After Church: Murders of Lena and Tommy Peterson 1902

Murder Victims

Mary Magdalene “Lena” Peterson
15-year-old High School Student

Thomas Hoffman “Tommy” Peterson
13-year-old Grammar School Student

Cause of Deaths: Bludgeoned
Motive: Family Jealousy

Murder Scene and Date

Madison Avenue
Highland Park, Iowa
Lee Township
Polk County
April 13, 1902


By Nancy Bowers
Written October 2010

The April 13, 1902 murders of Lena and Tommy Peterson had all the ingredients for sensation.

Teenage siblings were brutally slaughtered, the sister possibly “outraged” on the way home from church. And newspapers inflamed the public with gruesome details about the bodies and crime scene.

Baying bloodhounds ran frantically through northern Polk County; private investigators and amateur detectives followed “clews.”

Angry, racist mobs surrounded the jail looking to lynch a suspect.

Grieving family members turned on each, and one made an unthinkable allegation.

But worst of all, there were no answers.

☛ Bucolic Safe Haven ☚

Murder victims Tommy and Lena Peterson

The story unfolded in an area of north Des Moines once rural and lovely but now swallowed by urban expansion.

Today the conjunction of East 14th Street and East Madison Avenue is a stripped-down commercial area with an Aldi, Car-X, Payday Loan, and used car lot at the corners.

But in 1902, that same intersection was a rural farm in Lee Township of Polk County, five miles north of Des Moines proper. Other farms and homes were scattered in all directions.

The nearest commercial hub was Highland Park, the last stop on the streetcar line north from Des Moines.

Highland Park College stood at the corner of Euclid Avenue and 2nd Avenue, today the home of Park Fair Mall.

North of Highland Park were Marquisville and Saylorville, situated along a rich vein of coal worked by the Consolidation Coal Company.

Ethnic enclaves clustered in the coal camps — Swedes, Irish, Welsh, and a number of blacks who were first brought in when white miners were striking in 1881.

The Polk County Poor Farm in Saylor Township was due north on East 14th Street, then known as the “Poor Farm Road.”

☛ The Petersons: Well-Respected and Hard-Working ☚

On the southwest corner of East Madison and East 14th Street sat the modest, two-story frame home of Peter J. and Mary Hoffman Peterson.

The Peterson home at the intersection of East 14th and Madison, 1902 (Des Moines Daily Leader)

Peter, born in Sweden in 1844, immigrated to the United States in 1867. Mary was born in Iowa in 1849.

The Petersons were a hard-working, well-respected family who in 1902 were turning their dairy farm of 30 years into vegetable and fruit production.

Mary inherited the land from her parents, Thomas and Maria Ensley Hoffman. West across the Poor Farm Road from them was an acreage owned by Peter alone. North of that was land belonging to their son James Willis Peterson, always known as Willis.

Neighbors said Peter was “steady,” and Mary was a quiet and unassuming “devout Methodist.”

In 1874, the Petersons and other Swedes formed Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. After 1899, the family attended Highland Park Methodist Episcopal Church at the corner of Fifth Street and Euclid Avenue.

In 1902, the Peterson’s oldest child, 27-year-old Harry T. Peterson, was married to Gertrude Ehling and lived in Saylor Township.

Still at home were Annette (“Nettie), 26; Willis, 23; Laura Belle, 22; Martha Merriam, 19; and the two youngest — 15-year-old Mary Magdalene, known as “Lena,” and 13-year-old Thomas Hoffman, called “Tommy.”

Tall for her age, Lena was bright, witty, and popular at Capital Park High School. She planned to study literature at Highland Park College.

Tommy was “sturdy” and a good student at grammar school. Peter Peterson made no secret Tommy was his pet, his favorite of the three sons.

☛ April 13, 1902: A Routine Sabbath ☚

Lena and Tommy Peterson had a rigid Sunday ritual encouraged by their mother.

Church where the Peterson children went the night of their murders.

Mornings, they attended services at Highland Park Methodist Episcopal Church at Fifth Street and Euclid Avenue a mile-and-a-third southwest of their home. In the afternoon, they went to Union Mission in nearby Grand View conducted by Rev. L.W. Nipe and in the evening trekked back to their home church.

On Sunday, April 13, 1902, Lena and Tommy followed their usual Sabbath schedule, attending church in the morning and afternoon.

That evening, Lena and Tommy set out for the Highland Park Methodist Episcopal Church as always. Some Sundays they cut across fields, but that night they followed the road.

They walked west on Madison Avenue past neighbors: the David and Catherine Lewis family, Dan Carey, Albert Caldwell, and Edward Dubrey and his wife — whose daughter planned to go to church also but changed her mind.

The children passed through Highland Park and turned south towards the church, probably at 4th Street. When church ended at 9:00 p.m., Lena and Tommy started for home, retracing their path.

In Highland Park, they stopped at the Billy Waters restaurant and bought bananas and coconut candy.

About 9:30, Lena and Tommy were a third-of-a-mile from home near a small knoll between two culverts midway between the Carey and Dubrey homes.

There, something unspeakably evil happened.

☛ Kids “Cutting Up?” ☚

Sixteen-year old Fred Turby lived with his parents Lewis and Cora on Bowdoin Street a fourth-of-a mile northwest of the Petersons. Fred, too, left the Highland Park Evangelical Church at 9:00.

As Fred turned off Madison to go north, he heard three shrill screams like a group of young people “cutting up.”

☛ “Someone Has Been Murdered!” ☚

Between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., 22-year-old student and Saylor Township resident Ralph Peck and 18-year-old Naoma Mary Spear, who lived with her parents at 1113 Bowdoin Street, were returning in a buggy from Bondurant, driving west on what is now Hubbell Avenue/Highway 6. Ralph and Naoma were “courting” and later married.

Ralph turned the buggy north on East 14th so he could then go left at Madison and head west towards the Spear home.

Just as their buggy passed the Peterson farm and reached the knoll on Madison, Naoma heard sounds like a cat growling and put up her hand for Peck to stop.

When Ralph halted the horses, there was silence. But as they pulled away, the noise came again, frightening Naoma terribly.

Suspecting something bad, Ralph Peck gave the horse full rein and sped to the residence of Naoma’s aunt and uncle, Wesley and Lizzie Day, on Bowdoin Street, which was closer than Naoma’s home.

Naoma stayed there while Wesley Day and Ralph Peck drove the buggy to round up neighbors Albert B. Caldwell, Dan Carey, and Mike Quinn.

The wives and daughters of the men knew something bad was afoot and bolted their doors and stayed awake.

Ralph Peck led the group to the spot where he and Naoma heard the sounds. The men spread out to search, moving slowly.

One hundred and fifty feet from the top of the knoll and in a slight depression in the roadway before a ridge, Wesley Day stopped and cried out, “Here it is. Someone has been murdered.” The others quickly gathered around him.

Investigators standing at the spot where Tommy Peterson’s body was found (Des Moines Daily Leader)

In a shallow ditch on the north side of the road, about three feet from a telephone pole, was a bloody and beaten male lying face-down, unconscious but moaning. His tangled hair was matted with blood. When turned over, he was so disfigured no one recognized him.

The grass and roadway for 20-25 feet showed a fierce struggle and a trail marked where he was dragged from the middle of the road to the ditch.

Ralph Peck crossed the road to turn the horse and buggy around so someone could notify Coroner William Beck in Highland Park but then cried out,

“For God sake, come here. Here is another body lying in the ditch on this side.”

When the men raised their lanterns, they saw a young woman on her back crossways in a three-foot deep ravine. Her clothing was disarrayed and her hat rested on the edge of the ditch.

Dan Carey recognized Lena and remembered seeing her and her brother pass his house earlier. That’s when the men realized the other body was Tommy’s.

Michael Quinn rode to notify Dr. William Beck, who lived two blocks west of Highland Park College. Beck recruited Dr. Woods, and the two medical men rushed to the scene.

When Dr. Woods grasped Lena’s head to raise it, her skull was so broken that his fingers went through to her brain.

☛ “Some Horrible Nightmare” ☚

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

Dr. William Beck was also the Petersons’ physician, so he and Wesley Day went to notify the family. Peter Peterson was asleep when the men’s knock roused him; he was asked to get dressed and come with them.

When told his children were murdered, he screamed, “Murdered! Murdered! My God! And in sight of our home.” Mary Peterson first swooned and then became strangely calm.

When Peter Peterson arrived at the scene and saw the bodies, he was so stricken the men thought he “would lapse into helpless insanity” as “his reason reeled on its throne.”

The Des Moines Leader reported Peter Peterson was seized with “violent convulsions” and had to be restrained as he gasped:

“My God! My God! My Tommy, my darling boy murdered. Oh, doctor you cannot mean it. This is some horrible nightmare. You are joking. Why, it has only been a short time since he went away so happy. I cannot believe they have killed my boy.”

As he was placed in the ambulance bound for Mercy Hospital, Tommy groaned and Dr. Beck strained to hear any words. The horses started, but after several more groans, Tommy — lying beside the body of his sister — died before the ambulance traveled half a mile.

Peter Peterson then asked the ambulance to drive the bodies of his children to Ezra J. Selover’s undertaking parlors at 634 East Grand Avenue.

Law Enforcement were on the murder scene in less than 90 minutes after the murders. Polk County Sheriff George W. Mattern worked with the Des Moines Police and their Detective Division.

☛ The Morning After ☚

Artist's depiction of the crime scene from the Des Moines Daily News

Artist’s depiction of the crime scene
from the Des Moines Daily News

Peter Peterson mourned through the night and could not be quieted or comforted. Neighbors Lizzie Day and Cora Turby arrived early on Monday to help the Peterson girls care for their mother.

That morning, the Petersons’ hired hand James Conley accompanied detectives to look over the fields next to the road where Lena and Tommy were found.

The murder scene in daylight was horrible. On the north side of the road where Tommy had lain, a small depression was filled with blood, brains, and tufts of hair. On the other side where Lena was killed, long strands of hair torn out by their roots were intertwined with grass and clotted with brains, wood, and dirt.

Nearby was a clump of slender willows. The 80 acres of oats to the south were fenced except for a wagon opening 60 feet west of the murder spot.

An east-west knoll running 400 feet from the road obscured the south half of the field which had a three-acre swamp overgrown with water willows in the southwest corner.

Authorities at the scene saw tracks of two people — one print of a small shoe or boot, the other of ordinary size, perhaps a 9 or 10. These went south through the oat field, separated around the swamp, and joined together again.

☛ Autopsies Reveal Appalling Details ☚

At the funeral home on Monday, Dr. William Beck and Dr. M.M. Smith examined the bodies more closely.

Tommy had a deep, penetrating forehead gash from being struck on both temples. He was hit so hard on the back of his head that three or four fingers could be placed in the fracture. His collar bone was broken, his right jaw crushed, and his breast and shoulder pummeled. Some of the wounds were jagged as though from a brick.

The undertaker washed Lena’s hair and hung it over the cot to dry. The two doctors could then see she was struck at least a dozen times on the head; they also reported “[her] vaginal cavity was badly lacerated, discharging blood and a slimy substance.”

Coroner William Beck issued a statement that Tommy was killed protecting his sister’s honor and Lena was raped and then murdered so she could not tell.

☛ Curious Crowds View the Corpses ☚

Huge crowds gathered at the undertaking parlor; hundreds went inside to see the remains, creating such chaos that mortician Ezra Selover closed and locked the doors, letting in only friends and relatives.

☛ Community Response ☚

The entire area was shocked. Farmers left their fields and rode down the Poor Farm Road to offer sympathy and help to the Petersons.

Highland Park College dismissed classes because of upset and “greatly excited” students, who then walked in large numbers to the murder scene and offered to search woods and fields.

Lena’s and Tommy’s classmates draped their friends’ desks with flowers, and the two schools were dismissed.

☛ Lena and Tommy Peterson Come Home ☚

At 11:00 a.m. on Monday, the bodies of Lena and Tommy were transported from Selover Undertaking Parlor to the Peterson residence.

All day, Peter Peterson cried and rambled incessantly about “Tom.” Neighbor Kate Carey came to comfort Mary and described her as supported by her religious beliefs and resigned to her loss.

Mary Peterson sat calmly between the caskets — Lena on her left and Tommy on her right — gazing at them and touching them. Someone reported she said:

“It was only last night they went away smiling and happy with their mother’s blessing. It was last night, too, they came to me cold in death. It is the Lord’s will and His be done.”

Newspapers estimated that 5,000 people visited the crime scene on Monday and many stayed until sundown.

That night, Coroner William Beck convened a jury at the Highland Park Fire Station composed of men who discovered the bodies: Wesley Day, Dan Carey, and A.B. Caldwell.

The jury took no testimony but concluded on “general observation” that Lena and Tommy were murdered by person or persons unknown.

☛ Searching for an Outsider, for Someone Different ☚

Community shock turned to outrage and then to displacement of emotion onto someone who was different — an outsider.

The media — encouraged by law enforcement — focused on the group who stood out most: the black coal miners who rode streetcars from Des Moines to Highland Park and then walked on north to the coal camps. With Sunday off, many were returning from the city at the time of the murders.

The Des Moines Daily Leader wrote:

“The nature of the crime caused the conclusion to be reached that it was the work of Negroes, although the police are not proceeding on that theory alone.”

Immediately, the search for black suspects began.

On Monday, April 14, 32-year-old Saylorville miner John Hutchinson, a 5-foot-11 inch, 175-pound black man — described by reporters as having a black mustache, moderate complexion and as being “rather good looking” — walked past the Highland Park Fire Station.

A fireman thought Hutchinson looked “apprehensive and cautious” as he boarded the 8:15 a.m. streetcar to Des Moines and notified police there.

Detective George Yeager followed Hutchinson all morning (IAGenWeb Polk County).

Hutchinson was “shadowed” around Des Moines until 1:00 p.m., when Detective George Yeager — later Des Moines Police Chief — arrested him at West Third Street and Court Avenue.

The Des Moines Daily News claimed that Hutchinson’s shoes — one corner of the right heel was worn off and tacks protruded from the opposite side — matched one of the tracks leading from the murder scene.

It was said Hutchinson had blood on his shoes and overcoat — some said “a bloody hand print” — and that a button from female underwear was caught under the flap of his heel.

When word spread that a suspect was being questioned, huge crowds gathered around the jail, swearing revenge and threatening lynching.

The Des Moines Daily News reported that “Negroes were greatly wrought up by threats” and 75 “excited and restless” black men gathered near the jail next to the Municipal Building and at a saloon on the corner of Third Street and Locust Avenue.

The Daily News reported:

“It is stated that a large number of the Negroes are still armed and that pockets which bulge in a suspicious way are frequently noticed. All the men seem to be peaceably disposed but it is thought that at a moment’s notice enough armed Negroes would appear to precipitate a race war.”

Des Moines Mayor James M. Brenton forbade pawnshops from selling weapons or ammunition to black men.

☛ Mayor and Prayer Turn Back a Lynch Mob ☚

Des Moines Mayor James M. Brenton turned back a lynch mob (from Men of Iowa).

An immense crowd of white men surrounded the jail after supper on Monday. Although mostly orderly, they were clearly volatile and one newspaper speculated that if the city were in a southern state, a lynching might have occurred.

The 25 jail prisoners were terrified by the yelling, agitated crowd outside. Jailor James Shortell, armed with a Winchester and “a brace of revolvers,” stood guard at the cells, saying he was prepared to lay down his life “that the majesty of the law might be enforced.”

At 8:30 p.m., Mayor Brenton addressed the crowd from the jail porch saying, according to the Des Moines Daily News:

“Boys, I ask you in the name of law and order to go quietly away and not stand here this way. You may incite a riot. There is no one in jail charged with any crime.” [at that point a “hoodlum” cursed him and the Mayor said,] “If it wasn’t for this crowd I’d trim you up where you stand. Boys, I ask you to go away from here and I’ll tend to this sucker when I catch him on the street.”

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

Brenton ordered the streets near the Municipal Building patrolled from six till midnight with instructions to disperse any gathering of citizens “regardless of color or previous condition of servitude.” Most accepted this, but a few arrests were made. Brenton himself detained the man who cursed him.

The Detectives’ Room and the City Physician’s office filled up with revolvers, cartridges, and “bowie knives and dirks” confiscated from the crowd.

Des Moines ministers issued statements condemning the ruthless killings and complaining about “the looseness of the laws” and the “free” pardoning of criminals. However, all warned against mob violence.

The children’s own Minister, H.V. Adams, told newspapers:

“It makes my blood boil to think of the crime. I hope, though, that calm deliberation will result, and that the law will be allowed to take its course.”

Mary Peterson confided to friends that when she heard a lynch mob had formed she dropped to her knees and “prayed that the men might repent before it was everlastingly too late.” Holding her Bible, she also asked God to have pity on and forgive the killer.

By the next morning, the crowds at the jail had dispersed. Men who took Monday off to demonstrate their concern went back to their jobs.

☛ Hutchinson Cleared but Other Black Suspects Hunted ☚

Detectives placed John Hutchinson in the “sweat box” on April 16, but he never wavered from his insistence on innocence and claimed the blood on his coat was from hunting small game.

from the  Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

Highland Park liveryman John Mathews told police Hutchinson came to his barn at 8:00 p.m. Sunday night to be driven to Marquisville and that the two were together during the time of the murders. He also said Hutchinson was “a man of good repute,” a feeling echoed by white co-workers.

When the blood on his coat was determined by “a microscopical examination” to be non-human and his alibi held up, Hutchinson was released.

Two black men were reported riding a Rock Island freight train east and were arrested at Colfax by George W. McNutt, former Des Moines Police Chief of Detectives who had become a private investigator, and Detective William Brothers.

The black men were taken to Des Moines and questioned in the “sweat box” but were released when police admitted they were brought in only because the timing of their departure “looked suspicious.”

Telegrams were dispatched to Chicago, St. Paul, Kansas City, Dubuque, and St. Joseph urging those jurisdictions to be on the lookout for a Negro bartender with a scarred face who left Des Moines soon after the murders.

Two black men — whose “faces and actions,” according to the Cedar Rapids Republican, “indicate that they belong to the criminal class” — were noticed at Shellsburg, and then arrested on the train at Vinton.

One man’s coat had blood stains; when these were determined non-human, the men were released on the outskirts of town. As they walked towards Mt. Auburn, authorities swore to keep an eye on the men as being “undoubtedly suspicious characters.”

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

from the Cedar Rapids Republican

Farmers in the Marquisville and Saylorville area — claiming chickens, meat, potatoes, vegetables, and fruit were being stolen from their properties — asked Sheriff Mattern to urge the mine operators to stop using “Negro labor.”

They claimed the “average character” of the “colored laborer” was bad and that considerable numbers were ex-convicts or fugitives from justice, an accusation also asserted by the Des Moines Daily Leader , which editorialized:

“Many of these Negro miners are reported to have ‘done time’ in southern penitentiaries before being brought north by the mine bosses.”

The reports became ludicrous. Sixth Avenue Bridge night watchman Charles Chilcote at Capital City Brick and Tile reported that early on Monday morning he saw two “colored men” approach a building and thought they were stealing tools.

Instead, they came out with soap and washed in the river, removing blackening to reveal themselves as white, and disappeared west towards town through the woods.

The Daily Leader acknowledged that many black citizens were “estimable men and women” who were welcomed by the community, but noted: “It is the special duty of the colored people of the city to join in seeking [the killer] out.”

☛ Bloodhounds Seek a Trail ☚

On Tuesday morning, even though the trail was 38-hours cold, a pack of four dogs owned by George Huffmire of Knoxville — one full bloodhound, the other three fox-hound mix — were brought to Des Moines by Washington County Sheriff J.W. Teeter.

Police Chief A.R. Brackett accompanied the hounds to the murder scene (photo IAGenWeb Polk County).

The hounds arrived on the 12:15 Baltimore and Ohio train in the southwest bottoms of Des Moines near the Gilbert Starch Works and were secretly put into a carriage.

Official dignitaries rode with the dogs to the murder site: Mayor Brenton, Police Chief A.R. Brackett, Polk County Sheriff George W. Mattern, Chief of Detectives William T. Maitland, Assistant Chief John P. Peterson, and detectives Ed Walsh and Eli Hardin.

Hardin, specially hired to work the Peterson case was termed by a Des Moines newspaper “one of the most experienced and best known detectives in the west [who] has long stood in the front rank of his profession in Iowa,”

For 20 minutes after being released the murder scene, the dogs did nothing. Claiming they would perform better if taken away and brought back, the handlers drove them away in a wagon.

Depiction of bloodhounds starting the search. The Peterson home is at upper right (Des Moines Daily Leader)

Half an hour later, the dogs were released again but failed to find a trail.

Then Eli Hardin placed Lena’s clothing on the ground, assuming that Lena’s scent was left on the rapist/killer and his scent on her. Immediately, the hounds bayed and pawed and two were released and ran southwest across the oat field and to the marsh.

The hounds followed the trail discovered by police the day before, but lost the scent at the swamp.

Their handlers took them back to the murder scene to again sniff the clothing. This time, the dogs started immediately, baying and jumping, across the oat field, through the marsh, and out into a corn field east and to a road where they paused and then crossed and stopped in the dooryard of a house.

The dogs were taken back to the swamp and started yet again. This time, they went directly across the road where they had first stopped and passed 150 feet to the east of a house at the intersection, continued south and then west and then south until, appearing to lose the scent, they stopped on a gravel road 200 feet from the southeast corner of Highland Park College, south of Euclid Avenue where it intersected the main road between Highland Park and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Declaring that heavy street traffic destroyed the scent of the killers who went west on Euclid or through Highland Park to the streetcar lines and escaped, the handlers brought the dogs in at 5:00 p.m.

Mayor Brenton, Peterson Home

The success of the dogs was mixed. They did not go north to the mining camps, where many thought suspects would be. The trail they followed was a route someone familiar with the area might use to avoid houses and traveled roads.

The presence of dignitaries, the hound’s baying, and the hubbub attracted attention. Word spread that the search for the killer’s trail was underway.

By the time the hounds stopped the first time, nearly 1,500 people were watching, including County Supervisors Britton, Morris, and Hugg, who lamented that Polk County lacked hounds and declared they would purchase a pack for the Sheriff and Des Moines Police.

Mayor Brenton himself asked the crowd for order and urged them back from the scene.

That same day, Iowa Governor Albert B. Cummins issued an Executive Proclamation offering a 300 dollar reward in the Peterson case. Cummins later raised the amount to $500, payable only on conviction of the guilty party so that no investigator would hold back information for personal gain.

☛ Morbidly Curious Gawk and Take Souvenirs ☚

During the week following the killings, the murder scene became a macabre attraction.

The dogs stopped their search at Highland Park College.

Des Moines vendors ran out of rigs to rent, so many spectators walked north the entire five miles or from the ends of the Highland Park or East Sixth and Ninth streetcar lines.

Narrow Madison Avenue was a snarled traffic jam of pedestrians, wagons, and horses.

Someone drove two small stakes into the ground where the bodies were found and posted a white paper. The paper was ripped apart a small piece at a time by souvenir hunters who also broke and took home sticks from the small willows near the scene.

Streetcars like this Highland Park bound car carried the curious between Des Moines and the crime scene (

Hundreds took it upon themselves to search for clues. The oat field to the south was tramped over and over; to gain access, the crowds took down a section of barbed wire fence and threw it in the plowed field to the north.

Lena Remsen walked from East 18th Street wheeling her baby in a carriage. After looking at the stakes in the ground, she turned to leave.

When the wind whipped a blanket in the baby carriage, a team of black horses startled and jumped. Lena Remsen screamed, “Oh God, my baby, my baby” and ran backwards pulling the carriage.

Remsen stumbled at the edge of the road and fell into the ditch, rolling into the barbed wire fence and tearing her clothes. Others rushed to help her up and several men lifted the baby buggy, with a sleeping and oblivious infant, over the fence and into the field.

☛ Too Much Religion, Too Much Church? ☚

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

Unseasonably hot and fierce winds blew dust from the sand ridge north of the city, creating a sandstorm that failed to stop the curious.

Hot and thirsty gawkers could have gone to any house along Madison, but they stopped at the Peterson home to ask for a drink.

A large windmill there pumped water from 90 feet below ground. Peter Peterson himself worked the pump and handed out glasses of water for several hours and shook hands with anyone who offered.

His grief was over-powering and the Des Moines Daily News said he would tell those who stopped:

“Tommy! Tommy! I cannot stand this terrible agony. When I go into the house and see the little fellow’s overcoat, bought a short time ago, hanging on the wall; when I sit down to the table and see the absent places of my poor dead children; when I look at the vacant chair where little Lena sat and think of the terrible death she suffered it almost drives me mad. I would give my everything if I only had them back; if they could only return to me and if this had not happened I could be happy.”

Friends said Peterson blamed his wife Mary and was so opposed to the children going to church that night that they left in secret. The Des Moines Daily News said Peterson told friends:

“I did not want them to go, but their mother believes in sending them to church three times a week and on Sunday. I do not believe in it. I told her to keep the children at home. She did not obey and now they are dead! Dead! Dead! Dead while I thought they were home safe in bed. It is all her fault. She is responsible for their death. I cannot stand it. It is awful.”

☛ Thousands Mourn with the Petersons ☚

Mid-day on Wednesday, April 16, the Peterson family held a brief service for Lena and Tommy in their home.

The two caskets — piled with roses, lilies of the valley, and carnations — were placed in separate horse-drawn hearses and driven to the Highland Park Methodist Episcopal Church at 5th Street and Euclid Avenue, arriving about 2:30.

Crowds had been gathering at the church all day. So many came, that extra streetcars were added to accommodate passengers.

Lena’s casket, Des Moines Daily Leader

At the church, classmates Eloida Preston, Elva Spebbins, Alice Kinney, Margaret Grate, Fern Gordon, and Kate Donovan took Lena’s white casket from the white hearse.

Howard Nichols, Theodore Worch, Arthur Yarn, Grover Welch, Freeborn Smith, and Clarence Carlson, school friends of Tommy, bore his.

The students carried their friends into the church and down the middle aisle, placing them on either side of the pulpit. The family followed and sat in a special pew.

Although elaborate floral tributes — even one from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union — filled the sanctuary, the only altar decorations were wreaths of pink and white roses and carnations on the chancel railing.

Nine hundred mourners crowded into the church and filled the galleries. The windows were opened so that 1,000 more outside could hear.

Those gathered around the church were described by the Des Moines Daily Leader as mostly women with handkerchiefs who waited with “respectful interest and anxious grief.”

Inside the church, a young woman fainted and was carried to a house across the street.

Ministers from the family’s two Methodist churches conducted the service, and school friends formed a chorus.

Lena’s and Tommy’s tombstone

Outside, sobs were heard as the family gathered around the caskets for a final look.

After the service, the caskets were carried to the vestibule near the door, where the congregation viewed the bodies as they left. Then the back door was opened for the outside crowd; people filed past the dead children for 45 minutes.

The Des Moines Leader wrote:

“Lena and Tommy Peterson were calm and beautiful in death. Their fine and delicately molded features told eloquently of the innocence and loveliness of character that had been theirs during life.”

After the ceremony, the hearses carried the Lena and Tommy to Pine Hill Cemetery in Saylor Township 10 miles northwest of their home.

They were buried near two Pines on a high hill overlooking a beautiful valley.

☛ All in God’s Hands? ☚

The day after the funeral, Mary Peterson visited her mother’s house a mile north of the Peterson farm to met with Rev. A.E. Griffith of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. She told him, according to the Des Moines Capital:

“I leave it all in God’s hands. It must have been his will or the crime would never have been committed. We poor mortals cannot understand God’s ways. My greatest grief is that any human being could so far forget God as to think of such a crime. In my prayers I pray that the murderer may find God before it is too late.”

Rev. Griffith told the newspaper, “It is better to die like Lena Peterson, fighting for her honor, than live longer and be ruined by a deceiver.”

☛ Bloodstains Sought, Suspicious Men Hunted ☚

After Chief of Detectives William T. Maitland asked commercial cleaners to inspect incoming clothing for blood, People’s Laundry reported a blood stain on the “drawers” of a Highland Park man.

Mayor Brenton, however, told the Des Moines Daily Leader that detectives found it was so small it could have been from the squashing of an insect; the man also had an alibi.

Three Highland Park College students abandoned their trunks in the Union Station baggage room; and it was speculated they left town hurriedly, planning to later send for the luggage.

The students’ parents were warned to bring the young men forward if they were hiding them. No charges were made.

☛ Outrageous Rumors Spread Through the City ☚

The Daily Leader, which itself published the most lurid details of the crime, decried “yellow journalism” in Des Moines that helped spread outrageous rumors:

  • ☛ “A “kinky” hair was found in Lena’s hand.
  • ☛ “A bloody thumb print was left on a button.
  • ☛ “Two men followed the children from Waters Restaurant.
  • ☛ “Two men with scratched faces got off the train at De Soto and found railroad jobs.
  • ☛ “A “sandy-haired man” was the killer.
  • ☛ “A lame man was involved.
  • ☛ “The trail of the suspects was followed eight miles.

Billy Waters, who owned the restaurant where Lena and Tommy stopped moments before their murder, debunked a rumor that two Highland Park College students followed the victims out:

“There is no truth in that story. I cannot imagine where it came from . . . . The children were in here about 9 o’clock Sunday evening. They had just come from church. Several other people had come before them also from church. There was no one in the front room of the restaurant but the children and myself. In the next room I think there were three couples and a young man, who were sitting at tables. The children had nothing to say. They bought some cocoanut [sic] candy and some bananas and then left in the direction of home. Nobody followed them from here and, in fact, no person left the restaurant for at least twenty minutes after they had gone. No one followed them into the restaurant either.”

There was also gossip that Peter Peterson was mentally unbalanced before the crime and that authorities were investigating the family’s home life.

But Wesley Day and Dr. William Beck, who notified Peter Peterson of the deaths on the night of the murder, said Peterson was sleeping when they arrived and they had to call him twice before he awoke.

☛ Drastic Change in Theories: Someone Who knew the Victims? ☚

After days lost in pursuing black men and running down baseless rumors and meaningless “clues,” the authorities rethought the crime, its motive, and its likely perpetrator.

Des Moines Chief of Police A.R. Brackett announced that the killer was not an outsider, but likely a white man the children knew who lived within a quarter mile radius of the scene, was familiar with their schedule, and understood the lay of the land so he could attack without being seen from a farmhouse. The killer also, Brackett said, had a motive.

The Des Moines Daily Leader agreed, writing:

“Probably if the truth could be learned the children recognized their assailants, called them by name and threatened them with exposure before the crime was committed.”

☛ Another Trail is Established ☚

One reason for the change in suspect theory was a discovery by private detective Thomas Pennington.

Two days after the murder, Pennington found a trail made by a 9 or 9 1/2 shoe with a badly worn left heel and soles “extended with a peculiar rounding shape.” Because the heels sank in the sand and the stride was long, Pennington concluded the man was running.

At its beginning, Pennington’s trail was the same one found by detectives George McNutt and William Brothers with the help of the hounds. It left the murder scene, crossed south through the oat field, and went around the swamp and through a corn field to the east.

Pennington, however, found a track a short distance east of the corn field and, through measurements, concluded it was the same trail.

He said the killer left the corn field, passed around a shock of fodder, ran down a hillside, climbed a fence, and jumped to the ground. He then ran near the fence east for 50 yards, where he turned south to avoid coming close to a barn. He returned to Madison Avenue and walked east.

Essentially, Thomas Pennington said, the killer followed the children east on Madison, killed them, ran north and then east and then south to Madison, where he continued on his way beyond the crime scene.

That ruled out the trail followed by the hounds southwest towards Euclid and stopping near Highland Park College.

Authorities said the bloodhounds either had followed Eli Hardin’s path as he carried Lena’s clothing across the field to give them or that the trail was made by Sunday evening hunters who went through the field, separated around the marsh to scare up game on either side and then came back together, crossed the fields, and returned south to the city.

Warden W. A. Hunter of the Anamosa Penitentiary, which kept a pack of bloodhounds to track escapees, told a Des Moines Capital reporter on Saturday:

“The way the bloodhounds were used in the Peterson case was not only amusing but it was absurd to expect any good result there from. The dogs undoubtedly did the best they could, but they had nothing to work on and instead of tracking the murderers very plainly, they tracked the children themselves or whoever had carried the children’s clothing with them.”

☛ Sermons Against Des Moines Wickedness ☚

On Sunday, April 20, all Des Moines area ministers preached on the tragedy to packed churches; 5,000 people heard a sermon on the Peterson murders at the Des Moines Auditorium.

The pastors examined a society where such murders could happen. Some preachers blamed lax morals or the inclination of authorities to ignore crimes, coddle criminals, and pardon convicts.

One minister predicted that the cause, when discovered, would “prove to be whiskey.”

☛ Murder Weapon Found? ☚

On Sunday, a young boy from the Peterson neighborhood named Kempton brought authorities a rusty, 18-inch-long gas pipe with blood and grass on it.

5,000 gathered at the Des Moines Auditorium

5,000 gathered in the Des Moines Auditorium at right to hear a sermon on the murders.

He said a man gave it to him and whispered hoarsely, “This is the most important clue yet found.” Kempton believed a neighbor, Ed Morningstar, might know the man’s name, but Morningstar did not know it either.

Police showed the pipe to Lena’s and Tommy’s brother Willis, who said he found it Tuesday April 15 in a pasture four or five hundred feet southeast of the murder scene, where it appeared to have been embedded in the ground for a long time. Willis said he pitched the pipe into another field, thinking it was just rusty.

Authorities asked Willis to show them where he threw the pipe. Near that spot in the grass was a bludgeoned snake that could account for the blood.

☛ African-Americans Show Support ☚

Representatives of the black community gathered at the Saylorville Courthouse on Sunday to pass a resolution condemning the Peterson murders and asserting they would “do all in our power to apprehend, to bring to justice the party or parties, perpetrators of the crime.”

Black citizens L.M. Jones, Albert Moss, W. Calloway, and George Hoard each contributed one dollar to the reward fund; R.N. Hyde gave three.

☛ “Taint of Insanity” Sought Out ☚

With the change in the type of suspect sought, detectives backtracked on their belief that Lena Peterson was raped.

Physicians with access to the autopsy report expressed different opinions from those of Drs. Williams Beck and M.M. Smith, saying the statements in the postmortem were uncertain and inconclusive. Ezra Selover, a long-time undertaker, also stated Lena was not raped.

Private investigator Thomas Pennington, who found what was considered the killer’s true trail, concluded the murderer was insane or “crazed with drink.” Or perhaps made insane by prolonged use of liquor.

Police then scoured the Peterson neighborhood, looking for any “taint of insanity” in families.

Three Highland Park boys who were at church with Lena and Tommy were placed under surveillance. The mother of one proved her son came straight home. The other boys said they loitered awhile and were home by 10:30, and their parents claimed they saw no sign of “agitation.”

William T. Maitland

That day also, Chief of Detectives William T. Maitland told the press the investigation involved “clues of a delicate nature” and was concentrated on perpetrators who would not ordinarily be suspected.

He also said he and his men had stopped active work and were waiting for the killer to let a word slip or to make a confession.

Maitland also speculated that the murder weapon was something the killer had with him and did not want to throw away like a hatchet, hammer, revolver — the butt used for bludgeoning — or “knucks” (brass knuckles).

☛ Authorities: “Find Employment or Leave Town” ☚

On April 23, Detective William Brothers arrested two men for vagrancy in Highland Park, even though nothing connected them to the Peterson murders. And Police Chief A.R. Brackett issued this warning:

“We propose to arrest every man found in the city who does not work. For the next thirty days we intend to make it interesting for this class of fellows, and they will have to find employment or leave town.”

☛ Peter’s Grief, Two Suspicious Incidents ☚

On April 23, when asked how her folks were coping, Merriam Peterson told the Des Moines Capitol:

“Papa still takes it very hard. It seems that he cannot bring himself to realize that the children are dead. Every morning when he calls us up he goes to the stairs and calls Lena and Tom just as if they were sleeping sweetly in their bed.”

Merriam described her mother as “a very strong Methodist” who was more philosophical than her father and found comfort from her Bible and devotions.

Constable Ed Sunberg arrested the suspect who was put on trial (from Behind the Badge)

Constable Ed Sunberg arrested the suspect who was put on trial (from Behind the Badge)

Merriam and her sister Laura recounted occasions before the murders while returning in the evening from Highland Park along the same road their murdered siblings walked.

In one instance, two well-dressed white men came towards them and walked along. When the girls declined their company and started running, the “fellows” laughed and continued west.

On another evening, the sisters were approached by a white, middle-aged man, who did not speak or try to touch them. When they asked his name, he gave a “sneering laugh” which scared them. They linked arms and ran home. The man walked quickly after them, but they out-distanced him.

Merriam said, “I do not know that he meant to insult us, but we thought that had he been any gentleman he would have asked our pardon for frightening us so badly. “

☛ Nearly Mad with Sorrow ☚

On April 30, 17 days after the murders, Peter Peterson — still reeling with grief — appeared at the Des Moines Police Station, accusing police of negligence and saying he resented suspicions he was involved in his children’s deaths. The Des Moines Daily Leader wrote of the incident:

“Since the murder Mr. Peterson has been, to a degree, suffering from mental unbalance. He broods almost constantly over the loss of his children, and said yesterday that now they were no more he did not feel he had anything to live for. He left the [police] station greatly troubled that he had been unable to get any information concerning the murderers.”

A few days later, Peter Peterson admitted to reporters he attempted suicide because of ongoing grief. One newspaper said, “Friends fear that he may yet end his life.”

☛ Finally, A Suspect Arrested ☚

from the Pocohantas Evening Sun

from the Pocohantas Evening Sun

On September 5, nearly five months after the murders, Constable Ed Sunberg accompanied a Polk County Deputy Sheriff to the Marquisville coal mine and arrested 28-year-old miner Thomas “Tom” Lewis for the rape of Lena and the first degree murder of both Petersons.

Lewis was taken to Justice Egbert E. Aylesworth’s court, arraigned, denied bail, and placed in jail.

The murder warrant was sworn out by Des Moines attorney H.G. “Hod” Carpenter, who claimed he had worked the Peterson murders nonstop since they occurred.

Carpenter claimed Tom Lewis lived near the crime scene, told conflicting stories about that night, and was near the murder spot with two companions when it happened.

Carpenter alleged, also, that Lewis was questioned at the time of the original investigation and released.

☛ Confession to a Miner Impersonator? ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

The Des Moines Capital ran a story beneath a giant headline claiming Hod Carpenter descended into the “bowels” of the earth posing as a miner looking for “black diamonds” and insinuated himself next to Tom Lewis to obtain incriminating details, possibly a confession.

Carpenter, they said, also sat on a porch and smoked a pipe with Calvin Morningstar, who talked about Tom Lewis’s many visits to the Peterson home.

Under the headline “Bald-Headed Fake To Sell Papers Is Exposed,” the Des Moines Daily News debunked their rival newspaper’s claims that a disguised Hod Carpenter gathered information in the coal mines. They described Carpenter leaning out his office window and shaking his fist at a passing Capital newsboy.

Carpenter denied the Capital story vehemently, saying he had not touched a pipe or any tobacco for a decade, so could not have been smoking with Calvin Morningstar; and furthermore, it was the first time anyone ever accused him of working.

He also claimed a disability prevented him from bending over far enough to mine coal.

Crew bosses and coal miners scoffed at the idea that a “non-Union man” could work unnoticed amongst the close-knit crew.

Morningstar, too, was angry and appeared at the Capital’s office to complain and deny talking to Carpenter.

☛ Tom Lewis Goes on Trial ☚

As the trial of Tom Lewis began, the atmosphere was at fever pitch. On the first day, enormous crowds packed the courthouse stairs and filled the courtroom. The Des Moines Daily News described the scene:

“White men, colored men, white and colored women, babes in arms, some of them wailing miserably, surged and stewed in the fetid atmosphere of the room.”

from the Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

When it became impossible for witnesses to move through the crowd, the judge cleared the courtroom of all except court officers, reporters, relatives, and friends.

Tom Lewis was calm at the proceedings, just as he was during his arrest and arraignment. A brother sat directly behind him while other family members touched him encouragingly.

That morning, the victims’ mother Mary Peterson testified that Lena had not been called on by Lewis or been on romantic terms with him.

Ralph Peck described finding the bodies.

The doctors who performed the autopsy — Beck and Smith — testified, both saying that Lena was not “violated” and that blood clots found in her vagina were from her period.

In the late afternoon, Thomas C. Morningstar testified that at the crime scene the day after the murder it was mentioned the murders occurred about 9:15 and Tom Lewis, standing nearby, said that could not have been true because he and his “buddies” John Carlson and George Williams were in the vicinity then. Morningstar admitted Lewis made the statement without trying to conceal anything.

☛ Prosecution Case ☚

from the  Des Moines Daily News

from the Des Moines Daily News

The next morning, September 10, Tom Lewis was allowed to stop on the way from jail at a saloon, where he drank a glass of port wine.

Inside the courtroom, Lewis kissed and hugged his sister and mother and took a family child on his lap and fed it bits of a pear.

Naoma Spear testified about hearing the cries that caused her boyfriend Ralph Peck to discover the bodies.

Just before noon, the prosecution claimed the murder weapon was an iron rod used as a pump brace on the Lewis farm.

William Jones, a Peterson tenant, testified that he saw three men — one Tom Lewis — leave the Lewis home at dusk the evening of the murders. A girl hollered to them, “Don’t stay out too late.”

Jones also said the pump brace at the Lewis farm was missing and that Tom Lewis told him he was buying two guns, one for his own protection and the other for his sister.

On cross-examination, Jones said he heard the three men about 8:00 p.m. but did not see them go east on Madison and admitted the gun conversation happened after the murders.

Local resident Gordon Bowlby testified he took it upon himself to investigate the murder the day after the crime.

Bowlby said he followed two sets of footprints — one a broad, wide size 11 and the other a 5 or 6 with a pointed toe. The prints led to the Highland Park home of Martha and James Stewart, Tom Lewis’s sister and brother-in-law. From there, the prints went directly to the Lewis back door.

The prosecution asserted that Lewis, being a small man, wore a small shoe which “fit exactly” footprints leading away from the scene.

Judge Egbert E. Aylesworth

On September 11, the heart of the prosecution’s theory was presented; it aimed to pin the murders on Tom Lewis and his friends John Carlson and George Williams.

The shoes of Williams and Carlson were introduced and said to match the trail of two men across the field and around the swamp.

Detective Eli Hardin held up the brace, purportedly from the Lewis pump, and said it was the weapon.

James Conner of Marquisville testified he was boarding with the Petersons at the time and that on the Saturday after the murder he ran into Tom Lewis and Willis Peterson — brother of the murder victims — standing in the road.

Lewis was explaining how George Williams and John Carlson could exonerate themselves. The three men talked about the size of shoe prints leading from the scene and this “excited” Tom Lewis to the point that he challenged Conner to a horse race, which Conner refused because the horse was not his.

Carrie Munson, another Peterson tenant, said she often saw Lena returning from church and never saw her with Tom Lewis. Lewis, whom Carrie knew for three years, told her he and two men were on a bridge near the murder scene that night but he was home in bed at 8:30.

Citizen-detective William Murray testified he, too, followed a trail from the scene on Tuesday after the murder and found tracks leading to Tom Lewis’s brother-in-law’s home and saw blood on the fence there.

Murray stated he saw Tom and Harry Lewis and remarked it was a good thing their sister had not accompanied Lena the night of the murder. Harry Lewis said she didn’t because she wasn’t ready, but Tom said nothing.

C.C. Cox, described as a “colored” miner, swore he heard the remark by Lewis about being on the bridge with the other men; but two other black miners he claimed also heard it denied doing so.

Dan Carey, a miner at Marquisville with Tom Lewis, testified Lewis did not work the day after the murder. After discovering the bodies with the other men, Carey said he returned about 5:00 a.m. and found a torn brown hatband 400 yards west of the road and gave it to Detective Hardin. He also saw tracks, one of small shoes and the other of larger ones.

Robert Hoffman testified he heard Tom’s remark about being on the bridge with the others; he admitted on cross-examination, however, he was related to the Peterson family through Mary Hoffman Peterson.

☛ Defense Response ☚

The Perry Daily Chief carried this headline.

The Perry Daily Chief carried this headline.

Bit by bit, defense attorney Walter McHenry took apart the prosecution’s case.

McHenry claimed that Tom Lewis left his home about 8:45 that night with friends George Williams and John Carlson. The three sat on a bridge close to the murder scene, talked about a horse they saw in Algona, and parted company about 9:15.

The Lewis family provided an alibi for Tom during the rest of the night.

Tom went upstairs sharing a light with his sister Nettie. They slept in the same room separated by a small curtain and Nettie heard Tom throw his boots on the floor and crawl into bed. She lay awake for some time and did not hear him leave.

The father, David Lewis, was described as “slightly under the influence of liquor” that night; the mother stayed up late to care for him and said Tom did not leave.

McHenry elicited testimony from officers William Brothers, McNutt, and W.T. Maitland that they covered the same ground before Bowlby and Murray but saw no tracks and believed that the two amateur detectives followed a trail made by police, not a fleeing murderer.

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Justice Egbert E. Aylesworth dismissed the charges against Tom Lewis on Friday, September 12 and released him from custody.

The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald wrote:

“Lewis went home last evening a very happy young man and a family jubilee was held at the Lewis home near the residence of [Peter] Peterson.”

The police were disappointed — not in the outcome, but that no further information came out to help the case.

Many thought Lewis was tried not because he committed the murders but because he knew who did — perhaps Williams and Carlson, with whom he was on the bridge. He was expected to “squeal” on his friends but wouldn’t.

☛ Outrage Over the Trial ☚

Many citizens were furious that time and money was wasted on a trial based on the suspicions of an eccentric local lawyer who hoped to receive the reward.

Newspapers followed suit.

The Moulton Tribune wrote:

“The evidence against Lewis was purely circumstantial, which might have been adduced against any person who was in the neighborhood of the crime at the time of its commission.”

The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald called the trial a “huge joke” and claimed no one in the courtroom except attorney Hod Carpenter and “a few alleged detectives” took the proceedings seriously. It scoffed that “amateur detective” Carpenter played Sherlock Holmes but failed to “run the villain to earth.”

☛ Peter Peterson Seeks A New Investigation ☚

Officer A.J. Miller (courtesy IAGenWeb Polk County).

On October 13, 1902, claiming he “had been so bothered by the repeated visits and inquiries of alleged detectives and Hawkshaws that he wanted the matter sifted and settled for one and all,” Peter Peterson — supported by Des Moines Police Detective Eli Hardin and Night Captain Al Miller — requested a grand jury hear evidence on the murder of his children.

All the facts of the murder were again repeated and testimony taken. On Halloween day of 1902, the grand jury ruled there was not enough evidence to warrant indictments.

The Roland Record wrote, “the mystery is still as dark as ever.”

After the grand jury failed to indict anyone, the Peterson murders settled into memory, sometimes dusted off and mentioned in angry editorials or letters-to-the-editor in connection with failed police methods or other unsolved cases.

☛ Life Moves On ☚

Despite their grief, the Peterson family went on with life.

Annette “Nettie” Peterson married J. Beath Fudge and had four children. Willis Peterson married Myrtle Gertrude “Gertie” Brannen; fathered four children; and owned a prosperous farm near Blairsburg, 68 miles north of Des Moines.

Laura Belle Peterson married Robert Frederick Knipfer; lived near English, Iowa; and had five children. Martha Merriam Peterson married Fred F. Daymude, lived in Des Moines, and had two daughters.

What didn’t change for Peter and Mary Peterson, who were both alive for the 1920 census — he was 75 and she 70 — and still living on Madison Avenue, were the two graves in Pine Hill Cemetery for Lena and Tommy and years of pain and memories.

☛ Startling Accusations ☚

In July of 1921, Mary Peterson — then 72 — could no longer keep to herself a horrible thing she believed she knew.

She confided in her pastor, Rev. D. Winfield Thompson, that her son Willis murdered his siblings Lena and Tommy. The pastor informed authorities.

Willis Peterson, a wealthy farmer near Blairsburg, was arrested on July 27, 1921 by Polk County Sheriff Winfred Robb and brought to Des Moines to face his mother in person and to deny her claims.

Within days, Sheriff Robb told the Associated Press that Peterson was no longer under arrest and was not “implicated” in the murders and that Mary Peterson was “suffering from an illness and that her mind is affected.”

☛ Case Against Willis Peterson ☚

from the Waterloo Evening Courier

from the Waterloo Evening Courier

Although law enforcement believed the accusations against Willis Peterson were the product of a demented mind, Willis was always around the edges of the story.

Willis claimed he found and discarded a length of gas pipe that was later discovered and was at one time believed to be the murder weapon.

In addition, one witness at Tom Lewis’s trial claimed he saw and heard Willis conspiring with Williams and Carlson about how they could establish that shoe prints found at the scene were not theirs.

Willis also fit the profile drawn up by police: a white male with a motive who lived nearby — in his case, in the same house — was acquainted with the children and their schedules, and knew the lay of the land.

But what was his motive? Was it long-simmering resentment of the love his younger brother Tommy received from their father, who said Tommy was his favorite son? Was it greed over the farm land and the family’s possessions?

Perhaps Mary Peterson suspected Willis early on. That might account for her forgiveness of the killer and her prayer that God have mercy on the murderer and forgive him.

James Willis Peterson died at the age of 58 in Des Moines on February 23, 1936 and was buried in Pine Hill Cemetery not far from his parents and murdered siblings.

☛ Change Changes All ☚

Peter Peterson died in 1923 at the age of 78, and Mary Hoffman Peterson passed away in 1927 when she was 77. They were buried near their slain children in Pine Hill Cemetery.

Photos of Lena and Tommy from the Des Moines Daily Leader

James M. Brenton was a controversial, one-term Mayor who earned the title “America’s Fattest Mayor.” He was succeeded in office by George Mattern, the Polk County Sheriff who investigated the Peterson homicides.

The city crept ever northward until the Peterson farm was within Ward 5. Buildings went up, farms were turned into residential housing, and Highland Park College was disbanded.

The coal mines neared exhaustion and miners moved elsewhere or found other kinds of work.

Automobiles replaced buggies and streetcars, and East 14th Street was no longer called “the Poor Farm Road.”

There is nothing to mark the spot southwest of East 14th Street and Madison Avenue as the place where two innocent children were brutally murdered in 1902.

Everyone with personal knowledge of the victims, the crime, and the suspects is long dead.

But the faces of Lena and Tommy Peterson still gaze out from old newspapers — as young as they were when they died — silently pleading for justice.

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



  • ☛ “An Atrocious Murder Of A Boy And Girl,” Des Moines Daily News, April 14, 1902.
  • ☛ “An Impressive Funeral,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 17, 1902.
  • ☛ “Bald-Headed Fake To Sell Papers Is Exposed,” Des Moines Daily News, September 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Blairsburg Murder Mystery Unsolved; No Arrests Made,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 25, 1921.
  • ☛ “Case Against Lewis For Murder Now Completed,” Des Moines Daily News, September 11, 1902.
  • ☛ “City To Buy Blood Hounds [sic],” Des Moines Gazette, April 24, 1902.
  • ☛ “Excitement Stops School Class,” Des Moines Daily News, April 14, 1902.
  • ☛ “For Peterson Murder,” Humeston New Era, September 10, 1902.
  • ☛ “Great Crowds Attend The Peterson Funeral,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, April 17, 1902.
  • ☛ “Hounds Put On Trail,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 16, 1902.
  • ☛ “Interest Is Revived In The Peterson Case,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, September 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Iron Rod From Lewis’ Farm Found Near Trail Left By The Murderers,” Des Moines Daily News, September 10, 1902.
  • ☛ “Lewis Claims He Can Prove Alibi,” Perry Daily Chief, September 7, 1902.
  • ☛ “Lewis Discharged,” Sioux Valley News, September 18, 1902.
  • ☛ “Local Murders Will Multiply,” Des Moines Daily News, April 14, 1902.
  • ☛ “Mayor Brenton Makes A Defense,” Des Moines Daily Leader, June 10, 1902.
  • ☛ “Ministers Decry Mob Violence,” Des Moines Daily News, April 14, 1902.
  • ☛ The Mitford Mail, September 11, 1902.
  • ☛ Moulton Tribune, September 19, 1902.
  • ☛ Moulton Tribune, November 11, 1902.
  • ☛ “Murder Mystery Deep,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 17, 1902.
  • ☛ “Murder Trial Now Going On In A Justice’s Court,” Des Moines Daily News, September 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Murder Will Be Theme,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 20, 1902.
  • ☛ “Mystery Deeping,” Perry Daily Chief, April 19, 1902.
  • ☛ “Mystery Yet Unsolved,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 18, 1902.
  • ☛ “Negroes Pass Resolutions,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 22, 1902.
  • ☛ “New Clue Found in Peterson Murder,” Des Moines Capital, April 21, 1902.
  • ☛ “New Detective Theory,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 23, 1902.
  • ☛ “Nothing Less Than Hanging Will Suffice,” Des Moines Daily News, April 17, 1902.
  • ☛ “Officers Find No Clue,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 24, 1902.
  • ☛ “Old Time Mystery Cleared,” Pella Chronicle, July 28, 1921.
  • ☛ Perry Daily Chief, September 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Peterson Calls On The Police,” Des Moines Daily Leader,” May 1, 1902.
  • ☛ “Peterson Murder Case,” Roland Record, November 5, 1902.
  • ☛ “Peterson Murder Case,” Anita Republican, November 5, 1902.
  • ☛ “The Peterson Murders,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 15, 1902.
  • ☛ “Police Try To Force A Confession,” Des Moines Daily News, April 14, 1902.
  • Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette, September 19, 1902.
  • ☛ “Suspected Of Des Moines Murders,” Cedar Rapids Republican, April 18, 1902.
  • ☛ “Take Testimony To Show Guilt Of Tom Lewis,” Des Moines Daily News, September 9, 1902.
  • ☛ “Two Ways To Meet Charges,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 27, 1921.
  • ☛ “Thousands Visit Bier of Murdered Children,” Des Moines Daily News, April 16, 1902.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Was A Huge Joke,” Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, September 13, 1902.
  • ☛ “Yellow Journalism in Des Moines,” Des Moines Daily Leader, April 22, 1902.

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