Decatur County Journal
Leon, Decatur County, Iowa
Thursday, May 25, 1905


Story of an Organization of Outlaws
Who Flourished for Years on Grand River.

In all the realms of human fancy it is impossible to conceive of a more desperate band of incendiaries, cattle thieves and insurance fraud promoters than that which for years infested the regions adjacent to the little town of Grand River in Decatur County, Iowa.

Even the Cautril band of grave robbers was not more daring in its movement, more diabolical in its plans and more devilishly shrewd in putting those plans into action than what were called FRANK GREENLAND's barn burners and horse killers who held sway for perhaps ten years until finally run to earth by men who represent insurance companies in Iowa and other states.

Now the band is broken up. GREENLAND is under indictment for shooting two horses. He has also been convicted of cattle stealing and is now serving a term at Fort Madison. Other members of the gang, among them, DICK PRAY, the chief lieutenant, have confessed after awaiting until the statute of limitations made them immune from prosecution.

The terrorism that hovered over Grand River in a cloud has been dispelled and the frauds, unique and cunning, have ended.


Here in brief is the system employed by the gang: Members would purchase horses for a couple of dollars each. They would remove good animals from their barns and place within the "plugs". The barn would be mysteriously destroyed by fire, the insurance companies would be forced to pay for the barn and for the destroyed animals and the good horses would then be sold at the highest market value in some far away point.

Still further, it developed when DICK PRAY took the witness stand, that these men would knock horses in the head, singe the hair on the necks and faces with matches, place the carcasses near barb wire fences and collect insurance for the supposed lightning struck animals.

In one case, it developed that two horses were tied to a tree, knocked in the head, dynamite was exploded in the branches and insurance companies paid $190 insurance on the aged victims of lightning; and that on horses that cost less than $5 apiece.


In the territory around Grand River the gang, numbering perhaps a dozen, ruled with absolute power. No one dared oppose or speak against the methods that were relentlessly pursued. Whenever a resident had the courage to say what he thought, his barn or other property would suddenly catch fire. The power of the gang was endless. It ruled with an iron hand. And thus, for several years, it pursued its course of burning, destroying and collecting until hundreds of dollars were filched from the treasury of the various insurance companies.

Within the year 1901 alone, thirty-three horses were destroyed by the fire or lightning and insurance was collected for them, not withstanding the fact that suspicion pointed an accusing finger at the owners of some of these mysteriously destroyed creatures.


To I.N. CORBETT, of Des Moines, the claims adjuster for the State Insurance Company, more than to any other, is due the credit of the probing to the heart of the mystery and the successful clearing out of the gang of incendiaries.

At the present time the case is in the Supreme Court. It was appealed only a few weeks ago, more to kill time than for any other reason, so it is claimed.

In 1901, GREENLAND's barn burned and with it 19 head of horses. The State Insurance Company claimed that fraud had been used. It refused to pay the $4,000 insurance. The case was taken into district court and judgment was given GREENLAND for that amount against the company.

MR. CORBETT redoubled his labors. For three years he searched for evidence against what he believed to be the gang at the bottom of the work. Finally the statute of limitations having intervened, members of the gang confessed, and last October, Judge Towner set aside the judgment. It is from this decision that the appeal has just been taken to the Supreme Court.


Judge Towner's decision setting aside the judgment is masterful in its treatment of the subject. It scores members of the band in a manner that is most delightful to one who delights in plain terms. Judge Towner does not hesitate to say that DICK PRAY, T.J. MUNYON and ZEB PETERSON, who appeared against GREENLAND, are the most badly discredited witnesses that ever appeared before him.

In the homes at Grand River and the county thereabouts, the decision of Judge Towner is still being read. The neighbor of GREENLAND smacks his lips as he reads the cutting sarcasm directed at his neighbor and turns with an air of approbation to where his wife sits reading.

"I'll swan, but that is surely good." says he, and he starts in to read the document from start to finish.

FRANK GREENLAND, himself is a farmer of 39 years. He came to Decatur County about thirty years ago and has lived there since. For years he worked hard and steadily, stayed away from bad companions and refused to touch or taste liquor under any conditions.

Troubles have made GREENLAND an old man. His face is furrowed and wrinkled, and an observer would never take him to be less than 50 or 60 years of age.


It was the night of September 8, 1901, that GREENLAND's barn burned to the ground and with it nineteen head of horses. The loss was reported the next day to the State Insurance Company. It was said each horse was worth $120. MR. CORBETT was sent to the scene to look the situation over before the amount was paid.

The first suspicious sign that struck MR. CORBETT was to find that the horses had been buried at once and before they had been examined. He secured a veterinarian and went to the spot where the bodies were interred with the intention of digging up the carcasses and inspecting them. By looking at the teeth, the veterinarian was expected to tell the ages and sex of the animals.

Fancy the surprise when out of all the nineteen horses disintered, but one had teeth. The other eighteen were headless.


"This looks like fraud to me," said MR. CORBETT, and after a trifle further investigation, he recommended that the claim be not allowed; and the forthcoming lawsuit was the result.

Since then it has developed that the highest price paid for any animal that was in that burned barn was $11, and the least costly one had been purchased for $1. That was the value of the $l20 horses.

Later it leaked out that the night before the fire, GREENLAND had taken all of his good stock out of the barn. The horses were hidden nearby. In their places were put nineteen plugs, and it was for these that an attempt was made to collect the insurance.


It was the scheme, so the evidence showed, to divide the insurance money collected among the different members of the gang.

This led to further investigations. The number of fires that had occurred in that vicinity that year and for years before, suddenly began to look suspicious. Examinations into the causes and results of the blazes disclosed a startling state of affairs. And yet so completely did the members of the gang have the people in that neighborhood under their thumbs that not one dared to tell what he knew. And none did tell.

MR. CORBETT did not relax. For three years he worked away. The members of the gang were "onto" him and he had hard sledding. Into the Indian Territory he pursued one witness and to Dakota he followed another.

But it was not until October, 1904, that the men who had been implicated came out of their holes and consented to testify.

The trial that followed was replete with sensations. Never in the history of crime have such developments arisen to cause the discussion and widespread interest that followed the disclosures of that famous Decatur County insurance fraud case. The insurance papers far and wide published the details of the case and newspapers fell in line and gave the evidence practically complete. At the present time, it is stated that an article is in progress of construction for some eastern magazine on the evidence and testimony brought out at that hearing.


PRAY testified that he, GEORGE HEMBRY and FRANK GREENLAND purchased two plugs for $3 and $5. The horses were taken out into the pasture on the GREENLAND farm. They were tied to a tree. Then the trio felled the animals with a sledge hammer.

A can of dynamite was placed in the fork of the tree just above the animals' heads. This was exploded. The shock tore the tree open, split the wood and gave exactly the appearance that would follow a lightning strike. To complete the deception, the men took matches and singed the carcasses about the eyes and along the neck.

When this was done, an insurance man was sent for. He went to the scene, inspected the bodies, and could only recommend the claim be allowed. And the Anchor Insurance Company paid those rascals $190 for those two murdered horses.

At first the story was hardly believed when related in the trial. But a man named ELSTON took the stand. He said that he saw PRAY, HEMBRY and GREENLAND drive past where he was working, in a buggy. They were leading two horses and were going towards the pasture. The man that was with him called his attention to the fact, and turning to him, said; "Listen and you will hear something."

And a few minutes later, they did hear something. It was an explosion which sounded like a naval battle. Presently the men drove back.

With them was another of the gang. The horses that had been lead were missing. Then ELSTON went over into the pasture and found there the two horses, still beautiful in death. And as he looked at the horses and the evidences thereabouts, he scratched his head and made up his own mind that there had been a little "skullduggery" there.


The above are but few instances among many that might be dragged into the limelight. Time after time, barns burned at night and with them animals that had been picked up from some horse trader as valueless.

The story reads like a tale of the Arabian Nights (sic). Iowans are loath to believe that, in the Hawkeye State, such deeds of depredation could be carried on as were reported by the FRANK GREENLAND gang in the Decatur County theater.

After referring in his opinion to the perjury and fraud that had run rampant through the actions of the members of the gang, Judge Towner summed up the situation in his decision in the following brief but vigorous language:


"These witnesses have come into court and testified to matters that the court absolutely could not have believed unless they had been corroborated. In fact the disclosure in this case would almost put to blush the revelations of Jesse James and the stories told in the dime novels that are sold on the news stands. If the testimony in this case is to be believed, as it is disclosed by these witnesses, then there was an organized band of robbers of the worst kind and character in that locality."

"They would time and time again burn their own property for the purpose of obtaining the insurance from the insurance companies. They would deliberately organize themselves for that very purpose, would acquire property, obtain insurance upon it and then burn the property in order to obtain the insurance."

"Their story seems absurd; so absurd that if it rested alone upon the statements of these parties, no court could believe it. But the difficulty is that it is corroborated by other testimony about which there can be no possible question. There are produced here in court a half dozen or more insurance policies taken out by this gang of men -- by FRANK GREENLAND, by MUNYON, by PRAY, by HEMBRY, by PORT WOODARD and perhaps others, and in every instance where these policies were taken out, fires or lightning occurred. It is also a fact that almost every one of these claims occurred in the year 1901, so that there was hardly a month elapsed in which some of these men were not obtaining money from these insurance companies."

"It has been suggested, and apparently with reason, that these men have testified in the hope of reward, or the fact that they have already received compensation, and for that reason they are discredited witnesses. I realize that fact, and as I said before, if the facts depended solely upon the testimony of these men, the court could give it no credence whatever."

An instance of unscrupulous methods by which the members of the gang kept the natives in a state of quietude was that BYRON BAY, a liveryman at Grand River. The morning following the GREENLAND fire, ZEB PETERSON made remarks concerning the horses which aroused MR. BAY's suspicions.

When MR. CORBETT reached the scene, BAY confided in him, but was detected by one of the gang, who recognized in CORBETT an enemy. BAY was secretly warned by one of the gang. It appeared that after the GREELAND fire, not satisfied with the amount of proprty destroyed, two members of the gang burned two old buggies, carted them to the scene of the fire, and deposited them in the ruins to collect for them from the insurance company.

A retired farmer named EVANS noted that two of the buggies were considerably less damaged than the others. He reported to MR. CORBETT and an investigation followed; but EVANS was noticed talking to CORBETT, and four nights later EVANS' barn caught fire mysteriously and was burned to the ground.

It was in this way that the gang enforced its laws and by terrorism ruled with rods of iron.


The companies that suffered losses by the depredations of this gang were the Hawkeye of Des Moines, which paid for one worthless house and for several head of home-killed horses. The Fidelity of Des Moines suffered some loss on stock.

The Hanover of New York paid GREENLAND for an old house known as the Mrs. Phillips property. This company also paid for two old pelters of horses that were killed by GREENLAND up in DENNY MORAN's pasture. GREENLAND tried to get MORAN to make a claim on his policy for the two horses from the Farmers' Company of Cedar Rapids. MORAN refused, but GREENLAND found a ready tool in one GEORGE BUSH. BUSH and GREENLAND collected $120 for this death, and it was for this crime that GREENLAND was indicted at the March term of court.

The change wrought by the wiping out of this gang was marvelous. In the palmy days of the gang, saloons ran galore with nothing but a government license. It was impossible to convict because witnesses would not tell the truth.

Nowadays, Grand River is one of the most peaceful towns in southern Iowa. Traveling men notice a difference in the present condition from that under the old lawless days. Since the State Insurance Company made its fight on this GREENLAND case, the loss ratio has dropped in Decatur County about 80 per cent. The town is surrounded by a delightful farming community and property has increased very much both in the adjacent territory and the town itself.


Copied by Nancee (McMurtrey) Seifert
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