was severely criticised, on account, of the evidence which he gave as an expert, it being chiefly through his evidence that the defense won the case. Not only in the county, but all over the State, was this case spoken of, and the sad affair is still talked over around the firesides of this and adjoining counties.



On Monday, April 29, 1878, Theodore Rice, a hotel-keeper of Delta, was shot and almost instantly killed, by A. L. Smith.

About six o'clock in the evening of the day mentioned, Mr. Rice was smoking a cigar in the office of the hotel of which he was proprietor, when Smith, a young man who was buying hogs in that vicinity, and who had been boarding with Rice, came in and stated his intention of changing his boarding place. Rice claimed a balance on board, and asked settlement; Smith disputed the bill and refused to pay it. Smith went up stairs, got his valise, and returning, was about to depart, when Rice took hold of it, and told him he could not take the valise away till he paid the bill; whereupon Smith drew a pistol and told Rice if he didn't let go he would shoot him. Rice thereupon loosened his hold on the valise, passed into an adjoining room, procured an iron poker, and returned, expecting to find Smith still in the hall-way. In this he was mistaken. Smith had left the house and passed across the street, and Rice followed, but did not get nearer to him than fifteen or twenty feet, when Smith again drew his pistol. Rice, seeing the pistol, went off in another direction, evidently attempting to gain entrance to a drug store near by. Smith did not fire, but passed beyond the drug store, out of sight of Rice. He then returned, and before Rice had gained entrance to the drug store, and taking deliberate aim, shot him. The-ball passed through the left shoulder and on through his lung, and he fell against the store building. He soon rallied, and started across the street toward his hotel, and just before he reached the entrance, fell to the sidewalk. He was taken up and carried into the house, where he expired in a few minutes.

Smith was arrested, and sent to the jail at Sigourney. He was afterward released on bail, and, although he was subsequently indicted by the grand jury, has not yet been tried.

Mr. Rice was a young man about twenty-four years old, and left a wife and two children.




In February, 1873, the store of Lee & Johnson, at Talleyrand, was robbed of goods to the value of $800. The goods were taken away in a sleigh, and the cutter was tracked to the northeast corner of Liberty township, and there the track was lost. Suspicion was at last fastened upon one Crawf. Walker, who had for some time lived in Liberty township, and who had earned a bad name, both on account of his own suspicious conduct, and on account of certain disreputable persons who gathered around him. Andrew Stranahan, who was then sheriff of the county, conceived the idea of spying out the matter, and accordingly made his way on foot to Liberty township, dressed in the attire of a day-laborer, and, arriving in the neighborhood of Walker's premises, hired himself out as a day-laborer, to one Michael Corridon, for fifteen dollars per month. Here he worked for a number of weeks, and was frequently in company with Walker and his friends, at one time visiting the house of the former, at which time and place, seeing things which led him to believe that Walker was the guilty party, on the 29th of June he procured a posse of men, surrounded Walker's house, and proceeded to make the arrest. The house was surrounded, and quite a number were in it with Stranahan at the time the arrest was made, but before the irons could be placed on the prisoner he managed to escape through a window, and despite all the efforts of the posse outside, got away. After Walker had escaped, the house was searched, and a part of the stolen goods found. The whole neighborhood was searched, but Walker could nowhere be found.

In May of the following year a young man living in Dayton, Washington county, went out in search of some cattle and seeing a man of suspicious appearance in the brush returned to the village and reported, whereupon a number of citizens went out and captured the individual, who proved to be the identical Crawf. Walker who had been sought for by the Keokuk county officials for nearly a year in vain. He was taken to Keota and there turned over to sheriff Stranahan, by whom he was taken to Muscatine and lodged in jail. In the following August he was brought back to Sigourney and arraigned on charge of burglary; he was found guilty and sentenced to the penitentiary for three years, but his case having been appealed he was taken back to the Muscatine jail. There he remained till November, 1875, when hearing that an effort was likely to be made to release him by means of a writ of habeas corpus, Stranahan removed him to the jail at Fairfield. He was lodged in the jail at the latter place on Friday, and on the next Tuesday night he made his escape from the prison. No more was heard of Walker till August, 1876, when he was arrested for committing highway robbery in Marion county, and incarcerated in the jail at Oskaloosa. In the following November Walker made his escape from the jail in Oskaloosa and was not heard from again till May, 1877, when Stranahan heard that he was in Sullivan county, Missouri; he telegraphed the sheriff of Sullivan county, who arrested Walker and held him till Stranahan arrived, who having gone to Missouri took possession of Walker, and bringing him back to Keokuk county lodged him in the jail at Sigourney, which had in the meantime been built. During the following October, Walker attempted to carry out some plans which he had been for some time perfecting. Having made a saw out of an old case-knife, which he managed to secure, he sawed off the bar which fastened the door on the inside of the cage at the entrance of the jail. When the jailer, not suspecting anything, entered preparatory to locking the prisoners in their cells for the night, Walker sprang upon him and with the assistance of other prisoners overpowered him so as to get out of the building. The jailer, Mr. Haudek, however, was pluck to the last, and although the other prisoners got away, he managed to hold on to Walker till help arrived and the prisoner was put back into his cell. In the following December he was again sentenced to the penitentiary and conveyed to Fort Madison, where he remained till the expiration of his term of sentence. The father and two brothers of Walker, who prior to his arrest had lived in Liberty township, and who bore a bad name, left the county and have not since been heard from. Sheriff Stranahan achieved quite a reputation on account of the skill which he manifested in working up this case, also for the promptness in which he traced out the location of one Joe Berry, a forger; he was a faithful and energetic officer and held the position of sheriff for eight consecutive years.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!


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