“A Bitter Taste”: Murders of Alta Paul and Maria Dulin 1896

Murder Victims

Alta Alice Fisher Paul
25-year-old Homemaker
Bride of Six Months
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Love Triangle

Maria Anne Woodard Fisher Dulin
80-year-old Homemaker
Cause of Death: Poison
Motive: Obtaining an Inheritance

Murder Scene and Date

Homer, Iowa
Hamilton County
July 3, 1896
July 27, 1896


By Nancy Bowers
Written February 2011

Cedar Falls Semi-Weekly Gazette

Happening within weeks of each other in the summer of 1896, two unexpected deaths shocked the residents of Homer in Hamilton County, particularly because two prominent local families — the Dulins and the Pauls — were involved.

The Dulin family was large and prosperous. War of 1812 veteran and widower Smith Dulin arrived in Hamilton County in 1858 with his 11 children after migrating from Virginia through Ohio and Illinois. In July 1863, he married widow Maria Anne Woodard Fisher, the mother of six children. Smith Dulin passed away in 1879, leaving Maria with his military pension, a 160-acre farm, and several lots in Homer.

Alta Fisher Paul

The Pauls, too, were well-known. Physician George Paul was born in England in 1843, immigrated to the United States in 1861, married Mary Mackduff in Wisconsin, and then migrated with his wife and eight children to Hamilton County. Paul practiced medicine and lived on the same street in Homer as did Maria Dulin.

The Dulin and Paul families merged on January 27, 1896 when Dr. Paul’s son James “Jim” Paul married Alta Alice Fisher, the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Fisher and the granddaughter of Maria Dulin through her first marriage.

Jim Paul was, according to newspapers, an “Agriculturalist” or farmer. He was born in 1868 while his family lived in Minnesota. The Sioux County Herald wrote of him:

“James Paul might be called good-looking. His hair is light and his eyes are blue. He has the appearance of an honest man. He has resided in the county five years and has many acquaintances . . . .”

Jim and Alta Fisher Paul lived in what the Herald described as “a neat cottage on a picturesque spot the other side of Homer, ten miles from Webster City.” The house and 160-acre farm were owned by Alta’s grandmother, Marie Dulin, and it was assumed that she and Jim would inherit them.

But, all was not well. After only six months of marriage, James developed a wandering eye that fell on 17-year-old Luella Mae “Ella” Hartman, the daughter of Alice Miller and Adam Hartman, farmers south of Homer.

☛ First Sudden Death ☚

James and Alta Paul home (Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette).

On July 3, 1896, Alta Paul — a 25-year-old woman with no known health problems — died suddenly.

James Paul wanted to bury her immediately because the following day was Independence Day and he wanted to attend local festivities. But Paul had to settle for the morning of July 4. In accordance with what Paul said were his wife’s wishes, she was interred in a Webster County cemetery close to their home.

The Fourth of July was 19th century America’s most anticipated and celebrated holiday of the year. Every community observed the occasion with day-long picnics and evening dances.

After burying his wife, Jim Paul attended local Independence Day festivities. That night, he escorted a young local woman Ella Hartman to a gathering, termed variously by newspapers as a “patriotic,” “bowery,” and “country” dance.

All agreed that his behavior was brazen for a widower whose wife had been dead only 24 hours.

☛ Another Sudden Death ☚

Maria Dulin

On Saturday, July 25, James Paul spent time at Maria Dulin’s home. Family members said the two talked about Alta’s death and how lonely he would be without her. Maria prepared a noon meal with hot tea.

Family members reported Maria said:

“Jim, this tea doesn’t taste right. There is a bitter taste to it that I don’t like. I can’t drink any more of it.”

Soon afterwards, Maria Dulin — who was in good health for her 80 years — began having convulsions which lasted two days. James Paul’s father, Dr. George Paul, came to her bedside and administered a “white powder;” and Jim Paul gave her more of it later. At first the treatments seemed to help, but then Maria took a turn for the worse.

On Monday night, July 27, Maria Dulin died of symptoms, including “spasms,” very similar to those of strychnine poisoning.

☛ Suspicion Grows ☚

Under the headline “Thought She Had Been Poisoned,” the Webster City Tribune wrote:

“Tuesday night at a late hour parties from near Homer came to the city and informed Coroner Eberle that strong suspicions existed that Mrs. Maria Doolan [sic], who died last Monday, had been poisoned, and that the remains would not be interred till the facts were ascertained by medical examination.

The next morning [July 28], Hamilton County Coroner [Charles] Eberle, Sheriff W.W. Sinclair and Dr. Alanson Pond went down to the home and after a careful examination of the remains and strict enquiry [sic] of those who were present at the time of her death they concluded that the cause of her demise was epileptic convulsions, to which she had been subject for years.”

With her death pronounced a natural one, the funeral services could proceed. They were held Wednesday afternoon, July 29; and Maria Dulin was buried in Saratoga Cemetery near Homer in Webster Township of Hamilton County.

In an obituary titled “Death of an Aged Pioneer,” the Friday, July 31, 1896 edition of the Webster City Tribune reported:

“Mrs. Maria Doolan [sic], residing near Homer, died Monday morning at a ripe old age . . . . She was one of the earliest settlers in Hamilton or Webster counties and had a wide circle of friends, all of whom will be grieved to hear of her death.”

☛ Life Moves On Quickly for Jim Paul ☚

On Saturday, August 1 — less than a week after Maria Dulin died — newly-widowed Jim Paul married Ella Hartman, the young woman he escorted to the 4th of July dance the day after his wife’s death.

Ella Hartman married James Dulin after his wife and her grandmother died of poisoning.

The community was shocked, especially Ella Hartman’s parents. The Sioux City Herald wrote:

“Miss Hartman, who [sic] Paul married so soon after the death of his wife and ‘Grandma’ Dulin, is scarcely 18 years of age. Her parents are respectable people living on a farm a mile south of Homer. She has had many suitors for her hand, but has refused them all. Her parents say they thought her of a retiring disposition and in no way sought to influence her selection of company. They had never noticed that there was more than a passing acquaintance between her and Paul, and when the fact of her marriage with him was brought to their attention they would not believe it. Their daughter took the marriage certificate to their house and showed them that it was true before they could be convinced. Knowing of the short time that had elapsed since the death of Mrs. Paul, they denied her the house.”

This was the last straw for many in the community who refused to accept that Alta’s and Maria’s deaths were natural. A group went to the Sheriff’s Office and demanded the women’s sudden deaths be looked into.

Many believed Jim Paul poisoned his wife Alta so he could marry Ella Hartman. Then he murdered Maria Dulin to take possession of the pension money from her husband’s military service, as well as her property. Neighbors said she would never have permitted Paul to re-marry so quickly following the death of her beloved granddaughter.

☛ Investigation ☚

County officials began to rethink their conclusions about the deaths and opened an investigation.

Maria Dulin and Alta Paul were exhumed and their stomachs removed and sent for analysis to State Chemist Floyd Davis in Des Moines.

James Paul, suspected of poisoning his wife and her grandmother.

Sheriff W.W. Sinclair placed Jim Paul under arrest in what he termed “a precautionary measure.” Paul was described as maintaining a “discreet silence,” except to insist that Alta and her grandmother Maria died from natural causes.

State Chemist Davis made tests and found traces of strychnine in the stomachs.

Josiah Forrest Kennedy of the State Board of Health then gave the organs to Sherman Riley Macy, Chemistry Professor at Highland Park College and Iowa College for Physicians and Surgeons in Des Moines.

Macy’s specialty was analytical chemistry and he was often asked to make difficult analyses, particularly of suspected poisons, in his elected position as a member of the Iowa State Board of Health.

Professor Macy worked on the case in his private office with all the doors and windows locked so no one could disturb him or tamper with the jars containing the stomachs and intestines of the women.

Professor Sherman Macy (from Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa)

A reporter for the Des Moines Daily News who was briefly allowed into Macy’s office to observe wrote:

“The first thing that met [my] eye was a small spirit lamp over which was a vessel containing [a] dark liquid substance which was at boiling point — this was a solution of the stomach undergoing the first stages of the analysis to detect the presence of strychnine poison.”

Macy was instructed to look only for strychnine and no other type of poison. He had 13 tests to detect strychnine, one called the “physiological test,” carried out by injecting into a live frog a small portion of the infected substance.

Sherman Macy conducted poison tests on the bodies of Alta Paul and Maria Dulin.
Within days, Macy sent word back that both stomachs showed “unmistakable” signs of strychnine poisoning.

His new bride, Ella Hartman Paul, denounced Jim Paul and threw herself on the mercy of her family. Because she had nowhere else to go and no way to support herself, her parents took her back in.

☛ Legal Case ☚

In early September, a preliminary hearing was held in Webster City before Justice of the Peace Percival Knowles.

Professor Macy testified he found strychnine sufficient to produce death in the women’s stomachs.

He brought two live frogs into court and injected them with what he’d found in Maria Dulin’s stomach. The courtroom looked on as both frogs died within five minutes of the injection.

The main witness for the defense at the preliminary hearing was Dr. George Paul, father of the defendant.

Justice Knowles found sufficient evidence to bind James Paul over to the court session in September conducted by Judge David R. Hindman.

During September, a grand jury met at Webster City. Testimony revealed that Dr. Paul often visited his son in jail and was heard to confess being implicated in the death of Maria Dulin.

The grand jury returned first degree murder charges not only against Jim Paul but also his father George.

On Thursday, October 1, Dr. Paul was arrested. Father and son requested immediate action and separate trials, and they were held without bail.

Old Hamilton County Courthouse, where the murder trial was held (photo by Neal Bowers).

The trial of Jim Paul began on November 24; County Attorney George C. Olmstead was assisted in the prosecution of the case by D.C. Chase. George Wambach was the chief defense lawyer.

Serving on the jury were: Frank Patterson, James Carroon, Thomas Gilbert, Ed Miller, E. Ackley, H.W. Peterson, M.B. Gordon, M.F. Ferguson, H.E. Schultz, J.C. Snell, J.W. Henry, and James Caruth.

Prosecution witnesses testified about the alleged poor character of Jim and George Paul.

Homer Postmaster A.S. Pierce swore that Jim Paul told him Maria deeded a house and a lot in Homer to her granddaughter Alta Fisher Paul and that after Maria’s death the deed could not be found; Jim Paul accused Alta’s father Thomas of stealing it. Pierce also claimed that Maria Dulin’s money was missing.

Witnesses who were with the two women when they died gave testimony. One elderly woman known as “Mother Brown,” gave particularly riveting testimony about which the Webster City Tribune said:

“The old lady has a fund of dry humor about her and can talk an arm off the greatest lawyer ever born.”

Some swore that Dr. Paul attended Maria Dulin when she was ill, giving her medicine and leaving the rest with Jim Paul to administer. After her death, that medicine could not be found.

A “watcher” who stayed overnight in Maria Dulin’s home after she died testified that Jim Paul took a small package of powder from a bureau and, when he realized he’d been seen with it, threw it into the stove to burn.

Maria Dulin’s neighbor Mary Pierce claimed she found a small bottle that contained a white powder in a potato patch about 50 feet from Maria Dulin’s home. Webster County Coroner Dr. Charles A. Eberle tested the powder in front of the judge and jury and claimed it was strychnine.

The defense — through testimony from the defendant’s father Dr. George Paul — claimed that Maria Dulin suffered from epilepsy and that the presence of strychnine in the brain and stomach did not necessarily show her death resulted from strychnine poisoning.

Iowa State College Chemistry Professor Alfred Bennett testified on Jim Paul’s behalf (Ancestry.com U.S. School Yearbook).

Professor Alfred Bennett, Chemistry Professor at Iowa State College in Ames, testified it was easy to confuse reactions of gelsemine — a mydriatic and central nervous system stimulant that George Paul gave Maria Dulin — with those of strychnine. He, too, said finding strychnine in the organs did not always indicate poisoning.

During a rebuttal, Professor Macy asked to conduct an experiment in court that would show the difference between gelsemine and strychnine; the judge sustained an objection from the defense and no experiment was made.

The jury deliberated 14 hours before returning with a not guilty verdict.

Because Jim Paul was found not to have poisoned Maria Dulin, the charges against George Paul were dismissed; and father and son left the courtroom together.

Jim Paul was said to have left Webster County immediately after the trial. He died on Christmas Day in 1925 at the age of 57. Dr. George Paul continued to live in Webster County until his death at 80 in 1924.

On August 10, 1896 — 10 days after Jim Paul was arrested for murdering Alta Fisher and Maria Dulin — Luella Mae “Ella” Hartman married 39-year-old Isaac McGonigle. They had seven children before he passed away in 1912; Ella then married William Frederick Rifen and they had four children. She died in Jewell, Iowa, in 1948.

☛ Alta Fisher Paul’s Life ☚

Alta Alice Fisher was born in 1871 to Thomas and Eliza Ellen Fisher in Hamilton County. She had one brother — Albert Lee Fisher — and four sisters, Mary Ellen Fisher, twins Hattie and Mattie Fisher, and Byrda Mae “Birdy” Fisher.

She married James “Jim” Paul on January 27, 1896; six months later, she was dead. Her grave in a Hamilton County cemetery is unmarked.

☛ Maria Woodard Fisher Dulin’s Life ☚

Friends collected money to erect a tombstone for the community’s beloved Maria Dulin (photo by Neal Bowers).

Maria was born September 15, 1815 in New York state to James and Margaret Woodard. On January 30, 1836, she married Pennsylvania native Samuel Fisher and they lived in Indiana and Illinois. They had four sons — Thomas J., James E., William, and George Samuel Fisher — as well as two daughters, Mary Ellen Fisher and Harriet Marie Fisher Allen Bone.

During the Gold Rush, Samuel Fisher went to California, where he died, leaving Maria alone to raise their children.

Maria moved her family to Hamilton County, where she served as a midwife and brought many local residents into the world. Known for her compassion and care, she was beloved by the community and called “Grandma Dulin.”

Maria endured not only the hardship of her husband’s death but the also the pain of having her son Thomas shot by Confederate soldiers at Booneville, Mississippi, and imprisoned in Macon, Georgia, during the Civil War.

On June 8, 1863, Maria married Smith Dulin, whose first wife died in 1844 in Illinois. From that marriage, she gained 11 step-children.

After her sudden death, friends and family of Maria Dulin continued to miss her and three years after her death decided to honor her memory with a monument at her grave.

The Friday, August 4, 1899 edition of the Webster City Tribune carried this notice:

“There will be a box sociable at the Saratoga school house Saturday evening, Aug. 5. Proceeds to aid in purchasing a monument to be placed at the grave of Mrs. A.M. [sic] Dulin. Everybody is cordially invited to attend. This certainly is a worthy cause.”

Enough money was gathered to erect a stone engraved:

Maria A. Dulin
Erected by her friends as a memoria [sic] to her virtues
in careing [sic] for the sick and afflicted

☛ Journey into the Past: September 2011 ☚

In September 2011, I traveled in search of the place where Maria Dulin and Alta Paul were murdered in 1896.

photo by Neal Bowers

Ten miles south and east of Webster City on meandering Stagecoach Road there’s a turn west and at that spot, nearly on the Webster County Line, are the skeletal remains of Homer.

A vacated Methodist church, its bell hacked out of the steeple, marks the intersection of what was once Main and Fourth streets. Everything else has disappeared except a couple of houses and the old General Store and dancehall, the place Jim Dulin may have danced the night away after buying his wife on Independence Day of 1896.

Somewhere in this vanished town with its ghost streets still marked by fence rows cutting through the cornfields, the two women were murdered.

There’s no trace in Homer of the two women. Alta was buried in an unmarked Webster County grave. But I found Maria 10 miles southeast in Saratoga Cemetery north of Stanhope beneath a stone erected by friends to honor her memory.

Ghost Town

Homer General Store and upstairs dance hall in earlier times when the town thrived (courtesy Don Lamb)

Homer residents Don Lamb and his brother Francis, who grew up there, didn’t know about Alta Paul and Maria Dulin.

But they shared with me their memories of the town and showed me bits and pieces of printed history.

The Lamb brothers said that in its prime Homer had three churches, a post office, a school, and 600 citizens. Bypassed when the railroad came through, the community shrank until the population in 2011 is only five people.

Don Lamb runs a thriving tractor and small engine repair operation in the former General Store, where inside steep steps lead up to the former dancehall.

Don and his daughter Brandi also manage an historical museum featuring antique mechanical equipment.

During the fourth week of August each year, they sponsor a steam engine threshing exhibition.

☛ Fading Town, Dimming Memories ☚

photo by Neal Bowers

The prairie takes back its own. And as Homer recedes into the corn and soybeans, the remembrance of two poisoned women who received no justice might fade as well.

The once-thriving town of Homer, grandly named for the Greek poet and home to 600 citizens at its peak, gradually faded to a ghost town.

Today, all that remain are a few houses, the now-abandoned Methodist Church, and a general store that had a dance hall on the second floor. The population is five people.

Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa, Volume 1, Benjamin F. Gue.
  • Daily Iowa Capital, October 3, 1896.
  • ☛ “Finds Evidence of Poison,” Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette, September 1, 1896.
  • ☛ “Held For Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 26, 1896.
  • ☛ “His Chances Look Bad,” Perry Daily Chief, November 19, 1896.
  • History of Hamilton County, Iowa, Volume 1, Jesse W. Lee.
  • ☛ “Hunt For Poison,” Des Moines Daily News, August 19, 1896.
  • ☛ “Iowa News-Letter,” Oxford Mirror, December 3, 1896.
  • ☛ “Is Charged With Murder,” Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette, August 25, 1896.
  • ☛ “Macy Has Returned,” Des Moines Daily News, December 1, 1896.
  • ☛ “Paul Bound Over,” LeMars Semi-Weekly Reporter, August 25, 1896.
  • ☛ “Paul Is Acquitted,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, December 5, 1896.
  • ☛ “Paul Murder Trial,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, November 18, 1896.
  • ☛ “The Paul Poisoning,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 3, 1896.
  • ☛ “Pauls Held Without Bail,” Malvern Leader, October 22, 1896.
  • ☛ “Seeking Strychnine,” Pomeroy Herald, August 27, 1896.
  • ☛ “The Suspected Murder Of Mrs. Dulin,” Webster City Tribune, October 31, 1931.
  • ☛ “Suspected Of Double Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 17, 1896.
  • ☛ “Suspicion Murder,” Sioux County Herald, September 16, 1896.
  • ☛ “Testimony Against Paul,” LeMars Globe, November 28, 1896.

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