Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
June, 1957
by Bill Webb for The Globe Gazette

50 Years Since James Cullen
Was Lynched in Charles City

CHARLES CITY, FLOYD COUNTY - It's been 50 years since James Cullen was lynched in this usually Peaceful North Iowa Community, but the residents still are talking about it.

There's hardly a soul in town that hasn't heard of the hanging on the old girder bridge that crossed the Cedar River on Main Street. A few old-timers recall with the vividness that Wednesday night in January 1907 when the mob broke into the Floyd County jail, dragged Cullen out and hoisted him up.

Some even claim to be able to point out the exact stringer from which the 65-year-old retired carpenter was swung.

Down River

The bridge itself, was floated several blocks down river in 1909 to make room for the present concrete structure. It now serves as a river crossing on Highway 18 and is named "St. Mary's" bridge after a nearby Catholic church.

The terrifying story of James Cullen's lynching in a setting of spats, black derby hats and celluloid collars began a day before the hanging. It was 3 o'clock on the morning of Jan. 8, 1907, to be precise.

Cullen had gone to the railroad station to meet his brother, a banker from Warren, Ill. On returning home, he showed his brother to his bed and then stole into his wife's bedroom where he stabbed her through the heart as she slept.

Throat Slitting

He then entered his 17-year-old stepson's chambers where he attempted to cut his throat. The boy, however, managed to wrestle Cullen to the floor where a professor from Charles City College, who roomed at the house and had heard the struggle, separated them.

The boy, Roy Eastman, quickly put on his clothes and announced to all that he was going for the marshal. He spent too much time however, for Cullen got a revolver and shot him through the head as he passed out the door.

Cullen then turned the weapon upon himself and fired, and inflicting a slight wound in his cheek. He was duly arrested by the sheriff and imprisoned in the county jail.

Cullen's Plea

Cullen's plea for the double murder was "self-defense." He said his wife had been trying to nag him to death and her son had been trying to kill him.

He related a tale of having married her a year before and having her beseek him for a division of his property on their wedding night. (He was reputed to be worth from $20,000 to $25,000.)

On the debit side was Cullen's general character. It was said that he was a man of very troublesome disposition, bigoted in his opinions and willing to crucify those who differed with him. He had an uncontrollable temper and was despised by his neighbors.

And, then too, he had been married four times.

Busse Affair

Also a Mr.Busse had killed ins wife in Butler County, had been sentenced to hang, won a reprieve and had just had the judgement commuted. It was a very unpopular change of affairs. "Subversion of justice" was a phrase in common usage in the discussions of the case.

And so it was on the chilly night of Jan. 9, 1907, that an indignant mob began to form in the street by the jail. Soon the street was filled with men in black suits and topcoats which glistened under the arc of the light and it wasn't long before horses and buggies could not get by.

NOTE: By some accounts, some of the men in the crowd were masked with hankerchieves and others were disguised.

The demand for justice grew each moment and there were cries of "We'll have no more Busses."

There were women in the crowd, also, their necks stiffened by the whalebone stays in their collars. Some were asssembled their in coats with sleeves puffed at the top, and others, with shawls pulled around their heads, pushed children out through the mob and toward home.

400 Persons

It wasn't long before the crowd had grown to more than 400 persons from all segments of society, from ruffians to buisnessmen.

About 11 p.m., the mob pushed toward the jail voicing its intention of saving the county the expense of prosecuting Cullen. When the sheriff came to the door, he was told to go over to the courthouse and stay, a request he immediately complied with.

At that moment a team was driven hurriedly into the courtyard and from the wagon was pulled a railroad rail. The rail, which the newspapers the next day said weighed about 750 pounds, was used to batter down the door leading through the brick wall where Cullen's cell was located.

Sledge Hammers

Sledge hammers appeared and the hinges of the cell door were knocked off and several members grappled with Cullen. He tore loose several times in a frenzied effort to escape, but finally was overpowered and dragged into the street.

As the doomed man appeared under the arc of light in front of the jail, a tremendous shout arose and there was a rush toward the head of the mob. Men with walking sticks jostled with those of in overalls as the procession pushed it's way with Cullen toward the bridge a block away.

Many of the women were screaming, many crying while the children added their wail to the general din.

Cullen's pleas and cries of "I'm Innocent," were drowned out by the roar of the mob. The air was filled with shouts.

Allowed to Speak

His hands were tied and when they reached the bridge, a rope was placed around his neck. The crowd then paused to let Cullen speak.

"I'm innocent," he stammered. His remarks rambling, disconnected beyond the first.

"Shoot him down," someone yelled.

"Hanging goes tonight, not murder," another answered.

And with that the crowd hauled away which the newspaper said it did with "a right good will" and after a few spasmodic convulsions in the air, Cullen was dead.

The body was left hanging for an hour that life "might surely be extinct" before it was cut down. On Jan. 11, 1907, he was buried by his brother. Cullen's body and remains to this day in a lonely unmarked grave in the Riverside Cemetery.

Strange Sidelight

One strange sidelight of the Cullen case is that though his stepson, Roy Eastman [born in 1889], is listed in the [Riverside] cemetery's records as having been buried there Jan. 10, 1907, there is no record of his death at the county courthouse.

Attempts were made by the county to prosecute the leaders of the mob, but without success.

NOTE: Ella (Brown) Eastman Cullen was interred at Riverside Cemetery, Charles City, Iowa; Block 8, Section 50, Row 6, Space 3. Prior to her marriage to James Cullen, Ella was the widow of Henry C. Eastman who was born March 5, 1843, a Civil War Veteran, and who died October 25, 1902, interment at Riverside Cemetery.

Photograph missing from submission
A stringer on this girder was used in the lynching of James Cullen by a mob at Charles City Jan. 9, 1907. The bridge was moved down the Cedar River in 1909 to make room for the concrete structure which now crosses the river on Main Street. It has been renamed the "St. Mary's" bridge and is used as a Highway 18 crossing. The bridge is substantially the same [1957] as it was on the night of the lynching.

NOTE: James Cullen's death was the last lynching in the State of Iowa. Cullen, born October of 1844 in Wisconsin, was interred at Riverside Cemetery, Charles City, Iowa, Block 14, Section 4, Row 4, Space 1.

~ ~ ~ ~

New York Times
New York, New York
January 9, 1907

Crowd Breaks Into Charles City Jail
and Hangs a Wife Murderer.

WATERLOO, Iowa. Jan. 9 -- A crowd of more than 1,000 men to-night battered through the wall of the county jail at Charles City, Iowa, with railroad irons, tore hinges from the doors and took James Cullen out, and lynched him.

Cullen was accused of having murdered his wife.

Globe Gazette article submitted by shelly_cheri, April of 2003

New York Times article submitted by Sharon R. Becker, March of 2011

Additional information from Riverside Cemetery Transcriptions



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