All Souls’ Day: Murders of Sister Mary Virginis and Sister Mary Rosalita 1921

Murder Victims

Sister Mary Virginis
née Mary Agnes Austin
37-year-old Vocal Music Teacher
St. Joseph’s Academy

Sister Mary Rosalita
née Agnes McLaughlin
41-year-old Piano Teacher
St. Joseph’s Academy

Cause of Deaths: Automobile Hit and Run

Murder Scene and Date

31st Street and Grand Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
November 2, 1921
All Souls’ Day


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

St. Joseph’s Academy (courtesy St. Joseph’s Academy alumnae Facebook Page)

In 1921, St. Joseph’s Academy stood at 3200 Grand Avenue in Des Moines, the present location of Des Moines University. Catholic girls from all over the city studied there with a staff of nuns, including Sisters of Charity Mary Virginis, 37, and Mary Rosalita, 41, who taught in the music department.

Wednesday, November 2, 1921 was All Souls’ Day and special mass was said at the Academy Chapel in commemoration of the Faithful Departed.

That afternoon at 4:00 p.m., Sisters Mary Virginis and Mary Rosalita left the Academy on foot to run errands.

from the Waterloo Evening Courier

The two stopped briefly at the dental office of Dr. Albert L. Nye, went to a music store to leave an order, browsed a variety store for the Academy’s upcoming Alumnae Sale, and then started home.

At 6:00 p.m., they stood on the northwest corner of 31st Street and Grand Avenue looking to cross the busy boulevard and return to the Academy.

As they waited, three Franciscan Sisters of St. Angela’s Institute in Carroll, who had stayed at St. Joseph’s during a convention, were leaving for home.

The two Sisters exchanged goodbyes with the Carroll nuns and, as they parted company, Sister Mary Virginis called out:

“Come again, and Sister Mary Rosalita will play the organ for you.”

A 13-year-old boy — the only other pedestrian near the corner — heard one of the Sisters ask, “I wonder how much longer we’ll have to wait to get across?” and the other respond, “About an hour I suppose.”

Cownie home, 3118 Grand (courtesy Cowles Library)

As traffic on Grand provided an opening, the Sisters started across the street. At that moment, a large sedan coming from the south on 31st Street turned west on to Grand and struck them.

The car did not immediately stop, although it was halted briefly in front of the George Carpenter home by a motorist coming from the west before it sped away.

Passersby carried the nuns into the John R. Cownie home at 3118 Grand until official help arrived.

Sister Mary Rosalita died nearly instantly; Sister Mary Virginis passed away at Mercy Hospital two hours later from a skull fracture and significant blood loss.

School and Community Grieve

St. Ambrose Cathedral (courtesy Lost Des Moines Facebook page

The community was outraged by the deaths. Local newspapers offered rewards for the arrest and conviction of the hit-and-run driver and Des Moines Chief of Police Saunders issued a statement “earnestly soliciting the co-operation and aid of the citizens of Des Moines” in bringing that person to justice.

St. Joseph’s Academy was immersed in shocked grief. Both nuns were beloved by pupils and their families and were long-time devoted teachers — Sister Mary Virginis was head of the vocal music department and Sister Mary Rosalita was head of the piano department.

For two days and nights, the Sisters’ caskets lay side by side in the chapel. Fellow nuns, Des Moines residents, students, and alumnae filed past, weeping.

At 6:00 a.m. Saturday, November 5, a low mass for the souls of the departed was said in the school’s Chapel by the Reverend Edward E. Seagrave, Academy Chaplin. At 9:15, a funeral procession left the Academy for St. Ambrose Cathedral at the corner of 6th and High, where a Solemn Pontifical Mass of Requiem was celebrated with many important figures from the regional Catholic Church participating.

About 100 nuns from St. Joseph’s Academy attended, along with 50 nuns from other communities, the entire student body, and alumnae. The Street Car Company provided free transportation for students, and Reed Auto Company and friends of the Academy made cars available. The cathedral could not hold the large crowd, and many stood outside.

Afterwards, hundreds of cars formed a procession to Woodland/Saint Ambrose Cemetery, where the Sisters were buried.


On Saturday, November 5 — the day of the nuns’ funeral — 48-year-old William H. “Herb” Halpenny, the wealthy owner of a local auto supply company, was brought in for questioning by Des Moines Police and the Polk County Sheriff.

from the Cedar Rapids Republican and Times

According to the Oelwein Daily Register, several witnesses identified Halpenny’s “powerful motor car” as the one which struck the nuns and sped away; others claimed he was the man who after the accident telephoned from a nearby house before fleeing.

The newspaper also reported:

“Bits of skin and flesh found on the car spring, under a broken fender of his car, was [sic] declared by a chemist to be human flesh.”

Halpenny insisted he was in his office at the time of the deaths.

Polk County Sheriff William E. Robb was not convinced of his innocence, however; he decided to let a grand jury decide Halpenny’s involvement. On Thursday, November 10, Halpenny was notified of warrants for his arrest on charges of manslaughter and failure to report an accident; he was ordered to turn himself in.

Courtesy Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

Courtesy Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

Halpenny arrived at the Sheriff’s Office that afternoon and said he had no statement to make to the press other than, “It is the most absurd thing I ever heard of and, of course, I regret the fact that Sheriff Robb suspects me.” He was released on $2,000 bond.

On December 16, the grand jury refused to return an indictment against Halpenny. His lawyers obtained statements from more than 35 people that the car which struck the nuns was a Ford sedan and not a Winton, the type Halpenny drove.

George Fagen and Roland Van Horn — who were the only ones who saw the driver — said it was not Halpenny and the 13-year-old pedestrian claimed he was too “frightened” to get a look.

Lacking a way to prove that Halpenny was driving the car, Sheriff Robb did not push the charges further and no one else was held accountable for the hit-and-run deaths.

Lives of the Sisters

Courtesy Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

Sister Mary Virginis was born Mary Austin in May 1884 in Chicago, Illinois, to Lawrence Austin. She had a beautiful voice and as a young woman studied grand opera. Choosing to pursue the vocation of teaching, she attended Immaculate Conception Academy in Davenport and then the Cosmopolitan School of Music in Chicago. For 13 years, she taught voice and piano at St. Joseph’s Academy.

Sister Mary Rosalita was born Agnes McLaughlin in February 1880 in Lincoln, Nebraska, the daughter of Mary A. and William McLaughlin. Both her father and her maternal grandparents were Irish immigrants. She had two sisters — Rose McLaughlin and Katherine McLaughlin Ashford — as well as three brothers: John J., Edward, and Charles Francis McLaughlin.

An excellent pianist and organist, she graduated from St. Francis Academy in Council Bluffs and then attended the University of Nebraska and the Cosmopolitan School of Music in Chicago before entering the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in September 1904. She spent her teaching career at St. Joseph’s Academy with the exception of one year in Holden, Missouri, and a few months at Sacred Heart School in Chicago.

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



  • ☛ “Arrest Des Moines Business Man for Death of Sisters,” Waterloo Evening Courier, November 10, 1921.
  • ☛ “Arrest Halpenny For Death Of Nuns,” Cedar Rapids Republican and Times, November 11, 1921.
  • ☛ “Autoist Kills Two Sisters,” The Western World, November 10, 1921.
  • ☛ “Death Mystery Of Two Sisters In Des Moines Recently Remains Unsolved,” Cedar Rapids Republican and Times, December 20, 1921.
  • ☛ “Grand Jury Ignores Halpenny Charges,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 17, 1921
  • ☛ “Hold Auto Supply Man,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 10, 1921.
  • ☛ Humeston New Era, November 30, 1921.
  • ☛ “Man Held For Nunns’ [sic] Death,” Perry Daily Chief, November 10, 1921.
  • ☛ “Unknown Autoist Kills Two Nuns,” Waterloo Evening Courier, November 3, 1921.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “W.H. Halpenny charged With Death Of Nuns,” Oelwein Daily Register, November 10, 1921.
  • ☛ “Will Drop Charges Against Halpenny,” Cedar Rapids Republican and Times, December 30, 1921.

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