Hardin County, Iowa - The Rainsbarger Case

transcribed by Linda Suarez from
The Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa

ed. by Willaim J. Moir.  Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen & Company, 1911. pp. 192-200

From an early day in the history of Hardin county there had been citizens of a questionable character. Some of the crimes committed were never ferreted out and the perpetrators brought to justice; some were tried and acquitted, others have been sent to the penitentiary for terms of years and some received life sentences. Not all the crimes committed were by the men and women arrested and tried, and not all the persons charged with dark deeds were in fact guilty of such crimes. There have been two sides to these cases here in Hardin as in other Iowa counties. One class has been arrayed against another class, and hence innocent men have probably suffered at the hands of guilty ones, and in other cases, the really guilty ones have never been brought to justice. While the celebrated Rainsbarger cases have been known far and wide, perhaps many another county has a worse criminal record than has Hardin county. But it is not the province of this volume to hide from view nor to magnify crime within the borders of this fair county, but to touch briefly on some of the more celebrated cases which include the Rainsbarger cases.

The beginning investigation of the criminal acts of members of this family, many of whom are highly intelligent and respected citizens, was begun at the June term of court, at Eldora, the first term ever presided over by Judge Daniel D. Chase, of Webster City.

The was the case of Finley Rainsbarger, who was charged with the murder of one Voils, who lived in the vicinity of Steamboat Rock. Voils was a large, muscular man, somewhat addicted to drink, and when under the influence of the same was very mean and quarrelsome. Rainsbarger was a much smaller man. Some trouble had come up between the two men and meeting in Steamboat Rock, Voils, under the influence of liquor, threatened to whip Rainsbarger, shaking his fist under his nose and making other demonstrations Rainsbarger suddenly drew a knife and stabbed Voils just below the left nipple, killing him instantly. Rainsbarger was arrested, bound over to the grand jury, and that body found a true bill against him. He asked, and was granted a change of venue to Marshall county, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years in the penitentiary, but after about a year and a half was pardoned by the Governor. Henry L. Huff and W. J. Moir, both of Eldora, defended.

The Nathan and Frank Rainsbarger cases commenced with their arrests in Hardin county, January 16, 1885, for the murder of Enoch Johnson. The information was filed against these two brothers -- always known as Frank and Nate -- by Nettie Rainsbarger, who was then the wife of Frank Rainsbarger, charging them with the murder of Johnson, who was her father.

The history of these awful cases has burdened the court records, and been before the governors, and recently there was filed a lengthy petition asking for the pardon of the two brothers, now serving life sentences in the Iowa penitentiary, in which they were placed in 1884. This petition is a printed document, as required by law to be presented to the governor and board of parole, who are now (January, 1911) investigating the case again. The documents contain much of the evidence narrated in this historic article which the writer has deemed wise to quote from, for the simple reason that the best evidence is that which comes from legal papers, where the statements are always required to be under oath.

To give the reader a clearer understanding how this criminal proceeding came about, why the crime was committed and who was in the way or another connected therewith, the following is quoted from the affidavit of Frank M. and Nate Rainsbarger, backed by many other affidavits of like character:

"In 1879 one William P. Hiserodt and others of Steamboat Rock formed a get-rich-quick scheme. Many good citizens were innocently drawn into it around Steamboat Rock, Eldora and the adjacent country. The gang finally engaged in counterfeiting. Some of the money was made in Steamboat Rock from dies owned by Hiserodt, but most of it was sent from Dubuque.

"Frank's first knowledge of Johnson's connection with the gang was one evening in the fall of 1882, when he, Johnson, and others drove into Steamboat Rock and stopped at one J. Snyder's store. While there Hiserodt called Johnson and in about half an hour Johnson and Hiserodt brought a box about two feet long and six or eight inches wide, which was very heavy, and they put it in Frank Rainsbarger's wagon and returned to Frank's home with Frank. Here Frank asked Johnson what was in his box and he declined to say and acted queer about it. Next morning Johnson had the box with him and he drove over to Cleves, from which place he shipped the box by express to one Milton Biggs at Dakota City, Nebraska.

"Johnson afterwards told Frank that this box contained counterfeit money, that Hiserodt was sending out. In 1884 Johnson was arrested by federal officers for passing and having counterfeit money in his possession and the said Biggs was arrested with him at the same time. They were taken to Fort Dodge for examination before the United States commissioner and after the hearing and while a United States officer was taking Johnson and Biggs to Sioux City jail, Biggs slipped his handcuffs and escaped and was never recaptured.

"Henry Johns, Frank Rainsbarger's brother-in-law, had warned Frank against having anything to do with the Johnson gang. Said Johns was foreman of the Federal grand jury that indicted Enoch Johnson. This indictment produced great excitement at Steamboat Rock, owing to the gangs fearing that Henry Johns would get Johnson to turn state's evidence, and this was exactly what Johns was attempting to do.

"When Johnson was arrected, his wife, Mag Johnson, sold or transferred nearly everything Johnson had. Nettie Rainsbarger (now Nettie Haley) begged Frank, her husband, to go and get her father, Enoch Johnson, out on bail, so that her father could stop his wife, Mag Johnson, from disposing of all the property. Frank finally became sole bondsman for Johnson.

"Johnson was confined in the penitentiary prior to being bailed out by Frank Rainsbarger. When he was released on bond he returned to Steamboat Rock and at once quarreled with his wife, Mag, and left her to live at the home of Frank Rainsbarger, his son-in-law, where Nate Rainsbarger was also making his home. Johnson made many threats against William Hiserodt and several others. They frequently came to Frank's home to see Johnson and he told them plainly that if they deserted him or would not help him out, he would not go to the penitentiary alone, that they has passed counterfeit dollars where he had cents. Hisserodt declared at one time that if Johnson 'peached' there wouldn't be enough left of him to feed the crows, and on the very morning of the day of Johnson's death the two men had a serious quarrel in the road near Steamboat Rock. Johnson believed the gang would kill him and was afraid to go out alone at night. He had his life insured for his daughter, Nettie's benefit for seven thousand dollars, all done without the knowledge of Nettie's husband, Frank Rainsbarger. Mag Johnson, about the same time took out sixteen thousand dollars of insurance on Johnson's life, payable to her in case of his death. Johnson was a particular friend of Nate Rainsbarger and begged us both to get insurance on him, which Frank finally did, a five thousand dollar policy in the Caw Insurance Company of Kansas City, Missouri, payable jointly to Nettie and Frank Rainsbarger and which we assert is the only circumstance that would point to a motive for the alleged crime charged against Frank. During these times our brother-in-law had several private talks with Johnson. At one time Dr. Underwood came to see Nettie and found Johnson and Henry Johns talking together and asked Frank if he knew what Henry Johns was after. Frank told him he did not. After that Johnson would always keep out of sight when Dr. Underwood came to see Nettie, which he did two or three times.

"Now as to the day on which Johnson was killed. In the afternoon Enoch Johnson told us he would be gone over night, he said he expected to get a letter from his wife at Steamboat Rock. That if she had matters fixed up he might have to go down to Eldora, but if he did not hear from her he would go over to Mame Tailor's and stay all night. That he was afraid to drive back at night. Nate and I drove over to Cleves. One of Nate's horses had been sick for some time and we drove very slowly. We got some groceries for Henry Williams, our hired man, and got home about 11:30 p.m.

"Mag Johnson came to our home about eight a.m. the next day. We were all surprised to see her so early; she said she came on a freight from Eldora and walked out. About ten o'clock a.m. a telegram arrived from Joshua West to Mag Johnson saying that Johnson had met with an accident and was dead. Before opening the telegram Mag Johnson said 'That dispatch is from Joshua West.' She was not at all surprised and showed no sorrow, but arranged to be driven to Gifford, near which place Johnson had been killed.

"Mag Johnson came several times to our home and talked with Nettie and finally persuaded her to go with her and see Hiserodt at Steamboat Rock, Iowa. A day or two after this we were surprised to learn that Nettie had joined with Hiserodt and Mag Johnson, to fasten the crime upon us.

"A few days after our preliminary examination Henry Johns declared publicly that he personally knew that we could not be guilty of the crime of killing Enoch Johnson. That he know Johnson had been killed to prevent him from exposing the gang of counterfeiters, and he told us to be of good cheer, that he would never rest well until the true facts were known, that he would stay by us if it cost fifty thousand dollars to clear us and bring to justice the real culprits.

"This was the last time we ever saw Henry Johns.

"He was waylaid near Abbott the night of march 30th, while returning to his home, and was shot, dying from the effects of the injury. His ante-mortem statement made out by Justice Harrington of Marshalltown was never made public and no one was ever indicted for his murder.

"While we were in jail at Marshalltown, awaiting our trial, a mob attacked the jail at Eldora and assassinated our two brothers, Finn and Emanuel, and no action was ever taken by officials to learn who constituted the mob.

"With no intention to discuss that affair, we refer to same to show that the public mind was inflamed against the name Rainsbarger at the time we were tried, and that a fair trial was an impossibility in Hardin or any of the surrounding counties.

"And once again, we say that we never had any ill will or quarrel with Enoch Johnson, that we never molested so much as a hair of his head, that we have suffered these long years for a crime that we did not commit, that we have waited patiently for deliverance from prison, never having lost faith in the idea that our liberty would some day be restored to us. We have therefore joined in the above statement of facts, trusting that it may help your excellency to feel the duty of enabling us to pass the remaining years of our lives in freedom, each feeling that under such a condition we can prove to the world that we have but one controlling ambition and that is to be good and upright citizens before our neighbors and before the laws of our country.

(Signed) "Frank M. Rainsbarger.

"Nate Rainsbarger.

"Dated May 15, 1907."

Dr. N. C. Morse's Statement

Concerning the death of Henry Johns, Doctor Morse, of Eldora, still living, gave this statement under oath, June 1, 1906, nearly a quarter of a century after the transaction occurred:

"Henry Johns was a brother-in-law of the Rainsbargers and had demanded that the accused be taken to Marshalltown jail for safe keeping. He knew the boys were innocent and supplied means for their defense. On the night of April 9th, while returning from Robinson, Hardin county, Henry Johns was shot at from ambush, but escaped injury. He became alarmed and consulted his attorney, John Roberts, of Ackley, as to the means of protecting his life. On April 16th, Henry Johns came to Eldora. He has been warned to be careful; he took the evening train north, intending to go home. He got off at Abbott station, where his hired man and little son awaited him. He noticed several parties with guns on the train at Steamboat Rock and became suspicious. It was a very dark night, and as Henry Johns, who, with his hired man and son were driving home and within a quarter of a mile of the town of Abbott, one of his horses was suddenly shot dead. Both boys jumped from the vehicle and while Johns was attempting to get out, he was shot at several times; a charge of buckshot took effect in his left arm, below the elbow, and a bullet struck him in the breast. He was left for dead, but after a struggle managed to get home. He died about two weeks or ten days later, as a result of gangrene. Before his death, Henry Johns made a statement of all the facts as herein set forth; he had recognized several of his assailants and named them. This dying statement or declaration was made out by one Harrington, justice of the peace of Marshalltown, Iowa, and was duly sworn to before witnesses. This paper was filed in the clerk's office at Eldora, but was taken from the files and was never more heard of, nor can it be found."

Alleged Attempt to Assassinate Doctor Underwood

The following concerning the attempt on Doctor Underwood's life is also from the statement given the board of pardon, at Des Moines, in 1906:

"About June 2, 1885, at a called meeting of the society (the Vigilance Society, elsewhere named), a large number of the members met -- two hundred to two hundred and fifty -- at Hiserodt's Hotel, for the purpose of adopting a plan by which they could arouse the whole county to action and thus exterminate the rest of the Rainsbarger family. It was arranged at this meeting that four or five men should proceed north from Steamboat Rock at an hour agreed upon to intercept Doctor Underwood, of Eldora, who was to make a call or visit to the father of William Hiserodt, who lived north of the Henry Johns place. These men were instructed to wear masks and use shot guns or rifles, but were not to injure the occupants or horses. This plan was carried out late in the afternoon of June 3, 1885. The men selected to perform this hold-up were Joseph McMillan, Jim Stephenson, William Buckner and Amos Bannigan. The next day after the shooting, on June 4th, Race Gardener, acting deputy under Vance Wilcox, sheriff, arrested Finn, Wilcox and others arrested Manse and William Rainsbarger. They were taken to Eldora and William Rainsbarger was released on his own promise to appear, but Finn and Manse were locked up in the Eldora jail. Sheriff Wilcox and his special deputy, H. E. Gardener, left on the evening train north, on the Iowa Central railroad. At about eleven o'clock P.M. of the same evening, June 4, 1885, a large crowd gathered at Steamboat Rock, consisting of men from Etna and Clay townships, many of them in wagons and buggies, others on horseback. At Steamboat Rock bridge the party divided, the majority taking the river road to Eldora; others went to meet Robinson and Jackson township men at the Hayden cross roads. At the Armstrong place, south of Steamboat Rock, they stopped to load a maple tree, which was twelve inches at the butt and twenty feet long. It had been cut and trimmed the morning of June 1st (before the attempted shooting) and hauled near the road. This tree was loaded on a wagon and later used for the purpose of batting in the jail door at Eldora. There was no official resistance. The party reached the jail about 1:25 A.M., and the jail was butted in and both Finn and Manse were shot in their cells before the crowd could get the cell door open. Manse, some say, Finn, although wounded, fought his way outside, with a boot or shoe, and was killed outside the jail. The last scheme of any prominence was the attempt to kill John Bunger. Bunger was supposed to have been waylaid, the horse he was riding being killed and he received a shot through the right leg. This was a bungling affair. It being self-evident that Bunger himself did the shooting, the horse was old and toothless and was shot back of the ear, the bullet ranging forward and downward, Bunger's clothing or pant leg caught fire from the close proximity of the pistol. However, Joseph and John Rainsbarger were arrested by Sheriff Allan Meader, who was ordered by Judge Weaver, court being in session, to take them to Marshalltown for safe keeping. A crowd of men with guns and revolvers went to the depot for the purpose of intercepting the sheriff and lynching these boys (aged respectively sixteen, twelve and eleven years); the shooting was only averted by the knowledge that the Rainsbargers were armed and possibly the failure of a crowd from Jackson township to arrive in time."

In conclusion, Doctor Morse states in his affidavit that: "There is little doubt but what at the time Clay township and vicinity was infected with a very tough or criminal element. Finn Rainsbarger had a bad reputation and was considered a dangerous man. He was supposed to be associated with the notorious Jack Reed, Enoch Johnson, Ed Cheney and many others of like character. Nathan and Frank Rainsbarger were never before arrested or indicted for any crime or misdemeanor. Manse and William Rainsbarger were both hard working men, and never under the least suspicion. Many good citizens were drawn into joining the Vigilance Society and at first acted as they then believed, in the interest of good government and the peace and safety of their hones and property, but they were soon led into acts and deeds which do not bear the scrutiny of time, and which they now view with chagrin and sorrow. Many of the most active and prominent men of that "society" have died. Others have left the county and state. A few only are left of the original reformers, and they, of course, are adverse to having the facts made public. Possibly a few fear that if the two Rainsbargers are allowed to have their freedom, they would naturally seek some revenge, or at least expose those who were instrumental in sending them to prison. And yet in view of the fact that Frank and Nate Rainsbarger were convicted principally on the testimony of Nettie Rainsbarger, whose reputation for truth and morality is bad, it would seem but an act of justice that these two men, now grown old and gray, incarcerated for twenty-four years for a crime with which their connection is, at least, questionable, should be granted a parole or pardon.

"Very respectfully,

(Signed) "N. C. Morse.

"Eldora, Iowa, June 1, 1906."

Enoch Johnson and his Character

The court records and other affidavits show the following concerning Enoch Johnson, who was killed and to whom the two Rainsbarger boys were charged and convicted of being the murderers of:

At the date of this death Johnson was fifty-three years of age. His reputation was bad; he was commonly called "horsethief Johnson." He was know as a cattle and hog thief and also known to be a pal of the noted Jack Reed. Mag Johnson, wife of the murdered man, was likewise of bad reputation, but a woman of courage and of shrewd judgment. At the time of his death Johnson was under indictment for passing counterfeit money, and when arrested had about five hundred dollars of such money in his possession. He was met by appointment about four miles south of Eldora, where he had gone with the intention of stealing a steer (it is stated) from the pasture of Seth Tash, by three men, who drove down ahead of him in a buggy, driving two horses or mules. After he was killed, the wheel of his buggy was broken, the horses were unhitched and Johnson placed on his horse and thus carried to the foot of the hill. The lines were wrapped around his leg and his body allowed to fall off and was dragged for about three-fourths of a mile, every effort to have his death appear as a matter of accident. Had they not met Johnson at the Tash Hill, it was intended by the parties in pursuit of him to follow him and kill him at the home of his wife, Mag Johnson, who, it was said, was fully advised in the matter, and some witnesses assert that Nettie Rainsbarger was also aware of the plot to kill her father, having herself tried to impeach his testimony over the collection of a mortgage, her father having, so she claimed, forged her name in procuring money. This is a matter of court record and no fancy picture."

It may be added that it was a case of circumstantial evidence, in which at least some links were missing, and the hearing had before the supreme court brought out the fact that the questions of how or by whom Enoch Johnson came to his death were not very clear and conclusive in the minds of the court itself, for Judge Weaver of the supreme bench, stated "That Enoch Johnson was murdered by any person is not and ever has been established beyond a reasonable doubt."

At the time of these tragedies in Hardin county, the Eldora Herald was being edited by a James S. Ross, now in Missouri, and at the time he published a pamphlet history of the affair, and in 1906, when the two remaining Rainsbargers were seeking a pardon at the hands of the Governor, he made an affidavit in which he states that "As to the killing of Enoch Johnson, it was the general talk and understanding, of which I learned sometime after the conviction, that Johnson was killed by his brothers-in-law, Milton and John Biggs, after a plan arranged by certain parties at Steamboat Rock. I became fully convinced from information derived from several sources that Frank and Nathan Rainsbarger were not guilty of the crime for which they were convicted. Nettie Rainsbarger's reputation for truth and morality at the time I left Eldora was exceedingly bad."

It will be remembered that this affidavit was made only five years ago and that it was after the passing of twenty-four years, the time the accused had then been in the penitentiary serving life sentence. There is not doubt but that the Vigilance Society of Hardin county, was formed for good purpose and not for the purpose of being prostituted into a bad society which in the end was led and managed by a set of men who intended to run the Rainsbargers and all their clan out of the county, and state, if possible, by fair or foul means. In this way many crimes might have been -- indeed were -- committed by them, and the same charged up to the life and character of the men who were sent to the prison by the courts. In fact it is charged that the sheriff of the county and other officials were in league with the society and frequently met with them at Steamboat Rock and other points, and thus must have known much of the workings and designs of that illegal body. But possibly, the majority of the citizens who joined the Vigilance order went in with no intention of being the means, in the hands of a mob, of taking human life or destroying property.

Who killed Henry Johns? Who killed Enoch Johnson? How were they killed? Just who was leader and responsible for the killing, by mob, in the Eldora jail, of Finley and Manse Rainsbarger, are all questions not fully answered in the minds of the people and possibly never will be known until the day of judgment, when the secrets of all mankind shall be revealed before an impartial Judge, who errs not in meting out justice to all who have committed such awful crimes.

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