The Beckoning Hand: Murder of Alma Harrison 1905

Murder Victim

Alma Harrison
17-year-old Daughter
of Prominent Davenport Family

Murder Scene and Date

Mississippi River
Disappeared at Buffalo, Iowa
Scott County
July 17, 1905
Found 8 miles North of Muscatine, Iowa
Muscatine County
July 22, 1905
Cause of death: Slashed and Beaten


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2013

Location of Davenport, Iowa

Location of Davenport, Iowa

A happy day of abandon lay ahead on Monday, July 17, 1905 when a group of young people set out from Davenport, Iowa, on a Mississippi River cruise. They were headed south 10 miles to what is today the Buffalo Shores Recreation Area in Buffalo.

Among the group was 17-year-old Alma Harrison, the beautiful and popular daughter of prosperous local farmer James Harrison and his wife Faith.

Alma wore her best clothes and jewelry for the outing. Around her waist was a hand-made piece of brocade.

This Google map shows Davenport (A), Buffalo (B), and Muscatine (C) along the Mississippi.

This Google map shows Davenport (A), Buffalo (B), and Muscatine (C) along the Mississippi.

But the festive, mid-summer outing turned ominous when Alma seemed to just vanish at Buffalo. The other young people fanned out about a mile in each direction but could find no trace of her.

When the group returned to Davenport without Alma, her parents were frantic. They reported her missing to authorities and provided a description of her and her clothing.

Her family and friends hoped that during the outing Alma met up with the young man she was in love with — but recently estranged from — and that she was safely with him.

But those who knew the pair and their stormy past simultaneously worried that the two estranged lovers had met up during the excursion and that something went wrong between them, resulting either in violence towards her or in Alma’s wandering away or even harming herself.

Law enforcement in all towns of that area of eastern Iowa were alerted and they, too, joined in the search for the pretty girl who had suddenly vanished.

☛ Beckoning Hand ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

from the Waterloo Daily Reporter

On July 24, 61-year-old George Hatton was searching on horseback along the Mississippi for a suitable fishing spot. Near a secluded bend in the river about 8 miles north of Muscatine, his horse behaved oddly, stopping and shying as though frightened.

Hatton dismounted and walked towards something that looked odd. Then he realized he was seeing an arm protruding from the still water of a small cove.

The hand seemed to beckon him for help.

When he pulled the rest of the body onto the river bank, Hatton was startled and sickened to see that it was that of a young girl, brutally beaten and slashed. Hatton immediately notified Muscatine County Coroner Dr. Elliott R. King.

When Coroner King and other authorities — R. O. McGaughey was Muscatine County Sheriff then — responded to the scene, they, too, were horrified. The girl’s face, beaten to a pulp with something blunt and heavy, was unrecognizable; her throat was slit in a gaping ear-to-ear wound.

The Waterloo Daily Courier wrote that the young woman’s clothing, although torn during an apparent struggle, “indicated that she was in well-to-do circumstances.” On the ring finger of her left hand, a diamond ring sparkled through the dirt and decomposition.

☛ Alma is Identified ☚

from the Oskaloosa Daily Herald

from the Oskaloosa Daily Herald

Because word had spread widely that Alma Harrison was missing along the Mississippi, the early speculation was that the recovered body was hers, although most newspapers incorrectly reported her name as “Alma Johnson.”

Alma’s mother Faith could not recognize the victim as her daughter because the face was too badly battered and her body was, according to the Oxford Mirror, “bloated and decomposed.” But she knew the brocade sash at the waist was Alma’s.

Coroner King held an inquest which heard that Alma was in the water at least 48 hours and that her torn and missing clothes indicated a struggle for life as someone beat her and then slit her throat.

The death was determined by the coroner’s jury to be homicide. Robbery was eliminated as a motive because Alma’s diamond ring was not taken.

Suspicion fell on the young man Alma had been seeing, whose name was not reported by newspapers. Did he lure her from the rest of the party, engage her in a quarrel, and then beat and slash her?

There were no witnesses to his having enticed her away, let alone killed her. And any evidence that could link him to the killing was swept away by the river.

☛ Suicide? ☚

Alma was treated at the Bridewell House of Detention after she swallowed poison.

Alma was treated at the Bridewell House of Detention after she swallowed poison.

Alma Harrison was a troubled person for someone so young. About six weeks before she died, she took poison in an attempt to end her life, apparently because she had quarreled with her lover.

from the Carroll Herald

from the Carroll Herald

Alma was kept in the Bridewell House of Detention for females and juvenile offenders. After undergoing treatment and promising she would not try to hurt herself again, she was released from the institution.

Had Alma left the cruise party at some point and slit her own throat? If so, where had she concealed a weapon to use? How did her face become so battered? Why were her clothes torn? And why would she slit her own throat — a method uncommon to female suicides — when she could have jumped into the swift-moving waters and drowned herself?

After Alma’s body was identified, newspaper reporting on the case quickly diminished. It appears that law enforcement was stymied in their investigation as to the nature of her death and the identity of her killer. The brutal murder of a beautiful young woman went unsolved.

☛ Life of Alma Harrison ☚

Alma Harrison was born March 21, 1888 in Davenport four years after her parents Faith Reynerd and James William Harrison arrived in Iowa from Yorkshire, England.

She had an older brother, Joseph William Harrison, and two sisters: Annie Maud Harrison Schwerdtfeger and Alice Harrison.

Alma is buried in the family plot in Davenport’s Pinewood Cemetery.

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


  • ☛ “Around A Big State,” Parnell Iowa County Advertiser, August 2, 1905.
  • ☛ “Body Identified,” Oskaloosa Daily Herald, July 25, 1905.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Glenwood Opinion, August 3, 1905.
  • ☛ “Looks Like Murder,” Carroll Herald, August 2, 1905.
  • ☛ “May Be A Murder,” Cedar Falls Gazette, Friday, August 4, 1905.
  • ☛ “Girl’s Body Found,” Waterloo Daily Courier, July 24, 1905.
  • ☛ “Girl’s Body Found,” Waterloo Semi-Weekly Courier, July 25, 1905.
  • ☛ “Girl’s Body Is Found,” Cedar Rapids Republican, July 25, 1905.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Oxford Mirror, August 3, 1905.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Pocahontas Democrat, July 27, 1905.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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