The Big Swede: Murder of Carl Axel Deer 1925

Murder Victim

Carl Axel Deer
a.k.a. “Carl Johnson”
a.k.a. “The Big Swede”
64-year-old Coal Mine Watchman
Cause of Death: Struck With Axe
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

Tent Home at Thistle Mine #4
Cincinnati, Iowa
Appanoose County
June 3, 1925


By Nancy Bowers
Written September 2014

location of Cincinnati, Iowa

location of Cincinnati, Iowa

By 1925, a man who said his name was “Carl Johnson” had lived for 12 years in a tent near Thistle Mine #4 in the small coal mining community of Cincinnati, Iowa, near Centerville. His real name was Carl Axel Deer, but the miners called him “The Big Swede.”

Although he was reclusive and didn’t interact with other employees, Deer missed few days of work as a miner and then as a mine watchman.

So, when he failed to turn up for his job on Monday, June 1 and then again on June 2, his coworkers knew something was wrong and went to check on him. They found Deer’s tent ransacked as though it was hastily but thoroughly searched.

Atlantic News Telegraph

from the Atlantic News Telegraph

As they started to leave, the men heard a moan from the corner. When they peeled back a mattress, they discovered Deer lying badly injured with three massive cuts to his head and other wounds to his body.

The Atlantic News Telegraph described the scene:

“His head was a mass of clotted blood. Near him lay an axe blade with blood on it. A crimson stained, broken handle was beside it.”

Although critically injured, Deer was still alive. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Centerville, and Sheriff Earl Gaughenbaugh was called to the scene.

Deer never regained consciousness and died from his head injuries at 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 3.

Iowa City Press Citizen

from the Iowa City Press Citizen

Hospital staff believed Deer was attacked on Sunday night, May 31 and lay comatose for two days in the tent.

Deer spent little money, and there were rumors in the mining camp that he hoarded his accumulated wages — perhaps as much as $10,000 — in his tent.

Investigators found no money, which made robbery the apparent motive for the homicide.

Although the Waterloo Evening Courier reported that two men were arrested for the crime the day after Deer died, no case was made against them and the murder went unsolved.

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



  • ☛ “Governor Promises Criminal Roundup,” Waterloo Evening Courier, September 9, 1925, p. 2.
  • ☛ Iowa Select Deaths and Burials, 1850-1990.
  • ☛ Moulton Weekly Tribune, June 11, 1925, p. 4.
  • ☛ “News Of The Hawkeye State,” Chariton Herald Patriot, June 25, 1925, p. 5.
  • ☛ “Recluse Dies After Attack,” Iowa City Press Citizen, June 2, 1925, p. 9.
  • ☛ “Recluse Miner Is Victim Of Ax Murder, Centerville,” Atlantic News Telegraph, June 3, 1925, p. 1.
  • ☛ “State Briefs,” Waterloo Evening Courier, June 4, 1925, p. 2.

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