Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Very Cold Case...of Murder!

Of all the artifacts in the collections of the Grinnell Historical Museum, a small grey box may be the strangest. A legend inscribed on the box top by a hand from another age reads: "Personal effects of unknown man shot at Grinnell June 30, 1914. Turned [in?] by coroner S. C. Buck Sept 16—1914." Inside the box may be found a small collection of possessions: a single-blade razor; an empty shaving stick container; a broken comb; a brass ring; two cuff links; a damaged pen knife; a pair of dice; an empty wallet; a button hook; and a woman's (?) watch case with nothing inside. Someone added a small, typed note to indicate that former Poweshiek County supervisor, Raymond Harris (1903-81, supervisor 1968-1976), had donated the box to the museum. Nothing indicates exactly when the museum received the box, but even if the box arrived in the last year of Harris's elected duty, the museum has held the box for at least 43 years, and perhaps for as many as 50 years.
"Personal Effects of Unknown Man Shot at Grinnell June 30, 1914"
Grinnell Historical Museum
When Museum Vice-President Ann Igoe alerted me to this unusual item in the museum's inventory, I hardly knew what to think—what murder? what unknown man? Nothing in the box and nothing in the museum library told the tale of the 1914 murder. So I set out to learn what happened. This post reports my findings on one of the very coldest murder cases in Iowa history.
The events of June 30, 1914 quickly and unexpectedly splashed onto the pages of Grinnell's two newspapers. Although the shooting had occurred about 2:30 PM on Tuesday, the 30th, the Grinnell Herald, which published on Tuesdays and Fridays, managed to print a brief report on the murder in its June 30th edition. Short on specifics, this first newspaper account announced the main themes of the story: "Weak Minded" Frank Raleigh, who worked at the Monroe Hotel, had somehow concluded that a man sitting on a bench in the Grinnell depot's waiting room was involved in the "white slave trade," what today's newspapers call human trafficking. Raleigh drew 
a revolver and shot and almost instantly killed a stranger...[who] ran out on the platform in front of the depot, where he dropped. He was taken into the office of the old Chapin House and died in a few minutes (Grinnell Herald June 30, 1914).
Grinnell's Rock Island Train Depot (ca. 1900)
Digital Grinnell
The newspaper continued, pointing out that, before anyone could restrain him, Raleigh had fled "in a northeasterly direction." But then the newspaper turned attention to the victim, whose identity could not be established. "He was," the newspaper remarked, "a young man, of light complexion and wore a blue shirt, a dark suit and brown shoes. The pockets contained little of value" (ibid.). The remaining prose focused upon Raleigh, who was said to have been employed at odd jobs around the Monroe Hotel "a long time." Known "to break out suddenly in wild bursts of shouting," Raleigh had nevertheless been judged harmless. Now the "weak-minded" man had committed murder and run away.
Photograph of the Monroe Hotel (ca. 1905)
Digital Grinnell
The next news on the shooting appeared in the Grinnell Register. Because it published on Mondays and Thursdays, Thursday July 2nd was the first chance the Register had to tell the tale, and it had used the intervening two days to collect more details, assigning more than two full columns on the front page. Readers learned that the weapon employed was a 38 automatic, and that Raleigh had allegedly told the stranger to "get out of town." The Register also provided more specifics on Raleigh's flight, noting that a college student, Joe Carter, had first attempted to stop Raleigh, "but the display of the gun and remembrance of its work caused [Carter] to desist."
Joseph Carter 1914 Cyclone
The story then followed the shooter, said to have made a brief stop at the Monroe Hotel for his possessions before fleeing up the alley between Park and State streets. Later, heading north along the tracks of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, Raleigh was seen by Grinnell College Professor Henry Matlack, by workmen at the country club, and others. This information led police to search the territory north of town. "Autos loaded with men scoured the roads to the north long after dusk in the hope of getting a trace of Raleigh" (Grinnell Register July 2, 1914). But Raleigh successfully eluded capture. Townsfolk wondered whether he had perhaps doubled back into Grinnell, and had tried to hole up there to avoid arrest. This suspicion led police to search (in vain) a home in south Grinnell. Police also looked for the fugitive in Gilman and Marshalltown, and inquiries were sent to Oskaloosa, in case Raleigh had tried to cross-up his pursuers. While locals were anxious to have the man arrested, the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican reported that Raleigh had been captured in Newburg. However, this report was soon rescinded; despite looking far and wide, police found no trace of the man.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican July 1, 1914
After that the Grinnell newspapers could only report that Raleigh remained at large, as the Register noted on the 6th and the Herald did on the 7th.  Then the Grinnell papers fell silent on the case, although occasionally papers from other towns reported an arrest or alleged sighting of Raleigh. These all proved mistaken; gradually Raleigh's name disappeared from the news. Only the college newspaper, Scarlet and Black, briefly revived the story in its September 16 issue, succinctly summarizing events of the preceding June, and noting that the shooter, "Crazy Frank," had still not been apprehended. Indeed, Frank Raleigh was never brought to justice, and Grinnell townsfolk apparently never again laid eyes on the man. The murder, committed in broad daylight and witnessed by a number of people, therefore went unsolved; everyone knew who had killed the stranger, but no one knew where Frank Raleigh had gone.
After the victim fell on the train platform and was carried into Chapin House, a doctor was summoned, but Dr. E. F. Talbot (1873-1943) arrived too late to do any good, and the dead man was then taken a few blocks to J. W. Harpster's Furniture and Undertaking on Main Street. 
Early 1900s Photograph of J. W. Harpster's Furniture and Undertaking business, 905 Main Street
Digital Grinnell
There the coroner, Dr. S. C. Buck (1866-1946), examined the body, but found little evidence with which to determine the man's identity. He reported that the victim was about twenty-five years old, of medium height with black hair and no distinguishing marks. His hands, "soft and uncalloused [sic]," were not, he thought, those of a laborer. In its Friday follow-up the Grinnell Herald added a few details, noting that the deceased weighed about 160 pounds, stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall, had light brown hair [!] and grey eyes. He wore a "suit of blue serge with a coarse blue shirt, worn brown shoes and blue socks and a brown hat" (Grinnell Herald July 3, 1914). The hat had been purchased in Spencer, Iowa, so Buck sent an inquiry to Spencer, but the merchant there proved unable to recall the man. The initials "W. R." in the headband caused some early excitement, because a certain William Rodgers from Terre Haute, Indiana had been in Grinnell in search of his wife. Rodgers, alive and well, soon surfaced, however, leaving investigators no wiser than before. The dead man's shoes had been bought in Des Moines, but this information, too, proved of no help to the coroner.
Scarlet and Black December 9, 1914
But what about the man's possessions, now part of the Museum's inventory? Do these items contribute anything to learning the identity of the victim?
Photograph of top of the Williams Shaving Stick
Grinnell Historical Museum
Nothing in the newspaper stories indicates where the stranger slept during the several days he was in Grinnell, and the man's pockets indicate that he was living rough. Not only was his wallet empty, but he was also carrying his shaving tools around with him, rather than leaving them in a suitcase (which he did not have) or in his hotel room (which he also did not have). The Williams shaving stick (small) he owned was popular and long advertised as the "traveler's favorite." If ordered by mail from the Connecticut manufacturer, the shaving stick cost twenty-five cents, but merchants often discounted the price to attract customers, so the dead man might have paid no more than a dime for it.
Photograph of Single-blade Razor
Grinnell Historical Museum
The stranger also carried in his pockets a single-blade razor encased in a narrow, rectangular box whose cover announced the manufacturer as the J. R Torrey Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. Advertised as a "real man's razor," Torrey razors were quite popular until safety razors took over the market in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, for many years Arbuckles' coffee offered Torrey razors as a premium to those who regularly bought their coffee, an indication, perhaps, of how popular Torrey razors were.
Advertisement from Wilmington Morning Star July 17, 1914
However, the razor within the stranger's box was not a Torrey product; etched into the steel of the razor blade is the name of an English manufacturer, Joseph Rodgers, "cutlers to their majesties." Apparently the Grinnell murder victim had replaced the Torrey razor that had originally occupied the box with its English cousin. Neither razor, however, was unusual enough to help identify the dead man.

What about the rest? The broken comb bears no identifying marks, except for the fact that it is broken, indirectly confirming that the stranger was living on the edge. The pen knife, now rusted closed, was also damaged, missing pieces of the decorative cover. The cuff links likewise added little to the search for the dead man's identity. If today wearing shirts that demand cuff links is unusual, that was not true in 1914 when men's  shirts frequently required at least modest cuff links. Nothing in the stranger's cuff links sets them apart from those most commonly used.

The dead man also wore a brass ring, but it carries no inscription. Without knowing on which finger the stranger wore the ring, we can only guess at its meaning. It might be that he thought, as some still do, that wearing brass can "amplify energy," "create balance in the body," and assist various metabolic reactions in the body. Worn on the index finger, a brass ring is said to "bring out the qualities of leadership, executive ability, ambition, and self-confidence"—or so some believe. Perhaps the ring, if worn on the left hand, indicated that the victim was married, but the coroner did not reveal from which finger he had taken the ring. Nor did word from an anxious spouse reach the Grinnell authorities.
Photograph of Button Hook
Grinnell Historical Museum
The murder victim also carried a button hook, commonly used at the time to "thread" shoe buttons, and often given out free for advertising purposes. The button hook in the stranger's pocket advertised "Burke's Shoes 7123-25 So. Chicago Ave." Perhaps this device implies that the murder victim had once lived in Chicago, as he apparently admitted to Elva Sparks, one of the Grinnell girls to whom he spoke. But by 1914 the Chicago building which Burke's shoes had once occupied was available for rent, Burke's business having moved or failed sometime previously.
Advertisement from Chicago Tribune April 5, 1914
One might expect a man to carry a watch, but why carry around an empty watch case, and what was apparently a woman's watch case at that? Had the man won it in a game of chance? Or had he been obliged to cede the works on a bet, and kept the ornate case because it had some sentimental or real value? 

The most intriguing item in the dead man's possession was a pair of dice. Who travels with dice in their pockets? Do the dice indicate that the man was a gambler, eager to embark on games of chance whenever he could? If so, had he recently lost big-time, since he had no money? Or was he addicted to gambling, in the process having lost all his money? No evidence survives to answer those questions. The meager possessions of the dead man tell us only that he was without money, was apparently sleeping rough, and had some affection for games of chance.
An inquest was convened Tuesday evening—only hours after the shooting—in the Superior court room in Grinnell; testimony (here following the report of the Grinnell Register, July 2) revealed a more complicated story than the original accounts had indicated. Joe Carter, the college graduate who had briefly attempted to capture Raleigh, testified that at the depot Raleigh had told Carter that "that a white slaver and he is trying to get away." Evidently Carter dismissed this assertion, perhaps because he had known Raleigh "for some time" and did not find his behavior unusual or alarming. At any rate, Carter entered the ticket office, leaving Raleigh to his concerns, and emerged only to see the victim, already shot, stumbling out of the depot with Raleigh behind him. A second witness, Gladys Davenport, a teenager, said that she had been in the depot waiting room when Raleigh approached the stranger, told him to take his hat and "get out of the seat" [sic]. When the visitor reached for the hat, she said, Raleigh shot him. A third witness was E. T. McKennan from Dubuque, but this name is apparently an error; there was no E. T. McKennan living in Dubuque at the time, but there was an Edward T. McKenna on Booth Street in Dubuque. McKenna testified that on Sunday, two days before the shooting, the man had asked him "if he could feed a hungry man." McKenna had treated the man to a meal at the Gem restaurant, just south of the depot (735 Park Street). McKenna further testified that he had seen the stranger again Sunday evening with someone else. It was clear, therefore, that the man had spent several days (and nights) in Grinnell, and that he was short of money.

The most revealing testimony came from Elva (sometimes Alva) Sparks, another Grinnell teenager. She testified that on Monday evening, the night before the shooting, the man had approached her, taking a seat beside her on a Central Park bench. She claimed that the man asked her if she didn't want to leave Grinnell, but that she had told him "no." Tuesday afternoon the stranger approached her again, repeating his question. When Sparks declined his offer a second time, the man, she said, "pulled her back on the seat and told her that she had to leave Grinnell." She said that she had then agreed to go, merely as a way of getting away from him. She then ran into Frank Raleigh—where they met she did not say—who questioned her about the stranger and what he had said to Sparks. When he learned the details, Raleigh said that that "was all that he wanted to know," and told the girl to report her story to the city attorney, Harold Beyer. The shooting, she testified, occurred as she was returning from the attorney's office on 4th Avenue.

The Rock Island agent, A. E. Yates, testified next, telling the inquest that Raleigh had approached him at the ticket window that afternoon at around 2:20, asking him to telephone Beyer to say that a white slaver was in the depot. Apparently Yates, too, was familiar with the strange behaviors of Raleigh, and dismissed Raleigh's request, making no effort to telephone Beyer. When Raleigh returned to the window a few minutes later, again demanding that Yates summon Beyer, the ticket agent reluctantly complied. Shortly thereafter Raleigh approached the ticket window a third time, demanding that Beyer be summoned. Apparently Yates turned away, but reported that he soon heard the shot and saw the stranger and Raleigh leaving the depot.

On hearing this testimony, the coroner's jury determined that "this unknown man came to his death by a gunshot wound fired from a gun in the hand of Frank Raleigh; and we do further find that he came to his death feloniously and that a crime has been committed." But the person who committed the crime was never apprehended, and therefore never faced trial.
What, then, can we make of this story and the pitiful remainder of this unknown murder victim? On a surface level, the shooting constituted explosive news, bringing unexpected violence to the usually more pastoral rhythm of life in Grinnell. The original reporting preferred to center the story around the mental condition of the shooter, Frank Raleigh, and the record of his Grinnell sojourn offered corroboration to this interpretation.

As the Grinnell newspapers repeatedly observed, Frank Raleigh was disturbed. The Herald offered the most detailed account, alleging that Raleigh had even consulted
eminent surgeons [who] had told him that the trouble was in the nerves at the base of the brain and that an operation might remedy it but that the operation was so delicate that there were about 99 chances in 100 that he would not survive. So he never ran the chance (Grinnell Herald July 3, 1914).
"In his rational moments," the newspaper allowed, Raleigh was a "hard and willing worker and he spent many leisure hours reading at Stewart Library." In summary, the Herald, like most of Grinnell, no doubt, thought him an "odd character," but harmless. The reactions of Joe Carter and A. E. Yates confirm this view; these men ignored Raleigh's demands for help, and did so without worrying about the consequences.

Other aspects of the story, however, make it less obvious that Raleigh was mentally unbalanced. For one thing, the fact that he escaped indicates that the man was capable of rationally analyzing his situation and pursuing a plan to avoid capture. Moreover, in retrospect Raleigh's concern about white slavery sounds more credible than it might have to Yates and Carter in the train depot. Particularly revealing in this respect was the testimony of Elva Sparks, the young woman whom the stranger tried to recruit, not once, but twice. At the time of her encounter with the stranger, Sparks was apparently 16 years old, although she later arranged for a delayed birth record that declared her to have been born April 15, 1896. During the 1915 Iowa census she told Frank Thackeray that she was 17 years old, which would mean that she was 16 when the events of 1914 unfolded. 
1915 Iowa Census card for Elva Sparks
If Sparks really was 16 at the time of the murder, we might have expected her to be enrolled in high school, but, as she reported during the 1915 Iowa census, she had left school after the 6th grade. According to the Grinnell Herald, Sparks worked at the Monroe Hotel where, the paper speculated, Raleigh had become acquainted with her. Having quit school and begun work (presumably at low wages since she had developed no specialized skills in high school), Sparks might have been exactly the sort of person whom a "white slaver" would try to solicit. The fact that the stranger tried twice to entice her into fleeing offers some confirmation of the theory. Moreover, the girl's own testimony raises questions about how truthful she was. In reporting on her encounters with the stranger, she emphasized that she had twice declined the man's offer to run away, but added that she had ultimately agreed to his plan so as to escape from the man. But this last claim makes no sense; did the man hear her say "yes," and then made no plans for when and how they would leave Grinnell or where they would rendezvous? Did he hear her say "yes," and then wait alone for a train to take him away from Grinnell?
Photograph of B.P.O.E. building on 4th and Main; the Antlers Hotel is visible on the right
Digital Grinnell
Accounts of the murder barely mention Gladys Davenport, another teenager and a witness to the shooting. Davenport was apparently 15 years old, and, like Sparks, might be expected to have been a high schooler. She told the 1915 census official that she had completed twelve years of schooling in Grinnell, but I found no trace of her in Grinnell high school yearbooks from the years around 1914, so it seems unlikely that she graduated. As of 1917, she and a couple of friends were working at the Antlers, another Grinnell hotel, when they announced their application to become military nurses.
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican April 13, 1917
Apparently this plan never worked out, as an October 1917 story reports Davenport's "surprise" Montezuma marriage to John Stahl, a Grinnell woodworker. Might Davenport have been another of the stranger's recruits? Her testimony at the inquest did not explain why she was waiting for a train, sitting close enough to the victim to hear the exchange between him and Raleigh, but might she have contemplated leaving town with the stranger?
Daily Gate-City (Keokuk) January 4, 1914
Certainly we cannot be surprised that Frank Raleigh had white slavery on his mind; Iowans in 1914 heard a lot about the subject. Indeed, my search through the scanned records of for "white slave" in 1914 Iowa newspapers yielded an impressive 841 hits. The 1910 Mann Act introduced Americans to the "white slave trade," making it a felony to transport across state lines "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral purpose." The legislation had a powerful effect on public conversation, if not necessarily upon the work of police and the judiciary. Numerous plays—like Rachel Marshall's "The Traffic"— were written with "white slavery" as context, and in 1914 Iowa many cities had these plays on their theater programs.
Quad Cities Times January 11, 1914
Arrests of accused white slavers were also common. For example, a Colfax grocer, G. H. York, was charged in January 1914 with having transported a Kansas City woman to Des Moines "for immoral purposes" (Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier January 13, 1914). In April, a Quad Cities waiter pleaded guilty to having lured a fourteen-year-old girl from her home in Rock Island to Kansas City "for immoral purposes" (The Daily Times April 23, 1914). And in October, a Sioux City pool hall operator faced the same charge for having transported a "young girl not yet out of her teens" from Sioux City to Sioux Falls, South Dakota "for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann white slavery law" (Sioux City Journal October 7, 1914).

In short, discussion of white slavery was frequent in 1914 Iowa, so it is not surprising that Raleigh had absorbed the main themes. In fact, as the Register proved, Grinnell townsfolk knew that Raleigh was preoccupied with white slavery.
He has been the butt of jokes and ridicule by those who took advantage of his unfortunate condition. Urged on by those who take delight in seeing him suffer, he has become obsessed with the idea that White Slavers were at work in Grinnell and that he was the one to thwart their evidently became a mania with him (Grinnell Register July 2, 1914).
So it was that a man whose mental health was known to be in question became preoccupied with one of the most prominent issues of 1914 criminal public law. How Frank Raleigh came to own a .38 automatic the record does not say, but we know that he brought that gun and his manic concerns about white slavery into the Grinnell train depot. There he fixed his attention upon a visitor to town, a man with no money, no identity documents, and a motley array of possessions. Persuaded that the man was a white slaver (and he may have been right), Raleigh shot and killed the stranger, and immediately fled, never again to be seen in Grinnell. The hapless victim was never identified, and so he was promptly buried in Hazelwood Cemetery's potter's field, leaving the meager contents of his pockets as witness to their unknown owner and the sad fate he met in Grinnell, June 30, 1914.


  1. Thanks Dan. I knew you were the right person to research that little box. Great story. I have another good item for you when you are ready for it. Ann

  2. I wonder if there could possibly be any DNA still on any of the personal items. It would be so interesting to see if his identity could be solved.

  3. Amazing read, Dan! Thank you for your thorough research and engaging storytelling!

  4. Now for Mark Montgomery and Tinker Powell to write the screenplay!