The Curious Case of the Returned Trunk – December 1923

“Thieves Keep Auto But Return Trunk, Bag and Clothing”

Please note: This is a true story. The names of the people have been changed. The details have not.

On an early December night in 1923 a man from one of the small towns reported to Waterloo, Iowa, police that his car had been stolen.  He had parked his vehicle in front of the Scobby residence at 217 Second Street West (now the site of the Dan Gable Wrestling Museum). No details are known about why this man was visiting that location. Newspaper reports show that car theft was occuring fairly regularly in Waterloo that year. At the time, he was a 29 year old, married farmer. It appears this was the home of a respectable family who may have also had some boarding rooms. The (Waterloo) Evening Courier and Reporter reported that this man, Martin,  had his new Ford Coupe with license number 12-5778  stolen. He further reported the stealing of a  trunk and suitcase which were in the car.  About one week later, a large package and the suitcase were mysteriously delivered by express to Martin’s home in the Dysart area. His address was plainly and correctly written. The place of mailing  was St. Paul, Minnesota. According to the paper, the name and address of the sender were on the package but were believed to be fictitious. Practically all of the stolen clothing, which consisted mainly of new and valuable women’s apparel was in the returned packages. No trace of the automobile was found. Police theorized that the thieves drove the auto to St. Paul and “finding the contents were of character dangerous to attempt to dispose of, determined to send them to the owners in a way which would cause the least liability of discovery.”

How curious! Why would thieves who had stolen a valuable automobile trouble themselves over some far less valuable clothing? Surely being traced back to a stolen vehicle would have been more significant than being found with a bunch of clothes. Why risk going to a station and having these items shipped? Minnesota is known as the Land of Lakes, surely they could have found a river or lake along the to throw the trunk and suitcase in. Were there no lonesome places where they could have buried the loot? Why would the thieves spend their money returning these insignificant items to someone from whom they were inclined to steal?

Perhaps knowing more about the victim can shed light on these questions. Martin came from a prominent family in the Mooreville area, a settlement located between Waterloo and Dysart, Iowa. His grandfather was one of the first white settlers in Geneseo Township . County records of this wealthy and influential family in date back before the 1860s.  The local papers of the time chronicle his parent’s business ventures including purchasing land close to home but also in the Dakotas and California. He had married Alfreda, the daughter of another prominent family, and taken up farming in 1914.   Between 1914 and 1922 newspaper reports show that he was doing what other new husbands and fathers do. He was renting land from his father, selling timothy grass, purchasing hogs, and shipping hogs to the Chicago markets. The couple do appear to have done quite a bit of traveling in those years. From the social columns it is unclear if these were unsuccessful moves out of area or just long visits in the Dakotas  and California.

In 1911, Martin’s father, Carlton, decided to sell his farm and move to California for the winter along with his wife, Lacy. Martin was just 17 or 18 at the time Carlton was quoted in the paper as saying that his children “would have to find a way to look after themselves”.  In December of that same year  Martin’s sister, Elsie,  got married and moved with her husband to a new community. In language that would never be used today, the Traer Star Clipper reported “The young folks were intending to be married in the spring, but matters were somewhat hurried by the bride’s parents who intend to spend the winter in California.” By this time, Carlton had already sold the farm. The paper continued “So this daughter took the first chance that came along and found a splendid young fellow to take care of her.”

In 1920, the father died and left his estate to his wife who by then was back in Dysart. She died four years later in 1924. Her will which had been drawn up in 1918 revealed an estate  worth $50,000.  The conditions of the will were a bit strange and may provide a clue about Martin. Money was set aside for her grandchildren and after that was divided into four equal parts. Three of her children received their full share immediately. However, the last 1/4 share was to be divided between Martin and his brother, John. Additionally, that share was to be held in trust by the Dysart State Bank and the brothers received the interest only. Upon their deaths, the money immediately passed to Martin and John’s children. Starting almost immediately both Martin and  John along with the  bank were sued by creditors for money from that inheritance to pay for  outstanding debts. These court cases drug on and on for so long that in 1938 the bank tried to remove themselves from management  of the funds. Another person was appointed by the courts and that person turned the responsibility down.

The early 1920’s appear to have been a challenging time for Martin. In 1919 it was noted in the paper that he had lost a cow and a good horse. How this happened was not clarified.  In May of 1922 he was caught up in a prohibition sweep by the Tama County Sheriff. Arrested with a gallon of  alcohol in his car which was parked outside the Dysart Opera House during a dance, hee pled guilty to possession and transportation of alcohol and was fined $137.00. In February of 1923, he was arrested by the Waterloo police on a traffic violation of cutting corners. Within the same week of having his car stolen in Waterloo, his brother, John, was caught up in a gambling sweep in Dysart and was also arrested.  The rest of his life story is not entirely clear. It is obvious that he and Alfreda divorced. In May of 1929 she married another Tama County resident and moved to Greeley, Colorado, where she lived out the rest of her days.  By 1950 Martin was living in Brooklyn, New York with a wife. By 1960 he was in Florida.  It appears he died in Florida in 1970 at the age of about 76 years old. How he made his living after leaving Iowa is unknown.

So Reader, what do you think?

Does it make sense to you that the random strangers who stole his car returned his items via Express or do you have another theory?

What other information do you need to know in order to make up your mind?

Please post your thoughts to the Facebook page where you are reading this or send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


One Hundred Years Ago In A Small Midwest Town – Gambling Raid – Dysart, Iowa

“Widow’s Home at Dysart Is Searched: All Bound Over to Grand Jury”

Fifty years into the growth of this small town on the Iowa prairie, Dysart now boasts a population of just under one thousand people. Where once there was only open prairie, this railroad town has grown and thrived. It is a town made up of transplants, both American and and foreign-born.  The people in the town have endured the world’s first global war. On an almost weekly basis the deaths of Tama County’s original white pioneers are recorded. New people arrive to try their hands at farming and industry while others leave for less developed lands and warmer climates. New homes and businesses are being added to those which were built back in 1873 when the town was brand new. It would be easy to think of this place as a perfectly tranquil painting and its inhabitants above those vices that make humans human but, of course, that is not the case and although the papers only occasionally report on crime, it still happens. Even here. Contributing to the increase in crime is prohibition. Iowa was one of the first states in the union to ban alcohol way back in 1916, four years before the rest of the country was made dry by the Volstead Act.

On Tuesday,  December 4, 1923, acting on a tip, Tama County sheriff, W.C. Harrison, a deputy sheriff and the country’s attorney traveled from the county seat in Toledo to Dysart. Their goal was to raid the home of a local widow,  Mrs. Mary Johnson, who it was rumored was running a gambling establishment.

During the raid, five men were found with “every indication of a game in progress” (6 or 7 decks of cards) and a small amount (a nip) of alcohol. All six were arrested and taken before Mayor Edward Wieben. The five men were charged with gambling. Mrs. Johnson’s charge was for keeping a gambling house. A boy named Robert Sutten, of LaPorte, was held as an important witness. The defendants waived preliminary hearings and were bound over to the grand jury. Two days later, on December 6, the grand jury made a partial report charging Mrs. Johnson with keeping a gambling house and the other men charged with gambling. Mrs. Johnson pled guilty and her sentencing was continued until the May term. She was released on December 7 on a $500 bond which she posted for herself.

Of the five men, three were local and were initially released on bond, two before being taken to jail and one, Bazz Jones, posted bond on December 7 after spending a few days in the county jail. The other men Karl Mohler and Troy Hayward who lived north of Dysart were released on bonds the night of the incident. The out-of-town men were Claud Barnhart of Waterloo, and Fred Hauser of Garrison. Barnhart was able to post bond immediately. The next day he posted the bond for his friend, Hauser. In the end Judge Willett  fined the five men $50 plus costs and fine.

Reading the accounts of these arrests in a modern-day context, it is difficult to comprehend how so much could be made of some decks of cards and a small amount of alcohol but at the time, this was a big story and was covered in more than just the local papers. A careful reading shows that there was likely more at play than just the six people arrested that night.  Several references were made that other “well known and prominent citizens” of the Dysart vicinity were implicated. Obtaining those names was clearly a goal for the sheriff.  An ever bigger agenda was likely tracking down the moonshiners, the source of the alcohol.

The grand jury had taken a week to investigate the case more thoroughly and numerous citizens were implicated. Presumably these were anxious days in Dysart as its citizens wondered if they or their families members might be named. It would appear that in an effort to secure her release from jail rather than wait for her sentencing in May, Mrs. Johnson gave the court the names of several more Dysart residents who had been gambling at her house. On December 13, ten of these men were indicted and each paid a $50 fine. In addition to Mohler and Hayward who had already been fined these men were: Ray Filloon, Ralph Myers, W.L. (Shorty) Hollenbeck, Stanley Powell, Walter Clark, Roy Casey, Floyd Harmon, and William Ohde.

A clue that this case might have been more about alcohol than cards is found in the The Traer Star Clipper on December 14, 1923, which reads “It is understood that the grand jury has become disgusted with the perjurious testimony and forgetfulness of the witnesses in liquor cases especially when parties brought before the grand jury invariably testify that they purchased their liquor of strangers, or have forgotten  whom they secured it. The former grand jury took special pains to cooperate with the county attorney in stopping this practice. On the same day as the additional men were charged, two men were charged with bootlegging. .

Gambling was not confined to the town of Dysart. On the 21st of December, the Traer Star Clipper stated “It need not be surmised that the only gambling going on in Tama County is in Dysart. Far from it. There is undoubtedly a great deal more of it in Tama than in Dysart and Traer is not free from it by a long shot. Dysart was simply unfortunate in being caught at it. Buy why stop with Dysart?”