Blood by Lamplight: Murder of Esther Alger 1872

Murder Victim

Esther Alger
72-year-old Farm Wife
Cause of death: Gunshot, Bludgeoning
Motive: Teenage Sociopathy

Murder Scene and Date

Alger Home
Near Calamus, Iowa
Clinton County
September 25, 1872


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2011

from the Burlington Hawk-Eye

In 1872, life was good for 72-year-old Esther Alger and her husband Lyman, both early pioneers who helped settled what became Clinton County long before Iowa was a state.

The Algers were the most prosperous people in the area, owning 700 acres in Olive Township. They raised crops, sold cattle, and also owned land in other parts of the state.

Esther and Lyman Alger lived on the road from Calamus to Buena Vista Ferry in a house described by the Jackson Sentinel as a “mansion” sitting near the road just at the edge of timber that skirted the Wapsie River. Today, that road is 178th Street.

☛ Large and Complex Family ☚

location of Calamus, Iowa

location of Calamus, Iowa

Although they had no children of their own, Lyman and Esther had nearby a large, extended family that was the product of a complicated lineage of marriages.

Lyman Alger, a native of Madison County, New York, first married Dorcus Hawkins and they had five children: Mary Jane, Maria, Elmira, Damon, and Serrell. When Dorcus died in 1838, Lyman married his brother Serill’s widow, Martha Knight Alger; and they had a son.

After Martha died in 1840, Lyman married his first wife’s sister Esther, the childless widow of early, prominent Clinton County farmer Spooner P. Burton.

There were many grandchildren from the various marriages and the family lived in close contact in a small community near Calamus, where the Algers got their mail.

Nearby was the Curtis family which merged with the Algers when Lyman’s daughter Maria married minister and farmer Rev. DeWitt Clinton Curtis and had five children.

Dewitt Curtis married twice more and had two more children. He was one of 18 children himself, so the Alger and Curtis families very nearly populated the entire township on their own.

☛ Horrible Murder ☚

Around 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25, 1872, Lyman Alger left his home for a prayer meeting conducted by his son-in-law DeWitt Curtis at a school house a quarter-of-a mile away.

Not wanting to leave Esther alone, the old man asked his 19-year-old grandson Lyman Judson “Jud” Curtis — the son of Marie Alger and DeWitt Curtis — to stay with his step-grandmother.

No one is certain what happened after that. The only version ever told was from Jud Curtis.

Not long after his grandfather left for the prayer meeting, Jud said he decided to return to his father’s house, leaving Esther Alger alone. He claimed that just as he was nearly home — 48 rods away — he heard a gunshot and rushed back towards the Alger place. As he ran towards the house, Jud stumbled over something.

The rooms inside were empty; however, Jud said he could see by lamplight that there was blood on the floor.

from the Davenport Daily Gazette

Jud said he ran back outside and then realized that what he earlier stumbled over was his step-grandmother Esther Alger, lying on the ground near the side of the house.

He spoke to Esther, but she did not respond. He passed his hand over her face and felt something wet.

Lyman ran towards the school house, screaming for help. All those at the prayer meeting rushed back with him to the Alger farm.

The men carried Esther’s body into the house where they could see by lamplight that the top and back of her head were battered and brains were oozing out of the skull. There was a bullet hole in her left breast.

Esther was shot in the house and ran into the yard; the murderer overtook her there and struck her 20 times on the head.

Secreted in the house was a recently-fired rifle.

Eleven hundred dollars — from the sale of cattle the day before and some of it in gold — was missing from a bureau drawer in a room next to the one where Esther was sitting when her husband left for church.

☛ Grandson’s Premonition? ☚

Jud Curtis then made a startling announcement: he said he dreamed three times prior to that night that his step-grandmother was murdered and $1,500 stolen from a trunk in the house.

☛ Investigation Turns Personal ☚

photo Bill Fatchett

According to the DeWitt Observer, the investigation of Esther Alger’s brutal murder and the robbery of the house was bungled from the beginning.

Two men were arrested, questioned, found to have been absent from the community at the time of the murder, and released.

And then suspicion then turned onto family members.

In the spring of 1874, 39-year-old Nathan S. “Nate” Curtis and his half-nephew 21-year-old Jud Curtis — who found Esther’s body — were arrested for the murder by Constable E.K. Wood of DeWitt.

Nearly two years after Esther Alger’s homicide — in June of 1874 — a grand jury was convened to decide whether to indict the Curtis men.

☛ Conflicting Accounts ☚

The DeWitt Observer — often quoted by other area newspapers — mercilessly pursued the murderer, acting as a voice for the dead woman. Its editors made no secret they believed Jud and Nate Curtis were involved.

The newspaper pointed out these inconsistencies in Jud Curtis’s story:

☛ Jud gave conflicting accounts of his distance away from the house when he heard the shot.

☛ When the fired rifle — loaded when Lyman Alger went to church — was found, Jud Curtis claimed his father shot a rooster with it. His father DeWitt Curtis denied that. How, then, did the gun discharge?

☛ If the killer or killers were lurking nearby waiting for an opportunity to kill Esther and rob the house, why did they shoot her, follow her into the yard and beat her, and then take time to return to the house and hide the gun?

☛ And, of course, there were Jud’s alleged dreams of Esther being murdered.

The Observer’s case against Nathan Curtis was just as strong:

☛ Nathan Curtis’s clothing was blood-splattered, but he claimed he never touched Esther’s body nor helped carry her into the house.

☛ Nate Curtis was said to have bribed witnesses to prove he was elsewhere at the time of the murder; he proved, in fact, he was in two or three different places simultaneously.

☛ Deloss Berroud — Lyman Alger’s grandson (the son of daughter Almira) — alleged to Constable Wood that he knew who killed Esther but had been threatened with death if he revealed the name. Specifically, he said Nate Curtis wrote him a letter saying to “keep his mouth shut.” Berroud also claimed he knew the money was buried under a large stone which he passed frequently, a sight that made him feel guilty about what he knew.

☛ Nate Curtis also had unusual financial dealings with a shirttail relative named Brookman of Erie County, New York; Brookman was described by the Observer as “a poor, ignorant, thriftless man.” Claiming that his relative Nate Curtis was ill with typhoid fever, Brookman borrowed money in New York to travel to Iowa to visit Nate.

☛ When he arrived in Clinton County, Brookman did not seem surprised to learn that Nate was not sick. After he returned to New York, he paid back the money he borrowed to travel to Iowa and bought a buggy, wagon, and harness; he also paid off a mortgage on his land — spending $1,300 in total.

☛ Brookman also bought some real estate in New York state for Nate Curtis, who planned to move there.

☛ It was impossible to see where a man like Brookman would’ve gotten that money. Did he receive it from Nate Curtis (who stole it from the Algers) to launder so Curtis could leave Iowa and live in New York state, far away from the murder scene?

☛ No Resolution Despite Strong Evidence ☚

The grand jury did not indict Jud and Nate Curtis. Before it met, citizens wondered if an impartial jury could be found, even if the trial was moved to another jurisdiction, because emotions ran so high and there was so much publicity.

Also, it was impossible for the grand jury to sort out contradictions in the accounts and the multiple alibis of the suspects, most of them provided by family members.

Esther Alger’s 73-year-old husband Lyman refused to believe that any of his family was involved and swore that his grandson Jud was in five different places in the house before the prayer meeting.

Alger gave so many conflicting accounts of events that his word became worthless and some speculated he was becoming senile, as did the Jackson Sentinel, which quotes an article republished from the DeWitt Observer:

“[Lyman Alger] is either an irresponsible dotard or a perjured old wretch.”

At the same time, the newspaper wondered:

“But if he is in his dotage, how does he manage to be so clear headed in all matters throwing suspicion and contempt on ‘outside’ parties? That conundrum beats us.

Mr. Alger is even now making arrangements to hunt down no less than three other persons for the murder, who are as innocent of the crime as we are, and we have never been within three miles of his place. He went to New York state — don’t know whether he went to B[r]ookman or not — and was told by a fortune-teller, wizard or witch, that three certain men did the work of murdering his wife. Now the county is to be put to the expense of three more prosecutions and hoodwinkings.”

☛ Long Life for the Suspected ☚

Soon after the murder, Nathan “Nate” Curtis and his wife Mary and their four daughters — Evaline, Mary Jane, Agnes, and Margaret — moved to Hardin County. He died after the 1910 Census.

Lyman Judson “Jud” Curtis was said to have extensively traveled after his step-grandmother’s murder. He returned to Clinton County and married Grace Rector in July of 1884 and they had a daughter, Blanch E. Curtis. He died in 1933 at 79 and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery near Calamus.

☛ Guilt Money? ☚

There were rumors that Lyman was aware of his grandson’s involvement in Esther’s murder and donated money to build the Free Will Baptist Church to ease his conscience.

☛ Similar Murder? ☚

On February 18, 1874 in Long Grove, a small community about 15 miles southwest of the Alger farm, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Thomson Brownlie, 32, and her 4-year-old son Andrew J. Brownlie were shot and killed in their home. Their murders, like that of Esther Alger’s, are unsolved. Click here to read that story in “Assassination: Murders of Lizzie and Andrew Brownlie 1874.”

Many believed the same killers were at work in that murder.

In reporting the Brownlie murders, the DeWitt Observer urged the community to find the guilty parties but was less than hopeful that would be done, writing:

“After the Alger murder there was for a time a considerable mock eagerness in trying to ferret it out, and a few arrests were made of perfectly innocent persons, and all the while and to this day, the finger of the community pointed to a man as the guilty one, right in the neighborhood, and he goes scot free!”

☛ Esther Alger’s Life ☚

Graves of Lyman Alger and his three wives. Photo Bill Fatchett

Esther Hawkins Alger was born July 9, 1800 in the state of New York, perhaps in Erie County. She had at least one sibling, sister Dorcus, who became Lyman Alger’s first wife.

In April of 1820, Esther married Spooner P. Burton and they bought 40 acres in Clinton County, Iowa Territory, making them some of the earliest settlers in the area. They had no children.

Spooner Burton died before 1841, leaving Esther a widow.

Photo Bill Fatchett

On August 14, 1841, Esther married her brother-in-law Lyman Alger, whose first wife Dorcus (Esther’s sister) died in 1838. Lyman’s second wife (and also his sister-in-law), Martha Knight Alger, died only three months before Esther and Lyman married.

Esther moved to Lyman’s large farm, which he settled in 1838, and became matriarch of the extended Alger family but the couple had no children of their own.

Esther is buried in the Alger Cemetery, located a half mile northeast of the present-day Ray Hudlick farm in Olive Township in Clinton County.

She is surrounded by Alger family, including her second husband Lyman Alger’s first two wives — Dorcus Hawkins Alger and Martha Knight Alger. Each woman has her own stone, as well as a joint one with Lyman Alger, who died November 10, 1885 at the age of 85.

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



  • ☛ “The Alger Murder,” Jackson Sentinel, June 4, 1874.
  • ☛ “Brutal Murder of Mrs. Alger,” Dubuque Herald, September 28, 1872.
  • ☛ Centerville Citizen, October 5, 1872.
  • ☛ “A Chapter of Crime,” Jackson Sentinel, October 3, 1872.
  • ☛ Des Moines Republican, October 21, 1872.
  • ☛ “General News Summary,” Ackley Independent, October 5, 1872.
  • ☛ “A Horrible Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, September 28, 1872.
  • ☛ “Horrible Murder. An Old Lady Is Shot and Has Her Brains Beaten Out,” Davenport Daily Gazette, September 27, 1872.
  • ☛ “Items in Brief,” Davenport Daily Gazette, September 9, 1872.
  • Love in an Envelope: A Courtship in the American West. Leroy S. Carpenter, Martha Bennett Carpenter, and Betty Hensha, University of New Mexico Press, 2009.
  • ☛ “Murder in Clinton County,” Iowa State Weekly Register, October 4, 1872.
  • ☛ “Murder of Mrs. Alger,” Jackson Sentinel, May 16, 1873.
  • ☛ “Olive Township Biographies,” The 1879 History of Clinton County by L. P. Allen.
  • ☛ Russ Hanson, Personal Correspondence, July 2013.
  • ☛ “State Items,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, October 17, 1872.
  • ☛ “Who Murdered Mrs. Alger!” Spirit Lake Beacon, May 15, 1873.

Comments are closed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,