25-year-old Brick Mason
Cause of Death: Undetermined, Set On Fire
Murder Scene and Date
December 28, 1924
By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2015
In the early 20th century, a subculture of men called “floaters” and “tramps” populated rail yards and depots and subsisted on trains. They “beat” or “bummed” their ways along the rails, riding trains for free by sneaking on to spots on the cars where they couldn’t be seen.
It was physically hazardous to ride freight and blind baggage cars and it was challenging to avoid the sometimes-violent railroad police. But fellow tramps could be more dangerous yet.
Although many hoboes were disadvantaged men simply seeking free transportation, the rails also drew predatory types who drifted from town to town looking for opportunities to steal money and possessions, by force if necessary.
☛ Three Young Floaters ☚
In late December of 1924, Edwin Beever and Cecil Grow of Marshall, Minnesota, bummed their ways to Sioux City, where the young men spent Christmas enjoying the bright lights and tempting pursuits of the wide-open town.
After their holiday spree, the two were broke and had no choice but to steal back home on the rails. On Saturday afternoon, December 27, they arrived at the Sioux City depot to begin their journey.
There they ran into someone they had met in the Anchor Pool Hall and other spots along Sioux City’s raucous 4th Street, a fellow called “Smitty” Smith, a slightly-built redhead who, like them, was a Minnesotan. Smith was down to his last bits of change and was also planning to journey home by sneaking aboard a train.
The trio concluded to travel together out of Sioux City, but were unable to jump on a train; so they walked along the tracks to Leeds, four miles to the northeast. From there, they stole aboard the blind baggage car of a Great Northern train.
But the below-zero temperatures were brutal. So, when the train pulled into Merrill 14 miles northeast of Leeds, the three men jumped off.
☛ A Night in the Depot ☚
The trio had just enough money to eat in a Merrill restaurant; then they returned to the Great Northern depot to spend the night inside, protected from the severe cold by a coal-burning stove.
Smith, speaking with a Norwegian accent, told Grow and Beever he was a brick mason who had worked in Sioux City and Emerson and was on his way to join a brother in Minneapolis.
A fourth man, a stranger to the trio, also sought shelter in the depot. He was older than the other three and said he’d lived in the Minnesota towns of Brainerd, Slayton, and Pipestone and was traveling north to work at a lumber camp.
The stranger and Smitty Smith talked while Grow and Beever dozed off and on.
Smith pulled 65 cents from his pocket, said that was all the money he had, and joked, “That’s a lot to show for a summer’s wages.”
Smitty Smith appeared fidgety and repeatedly walked in and out of the depot door. He brought in a Polerine oil can and he placed it in the stove to unfreeze the stopper, saying he was going to boil coffee.
About 2:00 a.m., the stranger and the restless Smith decided to walk to Le Mars eight miles away. They returned not long afterwards because of the cold.
Smith went outside again, this time to beat the oil can on the rails to open it. That was the last Cecil Grow and Edwin Beever saw of him.
The stranger left the depot not long after Smith did, saying he was going to get a pail of coal for the stove.
☛ Money For Food ☚
At about 2:00 a.m., the stranger entered J.A. Kale’s restaurant near the depot and bought a 20-cent meal. He told Kale he was bumming his way north to work as a lumberjack several hundred miles beyond Minneapolis. He had walked to Merrill from Sioux City via Wren Junction, where he was chased off by depot personnel.
Kale said it was too cold to be bumming and asked why he didn’t sleep where it was warm at the train depot or the city jail. The stranger replied that he’d be okay if he could just keep his feet warm.
After he left, other men eating at the restaurant said they believed the stranger came in to rob the place but changed his mind because customers were present.
When Kale closed up his café at 3:00 a.m., he noticed nothing amiss in the rail yard.
☛ A Fire Is Spotted ☚
A short time after that, however, the Merrill Night Watchman saw at a distance a blaze on an old garden plot between the railroad tracks but did not investigate because it was not close to property and he didn’t want to deprive any possible tramps of its warmth.
☛ “Where’s Smitty?” ☚
The stranger came back inside the depot about 4 a.m. and asked, “Where’s Smitty?” Grow and Beever said he should know since they went outside together.
Grow and Beever spent the rest of the night in the depot and were still waiting for a train to steal aboard when the daylight of Sunday arrived.
The stranger, however, left Merrill on the 7:35 a.m. train to Le Mars with a purchased ticket.
☛ Morning’s Horror ☚
Bud Anderson, a 16-year-old passing just north of the depot that morning, told railroad section foreman Phil Deuschle he observed something odd in a burned-out strawstack standing on a plot between the Great Northern and Northwest Railroad tracks.
When Deuschle went to the spot, he discovered a man’s body collapsed face down in the ashes of some charred corn stalks. Blood trickled from the mouth and one ear.
The Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel wrote:
“The clothing was burned off, leaving nothing but shoes and a pair of new rubbers. The arms were burned off below the elbows and the body was scorched from the neck down to below the knees. His hair was of a reddish color. A mark on the side of his head might have been caused by a blow or might have been made by a burn. The body . . . might have fallen or might have been thrown there.”
Merrill Town Marshal H.E. Anderson was notified and he sent for Plymouth County Sheriff Hugh Maxwell and Coroner Lloyd E. Mauer to come to the scene from Le Mars.
County officials requested that the State Attorney General’s Office assist in the investigation of the death. The Le Mars Globe Post wrote of the decision:
“According to authorities, a state detective is on his way to investigate the mystery, to show, if possible, that Merrill does not resemble Chicago as being a place where mysterious murders remain mysteries.”
Edwin Beever and Cecil Grow, who did not know anyone was dead until the Marshal informed them, were detained as material witnesses and kept in jail. They cooperated by telling authorities about the night before and described the two men — the stranger and Smitty Smith — who sheltered in the train depot with them.
☛ The Crime Scene ☚
Sheriff Hugh Maxwell and Deputy Sheriff Sam Long carefully searched the crime scene, looking for clues to help sort out the gruesome death.
The broken oil can Smith banged against the rails was found about 30 yards from the burned strawstack. A small flask lay near the body.
For 50 feet — from the depot to the station’s water tank — the sheriff and his officers tracked two distinct sets of male footprints, one following the other. At the tank, scuff marks indicated a struggle and a large imprint in the snow appeared made by a body.
Nearby, Deputy Sheriff Sam Long found a heavy, 2-foot-long piece of broken scantling lying by the tracks; but nothing indicated it had been used as a weapon.
☛ Examination of the Body ☚
The body was taken to the Beely Undertaking Parlor in Le Mars pending an investigation by Plymouth County Attorney George Sturgis and Coroner Lloyd E. Mauer.
The Le Mars Globe Post reported the Beely morgue was “filled with the odor of burnt flesh.” The remains were so charred that identification was difficult.
No letters or other forms of documentation were found on the body. Nor was any money discovered.
Grow and Beever told authorities that the red-headed Smith was dressed in overalls, a blue and white checked shirt, a leather jacket, and overshoes.
Badly singed traces of similar clothing remained on the body, although the leather jacket was missing and assumed stolen by the killer.
Grow and Beever were brought to the funeral home and identified the victim as Smitty Smith.
☛ Looking for the Stranger ☚
Law enforcement telegraphed Grow’s and Beever’s description of the stranger to all train depots in the region.
The suspect was a light-complexioned, white-whiskered man between 35-40, weighed 170, and was 6 feet; he wore a black cap, gray sweater, short sheep-lined coat, overalls, and white lumberjack boots. In conversation, he referred to himself as “John” and was assumed to be “a Swede, Hollander, or Norwegian.”
That description led to several sightings. In mid-morning, the suspect was seen in Le Mars; he took the noon train north from there. Then he was spotted between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. at Alton, where it was believed he sneaked onto a freight going west to Hawarden. After that, sightings stopped, although an automobile stolen at Sheldon was assumed to be his handiwork.
☛ Coroner’s Jury ☚
On the morning of January 1, 1925, a coroner’s jury consisting of Alec R. Morrison, Herman L. Dambrink, and C.E. Mauer was empaneled and viewed the body.
Coroner Mauer requested an autopsy to determine if the victim was shot, bludgeoned, or poisoned by something in the small vial found in the ashes or if he died of the bitter cold or became drowsy and fell into the fire.
Local physician Dr. J.M. Fettes was chosen to perform the autopsy the next day.
☛ Autopsy ☚
Dr. Fettes’s results were inconclusive. He found no bullet or knife wounds, there was no indication the victim was struck on the head, and the brain was normal. Blood flowing from the ears and mouth was produced, Fettes said, by the heat of the fire.
His most important finding was that no carbon or smoke was found in the lungs or air passages, making it certain that Smith was dead when placed in the fire.
☛ Verdict ☚
The coroner’s jury verdict was short and inconclusive: “Death in some unknown way between the hours of midnight and noon on December 28, 1924.”
The Le Mars Globe Post commented on the actions and findings of the jury:
“The death of this stranger is still unsolved. The inquest did not prove that he was murdered; neither did it prove that he was not murdered. It may go down as an unsolved mystery, but at any rate Plymouth County citizens have the proud consciousness of knowing that in this county a human life is still a human life, and is respected as such.”
☛ Theories of the Crime ☚
Although the autopsy did not confirm a cause of death, investigators believed that Smith was attacked near the depot’s water tank, robbed of his money and jacket while he lay in the snow, lugged to the garden plot, placed in the corn shock, and set on fire.
Robbery seemed the clear motive because the suspect suddenly possessed money to eat in a restaurant. The 65 cents Smith showed the others could not be located in the ashes nor was it found on his person.
Also, the stranger said he walked nine miles from Wren Junction to Merrill; he also attempted to walk to Le Mars on Saturday night before the cold overwhelmed him. Yet, on Sunday morning he had enough money to buy a ticket on the train to Le Mars.
☛ Accidental Death? ☚
Smith himself could have set the strawstack ablaze for heat, although it seemed unlikely he would have built a fire for warmth when he could stay near the stove in the enclosed depot.
Any theory that Smith was overcome by alcohol or a physical condition and fell into the fire was eliminated by the lack of smoke in his lungs.
As for the flask found near the body, Sheriff Maxwell said it could have contained whiskey — an amount worth about 50 cents if bought from a bootlegger — but the bottle was melted and disfigured by the heat and unable to be tested for contents. At any rate, Grow and Beever said no one was drinking that night and Smith didn’t have enough money to purchase liquor.
☛ Lesson Learned ☚
After serving as witnesses, Cecil Grow and Edwin Beever left Le Mars on January 7 on a train to Marshall, Minnesota. They claimed their days of sneaking aboard freight and tank cars were over and that from then on they would “ride the cushions” instead of the rails.
☛ Official Action ☚
Indignation over Smith’s death ran high. County Attorney George Sturges claimed the crime would not go unpunished. And the Le Mars Globe Post offered a $100 reward for conviction of the “supposed murderer.”
The Plymouth County Board of Supervisors put up a $500 reward for the capture and conviction of the suspect as a statement that “murder cannot be safely committed in Plymouth County, even on the person of a friendless hobo.”
Newspapers had high praise for the actions of the authorities, despite the fact that the victim was a floater who bummed along the rails. The Le Mars Globe Post wrote:
“Despite the callousness and indifference in certain quarters, the unknown youth who was killed near Merrill . . . received every consideration that is the due of a human being. Those who followed the actions of County Coroner Lloyd Mauer and County Attorney George Sturgis must declare that these officials pursued their unpleasant and unremunerated duties in a manner that reflects high credit upon them. The same applies to [Dr.] Fettes . . . who conducted [his] part of the investigation with the same care as if the man had been rich and influential.”
☛ Similar Murder ☚
Area newspapers drew parallels to another, similar homicide. Twenty-one days after the killing of Smitty Smith, reclusive, middle-aged bachelor Martin Cummins was murdered and set on fire in Meriden 37 miles to the southwest of Merrill. As in the Smith case, cause of death could not be determined. Click here to read “The Burning Shack.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Boys Will Ride On Cushions To Home,” Le Mars Globe Post, January 8, 1925, p. 2.
- ☛ “Cause Of Smith’s Death Not Known,” Le Mars Globe Post, January 8, 1925, p. 9.
- ☛ “Conscientious Officials,” Le Mars Globe Post, January 5, 1925, p. 9.
- ☛ Davenport Democrat and Leader, December 29, 1924, p. 4.
- ☛ “Discover Body Badly Burned,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, December 30, 1924, pp. 1, 8.
- ☛ “Murderer Burns Body Of Victim,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 30, 1924, p. 1.
- ☛ “Murderer Will Be Caught For Crime,” Le Mars Globe Post, January 1, 1925, pp. 1, 4.
- ☛ “Mysterious Death ‘Hobo’ At Merrill [sic],” Le Mars Globe Post, December 29, 1924, pp. 1, 4.
- ☛ “Plymouth County Authorities Convinced that Man Was Killed,” Sioux City Journal, December 30, 1924, p. 4.
- ☛ “State May Help Solve Mystery,” Sioux City Journal, December 31, 1924, p. 14.
- ☛ “Was He Murdered For 65 Cents?” United Press, Oelwein Daily Register, December 30, 1924, p. 1.