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The Murder of Charles B. Gillis – Wednesday, February 23, 1881

505 West Monroe Street, Mount Pleasant, Iowa

Following are transcriptions of newspaper articles, reporting the murder:


A Mt. Pleasant Man Shot On His Own Door Step.

The wires inform "The Hawkeye" of a terrible tragedy that was enacted at Mt. Pleasant, last evening:

"Mr. CHAS. GILLIS, one of our most prominent citizens, was called to his door about 8:30 o'clock this evening, and shot dead by some unknown person. Considerable excitement is created among our citizens by the unwarranted act. No clue as to who the murderer is."

The house, occupied by MR. GILLIS and his wife and his father, JUDGE GILLIS, who in his younger days was a prominent and well-known citizen of this state, is a large, two-story brick, situated three blocks west of the public square facing the south. The murdered man, a prominent citizen, and against whose character and business nothing has ever been said, has been a resident of Mount Pleasant for at least ten years. He was a man of about fifty-five years of age, and was in easy circumstances, owning a stock farm a short distance from the city. He leaves a wife, but no children.

["Burlington Hawkeye", February 24, 1881]



Further Particulars Concerning the Tragic Death of Charles B. Gillis.

A Slight Clue to the Murderer-A large Reward Offered for His Arrest.

After reading the particulars of the murder of CHARLES B. GILLIS at Mount Pleasant Wednesday evening, all will arrive at but one conclusion, that it was not only premeditated and cowardly, but one of the most dastardly and cold-blooded murders ever committed in Iowa and no time should be lost in discovering the assassin. Even a Sioux Indian or a Mollie Maguire would not be guilty of such a crime, unprovoked as it must have been. Below is a communication giving full particulars of the sad affair and all new developments up to last evening, sent by a special correspondent of THE HAWKEYE:

The murder of CHARLES GILLIS, last night, an account of which appeared in THE HAWKEYE this morning, has thrown our city into the most intense excitement. Several theories and many wild rumors are afloat, but no one can tell anything positively. One theory accounts for the deed on the ground of some old grudge held by some old enemy; another, that it was committed by some tramp, crazed by cold and exposure, whom MR. GILLIS met at the door; another, that the assassin had mistaken the house and man, but that has little foundation, for the murderer had full opportunity to be certain of his man through the brightly lighted windows of the room in which MR. GILLIS and his father were sitting. The only creditable clue is given in the fact that a stranger asked Mr. THOMAS CARMICHAEL on the street to direct him to CHARLES GILLIS'S house. Mr. CARMICHAEL did so, and the stranger started in the direction of MR. GILLIS'S home being then on the same street. That was about four o'clock, p.m. No stranger called at MR. GILLIS' until about eight o'clock, that evening when, as THE HAWKEYE stated, he was called to the door in answer to a rap and was shot. A man answering the description given by Mr. CARMICHAEL was seen by one or two others, and as the Brazelton house bus was going to the depot, the same man, very much out of breath from running, jumped on the bus near Mr. SPAHR'S residence, and rode to the depot, there taking a train out, no one can tell positively which train.

A thousand dollars reward for the arrest and conviction of the murderer is offered by the city council and board of supervisors.

The circumstances of the case are as follows: The family consisted of MR. CHARLES GILLIS, his wife and father, JUDGE JAMES A. [sic: "JAMES L."] GILLIS, and a servant girl. MR. GILLIS was sitting in his father's room, a pleasant room on the south side or front of the house, the window-blinds of which were wide open, and the room brightly lighted; the girl was in the back part of the house, and MRS. GILLIS had gone up street on an errand for her father [sic: father-in-law], who has been confined to the house all winter by illness. About eight o'clock a low rap was given at the front door. MR. GILLIS stepped into the hall and opened the door. The judge heard a few words of conversation, then a cry of help from his son, and a slight scuffle, followed by the report of a pistol. He hurried to the hall, but the assassin had fled and his son was lying prostrate on the floor of the hall. One groan was the only answer given the father. Going to the front door, which the assassin had closed, the Judge raised the cry of "Murder" which MRS. GILLIS heard as she was returning from her errand. Supposing her husband had left the room for a few moments, during which a paroxysm of pain had come upon her father [in-law] to which he is subject, she answered by saying, "Never mind, father; I'll be there in a moment." What was her horror to find the dead body of her husband in the hall. It was indeed murder-murder of all the best and sweetest part of her life. The hand of the murderer struck her heart through her husband, leaving a pain far less merciful than death. The ball, which was a large one, evidently fired from a heavy navy revolver, passed through the heart and lodged against the shoulder blade. The clothing was not singed a particle.

MR. GILLIS has lived here for sixteen or seventeen years, and has always been regarded by his neighbors as a quiet, peaceable man, with, perhaps, as few enemies as any man in the county. Living a quiet, unostentatious life, he still managed to make himself highly prized by his neighbors for his kindness of heart and rare manly qualities. Thus it happens that those who know him best are most at a loss to account for the motive of the deed.

The house where Mr. GILLIS lives seems devoted to tragedy; a number of years ago, RIDGEWAY GILLIS, a brother to CHARLES, shot himself or was shot in the barn, and an Indian girl, whom the family had raised, killed herself by taking poison.

From the Mt. Pleasant "Journal", received here last evening, we take the following extract from an account of the affair, which corroborates the information contained in the above special:

Mr. GILLIS was not known to have an enemy in the world. He had lived most agreeably with his neighbors, and had no known personal enemies. The deed was deliberate, bold and darkly inhuman. Mr. GILLIS was greatly respected by all who knew him, was a man especially given to attending strictly to his own business, and lived on terms of the warmest friendship with his neighbors. He was greatly devoted to his aged father and cared for him with the greatest of filial tenderness. His home was one of kindness and hospitality to everyone, and the community will deeply mourn his tragic death.

He was about 55 years of age. The only possible shadow of intimation as to the perpetrator of the deed, comes from the rather singular circumstance of a stranger stopping Mr. THOMAS CARMICHAEL, who lives near Mr. GILLIS, on the street yesterday about 4 o'clock, near the hardware store of RUKGABER, MCGREGOR & BAINES, who enquired of him where Mr. CHAS. GILLIS lived. He directed him and the stranger started in the direction of Mr. GILLIS' residence. No one, however, called at the house in the afternoon. Mr. JOHN HIGGINS also saw a stranger on our streets, at about 7:00 p.m., answering the description of the man seen by Mr. CARMICHAEL in the afternoon, and Mr. CRAWFORD of the Brazelton house, says a man whose description fits the man seen by both Mr. CARMICHAEL and Mr. HIGGINS, jumped on the 'bus near the residence of Mr. GEORGE SPAHR, as they went to the depot about eight o'clock last night. These are the only suspicious circumstances.

The City Council have this morning, authorized the major to offer a reward of $500 for the arrest, and conviction of the murderer. And we learn the Board of Supervisors is now in session and will probably offer a corresponding reward of $500. We also learn that a number of our citizens have expressed a willingness to add to the reward offered for the murderer's arrest.

The following extract from the Mt. Pleasant "Reporter" testifies to the murdered man's character and the result of an examination made by the physicians:

CHARLES B. GILLIS was about fifty-five years of age, and has been one of our most highly respected citizens for the past twenty or twenty-five years, and did not have a known enemy in the city or county. The murder is clouded in a mystery that it is hoped may be brought to light and the perpetrator receive the fullest penalty of the law. Physicians made an examination and found that the ball had entered the left side and passed in an upward direction, cutting the aorta close to the heart, passing through the right lung and lodged under the right shoulder blade, producing instant death.

["Burlington Daily Hawk Eye Gazette", February 25, 1881, Page 4]



As is generally the case when anything mysterious occurs, strange rumors are afloat concerning the GILLIS murder at Mt. Pleasant. Wild rumors have exaggerated the facts of the affair, and surpassed the bounds of probability in still wilder surmises. One important rumor, namely, that several years ago another son of JUDGE GILLIS was killed in a similar manner has been contradicted thus by the [Mt. Pleasant] "Free Press":

We find many of our exchanges asserting that RIDGEWAY GILLIS, a brother of the late CHARLES B. GILLIS, was called to the door and shot, a few years ago in the same manner as CHARLES was a few weeks ago. RIDGEWAY GILLIS was found dead in his father's barn about four o'clock on Friday afternoon, August 2, 1872. He was shot through the head and the pistol in his hand. a coroner's inquest was called, and after full investigation rendered a verdict that the deceased came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in his own hand. He was seen going towards the barn about that time by a little girl. He had been unfortunate in money matters. He was in the mercantile business at the time in Marshall [NOTE: Wayland, Iowa] fourteen miles northwest of here. His store was burned a few days before. The mystery as to the murder of CHARLES B. GILLIS is still unsolved.

["Burlington Daily Hawk Eye Gazette", March 26, 1881]



Another Theory Regarding the Murder of Charles Gillis - Anti-Masonic Reminiscences-Personal

History of Judge Gillis.

The "Philadelphia Press" reviews some reminiscences of the anti-Masonic troubles of 1828 in the following article on the murder of CHARLES GILLIS, at Mount Pleasant:

As far back as 1820, the attention of Philadelphia capitalists was drawn to the great lumber regions of the northwestern part of the state, and among the number was John J. Ridgway, a leading banker of this city. They purchased large tracts of land in what is not Elk County, held them for many years. At this day, Elk County [Pennsylvania] borders on the oil regions, produces large quantities of lumber and coal, contains the largest tanneries in the world, the biggest trout and the most deer and game east of the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia capital is still largely interested in the products of the county, and in the development of its natural resources, Philadelphians have made much money.

As far back as 1823, when the whole section of the country was an empire of woodland, it sometimes happened that Philadelphia gentlemen spent the summer in traveling over their estates in the backwoods. On these occasions, they met with a typical frontiersman who went with them on fishing and hunting excursions. He was an energetic, pushing young fellow of 35, quite well-to-do in the world, a tanner by trade, and a soldier of the War of 1812, who had suffered in British prisons. He had lived in western New York and Pennsylvania, knew every foot of ground in the tremendous expanse of forest, and was a shrewd, intelligent man. His name was JAMES L. GILLIS, and he afterward became a county judge, a member of the house and senate at Harrisburg [Pennsylvania], and finally a member of Congress. In the last generation, he was as well-known as any man in the State, and he had friends in every part of the Union. After serving in Congress and acting for two years as Indian agent for the Pawnee tribe, JUDGE GILLIS removed to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where he now resides, nearly 100 years old.

In 1826, WILLIAM MORGAN was a good for nothing tailor in the town of Batavia, western New York. He had belonged to the order of Free Masons; and it became known that, with the assistance of a country editor, was preparing an expose of the secrets of the order. MORGAN suddenly disappeared and it was said was drowned in Lake Ontario. The people of this day can have but little idea of the excitement this case caused. There was almost a rebellion in New York, and the affair gave rise to the formation of the anti-Masonic party, which polled 33,000 votes in New York State in 1828, 70,000 in 1829, and 128,000 in 1830! The presidential candidate of the party carried Vermont in 1832, and defeated the Clay ticket in Ohio and New Jersey. In this state [of Pennsylvania] the party almost elected DAVID RITNER governor in 1832, and did elect him in 1835.

At the time of the MORGAN excitement, JAMES L. GILLIS was a prominent Free Mason in western New York, and, with others, was charged with the murder of MORGAN. He was tried for the crime, but was acquitted.

JUDGE GILLIS had almost forgotten the prominence that was given him in the Morgan matter...

There was no apparent motive for the crime, and the murderer did his work with deadly certainty and escaped. There must have been some terrible incentive for this brutal murder, and many of JUDGE GILLIS' friends in the East firmly believe that the tragedy has a connection with the celebrated MORGAN murder or abduction of fifty-five years ago. Many believe the friends of MORGAN are visiting vengeance on the head of the venerable JUDGE GILLIS a half century after his supposed connection with that affair by murdering his son.

["Fairfield Ledger", Fairfield, Iowa, March 30, 1881, Page 11]



As quickly as they could, a group of men was organized, Mr. VAN ALLEN’S father among them. They searched the town for the assassin, but to no avail. Years and years passed, and Mr. JAMES GILLIS, a cousin of our Mr. GILLIS, received word that a man near St. Louis wanted to see him in regard to the CHARLES GILLIS murder. Here he found an elderly man, on his death bed, who confessed the murder and said he, by mistake, had killed the wrong man, that the bullets had been intended for the city marshal, a Mr. MCCLURE, who had locked him up in the city calaboose.

[From an undated newspaper clipping]

Compiled by Pat Ryan White

February 2018

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