February 25-March 4, 1910
Cause of Death: Strangulation
Murder Scene and Date
North of Iowa City, Iowa
March 4, 1910
By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2013
It was 4:30 p.m., the end of the work day on Friday, March 4, 1910. With the lowering sun, a cold chill came off the snow as three men carrying lunch pails trudged south along the country road that became North Dodge Street as it passed into the city limits of Iowa City.
Martin Vevera, 42, his 38-year-old brother Joseph Vevera, and Paul Yeslinek, 37, had spent the day chopping wood for brickmaker Christian Gaulocher north of town. They were tired and cold and wanted to get to the warmth of home as quickly as possible.
Martin fell a bit behind the other two.
When the men were about a mile-and-a-quarter northeast of town and at the foot of a hill just north of the Sylvanus Johnson home in East Lucas Township, Martin Vevera saw a woman’s footprints leave the muddy road and go towards the nearby woods.
Hoping the tracks indicated a shortcut that would speed up the journey home, Martin followed the footprints which led towards a fence that separated the timber from the road. He walked about 8 feet off the road and then stopped when he saw a bundle lying on the snow under a tree on the far side of the fence.
He described what happened next to the Iowa City Citizen:
“I called to the others that there was a bundle over there and I was going to see what was in it. They didn’t stop, however, but one of them yelled back that I was always finding a bundle. ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘but I am going to see what it is anyway’ and I got through the fence to investigate.”
The snow around the bundle was slightly melted and a small rivulet of water flowed nearby, but the newspaper-wrapped parcel was dry, indicating it had not lain there long.
Nearby, flour was spilled on the ground.
Martin was determined to see what was inside to know if it was something he could keep, but he couldn’t judge what it was simply by the way it felt.
He said: “I just tore a little hole in the paper but I could see that the contents was a little baby.” He could tell that the baby was dead but felt that it was still limp. Martin called out, “Here’s a dead baby, boys!” but the other two thought he was joking.
Martin was determined to attract their attention:
“I called again to the others to come back that I had found a baby and finally they did come to see it.”
All three men were fathers themselves and they were no doubt filled with pity, concern, and distressed that the tiny body was abandoned in the woods.
The men talked among themselves and decided to take the baby into town instead of letting it lie under the tree until authorities could report to the scene.
They wanted to protect it from being exposed to what the Iowa City Daily Press characterized as “the fangs of wood-haunting dogs or carrion crows.”
Martin handed Joseph his lunch bucket so he could carry the baby with both hands. Other than the small hole he made to look inside, Martin Vevera did not disturb the wrappings.
Because the woman’s footprints leading away from the scene seemed so freshly made and the bundle appeared to have been so recently left, the men believed they could follow the tracks and perhaps overtake the woman.
Although they walked quickly along, they neither saw nor encountered anyone; their hopes of finding the woman were dashed when the prints disappeared at the top of what was known as Johnson’s Hill, where the snow had melted.
“I carried the baby as carefully as I could to the city and to my home. As we were coming along my little niece saw us and yelled out, ‘Why Uncle, have you got a baby there in that package?’ but of course she was only joking.
When he reached his home at 941 North Dodge Street, Vevera placed the baby in a produce basket and carried it to an Iowa City funeral parlor; authorities were notified and they took the body to the State University of Iowa Hospital’s Pathological Building.
Investigators traveled to the woods where the Vevera brothers and Yeslinek found the body and confirmed that the footprints the men followed were made by a woman or girl. Although they assumed the woman openly carried the bundle containing the dead infant in the daylight of mid-afternoon, they could find no one who saw her.
Nor were there any clues at the scene to her identity. As the Iowa City Daily Press noted:
“The awful thing is almost clueless.”
☛ Autopsy and Inquest ☚
On Saturday afternoon, March 5 at the Pathological Building, an autopsy was conducted on the baby girl by Dr. Henry Albert, State Bacteriologist with the Iowa State Department of Health, and by Dr. J.G. Mueller of the State University of Iowa Hospital faculty.
Before they began, the doctors removed the infant from her covering; they were shocked by the grim irony that she had been wrapped in the Comics Supplement of the March 1 edition of an Iowa City newspaper.
Doctors Albert and Mueller determined the child was a perfectly-formed and healthy, six-and-a-half-pound girl with a good amount of hair and blue eyes. She was about a week old and had been dead only one to two hours before she was found. The Iowa City Citizen reported:
“The little babe was a particularly comely one.”
A portion of a woman’s white vest had been placed over her face, apparently to staunch bleeding from the nose and mouth. Because the baby was positioned on the ground face-down, blood saturated the cloth of the garment.
On the inside of one thigh just above the knee was a deep knife cut, and around her small neck were black marks.
Johnson County Coroner Frank Horak convened an inquest at 4:00 p.m. on March 7 in the office of County Attorney William J. McDonald; it was then adjourned till the next day so the group could gather at the Pathological Building on the university campus.
The jury’s actions were kept private and secret in hopes that the mother of the child might still come forward with an explanation before the matter became public knowledge.
The panel — Iowa City residents Ed Ebert, Thomas J. Kenney, and Robert Graham — heard testimony from the doctors who examined the baby and from the men who discovered her and released this verdict:
“We, the jury, find that the deceased came to her death through strangulation, at the hands of a person or persons, to this jury unknown.”
Authorities believed the three men who made the discovery were close on the heels of the woman who left the murdered infant, missing her by less than an hour.
It appeared the baby was carried to the spot where it was abandoned in a flour sack, which accounted for the scattering of flour Martin Vevera found next to the bundle.
Law enforcement worked the case thoroughly. The Iowa City Citizen reported:
“The officers have no clue as yet to the identity of the murderess, but are working hard to trace the guilty woman. Detectives are using their best judgment and skill, and no effort will be spared to trail the criminal or criminals to their doom.”
☛ Motives and Strong Judgments ☚
The assumption — correct or not — was the child was killed by her mother, wrapped in the cartoon page of a recent newspaper, and carried in a flour sack in full daylight to what was hoped to be a remote place. That the child was discovered so quickly was merely the accident or coincidence of three men looking for a shortcut home.
The thought of infanticide disturbed the town and, according to the Iowa City Daily Press, “set the community alive.” The newspaper speculated:
“General belief is that the little one met its fate and was deposited in the strange place it was found by an unnatural mother who thus sought to keep from the world her own shame and spare the little one from a life shadowed by illegitimacy.”
The Des Moines Daily News, too, expressed the belief that the baby was killed by the person who gave birth to her:
“It is believed that a young mother — probably a dishonored girl — murdered the child by strangling it at her home.”
However, the truth was probably much more complicated. The mother may have been married and suffered from postpartum depression that drove her to a desperate act. Child abuse may have played a part and the infant’s life extinguished by her father or another immediate or extended family member. The footprints were made by a woman, so it’s possible the person who left the baby in the woods was a female relative of the child’s mother.
Because the infant lived for about a week, somebody other than the mother must have known of her existence. For a time, investigators hoped that conscience would motivate someone to come forward, but months and then years passed without answers about the murdered and abandoned baby girl.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Authorities Investigate Babe’s Death,” Iowa City Citizen, March 7, 1910.
- ☛ “Babe’s Death Being Probed,” Iowa City Citizen, March 9, 1910.
- ☛ “Baby Girl Murdered; Abandoned In The Woods,” Iowa City Daily Press, March 5, 1910.
- ☛ “Jury Returns Verdict,” Muscatine Journal, March 8, 1910.
- ☛ “‘Strangled’ Jury Declares,” Iowa City Daily Press, March 8, 1910.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Woman’s Tracks Lead To Body Of Murdered Infant,” Des Moines Daily News, March 8, 1910.