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Monroe Family Tragedy

this site was last updated on Thursday, 27 May 2010

 

Monroe Family Found In Fume-Filled House

 

By Kent Wever, News Editor

 

One of the worst tragedies in Winneshiek County history was uncovered Monday evening, Jan. 8, when the eight bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Monroe and their six children were discovered.  The grim find was made in the family's two-story, white frame, farm house located four miles northeast of Ossian on the Centennial Road.  All eight deaths have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning "from a faulty space heater" by Dr. James Bullard, Winneshiek County medical examiner.

 

Dr. Bullard made his report following an autopsy performed on the body of one of the children in LaCrosse Monday night.

 

The dead include:  Edwin Monroe, 43; his wife, Virginia, 36; and the couple's six children, Larry, 12; Robert, 11; Patricia, 10; Wayne, eight; Jeannie, six; and Janice, three. 

 

Mrs. Monroe was reported to be five months pregnant at the time of her death.  The discovery was made by a brother of Monroe and a neighbor.  The neighbor, Palmar Johnson, who farms across the road from the Monroe farm, became suspicious when he did not see any lights or signs of life around the farm on Sunday or Monday.

 

Late Monday afternoon he went to the farm and found the family's car in the garage.  Johnson then returned to his own home and called Monroe's brother, Henry Monroe, Jr., who farms about five miles south of the Monroe farm and told him of his concern.

 

The two men returned to the farm at about 5 p.m. on Monday and, when they could not gain entry at either of the doors, went to a basement door and forced it open.

 

Using flashlights, the men went through the basement and up into the kitchen.  They found four bodies and went immediately to the Johnson home and called Winneshiek County Sheriff Eugene Simenson.

 

When Sheriff Simenson arrived, the house was searched.

 

Mr. Monroe was found seated on the kitchen floor leaning against a wall near the doorway leading to the stairs.  One of the girls was found lying near her father at the bottom of the stairs.  One of the older boys was found on the floor a few feet from his father.  Mrs. Monroe's body was discovered lying on its side in the bathroom which opened off the kitchen.

 

An examination of the staircase and the second floor produced the remainder of the family.  One girl was found on the staircase in a seated position leaning back against the stairs.  The third girl was found at the head of the stairs with her body partially in one of the bedrooms.

 

The last two Monroe boys were found in bed on the second floor.

 

Mrs. Monroe was fully clothed, with Mr. Monroe and the children partially dressed.

 

Dr. Bullard and Sheriff Simenson believe the deaths occurred sometime Sunday morning as the family was awakening.  When the officers entered, no lights were on in the house.  The kitchen was clean with no dishes in the sink, and no evidence that breakfast had been started.

 

Sheriff Simenson said, "apparently they were just getting up.  We can only guess, but possibly Monroe had gone to the stairs to call the children, or had heard one of them fall.  When we found him he was seated on the floor and it looked like he had just slid down the wall."

 

The space heater located in the dining room, the only source of heat in the house, and a water heater in the basement have received careful examinations to learn how the deadly gas escaped into the house.

 

Deputy State Fire Marshal Robert A. Leber, of Charles City, was called to the scene early Tuesday morning to assist Sheriff Simenson in his investigation.

 

Because both the space heater and the water heater were operated from liquid petroleum stored in a tank in the yard, the company supplying the gas flew specialists in Tuesday night from Des Moines and Tulsa to assist the officers in their investigation.

 

Three prime factors were cited by Leber Wednesday afternoon, at the conclusion of his investigation, as the contributing elements in the tragedy.

 

All three elements, according to Leber, had to happen at the same time in order for the tragedy to take place.  Without the presence of all three, the fire marshal concluded that the Monroes could have lived in the same house, with the same heating system for 20 years without any difficulty. 

 

Factors listed by Leber were: (1) extreme cold weather; (2) a high wind; (3) the heighth of the chimney outlet.

 

The fire marshal said that the extremely cold weather, near 20 degrees below zero, could have cause a blockage in the chimney.  In addition, Leber said that because the chimney outlet did not extend above the ridge line of the house, plus the direction and velocity of the wind at the time could have caused a slight backdraft. 

 

With a cold block and a slight downdraft, the fumes in the heater would have been forced to spill out from the deflector, Leber said.  He pointed out that the fan on the burner possibly helped to spread the fumes which could not escape from the house.

 

The officials told Sheriff Simenson that the presence of a downdraft could cause the heater to work improperly and very similar to the way it was working when the sheriff entered the house.

 

Simenson said that Leber had said that under normal conditions a heater of the size in the Monroe house would not give out enough carbon monoxide to give a person a headache.

 

The investigating officials concluded that they could find no fault in the installation of the space heater or materials used with the exception that the chimney outlet should have been about three feet higher.

 

Their investigation, according to Simenson, concluded that the water heater in the basement probably wasn't a contributing factor in the deaths.

 

Roberta Monroe, 17 year old daughter by a former marriage, stopped at the farm home Sunday afternoon with a boy friend.  After they couldn't get an answer at the door they left, believing the family to be gone.

 

The older Monroe girl, a junior at the South Winneshiek High School, makes her home with the Henry Monroe, Jr. family.

 

On Monday the regular school bus from South Winneshiek stopped at the home, but when no children appeared the bus went on.  Later in the day, the kindergarten bus stopped at the house, but also did not receive an answer to its horn and went on.

 

Monroe was employed by Winneshiek County as a road maintenance worker.

 

Contributed by Mary Durr 

 

 Contributors Note: I am not sure if this was a Postville, Iowa newspaper of the time or an Ossian newspaper clipping, from my mother's obituary collection, hand dated 1968.  Posted for genealogical purposes, contributor is not related.

 

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