Cause of Death: Undetermined
Murder Scene and Date
Burlington and Iowa City Road
Yellow Springs Township
3 Miles South of Mediapolis, Iowa
Des Moines County
January 24, 1884
By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2015
Gideon Hall loved his solitude as much as his money. And he mistrusted his fellowman as much as he did banks.
The Morning Sun Herald described him as “an eccentric old bachelor and miser . . . who lived alone in a little old shanty on the Burlington and Iowa City Road” near Mediapolis.
“A disappointment in early love,” the newspaper wrote, “caused him to lead a miserly life and to forever distrust humanity.”
Hall’s humble story-and-a-half house sat on 200 acres in Yellow Springs Township of Des Moines County, and he had accumulated plenty of money. He was believed to have large sums stashed about his living quarters and on his person at all times.
He kept his door locked and barred, and no one was permitted into his home unless Hall knew them.
Gideon Hall was last seen alive on Saturday, January 24, 1884 when he got his mail in Mediapolis.
☛ Gruesome Discovery ☚
In the late afternoon of Monday, January 26, a neighbor named Carlson rode by the Hall home and heard the cow mooing and pigs squealing as if they needed to be fed. He sensed something was amiss and was on the way home to get help when he ran into Luther Talbert, who accompanied Carlson back to the Hall place.
After knocking, the two discovered the door was unlocked, the first clue something was very wrong.
The scene inside was horrific. Hall’s decomposing body — clothes on, boots off — lay on the bed covered by a blanket.
Very little was out of place in the sparsely furnished home except for personal papers scattered on the table.
Des Moines County Coroner Burton A. “Bert” Prugh was called to the scene but made only a cursory examination of the body, saying it was too badly discolored to show evidence of violence.
Prugh said Hall appeared to have been dead about 48 hours, making the time of death Saturday, January 24.
Hall’s body was swollen nearly double from decomposition and was so repulsive that Prugh had difficulty getting anyone to help move it.
The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:
“Rigid examination of the premises failed to disclose any evidences of foul play, though a suspicion lurked in the minds of many that the hermit, as he was sometimes called, did not end his days in a natural way.”
A search of the house by authorities yielded no money except for a nickel found on the floor.
Coroner Prugh convened a jury for an inquest. The amount of evidence was so small and insignificant that the jury had no choice but to rule the cause of death as natural.
This verdict didn’t sit well with many in the community who believed Gideon Hall was murdered and robbed. First of all, they reasoned, he was in good health; and, secondly, it was widely known that he kept large sums of money concealed on the premises, money which seemed to have disappeared.
Hall’s brother Oliver took charge of the body and had it buried in the Linn Grove Cemetery in Mediapolis.
☛ Suspects Emerge ☚
After an investigation of several weeks, two sets of brothers — John and Frank Kline and Sam and Henry Downer — emerged as suspects. The four were farmhands in the Dodgeville area and were between 19 and 22 in age.
Although the Kline boys’ father Henry of Washington Township was a prosperous and well-regarded farmer, the Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote about the suspected quartette:
“If reports be true they have the reputation of being hard characters and it is said have committed numerous offenses of a minor character.”
Assistant County Attorney James Virgin gathered information that the four young men had been playing cards of late at Gideon Hall’s place and that the Kline brothers’ sleigh was seen hitched across the road on Saturday night. They also had told acquaintances that they were at Hall’s house on Sunday and found his body but didn’t report it to anyone.
James Virgin was told that Sam Downer was in possession of $460 and that he gave another man 50 cents to buy beer for him because spending that much money would make him a suspect.
The evidence against the four was considered substantial enough to warrant their detainment and arrest.
They were charged with murder and had their preliminary hearing set for February 13. Public sentiment was strong against the men.
☛ Interview With the Suspects ☚
The Burlington Hawk-Eye was able to obtain an interview with the four suspects on February 11 after they had been brought to Burlington from Mediapolis by Sheriff George Kriechbaum:
“Four young farmer boys, with their trousers in their boots tops, attired in jaded clothing and whose general appearance presented all the characteristics of a bucolic individual, sat around a wooden table in the county jail masticating their frugal supper of bread, molasses and coffee . . . . The quartette of prisoners was not as verdant, perhaps, as their appearance might seem to indicate. They had a ready answer for every interrogatory propounded, and took a philosophical view of their arrest and incarceration in jail.
They were in good spirits and laughed and chatted merrily.
‘Was your arrest a surprise to you?’ was asked.
‘Well, I should say it was,’ said Frank Kline, answering for his companions as well as himself. ‘I think this is outrageous for I am not guilty of the crime, and I don’t think any of the other boys are.’
‘It is reported you have admitted discovering Hall’s remains on Sunday and were at his house in a sleigh late Saturday night. Is that so?’
‘It is not. We have done nothing of the kind. I did not know that he was dead until Tuesday and then I drove over to his house in a sleigh. We were not there Saturday night or any other time except Tuesday.’
‘Do you expect to be acquitted?’
‘You bet yer life we do,’ interposed Sam Downer. ‘That Goddamed justice of the peace wouldn’t try us today but postponed the examination until Wednesday. Now this thing is going to hurt our characters. Say, pard, ain’t there some way we can protect ourselves? I should think we could make the prosecuting attorney pay damages. It seems strange that if we prove our innocence that we cannot make someone pay for our arrest and injury to our character. No sir, it is not true that I showed $460.’
‘Where was I the Saturday and Sunday evenings before the remains were found? I can prove by more witnesses than one where I was,’ said Frank Kline, who appears to be the sharpest of the four, and has a keen eye.
‘Did Hall have much money? Not that I know,’ said John Kline. ‘Some people thought he was rich and some thought he was not. I know nothing about it.”
‘Won’t you have some of the turkey,’ remarked one of the Downer boys to a prisoner in a cell, laughing at his joke.
‘Thanks, thanks,’ replied the prisoner, ‘My physician has advised me to eat light suppers, as I am troubled with the nightmare.’
‘We have no fears as to the outcome,’ said Kline, ‘and do not care to talk further about the matter.’ Following supper the young men were assigned cells.”
☛ Post Mortem and Hearing ☚
Gideon Hall’s body was disinterred on February 12 and a post mortem conducted in the Linn Grove Church by Drs. Powers and Smith. However, decomposition was so full-blown that the cause of death could not be determined. The possibility of sending the stomach to Chicago for poison testing was entertained but ultimately rejected.
A preliminary hearing was conducted before Justice of the Peace Ben F. Stahl on February 13. Because he could not prove that violence was committed against Gideon Hall, Assistant County Attorney James Virgin asked Stahl to dismiss the case against the four men.
☛ Unsolved Murder? ☚
Gideon Hall’s death and a lack of resolution were troubling to the community and their dissatisfaction rested strictly on Coroner Burton A. “Bert” Prugh. The Morning Sun Herald wrote:
“There are a great many in that vicinity who think Gideon Hall was murdered, and we believe they have just grounds for thinking so. The coroner fell far short of his duty in not making a thorough examination of this case. It appears that he was very indifferent about the matter.”
The Burlington Hawk-Eye agreed:
“If Gideon Hall was murdered, the guilty party will never be known.”
☛ Gideon Hall’s Life ☚
Gideon Hall was born March 11, 1807 in Rensselaer, New York, to Abigail Youngs and Gideon Hall, Sr. He had four brothers — Oliver, Charles, Rowland, and Henry Hall — as well as nine sisters: Martha Hall, Abigail Hall Whiteside, Elizabeth Hall Harrington, Catherine Hall Burton, Bethany Samantha Hall Stormer Sherman, Margaret Hall, Penelope Hall, Mercy Hall, and Louisa Hall.
He moved to Iowa before the 1860 Census, acquired land in Des Moines County, and built the house where he died.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “City Briefs,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 13, 1884, p. 8.
- ☛ “City Briefs,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 14, 1884, p. 8.
- ☛ “Condensed News,” Ottumwa Daily Democrat, February 14, 1884, p. 1.
- ☛ “Local Department,” Morning Sun Herald, February 21, 1884, p. 5.
- ☛ “Mediapolis” by “Sentry,” Morning Sun Herald, February 21, 1884, p. 1.
- ☛ “The Mediapolis Murder,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, February 13, 1884, p. 8.
- ☛ Morning Sun Herald, February 7, 1884, p. 5.
- ☛ Morning Sun Herald, February 14, 1884, p. 5.
- ☛ “State Items,” Sioux County Herald, February 7, 1884.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Was He Murdered,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, February 12, 1884, p. 6.