Go to: Home Page * History Index *

Harrison County Iowa Genealogy

Notorious Criminal and Civil Cases

Extracted from the 1915 History of Harrison County, Iowa, by Hon. Charles W. Hunt, Logan;
published by B. F. Bowen & Co., Inc., Chapter XX, pages 284-291

Transcribed and submitted by Mona Sarratt Knight

While it is not the intent of the author to relate all of the crimes committed within this county during the years since it was first settled by white men, it is highly fitting that some casual record be here entered concerning some of the more notorious and important cases tried here. It is not a pleasant topic, but it is hoped that its recital may be the means of doubly magnifying the statement that �the way of the transgressor is hard.�

There was Cain, the first murderer on earth. He was punished for his crime and the law has usually found out the red hand that has taken the life of a fellow man from that day to this. In Harrison County, the first person murdered was the wife of a Frenchman, who, by the way, had numerous wives. His name was CHARLES LA PONTEUR, who, in 1850, resided near present Little Sioux town, on a tract of land upon which he laid out a village named Fontainebleu, but which, in more recent years, was the cornfield of MICHAEL MURRAY. LA PONTEUR was an Indian trader and had, previous to this crime, married two Omaha Indian squaws, and both were living with him at the time of this, the first murder in Harrison County.

In the spring of 1850, while these squaws, the French trader's wives were out on a little strip of ground planting corn, the Sioux numbering a score or more in warriors secretly stole upon them. Before the warriors were within shooting distance of the women, the latter knew the fate that awaited them. One of the wives had with her a daughter about fourteen years of age, and while the bloodthirsty Sioux were advancing, the mother of the girl told her, when the first shots were fired, to fall to the ground at once and feign death and to remain until opportunity came for her escape, while she, the mother, would run for the river and possibly make her escape. �For,� said she, �the Indians will shoot at me and I may be wounded, and if you fall they will think they missed me and hit you.� Scarcely had this direction been given when the shots were fired and the girl, true to orders, fell prone to the ground, and the mother, wounded, as she had predicted, like the mother bird when molested at the coveted nest, fairly flew so as to call attention of the invaders to her, and save the young; but by the time she reached the Little Sioux River, she was captured, tomahawked and scalped, the girl, in the meantime, making good her escape.

The next Indian murder in the county was in the winter of 1864, in Clay Township, in the belt of timber that skirts the Missouri River. A band of Omahas and Pawnees were at work in the timber cutting saw logs from large cottonwood timber, and this being so close to the time of the famous Minnesota Indian massacres, the settlers had much to say concerning Indian cruelty, which talk was many times made before the children in the families of pioneers. Among such families were those of HORATIO CAYWOOD and JAMES MATHERS, the latter having a stepson named WILLIAM BROWN, about eighteen years of age. He was both brutal and cowardly. He, thinking to make himself famous, deliberately took his rifle and stole in upon a party of Indians while they were at work, and there, without a word of warning or of provocation, shot one of the young men, aged twenty three years, from which shooting the Indian immediately expired. This was in Civil War days, and the best men of the country were fighting for the Union on bloody fields in the Southland, hence this act was not taken notice of by the authorities, and was lightly treated on the grounds that �it was only an Indian, anyhow.� Thus the case ended.

In 1869 at Dunlap occurred the cold-blooded murder of old Yellow Smoke. Many men of today, who were then but striplings of boys, recall how old Yellow Smoke, the Injun used to visit the district schools in the eastern portion of Harrison County and ask the teacher for something to eat, and point to the dinner pails, as they hung pon the pegs along the walls of the room. On more than one occasion, Prof. S. G. ROGERS, a teacher of the county, donated his own full dinner pail to old Yellow Smoke, but after this was eaten, the Indian would require the scholars to give him what he wanted of theirs. The old Indian was a great gambler and, while at Dunlap on the time above mentioned, he was playing cards in a gambling game. He was more successful than some with whom he was playing, and over this a cart-table quarrel began, and ended in the murder of the poor old Yellow Smoke, who was the following morning found dead near the depot. His skull was crushed in two or more places, showing that a fearful encounter had taken place. This was the brutal act of a civilized white man or men. The grand jury could not fasten the crime on any person or persons, and the crime is still an unsolved mystery.

FIRST MURDER TRIAL. The State vs. JAMES E. TRIPLETT, was the first murder case of Harrison County, tried by her courts in regular form. It was one that attracted state-wide attention. The defendant was indicted for the murder of his wife by the use of poison, while she was ill, administering it under the guise of medicines. She died, was buried at Magnolia and remained in the grave fourteen months, when suspicion rested on the husband. His conduct revealed that for a long time prior to her death, TRIPLETT and a daughter of his employer, LEWIS S. SNYDER, had been keeping assignations. This, together with other conduct, needless to here relate, caused suspicion to ripen into action and was followed by Dr. J. H. RICE, GEORGE G. DOWNS, NATHANIEL McKIMMEY, ISAAC BEDSAUL and JOE H. SMITH repairing to the cemetery at midnight, exhuming the corpse of the deceased wife, and after taking therefrom the stomach, placing the same in a jar and sealing it. They then returned the corpse to the grave, and took the stomach to Omaha, where its contents were analyzed, showing that it contained enough strychnine to poison half a dozen persons. This caused the arrest of the defendant, TRIPLETT, on a warrant charging him with the murder of his wife. Even while lying in the grave for more than a year, so strong was the poison that it had preserved the body from decay in a remarkable manner. In May 1864, the trial began and lasted until the twelfth of that month. The jury trying the case was composed of the following gentlemen: JAMES ERVIN, ELIJAH HEDGECOCK, LYSANDER CRANE, A. N. WARREN, C. S. WAY, WILLIAM N. FOUTS, JAMES S. McELROY, W. L. JONES, JOSEPH DEAL, ISAAC SKELTON, J. T. ROBERTS and SOLOMON J. IMLAY. After five days of trial, the district attorney filed a motion to discharge the jury on the grounds that one of their number had visited the prisoner in his cell, and possibly more than one, and held several conversations with him. A new trial was held in July 1865, with another jury, the following men being among its members: N. B. SMOTHERS, O. P. REEL, WILLIAM TUCKER, J. W. HENDERSON, E. T. McKENNEY, ISAAC CHILDS and EPHRAIM STRAUSS. During the last trial, the Omaha chemist returned to the graveyard and took up the remains and removed parts of the viscera, which were offered as evidence, showing that they contained large quantities of poison. Notwithstanding all this, the jury found a verdict of Not Guilty, stating that there might be a possibility that the deceased had been given poison through mistake, in administering medicine to her. TRIPLETT remarried, securing a second wife without difficulty, and in less than ten years she died in a similar manner to his former wife, and ten years later the defendant died a most horrible death, uncared for and deserted by all in the community.

The courts of Harrison County were burdened again in July 1868 by a criminal case, but this time it was not for crimes committed by citizens of Harrison County, but was the celebrated CUPPY case from Shelby County, sent here for a hearing. It was a case wherein one JAMES M. LONG was charged with killing CUPPY, who was supposed to be connected with a horse stealing gang in this section of Iowa. The trial lasted many days and resulted in acquittal � probably on account of the defendant having killed a Horse Thief, as the talk was.

NOT GUILTY. The next case was that of the State vs. JOHN W. MEECHAM. This was a case growing out of an old pioneer custom of men going out onto speculators' prairie lands and cutting a swath around as much land as they expected to cut grass for the purpose of making hay. After it had been once cut around, it had been the custom to leave it and take their own time to cut the balance of the grass. It was rarely that anybody went onto such land to claim the grass once thus cut around, but in this case it worked differently and resulted in death. The parties in this action were the MEFFORDS and MEECHAM. GEORGE W. MEFFORD, of an old pioneer family, followed the time honored custom of mowing around a lot of land for haying purposes, near the residence of Mr. MEECHAM, but when MEECHAM got ready to �hay� he disregarded this rule among the settlers and, taking his scythe, went upon this claim made by MEFFORD and cut considerable wild grass unbeknown to MEFFORD. When MEFFORD discovered this fact, he went with two companions and began pitching the hay and placing the same in cocks. MEECHAM watched this and while he was lone-handed and there were three of the Meffords, he, the defendant Meecham, took his Colt's No. 2 pistol and deliberately cleaned and oiled the weapon, and discharged one round so as to feel sure that there would be no failure when firing. Then, reloading the weapon, he went deliberately to the hay field where the three MEFFORDS were putting up the hay which he had cut, and forbade them taking his hay. Soon the altercation ripened into a real fight, and GEORGE W. MEFFORD was shot directly in the heart.

This case consumed two days in securing a trial jury, and when accepted, the following named were sworn in: W. S. MEECH, SETH PALMER, SILAS COOK, LOWRY WILSON, STEPHEN MAHONEY, E. R. WILLS, F. T. HILL, E. H. MORTON, ALEXANDER JOHNSON, CURTIS BAXTER, JOHN R. CLARK, and JOHN G. DOWNS. It took ten days to try the case. When the evidence had been heard and the arguments made pro and con, the jury was properly instructed and placed in their room for deliberation. They deliberated for twelve hours and returned the old stereotyped verdict of Not Guilty. MEECHAM was no angel and doubtless went to the hayfield determined to either get his hay or the lifeblood of one of the Meffords in the attempt to get it. Young MEFFORD was twenty three years of age, and the blow was a crushing one on his parents. MEECHAM was a sort of a dare-devil. He enlisted in Company C, 29th Iowa Regiment, and went to Sioux City at the time this company was ordered to that place. On the return of the company, the same having gone into barracks at Council Bluffs, from where they were ordered south, three days being granted for each man to go home and make ready. MEECHAM accepted his furlough, and while on his way or at his home, having tired of military life, shot off two of his fingers in order to be discharged, but the reported accident was too plain a case, and he was ordered south with the rest of the soldiers. During the six months he served, he was troublesome and disorderly and was finally transferred to the invalid corps.

BLOODIEST MURDER OF THE COUNTY. The murder of STEPHEN IDE by LOUIS W. WEIRICH in Logan at high noon in the summer of 1872 was, perhaps, the bloodiest murder ever committed within the borders of Harrison or adjoining counties. STEPHEN IDE was a large, rough, overbearing, lawless and desperate man. WEIRICH had already killed his man and on many occasions boasted of the fact that he had killed a human being. WEIRICH at the time was running a butcher shop in Logan, and on the fateful day IDE came into town and the two went to a hay loft where they engaged in a game of poker, at which sitting IDE won a dollar's worth of meat from WEIRICH. When they had arrived at the butcher shop, a quarrel arose over the weight of the meat and hot words were exchanged, when IDE, being a strong, muscular man, took hold of WEIRICH and gave him a severe choking, after which the parties were separated. Some of the bystanders, knowing the temper of the butcher WEIRICH, hid all the knives they supposed there were in the meat shop. IDE again returned to the butcher shop and proceeded to chastise WEIRICH the second time. During the struggle, WEIRICH grasped a butcher knife which he had secreted, and thrust the same directly into the heart of IDE. IDE, at the time, had WEIRICH by the throat and was choking him, and when thus struck by WEIRICH, thrust the latter to the floor and fell immediately upon him. The life blood gushing forth in great violence from the heart of IDE fell directly into the face and mouth of WEIRICH. The dying man never relaxed his grip on WEIRICH until his arm was still in death.

March 1873 the trial commenced and only lasted one day. The evidence was clear. The witnesses were: GEORGE MUSGRAVE, GEORGE M. KERNS, W. J. RUDD, B. F. LaPORTE, and THOMAS J. ACREA, all of whom testified as to the manner of killing. The jury was only out an hour and returned a verdict of Guilty as charged in the indictment. Three days later, the court sentenced the prisoner to the penitentiary for life at Fort Madison. He was pardoned out after ten years, by an act of the Legislature, the attorney who prosecuted him and had him sent up for life being the chief influence in causing his pardon to be granted.

THE KILLING OF WASHINGTON I. CROW. Another sad case was that wherein the young life of the son of STEPHEN CROW, near Woodbine, was sacrificed at the hands of one ARTEMUS BAKER sometime during the year 1875. The killing was accomplished by use of a pistol fired from the hand of BAKER, and death was instantaneous. The sad affair occurred at the barn of STEPHEN CROW. None but the two were present and thereafter only one side was ever heard. The jury tried the case in the old Methodist Episcopal Church at Logan, the courthouse not being completed there at that date. Self-defense was the plea, and it worked well and Not Guilty was the final verdict. A tombstone in the Woodbine Cemetery today carries an inscription stating that the young man was Assassinated!

IMPORTANT CIVIL CASES. A very important and unique case at law was that entitled DR. F. M. COMFORT vs. L. D. KITTLE (sheriff). It was before the courts in 1889. It was a habeas corpus case in which Dr. COMFORT was arrested by order of Judge SCOTT M. LADD, now of the state supreme court, on the grounds that he refused to give bond to appear as a witness in the case of the State vs. PHINEAS CADWELL. This case was brought before Judge AILSWORTH of Council Bluffs who, on hearing, discharged the plaintiff. The sheriff thereupon appealed the case to the supreme court of Iowa, where it was affirmed, Judge BECK alone dissenting. L. R. BOLTER & SONS and J. W. BARNHART were the attorneys for the plaintiff (the doctor) and S. H. COCHRAN and JOE H. SMITH for the sheriff, Mr. KITTLE of Monona County.

This case suddenly and unexpectedly changed what had been the universal rule in the state ever since its admission to the Union. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of men had at one time or another been placed in jail for refusing to furnish bonds because they would not appear in court as witnesses. It determined once and for all that a man cannot be placed in jail for what knowledge he may or may not be possessed of, bond or no bond. Hon. L. R. BOLTER had contended this for a quarter of a century, but this was the first test case to go to the higher courts of the state.

JOE H. SMITH, ATTORNEY, AS A COLORED MAN. Perhaps no more laughable incident ever occurred in the courts of this county than the case in which the attorney was charged by the opposite attorney of being a Colored Man and for that reason not allowed to testify in court. This was a case being tried the plaintiff. When SMITH undertook to testify, himself, concerning a certain account book, he was at once objected to by CAPTAIN HILL on the grounds that section 2388 of the Code of 1851 read: But an Indian, Negro, mulatto or black person shall not be allowed to give evidence in any case wherein a white person is a party. �Now,� remarked Captain HILL, �look at SMITH and determine if my objection is not well taken.� The Court sustained the objection, whereupon a scene occurred in which books flew in the air and all was not tranquil, for the complexion of Attorney JOE H. SMITH was not unlike that of Gen. JOHN A. LOGAN, dark and swarthy, though he was a full-blooded Caucasian. It should be stated that this was just before the reconstruction acts of the United States, after the Civil War, and the state constitution had not voted and passed upon the rights of the Negro race, by Amendment No. 15, which allows a colored man the same rights as are accorded to his white brother.

FIRST DRAINAGE DITCH LITIGATION. Now that Harrison county has been through the legal mill in regard to the right of the county to tax up lands within the various drainage districts, it may be of interest to know something of the first case in the courts touching such matters. It was a case known as the Spooner Ditch Case, or legally known as the case of P. C. SPOONER vs. the Board of Supervisors of Harrison County, Iowa. It was up for trial in 1879, when an injunction was served by the plaintiff seeking to restrain from collection of heavy taxes, for the construction of the Spooner ditch. This was located in the western portion of this county. S. H. COCHRAN, an attorney of Logan, was engaged as counsel for the plaintiff and W. S. SHOEMAKER for the defense. The plaintiff, SPOONER, succeeded in defeating the collection of about four thousand dollars in taxes.

THE GREAT DIAMOND ROBBERY. November 4, 1892, a traveling diamond merchant named W. L. POLLOCK, was shot and then robbed on a Sioux City & Pacific Railroad passenger train near California Junction. The train was running at full speed, when the criminal, who had been sitting in the rear of the smoking car, placed a mask over his face, advanced through the car in which there were a dozen men seated, raised a Shot Bag over POLLOCK's head and brought it down with great force. The bag burst when it struck, and the robber whipped out a revolver and shot POLLOCK in both arms. He then ripped open POLLOCK's clothing and seized twenty thousand dollars worth of diamonds which were carried in his inside pocket and picked up a grip which was supposed to contain twenty thousand dollars worth more of fine jewelry. He then pulled the bell cord, and when the train had slowed up, he jumped from the train and escaped.

He was followed here and there for seven years and was finally captured. He was tried at Logan by Judge VAN WAGNAN and was sentenced to seventeen years in the penitentiary at Fort Madison, but was paroled after a few years. He got into other trouble and was sent back to the prison again, and there, in 1904, he made a confession in which he implicated the noted politician and ward manager in Omaha, TOM DENNISON, who, it was stated, had planned this robbery and used the man, SCHERCLIFFE, as his tool. According to the latter's confession, he was to have protection and half of the spoils. DENNISON was arrested and tried, but as no positive proof was at hand, was finally acquitted.

Return to the Harrison County History Index page.