“A Vaudeville of Troubles”: Murder of Deborah Simmons 1879

Murder Victim

Deborah Ann Faulkerson Simmons
62-year-old Hotel Proprietress
Cause of Death: Struck with Flat Iron
Motive: Family Dispute

Murder Scene and Date

The New York House
Jefferson Street between 4th and 5th
Waterloo, Iowa
Black Hawk County
April 26, 1879


By Nancy Bowers
Written December 2010

location of Waterloo, Iowa

location of Waterloo, Iowa

In 1879, Deborah Simmons and her husband George W. Simmons, Sr. — both 62 — lived on Jefferson Street between 4th and 5th streets in Waterloo and ran the New York House, a hotel they named for their native state.

The hotel — a stopping place for area farmers — was a two-story, frame structure with a front porch entrance and second floor rooms for guests.

On the first floor were an office, dining room, and sitting room. Opening off the dining room was the Simmons’s tiny bedroom with space for a bed only and barely two-to-three feet to spare.

Daughter Abby Simmons, 22, had a bedroom on the south side of the first floor, while 26-year-old George Simmons, Jr. slept upstairs on the northwest corner of the house.

☛ “Foul Murder” ☚

from the Waterloo Courier

There were no guests at the hotel on the night of Saturday, April 26, 1879. George, Sr. and Deborah retired to their bedroom at 8:15 p.m. and were asleep by 9:00.

Between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m., George, Sr. thought Deborah was snoring and nudged her to wake up. After she made gasping sounds, he took her right hand and found it “limpsy and cold” and feared she’d had a stroke similar to one four years before.

When he called out for his children, they came quickly running; George, Jr. brought a lit lantern from the kitchen table.

In the lamplight, they saw Deborah unconscious on her back — face towards the ceiling — with blood running from her head, nose, and mouth and soaking her clothes.

The Simmons children rushed outside to raise the alarm to neighbors. The first to arrive on the scene was Nelson Rudquast, the hostler at the next door De Soto House. Other neighbors soon gathered and then Officer Charles Mantle responded as word of the attack spread. By 2:10 a.m., Simmons family physician Dr. Alonzo Middleditch had been summoned.

Clad only in his “pantaloons and shirt,” George, Jr. then ran to the home of his sister Margaret Simmons Tardy to spread the word.

Officer Mantle searched the hotel and found the outside cellar door unlocked and the door from the cellar to the kitchen open. However, he found no footprints or other clues in the basement.

The Simmons murder drew sensational
headlines like this from the Waterloo Courier.

He ordered that nothing be moved or touched, including Deborah Simmons.

Town Marshall Harvey W. Jenney questioned witnesses and at 3:00 a.m., Officer Clark Inman and Dr. George J. Mack reported to the hotel.

Dr. Mack found Deborah comatose and breathing heavily. He noted that blood oozed from her nose, mouth, and a triangular wound about three inches long over her left eye, which he believed was inflicted by a left-handed person.

Dr. G.F. Roberts, also summoned to the hotel, agreed with Dr. Mack’s assessment; both stated the wound was only hours old.

Outside the rear door of the kitchen, Officer Inman found an axe lying between the New York House and the De Soto House only 15 feet northwest of the room where Deborah was attacked.

The axe was specked with dirt. The underside was wet — with what Dr. Mack termed “blood globules” — and the upper side dry.

☛ A Son’s Story ☚

Inside the house, George, Jr. was distraught. He raised his mother’s head, begged her to tell him who hurt her, and cried out:

“My best friend is gone.”

George, Jr. told authorities he went to his room at 8:15 p.m. Saturday night but soon crawled out a window and climbed onto the porch and down a post to visit his ex-wife Sarah Beal, who recently divorced him.

He claimed he stayed with Sarah Beal from 9:00 to 12:30 — all the while telling her he intended to leave Waterloo and take up farming and imploring her to go with him.

George, Jr. said he sneaked back into his room at the hotel in the same way he left, not wanting his parents to know he was in contact with Sarah Beal, whom his mother disliked.

☛ Investigation ☚

Deborah Simmons lay unconscious where she was found until 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, when she died.

Thirty minutes later, Black Hawk County Coroner Walter O. Richards convened a jury consisting of J.W. Logan, James Ellis, and C.B. Scroggy; the men discussed the death at a dining table in the kitchen adjacent to where Deborah’s body lay.

Outside the hotel, crowds milled in the street.

At 9:30 p.m., the jury announced its findings: Deborah Simmons was struck on the head with a heavy, blunt instrument by her son George, Jr. — who was left-handed — and died from that blow.

George, Jr. was arrested by officers Andrew M. Hiserodt and William C. Munger in the presence of Sheriff George W. Hayzlett.

Black Hawk County Sheriff George Hayzlett (www.legis.iowa.gov)

As he was led away to jail, George, Jr. cried and moaned to his father:

“I am innocent of this thing.”

George, Sr. brought flowers and special food to his son’s cell and tried to reassure him.

But townspeople had little sympathy for him, saying he was “wild” and “irregular in his habits”; and the Iowa State Reporter agreed:

“The young man implicated . . . is well known around town as rather reckless, and a little inclined to dissipation.”

And lots of people knew George, Jr. argued about his recent divorce with his mother and blamed her for the marriage breakup.

The Waterloo Daily Courier later reported:

“Evidence was exposed that the Simmonses were naturally quarrelsome people [and] that the home life was constantly a vaudeville of troubles.”

☛ Stealthy Medical Work ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

At midnight, Deborah’s body still lay in the bed where she was struck on the head 12 hours earlier.

Using a ruse, physicians lured a guard away from the scene and then secretly opened Deborah’s scalp and sawed out the portion of the skull containing the fracture — replacing it with a similarly-sized piece of wood — and pulled the scalp back up.

☛ Preliminary Hearing ☚

In a crammed courtroom on May 14, 1879, Justice of the Peace Joseph H. Kuhns began the preliminary hearing which was detailed word-for-word in the Waterloo Courier for those who could not attend or get into the room.

Former Governor Horace Boies defended George Simmons, Jr.

George, Jr. was represented by several lawyers, including former Iowa Governor Horace Boies.

The case turned solely on the murder weapon, which authorities claimed was a flatiron George, Jr. had access to. Most of the defense testimony was medical evidence by physicians about the size and nature of the wound and the weapon making it. Both the differing views on the type of weapon used and the sheer numbers of doctors living in the small town were astonishing:

  • ☛ Dr. John H. Crippen speculated it was a hammer.
  • ☛ Dr. Otho S. Knox testified it was a hammer or hatchet, as did Dr. James M. Ball.
  • ☛ Dr. George J. Mack believed Deborah Simmons was killed with a flatiron, the tip of which punctured her skull.
  • ☛ Dr. H.W. Brown agreed. Dr. Walter O. Richards stated it was not a flatiron.
  • ☛ Dr. Alonzo Middleditch testified that Deborah Simmons was sitting up at the time and was struck with something other than a flatiron.
  • ☛ Dr. W. Eddy said it was a wedge-shaped instrument.
  • ☛ Drs. Samuel N. Pierce and Charles H. Horton claimed it was neither a hatchet, hammer, nor flatiron.

The defense dug up Deborah’s body and brought her head into court to demonstrate their belief that the fracture was made by a weapon which penetrated deeper than a flatiron could. And defense attorney Horace Boies proclaimed about the hole in her skull:

“That wound has no more the shape of a flatiron than has Mark Twain’s war map.”

After eleven days of testimony, Justice Joseph Kuhns dismissed the charges against George, Jr., and the case was not sent on to a grand jury.

☛ 26 Years Later — Murder Weapon Found? ☚

1905 headline from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

1905 headline from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

In late August of 1905, the former New York House — on property then owned by William Galloway — was razed. In the rubble, workers found a flatiron and those who remembered the murder assumed it was the long-missing murder weapon.

Joseph H. Kuhns was still Justice of the Peace in 1905. In an interview with the Waterloo Daily Reporter, Kuhns declared the Simmons case was one of the “most remarkable in the criminal annals of Black Hawk County.”

Kuhns asserted that George, Jr. did not kill his mother but said the evidence against the real killer was so slim that prosecution could not be made even if that person were still living. To spare the surviving family mental anguish, Kuhns refused to open the case.

☛ The Life of Deborah Faulkerson Simmons ☚

Deborah Ann Faulkerson was born July 9, 1816 in the state of New York and married George W. Simmons, Sr. on November 23, 1843 in Stuben County.

The newlyweds moved west and settled in Marshall, Michigan, where several of their children were born, including George, Jr.

About 1851, the Simmons family relocated to Waterloo, then just a tiny enclave of log cabins. George, Sr. worked as a sawyer before acquiring the New York House.

photo by Chuck, findagrave.com

Deborah’s funeral was held at the New York House and she was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, which the Iowa State Reporter called the “new cemetery on the west side” of Waterloo.

She was survived by her husband George, Sr. and her children Charles M. Simmons, Lucy N. Simmons, Eliza Jane Simmons Spencer, Margaret Simmons Tardy, Emma Ann Simmons, George W. Simmons, Jr., Abby D. Simmons Brisban, and Eunice Simmons.

George Simmons, Sr. put the New York House up for sale in March 1880 and in September of that year sold it to A. Bartholomew of Lester Township in Black Hawk County.

In October 1880, the hotel became “Tremont House,” although residents still referred to it as the “New York House” until it was razed in 1905.

George Simmons, Sr. died in 1894 at the age of 78. A newspaper reported at the time that George, Jr. “was last heard from at Cairo, Illinois.”


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



  • ☛ “Cleared,” Cedar Rapids Times, May 29, 1879.
  • ☛ “Crime,” Dubuque Herald, May 15, 1879.
  • ☛ “Criminal Parallels,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 13, 1901.
  • ☛ “A Famous Case Of Early Days,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, September 2, 1905.
  • ☛ “A Foul Murder,” Iowa State Reporter, April 30, 1879.
  • ☛ “George Simmons Dismissed,” Iowa State Reporter, May 28, 1879.
  • ☛ Horace Boies photo, Souvenir of Des Moines by the Mail and Times, 1891.
  • ☛ Joe Conroy, IAGenWeb, Personal Correspondence, April 16, 2011.
  • ☛ “A Most Brutal Murder At Waterloo,” Cedar Falls Gazette, May 2, 1879.
  • ☛ “Murder At Waterloo,” Cedar Rapids Times, May 1, 1879.
  • ☛ “Passed Away,” Waterloo Courier, 1894.
  • ☛ “Mysterious Murder,” Waterloo Courier, April 30, 1879.
  • ☛ “The Simmons Murder!” by W.H. Hartman, Waterloo Courier, May 21, 1879.
  • ☛ “Solarplexus [sic] to Flat-Iron,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 2, 1905.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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