“Bones In A Haystack”: Murder of Justus Herwig 1903

Murder Victim

Justus Herwig
57-year-old Farmer
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned, Burned
Motive: Robbery

Murder Scene and Date

R.D. White Farm
Sperry Township
2 miles South of Volga City, Iowa
Clayton County
October 29, 1903


By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2014

location of Volga, Iowa

location of Volga City, Iowa

Few things are more emblematic of turn-of-the-century farms than the large stacks of hay gathered and mounded to feed and shelter livestock through the winter.

With the 1903 harvest season at an end, Clayton County farmer R.D. White directed his hired hands to rake and create haystacks on his land two miles south of Volga City.

On Thursday, October 29, two of White’s farmhands making their daily rounds of the land noticed one of the haystacks was burning, having apparently been on fire all night.

As they moved closer to the embers, they saw something shockingly out of place in the otherwise bucolic hay field — the grotesque skeleton of a man, his flesh nearly completely burned off.

In a suitcase near the smoldering stack were a few items of small value belonging to 57-year-old Justus Herwig, a former area farmer who three years before had divorced from his wife Katie and lived variously in Clayton, Boardman, Elkader, and Dubuque.

☛ Burning Murder ☚

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

from the Waterloo Daily Courier

In retracing Herwig’s steps, investigators learned he was last seen alive in Dubuque on Sunday, October 24. That day, he packed a valise and left the hotel where he lived, saying he was traveling back to Cox Creek in Clayton County to the family farm where his ex-wife Katie still lived.

Somewhere between Dubuque and the Herwig farm, he was accosted and assaulted.

A coroner’s jury ruled Herwig died of a skull fracture from a blunt instrument wielded by an unknown person. His body was then placed in the haystack, which was set ablaze to conceal the crime and any incriminating evidence.

Because no money was found on Herwig’s person or in his traveling bag, robbery appeared to be the motive for the homicide.

☛ Justus Herwig’s Life ☚

Justus Herwig is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery

Hillcrest Cemetery, where
Justus Herwig is buried.

Justus Herwig was born May 31, 1846 in Gensungen, Schwalm-Eder-Kreis, Hessen, Germany. He migrated to the United States in 1871 and found his way to Clayton County, Iowa, where on October 18, 1874 he married Ohio native Katherine Elizabeth “Katie” Brust. They divorced about 1900.

The couple had eleven children, all born in Clayton County. There were four sons — Henry, George, Justus Harry, and Otto O. Herwig — and seven daughters: Louisa M. Herwig Shea, Amelia K. Herwig Jellings, Pauline Lena Herwig Boody, Katie Herwig, Rosa Herwig (who died as a child), Minnie Herwig Yarrington, and Ottilda Idella Herwig McAfee.

He became a naturalized citizen on September 8, 1880.

Justus Herwig was laid to rest in Hillcrest Cemetery in Volga City, Iowa.

☛ Similar Case ☚

location of Carlisle, Iowa

location of Carlisle, Iowa

Justus Herwig’s murder was comparable to an unsolved homicide near Carlisle, Iowa, in July of 1925. The body of an unidentified redhead in her 20s was found in a burned haystack on the land of Warren County farmer George Patterson. She died of multiple skull fractures.

Her jewelry, teeth, and other items not destroyed by the fire were put on display in a local drugstore and viewed by thousands of people, but no one came forward to identify her.

Click here to read “The Redhead in the Strawstack: Murder of Jane Doe 1925.”


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



  • ☛ “Bones In A Haystack,” Waterloo Daily Courier, October 30, 1903.
  • ☛ “A Clayton County Tragedy,” Postville Review, November 6, 1903.
  • ☛ “The News In Iowa,” Oxford Mirror, November 5, 1903.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992.
  • ☛ “Was Justus Herwig Victim Of Murderer?” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, October 31, 1903.

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