Alta Marie Braun
Cause of Death: Strangled
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
Alley off Cedar Street
Le Mars, Iowa
August 20, 1917
By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2011
As Tuesday, August 21, 1917 began, it seemed like just another quiet, late-summer day in Le Mars. Before it ended, it became one of the most tragic and unforgettable days in the town’s history.
☛ Something in the Alley ☚
That morning, 74-year-old Anna Porsch of 1108 Howard Street saw something lying in the alley near the Illinois Central Railroad tracks between Cedar and Howard streets. She couldn’t quite tell what it was, but it looked like a dummy or a mannequin. She told her neighbor Augusta Becker at 1112 Howard.
About 11:00 a.m., Augusta Becker went to investigate and found a dead body covered with old clothes.
Horrified, Augusta Becker notified the Le Mars Police and they called Plymouth County Sheriff Hugh Maxwell. Maxwell, in turn, phoned County Coroner Albert B. Barnett.
When the men arrived in the alley, they saw the body was that of a young girl. She lay on her back with arms and legs extended. Dirt on her clothes and body and disturbance in the alley told the story of a fierce struggle.
Her clothes and stockings were torn, her corset ripped. Bruises on her arms and legs showed where she was violently held down; efforts to cover her cries had produced black and blue marks.
The girl’s own black underskirt, ripped from her body, was knotted around her neck.
☛ Panicked Household ☚
On that same morning, Chris Braun awakened in his home on the corner of Cedar and Tremont streets, where he lived with his invalid wife Martha and his two daughters, Alta Marie, 12, and Verna, 3.
When he called Alta for breakfast and she didn’t answer, Braun discovered her room was empty and her bed undisturbed.
Trying to stay calm and hoping that Alta spent the night with someone they knew, Chris Braun telephoned his father Jacob Braun and father-in-law Siefke Bohlken, as well as some of Alta’s friends.
When no one knew where Alta was, Chris called the police.
☛ Victim is Identified, Her Movements Traced ☚
Police put the missing person report together with the body and identified the murder victim as 12-year-old Alta Maria Braun.
Then authorities pieced together the movements of the young girl throughout Monday and Monday night.
August 20 was an exciting day for Alta because the Yankee Robinson Circus was in town and had set up a carnival with a merry-go-round in the Le Mars business district. Alta and her friends planned to ride it.
For the occasion, she had something new to wear. That afternoon, her stepmother gave Alta a quarter to buy a pair of white stockings, the ripped ones she was wearing when found.
Chris last saw Alta on Monday evening at 7:30. She asked permission to go to the home of her grandparents Jacob and Marie Braun on High Street, and from there to the intersection of Main and 7th streets, where the carnival was set up.
Chris Braun consented; and telling Alta to be home by 9:00, he gave her a dime to buy two merry-go-round rides.
That evening, Alta Braun rode the merry-go-round with her friends and then bought five cents worth of candy in a small sack at the Vienna Bakery. Tied in her handkerchief was a nickel, all she had left from her happy day.
As she started towards home, she met up with Caroline Adney, 59, who lived on Cedar Street between Fifth and Fourth streets; they walked together.
Alta stopped for awhile at the Adney home, leaving there between 9:30 and 10:00. She told Caroline Adney she was not afraid to walk the rest of the way alone.
Cedar Street — Alta’s pathway home — was well-lighted except at one spot: where it crossed the railroad tracks.
Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Tingley, who lived nearby, had gone to bed but were still awake. They heard a noise outside the window like someone running past, but no voices. The next morning, spilt candy was found near the window; and police believed it was dropped by Alta as she fled her attacker or was dragged away.
Authorities speculated that Alta was grabbed at the tracks and pulled into the alley, an isolated and seldom-used passageway.
Chris Braun himself returned home a little before 11:00 p.m. that night. Because Alta had always come back at the promised time, Braun assumed she was safe in her room and he went to bed.
☛ Inquest ☚
Alta’s body was taken to the Beely Furniture and Undertaking Parlor, where Coroner Albert Barnett convened a jury of Wallace G. Munro, Lee Maynard and W.M. Barr.
The jury heard evidence from Chris Braun about the evening of the murder; he also said that Alta believed someone was following her and a friend earlier in the summer.
Dr. James M. Fettes described Alta’s injuries; and Fettes, who examined her body with Dr. William W. Larson, reported she was raped.
The coroner’s jury issued a verdict that Alta Marie Braun was strangled by person or persons unknown.
While preparing the body for burial, John Beely found a man’s stickpin in Alta’s clothing. Believed to have fallen there during the attack, it was the only tangible clue to the identity of the killer.
☛ Investigation ☚
Immediately, suspicion fell on employees of the Yankee Robinson Circus which had been in Le Mars the day of the murder. The local newspapers contended that “rough” and “tough” people traveled with the circus.
Sheriff Maxwell went to Cherokee, where the circus was on Tuesday; on Wednesday, he followed it to Correctionville. He hoped to learn something about the murder, but came back to Le Mars without any pertinent information.
While the Sheriff was gone, Elmer Pearson reported to Le Mars Mayor George W. McLain that he heard a Negro associated with the circus tell a companion near the merry-go-round that he would “get that girl” before he left town. It was unknown if the remark was made about Alta Braun.
Mayor McClain gave Pearson train fare to Cherokee on the Evening Flyer and told him to find Sheriff Maxwell and tell him what he’d heard.
In Cherokee, Pearson located the Negro who made the remark, but the police there refused to arrest him unless requested to by Sheriff Maxwell. Failing to locate Maxwell in Cherokee, Pearson went on to Correctionville but could not find the suspect there.
Alta’s father Chris, a Hamm Petry Implement employee, did not agree that someone from the circus raped and murdered his daughter. He believed the killer was someone local who was familiar with the layout of Le Mars and with the dark alley. Braun personally asked state agents from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) to become involved in the investigation.
Local authorities, responding to the outcry of an incensed public, announced they would seek a detective from outside to investigate the murder.
The City Council and County Board of Supervisors offered rewards to which local citizens also contributed.
A black man named Ed Nelson, who worked for the Yankee Robinson Circus during the time it was in Le Mars, was arrested for the murder in Carroll near the end of August. However, he could not be tied to the crime and was released from custody in September.
The person who raped and murdered 12-year-old Alta Braun was never found and punished.
☛ Alta Braun’s Life ☚
Alta Maria Braun was born January 18, 1905 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to German immigrant Chris Braun and his first wife, Lena Davis.
The Braun family, who earlier lived in Iowa, returned to Plymouth County and settled in Akron, where Alta’s mother Lena died in 1908. For a time, Alta lived in Le Mars with her grandfather, Jacob Braun.
Just before Christmas of 1910, Chris married Martha Bohlken and Alta went to live with them in Akron. She became a doting big sister in 1914 when Verna Margaret was born. In March of 1916, Martha Braun suffered paralysis and became an invalid.
After the Brauns relocated to Le Mars, Alta attended public school and had many friends there and at the German Methodist Sunday School.
Her funeral, conducted by the Rev. J.E. Benz of the German Methodist Church, was held at the Braun home on Tremont Street. A large number of people attended, and the casket was covered with floral wreaths from sympathetic townspeople.
Alta was buried beside her mother Lena Davis Braun in the Riverside Cemetery in Akron.
Four months after Alta’s murder, her partially-paralyzed stepmother Martha died. The Le Mars Sentinel wrote about her:
“Last summer she seemed to improve somewhat but after the tragic death of her stepdaughter, she failed . . . rapidly.”
Chris Braun married Lucille Mary Widert in 1920 and their union produced six step-siblings to Alta: Leonard Marshall, Dorothy Louise, Evon Ann, Leroy Charles, Richard Donald Braun, and Lloyd Melvin Braun.
Chris Braun’s life seemed plagued by tragedy. In late 1935, he lost his third wife Lucille, who was only 31, and his children Evon and Richard during a scarlet fever outbreak in Sioux City.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Braun, Alta: 1905-1917,” Glenna Rice, Plymouth County, Iowa, IAGenWeb, April 9, 2011.
- ☛ Anita Record, September 6, 1917.
- ☛ “Believe He Is The Man,” Carroll Times, August 30, 1917.
- ☛ “Cassidy Catches A Badly Wanted Negro,” Carroll Times, August 30, 1917.
- ☛ “Council Proceedings,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, August 28, 1917.
- ☛ “County Legislation,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, September 18, 1917.
- ☛ Glenna Rice, Personal Correspondence, June 2011.
- ☛ “Hold Negro for Murder,” Hamburg Reporter, August 9, 1917.
- ☛ “Iowa State News,” Akron Register-Tribune, September 6, 1917.
- ☛ “Le Mars Girl is Murdered by a Fiend,” Le Mars Sentinel, August 24, 1917.
- ☛ Plymouth County, Iowa, Scrapbook 1910 – 1920, transcribed by Linda Ziemann, Iowa Old Press.
- ☛ “Mrs. Braun Is Dead,” Le Mars Sentinel, December 25, 1917.
- ☛ “Preston,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, August 24, 1917.
- ☛ “Release Suspected Man,” Le Mars Sentinel, September 7, 1917.
- ☛ Reward Resolution Plymouth County Board of Supervisors, Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, September 18, 1917.
- ☛ “Reward For The Girl’s Slayer,” Sioux City Journal, August 24, 1917.
- ☛ “Sensational Story Untrue,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, August 31, 1917.
- ☛ “Slain By A Fiend,” Le Mars Sentinel, Friday, August 24, 1917.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Will Work In Accord,” Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, August 18, 1917.
- ☛ “Young Girl Found Slain at Le Mars,” Waterloo Evening Courier, August 21, 1917.