A Dream of Murder: Mysterious Disappearance of Mr. Thomas 1857

Murder Victim

Mr. Thomas
Age and Occupation Unknown
Cause of Death: Unknown
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

Millersburg, Iowa
Iowa County
August 1857


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2017

Historical accounts sometimes tease the historian who is attempting to analyze them by providing just enough details to engage and intrigue but not enough to answer all questions. Dates become vague, first names are lopped off, details fade, and essential information is omitted.

Millersburg is 14 miles
southwest of Williamsburg

Such was the case with an 1881 History of Iowa County narrative written 24 years after the original events occurred and based on a brief, incomplete news article and the personal memories of a local citizen.

A Mr. Thomas, according to the history book, disappeared with his horse from Millersburg under mysterious circumstances in August of 1857.

Iowa County authorities concluded that Mr. Thomas was murdered, and two local men were arrested for the crime. However, the most critical piece of evidence in the case — a body — was missing; so, the suspects were released from custody.

☛ A Dream of Death ☚

Nearly a year passed.

In early July of 1858, a young boy named Ballard came forward to tell the community of a dream he’d had, a vivid and specific dream.

In his vision, the Ballard boy saw Mr. Thomas shot and tossed into a well on the property of one of the men who was arrested and released. Then his horse was pushed in after him, and the well was filled up with dirt.

The History of Iowa County wrote of the phenomenon:

“So strong was the boy’s belief, and such remarkable revelations he gave in reference to other things, that a search warrant was obtained and a great number of excited people commenced re-digging the well.”

☛ Digging for Answers ☚

The excavators had dug down 25 feet when the well began to collapse in on them, and they were overcome by a horrible odor. They were so nauseated by the smell that they filled the well in. But then determinedly, they started digging again from an indirect angle.

The agitated man on whose property the well was located — who claimed he abandoned and filled it in because the water was bad — threatened to shoot the next man who lifted a spade full of dirt. This behavior only made the diggers more suspicious and single-minded.

They sent for Iowa County Prosecuting Attorney H.M. Martin and Deputy Sheriff B.F. Havens, who arrived at the well to enforce the search warrant.

The digging began again and the well was completely emptied. No evidence of man nor horse was found.

☛ Believing the Dream ☚

The Ballard boy insisted that the things he saw in his dream — termed “spiritual revelations” by the Dubuque Daily Times — were true and that the bodies were buried near the well, if not in it.

His strong certainty and his specific details more than convinced many Martinsburg citizens that Mr. Thomas was murdered and buried in a well somewhere in the neighborhood and that his killers were never held accountable


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



  • ☛ “Great Excitement,” The History of Iowa County, Iowa. Des Moines: Union Historical Company, 1881, pp. 759-760.
  • ☛ “A Mysterious Case,” Dubuque Daily Times, July 26, 1858, p. 2.

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